Search This Blog

Friday, July 15, 2016

Never Die in July

This was the title of a chapter Mom (Joyce Nelson Sawyer) wrote in her booklet Take Care of My Child…for Awhile. It was forty years ago today that my little brother Ricky died of cancer at the age of 9. How could it be that long? This chapter is longer than most of the blog posts. Primarily for family members.

…Then on July 11, at about four Sunday afternoon, Dale came into the living room and said Ricky’s eyes were rolling back and he was having convulsions.

Dale was really shaken; it was terrible to watch and we knew death was close now. We planned to have Ricky die at home, but we realized we couldn’t handle this. He needed relief from pain and he couldn’t keep the pills down. He no longer had control of his bodily functions. He needed the help of a doctor and the hospital.

Our doctor at McClellan [Air Force Base in northern Sacramento] had moved on Friday, so I called the doctors at Stanford Children’s. Dr. Wilbur was away at a convention and Dr. Long was on vacation. I felt like all our medical supports were gone. Dr. Serota was in Philadelphia and his replacement had not yet arrived at Travis [Air Force Base in Fairfield, California].

I called Mather Emergency, an Air Force hospital east of Sacramento. They said they would try to reach a doctor there to admit Ricky, but to bring him over as soon as possible.

Next, I tried to get an ambulance. Our emergency room said they only had one ambulance available and it couldn’t leave the base. I said, “What do you mean? My child is dying and you can’t send an ambulance?”

“No.” They had no authority to leave, just in case there was an accident on the base. They had three ambulances, but only one was operable.

I called the head of the McClellan clinic. He was out of town. I called his assistant. He would be back after six o’clock.

Now Ricky was screaming with pain in between convulsions every few minutes. We just couldn’t keep the pain pills down him. I was becoming frantic. I called our emergency room again and said I would call the base commander. He had said that if there was ever anything he could do, just call. The sergeant said there was no need to do that. There would be an ambulance at our house in fifteen minutes.

Dale rode in the ambulance with Ricky this time and the girls and I followed in the car. Ricky had several convulsions on the way. Dale was wringing wet when they got to the hospital—a twenty minute ride.

Ricky was taken immediately to intensive care. An IV was started and the doctor arrived to prescribe Phenobarbital to control the convulsions. The doctors hadn’t warned me about those. They came as a surprise. The cancer was in the brain stem. I should have known it would travel up, as well as down, the cord.

I said I would spend the night next to Ricky’s bed. The corpsman brought a noisy plastic recliner that only had one position. The nurse brought a blanket. Ricky was restless and cried, “Mama” off and on. I would jump up and rub his head or hold his hand or massage his legs and feet. It was a long night. 

By morning he was stabilized. He was moved to a private room just outside ICU. Dale came over and I went home to rest and pick up a futon to stay the night in his room. We were told this was not allowed in the hospital, but under the circumstances it would be alright.

We took turns sitting by his bed for the next four days, watching the pain return and more medication needed. Now he was paralyzed from the neck down. We had to move his arms and legs. Sometimes it was impossible to make him comfortable.

He would say, “Move my legs like an Indian. Put them on the ceiling; put them in a circle.” Just when I would crawl into bed, he would cry to have his legs rearranged.

He was barely sipping juices and chocolate milk. I wondered how long he could last this way. His mind seemed to be clear. He asked what time it was and which day it was. He asked me to hold his hand or rub his head, and would call me to make sure I was close by.

When the tray came up on Thursday noon, I asked him what he would like: juice, jello, or chocolate milk. He said, “One at a time,” and he took some chocolate milk and went to sleep. Those were the last words he said.

The chaplain had been in the day before and asked if I was ready to let Ricky go. He said maybe Ricky was holding on because I couldn’t release him. I thought about that and I prayed, “I love little Ricky, but he is in so much pain and so uncomfortable. I know he will be better off with You. I’ll let him go; You can take him.”

After lunch, I sat next to the bed reading a book. The aide came in and said it was time to turn Ricky again. She felt him and said, “I think he has stopped breathing.” She went for the nurse and I held his fingers in mine. They were still warm but his face was white and his lips were turning blue.

I said, “Goodbye, Ricky. I love you. You can live with God now and run and play baseball and football. We will see you pretty soon.”

The nurse came in and listened to his chest and said she would notify the doctor. She filled plastic gloves with ice and put them on his eyes. We had arranged to donate his eyes to the eye bank. They came within the hour and thanked us for his eyes. There had been an emergency and a little child was waiting for them. Sometime I would like to meet the child who is seeing because of Ricky’s eyes.

Dale came over and I told him Ricky was alright now, and he said, “I know, but I’m not.” We called Dan and my parents and the other relatives. 

The memorial service would be Sunday evening. We decided to show three slides of Ricky; one when he was little, one when he was three, and one of his last Christmas. We also put a table in front of the chapel with his favorite toys and his baseball trophies on it. Ricky’s whole team came to the service in their Cardinal uniforms. We found a tape to play “It’s a Small World,” since Ricky enjoyed that so much at Disneyland.

I had told the airman at the chapel to pick out a bulletin cover to use. When I saw the picture on the cover at the service, I was amazed—it was my dream! A boy running through a field of tall grass. I had dreamed that while we were visiting Disneyland. One night I saw Ricky running away from me, through a field of tall grass, and his dog was running toward him. He stopped to pick him up and, laughing, ran on.

I didn’t know what it meant. He was to have had the operation to fuse the vertebrae in his neck. Maybe it meant he would be running without the brace and be well and healthy. Only I had the feeling that God was telling me something, getting me ready. When I saw that bulletin cover—I knew this was the meaning of my dream. 

The poem on the following page was read at the memorial service, and expresses some of our feelings:


“I’ll lend you for a little time a child of Mine,” He said,
     “For you to love while he lives, and mourn for when he’s dead.
It may be six or seven years, or twenty-two or three,
     But will you, till I call him back, take care of him for Me?
He’ll bring you his charms to gladden you, and should his stay be brief,
     You’ll have his lovely memories as solace for your grief.

I cannot promise he will stay, since all from earth return,
     But there are lessons taught them there I want this child to learn.
I’ve looked this wide world over in my search for teachers true,
     And from the throngs that crowd life’s land, I have selected you.
Now will you give him all your love, nor think the labor vain,
     Nor hate Me when I come to call to give him back again?”

I fancied that I heard them say, “Dear Lord, Thy will be done,
     For all the joy the child shall bring, the risk of grief we’ll run.
We’ll shelter him with tenderness, we’ll love him while we may,
     And for the happiness we’ve known, forever grateful stay;
But should the Lord call for him much sooner than we’ve planned,
     We’ll brave the bitter grief that comes and try to understand.”
~[although Mom attributed this to “author unknown”, I just discovered that it was written by Edgar Albert Guest in 1930]

Rhonda’s note: I had to stop a couple of times as, even after 40 years, retyping these words caused my eyes to flood with tears. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Drill

This particular entry from Mom (Joyce Nelson Sawyer) harkens back to when they were stationed at Hahn Air Force Base in Germany. That would have been the early 1980s.

When we lived at Hahn AFB, Germany, I was a Red Cross volunteer, assigned to the hydro pool in the hospital. I manned the desk, emptied the tubs, cleaned them, and filled them again after each patient.

One day an alarm went off and all the military personnel ran down the hall, put on protective clothing and gas masks. I asked my supervisor what I was supposed to do. He said I should get to the hospital emergency room and wait until the drill was over. I asked what the school children were doing. He said they all went to the basement of the school.

I soon realized that I had nothing to worry about. If the alarm was for real, I would be dead in a short time.

As you can see, I’m still here and we had one of those drills once a month. In fact, I got off easier than the military who had to put on heavy, hot gear and gas masks. I stayed in the hydro room and finished my paperwork.

Hahaha. C’est la vie! This does remind me of the Aesop’s Fable of The Boy Who Cried “Wolf.” I’ve always thought that the perfect time for a criminal (or terrorist) to attack, would be during a standard drill. I mean, how many of us take them seriously?

And so … always be prepared.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Felt Need

Over and over again I’ve felt the urge to call my mom. There are no phones in heaven, so I’m taking this as a prompt to pray for my dad, left behind and feeling more and more agitated as he loses control of his day-to-day activities.

Reminds me of the Scripture in John 21:18 that says, “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”


So, I decided to share some more of Mom’s musings today. First of all, I have to say that today’s addition was written in Mom’s handwriting on the back of an “Elfstrand blog” by Lara, talking about how Timmy had just hit a button on a developmental toy without assistance. Brought tears to my eyes. Hindsight, you know …

In August of 1970, my husband came home from work and told the family we were not flying home to America [from Japan], but we were going on a cruise ship, the President Cleveland, from Yokohama. 

We were all excited, only it wasn’t as thrilling as we had imagined. 

Our cabin had 2 sets of bunk beds with a dresser in between. Our 3-year-old [Ricky] and our 10-year-old [Diane] were in our cabin. [Rhonda’s note: again, I think Mom is remembering incorrectly. I believe that Diane would have been nearly 13 during this trip, as I was almost 16.] The two teenagers were in with other teens. I barely saw them, except at mealtime. All families ate at 5 PM. The rest of the people ate at 8 PM in fancy clothes.

Children were not allowed on the right hand side of the ship so paying passengers would not be disturbed. There were lots of things for the children to do, which was nice.

This cruise lasted 14 days. In that whole time we only saw one other ship. The Pacific Ocean is a BIG ocean.

We spent one day in Honolulu, seeing the dolphin show and the Arizona, which was sunk during Pearl Harbor.

We were happy to dock at San Francisco and meet up with our car. The voyage was enjoyable, but not very romantic.

Rhonda’s memory of this trip: I remember popping in and out of Mom and Dad’s cabin just to see what it looked like. We teens were bunking with other teens … probably not a real wise idea. Anyway, we had an excellent time exploring, eating saltines and butter on bad-tummy days, and utilizing the teen club on board. The day trip in Hawaii was beautiful, and to date has been the only time I’ve been there! Dad was the chaplain on board this ship; on the Sundays we traveled, he gave the sermons. We crossed the International Date Line and had two Mondays. So, on paper, it looked like a 13-day cruise, but was indeed 14 days.