One last party with Uncle Bob

 Uncle Bob, 1955

My favorite picture of Uncle Bob from his Army days during the 1950’s.

The barrel says, “Explosive Liquid”.

This is the obituary I was asked me to write for Uncle Bob.  It was a lot of fun to write and talking with his kids to get the stories correct was pretty humorous.  This family knows how to celebrate life.  Even though he was in bed, he still sent his daughters to the kitchen to make Italian cookies so he could inspect them.  It wasn’t until the third batch that he finally approved of their abilities with carrying on the tradition.  They would bring the cookies up to his room at different points in the process, and he would send them back down to try again.  It was a week of family coming in and out, even his Cardiologist came a few nights to celebrate.  I thought that was very touching.

The family black & white movies were put on the TV, photo albums were out, and a dining table full of food lasted the entire week.  Even though he was in his bed, he asked who came and for them to stay- and come tomorrow too!  People took turns watching the sporting events in his room with him.  During a WVU game, he pointed up and said he would help them win when he gets there.

You could see and feel the love within the house, it was quite magical.  This was the most beautiful death, and I hope I am as lucky as Uncle Bob when it is my time.

Robert Allen Marra, of Bridgeport, WV, who was known as Bob, passed away on Friday, November 21, 2014 while celebrating his life with his family and loved ones around him. He was born on August 1, 1933, in Brownton. He was the son of the late Frank and Maria (Mary) Morasco Marra, who immigrated to WV from San Giovanni, Italy.

He was preceded in death by his wife of 37 years, Constance Minard Marra, in 1998.

His surviving family members include his son Robert A. Marra II and wife Diana of Bridgeport, WV, daughters Mary Rose Marra Sirianni and husband George of Tallahassee, Florida and Jolynn Marra, of Charleston, WV. Bob is also survived by his three older brothers, Louis “Jiggs” Marra of Flemington, WV, Joseph Marra of Manassas, VA, Sammie Marra of Bridgeport, WV and sister, Lucy Marra Grady of Bethesda, MD. He has three grandchildren, Anthony, Marra, and Ross, his companion of 15 years, Marie Whitehair of Bridgeport, WV, and many nieces and nephews whom he loved and cared for deeply.

In addition to his wife and parents, he was preceded in death by five sisters, Rose Lee Marra Tait, Daisy Marra Vukovich, Velma Marra Infante, Anna Marra Amoroso, and Virginia Marra Meyers.

Bob graduated from Philippi High School. He began school at West Virginia University and shortly after went to serve in the US Army, stationed at Fort Myer, VA and Aberdeen, MD. During the late 1950’s, Bob co-owned the popular Willow Beach dinner and dance club in Clarksburg, WV. He worked for his father’s coal company, Marra Coal Company. The company became the Marra Brother’s Coal Company when passed down to Bob and his brothers, where he worked until the mine closed. He officially retired from the local Labor Union in the mid 1990’s.

Bob was an avid sports fan, especially WVU and Bridgeport sports. His tailgating foods were impressive, with only his infamous apron stealing the show. He was charismatic and had a sense of humor that blended perfectly with his full of life personality. Bob attended every wedding, graduation, birthday, and sporting event that he possibly could to support and celebrate his family. Many, whether related or not, referred to him as “Uncle Bob” or “Big Bob”. His signature dance was the Tarantella, always waving his handkerchief in the air. He also enjoyed showering wedding couples with coins to orchestrate the Money Dance for good luck.

Bob loved being part of a large Italian family and enjoyed talking about his family traditions. He took great pride in knowing that his many cookies, including his pita piatas, and his hot peppers were loved by all. He was a member of All Saints Catholic Church in Bridgeport, and served as an usher for many years. Regardless of how many were sitting in the row already, Bob could always seem to seat one more.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Bob’s memory may be made to All Saints Church or People’s Hospice.

Family and friends will be received at All Saints Catholic Church, 317 E. Main Street, Bridgeport on Monday from 2:00-8:00 p.m., where the Vigil Service will be held at 7:30 p.m. A Mass of Christian Burial will be held on Tuesday, November 25 at 10:00 am with Father V. Cann as Celebrant. Interment will be in Bridgeport Cemetery, and Military Funeral Honors will be accorded.–

After reading over the obituary again, I see a few grammar mistakes and changes made by the funeral home.  My name wasn’t on the work, so I said to feel free to change anything.

When I See The Flags

After spending the last week- eight hours or more a day- with someone who is actively dying, my heart would always race right before I would turn down the hall towards their room.  Anticipating the flags to be standing proudly at the entryway of their room.

All nursing home facilities react to a resident’s death differently.  When I found out how the VA Hospital’s CLC treats their resident’s deaths, I thought it was a beautiful idea.  I hope that all of the CLC’s do the same as mine does, because it means so much to the other residents and their families, the volunteers, and the staff.

Since the CLC strives to be a family setting, rather than a scary traditional nursing home, the residents become friends.  They spend time together in the common area, as residents can go only in their own room.  The residents all can tell when someone has taken a turn for the worse.  They notice everything.  When someone is about to pass, the residents are allowed to go in their friend’s room to say a few words.

It pulls at the heart strings when I see a 90 year old resident wheel himself into another room to say goodbye to his fellow service member.

When a resident passes, the CLC stands two flags on either side of their door.  One side is the USA flag, and the other is the branch they were in while serving in our military.  I have turned the corner into hallways many times hoping to see the flags- and in the same breath- hoping not to see the flags.  Unfortunately, sometimes it can take a while for the body to shut down, and it seems that it takes too long for my friends to feel peace again.  When you witness suffering of any kind, it will create empathy that you will carry forever.  The peace I am talking about is not only physical, but also emotional.

When I do see the flags, I have had different emotions- happiness, reflection, warmth, and selfishness.

Why selfishness?  Well, in some cases I wasn’t ready to lose my friend yet!  The lovely namesake of this blog is a great example of this.  The day he passed, he was smiling and giggling at jokes.   I was happy for him to be out of pain when I saw his flags, but sad to lose a sweet friend.

The flags guard their door for several days.

A memorial service is given once a month for the residents who have passed since the last.  The Chaplin comes every Thursday for Bible studies/religious services, and one is reserved for the memorial service.  The services are always packed- the residents always come, family, staff, and volunteers.

The flags are also displayed at the service.  At the end of the memorial service, the Chaplin asks if anyone would like to say a few words about the deceased.  The best comment was when a resident said that the he always thought it was kind of the deceased to share his Marine magazines with him.  It was sweet because both men were known to be crank pots.

Making Home Social Visits

Yesterday evening, I went on a visit with Mary and Donna (who are in their 60’s).  Mary was visiting her first cousins, who are sisters.  We had to pick up one sister, Helen, and we were off to her sister’s house.

I didn’t grow up around Italian-Americans, so I am not used to the constant yelling, nagging, and general loudness.  The two sisters are in their 80’s, and one still drives.  I am not sure if she should still drive though, and she yells at you if you mention it.   I recently moved into an extremely Italian community, and I am not used to it yet.  The Virgin Mary and Jesus are everywhere.  Everywhere.

As soon as we pull up to Mary Ann’s house, she comes out and immediately starts berating her older sister.  This lasted for the ten minutes it took to get in the sitting room.  The entire three hours were hilarious and oddly sweet.  The two sisters have dyed auburn hair, and wear huge diamonds and jewels on every finger.  It reminded me of a movie.

Here are a few gems from the evening,

  • “Oh, I love that Usher.  I just love Usher.” -We were talking about The Voice (which I have not watched), and Mary Ann apparently loves Usher.  A lot.
  • “Donna, those shoes are sexy! I can’t wear my wedgies anymore because my feet are swollen.  Why do they do that? I miss my heels.” – Mary Ann’s comment when seeing Donna’s summer wedge heeled shoes.  She pronounced it as, Wedge-ees.
  • “No, I eat frozen dinners and frozen pizza, but that isn’t a problem.” – Mary Ann’s comment when asked if she eats a lot of sodium referring to the above comment about her swollen ankles.
  • “Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere.  I don’t know where they think they are going.” – Helen talking about people’s behavior this day in age.
  • “He wanted to hire me as his Secretary, but I told him that I don’t type and I don’t know shorthand.  He said that he was hiring me anyway because I knew his wife and girlfriend, and I knew how to keep my mouth shut.” – Mary Ann referring to her boss of 40 years in New York City.
  • “Helen, No! Don’t start this confusion shit. G.D. Helen.” – Mary Ann  yelling at her sister when she was admitting being confused.  I think she shows signs of early dementia, and her sister was having none of it.  Almost like if she yelled at Helen about it, she would stay on top of things and not be diagnosed with it.

I laughed the entire time I was there, and I am ready to go again soon.  I think Mary Ann spoke so much that the remaining four of us only said a handful of words during the entire visit.  Can you tell that she was holding court in the sitting room?

Items I Take to the CLC

Yesterday, someone asked me what I take with me when I sit with someone who is actively dying.  During these days, I go in their room in the morning and leave in the late evening.  It makes for a long day, but a worthwhile and appreciated day.

If you become a volunteer/work within nursing homes or find yourself as a caregiver to someone in palliative care, I highly recommend reading “Final Gifts”, by Maggie Callanan and “Dying Well”, by Ira Byock, M.D. These two books are wonderful resources, and I will add more to my recommended readings list as I finish more books.  I don’t recommend books if I haven’t personally read them.

I really dislike the term “sitting with” when referring to volunteering in this capacity.  When I am introduced to the residents, it is the beginning of a respectful relationship.  I become a friend, someone they count on to visit, someone they can vent to if frustrated by their surroundings, and much more.  I see it more as accompanying them to the next part of their journey.

Once they are considered to be actively dying, the nursing staff usually calls to let me know just in case I wasn’t going to visit for a few more days.  I bring my backpack filled with all kinds of things, some for me-some for my friend.

  • Bottles of water (the place I visit only has soda in the vending machine for visitors- not good)
  • Several books to read (I tend to go back and forth between several during the day)
  • Crossword puzzles (One friend would do the puzzles with me.  When he was at the end of life, he could still hear me and I would call out what I was looking for on the puzzle.)
  • Fruit cut up in a container, homemade meal-replacers from my kitchen, and roasted chickpeas (I follow a plant-based diet)
  • Cell phone with the charger with an extra long cord 
  • Ipod (I listen to music on my walk to the facility, and I have my favorite upbeat song that makes me smile when I hear it- I listen to that right before I walk in the facility.)
  • Change for vending (if you decide to use the vending machine, also remember it may not take dollar bills)
  • My own hand sanitizing gel that I keep in my pocket. (Of course, they also have it on the wall of every room.)

I dress in layers, as the rooms can get stuffy, warm, or even chilly if the thermostat freezes.  I have residents who want the heat on 98 degrees, and those who want it cool around 68 degrees because it helped them breathe easier.

I always talk about music with each resident I am paired with, as it is something that lifts everyone up when listening to a favorite group.  I have the Pandora music app on my phone, and I play their favorite genre while I am there.  Sometimes the background noise of the facility can be unnerving and aggravating, so I will put on their station softly next to their head.  The extra long charger cord helps in this situation, as the outlet could be too far away.   I also paid for the yearly subscription for Pandora, so the commercials wouldn’t startle them.

That is pretty much what I bring into the rooms with me when I visit during someone’s end of life.  I will post soon on what I do during those hours, and what happens after they pass.

They are always happy and thankful to have someone beside them, so please do not be nervous.