The Saga of Cement Sue

my christmas gift

This is the special wonderful gift that my Linda gave me

I’ve often waxed poetic (or at least posted prose) about my love, Linda Herman.  I’ve worn out my list of adjectives trying to describe how wonderful she is, and how good she is for me.  This Christmas, she demonstrated her love with the best material gift I have ever received.

What could this gift be?  It is a two-foot high concrete statue of an Irish Setter.  Yes, you all know that I love Irish Setters, but that wouldn’t make this the best gift ever.  So what would?  I hope you have a few minutes as this is a convoluted answer.

The story starts with my great-grandfather Hall.  I don’t know much about the man, I don’t even know his name.  The generation before me simply referred to him as “Grandpa Hall.”  By the time I was aware enough to ask his name, my father no longer remembered it.

My great-grandfather's property in Spring Lake

My great-grandfather’s property in Spring Lake

Here is what I do know about the man.  He owned a farm in Spring Lake, MI bordered on the south by modern-day M-104, on the west by Fruitport Road, on the north by the railroad tracks, and on the east by the swamp.  On this farm he raised pigs, which he smoked and sold as bacon & ham in the surrounding communities.

The other, more interesting thing, that he did on his property was breed and train what he called “Irish Bird Dogs.”  We would know them today as Irish Setters & Irish Red & White Setters.  Even then they were trying to breed the white out so that they could develop into the red dogs that we know today.

Great-grandfather Hall always kept three dogs for breeding – a male named Patrick and two bitches named Molly & Sue.  When one passed on, or retired from breeding, he would replace it with another dog with the same name.  So he always had Patrick, Sue, & Molly.  This allowed him to sell to returning satisfied clients another dog with the same parents as their previous dog.  And disgruntled customers could be offered a dog from the other mother.

John & I with Jojo

My brother John & I with our dog Jojo.

grampa and dog

My grandfather with a Sue or a Molly

This practice of Patrick, Sue, & Molly was carried on by my grandfather, Melvin Bristol Hall.  He didn’t do the dogs as a full time profession like his father did, but he kept the Patrick, Sue, & Molly tradition alive.

Now my father, Melvin Edward Hall, didn’t breed dogs.  We always had at least one dog in the house, most of them Irish Setters.  But in my little atomic family, my mother claimed naming rights for all pets.  So we had Duke, Jojo, Koof, Kerry, & Scarlet.

Then in 1992, Dad retired from teaching.  It turns out that there was an Irish Setter breeder near Coldwater, MI who had a bitch that was descended from one of my great-grandfather’s lines.  And he presented the dog to my father as a retirement gift.

This was one of the rare occasions where my father stood up to my mother.  He explained to her that the dog was a gift to him, the dog was part of his family history, and he would be naming her Molly!  My mother didn’t speak to him for weeks afterword.

grandma and a dog

My Grandmother Irene Vos Hall with a Sue or a Molly

My uncle Ken Hall (Mel’s younger brother) had a much more entertaining response.  Uncle Ken located a concrete, life-sized, concrete statue of an Irish Setter.  Since Mel had a Molly, Ken brought him a Sue – Cement Sue (you have to say it like Jed Clampett – See-Ment Sue).  And from that point on, we had Cement Sue stationed in our back yard.

The years were not kind to Cement Sue, as she stood sentry day and night in all kinds of weather.  She may have lost pieces of concrete, leaving just bits of rebar hanging out.  But she was always there, and Dad & I made a habit of saying hello to Cement Sue every time we came or went through the back door.  As time went by Dad did indeed add a Sue to go along with his Molly.  After many good years with Mel, Molly final had to go to the Rainbow Bridge.  Fortunately, he still had his Sue, who stayed by his side until his death – and Cement Sue was still on station in the backyard.

ken hall & family

My Uncle Ken and his family

Mel & Molly

Dad with a Molly from his grandfather’s line

When the bittersweet time came for me to leave 712 Winter St., Spring Lake, MI to join my lovely Linda in Durham, NC I discovered a sad, sorry truth.  Cement Sue was so damaged, and so sunken into the very ground of the backyard that it would be impossible to move her.  So with a very heavy heart, I left her behind at 712 Winter St.

In my heart, Cement Sue not only meant Molly & Dad but also 712 Winter St., Spring Lake, Uncle Ken & a grandfather & great-grandfather that I never met.  Of course, being so sensitive, loving, caring, and attuned to me – Linda knew all of that.  So she gave me not only a brand new Cement Sue – but also all of those important things left behind when I left Michigan.  I have never received a finer gift with more love behind it.  Thank you Linda – I love you.

The Original Cement Sue (back) with Paladin

The Original Cement Sue (back) with Paladin

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Happy Father’s Day

Friday was one of the toughest days ever.  On our way to Doggie Fun Land (the dog park in Ferrysburg) Sue got VERY excited in the car.  Now Pal is a great car rider, he just lays down and takes a nap knowing that there will be excitement when we get where we are going.  Sue on the other hand is always excited, and knows that we’d get there faster if I would just let her drive.  But on this occasion Sue was beyond excited – she was nearly out of her mind.

As we turned the corner, I saw why she was in such a state.  We pulled into traffic behind Dad’s old car and the folks who bought it from us.  Sue had heard Dad’s car and KNEW that was where her Daddy was.  Soon, they turned one way while we kept on another way.  The keening sound that Sue made cut through me like a million sharp knives.  I don’t think that anything has ever hurt me so badly as the sound that she made, knowing that she was in pain and wanted to be with her Daddy.  I was so impacted that I had to pull over and gather myself before I could drive any further.

Of course, Sue being a dog, she lives in the moment.  So by the time we got to Doggie Fun Land, she was ready to run and play.  I wish I could have recovered as quickly.

Today, Father’s Day, was the toughest holiday since Dad passed.  It was even tougher than Thanksgiving, Christmas, Dad’s birthday, or mine.  Since my younger brother

John with Barkley and Alexander

John with Barkley and Alexander

John passed away in 2004, Father’s Day has been a special occasion for Dad, Sue, & I.  This year, with just Sue, Pal, and I it seemed a very lonely day.

If you know me, then you know how dearly I loved, and still love, my father.  If you don’t know me, then words can never tell you.

But I want to share these words anyway.  In 2007 I was still working part time at WGHN– and of course I was working on Father’s Day.  Before I left for work that morning, I placed a card and a pile of gifts on the dining room table.  I also left him a note.  The note is reproduced below, without any further comment.

Mel and his first puppy Sue

Mel and his first puppy Sue

Dad,

I know that I’m doing more for Father’s Day this year than what we’ve traditionally done.  Partially that’s because I’m so grateful for all that you’ve done for me, and partially because I’m a little guilty about how little I’ve done for you.  Certainly some of it is a side effect of how scared I was about losing you in February.  But mostly it is just because I love you.

You’ve always seemed superhuman to me.  The strength of your character and the gentleness of your nature still inspire awe in me.  And when I look back from the lofty heights of my 47 years (yes, you should read some sarcasm in that) at how much you had accomplished in life by age 47, and how little I have accomplished, I am humbled.

Probably the single greatest thing that you did for both John and I was that you allowed us the space to be children when we were children and that you allowed us even more space to be our own selves when we became adults.  Recently I’ve thought a lot about that, and how I haven’t really given the same back to you.  I’ve always expected perfection from you.  And while you generally deliver on that score, I let myself become frustrated and even angry when those occasions arise when you are simply a human being.  That isn’t fair, and it isn’t right.  It has been a limiting factor in our tremendous friendship, and I am sorry for all the times that I’ve allowed my attitude to impact our relationship.

I know that you aren’t some comic book superhero who always does right.  I know that you are simply a man who always tries to do right.  And that is a far more precious and valuable thing.  I know that you forgive me for this, you always do – and I appreciate your indulgence more than I’ll ever be able to say or even show.  I will try harder to allow you the space to be your own self, and a human being.  But there will always be a little corner of myself that enjoys pretending that you really are that comic book superhero.

I wrote this all down and stuck it in a card for you to read while I am at work so that we could avoid one of those awkward, mushy moments.  But that doesn’t make it any less real.  Thank you for being my father, I love you.  Happy Father’s Day!

Happy Birthday Dad

Hey Boss,

I just wanted to write you a quick note as the dogs and I wrap up the preparations for your birthday tomorrow. It sounds a bit strange to me to be celebrating your birthday more than four months after your passing, but I decided that it will make me happy to celebrate you – and the special love that we shared.

We are going to start the day with a trip to Doggie Fun Land in Ferrysburg.  After dropping the dogs at home, I’ll pop over to Orchard Market to pick-up a big old porterhouse steak and some of those little cupcakes that you always enjoyed.  I debated about baking a cake for you, as I did every year, but I’ve been doing really well with my blood sugar lately and I don’t want to mess that up.

In the afternoon, Pal has an appointment at Harborfront Hospital for Animals.  He just turned nine this month and he’s due for his annual physical.  It just seemed appropriate on your birthday to take an old man to an appointment with a doctor.  Paladin graciously offered to fill in for you.

After his visit, we’ll stop in at the City Farmer to pick up a box of peanut butter bones for the dogs.  They are still Sue’s favorite food to play with, and she teases Pal and I mercilessly when she has one in her mouth.

Then it will be home to make dinner.  I’ll grill up the steak just the way you liked it – marinated in Worcestershire sauce and seasoned with salt and pepper.  I’m going to split it three ways with Sue and Pal.  I’m also going to share the cupcakes with them.  You should see Sue and Pal on a sugar buzz!  When I came home from your memorial service, I put the leftover cake on the kitchen counter while I changed.  When I came back into the kitchen, there were two happy looking dogs laying on the kitchen floor with some cardboard and plastic wrap between them.  About half an hour later, the two of them were running around the house like young pups – playing with all of the toys, teasing each other, barking at each other, and just having a great time.

After they eat their 9:30 treats, the three of us will snuggle in together on Pal’s couch for our moment of Irish Setter Zen.  And we will sing happy birthday to you.

It won’t be the party that we’ve thrown for you the last several years.  I haven’t invited anybody over, I didn’t buy balloons, or any of that party stuff.

It is still pretty lonely in the house without you, but as I promised you, Sue, Pal and I are taking care of each other.

Happy Birthday Dad!  We will always celebrate your memory.

Mel Is Still Being Mel

My father & I at a Piston's game

Dad & I at a Piston's game

I’ve often said that you haven’t really been to a place until you’ve been there with Mel.

Dad always enjoyed going to new places – not just to see new sights, but also to meet new people.  He fully enjoyed life everywhere he was, and he shared that joy with everybody that he encountered.  It didn’t matter where or when, there were always people that he hadn’t met yet – and they would become new friends.  And more often than not, there were people there that he already knew – creating a joyful reunion of old friends.

Camden Yards ballpark in Baltimore

Camden Yards

For example, in 1996 I was working on a job site near Baltimore, MD.   As I often did, I flew Dad out for a weekend visit.  We had tickets for an afternoon Orioles game at Camden Yards, where we not only had a great time watching the game, but we got to stuff ourselves on Boog Powell’s BBQ in the outfield concourse.  To fill time before the game, Dad had said that he would like to visit the grave of Edgar Allan Poe.

The gravesite of Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore, MD

Edgar Allan Poe's grave

So we added a trip to the grave to our itinerary.  Since I had no idea where the grave was actually located, we left fairly early in the morning to allow ourselves time to locate the site.

We had no trouble locating the site.  We found it immediately on the first try.  It was fascinating, and we spent almost an hour there.  This still left us with several hours to kill.

Dad decided that since we had time to kill we should try to locate the old Memorial Stadium.  Dad had fond memories of watching Johnny Unitas on TV, as well as all of those old Oriole greats.  So off we went to find Memorial Stadium.

Baltimore's Memorial Stadium

Memorial Stadium

And find it we did.  The stadium is tucked away in a residential neighborhood.  We walked the entire perimeter of the facility from across the street to get a good look at the outside of the famous horseshoe shaped building.  And it was amazing.  But since nobody was using the facility at the time, it was a bit boring.  As we stood outside the fence at the open end of the horseshoe, a security guard walked past.

Dad struck up a conversation with him, and in no time we were enjoying a private tour of the place, from the locker rooms to the press box and all stops in between!  That’s just part of the fun when you traveled someplace with Mel.

Behold, the power of the Dum Dum!

Behold, the power of the Dum Dum!

On Wednesday, I posted the eulogy that I presented at Dad’s memorial service.  Part of that eulogy included a tribute to the power of the Dum Dum sucker.  Coach Hall always used Dum Dums to recognize and reward the accomplishments of the athletes on his track and field teams.

Lo and behold, on Thursday morning I found this e-mail from Dean Spangler, the Chairman and CEO of the Spangler Candy Company, the makers of Dum Dums!

Jim:
It is apparent that your father, Mel, was a remarkable man.
Our sincere condolenses to you and your family.

Your blog popped up because of the reference to Dum Dums.

As I read your "Eulogy for My Father" I was quite moved. I
have great fondness for good teachers and people that find
the good in life.  Your father had both those traits.  While
we hear many wonderful stories about Dum Dums, I just wanted
you to know that this one probably resonated more than any 
other.

I too was blessed to have a wonderful father.  He has been 
gone 34 years now and still thoughts of him brighten my days 
and inspire me to be better.  I will try to be a little 
better person today for him, and for Mel.

Dean L. Spangler
Chairman & CEO
Spangler Candy Company
"The Dum Dums Company"
The Spangler Candy Company

Spangler Candy - makers of Dum Dums

Even from beyond the pale, Dad is still reaching out to others.  I’m so proud that Mel is still being Mel!

A Eulogy For My Father

Melvin Edward Hall with foster dog Shemp

Melvin Edward Hall - April 1, 1932 - November 24, 2010

There are those who seek fame and fortune in life.  My father was not one of those people.

There are those who put their own interests first.  My father was not one of those people.

There are those who seek admiration, adoration, respect, sympathy, compassion, and a host of other responses from those around them.  My father was not one of those people.

My father was a teacher.

It was more than his vocation, more than a job, a profession, or a career.  It was who he was and it was what he loved.  He constantly sought knowledge and wisdom, even in the most unlikely of places – not for his own edification, but so that he could pass it along to others – human and canine.

The truth mattered to Dad.  The hopes, desires, and emotions of others mattered to Dad.  In nearly every conversation he ever had, he would tell a story from his life.  It might be a story of one of his many successes.  It might be a story of one of his many failures.  It might just be a story of everyday life.  But it was always a story that he felt would provide something useful to the listener.  It was never about him, but about how he could be of service to somebody else.

Dad smiled often.  A big, giant, authentic smile – because he found great joy in life.  Joy in his surroundings, joy in the growth and accomplishments of others, joy in the bounce of a dog’s step, joy in living life.

I was truly blessed in life to be the recipient of so much of his joy.  When ever I was down, when ever I faced a difficult decision, when ever I was not sure how to go on – I talked with Dad.  He would listen, as he was a great listener.  And then he would share a story.  As a child I was often frustrated with these stories – I just wanted him to tell me straight out what I thought I needed to hear.  As I grew and matured, I realized that he had provided the information, the knowledge, and the wisdom I needed to come to my own conclusions – to make the decisions that were right for me.  Not what he wanted me to do, not what would work out best for him, but he always gave me what I needed to advance my own way down my own path – and live my own life.

He gave this gift not only to my brother John and I, but to every one he conversed with, every student in his classroom, and every athlete he coached.  He was indeed a very generous man.

One of the things that both John and I gained from him was a love for the written word.  And it would not be a eulogy for an English teacher without a poem.  Dad taught me to enjoy the simple way of the poet Edgar Guest – the poet laureate of Michigan.  This is Guest’s “A Boy and His Dad.”

A boy and his dad on a fishing-trip—
There is a glorious fellowship!
Father and son and the open sky
And the white clouds lazily drifting by,
And the laughing stream as it runs along
With the clicking reel like a martial song,
And the father teaching the youngster gay
How to land a fish in the sportsman's way.  

I fancy I hear them talking there
In an open boat, and the speech is fair.
And the boy is learning the ways of men
From the finest man in his youthful ken.
Kings, to the youngster, cannot compare
With the gentle father who's with him there.
And the greatest mind of the human race
Not for one minute could take his place.   

Which is happier, man or boy?
The soul of the father is steeped in joy,
For he's finding out, to his heart's delight,
That his son is fit for the future fight.
He is learning the glorious depths of him,
And the thoughts he thinks and his every whim;
And he shall discover, when night comes on,
How close he has grown to his little son.   

A boy and his dad on a fishing-trip—
Builders of life's companionship!
Oh, I envy them, as I see them there
Under the sky in the open air,
For out of the old, old long-ago
Come the summer days that I used to know,
When I learned life's truths from my father's lips
As I shared the joy of his fishing-trips.

I would like to close by sharing a story of Mel – and the power of the Dum Dum sucker.  For every athlete who went out for track, he would make a sheet listing all of the possible events in a track and field meet.  On this sheet he would note the athlete’s best performance in every and any event.  Each time the athlete would post a new “best” performance in any event, that student’s name would go on the “Sucker List.”  And each week Coach Hall would read off the names on the “Sucker List” and award a Dum Dum sucker for each personal best.

Of course it wasn’t the actual Dum Dum sucker that inspired 18-year old boys to push themselves to a new achievement.  It was the public recognition, the acknowledgement that Coach noticed their efforts and wanted to celebrate their achievements with the team.

This led shot-putters to form their own “Fat Man” 440-Relay team – so that they could earn that sucker and that recognition.  The fact that the sprint work also improved their ability to turn a circle and put the shot farther was never discussed.  It was simply enough that they tried something new, or improved on a previous best.

As you leave the Sanctuary today, you will find bowls of Dum Dum suckers waiting.  Please take a sucker, on credit from Mel, and as you go through the day – do something new or better than you have ever done before.  That will be Mel’s legacy.

last hopes

My younger brother John found his way through life by writing about it.  As I was working my way through Dad’s stuff today I came across one of my favorite of John’s poems.  I’ve often taken the advice he presents here on difficult days.  I think I’ll do so tonight.

last hopes

john lee hall

the woman

i thought i’d loved

had left

me.  my rent

went

unpaid

because dear father

stopped payment

on his check

“just to show”

me.  my last

close friend

had o.d.’d

on strychnine,

and my checks

bounced higher

than a head-first

suicide

off a six-story

parking tower.

i had five

bucks

left.  the phone

was restricted

to local.

i dialed:

three

five

one, seven

one

hundred,

was put

on hold, came

off hold,

and asked

for what i needed

most —

and it came

with two

free

pepsis.

 

god

won’t answer

my prayers,

but dominoes

delivers.

I Don’t Know Why It Has To Be This Way

Last June the doctors told us that Dad wouldn’t “live to see Christmas.” At the time it seemed just plain silly to me. Sure, Dad was showing signs of what the Alzheimer’s Disease was doing to his memory. And sure, his PSA levels were ridiculously high.  He had some problems, but absolutely nothing that seemed to actually be life threatening.

We took it seriously enough to enroll him in a hospice program (for some of the trials and tribulations of that search, click here).  After a lot of researching and interviewing we selected the Big Statewide Hospice Company.  BS Hospice has not been without its challenges, but overall they have been satisfactory.  (Note that the names of all health care providers have been changed – mostly for my amusement).

Two weeks ago, things changed dramatically.  Overnight, Dad was suffering severe pain in his lower spine, left hip, and left femur.  This is potentially very bad.  It means either that the cancer has metastasized into his bones, or that we have a new problem.  If it is the cancer, then this is the beginning of the end.  He will be in constant pain until the cancer kills him.  If it is something new, then we may or may not be able to do something to help him.

Roxanol liquid

The Father

BS Hospice responded admirably.  They immediately started him on a rotating program of the holy trinity – Roxanol (liquid morphine),

Dr. House recommends Vicodin

The Son

Vicodin, and

Gapapentin capsules

The Holy Spirit

Gabapentin.  While this keeps him pretty dopey, it does allow him to be much more comfortable.

After a week of this “pain management” Dad’s condition was unchanged.  BS Hospice Nurse #5 (the RN Case Managers from BS Hospice change so frequently that I haven’t named them, just numbered them) decided that she should refer Dad back to his primary care doctor (Dr. Primary) to get a bone scan done.  This is HUGE.  From all of my research, I understand that it would not be unusual for a lesser hospice company (like Dr. Asshat’s Lying Thieving Hospice Company) to simply declare that this was a symptom of the cancer and nothing was to be done.  In that case, your only options are to wait for death or to quit the hospice company.  But BS Hospice did the right thing – they decided to actually gather some evidence and make an informed decision about his care.

this is actually Dr. Asshat

This may actually be Dr. Asshat

So immediately after Nurse #5’s visit on Monday I called Dr. Primary to make this happen.  Now you may not know this, but while Dr. Primary is wonderful he works in an office under the direction of Dr. Asshat.  So it was no surprise that when I called I got a bunch of bullshit about how Dr. Primary was out of the office blah blah blah blah blah blah “but if you were with [Dr. Asshat’s Lying Thieving Hospice Company], then [Dr. Asshat] could order the bone scan today.  Would you like to change hospice companies?”

I put up with this nonsense over a series of phone calls, until finally on Wednesday morning I explained to the Useless C on the phone that this was illegal, and I was certain that the state regulators would love to hear about it – and that I was going to find a new primary care doctor immediately.  And then I hung up.

In less than 10 minutes, Miss Useful (the office scheduler) called back to let me know that Dad’s bone scan was scheduled for Friday morning at 10.  Wow, isn’t that amazing?  Providing medical care for Dad is simply not possible unless they are threatened!  Who woulda thunk it?

A gait belt in use

A gait belt in use

Now, lest you think that this is simply a rant about a single bad provider (Dr. Asshat), let me continue.  As soon as Miss Useful scheduled Dad’s bone scan at North Ottawa Community Hospital I called BS Hospice to let them know that we finally had the test scheduled.  While I had them on the phone, I also let them know that Dad was getting progressively weaker and now needed assistance to get up.  I asked if they could provide me with a gait belt so that I could assist him without throwing out my back.

Keeping in mind that I was praising the BS Hospice Company only a few paragraphs back, what do you think their response was to this question?  Why, the ever so pleasant and less-than-helpful voice said to me “I don’t think that we can provide that.”

Since I was already on my last nerve for the day, I simply stated “Since Dad is 6 feet tall and weighs 270 pounds, it is dangerous for me to try and assist him unaided.  Since you can’t provide me with a simple device to assist him, I am going to be forced to call you and request a nurse visit EVERY time he needs to stand up or sit down.  Thank you.”  And then I hung up.

Wow, that hanging up thing really works!  In less than 20 minutes Nurse #5 called to let me know that she had been updated on the bone scan – AND – that she would be stopping by later in the day to deliver a gait belt!  Isn’t it amazing!

It really frightens me that Dad gets treated like this.  He has good insurance, is a compliant patient, and has a full-time in-home caregiver (me) who advocates for him.  I cannot imagine what it must be like for someone lacking these advantages to try and navigate through the system.