Chapter 54: “Death and Taxes”
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*Update: New closing statement below!
Worst-case scenario, that would be a great term to describe my spending habits. See, I was always terrible with money (See: Chapter 14), but I had never expected to have to fight with the Government for money until maybe age sixty-five. You know, when Benjamin Franklin said, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except Death and Taxes” he sure as hell didn’t know about the horrors of Supplemental Security Income (or SSI). When I first fell ill, I was informed that I was able to apply for SSI payments during my hospitalization due to my inability to work.
I saw this as a blessing; my family wouldn’t have to pay for my recurring bills while I fought for my life and I could continue to keep myself entertained during my shopping excursions in the interim of treatments.
So I took the payments gladly and went on with my life. They told me that I would get a certain amount per month, but it always fluctuated for some reason. In fact, when I got more than I was supposed to get, they expected me to send it back to them– a month later. I was on the phone with them constantly, informing them that I was getting too much and asking them to even it out right then and there. My income – or lack thereof – never changed, so it baffled me to no end why the SSI checks would change.
I wasn’t trying to swindle them for more money nor was I trying to pull a fast one on them; I just simply wanted this to go as smoothly as possible. But their system was paper-based and always a month behind. I never understood how a business could operate like this– Cable companies, I’m looking at you too.
Unfortunately, when my treatments were complete and I was able to return to work in late March of 2004, I had amassed a debt to the U.S. Government of over fifteen hundred dollars. I could not begin to explain how; all I knew was that the bill was due and I couldn’t afford to pay it now that I had returned to work. Money’s funny like that, huh?
The Government did the next best thing to clear the red in my ledger: they garnished my tax returns. I didn’t have a single cent to my name last year and this year was no different. Based on my estimations, I wouldn’t have a return in 2006 either, and then I’d still have a small balance that would eat into 2007 as well.
I looked forward to my annual stipend masked as a bonus, as I would use the money for– well, for video game-related costs, yes, but also for creative expenses such as my camcorder. At any rate, I’d have to make do.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, my Pepére was whisked away to the hospital near his apartment in Fort Kent. He had been experiencing some chest pains and so they sent him there for testing and observation.
He had undergone prostate cancer many years prior– before I knew what cancer even was, but he too had beaten the disease and seemed relatively healthy compared to other seventy-nine-year-olds (not that I had known many).
My family had gone over to visit him. To this day, I cannot remember the reason I was so busy to tag along, but I told myself that he would “be okay” and that I would see him when he got back to his apartment next door.
But he didn’t go back to the apartment; he was rushed via ambulance further downstate to Bangor for a heart specialist. Remember what I said all the way back in Chapter One about medical testing? The further south you go for Medical reasons, the more serious the ailment. Apparently, the level of medical expertise is measured in distance from Northern Maine.
Immediately I felt two emotions in the pit of my stomach: regret and anger at myself. Why didn’t I just go see him?
The family quickly gathered at my Memére’s place to console her and I finally decided to tag along. My Aunt Norma was on the phone with the hospital giving us updates. Tensions were palpable as we sat at the edge of our seats at the mercy of the corded phone to which my Aunt was clinging. They were going to perform some more tests before prepping him for surgery. Aunt Norma then proceeded to call her siblings in Connecticut and Saco, then, she made plans to head down to Bangor to see Pepére. As she got off the phone with my other Aunt and was putting her shoes on to leave, she got another call. It was the hospital.
Pepére had died.
The doctor was going over the procedure with him and his heart gave out, pumping its last quart of blood.
The chatter in my Memére’s apartment turned into soft crying. My Mom and Aunt Norma burst into tears. Memére wept for her fallen husband. He survived World War II and prostate cancer, but his caring heart was the death nail.
Everyone was silent for a few minutes, but it felt as though a week had passed. Through her tears and foggy glasses, my Aunt Norma spoke, telling an amusing anecdote about Pepére as a Father. Everyone chuckled through his or her mucous-riddled throats. Then my Mom chimed in, offering a tale of interaction with Pepére. That too caught the smattering of chortles in the living room.
Soon, everyone offered his or her own most prominent and cheerful moment that they shared alongside the man known as Norman Ouellette. The laughter was contagious (and cathartic) for us all. It was one of the most beautiful moments of life I had yet had the pleasure of living. It was a shining example of the power of the human condition: a moment of levity in a somber moment. There is no better way to cope than by sharing a laugh with someone close.
Our focus soon turned to his funeral arrangements. Aunt Norma was the point woman and so, she was on the phone a lot more. First, of course, she informed the other siblings, then she rang the funeral parlor, the church, and the newspaper. The topic of the eulogy arose and without a beat, I was recommended to write and perform the honor.
I was chosen because I was the only known writer in the family. That terrified me for I didn’t think I was ready for such a coveted and crucial piece. As we sat there, I began to take notes on what and what not to include in the piece. I soon realized that this was more of an assembly of myriad touch points rather than writing an entire piece by myself from scratch.
The funeral was only a few days away, so I had to hurry. I sat down immediately to begin the writing process and would share the draft with my family when it was finished. I wrote it more like a speech because I would indeed be orating at the service in a church at which I hadn’t practiced in years.
I felt guilty for not visiting Pepére when I could and wanted this eulogy to be the best that I could possibly deliver.
What follows is the final draft of the eulogy I had written in March of 2005:
Normand Ouellette had many titles that pertained to many people. Husband, Father, Pepére, Brother, Uncle, and Friend, but all knew him as a compassionate and endearing man. He was a devoted husband for 58 years, always faithful to his wife. They would spend every waking moment together, and when they were apart, you could tell his heart was aching.
As a father, he understood the needs of his family and set out determined to achieve them. He also was always the most experienced teacher to his children. Whether he taught his kids how to drive back in the “cuss you sohns*,” or fishing and hunting with the boys, every child knew what he taught them with expertise when he was finished. And no matter what kind of mischief his kids would get into, he would forgive and forget, just as long as his kids were safe.
As his children grew older and they became parents of their own, it seemed as if his love grew as well. In fact, his face would light up every time he would see his grandchildren. Plus when his kids went back to their homes either in Connecticut or Southern Maine, he would shed tears to show that he would miss them dearly. Now, not that the children who live here were any less important, just that he wouldn’t see the traveled ones as much. And believe me, when I say children, I mean his biological children as well as their spouses. Because he made the spouses feel just as important as his own kids would by welcoming them with open arms.
And when things were down and any of his family was ailing, he was always the first to be there for them. When I was diagnosed with Leukemia 19 months ago, Memére and Pepére were always calling me to show their support and love for me. They always had a candle lit for me when I was recovering, and never stopped praying, all six months of it. They did this for every part of their family that was ill. Through all Pepére’s own trials and tribulations, he remained a devout Catholic. When he couldn’t make it to a mass, he’d watch it on T.V. and both Memére and he would say the rosary at least a couple of times a day faithfully.
Through his battle with Prostate Cancer, his hip replacement, his 3 back surgeries, and even during his run as a corporal in World War II, he never showed a sign of weakness. When it came down to his siblings, he may have been smaller in stature, but never in spirit. He would always want to see his brothers and sisters in the Nursing Home, which couldn’t be here today, no matter when or where they were.
He worked hard as much as he played hard. He loved a practical joke, but when it came down to maintaining the farm or housework, he never took it as one. He was a 3rd Degree member of the Knights of Columbus for 16 years, and a member of the VFW.
He will be truly missed for he has always kept each and every one of us in his prayers. So let’s keep him in ours and know that this is not a goodbye, only a farewell until we meet again.
I Love You Pepére…
It was an honor for my family to entrust me with such a task and I did my absolute best at that moment with my skillset. I couldn’t think of a more fitting way to pay my respects to such a great man. He cared for me when I needed a home, prayed for me when I needed his thoughts, and showed me what a man could be for his family.
I guess Benjamin Franklin wasn’t that wrong after all.
*Cuss You Sons is the best way I found to phonetically pronounce the colloquial French name for the backwoods in which they spent a lot of time in “driver’s ed.”
This is an ongoing story of my personal battle with Cancer. My hope is that it helps others who are currently experiencing their own battles (whether it be for themselves or a loved one) or to help with early detection.
The way I’m doing it is terrifying for a writer. I’m writing a publically available first-draft outline for an eventual book, chapter by chapter in weekly form. The only reason I’m doing it this way is to get the story out as soon as possible for someone out there who needs a survivor to visit them during their own treatment. If you’re reading this and need someone to talk to, tweet at me and I’ll give you a call. No questions asked. This story is for you and I’ll help any way that I can.
Stay tuned, as I will be posting a new chapter every Monday until the story is complete.
And remember if you experience any Anemic symptoms– get checked for Leukemia as well.
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