I made Mom cry twice in one day. And I feel terrible. For dinner I served Korean dumplings with fresh steamed asparagus and zucchini. After serving Mom and Dad, while fetching my own plate, I heard Mom erupt into gagging coughs and turned to see her surprised and red-faced. “These dumplings are HOT!” Oh no, I thought, running for the bag, which revealed the dumplings to be Spicy Pork & Vegetable Dumplings, the word “Spicy” in conspicuous red letters which I had missed at the store for my focus on the photo of the yummy-looking dumplings. Indeed, the dumplings were very spicy and burned my tongue and my lips unpleasantly for an hour. After dinner I stood to clear the TV tables and clean the kitchen when Mom asked me to tell her one thing about my work day. I sighed and rolled my eyes. I literally rolled my eyes! I wanted to move on with my day and rush to the next task to be checked off the to-do list. And I am not good at shifting mental gears once moving in a mental direction. And I spent six years utterly alone with no one to talk to after work about my work day. And I spent three decades not talking about my work at home because my work was overwhelming to me and uninteresting to others and I wanted less to do with work, not more. And I have never been much of a talker. And I run all day from task to task to task and after dozens of tasks I struggle to remember what I even did that day. And those are my excuses, anyway. Weak ones. And as I rolled my eyes Mom coughed strangely and I looked to see her moving to cover her reddened face and tearing eyes with her soft blue fleece, her cough in reality a choking cry. My heart sank. I had hurt my sweet octogenarian mother. And I could not unhurt her. “Let me think,” I said, looking at the ceiling and not at her, to avoid her feeling self-conscious, “if I can remember what happened today.” I told her about finishing the book Just Mercy about a young Harvard lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in the deep South and fought for the freedom of Black men who had been wrongfully arrested and maliciously prosecuted and who spent years in solitary confinement on death row before their executions, or, for the lucky ones, their exonerations. I told her about working with my friend Paul the engineer to resolve difficult problems with real estate developers. I told her about the high-pressure 14-inch natural gas pipeline embedded in the bank of a flood channel and how the bank is eroding and how the gas company and the property owner want the City to fix the problem at taxpayer expense. And I told her about my commute home and the high winds that tried to blow me off I-80 and the clouds of dust and fog and snow and how heavy the traffic was. And I feel terrible, but I cannot un-ring the bell, or reverse time, or breath back in my words, or undo any of the other things I wish I could undo after I have done them. I am thinking tonight about how blessed I am that my mother loves me and is devoted to me and is interested in my day. I am thinking tonight about Mom announcing to me, “You will be so proud of me: I rode the bike today!” and about how she needs me to be proud of her, and about how I am proud of her, and need to tell her. I am thinking tonight about the responsibility I have to buttress her self-esteem, to affirm her, and to return love and devotion and interest. I am thinking tonight about how tomorrow night she will not need to ask me to tell her one thing about my day because I will have two or three already lined up.
Courage at Twilight: As If They Belonged
The March afternoon shone sunny and warm, and after struggling to help Dad transfer from his recliner to his power wheelchair, I asked him if he would like to take a “walk” to the end of the street and back, thinking he would enjoy a change of scenery and the fresh air. “What I’d really like,” he replied, was to ride his mower, set low, to pull up winter’s dead grass thatch. I sighed. I told him I respected his desire to ride the mower and prep the lawn, but if he was having so much difficulty climbing into the chair, I did not think he could safely mount the mower. He sighed. And he yielded. And I suggested the alternative of riding in his power chair to inspect the yard in preparation for riding the mower next week. He nodded, and I walked after him as he rode his chair out the front door, down the ramps, and onto the lawn. In the back yard, we found the grass saturated and squishy, and I urged him toward the higher ground. But he felt afraid to tip the chair on the incline and stuck to the lowland valley, filling the wheel treads with dead grass and mud. I sighed again. Back in the house, I parked the chair on the hardwood floor and let the mess dry, and in the evening picked the treads clean with chop sticks and vacuumed up the detritus. For dinner I cooked Tieghan Gerard’s delectable garlic lemon shrimp, to Mom’s delight: “I love shrimp!” I did not know but was pleased to discover her “favorite.” Sarah came over and, with the hospital bed gone, helped Steven and me reestablish Dad’s office—he had invited us to bring back his grandfather Nelson’s solid oak desk, but to orient the furniture so he could see out the window while using the computer. We grunted and strained in moving the desks and shelves and cabinets and books and endless computer chords into a simple configuration we thought best utilized the space. Dad ambled in and disapproved, but struggled to express what he wanted. I had lazily resisted trying other configurations—the stuff was heavy and awkward, after all—but dug into my shallow reservoir of patience, breathed deeply, and acquiesced. He finally announced his great pleasure in the outcome, and I felt compelled to confess his configuration, indeed, was the best, and to acknowledge the office was his and should be organized as he wanted. But my reservoir was dry, and I felt exhausted and desperate for time in a dark cave. Recovered by the next day, I enlisted Steven to help me select and plant juniper trees in place of the fallen spruce. We measured and drew the space and planned the tree spacing and earth sloping. At Glover nursery, we texted photos to Dad of seemingly acceptable replacements—we were not about to bring home trees he did not like—and he selected an emerald arborvitae. Four would occupy nicely the space yet leave room for them to fill out. As we dug the holes, Dad tooled out in his power chair and watched the entire two-hour process, contributing his encouragements: “Don’t dig the hole too deep.” “Are you sure it’s okay to bury the balls in their burlap?” Mom watched from the warmth of the kitchen window. Having approached the project carefully and technically, and having involved Dad in every decision (Mom was happy with whatever we did), the result pleased us all, and we had four new friends marshalled together under the falling spring snow, standing as if they had always been there, as if they belonged.
Pictured above: four new emerald arborvitae.
Nursery staff expertly stuffing four 7-foot-tall trees into my Subaru.
Thanks for the Kiss
Courage at Twilight: Wet Feet
“Could you help me with something?” Mom whispered to me with concern wrinkling her face. For the first time in her adult life, after more than half a century, she could not reconcile her checkbook with her bank statement. We spent the next hour studying each entry, each check, and each deposit, adding and subtracting each entry on the check register. I just could not find the mistake—the math worked. Where had the money gone? I realized abruptly that one deposit had been entered twice, inflating the balance she had thought available. Visiting from North Carolina, Steve suggested I add forensic accounting to my resume. A simple login and transfer of funds on my smartphone set things right, to Mom’s tremendous relief. “You saved my life!” she exclaimed. Thankfully, Mom and Dad added me to their accounts just last week, so I was able to quickly and easily fix the problem from the comfort of the kitchen table. To cover her account, Mom had thought we would need to drive to the bank to determine the true balance, then return home for a check from Dad to move from his account to Mom’s, then drive back to the bank to deposit the check. The experience impressed Mom and instilled greater confidence in on-line banking, though Dad still will not allow me to deposit a check with my Wells Fargo app. The night before, I arrived home at 10 p.m. after a 14-hour Wednesday (due to City Council meeting). After greetings to Mom and Dad, I sat in my recliner (yes, I have one, too) to relax a moment before going to bed. Steven poked his head around the door frame and ventured, “Um, there might be a little problem in the basement.” Standing in his basement bedroom in stockinged feet, he began to notice an odd physical sensation, his brain slowly waking to the strange realities of wet socks and squishy carpet. He found the window well inundated with six inches of water, which somehow was finding its way through the foundation. We grabbed cups and buckets and began bailing gallon after gallon of muddy water, pouring at least 20 gallons carefully down the toilet, flushing between pours to keep the line clear. Steve stomped on bath towels while I ran for Dad’s carpet cleaner. The towels (a dozen) soaked up additional gallons, and the vacuum even more. We pointed a box fan at the moist area and will let the air blow for a week. We drew straws to see who would give Mom and Dad the bad news (Mom had spotted me trying to hide a five-gallon bucket as I slunk down the basement stairs at 11 p.m., still in my Sunday suit) and I lost. But they took the news well and appreciated our quick thinking and response. Several feet of snow, banked between our house and the neighbor’s, had melted too quickly on that one warm day, oversaturating the lawn with little lakes, and the water followed low spots in the landscaping to flood the window well. Happily, the other window wells were dry. The next day Steve texted me a photo of a baby cottontail rabbit which had fallen into another window well. “What next?!” I texted back. Donning long sleeves and gloves (just in case, though I have never been bitten by a rabbit), I opened the window and gently pressed a hand on the bunny, but he kicked at me and astonished us by jumping four feet straight up the window well wall, a foot short of the top. On my second attempt, I pounced more forcefully and captured the little creature, but it screamed and screamed, and there was nothing little about that human-sounding scream. I dredged from old memories a method of calming distressed animals by covering their eyes with a cupped hand, and succeeded in calming the bunny. I rubbed its little head and loose ears and soft gray fur. We introduced the bunny to Mom and Dad, stepped out the back door, knelt low to the ground, and released the rabbit. It bounded across the lawn, then stopped to look back, doubtless contemplating the miracle of having survived the attack of a gigantic predator. How grateful I felt that Steven had been here, at this time, to discover the flooded window well that would have gone undiscovered for weeks, that would have destroyed the basement bedroom, and here also to find the baby bunny that would have perished in another window well, and see to its rescue.
Courage at Twilight: Drying the Dishes
Home from work, I cleared the countertops and sinks of cups and bowls and spoons, loading them in precise fashion in the dish washer—I know exactly how each piece fits in its space. For decades I have taken great offense [hear my self-pitying sigh] at finding a dish in the sink after I have used copious quantities of my time and energy to empty the sink, and since I am the one that empties the sink, leaving a dish in the empty sink implies an unfair presumption that I am the family dishwasher servant [more self-pity]. When Mom takes these random dishes out of the sink and puts them in the dishwasher, I thank her, and am grateful for her courtesy to me. But it was time to stop ruminating and to load Dad into the Faithful Suburban so the dermatologist could examine this tag and that mole and this scab that will not heal, the skin doctor who is smiley and polite but profoundly disinterested. “Hello! How are you!” Three minutes of examination, and a declination to remove this or that because it is harmless even if Dad does not want this or that attached to his body because it does not belong and asks to have it removed. “Good-bye! Have a great afternoon!” I had terrible trouble getting Dad into the car, both times, succeeding only with an ungainly combination of pushing and lifting and shoving until he was on the seat and my muscles quivered and my lumbar complained. I had wondered what I would do if he could not rise from his wheelchair or if he collapsed once risen, and I had no answer—the only answer was getting him in somehow. “That was our last trip to Dr. Jensen,” I whispered to mom, distressed. And that distress and my tweaked back stalked me through making dinner and eating dinner and cleaning up after dinner and up the stairs and down the weeks and months of wakings. But Mom is sweet, and recently has taken to putting aside her needlepoint and shuffling over to the kitchen sink to towel dry and put away the pots and pans I have just washed, and I appreciate her effort to say thank you with a towel and an empty sink.
(Pictured above: felt rose craft I made for Valentine’s Day.)
(Pictured below: my valentine from my sweet granddaughter Lila.)
Courage at Twilight: Good-bye Old Friend
“Will I see you in the morning?” Mom asked me as I waved her a good-night. She never sees me in the morning: I leave for work before she wakes. Except for the day Stanley Steamer came to blow out and suck out all the dust and debris from the heating and air conditioning ducts. Mom arose early for when the Stanley guys came, and they came just as I was leaving. I stayed long enough to show them the furnaces and to interrogate them about their procedures for how they would prevent clouds of dust from erupting from the registers to coat the furniture and soil the newly-cleaned carpets. Their explanation satisfied me. Showing them the upstairs furnace, Dad staggered from his room and confronted them with an intimidating glare and growling, “How are you going to keep clouds of dust from erupting from all the registers and coating the furniture and soiling the carpets you cleaned just yesterday?” I got to hear the shpiel twice. Dad continued to be suspicious, but I told him I was satisfied. Mom saw me that morning. And she sees me every Friday morning because the Mayor allows me to work remotely from home on Fridays, so I can commute the two-hour round-trip to Tooele only four days a week. Today she interrupted my work with a knock at the door, handing me three business cards for tree trimmers, and informing me the giant blue spruce had blown over in the night, unable after 25 years to withstand the 65 mile-per-hour gusts tearing through the valley. Playing lumberjack was not what I wanted for today. I told her I would not call them and we would not be spending $1,000 to have the tree cut up, and that I would do it myself. Changed into my work clothes, I sized up the situation, grabbed Dad’s electric chain saw, and set to work cutting limbs off the tree. That tree was special, a big blue spruce anchoring a line of tall junipers, buffering the back yard against the noisy traffic passing day and night on the collector street. Where it had stood now gaped an unprotected gap, every driver able to gaze into our back yard, the car noise augmented. There was nothing to be done but to cut up the tree. I love trees. I even hug trees, the special ones, like the redwoods in California and the sequoias in Yosemite and the cypresses in Kentucky and the oaks and tulip trees in North Carolina and the mimosas and maples in New Jersey. I patted our fallen spruce and whispered, Good-bye, old friend, I will miss you. Starting at the base, I methodically cut each limb from the trunk, stacking them in huge piles, and with each cut I felt a twinge of sadness for the loss. I heard a knocking on the kitchen window and waved to Mom who waved to me. Half of the shallow roots had torn out when the tree fell, while the other half kept the tree suspended at a perfect height and angle for me to dissect it. With the limbs all removed, I bit the saw into the trunk and piled the logs on the park strip as free firewood. I miss my wood burning stove that stayed with the house I had to leave seven years ago. I miss the sounds of crackling wood and expanding iron, the orange glow through the glass, and the heat wafting outward with the perfumes of melting crystals of frankincense and myrrh. Unbeknownst to me, Mom was so worried about my doing the job alone that she called a neighbor lady who called her husband and told him to come help me. With his jeep and winch, he pulled the stump out of the ground, then shoveled soil back into the hole. Dad, after showing no interest in his power wheelchair for six months, suddenly insisted on riding it out the front door and down the ramps and along the sidewalk to see his friend Burke and the result of our work on the tree. The wind blew 50-degree air over the deep snow, melting it measurably before our eyes as we worked. My body aches, but the job is done, and I have said good-bye to an old friend. Will we plant new trees to fill the gap, new friends to replace the old? We must.
Courage at Twilight: Calling Stanley Steamer
Poor Dad has been obsessing over the imminent missionary reunion, making a long mental list of everything to be done. He had become justifiably worried, to the point of fright, about holding the reunion in the basement great room: the stairs would simply be impossible for him unless he were carried, and with a bunch of former 20-year-old missionaries now in their 70s, attempting to carry his muscular bulk up and down a flight of stairs would be dangerous and reckless for everyone involved. While I was taking way too long to slowly and gently bring him around to this realization, Sarah simply announced the change of venue as a fact for him to deal with. Quick and efficient and effective. Dad knows not to argue with Sarah, though of course it was his best interest she had at heart. I appreciated her bringing quick resolution to the issue. Dad wanted the cream shag carpets to look clean and new, and called his favorite carpet cleaner Stanley Steamer—using the name “Stanley” makes the company seem downright personable. He did his best with poor hearing and trembling fingers to navigate the endless telephone menus only to be stonewalled by a nation-wide collapse of Stanley’s computer reservation system. Before I had my winter coat and traditional Portuguese hat off after work, Mom asked me to help Dad call Stanley Steamer. After dinner, I suggested Dad try again, and he called the number. Ten seconds later he handed the phone to me: “You talk to her. I can’t hear a thing she’s saying.” A minute later the reservation was made, for the next morning. Mom and Dad both sighed with relief at crossing this item off the mental list. Even his recliner received a steam cleaning, along with its food-stained carpet curtilage, and he sat in the chair with the protection of two blankets against residual moisture. I had mentioned to Mom and Dad the thick layer of dust lying on their closet shelves and clothes and other contents, and wondered aloud about the possibility of having the air ducts and vents vacuumed. They rightly stewed about the cost, but got a consultation and bid from friendly Stanley. Stay tuned. While I assembled our Hawaiian chicken and coconut rice dinner, Dad moseyed over to me behind his walker, puffing and grunting with the enormous effort—I could have told him not to bother, but did not want to insult his dignity—to apprise me of their strategy for paying this year’s income taxes and for stretching out their dwindling savings, and to tell me all the reasons why planet Earth is perfectly situated for life, rotating on an add axis angle that allows for changing seasons and hydrologic cycles and a balanced breathable oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere and how the moon’s gravity causes ocean tides and even land tides. Did you know New York City rises and falls 14 inches each day under lunar tidal forces? I didn’t.
Courage at Twilight: Dusting the Chandelier
The reunion is not for another month yet. But Dad wants everything to be perfect for his former missionaries when they come. He has made a mental list of all the little jobs he wants done, though he does not say he wants me to do them. He and Mom have not been able to hold an April reunion for two years due to Covid-19. But on March 31, up to one hundred of them, all dear friends, will descend upon the house and descend the basement stairs to tell stories and sing hymns and eat Brazilian food and bask in love and memory. As their mission president, he was a young 36 (Mom 32), and they about 20. Now he is 87 and they about 70. As Dad rattled off his list, he tossed sections of the New York Times from his chair to the couch—better than dropping them on the floor to be tripped and slipped on, although sometimes he misses—and I grabbed pen and paper to write the tasks. (I can remember a list of only two things; give me three and I am sunk.) The first task was to clean the chandelier and replace all the bulbs, and I volunteered. I could see no dust or grime, and all the teardrop lights worked fine, so I thought it a wasteful task. But to honor him I dragged in the ten-foot step ladder, climbed to inspect, brought up a pack of baby wipes to wash off the dust, and swapped out all seventeen bulbs. While I could see nothing wrong with the chandelier before, now it seemed to shine with twice its prior brilliance. Most important, Dad was happy, which made Mom happy. While I question the wisdom of a reunion, not wanting to see Dad push himself into an exhaustion difficult to recover from, the camaraderie will make him immensely happy. And who knows if this will be the last reunion he hosts. Dad’s days are growing shorter and shorter, by which I mean he rests longer and longer at night and during daytime naps. He no longer reads until three in the morning. Even midnight has been trimmed to 10:30, when Mom helps him upstairs after the ten o’clock news. He keeps a volume of the encyclopedia upstairs and another downstairs, to sneak in minutes of study between CNAs and naps and Mom’s NCIS and meals and voyages to the restroom. Upstairs is volume “A”. I heard him telling Cecilia all about Air and Africa. Downstairs is volume “R” and he reads until his bladder forces him to move. I have wondered what should be my reaction to his grunts and groans as he moves around. Are they signs of acute distress to which I should run in response? Or are they a learned habit reflecting a pervasive state of chronic daily distress? I know I cannot live my life poised tautly on the brink of anxiety, responding in a rush to all his distress, which would become my own acute and chronic mental distress. I would break down teetering always on the edge of emergency. My present reaction is to continue my activities while listening with one ear for signs of extreme distress, like Dad yelling, “Rog! I need your help!” That is when I run. Far from acute, but still distressing, is when Dad or Mom ask me about things I have just finished telling them about. I brought home from Zacateca’s Market three Big Burritos, filled with chopped steak, and announced the steak-filled burritos for dinner. Taking a bite, he asked, “Is this steak? My burrito has steak in it.” Yes, I respond, I just told you it was a steak burrito. “Oh,” he said, both of us feeling bad, for different reasons. I am learning too slowly to be patient with fading memories and ears hard of hearing.
Courage at Twilight: Puzzles (Episode #365)
The city I have worked in for 30 years and lived in for 25 years just celebrated the 170th anniversary of its 1853 incorporation. And it did so with a puzzle, or rather, a painting, made into a puzzle, six thousand puzzles actually. My boss, the mayor (the fifth mayor I have worked for), commissioned a popular local artist to compose a folk painting of the city—Tooele City—and its history, landmarks, geography, and people. The painting’s “reveal” took place at a community birthday party. Six hundred people came. Dowdle, the painter and puzzle-maker, finds in puzzles a metaphor for cohesive community. When assembling a 500-piece puzzle, people immediately notice even one missing piece, especially one missing piece, and that one piece is missed by all the other 499 pieces. Until all 500 pieces are found and fitted together, the picture is not whole. In a similar way, every member of a community is important, whether an edge piece, a piece splashed with bright color, or a non-descript background piece. Each one is key to the complete whole. He wept suddenly at the mention of a 14-year-old who fell through the ice and drowned at the local reservoir, the reservoir in the painting, despite heroic first responders’ efforts, and how sorely that single person in the community puzzle is missed. As the celebration ended, my granddaughter Lila (3) waived her tiny American flag, and we ate red velvet and buttercream birthday cake, and I bought Dowdle puzzles, puzzles depicting our unique community. Mom and Dad wanted to hear all about the anniversary celebration, and I presented to her the Tooele City puzzle, in a box, a box we opened, a box filled with 500 pieces we spread on the card table, pieces we began to fit together. I can work at puzzles for short periods only. Long stretches make me tired and cranky and tax my eyes and my patience. “I need to be done, Mom.” I complained. “We’ll finish it tomorrow, okay?” Arriving home from work the next day, I saw Dad’s wheelchair in the garage, and I uttered a silent “uh oh” and walked through the doorway into the house. “Do you want to hear about our day’s misadventures?” Mom asked with a wry chuckle. Mom had decided it was a good day for a hamburger, fries, and a coke, and she decided to ask Dad if he wanted to come along, and he decided to come along. My 83-year-old mother brought him the wheelchair and helped him transfer in, then pushed him over the door frame hump, down the short ramp, and down the long ramp. I have been amazed at the heavy pull of gravity on an occupied wheelchair from a height of only one foot, and the strength needed to counter that force and keep the wheelchair and its occupant from running wildly away. Today the chair pulled hard at Mom, and she shuffled quickly down the long ramp to avoid being pulled over and dragged behind Dad and his chair before it would tumble into the pine shrubs. “I told myself to just hang on!” she recounted. Then came the ordeal of getting Dad into the Mighty V8, the faithful Suburban he can no longer drive, and later out of the said Mighty V8 and up the stairs into the house (she could not push him up the ramps). The outing could have gone terribly wrong for them both. But the outing did not go terribly wrong, and Dad enjoyed the drive, looking fondly at the wispy clouds and the blue sky and his beloved white-capped Wasatch mountains. After dinner, Mom and I finished the puzzle, not just any pastoral or puppy puzzle, but the puzzle depicting the community where I have lived and worked for three decades, where we birthed and reared our children, where my marriage thrived and wilted and died, where I fought 30 years of battles giant and small to safeguard the public interest, to protect the taxpayer, to improve quality of life, and to repulse the greed and entitlement of developers and others who blame my town for their problems. I wondered if the puzzle box had included all 500 pieces, or if any pieces had slipped off the table and under the couch. To my relief and delight, the complete image came together, whole, with every piece present and contributing to the picture.
(Pictured above: Mom and my son and daughter-in-law working on Dowdle’s Best in Utah puzzle.)
Getting ready for the celebration: 400 chairs.
Artist Eric Dowdle and the giant show puzzle of Tooele City.
My boss, Mayor Winn, and the original Dowdle painting of Tooele City.
The City Council (my other five elected “bosses”) and the Mayor, with the artist.
The Dowdle “Best in Utah” puzzle: making progress.
Courage at Twilight: Futility’s Virtue
The city I work for saw two feet of new snow, and my friends driving the snow plows worked hard all day and all night to make the streets passable and safe while trying not to knock over any mailboxes or clip any cars parked illegally on the street. (I drafted and presented to the City Council the ordinance prohibiting on-street parking during snow events.) Cars parked on the narrow streets make plowing difficult and dangerous. My secretary took a call from an angry resident yelling at her about being blocked in his driveway by four-foot ice mounds. My sympathies stacked in the plow drivers’ favor. At home 50 miles away, I chipped away for an hour at the ice mound blocking my own exit from my own driveway, but feeling grateful for the dedicated drivers who cleared the streets. Where else are they supposed to push that much snow? I have heard people suggest we use tractors to load the snow into dump trucks for off-site disposal. That might work if you tripled their taxes, and even then would take weeks. Finished with the drives and walks and mounds, I cleared with a spade a large ice pile away from the mailbox so the mail truck could deliver the mail, and so I could retrieve the mail. Without that effort, there would be no mail. And because the neighborhood children gather on our street corner to catch the 8:30 morning bus, I swathed a path from the sidewalk through rutted ice mounds to the street. If I had a small child catching a bus on the neighbor’s street corner, I sure would appreciate the neighbor making the walk to the bus safe for my child. The mailbox and bus paths exacted from me another hour. When all the collector streets were cleared, the snow plows came back during the night for a final pass through the residential streets, obliterating my back-cracking wrist-wringing efforts. The mail truck rammed the new mounds to get to the mailbox, and the children stepped high over new rutted mounds. My previous night’s efforts had been utterly futile. At 9:00 the next night, Mom exclaimed anxiously that she had forgotten to get the mail. Of course, I knew that even had she not forgotten, she could not have safely walked to or even reached the mailbox. A fall on the ice was practically assured. I nodded an acknowledgment, pulled on my snow boots and heavy coat and beanie and gloves, and headed outside with the spade to get the mail, and to dig out the mailbox. The job needed doing. (Mom did not know that “getting the mail” first involved digging out the mailbox, and felt sad later when she realized my effort.) As I dug at the new mounds of ice blocking the mailbox, I thought about the futility of the previous night’s labors. I thought about the hours and days and months I have worked on legal projects that have died for legislative hostility or lack of interest. And I kept digging. I thought of years of marital patience and parental agony and the frequent absence of a happy ending. And I kept digging. I thought of Elijah’s moated water-soaked altars, the very stones of which were vaporized by divine fire, and still no one turned to the fire-sending god, and Elijah sank into depression in a cave, fed carrion by compassionate crows. I felt sad that so many efforts to make life better often go unappreciated and unutilized, sometimes completely unseen. Turning the question over and around as I strained at the ice, I convinced myself to find hope in what my labors, though futile, yet work inside me, how they might tend to mold my character, refine my intentions, humble my pride, and stiffen my spine, how they might spur me on to greater and longer labors in spite of the distinct possibility of futility. And now the sun has emerged from behind the clouds and is beginning to melt the snow.
Courage at Twilight: An Argument over English Muffins
Sleepiness oppresses me on my hour-long drive after Wednesday night City Council meetings. I often arrive at home after 10 p.m., in time to sleep and make the return commute the next morning. My late-night commuter ritual includes a stop at Macy’s grocery store for a bag of bulk milk chocolate almonds or lemon yogurt almonds or Bit o’ Honey candies, which I munch compulsively until they are gone or until my stomach growls at me to quit. On less disciplined nights, I fall for Franz donuts and chocolate milk. This bad habit has become entrenched, and needs to be reformed. So, I bought instead a bag of raw peanuts, having the virtues of being tasty, cheap, healthy, and wakeful. Healthy and wakeful and cheap they may have been, but tasty they were not. I reckon I am too accustomed to salted roasted nuts to enjoy them raw. Mom wants Dad to avoid white flower breads, due to diabetes, and since Dad has been enjoying English Muffins, she instructed me to pick up the whole wheat variety: tasty and healthy. My stomach gnawing for dislike of raw peanuts, I toasted a whole wheat English muffin, topped with butter and raspberry jam, and crunched off a bite with high anticipation. But the taste and texture were awful. The next morning, Dad declared, “Rog, those whole wheat things are not English muffins, they are just bread, and they’re awful.” I was ready to concede they were awful, but not that they were not English muffins. “Yes, they are English muffins,” I countered, “but made with whole wheat flour.” “No, they’re just bread.” “They are not just bread. You may not like them, but they are still English muffins.” “They are not English muffins: they have no wholes in them: they’re just dark round breads they call an English muffin.” “Well, it doesn’t matter,” I yielded, “because I bought some white flour English muffins I am sure you will like,” and toasted him one. Though arguing over nomenclature, we agreed they were horrible, and I threw them away. That night brought 15 inches of new snow, followed by hours behind the snow blower. CNA Cecilia called to report the roads were impassable, which they were, and apologized for not being able to come, which we understood. While I pushed snow, Mom helped Dad shower and dry and dress. I settled Dad to his chosen breakfast of yogurt and a toasted white-flour English muffin with butter and sugar-free jam. I had not thrown the raw peanuts away because Dad suggested a little hot oil and salt in my iron pan might roast them nicely. My roasted and only slightly-burned peanuts were in fact tasty, in addition to being cheap and only slightly less healthy. The roasted peanut aroma permeated the house as I wandered to the basement at one in the morning to flip the heat cable switch so the gutters and downspouts would not fill and freeze. I followed a whining sound to a glass bowl containing Dad’s hearing aids, and opened them to disconnect the batteries. I munched a few homemade peanuts. The snow continued to fall.
Courage at Twilight: In Shadow Still
The doorbell rang, and my friends, our friends, came happily through the door I opened for them. One spoke no English. Another spoke no Portuguese. The other five all spoke fluently or toward the proficient end of the spectrum. On the menu was Indian butter chicken, which I had simmered and stirred in the crock pot all day, to be served over coconut basmati rice. I had arranged the visit because I love Portuguese and I love Brazil and I like her and her friends, and wanted to meet her mother who is here for a month from Brazil. I pulled the dining room table apart and inserted the two leaves that allowed us to comfortably seat ten. She contributed cotton candy grapes, delightfully delicious. The conversation slid quickly into the old times of 1956 and 1964 and 1972, when Dad and Mom knew their families, the old ones now passed away. And Dad launched into all the old stories about becoming honorary members of an indigenous tribe, about trips to the beaches at Santos and past the tall paraná pines in Londrina’s interior, about my bus trip to Rio de Janeiro as an infant, where I sat on the beach in a picnic basket—yes, I have been to Rio—about taking the bonde (trolley) to the fim da linha (the end of the line) just to see what was there, about Mom pushing me in the stroller to the American Embassy every day for our mail, and remembering half-century-old conversations. Everyone chuckled and chimed in. I tried to add my boyhood experience, but could not quite find a way in—I do not like talking over people. And Dad and the guests laughed and reminisced and talked about the old Brazilian crooners, like Vinícios de Morais, and Tom Jobim (think “Girl from Ipanema”), and Dorival Caymmi, who I adore, who sang about a heartsick youth missing the beaches and palm trees and girls of his home town, and Dad broke into croaky Caymmi song with “Coqueiro de Itapoã” (Itapoã coconut palm) and the areia (sandy beach) and the morenas (beautiful dark-skinned women) and the youth’s saudades (such nostalgia pulling at his heartstrings), and the guests giggled and shouted “I remember that one!” But I could not quite find my way in. “Não vale a pena,” I whispered to her: It’s not worth it. Everyone loved my butter chicken, and as they talked and sang, I cleared the table and washed the dishes. When they left, my work would already be done, and standing at the kitchen sink I felt no pressure to compete or contribute or wiggle my way in. Between plates and pans, I munched on cotton candy grapes, delightfully delicious.
(Photo from eBay, under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Courage at Twilight: Locked Out
My bladder badgered me out of bed at one in the morning. Relieved, I staggered in the dark back to my room, but could hear Dad’s voice coming from his. I tip-toed nearer, to hear. He was praying to God, his Heavenly Father, beloved, trusted, imploring on behalf of his posterity in their adversities and afflictions. “I find it so interesting,” he had told the young men of the Church, who brought him the sacramental bread and water last Sunday, that God, who is the Master of the Universe, the Creator and Overseer of over 100 billion galaxies each with more than 100 billion stars, yet he knows each one of us and nurses us gently along in our precept-by-precent learning. “He knows me.” Time after thousandth time He has made himself known to Dad in the course of his service to others, like when he saw in vision the widow sitting alone in a very dark house on Christmas Eve, dangerously depressed, and he hurried Mom and us children into their 1971 Dodge Dart and drove us to her house, where we found her exactly as he had seen, and we turned on her lamps, we handed her gifts, we set up a small Christmas tree with colored lights, and we talked to her and sang her a carol or two. Pure religion, indeed. I left Dad to his prayers and went back to bed, his faithful importuning stirring in my sleepy brain. The next morning, his CNA came early. Cecilia, Dad’s normal weekday assistant, could not come, and had sent Sophia in her place, a new face, a new voice, a new set of stories, someone else to train in the particulars of his care. Having a new CNA arrive, without warning, is upsetting to both Mom and Dad. They develop a trusting affection, a cheerful acquaintance, with the CNA’s. Dad develops a comfort level in his utter vulnerability with the CNA’s. With each new face, Mom and Dad must adjust and come to trust, again. Beside Cecilia, whom they love, there have come Leah, Beatrice, Shawn, Erin, Stacy, and Jen. Each has been pleasant, patient, and competent. They do their caregiving work without making Dad feel a single drop of shame. How grateful I am that every day they cheerfully help him out of bed, help him undress, shower, and dry off, help him dress, escort him downstairs, join him in Pilates, and make his breakfast of eggs and toast and Cheerios. I know a beautiful devoted woman with a bearded dragon for a pet who did all this and more for her dying father—she gave all the love and energy her spirit could muster, and more, and took months to recover her sense of self, yet still grateful she could serve her gentle, beloved father. What strength. Trying to avoid Mom’s and Dad’s attention in a quiet moment, I tip-toed into the garage and turned the lights on, searching for a tool for my little crafty project, when Mom poked her head into the garage, saying nothing, not seeing me, then turned the lights off and closed the door. I stood inconspicuously in the corner, with the tools, unconcerned until I heard the deadbolt turn. Then I sprang into action and pounded furiously at the door to be let back in. She had not shuffled far, and soon opened the door. I had overreacted, obviously, with my dramatic pounding. How easy it would have been for me to open the garage door and enter the house from the main entrance. At worst, I could ring the doorbell. Mom let me in, shocked and sheepish. Later she grabbed my hand and with tears in her eyes apologized for having locked me in the garage, and I rued my reaction.
(Pictured above, Mom’s completed book of 108 word search puzzles. She is making inroads into the new puzzle book.)
Courage at Twilight: Chairs at a Funeral
The call (or rather, the email) had gone out to all the men of the church: our help was wanted on a Thursday night to set up chairs and tables in preparation for a neighbor’s funeral the next morning. The eight of us that came set out rows of padded chairs in the large multi-purpose room, back of the chapel, in which were held church parties, youth athletic events, evening classes, and dances, providing also overflow seating for Sunday services. It became quickly obvious that the room’s carpet should first be vacuumed clean. But our vacuum cleaners would not work, one not picking up, the other dropping dirt out. Kevin and I turned over and dismantled a vacuum cleaner, finding a tight clog of dust and hair and cupcake sprinkles packed in the intake tube. Clearing the clog, the machine worked wonderfully well. I installed a new bag in a second vacuum, and discovered that the power roller would not engage until the intake tube was not pushed sufficiently tightly into the power unit. Soon it, too, did its job admirably. The deceased’s viewing had ended, the visitors had left, so I ventured out to vacuum the hallway. Long tables lined the hall, covered with white embroidered cloths, framed photographs, and a lifetime of her memorabilia, suddenly just stuff. I shuddered as I peeked into the viewing room and glimpsed white hands crossed and still in a white casket. And a thought struck me with force and with fright, that those hands could have been, or soon may be, the hands of my father, aged 87, or my mother, aged 83, and I will be sitting sad in that room while someone else vacuums the floors (perhaps after cleaning or repairing the vacuum cleaners) and rolls out the tables and sets out rows of pink padded chairs for the funeral the next morning at which I will weep and speak and say I know not what. But I fled the hallway, finding it sufficiently clean, and rejoined the seven others to finish our job. After the funeral, and after the burial, the family would return to gather and to sit on our chairs at our tables on our clean carpeted floor and consume the meal the church women, the local Relief Society, had prepared, a meal of sliced ham and shredded potato casserole topped with crushed corn flakes, and colorful Jell-O cubes or green creamy pudding with miniature marshmallows, and baskets of little rolls. But I will worry no more about all that today. Today I will worry about the next made-from-scratch meal, lately from Half Baked Harvest, perhaps Granny’s Meatballs, or Coq au Vin, or Potato Chip Chicken, and I will worry about being happy in this life of mine, brought to be by my choices, and the choices of others, a life of abundant blessings and plentiful trials, and long slow line-by-line learning.
(Pictured above, Tieghan Gerrard’s “Granny’s Meatballs” recipe from Half Baked Harvest, stewed in red wine and seasonings, topped with Mozzarella and Provolone, making a nice Sunday after-church dinner. Have I told you before, I love my iron?)
Courage at Twilight: All Creatures, Great and Small
I had bought the three hardbound books three decades ago, and they sit still unread on my bookshelf. But Dad, bored with his own library, picked up volume one and thoroughly enjoyed following Herriott on his rounds in rural Yorkshire. As much as Herriott writes about animals, his true subjects are the animal owners, with their eccentricities and superstitions and their pure humanity. Dad read All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Wise and Wonderful, and All Things Bright and Beautiful, then reread All Creatures, reading for hours at a time, chuckling quietly to himself, telling Mom and me stories of fearsome pigs and troublesome calf deliveries, and I remembered how much our family enjoyed watching the original BBC production. In the spirit of the misty moors, I purchased the complete seven years of All Creatures on DVD for Mom and Dad to enjoy—an alternative to grisly crime shows—90 episodes over 12 years. And then the old VHS/DVD player broke, swallowing a disk whole, so I brought home a new Phillips DVD/BR player from Wal-Mart. The closed captions worked only on the first episode, and now Mom and Dad cannot follow the stories for Siegfried’s incomprehensible mumbling and shouting. But Dad knows all the stories from his reading. As she watches, Mom alternatively works her latest needlepoint or hunts for words in the puzzle book Jeanette gave her for Christmas. I found the puzzle book in the recycle bin, all 108 puzzles completed, all the words found. Who knew she would enjoy them so much? Jeanette sent new a new book with even more word search puzzles. On the afternoon Mom went to the dentist, she did neither needlepoint nor word searches, relaxing into her recliner, waiting for her face to come back to life after having a cavity filled and an old broken crown drilled out. Her poor upper lip just would not work at all for three hours, and for a hundredth of a second flashed in my mind the specter of the dentist pulling all her upper teeth. He had not of course. Dad opened the back door and pulled his wheelchair close, watching me finish the last of the arctic willow pruning. The bushes now look relatively round, and proportionate to their surroundings, with all the dead wood cut out, and another garbage can filled to the lid. “I wish I could help you,” Dad called. I stopped my work and approached with the consolation that as soon as the weather warmed a bit, and the grass dried out some, he could venture outside in his power wheelchair and do just about whatever yard job he wanted, including weeding with a hoe, trimming the bushes, edging the lawn, and general inspection. He could even ride his chair into the garage to transfer to his riding mower and cut the grass. He nodded and smiled and offered a simple “Yes” and that he looked forward to that. Saturday’s work done, and our Coq au Vin dinner pleasurably consumed, and the kitchen cleaned and washed and put away, I sat down with the craft kits I had purchased and assembled, painted, and clothed four Valentine’s Day gnomes, little people that sit cutely on the hearth spelling the word “LOVE.”
Courage at Twilight: Standing Guard
Dad explained that with the hard plastic mat under his new office chair, he could not stand up from it because the chair moved chaotically around beneath him on its coasters, and he invited me to remove the mat. This was fortunate for me since my mat was cracked and broken. A week later Dad remarked that without the hard plastic mat under his new office chair, he could not move the chair at all because its coasters sank into the shag and refused to roll, and he is stuck, too far (three feet) from his walker. He asked me to return the mat. I had since thrown my broken mat away, so now my chair is stuck in the shag. As I carried the mat downstairs in the early morning, Mom walked past the door of her dark room dressed in her long white night dress. She joked with me later that I must have thought I had seen a ghost. I rejoined about having seen an angel with white hair in flowing white robes. She laughed. Bringing Dad home from the doctor at the end of the day, I prepared to build momentum to roll him up the long ramp. (I am amazed at the gravitational difficulty one single foot of elevation makes behind a loaded wheelchair.) “Where’s my javelina?” he interrupted. “We just passed it,” I replied, not about to stop our progress mid-ramp to point out the pig. I position the pig at the foot of the ramp, a warning to would-be ramp walkers (trippers), but moved it to make way for him and his wheelchair. “Well, make sure not to leave him out in the rain and snow where he will rust too much,” Dad instructed. You may recall that this particular javelina was plasma cut from a sheet of pre-corroded sheet steel, intended to mature with age and element, to continue rusting out of doors, the surface corrosion adding to the sculpture’s rustic charm but not damaging the structure. I admit to returning the javelina to its guard post after depositing Dad inside. But he was pleasant all evening, he praised my dinner of spicy chicken-and-sausage dirty rice, and this morning, when Cecilia asked cheerily, “How are you?” he responded with his trademark, “Marvelously well, thank you,” and moved on to his life’s great physical challenge: the journey to the shower.
Courage at Twilight: The Weight of Snow
The backyard willow bushes were no match for the extraordinary snow, deep and heavy. Branches broke and trunks twisted, nearly all of them. My Saturday chore, after the snow melted in a sudden thaw, consisted of cutting out the broken wood and chopping it up and cramming it all into the big garbage cans for Monday’s pickup. And I raked up piles of rotting leaves pressing on the grass against the rock wall, topping off the cans. It is only January, and I asked myself why I was doing this chore now instead of putting it off until spring. Because it needs doing was the simple answer, and I wanted to be outside. Mom’s lower limbs still function but bend on stiff and painful knees, and she drove herself to the orthopedist who numbed her knees and inserted long needles that delivered impressive quantities of yellow steroidal liquid that will calm and lubricate the machinery for another six months. She feels better now, but sees no reason to prove the point on the stairs, opting instead for the knee-saving chair lift. Dad’s own legs have failed him, being of practically no utility and instead being a great nuisance of weight to be dragged around. Though his doctor has seen him four times in six months, and knows first-hand Dad cannot walk, Medicare insisted on yet another face-to-face visit (we’re all for preventing insurance fraud) for the sole purpose of documenting Dad’s need for a power wheelchair. So, Dad risked injury and jeopardized health to travel to his injury risk manager and health care provider to document his already well-documented decline. A year ago, I had little notion of the complex (for me) and arduous (for Dad) procedure of transporting an overweight infirm 87-year-old to and from appointments. Relieved to be back at home, Mom and Dad rested in their recliners, and I bustled about in my cooking apron. The thermostat showed the temperature dropping, and Sandy’s public works department emailed to warn of freezing pipes (100 houses had burst pipes the night before), and advised the city’s population to leave a pencil-stream of water running in the kitchen sink—moving water is less likely to freeze—wasting the water we prayed so fervently for in our Utah desert clime. At 6:00 the next morning, my phone announced the temperature of the air outside my window: 1⁰ F. Our pipes did not freeze.
Courage at Twilight: A Still and Silent Pen
My pen has been still and silent. No pleasant scratching of the nib with Shoreline Gold on porous paper. No clicking of the keys. But my mind? Though my tongue is quiet, my mind screams what cannot be written for want of vocabulary, for want of courage, and for fear of offending the innocent. I spent a week away, helping family move along a flip house toward the closing that will pay the debts and determine the quarter’s income. I painted, schlepped, installed vanity lighting in three bathrooms, and installed six ceiling fans, dubbing myself the Ceiling Fan King. Jeanette worked with me, cutting, twisting, and splicing wire, holding parts aloft for long periods of time while I installed insanely difficult-to-insert screws, bolting on fan blades (making sure the right color faced down), and leveling light bars, and by some miracle our record of correct installation, meaning the lights came on, was 11 for 11. And my sighs of relief were 11 times audible and sincere. And then the time came to leave for home, the home I cannot seem to make my own because it is not my own, but someone else’s, in which I borrow a small space, in which I produce culinary delights, with flops here and there—which Mom and Dad still call brilliant—because I’m not a nurse but a general problem solver and cook. And I am shouting again because they do not wear their hearing aids and I would rather shout that say everything twice with a “What’s that?” in between. And Dad dictates the news as he reads it from the New York Times: 35,000 Russian men seeking asylum to escape conscription for Putin’s aggressions in Ukraine; former President Trump’s latest lunacy; the ongoing hunt for dark matter. And Dad says again the absurdly obvious, “Lucille, I’m getting weaker.” Last week, Mom gave me a page from her 1983 journal, written when I was 18 years old, after I left home for college, when a mother’s heart broke for the first departure of her firstborn. “I miss Roger,” she wrote. “There are so many things a mother feels for her children. They are just very dear to her. She remembers nursing them as tiny infants, carrying them around as little children, making cakes and going on walks, helping them in school, etc. She remembers hugs and kisses and little things they made for her. Then the children leave, and it is hard for her. The empty bedroom, the missing place at the table, all the little things that were fixed or made better by them. At the same time, it is right that children leave. They grow and become independent and contributing adults. That’s the way of it. Roger will always be a part of me and I will always love him.” I do not think I have ever read a sweeter rumination about the pining sweetness of a mother for her child. And here I sit, home again—to stay—at 58, a full 40 years after leaving that first time, and Mom remembers my leaving still and appreciates my coming home all the more, and calls me “Dear” and “Baby” and asks me to text her when I get safely to work, and asks about my day when I come home, and has a problem or two for me to solve, which I solve, and clings to me sweetly with the softest skin of an old woman’s hands. And the next time one of us leaves home, it will be her, and I will miss her, and I will gaze into the empty bedroom, and I will remark the missing place at the kitchen table. And I will write my feelings about it all, though for a while my pen will be as still, and as silent, as the empty house.
(Pictured above, Mom at 82 holding great-grandson Wiggy.)
Courage at Twilight: Members of the Tribe
My ears are attuned to every little sound: the clicks of the break release handles on Dad’s downstairs walker; Mom’s syncopated shuffle; the single beep as the stair lift arrives at the end of the track, upstairs or down; cursing from the bathroom. This morning I awoke to the muscular sound of an industrial-strength vacuum in the master bedroom. Through the doorway I saw Dad sitting on the walker seat and pushing the carpet cleaner forward and back next to the bed. I did not ask, but I knew without asking. His weekday CNA Cecilia—faithful, pleasant, and kind—came shortly after and helped him shower. From my home office I could hear their one-way conversation: she said very little. “Do you know how old the earth is?” he asked her. “Four and a half billion years old!” He knows and loves the Bible and its God, but informed Cecilia that “God did not make the earth in six days.” Rather, He probably took billions of years to make our globe. Dad explained to her about the sun burning hydrogen in nuclear fusion, with enough hydrogen still to burn brightly for billions of years more. He told her that the only way we know how to use nuclear fusion reactions is with a hydrogen bomb, and referenced the atom bombs dropped on Japan. He expounded about ocean currents, and about the hydrologic cycle of evaporation and precipitation and the rivers of water vapor coursing through the skies, and about Argentina’s defiant propensity to default on its international debts, and about the formation of galaxies and stars. “I like to know things,” he summed up. Cecilia, an excellent listener, interposed an occasional affirming “really?” and “oh.” He told her about our family visiting an Indian tribe in Brazil in 1974, and how the tribal elders would not let us into their compound without being members of their tribe, and about how the tribal elders allowed us to become members of their tribe by following them on a course through the grounds and buildings, ending at a ceremonial tree, and about how we bought blow guns and bows and arrows from the indigenous women of the tribe. This is a true story. I know because I was ten and I was there. Dad’s stories sometimes jump from one unconnected subject to another, shifting like an old car with a worn out clutch. Dad lamented to Cecilia, “A few months ago I was a normal person. I could walk. I could do things.” That is not true. I know because I am 58 and I have been there with him, watching the insidiously steady downward degeneration culminating in painful undignified immobility and having to use the carpet cleaner in the mornings. He is not untruthful—he just forgets. And he cannot retrieve his books from his bookshelves or his checkbook from his desk or a glass of ice water, and has to ask Mom and me to fetch these and other things for him. He asked me to bring him Mom’s youthful portrait from his desk, placing it on the end table by his recliner, where he can see it all day as he reads. I remember seeing that portrait of Mom on his desk thirty years ago when I visited his New Brunswick office in the Johnson & Johnson tower. He has gazed at Mom’s youthful portrait for more than six decades, and he tells Mom everyday what a wonderful person she is, and that he loves her. And he steals hugs when she walks by, and she returns the hug and runs her fingers through his sparse wispy hair.
Courage at Twilight: Mangos for Lunch
Hyrum called me from Brazil, where two weeks ago he began his two years of missionary service for his Church. He was tired but happy, overwhelmed but enthusiastic, intimidated but feeling the Spirit of God, not knowing the language but still communicating, exactly what a new missionary would expect to feel. I encouraged him to be patient and compassionate with himself, to not think about the long two years of days ahead, but about today, one intentional day at a time. The burly tatted barber gave him a nice haircut. And I talked with Brian in Tooele. Poor Lila has another cold, and Owen is already laughing. Avery’s business is looking up. Brian’s Fiverr clientele is growing—he raised his prices because he was too busy with too many clients, but they all requested him anyway. He and Avery are finding balance in the chaotic life of a young family. And I talked with John in Idaho. Their bathroom ceiling fell in while they were out of town. Luckily, the leak from their upstairs neighbors was gray water (washing machine) not black water (toilet). Their landlady put them in a hotel for a few nights, and hired a handyman to fix the ceiling and walls. I fasted a Sunday to seek God’s help in their search for employment after graduation. Henry is almost walking, and puckers and blows kisses. And I talked with Caleb and Edie in Panama, who arrived safety despite cancelled flights and chaotic connections. At church they rejoiced at seeing dear mission friends and converts. The hammocks by the mangrove lagoon were nice, too. Edie is a Marco Polo wiz. And I talked with Hannah over lunch at Costa Vida. This father is trying to find ways to connect with his teenage daughter. We are writing in the pages of a daddy-daughter journal, passing it back and forth, sharing our dreams and goals and interests. She drove herself to my office for the first time. And I talked with Laura in Chicago. I sent her pretty fabrics, and she is full of quilting ideas. Connor is studying furiously in medical school. William has four teeth and loves blackberries. And I talked with Dad and Mom. Dad’s CNAs help him bathe, dress, and get settled downstairs. He has been sending them home early, but paying full price, partly from magnanimity, partly from disliking pampering. Mom and I frequently do chores they could do, like vacuuming the floor of spilled food around his recliner. They are sweet to him; they are his friends; they listen patiently to his stories and laugh at his jokes and sympathize with his pains and indignities, but also need to work the time for which they are paid. He did not disagree. And I talked with Chip at church, who said he would stop by to see Dad, and did. He is a retired east coast cop who speaks his mind, and exclaimed, “Just put on a double diaper and come to church anyway!” He was only partly kidding. “We miss you.” People do miss Dad at church, and inquire after him. A few actually come over, walking the talk, practicing what they preach. Terry brought over a bag of cold apples for Dad to enjoy; peaches are not in season. In Patos de Minas, mangos are in season, and my missionary son’s church meetinghouse nurtures two enormous mango trees in the yard. He is loving both the mangos and the mission. He is feeling the truth of the Gospel message, sharing the good news of the restored Church. He is feeling the presence of God through His Spirit, and love for the people and the place. He says he is Brazilian at heart. A father could not wish for more for his son.
(Pictured above: Yours Truly with 6 of my 7 wonderful children, plus spouses (missing one), and my four beautiful grandchildren.)
Courage at Twilight: Some Bacon with Your Fancy French Toast
Despite the first Sunday being our Church’s normal monthly fast day, I felt too excited to cook something pretty and delicious from my new cookbook to want to fast, and I had my heart set on crunchy French toast made from slices of brioche spread with Adam’s peanut butter and dipped in a mixture of eggs and cream and whole milk plain yogurt and dragged through crushed corn flakes and sliced almonds and browned on a griddle and topped with fresh cinnamon whipped cream. The image in my mind seemed almost its own religious experience, preferable by far to fasting. I set a loaded plate of fancy French toast and bacon before Dad, feeling pleased with myself, and loaded up my own plate of deliciousness. Dad offered two slices to Stacy, the CNA, who was not too proud to accept, and which I honestly was about to do, on my own, out of politeness. After eating (is the taste ever as good as the romantic anticipation?), I began to walk away to other labors that weighed on me, when Dad called after me to cook some bacon for Stacy. I found myself suddenly enraged, and turned back to the kitchen and tore the package from the fridge, spilling cold bacon on the bar. Mom saw my distress and coolly but immediately said, “I’ll do it.” I knew instantly something was off, because, as a rule, I do not experience rage, except perhaps over child abuse and domestic violence and human trafficking, and certainly not over something so trivial as toast and bacon. So, why the sudden rage? I knew this was my opportunity, before moving on, before making mistakes, to turn inward the bright lights of introspection and understand my distress, layered though it was sure to be. Clearly, I had been pandering for praise for my fancy crunchy French toast, as well as for my magnanimity in making and serving it. A little deeper, I saw that I already resented feeling like a servant, bustling dutifully about to meet each need, and I felt belittled at another’s apparent presumption that I had nothing to do but stand by to fulfill the next manifested need. And I had things to do, my things! Worst of all, I felt demeaned at being told to be a servant to a servant. Many layers, none flattering, each reproaching. And I thought of Jesus, the Son of God, a God himself, the Creator and Master of earth and sky and cosmic universe, who yet made himself the servant of all, who in symbol washed his followers’ feet, instructing me to do likewise. Dear Jesus, I turned my thoughts outward, upward, to the Divine Presence, please help me be more humble. Help me to not be too proud to give and to labor, for others. Stacy had mentioned how much her husband loves peanut butter and French toast, both, but it was too late for me to offer her a slice to take home to her husband: she was out the door before I finished figuring out my frustration, and I lost the chance. And by then the time had come for choir practice. Mom held tight to my arm as we walked slowly into the neighbor’s house for rehearsal. “It’s so nice to have a strong arm to lean on,” she said to me kindly. But I was not feeling strong of spirit or strong of character, even though Mom had seen my distress and also had seen past my selfish fit over bacon straight into my heart and felt quite convinced I was steady and firm and strong, and good, as I will aspire and work harder to be. Perhaps next fast day I will simply fast.
(Crunchy French Toast, from Tieghan Gerard‘s Half Baked Harvest cookbook Recipes from My Barn in the Mountains.)
Courage at Twilight: Count Your Blessings
(This chapter was to be posted on December 10 but I neglected to click the “publish” button! Hopefully, better late than never.)
When one counts one’s blessings, should the recounting of one’s afflictions come before or after? Or at all? I am certainly greatly blessed in having moved from my solitude to my parents’ home. Living the legacy of faithful family. Serving and contributing and giving care. Cooking and shopping and driving and repairing and cleaning up. The gratitude and love and support of one’s devoted parents. Reading dozens of books during my commute. But the coin’s obverse also reveals itself, sometimes painfully. My state-mandated divorce class emphasized how harmful is a parent’s geographic distance from a child. I have paid a price by living an hour away from my teenage daughter. We used to share an evening a week, and some weekends, cooking, baking, listening to music, playing games, sitting in the hot tub, doing crafts, conversing, dreaming. Now I am lucky to take her to lunch twice a month. She is 16. She just earned her driver license. She takes voice lessons and sings at church and in an audition choir. She feels so far away. In a similar vein, pursuing a romantic relationship has proven impractical what with the worries and fatigues of caregiving and homemaking. Though I have dated, the added stress of relationship building (and, more to the point, relationship failure) has heaped new heaviness to my burdens. My sisters tell me they love me and pray for me, that God is with me, but caution me to be aware of my limits and my needs, and to express them, so I can enjoy health and happiness, too. That is good counsel. One date said to me, There are lots of ways of caring for your parents without living with them. That seemed to cheapen the revelation that brought me here. That felt like questioning my intentions and deliberations and decisions. That belied and belittled the magnitude of my mission and the refining value of my consecration. Moving here was the right thing to do—even a providential revelational opportunity—but did come at a personal cost. Was that cost worth paying? My daughter Laura encouraged me to wrap myself in Psalm 23 as I experience this caregiving phase of life: The LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. There is no turning back. I am here to stay, come what may.
Courage at Twilight: Prayer before Murder
Mom has taken to riding the stair lift up and down the stairs, though Dad’s disability was the urgent impetus for installing the lift. She does suffer with arthritic knees, and the 21 stairs have become increasingly difficult to take on. And even if her need is not yet equally acute, the lift is easy and pain-free and even fun, as much of an adventure as she cares for at 83. Dad’s wheelchair routine, on the other hand, is anything but easy. A quick trip to the dentist for a checkup and cleaning involves dozens of indispensable sequential steps, such as, transfer him from his recliner to his wheelchair; swing the foot support “arms” into forward position, and lower the foot rests; raise his legs by pulling on the tongues of his shoes; roll him in his chair out the front door, which Mom opens ahead of us and closes and locks behind us; roll down the ramps—with new confidence on the new grip-paint surface—open the front passenger door of the Mighty V8, lower his legs by the same shoe tongues, raise the foot rests, and swing out and remove the foot support arms; position and lock the chair as close to the front seat as possible, and lift by the armpits as he pulls himself mostly upright; lift his left foot into the car from behind his left knee, and push his hips with my available knee as he heaves against the handles to slide into the seat; fold and lift the heavy chair and stow in the back of the suburban. Then reverse the whole process at the dentist office. Then do it all again on the return trip, except that I must gain momentum to make it up the ramp, which frightens Dad in his powerlessness as I push. Then do it all again for the eye doctor, the heart doctor, the skin doctor, the foot doctor, the diabetes doctor, the divers tests…. After depositing him again in his recliner at home, I retreated to the kitchen, and soon heard him call, “Rog, are you there?” He wanted to tell me something from the day’s New York Times. If I am in the same room while he is reading the newspaper, he delivers to me a verbal new reel, like today: S. Army admits botched drone strike that killed civilians in Kabul…Nineteen protesters sentenced to death in Tehran…Six-year-old brings gun to school, shoots and kills teacher…Draft pick scores 71 points in first game with new team. “I’m here,” I reported, but thought with condemning self-examination: Are you really there, Roger? I cook their meals, make home repairs, shop for the groceries, landscape the yards, place the decorations, run the errands, fix the computers, solve the problems, and am otherwise at their beck and call when I’m at home. But am I really there, serving and giving, cheerful and sincere? Or do I chafe at the chores and move through the motions and withhold real devoted love? In many ways, my life is not my own. I live in their house. I eat what they eat. I watch what they watch. I rarely read. I feel always tired. Dad told me that he feels so very tired by the end of the day, and feels so very tired waking in the morning, and feels so very tired throughout the day, his reading often leading to napping. “One of these days I might go to sleep in my recliner with my book and just not wake up. That’s how it should be: that’s how death should come.” He shows excitement at seeing a movie I have selected for him, then falls asleep ten minutes in. Upon referral, we set out to watch a new murder mystery movie, our dinners growing cold on our folding TV trays. “We should pray,” Dad reminded us, and I found myself laughing. “Yes,” I chimed in, “we had better pray over our food before we watch our murder.” The prayer took two minutes and the movie two hours, two wasted hours, two hours distracted from things that really matter. I am glad we prayed.
(Pictured above: roasted vegetable bisque made from scratch without a recipe but with tips from my daughter Laura, a wonderful cook.)
Courage at Twilight: A Day’s Deep Snow
In the relative warmth of 49 degrees Fahrenheit, I dragged the seventy-five-pound eight-foot by four-foot ramp into the garage, onto a canvas drop cloth, closed the garage door, turned on the lights, and plugged in a heater. With a temperature of 50 degrees, I could roll on the paint—a grit-filled goop, smelling of ammonia like an enormous litter box overdue for a cleaning—to the ramp. The wind had blown warm for two days, had melted all the snow, and had brought a steady day-long drizzle. By midnight, when I rolled on the last coat, the rain had turned to snow. I was engulfed in my insulated coveralls, ear muffs, hat, heavy coat, and big snow boots when I met Mom in the kitchen. She told me the garage lights would not come on, and would I check the breaker in the basement, and would I read the letter from Homespire and tell her what it meant. With the breaker switched back on and the letter explained, I took my overheating self outside to confront 12 inches of new snow, the wettest and heaviest snow of this depth I have known. Two hours with Dad’s husky Toro almost finished the job, which I cut short to dash upstairs, peel off my drenched clothes, and re-dress for church. The Zoom link would not work, so Dad missed remote church services again. I got Mom’s Subaru stuck in the middle of the snowbound street, but managed to gain four-wheel traction and drove the block to church. Bless her heart, Mom really wanted to go to church, despite the snow and ice—using her cane in one hand and with her other arm in mine, we inched our way over the snowy walks and into the building, then down the aisle to her accustomed padded bench. I felt eyes boring into my back as we made our way, late, to our seats, and I wondered why I cared, especially knowing what good people they are. Another four inches fell during church meetings. Terry and I joined forces to re-shovel our driveways and sidewalks, then to tackle the 16-inch-deep snow at Melissa’s house across the street. I queried my motives for moving the snow from her three-car driveway. She is single and neighborly—was I trying to impress? I decided not. T. Wright writes that to do something “in Jesus’ name” has less to do with the name of Jesus than with the way of Jesus. “[A]s we get to know who Jesus is…we find ourselves drawn into his life and love and sense of purpose. We will then begin to see what needs doing” within our sphere of influence, and get to work—in his name. Dad has shoveled snow from Melissa’s driveway for 24 years. I decided that, no, I was not seeking her attentions; rather, I was continuing my father’s Christian work because he can no longer do the work himself, and because the snowblower and her driveway are now within my sphere of influence, and because I am carrying on Dad’s work, doing it in his name, for his honor. Over the concussive combustion of two hefty snowblowers, Terry and I communicated with simple hand motions, a thumbs up here, a directional wave of an arm there, a knife hand across the throat to say “we’re done here.” He is 82 and slowing down, and despite the muscle of his monster machine, he was tired and glad to be done for the day. My snow removal efforts amounted to four hours and aching hands and shoulders and a satisfied conscience. And the snow is still falling.
(Pictured above: deep snow in Settlement Canyon, Tooele, Utah.)
Courage at Twilight: On the Edge of the Bed
The morning sky dawned pewter gray, and leaden light seeped through the plantation shutters. I climbed the stairs after my stationary bike ride and knee push-ups, and through a doorway saw Dad sitting on the edge of the bed, in profound shadows. He did not move, but stared at the wall, at the shutters, and I could feel him contemplating his next move, as in, Do I have the strength to slide off the bed onto the commode? Will this day deliver the same slow struggle? He knew it would. The nurse had called him the day before and had reported, “The doctor asked me to let you know your MRI looks good.” What does that mean? he had asked. She did not know. But I knew. A “good” MRI means no lumbar spinal condition is contributing to Dad’s profound leg weakness and wasting, to his paralysis. A “good” MRI means the certainty of a bad diagnosis, of diabetic amyotrophy, incurable, untreatable, a close cousin to Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The call annoyed him. He had questions for the doctor to which he wanted answers, like, Is there anything I can do to slow my deterioration? and Is there any connection between September’s meningitis/encephalitis and today’s diabetic neuropathy? “Your MRI looks good” answered nothing, but just eliminated a negative. Mom called to make an appointment, and the receptionist said Dr. Hunter would see him again in four months. (If he’s still alive, I could not help muttering to myself.) Watching Dad sit on the edge of his bed, I pushed away thoughts of his perpetual fight against despair; I do not have the strength to absorb his angst. But I can cook his dinner, and served a beautiful baked chicken and dirty rice baked in a French cast iron casserole. “Thank you for this lovely dinner, Rog,” Dad praised, and Mom giggled cutely for the hundredth time at being waited upon. We browsed through Netflix for 30 minutes, and finally settled on an obscure Norwegian movie with dubbed English dialog, and Dad promptly settled into a nap for the duration. I used the time to assemble his new office chair, since the hydraulic piston had broken on his old chair and it had sunk permanently to its lowest height, too close to the floor for him to get up by himself. He will feel lordly in the new (and inexpensive) black bonded leather chair, and much more comfortable as he writes letters to beloved family members, one who was injured by a drunk driver, one serving a Church mission in Massachusetts, one shivering in Montana, one in the Army in Honduras, one who is brilliant and has big questions and a good heart, and to others who he loves. These are his last contributions, the contributions he has the strength for, little actions with big meaning for those he loves.
(Pictured above: chicken and sausage on a bed of dirty rice, Cajun style.)
Courage at Twilight: Slick As Ice
I did not lie. I was truthful. But my truth was incompletely portrayed. I had peeled back only one or two layers of the cathartic onion. Perhaps a reader would not want or need more truth about my Christmas struggle. “TMI” one of my children might say to another of my children who might catalog the day’s (bowel) movements: Too Much Information. But I did not write this exploration for a reader: I wrote this exploration for myself, to study and understand what happens in the heart, to maintain my mental health amidst pressures not before encountered, and to remember the tangy sweet-and-sour of these last days. I have grieved living alone. I have grieved losing my spouse. I am beginning to process the griefs of living with, and caring for, my dear dying parents. My true Christmas griefs—frustratingly fresh, still, after seven years—are none of these. My true Christmas griefs are the loss of hopes and dreams for a life with an intimate loving partner, the loss of a family unit in a church culture in which the nuclear family is the dreamed-for idyll, the loss of family-together traditions, family reunions, family camping trips, family vacations, family portraits. I insist that we are still a family—families come in all shapes and sizes and varieties—and under the doctrine of my Church, we are an eternal family unit, connected forever and ever, if we want to be. That this family has lost something, however—something living and vital and happy—is my sorrow and sadness and grief. TMI, perhaps, especially for my children, who bear their own crosses of grief and loss and sorrow which they did not deserve and were not their fault. Crosses I cannot carry for them. But I can love them, I can lift them, I can believe in them, and I can trust them as they pilgrim through life. And now I am part of another family, another variety of family, made up of a very old man and woman married to each other for 60 years, and their 58-year-old baby (Mom often calls me “baby,” as in “good-night baby” and she and Dad frequently tell me the old stories of when I was an actual baby in cloth diapers and plastic pants and gumming the crib railing and crawling to the cabinet to empty it of clanging pots and pans and lids)—a threesome family. And the father of this family went to the hospital today for an MRI of his lumbar back, to look for and rule out an injury that would be causing his dramatic and worsening wasting and weakness, for Dad has no strength to walk, stand, pivot, lift or drop the foot plate on his wheelchair, lift his feet onto the foot plate or slide his feet off the foot plate, or heave himself into the Mighty V8. What he has called “paralysis” for months, and what the doctors said was not paralysis but profound weakness, has become factually a very real paralysis. As I walked through the garage door from work, Dad called urgently to me from the bathroom—I ran to help lift his fleece pants over his hips and pivot to lean heavily into the walker. The bathroom routine has many procedural steps, all important, but the procedural nightmare is, ironically, a doctor visit—the doctors may kill him before his illness does, what with all the consultations and tests. Sparing the minute sequential detail, I will mention only one step, that of rolling Dad in his wheelchair down the eight-foot ramp. In the fall I stained and finished the ramp, and it is handsome and shiny and brown…and slick as ice when wet from rain and snow. The snow came last night, a warm heavy snow, leaving every surface thoroughly wet, and I simply could not wheel him down the ramp today, not without falling on my backside or my face and losing Dad and the chair to gravity and the sloping driveway. So, in a huge irony, and with great difficulty, I helped Dad up out of his wheelchair, down two steps, and back into his wheelchair, bypassing my beautiful ramp. If the temperate 50-something weather holds (it will not—this is December 28), I will slather on a grip-paint product recommended by a neighbor, who I think is worried I will kill my dad or myself on my ramp.
Courage at Twilight: Spikes on My Boots
The last words Dad said to me on the night of Christmas day were, “If it weren’t for you, Rog, I would be dead.” The macabre pronouncement startled me, and I wondered if it bespoke gratitude or chagrin, and whether I should feel satisfaction or dread. I know this: I could not answer him. This one day of all the year’s days had exceeded my strength to generate joy. Still single and alone and clueless about making a change. None of my seven children or four grandchildren with me. A loved one who will not speak to me. Reminders of my life’s great griefs. In response to Dad’s comment, I had strength only to slip from the room and to find my bed and sleep, without saying good-night to anyone. This holiday darkness has been gathering for weeks, and fully came over me on Christmas day. I have been contemplating how to illustrate depression with words. Perhaps this: imagine a claustrophobe tied up and wedged in a magnetic resonance imaging tube with the awful wretched throbbing penetrating shredding noise of a year-long scan. Or: a perpetual myocardial infarction gripping your chest, squeezing hard, and you think you might die, but somehow you do not. Joy eluded me, and happiness fled, and this despite Mom’s and Dad’s cheer and generosity, my siblings’ love and support, and my children’s admiration and friendship. My world had darkened and closed in around me, and I could feel only emptiness. I was in the MRI tube, holding my chest. In the dark underworld of depression, I cannot imagine any other life, in that moment, than a hopeless life. Disabled for a spell, yet I have always had a vague sense of a far-off entity whispering to me, “Hold on,” assuring me I will emerge. I cannot believe it in the moment. But I can keep going through the motions of living, and I can be still and wait. The scripture of my Church teaches that the light which shines in the universe, and the light which enlightens my mind and yours, all proceeds forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space and every human being in it. Truth also comes from God’s presence. Light and truth are one. God has put a measure of light and truth in the hearts and minds of all humankind. Through free will I can grow that light and be filled with that truth. That thing that whispers to me is light, dim and distant, but undeniably present. If I can but muster a mustard seed of strength, a farthing of faith, an ounce of compassion for myself, my strength will grow, and I will be able to hold on to the hope that light and truth can chase off the darkness and be mine. Sleep is a great mercy, and I slept, and I awoke the next morning to the fact that I had survived another Christmas, that yesterday’s darkness was behind me, that today I just might possibly find a shimmer of light and hope. I ventured onto the frozen trail, excited to try my new tool, my Kahtoola MICROspikes (pictured above), strapped to my hiking boots. All of the 50 hikers I passed wore spikes—I am very late to the party. But I have them now, the right tool, and I strapped them on and climbed mile after mile on snow and ice without once falling back or slipping up as I made my way slowly and steeply up the mountain.
Self-portrait in a bauble hung on a fir tree by the trail.
The falls are beginning to thaw.
View of the Salt Lake valley and the Oquirrh mountain range from Bell Canyon trail.
Courage at Twilight: Dream Walking
I sat on the side of Dad’s bed to wake him on this Sunday morning, this Christmas morning, to talk about getting him showered and dressed and settled in his reading recliner. I could see that his whole body ached as he turned his head on his arthritic neck and stretched out his invalid legs and brought his arms under him to reposition. His welcoming words were unexpected: “I have dreams…” I wondered what kind of dreams, whether literal sleeping dreams or waking hopes and aspirations, and did not have to wait long to learn. “And in my dreams, I am walking.” I was touched that he had allowed me into this intimate and personal place, the place of his soul’s desires, and was touched by the aching irony of his wish to be healthy and for his body to function, but to be able to do so only in impotent dreams. Dreams for the present broken. “Sometimes,” he continued, “sometimes I think my paralysis has happened to me because God is trying to teach me a specific lesson.” I personally am disinclined to believe God targets us with specific afflictions to teach us particular truths. Rather, I am inclined to believe that the nature of this life is designed to bring us into inescapable contact with experience, and the equally inescapable choices associated with that experience. A coworker is rude to me, for example. That is the experience. Will I react angrily, self-righteously, and judgmentally, or patiently, compassionately, and empathetically? That is the choice. And my choice—that all-powerful vehicle of self-creation—establishes the trajectory of my character. But despite my inclinations, who am I to say that God cannot teach us in surgical fashion when he finds it appropriate? “I want to be the kind of man who chooses to be humble of his own volition and is not compelled to be humble” by God or by circumstance. Dad’s humility is the least of my concerns for his soul. In fact, I am not concerned at all for his soul, only for his present comfort and happiness. When Dad kneels before his Savior, he will look up into that glorious face and declare, “I did my best, Lord!” That will be a sweet moment, for God accepts the offering of every effort we make for good. With crumpled wrapping paper strewn about on the floor, and small piles of Christmas gifts on chairs, Dad sank into his gift of a Popular Science edition about outer space. A photo of the Carina Nebula decorated the back cover, a gift from the Hubble and the James Webb. “I love outer space,” he exclaimed. “It won’t be long before I’m there.”
(Photo of the Carina Nebula courtesy of NASA, used here pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Courage at Twilight: Sunset Deliveries
I thought they were cute. Maybe others disagreed. But the notion of old glass dressed up and repurposed appealed to me. I made 78 of them, each unique, with patches and stripes and twists and belts in pastels and bright colors. My children helped me as we sat around the kitchen table with our diluted white glue and our strips of colored tissue, inventing patterns on the fly. I bought 78 plastic flowers from a dollar store and planted them in the jars, filled with gravel. I sold some. I gave some away as gifts. I put electric candles in them and arranged them to form a colorful lantern lane at Laura’s wedding. And I put the leftovers in boxes which I stored in the garage, which I brought with me to Mom’s and Dad’s house, and which have been sitting idle in their basement. The time had come either to throw them away or to give them away. Later this afternoon I would decide. For now, Hannah was playing in the wet snow rolling and assembling snowman parts, using Austrian pine needles as whiskers and pine cones for eyes, and an Olaf stick for a tuft of hair on top. And I knew this was my chance to play, to turn away from my infinite chores and to play, to play with my daughter making snowmen and a fort, a massive fort, founded with spheres of heavy wet snow too large for three adults to roll any farther, a five-gallon bucket making big cylindrical bricks for walls with battlements on top. And my son Caleb loved me enough to leap from the house barefoot and giggling to run madly in the snow and to tackle me with laughter and glee and rolling in the snow and throwing wet snow in each other’s faces and laughing like little boys—he loved me that much. When they left to spend Christmas elsewhere, I sank back into that dark lonely place, knowing that to claw my way out on this Christmas eve I would be wise to find a way to look outward from myself to someone else, and those dusty papier mâché mayonnaise and pickle jars in their basement boxes came to mind. While Mom made a list, I rushed to a dollar store for fresh plastic winter flowers and a bag of cheap gravel, and made 20 homemade vases to deliver on Christmas eve. Mom beamed when I asked her to come with me and to navigate to her 20 chosen homes, where in the orange wisps of sunset I set the vases on doorsteps to be found on the eve or on the day of Christmas.
Courage at Twilight: Happy Birthday, Dad
Dad turned 87 years old today. Which means, he said, the day was the first of his 88th year on this planet earth. Eighty-seven is just an arbitrary number to me, but its numerical value in a human-life context does imply advanced age and all the ailments and challenges and wisdom that accompany. And 87 seems awfully close to 90, which everyone knows is old. But to me, Dad is just Dad, whatever his age. He refused my recent suggestion that we move our traditional Baker Christmas Eve party from the 24th to the 23rd—he would not countenance celebrating himself in juxtaposition with the Celebration of Christ. What’s more, he shares a birthday wish Joseph Smith, born in 1805, to whom the Father and the Son manifested themselves in fiery visitation and through whom They revealed a restoration of the gospel and church of Jesus Christ. No, Dad would not set himself up for celebratory propinquity with the Son of God and His great latter-day Prophet. I conceded the point and informed him of the family conveniences of celebrating Jesus and Joseph and not him on the 23rd, and that any festivities would be purely coincidental and all pointed heavenward. So, the family gathered, and we ate a hearty meal, and we sang Christmas carols and hymns, and Dad narrated the story of the birth of Jesus in the company of animals and the humblest of people, and how even the earth’s great scholars from eastern lands came to honor and endow. Two great-grandchildren, Lila and Gabe, arranged the animal and human figurines as the story played out in their three- and four-year-old minds. And, yes, we sang happy birthday to Dad, by which point he could not escape our ebullient attentions. And he received our gifts, some wrapped in gold paper. Now we are two days from Christmas. People in politeness persist in asking me if I am ready for Christmas, to which I answer “almost.” But I wonder if I am ever ready for Christmas, if any of us are ever really ready for Christmas. I did manage to purchase all the gifts and mail all the cards which convention and family require. I helped decorate the house and the yard and helped cook the meals and bake the pies. I joined in the board games and snowman building and the Christmas-movie watching. But is my heart ready for Christmas? Is my heart ready for all seven of my children and their spouses and children to be elsewhere for Christmas? Is my heart ready to make Christmas special for Mom and Dad, the objects of my awkward caregiving, and I in turn the past and perpetual object of their careful childrearing? Am I ready to be humble and kind and generous? Am I ready to forgive and to move forward with courage into newness? I want to answer, Yes, I am ready, or will be in time, but the silent truth is, I am not ready—not really—but I’m trying. I was ready enough to stand around the piano with the family group and sing my part, and I was ready to join the friendly snowball fight with the children and to be tackled by my barefoot smiling son in the snow and to roll frostily around grinding snow in each other’s laughing faces, and I was ready to say “I love you” to my cherished ones.
(Pictured above: my Nutella French Silk Pie, in a Julia Childs pie shell.)
(Below: glimpses of a celebration, with birthday boy under the light of the lamps.)
Courage at Twilight: Moving Pieces
Mom and I started a puzzle. 500 pieces. It came in the gift basket delivered by the caroling young women from church. It is a pretty puzzle of a nature scene, in the mountains, tinged with the scarlets of early fall. Warm and pleasant, a reassurance during our freezing dirty-snow urban winter. Mom separated out the edge pieces and starting making matches. I managed to frame the border during a Father Dowling mystery episode (which I handle so much better than NCIS for the 1990s absence of violence and gore). During a dinner of creamy chicken vegetable soup, Dad obsessed about the bitter cold and how during their first winter here 24 years ago a pipe burst in the basement for lack of insulation (the contractor’s helper had run out of insulation and had left the pipe exposed and the contractor now had to come back and fix the pipe and fix the ceiling and fix the wall, plus add the insulation that would have prevented the whole disaster) and how this year he did not have the strength to wrap the house hose bibs like he has done every year before and how they were exposed and how he hoped they would not freeze and crack and he wondered how far into the house zero degrees could penetrate and could zero degrees reach the basement pipes and burst them again? Seeing no point in discussing the matter, I dressed in a heavy coat, strapped on a headlamp, and left the house armed with a stack of thick rags, plastic shopping bags, and neon-green duct tape, trapsing through deep snow to wrap the faucets—we all hoped this precaution would be sufficient, noting that the faucets were already anti-freeze hose bibs. “You have set my troubled mind at ease,” Dad smiled thankfully. Needing to rise at six the next morning, I said good-night at ten and bent to bed. But I often wake at 12:30 in the morning to the sounds of Dad’s effort to transfer from the stair lift to the wheelchair, and Mom’s efforts, in her long cotton nightgown, to push the chair to the bed, Dad helping what little he can, and their talking, and sometimes their bickering over him issuing instructions she was already following. I can tell from the tone if my help is needed, when I throw on my bathrobe and respond. So long as he maintains his night-owl lifestyle (granted, he no longer reads until three in the morning), I cannot be the one to help him get to bed. A routine of caregiving until 1:00 a.m. then rising at 6:00 a.m. daily would destroy me, probably in only two days’ time. Thankfully, the CNA assists Dad in the mornings after I have left for work. She knows to use the wheelchair to get Dad from the bed to the shower, to use the heavy-duty seated-walker to get him dried off and to the couch for dressing and to the stair lift to descend for breakfast and a day’s reading. That is what he can do: read and read and read. And too quickly the time comes to prepare another dinner worthy of them and the legacy they leave, perhaps lemon chicken on a bed of pesto couscous, or Hawaiian chicken on a couch of coconut rice (my favorite), or stewed spicy chicken and dirty rice, or, on occasion, beef franks sliced into canned pork and beans. The puzzle beckons after dinner is cleaned up. I stare at 500 unconnected pieces, feeling totally intimidated, knowing I can never find two matching pieces in that chaotic morass of 500, then somehow forming the border and slowly fitting together the interior, until the puzzle is done, and I am astonished and wondering how it happened. So many pieces. So many moving pieces.
Courage at Twilight: Transference
We have experienced another week of steady decline in Dad’s mobility. He has suffered increased weakness. I have suffered increased worry. He cannot walk. Life is very different when you have walked for 86 years and suddenly find yourself paralyzed and immobile. The word of the day is “transfer,” by which I mean the experience and process and effort of shifting one’s bulk from one seat surface to another, like from and wheelchair to a toilet, or from a shower chair to a walker chair, in which one moves laterally rather than vertically, and does not ambulate. I sat down across from Dad to suggest the time had come to focus on transferring rather than walking. “I think we should refocus our approach,” I explained. He nodded in sad reconciliation, feeling humiliated and small. How could I reassure him? In truth, with the power wheelchair, he can enjoy greater independence and freedom of movement than with trying to walk. But transference is a skill to be practiced—it is not an easy exercise, and I invite you to pretend your legs do not work and try transferring from one chair to another with only the strength of your arms and the span of your bottom. Now add arms to those chairs. To help him transfer from off his sofa to his wheelchair, I installed risers under the sofa feet, raising the couch five inches, and screwed three inches of lumber to the legs of his recliners. Struggling with this new necessary skill, his transfers can be, shall we say, inaccurate, like onto the arm of a chair instead of into the seat of that chair. Some transfers are violent, like when he fell from his wheelchair onto his couch so roughly that he knocked the couch of its risers and was lucky not to capsize altogether. Since the escapade did not end tragically, I can comment after-the-fact on how I wish I had seen it happen and how funny it must have seemed. A hair’s breadth of fate or providence separates tragedy from comedy. Dad pronounces all his mishaps as comical, veritable jokes, although he curses more than he laughs when in the midst of transference. Mom pounced on me when I came home from work, before removing my coat and tie, asking me to re-elevate the couch. Then she showed me the toilet plunger sitting in the kitchen sink, and explained how the food disposal had plugged up with old spaghetti, and she could not clear the clog, try as she might. Putting my height and weight into the plunger, I compelled the dirty water and ground up food through the pipes and successfully drained the sink and emptied the disposal. She is always so grateful when I fix things she can no longer manage. The next problem to solve involved her pharmacy of 24 years. She and Dad had received letters informing them that their pharmacy was no longer in their insurance network, and in only two weeks they would have to pay full retail price for their medicines. I offered to help switch to a new pharmacy, and envisioned the hassle and weariness of assembling all the prescription bottles and insurance cards and driving to the new pharmacy to see the staff and taking an hour to input the data into the new system, and the weather was very cold, and the streets icy, and the sky darkening at 4:30 p.m., and I really did not want to leave the house on this cumbersome errand. Instead, I called the store, they took our information, and promised to get their information transferred from the old pharmacy to the new. Mom beamed, amazed at my miracle working with the sink and the pharmacy. I will try to elicit the same response with tonight’s dinner. It is time to shift from writing to cooking.
(Pictured above: Italian pesto pasta and chicken with brazed asparagus.)
Courage at Twilight: A Grimless Reaper
December 17. Twelve degrees Fahrenheit. I am hiking to Bell Canyon Falls. But I am not alone this time. My son John read about my December 4th loneliness and invited me to hike with him today. Dad slept still when we left, but Mom asked his questions for him, about whether we had water, food, good boots, warm gloves, our hiking poles. We pushed past where I had turned around two weeks before, pushed up to where the slow lay three feet deep beside the trampled trail. We talked about life and love, relationships and challenges, joys and dreams, and I rejoiced quietly in his conversation and his character. Cold in my bed two nights before, I had dreamt of death, a peaceful dream in which the presence of Death descended gently to touch those whose time had come to return—a soft, benign touch, not threatening, but caring and compassionate, possessing a perspective large as a universe about our journey through an eternity of time in an infinity of space. Still, when I awoke in the dark, I felt compelled to check on Mom and Dad, to see if the dream had been prophetic or merely a macabre play on my anxieties. As I stood in their bedroom doorway, the nightlight on the wall behind me cast an enormous human shadow on the wall before me, and I thought of the grim reaper, only I was grimless, and guileless, and I was not a messenger or a harbinger, but a steward and a servant and a son. Dad snored calmly, and Mom’s sleep had sunk beneath his snores. Throughout the week, groups of neighbors and church members had stopped by to wish Mom and Dad a merry Christmas. A group of six young women and their adult advisors came to carol. Dad had wanted to greet them in the formal living room, but he could not walk that far—he may never walk that far again. So he smiled and joined in the singing from where he was, holding the large gift basket in which lay a loaf of cranberry walnut bread, wool-blend socks (even a pair for me), and mint truffle hot cocoa mix. A bunch of boys with their adult advisors came to deliver a puzzle and oranges and blonde brownies and Andes mints. Couples delivered a pineapple, whole wheat bread, peach freezer jam, a poinsettia, ornaments for the tree, and green bananas (because Mom told them Dad likes green bananas, not the brown blotchy sweet ones she enjoys), each gift an expression of love and regard and caring. This is what I thought about as I slipped and rolled clumsily but harmlessly down the steep snowy mountainside, snow sticking to every inch of me, still with no spikes on my boots, still in the mountain’s cold shadow, my knees complaining loudly, the moisture from John’s breath frozen stiff on the whiskers of his mustache, my water bottle frozen in my coat pocket. And then sunlight struck the tops of the snow-laden trees and worked its way warmly down to the snow-covered sagebrush and the deep snow drifts and the path and two hiking men with their poles swinging in easy rhythm.
Young ladies caroling to Mom and Dad.
John posing before the frozen Bell Canyon Falls.
Courage at Twilight: Will You Stand By Me?
I am the shy quiet guy that lives with his parents, almost 60 years old, who they see pushing Dad’s wheelchair very slowly, so Mom can keep up, down the aisle to the front church pew, where a space is reserved for a wheelchair, where Dad has a better chance of hearing the worship meeting speakers, in the front where our family has sat in church for decades: in the front, where Dad, sitting on the stand those many years, presiding and exhorting and teaching, could keep an eye on his six children, not that we caused any trouble, and where he could be as close as possible to his family while carrying out his lay clergy duties. I am slowly learning their names, making a few acquaintanceships crawling toward friendship. But today Dad was too weak to attend church meetings, and I had my granddaughter Lila with me, and we walked hand in hand down the aisle where Mom sat alone on the front church pew, and I could feel the eyes on me, friendly and interested and astonished eyes, and could hear their thoughts: Oh, he has a story! And they wondered what my story could be as they saw my oldest son and his good wife and the little black-haired baby, my newest grandchild, and Lila my three-year-old friend, all sitting together in the front. I share my desserts with church families now and then, always friendly cheerful encounters after which, as I am walking away, I hear them thinking to themselves: I wonder what his story is? And they wonder if mine is a strange tragic story, as they munch tentatively, at first, and then with gusto, on my latest baking attempts, tonight’s being an enriched German holiday “Stollen” bread filled with dried fruits and sweet almond paste. I baked the Stollen after cleaning up our Sunday dinner dishes, when I wanted to get off my aching feet but wanted more to make something pretty and interesting and sweet. Dad asked if he could have a slice, which of course I gave him, in spite of the spiteful diabetes that is wrecking him, because he will be 87 in two weeks, and it was a thin slice after all, and let him live a little for heaven’s sake, and I said “no” to his importuning for seconds. And he asked me, “Rog, will you stand by me while I try to stand up?” but I heard, Rog, will you stand by me as I am wasting away, in my pains, as I am dying? Will you stand by me to the end? Yes, Dad, I am here, and am not going anywhere.
(Pictured above and below: my first attempt at Stollen, an 18-inch loaf–delicious.)
Courage at Twilight: Diabetic Amyotrophy
Dad’s eyes followed me as I moved about the kitchen preparing my breakfast. “Let me know what you think of those gluten-free no-sugar keto cereals,” he commented as I rummaged through cereals bought for him that he will not eat. You could try them yourself. “Not blackberry jam!” he gibed when I took the bottle out of the refrigerator. “Are you putting blackberry jam in your peanut butter granola?” No, Dad, I’m having toast with jam. “And is that cream cheese?” Yes, Dad, I like it with toast and jam—reminds me of Portugal. “You’re putting milk on your cereal, right?” Oh, my, gosh, Dad—stop commenting on my food! I can feel his eyes on my every movement, and I want to scream. But they are benign, innocent, aged eyes. Why does the inoffensive become so irksome in people we love so much? After breakfast would come the drive to the hospital for the NCV and EMG tests. “You brushed the snow from the Suburban, right.” Of course, Dad. And I shoveled the driveway. And the Terry’s driveway—he has been looking feeble lately—and Melissa’s driveway. I had enjoyed marching the snow blower through four inches of new powder; it sparkled in the sun at it flew. Clearing our own driveway was anticlimactic, so I moved to the neighbors. I hoped they would now know it was me—I enjoyed thinking of their surprise and gratitude. And, being anonymous, I would not have to face my clumsiness at being thanked and smiling and saying you’re welcome and other social engagement awkwardness. I have noticed my happiness is greatest when contributing to the happiness of others. There is joy in service. So why do I spend so much solitary energy unsuccessfully pursuing my own happiness? There really is something to that business of finding your life by losing it. At the hospital, the doctor performed two tests. First, nerve conduction velocity: he hooked up small electrodes above key nerves and administered numerous not-unpainful electric shocks to measure nerve conduction in Dad’s legs and arms. Second, electromyography: he inserted a needle in key places to “listen to the muscles” as Dad flexed them in various instructed ways. Dr. Hunter focused on his work as I focused on Dad’s grimacing face and jumping limbs and spots of blood dripping. The testing shows you have severe neuropathy in both legs; severe nerve damage. We now, finally, have a diagnosis. Diabetic amyotrophy: rare condition…severe burning leg pain …weakness and wasting of the muscles. Experienced by older patients with moderate controlled diabetes. No cure; no treatment. The pain may subside, but the weakness will remain: your strength and mobility will not return. I am sorry. “Well…that’s life…I’m 87 in two weeks…my body is falling apart…that’s what happens.” I retrieved the wheelchair from the back of the faithful Suburban, helped Dad slide from the front seat into the chair, pushed him through the melting ice and up the slick salt-covered ramps and through the front door to his recliner, the salt crunching under the wheels against the cold white tile.
(Pictured above; our after-hospital dinner of lemon chicken on a bed of pesto couscous with white bean and corn salsa.)
Courage at Twilight: Bittersweet Good-byes
“I’m not doing my arm exercises today,” Dad announced with some belligerence. I had heard the CNA coughing and sniffling continuously as she helped him bathe and dress. How ironic, and alarming, for a health care provider to bring sickness into our home. Dad was none too pleased, and invited her to leave an hour early. He asked me for the physical therapy supervisor’s name (we’ll say “PT”) and phone number: “I’m going to call PT and tell him not to come back.” Dad could not walk, could barely move, the day after PT poked and pushed and stretched him, yet a new depth of debilitation. He made the call and left a message. He did not confront either the CNA or PT, instead just removing himself from the threats. For days now, there has been no question of walking to the bathroom at night: the bedside commode has to do, and it is all he can manage to transfer from the mattress to the commode three fee distant. Today he could lift neither foot over the four-inch lip of the step-in shower stall. On a happier note, I installed the old steel banister, removed with the stair lift installation, in the basement stairwell, making trips to the cold storage room and the freezer much easier for Mom: a “piece of cake.” This morning I brought up frozen chicken breasts to thaw. Hyrum came over for dinner—his last, for a while, with Mom and Dad—and I transformed the raw bird into tangy Hawaiian chicken on a coconut rice bed. Hyrum, at age 20, is leaving for Brazil to begin his volunteer missionary service, as I did in Portugal in 1983, and as Dad did in Brazil in 1956, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Two years he will be gone, and I will miss him. He is my son and my friend. Dad told him the old stories about eating avocados the size of grapefruits for lunch and being arrested at the behest of local clergy and inviting hard men to lead their families in kneeling prayer and about feeling the love of God for the people. Hyrum said his farewells, promising to send Mom and Dad his weekly email updates. “I may not be alive when you get back, Hyrum,” Dad mused, “but I’ll be happy to read your emails while I’m still alive.” Hyrum and I were both poignantly aware of the real possibility of Dad’s passing before Hyrum’s homecoming, making sweeter and sadder this good-bye from a grandfather to a grandson.
(Pictured above: Hyrum with Dad and Mom.)
The basement stairs, before and after installing the steel banister, left.
Courage at Twilight: Icy Ruminations
December 4. Twenty-seven degrees Fahrenheit. I am hiking to Bell Canyon Falls. I had to get out of the house. As I climb, leafless gambel oak give way to fir and spruce, and one perfect tree sports Christmas ornaments. Wild boxwood and wild Oregon grape and aromatic sage, all perennially green, poke through the snow. A young woman passes me on her morning trail run, then stops to change her podcast (she explains). I tell her my podcast is just the ruminations in my own head, and she approves. They are my prayers, in the absence of the more traditional kind. Preparing to leave the house, Dad bird-shot me with questions: Will you be warm enough? (Yes, I am wearing five layers.) Do you have a hat and gloves? (Of course.) Do you have water, and food? (Always). Do you have good boots? (Yep.) Will there be snow and ice? (Undoubtedly.) Will you take my hiking poles? I am making good use of Dad’s red-and-black hiking poles, the same poles which a month ago helped me climb the flagstone paths to Pico Ruivo, the icy top of the banana-clad island of Madeira. Now they help me keep my footing on the ice and help me make my way up and down the boulder-stepped trail. My quadricep muscles scream with soreness, still recovering from four games of bowling with Hyrym, the equivalent of eighty left-leg lunges. I wonder if this is a hint of what Dad suffers when he rises in agony from a chair. Once again, I am hiking in the wilderness alone, and I am tempted to feel sorry for myself. But any number of people would have come with me if I had asked, if I had not been too shy and afraid to invite them. Therefore, I am alone by choice. I try to pray more formally as I walk the snow-packed trail, false-starting with piths like “help me not be sad.” Then I remember that Jesus’ modus operandum is not to rescue me from hardships. Indeed, I am in this world to experience adversity and to choose my way through it. Adversity is my teacher. How I confront adversity is entirely my choice. God will not take away my hardships or make my choices. Instead, He will help me see truth. He will offer strength and comfort. He will be near me even as I struggle. But he will not take away the struggle. To do so would rob me of my chance to choose and grow and become. A pretty, middle-aged woman with a wide mouth and a wider smile hikes past, and I am momentarily sad that I am hiking up and she is hiking down. Foolishness. I see splashes of red through the trees, and hear giggles, and four female Santas amble incongruously by, costumed in red tights, white-trimmed red coats, and red stocking caps. Okay, I did not expect to see that in the Lone Peak Wilderness Area. Two and a half miles up the mountain, the trail grows steep and my desire to see the frozen falls plummets, so I turn around. I lean heavily on my hiking poles to ease my knees down the boulders, and a young woman jogs past and calls out, “You should get some spikes,” and I see the spiked chains around and under her shoes. “Sixty bucks at Scheels.” Indeed, I should.
Courage at Twilight: Phases I Never Knew
Every day, it seems, Dad laments, “This is my worst day yet, Rog.” Every waking walking breath is an audible grunt or groan—no normal breathing in this house. He fights for life with all his energy and might, both of which are diminishing—he knows it, and he is disheartened. And so am I. In my 14 months living here, I have seen Dad progress through late-life stages I did not know existed, from the two-foot-shuffle to the hand surf, from the hand surf to the clickety cane, from the clickety cane to the walker, from the walker to the so-slow stair lift, from the stair lift to the wheelchair, pushed, then self-propelled. The recliner is an ever-greater presence in each successive phase. So is the pain. My worst day yet. What am I supposed to do with that statement, that fact? How am I to hold and examine and process that reality? Why, of course, I am to be a fathomless fount of patience and love, of smiles and good humor. And, of course, I am not. I am a shallow pond of brine, with fresh water trickling in here and there. His reality creates mine, and I find myself more irritable and impatient, symptoms, perhaps, of feeling powerless, and empty, and tired, and stuck. I began this experience as a consecration, a mission of providential origin, I thought, and still think. But a mission’s initial glamor always attenuates and turns into a long hard slog. One’s initial intentions, however sincere, begin to quiver and equivocate. Only then can I see, do I know, the kind of missionary I am. No saint, to be sure. No hero, certainly. Just a laborer who shows up day after day, whose contentment is not to be found in his perquisites but in the solitary knowledge he is doing what must be done. That alone is ennobling, I suppose. And will this mission, this story, have a happy ending? As with all true stories, the answer is both yes and no—both the joy and the sorrow. How I feel when the story ends will be my choice. Before it ends, however, I can choose to listen with a smile, to cook and clean with good cheer, to do the honey-dos with zest instead of a sigh and a roll of the eye. Time to stop writing. Time to get to work.
(Pictured above: the javelina guards the varnished ramp, slippery from last night’s snow.)
Courage at Twilight: Dirty Rice
I informed Mom and Dad I was cooking southwest wraps for dinner: ground turkey, black beans, corn, and rice rolled in tortillas and crisped in an iron skillet. He looked at me funny and asked, “Rats for dinner?” “Wraps,” I reassured him. Earlier in the day he had cut himself. He had reached through the bathroom doorway for his walker handles, and the door’s strike plate had sliced the paper skin of his forearm. The CNA wiped the floor clean with baby wipes, and bandaged his arm. He sat at the kitchen table telling me about it. My daughter Laura has sent me her ten favorite recipes—all winners—and I have made two or three each week to spice up Mom’s and Dad’s dinner time. Tonight, we gobbled up Cajun chicken with dirty rice, which I learned is rice cooked in the fats and juices and spices from cooking the sausage and chicken pieces. Dad praised the meal no fewer than six times before we finished eating. I relish the experience of making beautiful and delicious dishes which people enjoy. As we ate, Dad told me the results of his Mayo Clinic spinal fluid test. The nurse had called to inform him that his spinal fluid is “completely normal.” Completely normal. “My spinal fluid is completely normal,” he sounded discouraged. “But I am getting worse by the day.” Once again, the good news was hard to take. No diagnosis equals no treatment. Here was one more possibility explored. Here was one more hope disappointed. Here was yet another beginning of searching for elusive answers while suffering unanswerable pain and weakness and while fighting for his life and for his quality of life. I am powerless. All I can do is cook dirty rice. James the physical therapist stopped by after dinner to evaluate the effectiveness of therapy. He asked Dad all the same questions everyone else has asked. He poked and prodded and asked “Does that hurt?” a dozen times. Yes, it hurts. A lot. After ten minutes, James had figured out what dozens of doctors and nurses and tests and therapists had not figured out. The spinal nerves are inflamed, causing him pain, due to his age and his recliner sedentariness and his stooping over and due to his spinal joints not being moved and not circulating blood to the nerves which therefore are inflamed and causing him pain. Simple. Just do these exercises. And don’t sit: sitting kills your nerves. I am skeptical of any one person who has all the answers, and that quickly. But, could he be onto something? I will try to help Dad to the exercises. Meanwhile, he is too tired and weak to anything but sit in his recliner and kill his nerves. He invited me to turn on the Christmas lights wrapped around the bushes, and asked if they had come on despite the snow. Yep, I answered, for I had wrapped every joint and plug with black electrical tape to keep out the water, as I did last year, and the year before.
Courage at Twilight: Old Man’s Lament
Can I visit with you for a second, Rog? I know you’re up to your elbows in dishes right at the moment. Thanks for coming over to me—I couldn’t have come to you. I see everything you are doing for us. You are doing all the cooking and cleaning up after. I feel bad about that. I would like to help you cook dinner and wash the dishes. But I just can’t. And I’m getting worse. My legs hurt so bad when I try to stand, worse every day. I’ll call the doctor tomorrow and see if they have sent my spinal fluid to the Mayo clinic—it’s been two weeks already—and I’ve gotten a lot worse. I hope they find something so they can treat me. I can’t stand just sitting here and deteriorating and not knowing why, or what I can do about it. I just can’t walk at all—even with a walker my legs are too weak to walk. Look, my walker is three feet away and I can’t even get to it without you pushing it to me. I can’t help you, and I feel bad. I’m so very grateful for everything you do for your mother and me. Your meals are delicious and healthy. Tonight’s pesto chicken pasta, and that braised asparagus, were both superb. Do you think Olive Garden makes anything like that? You always have to pick up after me: when I drop something, I can’t bend over to pick it up, so there it stays, unless you pick it up for me. I love working in the yard, but you do the yardwork because I can’t. And you fix what’s broken, like the toilet valves and the sink stoppers. This year, you put up the Christmas lights for me. They look so cheerful, and I’m so happy they are up and shining and bright. Aren’t you? I just couldn’t do it. Two years ago, I did the lights myself. Last year, I helped you a little. This year, I just watched from the sidewalk, from my power wheelchair. I tried driving it on the grass, to get closer, but the wheels just sank, and I couldn’t go anywhere but back the way I’d come. I’m very grateful to you. Well, that’s all I wanted to say.
Courage at Twilight: Help with the Turkey
“Can I help with the turkey?” Dad inquired at 8:00 a.m., approaching slowly, barely able to stand, with his thrift store not-a-walker, which has become his favorite walker. “No,” Mom responded definitively. Of course not. She has planned this Thanksgiving turkey bake for weeks. She bought the frozen turkey a month ago, placed it in the refrigerator a week ago, and dressed it an hour ago. “Should we turn the oven on now?” he queried, wanting to helpful, but much to late in the process to be helpful. “No, the turkey isn’t going in until 9:00,” she explained. The more Dad tried to help, the more he intruded on her well-made plans. “If we turn the oven on now, it will be pre-heated by 9:00,” he ventured again. “That’s too early,” she barked. “The oven only takes ten minutes to pre-heat.” Dad slinked away slowly, unable to be helpful, because he had not made the plan and did not know the plan, and because his too-late suggestions interloped on the well-established plan. He had been good-hearted, well-meaning, but extraneous. I watched this collapsed negotiation and felt an ache. Mom and Dad have navigated their relationship for 62 years. Are they any better at it now than early on? Are the negotiations any easier than at first? Relationships are always a challenge, always a negotiation, always a struggle of overlapping egos and an accommodation of disparate wills. Even the good-hearted and well-meaning work to exhaustion nudging those two wills to one purpose. After my 27-year marriage, I was beyond tired, and I wonder still these seven years later if I would ever find the courage and strength to take up anew the dance of negotiation and compromise. Being alone is so much easier, having only occasional arguments with myself. But at times I pull out the scales and examine the platters hung on chains, weighing the ease of aloneness against the terribleness of loneliness, watching them teeter on the fulcrum of elusive equilibrium. Dad asked me to string the bushes with Christmas lights, since he cannot do it anymore, with particular colors in a particular order on particular bushes, and I invited my capable creative son John to help me. He suggested a fun variety of colors for adjacent bushes, nowhere close to Dad’s plan, but I figured Dad would not really notice, not being able to walk anywhere near that far, and rarely seeing his yard after dark. Just then Dad shot through the front door on his power wheelchair to come inspect my work. And I figured it would be better, in this case, to ask permission than forgiveness, so I intercepted him en route, told him of John’s color notion, and asked him if that would be alright. Of course, having been asked, he said yes, and sat in his chair on the sidewalk, cheering us on, expressing his excitement and gratitude. “I just love seeing Christmas lights on my bushes. This is important to me, and makes me happy.” That negotiation worked out well—I love happy endings—and did not even leave me feeling taxed. The job done, he wheeled and we walked into the house for small slices of very rich French pear almond tart.
Courage at Twilight: Tzatziki
We both arrived home at 5:00 p.m., me from work, ready to cook dinner, and Dad from the podiatrist, holding his and Mom’s Burger King “lunch.” I decided to cook dinner anyway, because I had planned it, and I wanted to eat something wonderful, and I had all the fresh ingredients, and the chicken breast was thawed. Listening to the news blaring for two hours while I cook had many times left me frustrated and depleted and sensorily overstimulated. But I finally discovered I can listen to music while I cook, with my new headphones, old fashioned and corded, for watching movies on the airplane seat back screen. Suddenly lost in Adam Young’s masterful short scores, like Apollo 11 and Project Excelsior and Mount Rushmore. Instead of squinting absurdly as if to shut out the shouting commentators, I began to smile and bop and groove as I mixed my tzatziki sauce. Chicken gyros were on the menu. Before I started cooking, Mom asked me to tell her one thing about my day at work, and I evaded, mentioning lunch with a friend, like saying “Recess” in answer to “What’s your favorite class?” I don’t know if I do not want to talk about work, or if I am simply uncomfortable talking. I am not a talker. Dad, now, he is a talker. In my conversations with Dad, he does the talking. I contribute an occasional “um hum” or “that’s interesting” or “I didn’t know that” as he expounds Christian doctrine, analyzes personalities, described his perpetual 87-year-old aches and pains (“it’s getting worse, Rog”), and worries about family members and finances. He passes the time and fills the voids with continuous intelligent talk. He dredges up the old stories: about a policeman we knew, JM, who was caught running two brothels in New Jersey and got caught and rejected an invitation to retire and was convicted and imprisoned instead; about the diminutive old German, Buntz, who died, and Dad stepped up to be executor of the estate, and the man’s coin collection (I remember it) lay stacked in short pillars on the ping-pong table in the basement, and fetched $20,000 for Buntz’s family; about the union tradesmen in 1971 who picketed the construction of our East Brunswick church building, being built by the labor of church members—Dad was the volunteer contractor—until they grew ashamed of themselves for picketing a church being built by its members, and they pitched in and wished us well with smiles; about how Jesus is good and true and trustworthy, doing more for us in every moment that we can possibly perceive or understand, though we will see it all one day. I play the role of hushed filial audience, always impressed, frequently annoyed, often sighing burdened and dismayed. I say little and am uncomfortable with the stage performance that is conversation, never heedless of how my hearers react. But when my distress is sufficiently severe, and I have gathered my courage for weeks or months, I venture to tell Mom and Dad my troubles, and I am articulate and smart despite the awful hurt, and they listen carefully and interject carefully and do not grow weary. And then we fall back into our conversational roles, and later while Dad watches the news with Mom, I listen to Adam Young and dance and cook chicken gyros with tzatziki sauce.
(Pictured above: chicken gyros in tzatziki sauce, with pita bend awkwardly buttressed.)
Courage at Twilight: Rack and Pinion
I arise at 6:00 a.m. (ideally), slip on my gym clothes, and slink down the stairs without a sound to sit on the stationary bicycle. I must read when I ride or I go mad with boredom and from focusing on the discomfort of hard exercise. But Dad’s room is immediately adjacent, and the light would strike him fully in the sleeping face. My headlamp is the answer. I puff as I push and as I read N.T. Wright’s New Testaments translations and commentaries, and Dad is none the wiser (though I certainly hope I am). But today the headlamp became moot, and I flipped the light switch on. We are poorer in the pocket, but enriched with new possibilities for mobility and independence. The stair lift finally has been installed. And the taste is sour-sweet. As Dad held the lever in the “up” position, the chair he sat slumped in rose slowly to the landing, pivoted 90 degrees, and carried him to the top of the staircase. He ascended with a vacant emotionless expression. Dad has new independence, even with increased weakness. Dad has improved mobility, even with increased paralysis and pain. Dad carries a dual humiliation: the marathon runner who cannot walk; sitting hunched in a chair, himself motionless, being rack-and-pinioned to the second floor. Not a time of celebration. Rather, a time of adjustment to a new tool and to a new routine, a time of relief with the decreased risk of ending his life horribly by falling down the stairs, a time to confront the fact that he will never climb the stairs again under his own power. I asked for the opportunity to talk through how bedtime would now work, not just for him, but for Mom and me also, and I thought we settled on moving toward the stair lift and toward bed at 10:30 p.m. after the nightly news. But discovered that he had settled on reading until midnight and moving himself achingly with his not-a-walker to transfer to the stair lift and push the “up” paddle, to push his heavy-duty blue walker to his bed, where he climbed in next to his sweetheart for the first time in ten long weeks, without an ounce of worry from me because of the lift. A cause for celebration after all. Four-year-old Gabe joined me in my own celebratory ride by sitting on my lap as I held the paddle in the “up” position and we rack-and-pinioned our way slowly up the stairs.
Courage at Twilight: Not a Walker
Dad sat reading volume “F” of the 1990 World Book Encyclopedia—“I haven’t read ‘F’ in some time”—and later at the dinner table expounded to Mom and me about Fahrenheit and Faulkner and Freedom. I think volume “L” might be his favorite. Whereas last week he had to ask Mom to bring this and that book or plate or newspaper to him—because he could not hold both the walker handles and the object he wanted—his new caddy allows him the independence of transporting things himself. While I searched the Deseret Industries thrift store for exercise dumbbells, which I did not find, the walker fairly stuck out its handles and introduced itself. Fifteen dollars later, I walked into the living room and declared to Dad, “This is not a walker.” He seemed fond of his floral-pattern walker, and I worried he might not welcome an interloper. I explained, “This is a food caddy and a book caddy and an anything-else caddy.” Dusty from sitting neglected in someone’s garage, I cleaned every inch of the caddy. Next day, Dad transported his books and his lunch plates without relying on Mom or me. He liked the like-new not-a-walker. In a related story, Dad announced to Mom and me in church that his wheelchair cushion was freezing his bottom—we keep the wheelchair and the memory foam cushion in the faithful Suburban, and the night before had dipped to 19 degrees Fahrenheit. I grinned and encouraged him to find consolation in not feeling too hot, for a change.
(Pictured above: Dad’s new thrift store not-a-walker caddy.)
Courage at Twilight: Bouquets of Yellow Roses
Mom’s favorite flower is the yellow rose, and on the most momentous of the year’s days (including Mother’s Day and Mom’s birthday), Dad brings home a big bouquet of yellow roses. “What do you think of that one, Rog?” he pointed from his power cart at a bouquet of 18 yellow roses. “Let’s get it,” he encouraged without awaiting my affirmation, and I placed the flowers in the basket. He asked me what I thought about a second bouquet of muti-colored flowers, and instructed me to add it to the basket. Then a third, with roses the color of sweet aromatic ripe cantaloup, joined the other bouquets. “Are all of these for Mom?” I wondered. “Of course! It’s her birthday!” One 18-rose bouquet would tell her she is special, a second that she is very special. But a third would make a definite statement about her being supremely special, especially to him. Stuck in a chair he exits only with difficulty and pain, Dad often calls to Mom, “If you were to walk by, I would give you a hug.” Or sometimes, the more direct, “I want to hug you.” Just when I expect her to huff with the sentimentality and inconvenience, she sidles up to him, holds his hand, caresses his head, kisses his cheek, and reaffirms her love: “I love you, too, Dear.” Mom at her most tender. She held his hand today, too, in the radiology recovery room after the lumbar puncture that sucked from him two tablespoons of spinal fluid, sent to the Mayo Clinic with his blood for advanced diagnostics. Dad is hopeful that a firm diagnosis can finally be had, with a corresponding treatment. I am hopeful his fighting spirit can outlast the ticking months of decline without diagnosis. Answers bring knowledge, and with knowledge, hope. Having no answer to the mystery causes of his mystery disease is like waiting for the ice to melt in the arctic: a very long wait with an uncertain outcome of dubious value. His head still rang with singing from Mom’s birthday party the night before, at which the family gathered and sang the old campfire songs—nearly the whole book of them—we have sung around real campfires through three decades of family reunions. Old songs like “Springtime in the Rockies” (chorus lyrics below). During their occasional moments of marital tension, I tell them “I can’t take it” and I leave the room, and Dad assures me later that he has never had an argument with my mother, has never even been angry with her, which is nonsense, of course. But these are sentiments he honors and believes and embodies. My father loves and honors my mother. He seeks her counsel and her tender affections still, after 60 years of marriage. And he gives her big bouquets of yellow roses.
When it’s springtime in the Rockies,
I’m coming back to you.
Little sweetheart of the mountains,
With your bonnie eyes of blue.
Once again, I’ll say I love you,
While the birds sing all the day.
When it’s springtime in the Rockies,
In the Rockies far away.
Courage at Twilight: A Leg Up
Dad always slathers one piece of bread with mayonnaise and mustard which oozes out onto his hands and clothes when he bites into his onion-ham-and-Swiss sandwiches, until one day he saw my son John evenly spread a thin layer of mayo on one slice of bread and a thin layer of mustard on the other. That does not sound revolutionary or even noteworthy to me, but to Dad it was a revelation. He had discovered “a better sandwich.” But he was unhappy about the hand soap Mom had bought, grousing that it did not foam, but merely dribbled down the side of the bottle instead of onto his hand. Well, put your hand under the nozzle, Mom grumbled under her breath, unheard through his dead-battery hearing aids. He insisted he go shopping with us so he could pick out the “right” hand soap. I did not give him the chance: I bought some very regular foaming soap at Wal-Mart for about $1.59 each, and gave him a choice: “Which one do you want in your bathroom, the coconut-lime or the vanilla jasmine?” Buried in the New York Times, he did not reply. Later, he off-handed, “Thanks for the soap, Rog.” Fleeces are another complaint. The fireplace will not be fixed for another week, and Dad feels cold in his recliner. He quite eagerly wished to explore the fleece jackets at Big 5. They had very few, but we hung an XXL of four different styles. Dad seems incapable of buying anything for himself without insisting that Mom or I or whoever is with him first buy something for themselves, which is both sweet and annoying, Mom and I loathing shopping. When we know what we want, we do not take long reconnaissance sorties, but charge in, buy the thing, and bug out. Mom walked quickly through store, announced that the store had nothing she wanted, and sat on a bench to await the results of his fleece deliberations. Dad did choose two nice fleeces, though when we returned home he stayed in my old torn faded hoodie because of the convenience of already being in it. Dad cannot raise his foot to the running board of the Might V8, let alone to the floor. I found how to lift his leg easily from behind the knee into the car, to give him “a leg up,” after which he can hoist himself into his seat. We went through this exercise four times on our Big 5 outing, then four more on an evening jaunt to Smith’s grocery store, and again today for church, where on the last lift he discovered how to use his right hand to lift his own left leg—another victory for self-sufficiency. I began to worry about the wheelchair ramps I had built of wood, which had warped and twisted just enough to form half-inch lips perfect for tripping already compromised walkers. Being a lawyer, I was disappointed in myself for not having thought sooner of the risk management implications, and drove to Wal-Mart for a roll of neon green duct tape which now decorates the toe and crown of each ramp, nicely set off against the red-brown stain. And I baked banana cream pies for Mom’s birthday party, and finished editing my Portugal trip journal, and repaired the bathroom sink trap, and carried ham and ice cream and lima beans to the basement freezer, and mounted a grab bar in the garage to help Dad up three steps, which might as well be three mountains, and cleaned the seated walker I found at the Deseret Industries thrift store for Dad to use as a meal caddy and book caddy and other-things caddy, and ordered dress ties and a belt for Hyrum who leaves soon for Brazil, and baked the Madeiran Bolo do Caco with sweet potato and garlic. I am a doer, always moving briskly from one job to the next, getting a lot done. But I rarely feel satisfied, and often feel irritable, rarely savoring the things accomplished. The doing of the thing has become more important than the thing being done, it seemed. After checking off an arms-length of boxes, I collapse, tired and tense and wanting to do nothing more. I could stand to slow down, to enjoy the doing of the thing rather than the mere checking of the box. I would, perhaps, relish each accomplishment. I confess that the banana cream pies did look wonderfully delicious.
(Pictured above: Bolo do Caco, traditional on the island of Madeira, a flat cake with sweet potato mixed in with the dough, brushed with garlic parsley butter.)
Courage at Twilight: Blessed Art Thou
The bushes are rounded, the water drained from the coiled garden hoses. The witches and scarecrows have moved into the dark basement, while the pilgrim couple watches the neighborhood from the front porch. The first snow fell before the leaves fell, and now the leaves have fallen, too. I raked mounds of big yellow sweet gum leaves from the gutter and across the sidewalk onto the lawn, as Dad wished, so he could vacuum them up with the riding mower. But the piles of leaves were much too deep for the mower. Advancing along the sidewalk, I raked the leaves into a neat windrow, as if for bailing, like hay, and each sweep of leaves onto the windrow rustled with the sound of small waves cresting and falling to lap gently at wet sand on a beach. I could hear the ocean in the raking of five-pointed leaves. The truth is, I expect God to bless me. I believe in his generosity. I believe in his intention to enrich my life, even if with adversity. I believe he will bless every human being with exactly those blessings that human needs in each moment for that human’s spiritual progress to the extent of that human’s willingness and ability to receive. The arrival of providence does not bring an accompanying ease, but rather an urgent invitation to be more than we have been. I believe that as I search for opportunities to enrich the lives of others, those opportunities will be provided, enriching my life in return. I believe God wants me and my children and all his human children to succeed, and will help us as we allow. Success, of course, as he defines, not as I define. He may bless me with hardship (he will bless me with hardship) just as he will bless me to grow through and heal from hardship, improving and ennobling in the process. I am learning that God is trustworthy. And I am learning, so slowly, to listen to his voice as he instructs me and guides me to love and to forgive and to serve. I hear his voice in the raking windrows of sweetgum leaves. And I left plenty of loose leaves to be sucked up by the lawn mower Dad managed to clamber onto and ride triumphantly and humbly across the lawn for the last time this year.
Courage at Twilight: Things Break
“I’m cold,” I heard Dad protest to Mom, who suggested he put on something warm. I retrieved his sweatshirt from his office/bedroom and helped him find the arms. Mom draped a crocheted blanket over him. Normally, Dad, when cold, would ask the leading rhetorical question, “Should we turn on the fireplace?” But the fireplace quit, despite the pilot light still burning—I was glad I smelled no gas—so we guessed a bad switch. Out of fear of dying unpleasantly, I do not tinker with gas plumbing or electrical wiring, so we called Adam’s HVAC, who can come in two weeks. Warmed up and growing hot, Dad cast off his blanket and shuffled to his office to write an email to a grandchild. Sitting in his office chair, it suddenly sank on failed hydraulics to its lowest setting, and he could not get up from the chair without help, and I could not repair the chair. While I baked cored apples filled with brown sugar, Splenda, and butter last week, I noticed the oven not heating well, and saw a molten metal bubble forming on the element. When the box from Amazon came, I switched the breaker to “off” (that I will do) and installed the new element, though the old wiring needed coaxing to fit the new leads. And I twisted and bent my glasses, because I put them on my bed and sat on them squarely. Things break. Sometimes they can be fixed. Dad’s new physical therapist, Jerry, came one evening with his New Zealand speak to do therapy, and I learned why therapists order, “Up up up!” when having Dad stand, so that he engages his hip flexors and quadriceps so he can stand tall and take full steps and not a mere forward-leaning controlled-fall shuffle. Jerry was gentle and patient and caring—I am always grateful for gentle, patient, caring people, in any profession. But later Dad complained to me about how weak he was, that this was his worst day since he left the rehab center a month ago. Such pronouncements sag my spirits, and I fret over any number of imagined impending crises. Yeah, things break. I pushed Dad in his wheelchair into the chapel Sunday morning—we were late, and I felt unhappy about being late—and Dad waved like teen royalty on a parade float as many congregants waved and smiled at him as we rolled down the aisle to the front handicapped pew. If his legs will not work, the wheelchair works wonderfully well. But I did not wave or smile—I was just the driver. My mayor’s mother passed away unexpectedly from a random blood clot lodged in her heart, and I expressed my genuine condolences with a little ornamental pepper plant looking like a bonsai Christmas tree with tiny red lights. I had known my boss’ mother, enjoyed meals and jokes, and I liked her and felt sad she was gone. Old people go, frequently, and I came home that night with renewed gratitude for my parents, an increased measure of tenderness and patience, for they are sweet and loving and generous, and I have them still. Things break, and we fix them, when we can, and continue onward.
Courage at Twilight: Mission Land
As a young man of 20, I spent two years living in Portugal, as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a white shirt and tie and pocket name plaque, teaching the Gospel to whoever would listen, and buttressing the new members of our young congregations. I became fluent in the beautiful Portuguese language, and I delighted in the clang of trolly cars and in the countryside of olive groves and vineyards, windmills and farms, cork trees and salt air blown in off the sea. I returned to the United States a changed man, having strengthened my convictions, and having sacrificed and labored on behalf of these people who I had come to love. Now 58, I was contemplating how I could strengthen my connection with my 16-year-old daughter, who is moving so quickly toward womanhood, who all to soon will fling herself into adulthood, and I thought, maybe a trip somewhere. I wanted meaning, meaning and beauty, and a bond we would share our whole lives. With those parameters, the solution soon became apparent—Portugal. Between them, my sisters Jeanette and Sarah spent every night I was gone caring for Mom and Dad, making the trip possible for everyone. After months of planning, our threesome launched, and trapsing one week in bustling chaotic Lisbon and one week on the idyllic island of Madeira, both my former fields of missionary labor. (Hannah invited her older brother to tag along, and he added so much to the adventure.) We saw, of course, Lisbon’s compulsory tourist sights. We sought out the traditional pastries (pasteis de nata were our favorite) and historic neighborhoods (like the narrow winding cobbled streets of Alfama on the capitol city hillside) and authentic working-class restaurants (where we ate sauteed cuttlefish our first night). Madeira’s scenery is achingly beautiful, and we explored the whole mountainous island, its coasts and peaks, is black-rock beaches and high scenic overlooks, its fruit markets and terraced vineyards. Most precious of all, I reunited with the first member of my Church on Madeira—Amélia, now 87 years old: cheerful, feisty, and lonely—at whose house the first Church meetings were held, and the small oval inlaid wood table where the first sacramental emblems were blessed and distributed to the just-as-small congregation. We visited her three times, telling the old stories, laughing at old blunders, baking banana bread, preparing a Sunday meal for her and her family, taking pictures, hugging, weeping at parting. Visiting Amélia meant infinitely more than visiting the gorgeous cathedrals and ancient castles, though we saw plenty of those, too. And on the long flight home, I contemplated how this had been a monumental trip for Hyrum and Hannah (and for me). It changed their lives, their perspectives of the world and their place in it, their perspectives of their parents and family and how they fit in, their perspectives of their Church and of missionary work and of the power of forging relationships of faith in the mission field through genuine loving labor, and the deep and eternal nature of those bonds. My children may not fully comprehend the power of their adventure, the transformational power, for a long time, perhaps not until they take their own children to their fields of mission labor a generation after. That is how it is with the generations, each learning what it can from the one before, and then teaching what it can to the next: “I lived right over there. I walked this street every day. This is what I often ate: half of a grilled chicken brushed with hot pepper oil; stewed squid; pasteis de bacalhau, pasteis de nata, papo seco bread with creamy cheese and quince marmelada. Look at the cobblestone streets and mosaic stone sidewalks, and up there the Castelo de São Jorge, and over there Cristo Rei….” And then to hear Hyrum bubble over, “I am so excited!” for his own imminent missionary service in Brazil. And then to hear Hannah effuse, “Dad, thank you so much!”
(Pictured above: the north shore of the island of Madeira.)
Lisbon and us from St. George Castle.
Visiting our Church’s Lisbon Temple (dedicated 2018).
A restored and working Portuguese wind mill, circa 1810.