Book Club, Culture, Education, Family, Farming, Love, Uncategorized

Blessings from the Great Beyond: The Machine That Thinks Like a Man

A few months ago, I was invited, by someone I’ve known slightly online for a number of years, to join a book club.  Rather trepidatiously, I agreed, with the stipulation that I couldn’t be much involved for several weeks due to some personal commitments around the same time as their weekly online meetings, commitments which I expected to end around the beginning of this month.

So I kept up as best I could, virtually for several weeks, and really joined up in earnest the last week of June.  Wow.  What an accomplished group of people.  Diverse (in the best sense) backgrounds, oodles of brainpower, and interesting insights.  Hard to keep up, although I’m doing my best, and consoling myself with the (probably quite supportable) fact that–were the day to come that our survival should depend on a thorough understanding of the practical–rather than the theoretical–art and science of day-to-day subsistence, I’d likely come into my own and could, perhaps, be the teacher for a bit.

As the late Mr. Right used to say, “Everybody has to be somewhere.”  And that just might be my space in this little group.  The “somewhere” that others aren’t.

Mr. Right died, two years ago this month.  I don’t expect I’m all that unusual in that–as I age–there are months and seasons that seem full of anniversaries, both happy and sad.  July is such a month.  On the 3rd, two years ago, the death of my husband of almost 40 years.  The 13th?  The birthday of my father’s last remaining and youngest sibling, Auntie Pat (may she live forever).  99 yesterday.  The 14th?  Uncle Arthur’s birthday.  The oldest of my father’s siblings, he was born in 1907, and used to tell us stories of his visits with his mother to the train station in Birmingham, where she managed the tea and refreshment trolleys for the arriving and departing troops of World War I.  The 25th?  The death of my stepson Sam, brutally assaulted and left to die by two disgusting thugs, shortly before Christmas 2017.  Seven months of what Coleridge called “the nightmare life-in-death,” before his  blessed release in the summer of the following year.  Just awful.  The death of my father-in-law, a brilliant man, but a “devout alcoholic” (Mr. Right’s descriptor), who’d interfered with the first several years of our marriage as only a drunk with schizophrenia can. I’m sure there are more July memories, both pleasant and not.

In fact, I know there are.

Sometimes, all you can do is try to make it through.

Glory be.

Today, an email from a book club member, although on a slightly different topic, reminded me of a post I wrote some time ago on Ricochet.  Apparently, I didn’t publish it here at the time, so I thought I’d remedy that oversight and post it here today.

The original post is from November of 2020, just a few short months after Mr. Right’s death.  I’d been pretty glum, having lived with him through his dementia (which I think started much earlier than I realized, at least a decade before he died).  There’s an element of the “frog in the pot of slowly-heating water,” where you just don’t notice, especially in the case of an incredibly bright man, that he’s losing one step after another.  You tend to ascribe the diminishment to other things–“oh, he’s just not as mentally engaged because he’s retired, or perhaps it’s “the normal effects of aging,” or simply that he’s sustained “a series of blows in life that would flatten a person of less resilience.”

But sooner or later, you have to come to terms with the truth, and I did.

It was horrible.  Worst of all, Covid, and the nation’s response, stole any pleasure he might have felt in his last few months.  He loved the Geezer Senior Breakfast Bar at Eat ‘n Park on Tuesdays, and I’d often take him there.  Once the restaurants closed, that was the end of that.  He loved driving around, and visiting places he was sure he’d never been before (LOL).  But that was a non-starter when stopping for “pie and coffee” and an adjacent restroom was out of the question.  Friends couldn’t visit, because most of them were as ill and compromised as he was, and we couldn’t go and see them either.  Telephones really didn’t work, because absent the three-dimensional person in front of him (and sometimes even then) he wasn’t quite sure what was going on.

And (doubling down on “worst of all”), he couldn’t see his doctor, who wasn’t doing in-person appointments, and although said doctor (a family friend) offered to put Frank on a dementia ward in the local hospital, I refused, knowing that they’d suck him in, slam the door in my face, and that I, his daughter, his granddaughter, his neighbors, and no-one else in his life, would ever see him again, and that he would die, confused, frightened and alone behind that locked door.

Not on my watch.  Thank God for Home Health and Hospice, once they got themselves reorganized, reinvigorated, and re-visiting.  And especially for Dixie, the last person able to coax him outside into the sunroom, shortly before he died. From a post I wrote just after his death:

About a month ago, I sat in our little sun room with Frank and Dixie, the physical therapy aide who’d somehow managed to inveigle him to take the short walk outside (his last walk outside, ever). The flowers had bloomed, the birds were singing, the sheep were in the field, God was in his heaven, and all was right with the world. I exclaimed at the loveliness of the farm we had made together.

“I was a teacher,” Frank haltingly explained to Dixie. And over the next couple of minutes, he framed the thought and got it out:

“But in my heart I was always a . . .”

“Oh, Lord.” I thought. “Here it comes. [Expletive] United States Marine Corps. It really will be the last thing to go.”

“In my heart . . . I . . . was . . always . . a . . . farmer.”

Everybody has to be somewhere.  And this is the “somewhere” I still am, doing my best to keep the faith.

And yet.  Laughter really is the best medicine.  So here, without further ado, is my Ricochet post from November of 2020, recounting the first real belly laugh I had, after my husband’s death on July 3 of that year (those of you who’d like to view the original post, on which we had much fun, please go here)  And please, on our behalves, have a chuckle:

Dear Ricochetti,

Oh. HaHaHaHaHa!  I’ve just had the best laugh, and the best cry, I’ve had in months. There’s really no-one else to share it with right now, so, my dear friends, thanks for volunteering, and here we go.

As some of you know, Mr. She died in early July of this year, after a long struggle with many physical ailments, and a shorter, but devastating, struggle with dementia. I’ve largely been on my own since, probably even more so than I would have been in any normal year, because of COVID, travel restrictions, and lockdowns of one sort or another, both here in SW PA and in my native country of England. Nevertheless, I’ve been in contact with and visited, some friends both new and old, and I’ve even had a few folks overnighting at the farm. Thanks to all who’ve stayed in touch and who keep an eye (or even do a voice-check) on me on a regular basis. I appreciate it more than you know.

Most of the time, though, I’m by myself, and a large part of my time is spent sorting, organizing, and tidying up. I’m reminded of a couple (both now deceased) with whom we had lunch, shortly before one, and then the other, passed away. They were beginning the process of moving to an assisted-living facility, and I remember Paul remarking: “We’re throwing a lot of stuff out, and putting the rest into labeled boxes, and when we die, our children will arise up and call us blessed.” (Proverbs 31:28. Paul was a Lutheran minister.)

When I go, I want Jenny to call me blessed.

Unfortunately (as I see it now), the road to that goes through the Herculean task of doing something about Mr. She’s model train collection.

I wrote about it, asking for ideas and suggestions, on a member feed post here in late July. Many of you responded, and thanks very much, your suggestions were helpful. I’ve got a bit of a plan formulated, and expect to be getting serious early in the New Year. In the meantime, I’ve started to organize things, consolidating boxes of “like” items, and getting rid of many of the otherwise undistinguished bits and pieces from other areas of life that Mr. She must have thought might have been useful in modeling, but which he never got around to actually doing anything with (empty aspirin bottles, voluminous quantities of styrofoam peanuts, the “twisty” plastic tops from 1/2-gallon milk cartons, etc.). The gods of model railroading may strike me dead, but at least Jenny will call me blessed. So there’s that.

One of the things I’ve uncovered evidence of, as I’ve been going along, is Mr. She’s secret life as an eBay addict and purchaser of some very charming tinplate American Flyer pieces. I’m a sucker for the tinplate stuff (he bought me a lovely 1920s AF set for Christmas one year), so I’m sure all these ones I’ve just discovered must have been for me. Right? Can’t get rid of them, then.

Oh. Wait. I want Jenny to call me blessed. I think she’ll be OK with this, though. As long as I label everything clearly. Surely there’s room for a bit of negotiation.

So, on I go.

Until I open a box and come across this:


This cannot have been for me. He must have discovered this online somewhere and bought it for his beloved granddaughter and greatest fan, Miss Peachy, Science Girl (as she was dubbed by a fellow member here). How he would have delighted in the thought of her opening this on Christmas Day or on her birthday, and then in discovering with her, how it worked.

What a treasure.

“The machine that thinks like a man.”

“It Thinks! It Answers! It remembers!”

Well, one out of three ain’t bad.

Suddenly, I’m transported back twenty years, to March of 2000, and the funeral of Mr. She’s first wife. I’m watching Michael eulogize his mother:

All of us wanted [Mike] to know that we were here for him.

How astonishing it was, when, at the close of that powerful and moving service, Michael got up, and, his heart broken, read us the words that he had written about his mom, his life, and how he intended to go forward wearing his new tennis shoes—the ones that his mom had bought as his Easter gift, and which he discovered, all wrapped up for him, after she died.

At that point, we heard Mike saying, “I’m OK. I’m going to make it. Don’t worry about me. Be happy.”

Suddenly, instead of our being here for him, he was here for us, and he made us all feel better.

And I cried. Great, loud, gobby, snorty tears of grief and joy. And then I felt better. And happy.

Because I’m OK. I’m going to make it through and out the other side of this sad and stupid year. And rest assured, I’m bringing all of you with me.

Much love to you all,

Your She

Homework: Please consider, and submit for discussion a question that you’d like to ask “the machine that thinks like a man.”

Extra Credit: Please let us know how you think “the machine that thinks like a man” might respond.

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