Thursday, July 9, 2009

Brenda & Byron

This is a story of a love affair that lasted for 52 years, 8 months, and 2 days.

Brenda Pauline Forrest was 12 years old when her life was suddenly turned upside down. Her father had a massive heart attack at age 55 and died. The devastation of this event with the casket, funeral home and emotional upheaval left an indelible impression. The family was living in San Augustine at that time. Brenda’s mother, Polly, was in her mid thirties and her sister, Cathy was 8. The first move was to Texarkana to live with her mother’s parents, Brenda’s grandparents. After a couple of years, they decided to move to Huntington and temporarily live with Brenda’s Aunt Artimese Forrest until Polly could find employment and a home for herself and her girls. This was early fall of 1956. Brenda and Cathy enrolled in the Huntington school system.

The first time we met was either late September or early October of 1956. It was an afternoon at a local café in Huntington. She and her cousin, Linda Forrest, and Ann LeSassier asked me to come over and meet her and I did. They explained that she had just moved to town and was going to attend Huntington High School. As I recall, Elvis was singing Don’t Be Cruel’ on the jute box. She was somewhat reserved, not particularly friendly, but not unfriendly either. There was something special about her quiet, reserved attitude.

Brenda and I were both 14 years old and both freshman. We had multiple classes together and on or about October 10th, I informed her about a hayride that was to take place on Friday the 14th and asked if she would go with me. She said okay. My main means of transportation at that time was a 1950 ¾ ton Studebaker pickup which I was kind of ashamed of. It was about as classy and cool as a camel, but she did not mind. After the hayride, I asked if she would go to movie with me the next evening and she said okay. Pretty soon, not sure when, I asked her to be my steady girlfriend and again, she said okay. I believe that she wore a necklace with a small gold colored basketball attached to it in order to signify this relationship.

Thus the dating began. Basketball game nights, movie nights, Sunday and Wednesday church nights became much more important for me to attend since it meant taking her and having a burger and coke afterwards.

1956 in Huntington was a time when Elvis was king, grass was something to cut, being gay was a frame of mind and if someone was hot, then they had a problem with either the temperature or the humidity or both. Our basketball teams were referred to as the A team and the B-team. We did not understand that this designation was politically incorrect. We just knew that A was better than B. One of the requirements of Huntington citizenship was to either be a basketball player or supporter. We did not do football, baseball, band, or tennis. We did basketball and because that is about all we did, we did it rather well. Instructions for out of town games required that the last person to leave was to turn out the town light. The team had a very strong following that sometimes required playoff games to be held at other locations because our gym was not big enough for the crowds. In fact, during a tournament one time in Jasper, our fans got so riled up that a technical foul was called on the crowd.

As a freshman, I played on the B-team and Brenda became a cheerleader. I played the game and she provided the encouragement and support. This is what I did and what she did for the remainder of our lives together. She was not athletic, had no desire to play, but was very organized and had very strong opinions about the routines, uniforms and such. She was very happy with the supportive role for me and our children. Because of this attitude, we all have been truly blessed and probably spoiled. I had a supporter at home, not a competitor. It did not matter how good or how bad I performed in sports or on the job; I always knew that she was there for me. During our sophomore year, I went into a slump for a period of time. I could not make a basket standing on a 10 foot ladder under the goal. My performance in one of the Lufkin games was so bad that I literally shed tears while having a post game coke at Ray Stewart’s Café. She did not say a word, just teared up a bit herself and touched me with her hand to let me know ‘it’s okay’.

Sometime during our sophomore year, we hit a real serious bump in the road. Her mother remarried and they moved to a country home in the Pollok community, about 20 miles from Huntington. It was okay at first, but soon the new husband decided that she and I should not be seeing each other so much. In fact, we should not even go out on dates at all. I was allowed to visit her in their living room for an hour or so weekly. Then he became verbally abusive toward Brenda. This was devastating to both of us. This situation did not last long.

Brenda at the age of 16, decided she would not put up with that kind of crap. She walked a couple of miles to a store on the highway and called her Aunt Artimese Forrest to come get her, which she did. After a discussion with Brenda’s mother and the new husband, a decision was made that Brenda could live with Artimese and finish high school at Huntington. They were to bring Brenda’s clothes and other personal items to Artimese’s home. The word of these events circulated throughout the Forrest family and I believe every one of them were at the home of Aunt Artimese when the clothing was delivered. I was there too. The look on the faces of the Forrest group was one of determination that harm would not come to one of their own. Fortunately, the new husband did not exit the automobile and a scene was not created. I was very proud of the Forrest family that night for their united support of Brenda.

After this was over, Artimese had a rather short talk with me. She was a very kind and caring person, but she was also very stern. When she looked at you with her penetrating school teacher eyes, she could tell if you had even had bad or sinful thoughts for at least the last seven days. She informed me that she had taken on a big responsibility in agreeing to take Brenda in and that I would continue to be the gentleman that she knew I was. We could continue our dating, but we would abide by her curfew. I thought she was being reasonable and I agreed to be a good boy. One did not mess with Artimese Forrest. She not only provided most of Brenda’s support throughout the high school years, but also paid for her secretarial college expenses. Later, when I began working she refused to accept reimbursement from us.

So, back to high school and basketball with me playing and her cheerleading. The A team during our sophomore year consisted of two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman. My first cousin, Frank Williams and I were the sophomores. The Lufkin paper referred to us as the kiddie cagers. For the first time in 10 years, Huntington won district. We went on to win bi-district, but were defeated at the regional tournament.

The next two years, 1959 and 1960, we won it all. Two state championships in a row. She was right in the middle of this effort, there for every game, leading the cheers and offering support, all 90 pounds of her. At that time, this was a big, big part of our lives. When the school did not furnish transportation for the cheerleaders, my dad would take as many as he could. He also attended most all of the games. He always watched them without showing any emotion at all. Everyone else was screaming and hollering but he remained perfectly sedate. When I asked about it one time, He said, “Son, you just don’t know what my butt is doing to that seat!”.

Next came Baylor University for me and Tyler Commercial College for her. We were separated again and this was not a happy time. So we suffered a couple of years, seeing each other as often as possible but then the time had come to conquer crap again. We felt the best answer was marriage. We were 20, she had completed her courses and I was a junior. My parents did not agree. They had no problem with Brenda. They just thought that this would prevent me from completing my college education. After some rather heated discussions and assurances by me the college would be completed, they still did not agree with the decision, but went along with it. As it turned out, we were right.

So, once again there was peace in the valley and grades drastically improved. She worked at a local Waco hospital and I worked part-time at the offices of two CPA’s. She made $200 per month and I made $1.15 per hour. After a short time in an efficiency apartment, we moved into a home off campus at a cost of $50 per month. She let me know that after she received her PHT [put hubby through], she was to become a fulltime mother and homemaker.

Finally, graduation day and we are off to Houston to work for Tenneco at $525 per month and to start a family. It was late January, 1964. BeLynda was born eleven months later on November 12. We had acquired our first home at a cost of $11,500. We put $500 down with less than $90 in monthly payments. Brenda insisted that all rooms have furniture, so we purchased the cheapest bed and springs that we could find for the extra bedroom. We had not noticed that the springs created a lot of noise when they were being used. After Brenda suffered numerous nights of lost sleep with BeLynda, I told her I would take care of the baby that night. I told Brenda that she should go to the other bedroom, shut the door and get some sleep. Unfortunately, that is exactly what she did. I still remember the fear I felt as her bedroom door shut. I looked down at BeLynda in her bassinet and she looked at me. The message on her little face was “I plan to torment you through the night with tears. My body has seven holes and I plan to process something disgusting from every one of them”. Every time she would go to sleep and I would try to lie down, but the squeaky springs would wake her again and again. Somehow, we made it through the night without waking Brenda.

The job at Tenneco was not going well, so I quit and started working for one of the ‘big 8’ accounting firms. This did not work well either. Their attitude and behavior toward their clients was extremely arrogant and they put me in jobs that I was not qualified to do. Of course, Brenda realized how unhappy I was and did not have a problem with me quitting this job and heading back to East Texas. I told her that I could not stand this job and was through with public accounting. She said ‘Let’s go home’. No reservations whatsoever. None. I had a wife and child, very little money and quit my job without a replacement. I think some wives would be going nuts. Not mine.

We moved back and the job search began for anything other than public accounting. There was nothing available that paid what we needed. So, as a last resort, I approached Axley & Rode, Certified Public Accountants. They had offered me a job when I graduated from Baylor, but I told them that I had already accepted a job at Tenneco. Well, they had an opening and I began working there on February 28, 1966. Their attitude toward clients and employees was a complete 180 from the other firm. After two weeks, I knew I had found a home. I was 23 years old and I stayed with them for the next 40 years.

The only time I every remember Brenda making a fool of herself was when Bert was born. There was a good reason. Since our first was a girl, we wanted a boy very badly. She was so pumped full of drugs because of the baby’s delivery that when we were informed that we now have a big boy, she began telling the world in a very loud uncharacteristic voice ‘It’s a boy! It’s a boy! It’s a boy! So on the 11th of January 1967, Bert became a part of the family and made it complete!

In 1970, I became the 6th partner of Axley & Rode and in 1971 the other five allowed me to move to Nacogdoches in order to open a branch office. It was an exciting time with challenges. The competition was tough. Not only were the established firms already here very good, I believe their family roots in Nacogdoches could be traced back to the Revolutionary War. I was 28 years old and new in town. But it finally worked with the backing of my in-house cheerleader, the patience of the partners and some wonderful employees.

So, we proceeded to live the good life with a good job I enjoyed most of the time, two beautiful children and a good safe community. We were the 4-B’s. Byron, Brenda, BeLynda and Bert.

BeLynda was into performing in pageants by singing, dancing and modeling and Bert was into motocross racing. One weekend we went to Houston with a motorcycle strapped to the front of the car, gasoline cans in the trunk and dresses, petticoats, etc in the back seat. Saturday night at the grand ballroom of the Shamrock Hilton, BeLynda belted out ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ and on Sunday afternoon, we were cheering Bert amidst the hum of motorcycles and the smell of burning oil and gasoline. It was a blast.

In 1980, at the height of mortgage interest rates, we built our dream home on a four acre plot of land on Logansport Road between Skyline and Chimney Rock. Brenda designed the home and with the help of builder Charles Hensarling, we moved into it before Bert and BeLynda left home. Our intention was to live there for the rest of our lives, but situations changed and arthritis took the fun out of having a two story house.

Brenda loved animals. We became the refuge for several stray animals over the years, including dogs, cats, a turtle, a rabbit and a duck. One particular dog named Muffin had been so severely beaten that if you even looked at her she would urinate all over herself. Through Brenda’s patience and love Muffin grew into a confident dog who would lay flat on her back with her feet in the air completely happy in the loving home Brenda had created. When Brenda would head up to the stables she walked like the Piped Piper with Muffin and two stray cats following in a single file line. It was a sight to behold.

Then came horses. Lots of horses. We both went nuts over horses. She helped take care of them and with the assistance of trainers; some were shown at horse shows all over the country. One of them received Top Ten honors in the Canadian National Show which we attended. We had a beautiful horse named Peppy’s Bad Girl. Peppy was an extremely good horse but she had bad legs. One day while watching Bad Girl eating in the pasture Brenda said to me that what we needed was a bunch of bad girls with good legs. As I stated that I could live with that she realized what she had just said and we both had a big laugh.

Our last big endeavor and perhaps the most enduring was the restoration of our country home in Huntington. It is a 100 acre tract of land that was purchased by grandparents Charlie Robert and Vashti Smith in 1917.It is a place where I grew up and since Brenda and I have known each other since age 14, she had spent a lot of time there also. The home sits on a hill at the end of a dirt road overlooking 20 open acres of pasture with a tree lined creek running through it. The other 80 acres are wooded with 50 of those supporting approximately 30,000 planted pine trees. Deer, squirrels, rabbits etc are abundant. We added to the home, made some changes inside and it became a get-a way for our entire family. She absolutely loved to go there, but had become unable to travel that far. Our last trip was in October, 2008. She had told BeLynda the farm was her choice for a final resting place. She did not want to be put in a casket.

Grandparenting began in 1994. We decided that I would be called Bo and she would be Gram. If grandparenting was a popularity contest, I can guarantee you that she would win it. Big time. She became a grandmother whisperer. She had the ability to connect at grandkids level and they absolutely adored her. Upon arrival at our home, the first response was not Hi Bo or How are you Bo? It was where is Gram?

Sean Austin Smith, the son of Bert and Elizabeth, was the first to arrive. I am not sure at what age Sean finally acknowledged that our home was Bo and Gram’s house, not just Gram’s house. He would become angry if anyone suggested otherwise. One day while riding in the car, Sean announced that he could spell SFA. We asked how it was spelled and he said ‘S F A’. He was congratulated for this achievement. At the age of 5, he out smarted Gram. He loved playing with his toys, but did not like to pick them up. So, Gram decided to make a game of toy pickup. She explained that they would count to 20 slowly and see how many toys they could pickup. He said ‘Okay, I will count and you can pick them up’.

In 2004, BeLynda & David took the biblical phrase “Go forth, multiply and replenish the earth’ a little too seriously and delivered three at once. Yeah, Triplets. Oh my, Oh my. So Zander, Kaden and Addison became part of the family and once again, Gram hits a grand slam.

Brenda wrote the following in her journal:

As I sat in my rocking chair on the farm house porch, all I could see were two little “cotton heads” bobbing up and down. Their short little legs carried my seventeen month old grandsons down the sand road to the bottom of the hill where the old log cabin stands. They had no idea where they were going, but were happy to be free of boundaries and able to go----go---go!

From time to time one of them would stop and grab a handful of sand, while the other one would lose his balance and sit on his well padded bottom. Then, off they would go again----down the hill with squeals of joy! The boys’ Mom and Dad were following behind them to keep them safe, but the little guys thought they were exploring the big world all on their own. It was such a sight to see the 5th generation of Smith boys going down Smith Road. Go, Kaden---Go, Zander!

Meanwhile, The Princess was sitting in the yard in front of me playing with Easter eggs. Easter is a few weeks away, but we had a “practice run” at the farm this weekend. Addison had gone earlier with the rest of the family to explore the pasture, but passed on the “down hill run”. This was the first farm trip since all the triplets have been walking. -- Gram

When we learned of the litter of babies that David and BeLynda were expecting, Brenda moved into a one bedroom apartment in The Woodlands to help. I would come on weekends and while I was there we looked over the community. It is a very nice place to live and our entire immediate family was there. We wanted to be near them, watch the grandchildren mature and to be close to arguably the best medical center in the world. I was not ready to discontinue the work that I enjoyed and Bert indicated he was interested in helping me try to establish an accounting and tax practice from scratch. I was 64 years old in a community in which I am known by no one, do not have the financial backing of anyone and want to start again from zero. Am I nuts? The answer to that question is so obvious; there is no need to respond. So, with the approval and support of my cheerleader, the fascination of the challenge, and the opportunity to spend the rest of our days near our children and grandchildren, we loaded up and moved to The Woodlands in April, 2006.

When picking up Zander one day around Thanksgiving 2007, Brenda fractured a vertebra in her back causing tremendous pain. Previously she had been convinced that the pain she was having was from arthritis and was not ready for the replacement routine, so she had postponed seeing a doctor. The results of a MRI indicated that Brenda had Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cell which is treatable, but not curable. It attacks the bones, kidneys, and the immune system and has other bad side effects. It is fairly rare and is usually not detectible until it is already pretty bad. And the nightmare began.

In mid January, 2008, the situation became critical and she was admitted into M.D. Anderson hospital and remained there for six weeks. She was near death. She was in the Intensive Care Unit for a week, put on a ventilator, had to have kidney dialysis, radiation and started chemo treatments. She was rescued but severely disabled. We got out for a short while, but had to return later for a week in March to deal with blood clots in the lungs. The doctors were amazed at her determination and her ability to overcome all that was thrown at her.

Our lives then consisted of many, many trips to MDA, a multitude of doctors to visit and many medications. She hated being waited on and kept apologizing for the situation as though she had let us down. The only good thing about this time in our lives was the extra amount of time we spent together and the hope for the remission that never came. In the midst of all this turmoil, she found time to spend with her grandkids. She dyed Easter eggs, hosted tea parties, introduced Pokemon and spent hours planning out what adventures the grandchildren should take on next.

The chemo treatments either did not slow the cancer or if they did, something else was damaged. A number of combinations of drugs were tried. All of them made her sick, some more than others. Though it all she kept fighting.

Revlimid was the last chemo she took along with some steroids. It was horrible. The first five days of the 21 day treatment went okay, but then it hit. She quit eating, drinking, and began sleeping 20 hours a day. Finally, the treatment was over. The good news was that it had drastically reduced the cancer, but the bad news was that her heart function was dangerously low. After about a month she had become dehydrated and had developed a high calcium count. The cancer was back with a vengeance and she was then admitted to the hospital.

At this time, we learned that the cancer had penetrated her skull and brain and that she would probably not be able to survive the high dose chemo treatment needed to stop it. After some gut wrenching tears by all of us, she opted to stop treatments, go home and hopefully have a few remaining treatment free weeks to spend with her family. She asked BeLynda if she thought the kids would be frightened by seeing Gram arrive in an ambulance. BeLynda laughed a bit saying that the kids were four years old and there was nothing “cooler” than an ambulance. So ever the event planner Mom requested a ride home in the rough riding ambulance with her grandkids waiting at home. BeLynda was able to text Gram’s location all the way home so that the kids’ excitement continued to build and build until the ambulance arrived with lights flashing. There was shrills of joy and welcoming signs as Brenda was unloaded and rolled into her bedroom.

She arrived about 6:00pm on Wednesday, July 1, 2009 with all family members present. The triplets got in bed with her and visited for a while. Her face appeared to show that she was at peace with the situation and it was okay. The way she looked and acted was almost magical. No one realized that this was Brenda’s last hurrah.

After everyone left, she came into the living room and ate a small amount and seemed to be okay. After going back to bed, she started feeling worse and I gave her some pain medication which did not work. She was having a very bad headache around 9:30pm and I gave her some aspirin. I asked if we needed to go back to the hospital and she said absolutely not. Around 10:00pm she became sick and I gave her some nausea medication. As I stood watching her, I had the feeling that the cancer was destroying her skull and I was terribly afraid. Do I call the kids? Do I insist she go to the hospital? Do I spend the night on the floor beside her?

Well, the pain started decreasing and she said it was getting better. She told me to go on to bed. This was about 10:30 or 11:00. I said no. We held hands for a while. I set there for about an hour and she drifted off to sleep. I stuffed a pillow behind her back for support and went to bed with my monitor on as high as possible so that I could hear what was happening in her room. I heard only the sound of the oxygen machine.

I went back at 2:00am and she was still breathing. At 5:00am I went to check on her and she had died. The pillow I had stuffed behind her back earlier had not moved. She did not move again after drifting off to sleep. The doctors had told us that she would more than likely just go to sleep at the end.

So, the long 18 month fight is over and my best friend, the head cheerleader is gone.