©Bruce Green 2016

©Bruce Green 2016

A bright yellow piece of plastic with a navy blue bear paw painted on each side sits on the shelf. Silent now, it can still sing, if necessary. All it takes is the slightest contact between its steel mouth and any other piece of metal. A ballpoint pen tip or key is easiest. It’s a bottle opener. Pop off a bottle cap and hear your alma mater’s fight song…every time. They come in all colors, for all athletic conferences.

This Cal bottle opener was hardly intended to be the voice of a teacher. I guess it graduated to a higher purpose. When we can’t speak with words, sometimes that which evokes smiles will suffice.

My father-in-law Don Minkler, was a Cal Bear fan of the first order. He went to UC Berkeley as a young man and a quarter century later, after a fast track medical degree at Harvard during wartime, found himself a practicing Ob/Gyn just 10 minutes from the campus. Then, when most would ready themselves for retirement, he took up a new career. Back to the university he loved for a degree in Public Health and tenure as a professor specializing in international women’s reproductive rights. All the while, he never missed many Cal football games.

For Don, it was hardly about the football.   He knew the game, agonized over the frustrating losses, silently wished for a Rose Bowl appearance in his lifetime, and enjoyed talking strategy with anyone. Yet, it was really about being there. About the little tailgate scene that begins early on game day, seeing friends and colleagues, watching the generations participate in the ritual. His kids, his grand kids, and yes, for a short time, his great grand kids. There was something joyful about seeing them all sport the blue and gold, hearing the big cannon on Tightwad Hill go off with every Cal score, and being part of those thousands shouting “Go Bears”

There was also the band. That wonderful Cal Band. As much as he couldn’t tolerate the mindless patriotism of military marches, he could never get enough of the Cal band. That’s why we bought him the bottle opener. It popped the cap off of a whole lot more.

A few years into his retirement, Don Minkler was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It took an atypical form in that his speech was affected more than his memory. Aphasia is particularly difficult for one who relied so heavily on his speaking voice. Imagine the frustration if you wanted to tell someone some important information and you couldn’t get the words out. Maybe you simply wanted to say this chocolate cake is delicious and your brain couldn’t get your mouth to say chocolate. You could hear the word in your head, taste the cake in your mouth, smell the aroma, but couldn’t say chocolate…or maybe cake… or maybe it came out as chalk, or cook. You get the picture.

Despite this severe disability, Don lived with all the wit and grace that marked his healthy years. Like Dr. Charlie Garfield, a pioneer in hospice care, always says, people evolve a “death style” similar to their life style. If someone lives with brooding anger, they die the same way. Conversely, a life marked by intellectual curiosity and service will find those characteristics embedded in the last days. We saw this daily. First, when Don’s Sister-in-Law, Fran, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, her behavior remained remarkably consistent. The disease took the more familiar form of memory loss in Fran. She ultimately could identify very few of her family members, and when her husband, Don’s brother Roy died, she smiled politely through his memorial service. She enjoyed the recording of Roy playing piano, as if she were attending a light afternoon concert, and then, just as she would do in her healthy years, she announced it was time to leave.

“I’ve got to go home to start dinner,” Fran said.

With that, her daughter took her back to the facility where she now lived. Some in attendance were mildly shocked. They assumed Fran was emotionally distraught. Not so. Those who knew Fran well knew that this was typical behavior in living, and now in dying.

We saw Don’s death style often, but one unforgettable incident occurred when he decided to protect his “roommate” as a doctor would protect his patient. With great difficulty, he maneuvered his wheelchair to block entrance to the adjoining rooms they shared. He correctly perceived that “the admiral” was physically deteriorating and wanted only to be left alone. He’d had it with nighttime interruptions for tests, or supplements. Don tried to help him find the privacy he desperately sought.   That devilish quality that saw a 10 year old Don roll an old tire down a country hillside at a cow peacefully grazing in a meadow, now saw him putting his body on the line as a one man blockade. That’s where the bottle opener comes in.

At first it was just for fun. That first year, the Cal bottle opener had everybody laughing and smiling. After football season it disappeared for a while. I’m sure more than a few folks hoped the thing would break. The 30 seconds of Cal fight song followed by the band shouting “Go Bears!” gets tedious. But it always made him smile, and best of all, it was something he could do. And then, his Alzheimer’s was exacerbated by another thief, Parkinson’s disease. Even when it worsened, Don could still get the tip of his nail file or pen to ignite the band for one more performance. He did it early and often with impish delight.

In time, as all these ailments worsened, that bottle opener became Don’s voice. I think it’s safe to say it also doubled on occasion for medicine. When it became impossible to take Don to the Cal games, his little bottle opener provided a sound track for watching the team on TV. I can hardly imagine enduring the indignities of Alzheimer’s for upwards of 15 years, but Don Minkler did just that with all the fortitude and integrity that marked his professional career. He taught by example until the end.

Don’s bottle opener went to long-term care with him. Like everything else, we put a label on it “Property of Don Minkler,” and it eventually found it’s way into a small display case that each patient had outside the door to his or her room.   Like museum pieces with small altars, each still life told the story of a life stilled.

When Katie and I returned to the home he shared with his wife of 56 years, Betsy, the evening of his memorial, we were hardly sad. A life well lived will leave one pensive, not depressed. As promised, his memorial was held at the Cal Faculty Club. Nobody was prepared for the overflow crowd. While delivering my small tribute, I recall seeing people staring in through the glass windows of an outside patio because there were no more chairs inside the building. Don’s friends and those whose lives he touched showed up. I wonder how many there that day he’d actually held in their first minutes of life outside the womb?

I don’t know what set it off that night. At first we thought that maybe Katie’s brother John did the deed. Like Don, John has that same Minkler sense of humor. Where others might think it inappropriate or in bad taste, John would intuitively know that Katie and I wouldn’t be offended. Hell, Don would have loved it. But that was not the case. John didn’t even know what had happened to the bottle opener. It’s like one of those paranormal moments. Katie and I both heard the tiny muffled sound of the Cal band. We both heard the chorus shout “Go Bears!” It was about 3:00 a.m. so we decided to deal with it in the morning.

It only took a few minutes to find the bottle opener. We’d spent the night in what was once Don’s office and first searched inside his dresser. In the small upper right hand drawer was the bright yellow opener.

“Something must’ve set it off, “ I reasoned.

“Was there a key, pen, nail clipper or some other metal?” Katie asked.

There was not. Just the yellow bottle opener, some handkerchiefs, papers and a couple pairs of socks.

If you are waiting for me to say Don was communicating with us, I won’t. Neither Katie nor I believe that. We three said everything in that last year. Pushing his wheel chair through the garden, letting him touch the soil, feeding him, just being there.

Still the damn thing played the Cal fight song that night. Of that I am sure. I can give you theories; after all, the house does sit on the Hayward fault. Earthquakes have rumbled through too many times to count. But we don’t care about that.

The bottle opener sits on a shelf in our Portland home now. I’ll fire it off once in a great while if I’m feeling down or mischievous. But it doesn’t need to be played. It sings every time we catch sight of it.

©Bruce Greene, 2016

Bruce Greene (BAWP ’88, ’91) taught for 33 years at El Cerrito High School in the East Bay. In his eclectic writing career, Bruce has been a correspondent for a national thoroughbred horse magazine and published everything from poetry to creative non-fiction and memoir. He currently supervises and mentors beginning teachers at Marylhurst University near his new hometown, Portland, Oregon.

8 Responses to “Bottled by Bruce Greene”

  1. Thank you, Bruce, for talking about aphasia. My sister has vascular dimensia and I keep trying to write about it. You’ve inspired me to get to work on a piece that will give testimony to her grace and patience with the disease.

    1. Bruce Greene Says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I hope you write your piece. I’m sure you have some truths to share and it will be greatly appreciated.

  2. Bonnie Bollwinkel Says:

    Ah Bruce! You made me cry and laugh! Favorite sentence:… Still life for lives stilled! A real tribute to our special Dad💕😘

    1. Bruce Greene Says:

      Thank you Bonnie. Yes, lots of tears and joy in remembering your dad. You certainly know the places in my piece. Funny how a small object can connect to such larger issues.

  3. Margie Abbott Says:

    Well, Bruce, your perceptive writing convinces me to keep the dueling U of O Ducks and the OSU Beavers fight songs that sit in our kitchen drawer…now peacefully. Thank you for perspective.

    So connect with your words and the important relationships we create in our days of living. Thank you for your insight to valuing lives lived.

    1. Bruce Greene Says:

      Thanks Margie. A mini “Civil War” of bottle openers should bring a laugh or two. That’s a lot of color in one kitchen drawer!

  4. Michael Minkler Says:

    Thank you, Bruce. Beautifully written, and any reminder of him I can get is a welcome one. In retrospect, I regret the times I shrugged off his incessant playing of that damn bottle opener. There was certainly no mistaking the joy that it brought to him and I’m now grateful that he had it.

    1. Bruce Greene Says:

      Thanks Michael. Yes that little opener could be tedious at times, but it brings lots of smiles these days. He left us so many kinds of joy. Wish we had just a little more time.

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