Lila has come to spend the weekend with Mom and Dad and me. Being only two (almost three), she brought her parents along. I did not mind because I like them, too, in addition to her. “Come play Legos, Gwumpa Waja,” she sing-songed, and I sat by her little pajamaed body while we pieced together the bricks and sorted marbles by color. Lila dragged me over to the neighbor’s to push her on the swing with the blue seat. My sweetest memories of the last year include visiting my three grandchildren in Kentucky, Arizona, and Texas, now in Utah, Idaho, and Illinois. Their smiles and laughs and cuddles banish fear and distress and fill me with feelings of love and tenderness. With Lila here, however, at Mom’s and Dad’s house where I live, I find the generations confused, or mixed, in that I am both a grandfather and a child, the “Grandpa” of my children’s babies but still my mother’s “Baby.” “Are you tired, Baby?” Mom asks when I come home late from work. She showed me her journal entry from January 26, 1965, when I was seven months old: “Roger is really a big boy. He crawls all over the floor, coming after me. He holds onto chairs and things, and stands up. He also bumps his head plenty. His favorite foods are applesauce and bananas. He has a tooth now.” Dad delights to tell visitors how enthusiastically I emptied the cabinets of their pots and pans and lids, that no sooner had he put them away, then I would take them out again. And now here is Lila asking her grandpa to plant a garden with her, and to get the tiny shovels. We dig holes behind the shrubs, and plant rocks. And she jabbers in two languages, English and Spanish, as we dig and look for rocks to plant, and cover them up “for squirrels to find,” and she runs to drop the blue and red beanbags in the cornhole goal. Dad is 79 years older than Lila, and pointed out that when I am his age, Lila will be 30 years old. And I want her to stay two forever.
The Indian Food Fair sounded fun: the food (coconut chicken shahi korma is my favorite), the pulsing weaving music, the dance and gold-threaded dress, the lilting languages I do not know. I called Hannah to see if she might like to attend the fair with me. But she would be summiting, she explained, Utah’s Little Matterhorn (also Pfeifferhorn) on the same day with her mother and three brothers. Dad and I summitted this peak 25 years ago, thrilled to see moose munching on willows by the creek, exhilarated by the perfume of pine and fir on the cool mountain air, charmed by the tinkling rivulet, and finally reaching the boulder-strewn summit to be awed by the Salt Lake valley views. I felt that familiar nostalgic pang of loss at no longer being part of the equation, the sting of not being invited, even though my damaged feet would not have allowed me to join for the neuromas and surgeries and scars. I thought of them this morning, wondering where they were on the trail, if they had seen any moose, whether the air smelled of the pine and fir, if their thighs were burning beyond toleration, and hoping their boulder hopping on the fractured ridge line would be safe. I thought of them looking out over the Salt Lake valley from 11,586 feet, looking down on Salt Lake City, on Liberty Park, on the Indian Food Fair, on me sitting on a park bench eating my tikka masala in the shade. I thought again how it is my lot and my opportunity, both, to chart a new course, even if alone, to follow different paths to different peaks. I had invited a new friend to meet me at the park to eat Indian food, and we walked, and we talked, and we swayed to rhythmic melodies, and we enjoyed sitting on our park bench and savoring our tandoor and basmati, and we glanced at each other and wondered at each other’s thoughts and at our futures, and I pondered how paths unexpectedly converge, and split, and find each other again, to wander off.
(Image above of the Little Matterhorn’s fractured boulder ridgeline and summit, from Wasatch Magazine, used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
As we left church, Dad half wheeled and I half pushed his wheelchair down the sidewalk toward the handicapped parking stall where waited the Faithful Suburban, the Mighty V-8. He looked up at me and enthused, “This wheelchair business is working out pretty good!” I fell speechless with pleasant surprise. Dad was adapting, and while his condition continues to deteriorate, the wheelchair has actually improved his quality of life. Suzie came a few days later to give the house another look over for ways we could adapt the house to Dad, rather than Dad to the house. I had already elevated his reclining rockers by three inches, which Suzie was thrilled to see. Kindly and encouraging, she talked with Dad about how to dress more easily and safely, how to bathe more easily and safely, how to avoid falls and fatigue, and how to pace himself. She has us ordering various items of adaptive equipment, like a sock aid (complete with six illustrated sock aid steps) to pull on his socks without him needing to bend over or pull his feet up to his knees, and like a dressing stick to pull on his pant legs one at a time, and like a long-handled shoehorn to slip his feet into his shoes, and like sofa risers to lift the sofa height so he can escape the soft cushions. When the power wheelchair comes (I committed the unfortunate faux pas of calling it an electric chair), we will order 5:1 (five feet long to one foot tall) portable foldable ramps for the living room, and longer ones for the garage and front porch. Dad does not want to do any of this, but desire has become irrelevant: functionality is now what matters. These simple, inexpensive devices will help adapt his surroundings to himself, and himself to his condition. Like a sailboat tacking powerfully into the wind, I hope Dad will be able to pick up some speed and better enjoy the race.
I seethed and I fumed as I trimmed and I shaped the bushes and as I pruned the tree branches back from the house and as I ruminated on our home health debacle. My shoulders ached from raising the twenty-foot-long pole high into the canopy. I had been so excited to observe Weston spend three hours patiently gathering Dad’s medical condition data, kindly listening to Dad describe his growing paralysis, and giving us tidbits of helpful advice (like elevating the recliners). I had been so excited to have a physical therapist and an occupational therapist come to coach Dad how to live safely in his home, how to become stronger even. Knowing Dad liked his yardwork, Weston said PT would show him how to work safely in the yard and how to keep his balance. But PT came and pushed him too hard to ride the stationary bicycle and pushed him too hard to circle the house behind his walker and for days he was nearly too weak to move and never took him outside to train him in yardwork techniques and balance exercises. PT’s second visit contained no therapy at all, only computer problems, and an abrupt announcement that she was no longer needed and would not be coming back. Dad was too genteel to report her rudeness and abrasiveness to Weston, partly because he did not want her coming back to boss and belittle. And OT came and reported that, indeed, a few grab bars would be helpful, which Dad had in the first place informed her. Case manager Weston came a second time, today, spent no productive time with Dad, offered no suggestions or course of action, stated PT would not be returning, said he (the home health supervisor) had no idea who Dad might call to have grab bars installed, instructed Dad to do whatever exercise he felt was right for him and to devise his own treatment and strengthening plan, offered to get out of Dad’s hair, and announced that home health’s role was finished. He would not be coming back. That was it. That was the beginning and the end of home health. They had done nothing. I elevated the recliners (giving them full credit for the idea). Mom will find someone to install the grab bars. Nothing at all. Except I’m sure they billed Medicare for every visit. Dad felt diminished, belittled, abandoned, and disheartened, as if the great Home Health had decided he were a lost cause, too decrepit and paralyzed, too close to knocking off for home health to do any good. The great Home Health left Dad with the advice to figure out his own course of treatment and strengthening and balance and activity, as if the sum of their meager efforts was, We can’t help you. Figure out how to help yourself, if you can. Maybe Weston thinks Dad does not need home health care, that I, Roger Baker, am the de facto home health care provider. In 295 installments, I have not used this forum to vent anger or sarcasm or skepticism, but to find strength and tenderness and hope in the details of a very challenging experience. But today I am beside myself with frustration and discouragement at the utter lack of home health or home help or home care and feel abandoned to stumble along do our best by ourselves. But we still watch in wonder the hummingbirds from our dinner table, see the sugar-water level dropping, refill the feeder, marvel at their tininess and beauty, and contemplate agog their brave twice-yearly over-ocean migrations to warmer lands during our winter, and to know that the world is a beautiful and good place to be, home health be damned.
The two Brazilian women had invited us to dinner at a Brazilian restaurant where we looked forward to reminiscing on our many tender connections to Brazil. They run a small housecleaning business and work very hard scrubbing toilets and mopping floors and scouring sinks and vacuuming carpets to make a passable living. I had planned to pay for the group, but in the order line they whispered happily to me that they were paying for the group. I felt grateful for their generosity and mortified by their sacrifice. I mumbled a feeble protest, not wanting to hurt their feelings or draw attention. “Não pode ser,” I said—This cannot be. Would my dad be angry? they wondered. How could I say that Dad and I would both feel embarrassed without embarrassing and hurting them? Instead of explaining, I offered a compromise: they could pay for themselves and for Mom; I would pay for myself and for Dad. They accepted without hurt. But no one expected what followed. Dad’s steak and onions came out timely and well (medium), then Mom’s seafood stew. While Dad munched on his steak and Mom hunted for shrimp, we reminisced over avocados the size of cantaloupes, the colors and smells of the traveling street market feiras, neblinha fog rolling in from the Atlantic and over the big city of São Paulo, the fine falling garoando mist-rain for which we do not have an English word, and the cheerful generous people of Brazil. And Dad cannot simply resist telling about how when I was born the world had only cloth diapers and he had to wash them out by hand and how they strung ropes across the apartment to hang my drying diapers, but in the cold June humidity they would not dry so he pressed them dry with a hot iron, and I was beyond embarrassment and simply dumbly smiled. We spoke mostly in that most pleasingly musical language of Brazilian Portuguese. But our food never came: Solange and Ana and I had ordered several favorite Brazilian appetizers for our meal—coxinhas, bolinhos de bacalhau, esfihas, pasteis, kibe—and they never came. The owners were vacationing in Brazil, half the cooks and servers had called in “sick,” and the remaining two teenagers ran around overwhelmed and frantic. We checked with them several times on our orders. Several times they brought us the wrong orders, meant for other frustrated customers. Solange pilfered some white rice and black bean feijoada from the buffet, but the rice was only half-cooked—al dente would be kind. At nearly the three-hour mark, the frenzied young manager came to our table, apologized profusely for the problem, refunded some of our money, offered us free brigadeiro cake and vanilla pudim, and begged us to give them another try on another day with another kitchen staff. We thanked him. We laughed at our experience. We could have vented angry frustrations, but we laughed. We laughed because we had enjoyed such wonderful conversation, memories, impressions, and stories (even if they were about my cloth diapers). Solange’s and Ana’s meekness and cheer and forgiving positive spirit made anger and frustration impossible. And they had received no dinner at all! But the five of us together for three hours relished company and conversation, generosity and kindness, and had the best bad restaurant experience of our lives. Solange and Mom hugged a rocking dancing hug, smiling and laughing, and Ana jumped in. Dad received abraços, too, though he is not a hugger. And I did not complain at being embraced by two pretty ladies from my birth country of Brazil.
Dad made the rounds on his riding mower, the single yard-maintenance task left to him. He donned his straw hat and sprays his arms with SPF 100 sunscreen and vroomed rapidly around the yard, missing corners and spots here and there and not knowing or caring. On his mower, he is master. No driver license required. No traffic rules. He sat on the back patio, resting, after finishing the job, when a tiny Black-chinned Hummingbird zoomed across the yard but stopped and hovered one foot from Dad’s face, eyeing him closely, pointing a long sharp beak at him in an ambiguous manner, neither clearly malevolent nor benevolent, but clearly curious. Then she veered away to land on the feeder and lick sugar water with a pink tongue through that long beak. Did you know the Portuguese name for Hummingbird is Beija Flor, meaning Flower Kiss? Appropriate and romantically sweet. Dad found the up-close-and-personal hummingbird encounter endearing and exhilarating, and stumbled into the house to tell Mom and me. Dad does not get to see the hummingbirds Mom and I are always heralding with “There she is!” since he cannot turn his head and stiff neck. His encounter was thus all the more personal, far from routine. Hummingbirds are a fascinating combination of aggression and cuteness, peevishness and beauty. But Mom and Dad and I are just glad they have found us and keep coming. Their olive-green wings seem drab until the sunlight catches them just right, revealing a jeweled florescence. Three days later, a rotting stench filled the garage, and I remembered that Dad had mowed the lawn, leaving the grass to compress and putresce in the canvas mower bags. Vile black liquid dripped from the bag bottoms like bile. I steeled myself against a recurring gag and plastic-bagged the grass for disposal in the outside cans, where the grass will continue to rot in the hot sun for another five days before the garbage truck rescues us. Driving off to the grocery store later, Dad ventured, “Hey, Rog, you can ride the electric shopping cart, too, if you want to!” I tried to smile at this prospect that held no attraction for me whatsoever but that offered some insight into his initial lack of enthusiasm for the motor-assisted cart. After parking, I finally responded: “I’ll be right back, Dad,” and ran into the store to commandeer a cart and scoot it out the store doors and across the parking lot to Dad’s car door. “What did you think?” I pretended not to hear as I rushed a push cart over to Mom. But I think we found a new grocery store routine.
Weston sent Sarah and Suzie, a physical therapist and an occupational therapist, to see Dad a few days after the intake assessment. Sarah put him on the stationary bike and instructed him to ride until he was too tired to ride anymore, and to repeat the burnout every day. And she had him do what he will not do for me—amble around the house with his heavy-duty metallic blue walker, a stopwatch in her hand—and instructed him to practice every day because she would be timing him at every visit to see if he is improving. The day after Sarah’s “therapy,” Dad could not walk at all, and the therapy seemed obviously counterproductive to him. Suzie, who has a dozen hummingbird feeders at her house, looked over Dad’s house for ways we could make his life a bit easier. Dad’s most painful moments of the day, both physically and mentally, are standing up from his recliner. His pain is an 8 out 10 on the grimace scale, so severe that he avoids leaving his chair. She suggested we attach risers to the feet of his recliners so Dad does not have to rise from such a plush depth, but can slide out more easily to a standing position. What a simple idea, I thought. (Another Duh.) So, I brought home from Lowes some quality 2×3 lumber, cut it to size, drilled pilot holes, and attached two 26-inch lengths to the 26-inch two feet, then two more, adding a full three inches of height to the chair. He was quite excited to try his elevated chair, now much easier to stand up from. Of course, the increased height puts greater pressure on his hamstrings, so he must keep his feet elevated, which is better anyway for his edema. Dad came outside and watched me while I measured the lumber, and cut it with a crosscut saw, and drilled the pilot holes, with divots for the screw heads. Before he made it back into the house, the lumber risers were firmly anchored and his “new” chairs were ready. Such a simple aid for such a serious problem. And as we sat at the kitchen table eating our chicken rice almond casserole, two tiny spotted fawns wandered into the yard, stopping to nibble generously on Dad’s potentilla bushes. Both the mule deer and the potentilla are endemic to the nearby mountains, so go well together also in our yard. Each pull at the leaves tugged at me somewhat urgently me to shoo the fawns away, but Dad said, “Let them eat the whole bush. I don’t care. Don’t shoo them away. I like to see them, such darling creatures. I’m glad they are here. And I’m glad the hummingbirds come to the feeder.”
“I have cabin fever,” Mom sighed as we finished our Sunday dinner of baked pork chops with mustard-cream sauce and cumin-seed cabbage. “Then let’s go for a ride,” I offered. Mom would have been satisfied with a brief ride around the neighborhoods, but I drove the Mighty V8 toward Little Cottonwood Canyon, glacier gouged and gorgeous, boasting pine forests, enormous slabs of granite, and a cascading river. We commented on the incomparable beauty of these mountains as we drove up the narrow winding road, and expressed our gratitude at having these scenes so close to home. “That’s enough for me,” Mom said as we passed the Snowbird resort. “I’m ready to go home. I don’t have cabin fever anymore.” Back at home, I pointed out how multiple consecutive triple-digit days, and some active hummingbirds, had emptied the hummingbirds’ sugar water quickly, and the feeder hung empty. We watched a tiny Black-chinned hovering, testing, and not finding liquid food. Google says the correct mix is four parts water to one part sugar—and not to add red dye—so I refilled the feeder and brought back the birds. The doorbell rang, and Carolyn D’s daughter delivered a white Afghan, crocheted with time and love and tenderness, for Dad had compiled her husband’s World War II recollections before they died with him, just in time. Like Dad, Carolyn can no longer walk well, scooting along laboriously with a walker. But she can crochet. An hour later a violent summer thunderstorm blew and spat, teasing us unkindly with scant muddy drops that streaked the windows brown. Dad sat in his kitchen chair, watching the wind whip the trees, and hazarded to Mom, “If you were to wander over here, I would give you a hug.” In other words, I want to hug you, so please come to me, since I cannot come to you. In his hoped-for embrace, he expressed to Mom, “You’re such a wonderful person. I just love you.”
Dad hears better from the front church pew, which is cut out on one side to accommodate a wheelchair. Mom sits in the pew, and Dad sits in his wheelchair, the two holding hands with their faces lifted appreciatively toward the speakers. One eighty-year-young friend of Dad’s observed, “It’s good to see you using a wheelchair, Nelson,” implying how awful it has been to see him leaning into his cane and hanging on my arm and still barely making it down the aisle. In choir practice before church, we rehearsed the hymn “Have I done any good?” and at night I lay in my bed asking that question of myself, with dark and pressing doubts. For today is day 365 since I left my life alone and moved into a life with Mom and Dad as an awkward caregiver in their waning—today is my first anniversary, our first anniversary. Will there be any more anniversaries? Even before moving into their house, I knew the experience would be intense and trying, not for any fault of theirs, but from the story’s inexorable ending, and from my own character flaws, and that I would tend to lose my sense of self, my sense of direction in life, my sense of fatherhood in my renewed sonhood, my sense of the future and self-purpose, and I knew I would need to write about my experience, daily, to work things through in my mind, to keep from being swallowed alive. I felt compelled to write, and indeed I did write daily entries for 265 consecutive days before faltering in fog and fatigue. This is essay #290: 290 shards of shattered glass through which to examine and strain to comprehend my experience in all its complex facets. If I have not done much good, that failure has not been for lack of arduous effort. If I have done some good after all, that good was worth the effort. This post is not pandering for praise or angling for affirmation, and is not focused on self-flagellation. This post simply poses the question, and makes a way for me to move on in the mission of doing what I can to bring comfort and safety to my parents as they careen toward their end, that the end may be comfortably and safely in their beloved home at the foot of the great snow-topped aspen-clad mountain. But, still, and always, I shall ask myself that question, and sing the hymn quietly in the darkness to myself at night.
Have I done any good in the world today?
Have I helped anyone in need?
Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad?
If not, I have failed indeed.
Has anyone’s burden been lighter today
Because I was willing to share?
Have the sick and the weary been helped on their way?
When they needed my help was I there?
Then wake up and do something more
Thank dream of your mansion above.
Doing good is a pleasure, a joy beyond measure,
A blessing of duty and love.
Dad hates to be pampered or waited upon. Being waited on implies weakness and inability and obsolescence. I deflect the issue by saying, “I’m already up for my own second helping—I might as well get yours.” For he can no longer carry his dinner plate to the table, or his glass of milk to his chair, needing both hands for the cane. We discovered, though, a new use for the unused walker: a delivery device for his dinner plate, riding on the cushioned seat. So, I am back to not waiting on Dad—if he is already up, that is. At night Dad leaves his cane downstairs, hanging on the banister, because he cannot carry the cane as he pulls himself up the stairs by dual railings. Weston suggested the acquisition of a second cane for upstairs, to help Dad from the bed to the bathroom and back. (Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?) Jeanette ordered a sleek black telescoping cane on Amazon Prime, and the cane came that very night. Dad enjoyed opening the box and piecing the cane together and adjusting it. The new cane became his primary cane, his downstairs cane, his daytime cane, and the faded blue floral aluminum cane, its rubber foot wearing dangerously slanted and smooth, was retired from active duty to become the midnight bathroom shuttle cane. When Dad dropped his reading glasses, and when Dad snarled about the unreachable unfathomable no-man’s-land floor, Weston suggested we purchase a grabber, where, upon squeezing the handle, pincers at the rod’s end close upon the fallen object. (Duh! Again.) Jeanette added two grabbers to the cane order, one for upstairs and one for down. “You’ve got your own handy-dandy fancy-shmancy picker-upper now, Dad, so I’m relieved of pick-up duty.” If we could help Dad turn his head on his arthritic neck, he would see more quickly the Black-chinned Hummingbird landing on the sugar-water feeder, slipping its long needle beak into the fake flower holes—the sugar is real—suspended three feet from the kitchen window. Perhaps a simple change of seat, looking head-on out. (Duh!) “There he is! He’s so pretty.” Mom erupted, excited, when the tiny bird landed then flew off. “He’s back!” Eating our thin spaghetti and sauce and chicken meatballs, with fresh buttered salted corn-on-the-cob on the side, Dad began to sing an old comic song, “You get no bread with one meatball!”
“I can’t walk!” Dad began as the home health case manager began his three-hour assessment. I felt proud of Dad for facing forcefully the reality of his condition. “And I’m going downhill fast.” Weston listened to everything Dad had to say as he inquired about every aspect of Dad’s health, from medications and mental health and mobility to bowels and balance. He invited Dad to stand up from his kitchen chair, which required all Dad’s strength and induced level-8 pain in his legs. “One gets to the point,” Dad explained, “where the pain induces one to not get up from the chair. But I’m still getting up.” Weston invited Dad to walk from the kitchen to his living room reading chair, using his cane and the kitchen counters and the piano top to surf to his destination and to point and fall in his chair. Medical professionals measure balance on a 25-point scale, with 25 being the ideal, and, say, 9 being very concerning. “The goal is not to get you to the ideal of 25,” Weston explained, “but to get you to from 9 to 10, or 12, or 15, to achieve improvement. Improved balance always leads to increased safety.” Dad was not confident he could improve, but promised to give it a try, to do whatever works. I have talked often with my children about improving their life balance, between work, school, church, play, social life, health, exercise, nutrition, and family, and that our balance shifts constantly with our life changes. I balanced my life as well as I knew how when I felt utterly crushed by work and responsibility and church and duty and sickness and keeping food on the table and clothes on their little backs and the bills paid. And at times I teetered and did not balance well. But not for lack of effort: I worked at balance, practiced it, and grew and strengthened and improved. So, I teach them today about balance. Weston taught Dad how to practice and improve his balance by standing in the corner against the walls of a room, with a walker in front, and letting go of both the walls and the walker for seconds at a time, seconds of being supported by nothing but his own balanced strength, knowing he could lean onto the walls or into the walker, wheels braked of course.
I could hear a new voice from upstairs, a raised voice that began with “Hello!” and I knew that Sarah was giving Dad a long talking to. Through Marco Polo I had told her I needed professional advice on how to help Dad, and she had come with resources and with the right tone of voice, the tone of voice Dad learned years ago not to argue with or fight against, the tone of voice that said, This will happen! When I thought the most important declarations had been declared, I thought I ought to join the conversation. “Dad, you won’t ever get better. Getting better is not the goal. That’s the reality of where you are. You should have begun using the walker a year ago, not never. You should have begun using the wheelchair six months ago, not last week. The goal is to keep you safe. It’s time you ordered a motorized wheelchair.” And he did not want to discuss an electric wheelchair. “But Dad, when people see you zipping around in your motorized chair, they will think how young and active and motivated you still are, and how smart. When they see you hanging on Roger and leaning on your cane and stumbling all stooped, they think how old you are and how you’re going downhill and how decrepit you’ve become. The wheelchair is not a humiliation. What you’re doing now is a humiliation. The wheelchair is a tool of triumph, and will extend and improve your life and give you new energy and independence!” And I agreed with every word she said, because they were all true. She was not angry or rude, of course, just insistent that we face our reality and adjust our strategy. She softened her voice: “We’re not ready for you to go, Dad. Your mind is still laser sharp: you read several books a week. We don’t want you to fall. We don’t want you to break an arm or a leg or a hip. We want you to stay safe so you can live in your home for years.” And I agreed with every word she said, because they were all true. Dad knew, too, that she spoke truth, insistent and intractable and loving truth. And he assented. “I’m not ready to go,” he declared. “I will do whatever works.” Home health is coming next week. Physical therapy is coming next week. Occupational therapy is coming next week. Dad’s a fighter, and is not ready to yield the fight. Dad has time yet, years of time, and we are determined to help him live those years.
(Pictured above: Mom and Dad in 2008.)
You can imagine cream-colored carpets gathering dirt during regular big-family events where my siblings and their children and their children’s children gather to eat and talk and sing and eat more and tell stories and play games. Certain high-traffic areas are especially prone to pollution: passages between sofas; recliner curtilages; where the little ones play. Dad has always enjoyed keeping the carpets clean, with his own carpet shampooer that begins with clear water and soap and ends with water dyed black. He brings the carpets back to clean newness. When I came home from work on an evening, I found him pushing the machine with one hand, barely balancing with his cane in the other, grimacing and red, and awkwardly bent at knee and hip, seeming ready to sink at any moment. Seeing a crisis in the making, I stood with my back against the wall, waiting for him to collapse, my body tense and taut and my mind stressed and focused. I do not take over and I do not chide or boss. I wait and watch. But this waiting is far from a passive, peaceful exercise: while the body is poised and still, the energized state of preparedness to pounce in advance of disaster takes a toll. And at church he leans so heavily on my arm as I tip-toe stoically past the pews, waiting again for the trip and fall, or the spontaneous collapse. Whether or not he was ready, for me the time for the wheelchair had come, so we had a talk. I explained that our church mobility method was too stressful for his body, leaving him weak and fatigued for days, and was too stressful for my mind, with his every step an imminent disastrous fall. I confessed to not being mentally sufficiently strong to stop my life’s orbit to stand with my back against the wall and watch him struggle and anguish over once-easy tasks, to stand tense and taut waiting for him to fall, at which moments I want to scream at my impotence and the agony and futility of his struggle. I gave the kindest gentlest ultimatum I knew how: “When we go to church tomorrow, I would like you to use your wheelchair.” It would be much easier for him and for me both, and I would appreciate it. He looked at me, emotionless, then looked into some unseen distance, without a word, and I knew he was wrestling with overwhelming feelings of uselessness and obsolescence and whether the fight were worth the effort. Dad has told me a hundred times, “I’m a fighter!” and his fighting spirit has seen him through many an adversity, has kept his family and his own life going in spite of terrible obstacles. Assaulting Dad’s dignity and dousing the hot ember of his fighting spirit would hasten his demise and would be perhaps my life’s greatest sin. So, I left my ultimatum-turned-plea floating heavily in the silent room, hoping he could find the mental niche that would allow him to use his wheelchair and to still fight on for life. The next morning, he greeted me from his bowl of Cheerios and blueberries with a smile and called out, “Rog! It’s time for church! Grab that wheelchair and start up the Mighty V8!” Hallelujah! sighed my spirit. Glory Hallelujah!
We were here! At the Temple Quarry Trail, for a new adventure, the adventure of the rolling immobile, Mom and Dad guided by myself and my sister Sarah pushing their wheelchairs. I discovered the short asphalt trail when finding my hiking/biking trail which starts from the same trailhead. Availing ourselves of the handicapped parking, and knowing the restroom was there just in case any of us needed it, we set off on the trail, Mom and Dad debuting their “new” used wheelchairs. The trail was paved, but there was nothing flat about it, and I strained, my body slanted to 45 degrees, to muscle the chair and its occupant up the incline. This was the place where a century and a half ago the newly-arrived Latter-day Saints chiseled by hand enormous granite blocks from the mountain as foundation stones for their new Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah. The men worked in pairs, one holding a pointed steel bar, the other striking it with a sledgehammer, the bar man turning the bar a quarter turn, and the sledger striking the bar again, and the turn, and the strike, slowly drilling a hole six inches into the rock. I cannot help but wonder how many arm bones and hand bones and finger bones were shattered by errant blows. After a line of holes had been “drilled,” the mason inserted steel wedges and hammered until the granite broke with a “crack” in a neat line. We could see the wedge holes in the giant slab of rock before us, and we shook our heads in awe at how the rudimentary techniques and tools of the time nevertheless resulted in a gloriously beautiful and sacred structure, a monument to the Living God and a tribute to his humble stonemasons and carpenters and plasterers and painters and tinsmiths and goldsmiths. We pushed on, the river cascading in our ears, the granite mountain soaring overhead, the trees closing in gently over the trail where we pushed our parents. There were their childhood canyons and rivers, their playgrounds and adventure grounds, and now here they were at the ends of their lives able to enjoy again, though differently, the sounds and sights and smells, because of wheeled chairs we all wish they did not need but which make these nature walks possible and pleasurable and safe (presuming one always engages the wheel breaks when letting go of the handles, which as a novice wheelchair facilitator I was careful to do). Then the darkening clouds opened and baptized us with a gentle warm summer shower, and we turned our faces upwards and embraced each raindrop. The Salt Lake Temple was completed and dedicated in 1893, a full forty years after its commencement. The temple foundations stones weighed dozens of tons each, and broke the wagons and exhausted the oxen and foundered the canal boats and finally came more easily when the railroad spur reach the quarry. But these remarkable people built that stunning thing which we call The House of the Lord. The Temple stands strong and tall on its old granite foundation stones, not granite at all, actually, but quartz monzonite, a pretty white with black specks. “White granite” they called it, and I am happy to call it granite, too. We all thought we should roll the Temple Quarry Trail often, to get out of the house, to get into nature, to see the canyon as the seasons change and the gambel oaks and mountain maples and boxelders and wild cherries lose their leaves and the stream slows and freezes and the granite mountain stands as strong and as tall as ever.
In Little Cottonwood Canyon on the Temple Quarry Trail.
(Granite stonemason photo from Getty Images, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
(Salt Lake Temple photo from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
I had served Mom and Dad their plates of chicken strips sauteed with red bell pepper and onion, and their bowls of refried and black beans, cumin-taco seasoned, with cucumber slices and crenshaw cubes on the side, and was preparing my own dinner plate, when Mom shrieked, “Roger! Terry just fell into the window well! One moment he was standing there, and the next he was gone!” Spurred by the memory of Window Well Horrors Act 1 and Act 2, I spurred out the back door in my red socks, wrapped in my baking apron, to where Terry’s head poked up from the window well, blood streaming into his eye and down his face from a head gash. Hooking an arm under his, I heaved while he stepped up the ladder (thank goodness there was a ladder), his legs trembling, his face ash gray, and sat him in a chair, triaging: How do you feel? (fine) Where do you hurt? (my chest) Are you dizzy? (no) Can you walk? (I think so). With him stable, I barged into his house to blurt the situation to his wife, grab wet towels, and shove ice cubes into a grocery bag. First on his head went the wet towel, second the bag of ice. Then I begged his patience as I wiped blood from his eye, nose, mouth, cheeks, chin, and neck, and removed his blood smeared glasses. “How are you feeling now?” I asked for the second of a dozen times. “Stupid!” he spat. Like with Gabe and Dad, a perfectly placed step on the window well cover had cause Terry’s to flip from its seat and drop him into the deep hole, gashing his scalp as he fell. And the blood had flowed. Off Pat rushed him to the hospital, emerging four hours later with stitches and a bandage and Percocet for the pain of his upper body being suddenly spread and stretched by his arms hitting the well on the way down. But no broken bones or torn muscles or ligaments. “How are you feeling now?” I asked at midnight. “Sore,” he signed. “And stupid!” A loaf of chocolate chip banana bread the day after, and fresh corn on the cob from Dad the next, and we had become “the best neighbors ever.” Neighborliness aside, had Mom not glanced out her window at precisely the moment Terry fell into the well, no one would have known, perhaps for a long time, and the list of possible horribles is too long. But Mom did look out her window at that precise moment, and Mom did see him fall, and Mom did send me bolting with a scream, and I was there when I was needed. And Terry (82) is alright, asleep, Percocet prone in his recliner. He is safe. In one short year, window wells at our two houses have gobbled up three people. If we were a statistical cohort, the country would be in a serious window well epidemic. At some point in the late night, I realized I had been privileged to enact the rescue in all three scenes, and with my presence being the common denominator, I hereby decree that, from henceforth, stepping by any person on a window well cover of any type, shape, or material, for any reason, is hereinafter strictly prohibited.
“This reminds me of Brazil!” Mom exclaimed, not so much for the garish lemon-yellow and orange-burnt-umber and royal-blue paints and the grimy broken baseboards and the uncleanable black-and-white-checkered linoleum-square floor, but the for smells and humid heat of fried corn paste and stewed pinto beans and shredded port, and for the smiling brown-skinned servers and the radio trumpets and the humble homemade feel of the place. I had brought Mom and Dad to Carlos’ El Salvadoreño Café, for grilled bean-and-cheese pupusas and cinnamon-rice horchata and fried plantain empanadas with sweet cream for dessert. “Las pupusas se tardan. Por favor tengan paciencia.” Pupusas take time. Please be patient. I knew this from experience, and so we reminisced beneath a blue El Salvadoran flag pinned to the wall. We ordered two pupusas each, but could eat only one-half each—I had forgotten how filling pupusas are—and took the leftovers home for next day’s dinner. I helped Dad walk to the restroom, but the return trip took a bad turn. Even with my arm hoisting under his, his legs suddenly and simply would not move; they began to shake and buckle. A kind and friendly teenage server rushed to buttress Dad’s other arm, and we inched across the restaurant floor. “I don’t feel old,” Dad lamented, “I feel paralyzed.” And I wondered if both were two faces of the same reality. Mom was waiting in the cooling Mighty V8, which I had parked just outside the restaurant door. Despite the struggle, we considered the outing a success. It does Mom good to get out of the house, and it does Dad good to be out with Mom. We may not venture out again, to Carlos’ Café or anywhere else, without a wheelchair, but I am thankful the wheelchair may make further fieldtrips possible, safe, and even enjoyable. My Sunday-night snack of pupusa revuelta, with a slice of hot banana chocolate walnut bread, hit the spot, though I wish I had saved some horchata.
The mountain bike trail proved too challenging for me: too steep and too rocky for too long. I stopped pedaling a dozen times to rest and drink and slow my racing heart. Walking the steepest stretches, I finally reached the top of the trail, marked by a bridge over the river, set Dad’s red vintage Specialized against a tree, and stepped down the fractured granite to the riverside, where I knelt and cupped icy water onto my feverish head. How relieving that cold water felt, and I calmed and relaxed. The river cascaded violently and deafeningly down and past, lurching between thousands of giant rough angular granite boulders. My peripheral vision detected a short-tailed gray bird land on a mid-river rock downstream, bobbing on her backward knees, lifting her very-short tail with each bow. She fluttered from boulder to boulder, thrusting her black beak into the current to pick nymphs and rollers off rocks, working her way toward me, at times even immersing and walking along the river bottom to find insect morsels. I sat perfectly still and she paid me no heed as she came to within six feet, preening her delicate gray plumage before me in a spot of full sun, then hopped back into the shadows to work her way upstream and around a bend fifty feet off. What an encounter! Forty years ago, Dad and I left the Sawtooth Mountain trail to follow the stream, and saw a little gray bird with a short tail hopping and bobbing along a log fallen across the stream. The bird grasped the bark with its long feat and stepped around the circumference of the log from dry air to upside-down and under water, emerging dry and pretty on the other circumference side. Dad and I were gob smacked. A Robin-like bird that walks and hunts underwater in a swift mountain stream? We had never heard of such a bird. But our field guide introduced us to the American Dipper, and, though a colorless non-descript little bird, she has become one of our favorites. Memories of our first Dipper and the stream and the forest and the mountains and the moose and trout and bear and beaver and the wild blueberries flooded back to Dad’s perfect recollection as I described my new and fortuitous encounter. I discovered as a boy that Nature comes to me when I am still. I do not call her or pursue her. I study and I watch and I wait, in good places and at right times, and Nature’s path veers toward mine to grace me with intimate unearned wildlife experiences. My children know this, and we both marvel at Nature’s magical providence. The butterflies come, and I know their names and their habits, and I talk to them: “Hello Beautiful,” I whisper to the Tiger Swallowtail or the Red-spotted Purple. “You look lovely and strong today.” The deer come, and the beaver, the Red Slider turtle and the Belted Kingfisher and Clark’s Grebe and Black-crowned Night Heron. “Hello pretty Mama,” I once whispered to a Mule Deer doe suckling her spotted fawn, the mother taut with fear, ready to pronk away, and I reassure her, “Don’t worry, little Mama, I will not hurt you or your magical spotted fawn. You need not fear me. I will wait right here until you are ready for me to pass.”
(Photo above from eBird.org, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Pictured below: photos of Little Cottonwood trail, creek, and canyon. The trailhead is a ten-minute drive from Mom’s and Dad’s house.
“Look! There are two birds perched in the top of that quaking aspen tree,” Dad enthused. “Those aren’t birds, Nelson,” Mom corrected. “They are leaves.” A month later, while I weeded the flower garden of its “carpet of weeds,” as Dad called it, I saw that the two resolute bird-leaves clung to their spot in the tree. When Dad discovered I was working outside in the cooler heat of a summer morning, he hurried with all the torpor of a nearly 90-year-old to dress and join me in the yard. “I want to work outside with Roger,” he told Mom. Before he came outside, I hoed and raked and piled weeds, and shaved Irish Spring soap on the flowers to deter the urban deer from munching, and I thought about meeting my date the night before, and several other women I met at the singles conference and on the dating app I both like and loathe. Dad shot me an avuncular grin last week when I informed him I had a date. I met Shar, with long flowing red hair, at a park where I had unfolded a blue gingham tablecloth and set out the quiche I had managed to bake that day. She was sweet and kind and affirming despite my awkward boyish 58-year-old attempts at romance. “You did all this for me?” she asked with some emotion. Yes, I did, because I wanted to make our meeting nice for her, and for me. I did not want ham sandwiches or fried chicken; I wanted to make and bring a special homemade meal. In recent weeks, I have met Rie, persisting through bar exam preparations despite a traumatic brain injury, and Chris, who thought the restaurant’s azeite olive oil of low quality, and Sol, who sallies forth to text once in a while then withdraws, and Deb, who has grown distant, and Lynn, who teaches Bronte and came down with Covid and cancelled, and Tawny, with seven children, and I have seven children, and oh my gosh! can I imagine having fourteen children with all their spouses and children? no I cannot. All wonderful, kind, pleasant women whom I have enjoyed meeting and whom I respect. I am learning (again) that dating requires meeting new people, and meeting new people requires courage and effort, and finding courage requires me to believe in myself in spite of rejection and risk. Shar and I dipped strawberries in sour cream and rolled them in brown sugar and munched the pleasurable sweet-tart-sour combination. And we painted canvas boards and glued on buttons and paper dragonflies, and I felt so grateful she thought the evening was fun and so grateful she did not mind my timid nerdiness. “Rog!” Dad called out when I walked through the door. “Tell us all about your date!” And I happily did.
“I don’t care,” Mom reacted as Dad explained his concern. In my experience, peoples’ declarations of “I don’t care!” betray a deep caring about the very things they disavow caring for. I do it myself, though each time I utter the phrase, I pause to examine why I care so much, and I find that instead of apathetic, I am feeling threatened, or stressed, or vulnerable, and wish I did not have to care so much. Dad said “I don’t care” when the resident mule deer nibbled all the tiger lily blooms just before they opened—irresistible moist sweet morsels. He loves to see the doe and her fawns saunter across the back lawn, and delights when they bed down under the low pine boughs. Mom and Dad and their visiting children and grandchildren never tire of calling out, “Look! Deer!” at the sleek lithe wild pretty creatures glimpsed through the kitchen window. I opened the plantation blinds Tuesday morning to see a miniature mule deer covered in creamy spots chewing contentedly on lilac leaves and felt, like Dad, that I did not care if the fawn consumed every flower in the garden. So, while the neighbor shoos the deer out of his yard, we sit at the kitchen table and stare at them with wonder in our own yard. Still, I shaved a whole bar of Irish Spring in and around the lily bushes in hopes the new blooms would be spared. “I have watched them cross the road,” Dad explained. “They stand at the curb and look left, then right, then cross when there are no cars.” Hunger and cold push the mule deer out of the mountains that tower above our neighborhood, and once acclimatized they never leave. Those mountains called to us this week, so we drove to the Albion Basin at the very top of Little Cottonwood Canyon to see the wildflowers and to hike to Cecret Lake. A winter avalanche filled the alpine lake with ice and rocks and mud, the brown piles of ice still melting in July. We asked the forest ranger about the lake’s name, and he told us that while 19th-Century miners were hard-working and enterprising, they were not necessarily men of letters—they spelled phonetically, and Cecret sounded every bit as correct as Secret, so their Cecret name for the lake stuck. The glacial basin nestling Cecret Lake is decorated with jagged rock escarpments, pine and fir forests, and wildflower meadows. The many beautiful flower colors and shapes inspired us: exotic creamy columbine; blue beardtongue and larkspur; purple lupine; pink and red paintbrush; yellow glacier lilies; delicate sticky geraniums; white and pink and red firecracker penstemon; and tiny-petaled blue forget-me-not’s. “I call them ‘remember-me’s’,” Hannah announced, to my delight, and I pondered how nice it is to be remembered, and wanted, and respected, and loved. How nice it is when someone cares.
(Pictured above: field of Forget-Me-Not’s in the Albion Basin.)
(Pictured below: the Albion Basin, near Cecret Lake.)
They did not know what to say, so they said nothing, and I suffered alone. When I separated and divorced almost seven years ago, not one neighbor, not one congregation member, not one ministerial leader approached me with friendship or compassion or support. They did not know what to say, apparently, so they stayed away and said nothing at all, and I anguished utterly alone. (Thank God, Mom and Dad and Sarah and Jeanette and Carl and Paul and Megan and Don and Carolyn and Steven—parents, siblings, and three friends—they loved me through.) I think that “I don’t know what to say” is a hideous excuse for pretending not to see, and for withdrawing and withholding, and for saying nothing. I reject it. How easy it would have been for anyone to say, “I am so sorry!” or “What can I do to support you?” or “You will get through this, and I want to be there with you as you do.” I reject it: actually, we do know what to say, but we are reluctant to feel another’s pain, afraid to do the emotional work of empathy. Just: say anything kind. That ought to be easy. When our neighbor’s infant grandson died in his crib in their house this week, constricted by a blanket laid there to warm and comfort the baby boy, dozens of men and women rushed to the house and kept coming every day for weeks, with meals, with hugs, with encouragement, with loving silence, with tears, and with other assurances of love and hope. I did not know what to say, and I did not go, right away. But I had rejected that justification, and I had determined never to stay away for the lack of the right words. Instead of words, I took over a plate of hot crêpes stuffed with chocolate almond frangipane (French pudding) and handed the goodie plate over with a smile and said the words “You might want to use a fork—they are a bit messy” and “This is an authentic French dessert” and “I don’t know what words to say” and “So many people love you and care for you and mourn with you and have hope for your healing and happiness.” And he embraced me and said, “Thank you. I can’t wait to give them a try.” After church today, a group of women surrounded the grieving grandmother and talked and cried and hugged and counseled—they loved. Dad observed to me, “That is more than just a group of women talking. Christ is there with them, healing.” And I knew Dad spoke truth.
The front door nob when turned emits a pervasive little squeal upon the first turn, never the second or third, such that our comings and goings are never a secret. The squeak begs for lubrication, and goes without—once the door shuts, I forget, for the squeal comes with the opening not the shutting of the door. Out that door we piled, into the suburban, loaded with coolers and cabanas and chairs, on our excursion “to the Uintas” the old east-west range in the younger north-south Rockies. We set the “easy-up” cabana over the picnic table at the edge of Moose Horn Lake, and we eased Mom and Dad down the shallow trail to their camp chairs under the cabana from where they gazed out over the lake where the zebra trout were rising for gnats, at the towhee flitting low in the dwarf spruces, at the robin dangling a worm lakeside, at the paintbrush and wild strawberry and blue columbine blossoms, at the layered formations on the back side of Bald Mountain, some lying flat and dark, others standing crumbled and rusty, evidence of tectonic cataclysm. These views formed Dad’s definition and experience of wonder. “I used to come here when I was young,” Dad began, recounting how he bought an old jalopy and cut off the roof to make the car a convertible and draped a blanket over the occupants with holes cut out for their heads, how he put a “bumble bee” on his fly line and lowered it from his perch on a house-sized boulder and how when the bee hung six inches above the water an enormous trout leapt to devour the bee and how the beautiful sleek strong creature hung wriggling for a moment then flipped itself free and flew back to the water. Dad told us how he came often to the lakes of the high Unitas to fish, and how his best fishing day was when the rain drizzled down and he floated his fly and the fishes struck and struck and he caught and caught. Purple-black clouds began to gather, as they can do several times a day in these high mountains, and knowingly we packed up and shoved off, grateful to be in a warm suburban with a roof to protect us from the sudden deafening blinding hailstorm that carpeted the forest with billions of white balls of ice. Might this be Dad’s last trip to the Uintas, where he can relive in context the happy youthful memories of driving the jalopy and dangling the bee and looking up into the rain? Reaching home, 98 degrees Fahrenheit to the Uinta’s 46, I turned the door knob and did not hear the iconic squeal, for I had oiled it as we left.
Pictured above: Glacier Lilies
Amy came to visit her Grandma and Grandpa this week. Sunshine could not come conveniently on the plane, but Amy’s Dad drove him in his cage from Arizona to Utah several days later. When Sunshine saw Amy, he waddled quickly over to Amy and–I kid you not–gave her hand a little lick, a lick normally reserved for catching cockroaches. Though I cannot see emotion in this lizard’s features, without a doubt I saw him express enthusiastic and real affection for his human.
Most of Barber’s Adagio for Strings is intensely hushed and weeping, so Mom turns up the volume, but then The School for Scandal blares its horns and winds and Mom mercifully lowers the volume down to middling. Yesterday’s emotional volume flood-gushed and cymbal-crashed and left me feeling worn and ready to withdraw for an extended sabbatical to my cool dark cave. More than five-hundred singles had gathered at their annual conference, people just like me: 41+ years old, friends and members of my Church, divorced, widowed, or never married. I had plumbed my vulnerability reserves and found just enough courage to attend my first-ever event for older singles. I stood in a corner and scanned the crowd, not as a predator, but as a fascinated intimidated spectator who feared being thrust into the arena. People of all sizes, styles, and shapes, elegant to homely, hubris to humility. Women glanced at me curiously (thirstily?), and men haughtily, and moved on. I recognized that here was a room filled with pain and struggle, filled with dark disappointments, filled with raw effort and growth and triumph—these have all been mine, too, so I guessed I fit fairly in. I met many over ice-breakers and Polish sausages: Jessica, who has lost 70 pounds, no longer eats sugar, and does not work, being supported by her children; and Keith, who lost his wife to cancer, waited six months, and now is on the hunt; and Deborah, a graphics artist and child advocate who lost a son to muscular dystrophy and loves nature and hiking and was delightful to talk to; and Eric who recently moved from the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico and who “just” runs a local warehouse; and Eileen, who jumped in to help set up round tables and unfold steel chairs and toss tablecloths because she was there and was needed; and many others during a black-out bingo mixer in which I would not participate because one had to make animal impressions (I finally yielded one dead-pan “ruff ruff”) and show off dance moves (having lost them decades ago, if I ever had them), gaze into someone’s eyes unspeaking for sixty seconds (oh God, never again!), and play rounds of Rock Paper Scissors to help ladies get their “bingo!” (kind of fun, actually). Keith decided he was my pal, and stuck to me while I mingled and politely conversed with the ladies. A room full of pain, I thought, and triumph. And I decided I admired every single person present (well, they were all single) for their willingness to be vulnerable, their courage to show up and be seen, their determination to hold intact their sense of value, their resolve to grow through suffering. Dancing came later, but I felt too terrified to attend, and Mom and Dad had a neighborhood party to go to, and I was their driver. I would like to see Deborah again.
(Pictured above: a small number of our group who hiked to the lower falls of Battlecreek Canyon, my favorite part of the singles conference activities.)
“I’ll tell you what’s on my list,” Dad announced. (1) He wanted to mix a few tablespoons of cement to fill the cracks where mortar had fallen out of the brick mailbox pedestal when it capsized. (2) He wanted to trim new growth from the juniper hedge where the twenty-foot-tall trees, covered in powder-blue berries, had begun to infringe on the public sidewalk. (3) He wanted to hoe the remaining weeds out of the flower garden—the deep-rooted entwining morning glory grows a foot a day. (4) He wanted to clean the sidewalks of dust and sticks and leaves with his two-stroke blower. “I’m not saying these jobs are for you,” he insisted. “I’m just telling you my job list for myself.” Of course, I knew his body would balk at these jobs, except maybe the mortar. With a free hour, I went to work with the DeWalt hedge trimmer and carefully, slowly, carved a clean new vertical line against the sidewalk edge, taking care not to leave bulges and not to carve out concave curves. My critical eye searched out and eliminated defects Dad might detect. The aromatic trimmings filled a thirty-gallon garbage can. A smiling walker came along just as I finished the job, and she thanked me. Then the hoeing and weeding and sweeping and blowing. Dad, meanwhile, set to on the mortar. An overturned garbage can served as a stable palette for mixing mortar, a camp chair his painter’s seat, and the grass his paint box with the tools and ingredients arranged. He mixed and scraped and mortared and rubbed, perfectly able and happy to do the job, and I did not hover, though I admit to watching from my upstairs office, writing. The new mailbox is in, though Burke had to cut off the back, remove a two-inch ring, then reattach the two pieces of the box with duct tape to insert into the hole. The old capstone is sledged to pieces and in the city garbage cans, and the new stone installed. Dad finished the job and sat long in the sun, slathered with SP100, gathering strength for the great labor of standing up from a chair. I checked the hedge again today just to make sure it was still straight, and exhaled my relief. In the flower bed, three little ice plants had surfaced, having survived last month’s ice plant purge. These I transplanted to two orange crocks, where they immediately set to blooming, and I cannot wait until they spread and overtop the rims and cast their bright blooms to the sun. The blooms begin close as the sun begins to set and the sky dusks. Excuse me for a moment: I can see Dad needs my help getting up from his chair at the curb.
I waltzed up the river with strong strokes. Pull-rest-rest. Pull-rest-rest. The hen and her ducklings huddled tight against the bank looking every bit the bunch of muddy roots. How do ducklings love their father drake? I wonder. He has flown this stretch of river. “Happy Father’s Day, Dad!” came the texts. Is that how it is done, I wonder: four small typed words with a diminutive exclamation mark? I handed Dad a thick old book, yellowed, wrapped in newspaper, in a red paper sack, to thank him for being my father. Fiorello LaGuardia: the Italian Mayor of New York City who took on the Tammany Hall political machine, and won. A black-crowned night heron rose from the riverbank with five-foot wings barred black and white, as silent as my waltzing river pondering. How do his chicks say Happy Father’s Day? I wonder. With urgent shrieks for regurgitated fish, no doubt, and by leaving the nest! What a magnificent beautiful creature. I imagine the carp fingerlings say nothing at all, glad not to be gobbled. And I baked a pesto chicken orzo casserole and a sticky pudding cake full of dates and walnuts dribbled with hot toffee-cream syrup. Oh, and first dibs to Dad on my book by Beryl Markham, an early pilot who flew single-props with open cockpits, who flew so intimately with planet earth, skimming the tall tree tops—she could see the waves and smiles of the farmers and they could see hers. I have reached my three-mile turn-around too soon—I feel I could paddle up this river forever, relaxed and calm, not having the answers, and at peace with that unknowing. My two youngest played cello-piano duets to Mom and Dad and me, moving us with their beauty and the music’s beauty. “Rafting the river . . . I remember you naming every single type of butterfly we saw. You knew everything about them. And the trees and birds and wildflowers, too. You taught me to look for the small and simple things, and remember the value they add to our lives.” Thank you, son. (I’ll have you write my epitaph.) Maybe Bullock’s orioles chitter cheerfully to celebrate their fathers, flashing their oranges blacks and whites in their excitement. I don’t know that little turtles thank their big-shell papas, sunning exclusively on fallen tree trunks, necks and legs stretched out pleasurably, imperiously, a knot of dried algae on one’s back. I sent my sons-turned-fathers a handmade card with a personal note of admiration and encouragement and a token ten-dollar bill. Does that count? Yes, that counts—every sincere expression counts. “Oh, my dear Daddy. How I love and honor you and appreciate with deep gratitude all that you do for me.” Thank you, sweet daughter of mine. A Clark’s grebe with white face and black crown and piercing yellow beak and piercing scarlet eye dove and dove as I approached, then appeared twenty-five yards behind me. What a magnificent beautiful creature! His chicks would easily admire him. “I love you Daddy!” That’s how it’s done: with love. I love you, too.
Pictures above and below: scenes from the Jordan River, in Utah, today.
I bought a wheelchair. Sarah found it on a local classified service: 20 inches wide, three-inch memory foam seat cushion, like new, $200. I wheeled around the house to see if it would work for Dad. Weeks ago, the Mobility Plan vanished from the refrigerator door and from Dad’s end tables, and his mobility has fled with the plan. At least Mom and Dad did not contract Covid-19: my week’s utter isolation worked. I often lose weight when I am sick, but cooped up with Covid I ate compulsively, not junk, mostly, except for pounds of my favorite chocolate almond candies, and my tummy has rounded and my abs slacked—it seems Covid sapped my physical as well as my emotional strength. But that strength is returning, and with it some discipline, and my stevia-sweetened herbal tea for breakfast and my 16-8 intermittent fasts and my planks and pushups and lunges and stationary bike. While I languished, five men fixed the brick mailbox pedestal, with new rebar and cement, repaired sprinkler pipe, new sod, the rotten rusted mailbox chiseled out and replaced, and a new filial point on the capstone. They kept coming, day after day, to see to the details—they chose to leave their families and hobbies and entertainments and pleasures and labors and worries, to help us. An ennobling choice. Steven and I have contemplated together the nature and effect of life’s experience, for who does not wonder about this life? Humans encounter and interact with reality through five physical senses, their electrical impulses interpreted by our brains. Add to those senses instinct, intuition, conscience, spirituality, and love. Our brains interpret every moment of contact with temporal reality, and I call this Experience. But experience is a mere catalyst, vehicle, method for something far greater: Becoming. We become through experience and choice and consequence. I feel hunger pangs, and I choose to eat, and I enjoy the consequence—each food choice leads to my physical and mental becoming. I feel anger after injury, and I choose to forgive, and I enjoy the consequence—each letting-go allows freedom from hatred and angst and bitterness, and contributes to my emotional and spiritual becoming. Irrespective of religion or morality or belief, life’s great paradigm is experience leading to choice leading to becoming. What will I choose to become? Steven likens becoming to learning to play the piano. We work and work over days and weeks to master a new piece of music, like Hot Cross Buns. To our surprise and delight, the day comes when we have mastered the piece. And at that moment, our Teacher turns the page and invites, “Wonderful! Now learn The Muffin Man.” And we can’t do it—we just can’t. We don’t know it. But we set to, and we struggle with one note after the other until, hours and days later, we have miraculously mastered the song. Then Teacher turns the page again, and again, and again. Becoming is effort, often painful grinding struggling effort. Becoming takes courage and vulnerability. Becoming involves more failure than success. But we cannot avoid it: we are becoming something, because we have experience, and confronting experience, we cannot resist choice, and choice creates. So, who will I choose to become? Sitting at the kitchen table, Dad taught me that life’s greatest gift is the ability of self-sight, to see oneself and to choose to change based on what we see: I cannot become what I want to become if I cannot see who I am. And sitting at the kitchen table, we exclaimed at the exquisite beauty of the Black-chinned Hummingbird sitting at the red-sugar feeder, fluorescent and alive.
Pictured above: not an old car muffler, but Mom’s and Dad’s mailbox after it was chiseled out from its mortar-sealed brick pedestal.
Pictured below: Dad’s “new” wheelchair. I’ll let you know when he uses it, but don’t hold your breath.
My nephew’s wedding day had finally come. I had worked many hours over several days to make Mom’s and Dad’s back yard—the wedding venue—look beautiful. But as I sat at my circular blue-clothed table listening to the couple exchange their self-customized vows, I wondered at the irony and futility of my work. In other words: not one living soul would have cared if the grass edges had not been string trimmed or if a weed or two had been missed—these would not have dampened anyone’s excited happiness. My parents and my sister appreciated my effort more for the sacrifice and love it expressed than for the merits of the landscaping, and rightly so. For the next event, will I target the same energy toward the venue appearance, or will I focus on weightier matters, like visiting with distant cousins and playing with the grandchildren and preparing heartfelt messages for the celebrants and lessening family burdens? The temperature plunged from 92 degrees the evening before to 53 degrees on the morning of the wedding day, with rain falling all night and all morning. But we tumbled the table cloths in the dryer and the clouds broke in time to warm and brighten the ceremony. Poor Dad could not walk—he could merely lean heavily with both hands on his front-and-center cane and drag each foot forward a few inches, with screwed face and suppressed groans. And that “walking” presupposed an ability to stand from his chair, which he could not. I turned around to see a very-former son-in-law vaunting mock magnanimity by grabbing Dad by limbs and joints and hoisting with humble hubris. But Dad preferred to wait for me, because the two of us together know just how to get the job done, with a heave of my elbow under his armpit to slowly stand, then his arm pretzeled heavily in mine to move across the grass toward the house. The bride looked lovely and confident and serene, despite the morning’s rain and the morning’s drama by some guests who were invited to stay home. And my nephew looked a naturally boyish nervous though he knew the marriage was right and good, and that his bride was the right bride and friend and life companion. Little Gabe, almost four, came jaunting proudly down the center aisle carpet holding up as if for royalty a pillow to which were tied the bouncing rings, lifting them high toward the couple, his uncle and brother, his aunt and sister, who read to him and bathe him and feed him and play games with him before his tired mother returns late from work, for she pays the bills, and the bills must be paid. Before the wedding, he fell and bonked his head and cried more from insult than from pain, wanting the comfort of love over a bag of ice, so I held him in my rocking chair and listened to his very big small-person sadness and fear—he was worried the new couple now would move to a house of their own and leave him alone and lonely. But they will keep their comfortable niche in the family house and continue to be Gabe’s protectors and nurturers until his mom and dad come home from work. Gabe’s head and heart felt better and soothed and he laughed at being tickled and dressed in a three-piece suit and praised. Weddings are not my favorite occasions because I know how much is at stake and how much trouble and pain lie ahead and how awry things can go, and I hope they will make it against the odds, and I hope they can find happiness, together. I always hope for a new couple, for who am I to jinx their joy with my suppressed sense of doom? I am no one, and the doom is a false projection of bad prophecy. We just need to put away our pride, and focus on the other’s happiness and fulfilment and meaning, and trust in life and in the Divine—then we can make it.
(Pictured above: Yours Truly with his two wonderful youngest children at my nephew’s back-yard wedding.)
Yesterday: I was not angling for a pat on the head, but neither did I expect a rap on the knuckles. I had listened to everything Dad said he would do to get ready for the wedding: string trim the grass along the sidewalks and the rock wall and around the landscape beds; hoe and pull all the weeds and tall grass and wild morning glory vines from the shrubs and beds. He could do none of it, and I suspected the man he had hired would not show up (he didn’t), so I set to work hoeing, snipping, trimming, raking, bagging, sweating, near collapse from illness and fatigue. Six neighborhood men converged for a successful second attempt to winch the impossibly heavy brick mailbox pedestal into its hole. They repaired the broken sprinkler pipe, stacked the sod, and will come back in a couple of days to see how the pedestal has settled, pour fresh cement, and restore the soil and grass. Dad sat and watched and worried and advised, straight from his bed, without taking his medicine, without drinking, without eating—straight to the job for the long-haul, sitting in the driveway in the hot sun, sweating out his strength, begging on the misery of seizures and exhaustion. Four friendly Columbians assembled the wedding tent and I stumbled to be friendly in Spanish, treating them to cold Brazilian Guaraná soda (“No es cerveza?” “No, no tiene alcohol.”) I finished my work after six hours, and putting the tools away, Dad told me I had done the string trimming wrong. No “thank you.” No “looks great.” No “you did a lot today.” Like I said, I did the work because it needed doing, and I was proud of the beautiful manicured result—I was not pandering for praise. But if you expect a job done a certain way, tell me at the beginning of the job; do not wait until the job is done and then criticize the result. I felt suddenly furious, and announced I was done because I had worked beyond my limits, which I had, and my arms and hands were shaking and my breathing tight and short and all I wanted was to lie down in a cool dark room. But I found little Gabe (almost four already!) and asked him the question he always hopes to hear: Do you want to bake some cupcakes, little friend? He measured and poured and stirred and tasted at every step, from bitter cocoa-powder paste to rich batter to sweet butter-cream icing to small spoonsful of sprinkles, the various chocolaty substances fingerpainted on his face. But Gabe’s all-time favorite game is Hide-and-Seek. “Nobody wants to play Hide-and-Seek with me,” he bemoaned as everyone worked, and I thought maybe I could find a little hiding and seeking energy for my little friend. When he counts, he counts fast, and ten “seconds” was barely enough time to bound off and stumble behind a bush, where he found me when I poked up for a peak and he squealed and I laughed and his mama watched us from the kitchen window, giggling. Gabe took most of the cupcakes home, thankfully. Later I laid in bed wondering at my still-smoldering anger and how outsized it was to the offense and wondering where it came from and pondering my six-decade relationship with the great man I call “Dad” and learning long ago not to expect praise but to get the job done right and wondering what my three daughters and my four sons think of their “Papa” and whether my expectations were reasonable, and reasonably expressed.
Last Night: And at 1:00 a.m. my sleeping ears began to hear Dad’s far-off call “Rog!” and at the second “Rog!” I jumped from my bed, threw off the loathed CPAP cup, grabbed my 45-year-old homemade brown terrycloth bathrobe and ran to the stairs to confront the whole spectrum of trouble. But there sat Dad in his recliner, reading, munching, happy, perfectly fine and safe, waving, smiling curiously at me looking distressed in my underwear at the top of the stairs. I hung my bathrobe on its hook and resumed staring at the dark ceiling, ready to let go of unintended offense, ready for sleep, ready for the last Mary Berry cupcake the next day, a Sunday, a day of rest.
Today: Dad, sitting with me at a round table under the wedding tent: “Rogie, did you do all this work in the yard? There’s not a single weed in the shrub beds, and they are all raked out so nice and neat. And the string-trimmed edges of the lawn are perfect. It’s all perfect. You have made the hard look so nice for the wedding. Thank you.”
The wedding is in three days, the last of many weddings and receptions and courts of honor and baby blessings to enliven Mom’s and Dad’s beautiful back yard over two decades, under the big tent. And we are getting ready. Since neither Dad nor I can face yardwork this week, Dad hired a man to string trim and mow the lawn to wedding-standard perfection. But the man’s mower had a flat tire and every pass left high spots on one side and stripes of drying grass on the other. The man promised to come back later after his other jobs, but his truck broke down. So Dad offered to mow the lawn himself (Dad: “I can ride my own mower”), and the man promised to come back tomorrow and string trim (Dad: “but I can’t string trim”). Dad moved on to scrape the peeling garage side access door, prepping for new paint, while I pulled weeds and crab grass in the flower beds—we each lasted half an hour—whereupon we retired to our respective recliners, him for an onion sandwich and me to use my literal lap top to address the latest urgent legal problem that couldn’t (wouldn’t) wait for my recovery. My home office sits above the garage, and the electric rumble of the automatic door motor, embedded in the floor joists of my office, startles me every time. After the door climbed its track today, I heard a woman’s wailing and I bolted barefoot for the garage, racing with the image of Dad dead on the concrete floor and Mom weeping unconsolably over him. But the garage was quiet, and Mom’s car was gone, and Dad was going round two with the door frame—and a branch chipper ground away down the street, sounding every bit the wailing old woman. As my heart settled a bit, I wondered at my paranoid catastrophic jumping to unwarranted conclusions based on some perhaps far-off future. You worry too much! (I know). Brad, a nice neighbor, brought his muscle truck and yellow straps to wrestle the 800-lb. brick knocked over mailbox back into its hole, and Ray wandered over to help, and Darrell, and every car driving by stopped to comment and encourage, but Dad had to watch from his chair, feeling useless, and I chose to watch from my upstairs office window, feeling useless, because I was not going to be the person who gave Brad and Ray and Darrell and Mom and Dad this modern plague of Covid-19 like the giving person who shared it with me in Dallas last week, despite the fancy hep filters and my liberal use of germ killer. I’m just glad Dad was not lying on the concrete floor with Mom wailing, and the wedding can enjoy the celebration it deserves.
Stamps and Glue and Getting Stuck
Those lick-glue stamps stick to the paper until thoroughly soaked. Immerse them in warm bowl-baths until the rough-edged stamps slide easily off the paper. Thumb-rub the slick glue residue—a pleasant easy sensation. The children place each little perforated-edge parallelogram rectangle on paper towels to dry: a rose, a frog, a train, a mountain, Santa Claus, R2-D2, newly-famous brown faces, the dear flag, Mary and the renaissance Christ-child. Self-adhesives stole some of the simply joy of stamps, like the sound of slowly tearing along the perforation lines after folding; and the taste of glue (my god! how unsanitary!). No amount of soaking dissolves the new adhesive, that isn’t good old glue; a careful snip-snip and you’re done; the stamp is ready for the book, forever attached to its matching piece of envelope. Attachment is the root of all suffering, the eastern mystics teach, ancient and still-living, which they discovered by sitting in cold caves and on the banks of black rivers all their lives, free of being stubbornly stuck to any thing, or any one. But here in the modern west I hear that joy cannot exist without courage, neither courage without vulnerability, neither vulnerability without pain. Joy and pain are a pair, apparently: sticky stamp and envelope. And I wonder if peace can be found, if at all, at the perfect balance point between connection and disconnection, and what the hell does that mean anyway? The chalice, the temple, the kiva, the body of Christ—that infinitesimal point where temporality and infinity touch, commune, coexist. (suppressed expletive.) For all of my mortal living time I have licked myself and stuck myself to someone or something, becoming bound to the paper, and getting rudely ripped off without the mercy of a soak, and part of the stamp stays messily with the paper, and some paper comes along grudgingly with the stamp, ruined for the collector’s book. I really do not care for the philatelist’s tweezer-finesse. My bulging envelopes of stamps will get glued into books someday, or not, by me or my stamp-admiring children, or not. What I like most about stamps, after all, are the vivid-color pictures, the oldness of a year or a century, and the idea of the glue that connects me to a million places and people I love, to whom I am thoroughly stuck.
(Pictured above: a small portion of my bulging envelope of unorganized U.S. stamps.)
Hannah sang “Happy Birthday” to me by text, in ALL CAPS and with red hearts ♥♥♥ and birthday memes. But I am too sick to care what day it is. Mom had prepared a booklet of baby memories to read, and I was going to cook French food for my family in lieu of them bringing gifts. But I decided to contract Covid-19 instead. And it laid me flat. And I called off the party, of course. I hope the conventional wisdom is correct, that the four vaccinations I received (each of which cost me two days of work for the reactions) served to lessen the severity of my illness: I can breathe. Now that I have Covid-19, I appreciate more what it means to have Covid-19, and feel more compassion for the millions who have survived the illness, and millions who have died. My predominant emotion on my 58th birthday is a species of smoldering guilt: guilt that I cannot cook for my parents, that Dad cooked for me last night—ground sirloin patty and caramelized onions and buttered asparagus—and that Mom carried my plate up the stairs to my cell; guilt that I have to isolate from people who need me and find joy in my company, that I have to shun them in order to protect them; guilt for the horrified glances (as I imagined) at choir practice when Mom told the neighbors I am sick with Covid; guilt for Dad hiring a company to mow and trim the lawn because I cannot do it (this week) and neither can he; guilt that I cannot help Mom and Dad with their insurance claim against the worry-laden lady who delivers the New York Times who drove her decrepit car into the driveway who wore a cast on her left foot who had a child in her car who zoom away only to destroy Mom’s and Dad’s beautiful brick mailbox with the candle bulbs on top which I had just replaced, after tossing the newspaper out her window—the nice mailman still puts our mail in the box; guilt that I just cannot find the energy to join my children’s celebration of me; guilt that I was not careful enough and fell to the illness despite four vaccinations and two years of face coverings and continuous hand sanitizing and following all the rules—I always keep the rules; guilt for having taken Caleb and Edie to dinner when I thought I had a cold on that first day (a dozen tests during a dozen colds and flus in the last two years were all negative); and a gnawing guilt for even being in this house where the insidious virus might slip under my bedroom door and launch a deadly attack on the people I care most about. I have nowhere else to go. And I am sure I will get better soon. And I did not do anything worthy of guilt or shame, so I just need to let the guilt go and to rest and let my little world take care of itself for a few more days until I am ready to rejoin the race.
Do you know the sound of stainless-steelware clanging on a ceramic tile floor, that ear-thumping clatter that causes a physical cringe and sometimes an annoyed bark or expletive? When I hear that awful sound, I jump up from whatever chair or sofa I am occupying and bend to pick the knife or fork up, because Dad cannot. “The floor is no-man’s land,” he looked at me with a rueful chuckle. He cannot bend to pick up the knife, or the onion ring, or the paper between the Swiss cheese slices, or the potato chip that falls to the floor. “This is such a joke!” he laughs, looking at the butter knife on the floor. But his laugh is all wrapped up in sadness and frustration and a growing discouragement, and his reference to the “joke” is chagrined—not bitter or angry or hateful, rather just recognizing the irony and perhaps cruelty but inevitability of one’s late-life dis-abilities. I am certainly not laughing at this life-joke. Watching his painful struggle for every inch of territory crossed, charting his daily deterioration, pains me into my own sadness and frustration and growing discouragement. It just is no fun to watch a loved one march steadily toward the end of life. The beginning of life brings an entirely different set of challenges, which most toddlers handle with a combination of cheerful enthusiasm and intense determination. I invited two-year-old Lila to help me start the cherry cheesecake by crushing graham crackers inside a zip-loc bag, pounding them with our fists and grinding them with a rolling pin, a smile playing on her whole face from the unanticipated joy of harmless destruction. Lila, and her parents, and my parents, and our neighbors (and myself) vastly enjoyed that cherry cheesecake. I felt pleased with the culinary triumph, though besmeared with the butter in the crust having leaked through the seam of the false-bottomed tart pan and puddled smokily in the bottom of the oven for me to wipe up at night when I was too tired and never wanted to see another cookbook or dirty mixing bowl again. But that weariness will have worn off by tomorrow, and soon I will bake a tarte citron or soufflé au chocolat, which we will all enjoy a bit too much.
Crab grass grew tall and broad amidst the chocking lily patch, the two nearly indistinguishable: the tares and the wheat, shoots intermingled and roots intertwined. But I discerned the difference, and determined not to condemn the wheat to a life of struggle against the tares, determined to pluck the grass from the midst of the lily shoots. The tares would be yanked and discarded not at the end of the world, but in the immediacy of now. And I am proud to say I did not uproot a single lily by mistaken identity or carelessness, and the weeded lily patch, sans grass, seemed to sparkle clean and green under the enormous Austrian pines, from which hung a small birdhouse of my nondescript design: four walls and a gable roof. A pair of meek and shy Black-capped Chickadees chattered softly at me for pulling the tares so close to their abode, confident enough to flit six feet away, but feeling too vulnerable to fly to the closer birdhouse. “This fall I want to plant bulbs in all these beds,” Dad enthused to me from his chair, where he watched me weed. “You can pick out the bulbs you want.” How wonderful they would be, I imagined, excited at next spring’s prospect. Dad asked me to cut off a large pine bough that hung its long heavy burden exclusively over the fence into the church parking lot. I did, and dragged it around the block into our driveway for later sectioning, moving then to cut out the old deadwood trunks from the arctic blue willow bushes. Dad thought Brian might like the wood for his fountain pen projects—he cuts branches into sanded rings, the bark still on, for pen pillows and pen beds and ink vial stands, which he posts about for admiring fellow fountain pen enthusiasts. Our day’s chores complete, Mom and Dad and I sat at the dinner table enjoying leftover rice casserole, charmed by the long-beaked hummingbird seated momentarily at the feeder, charmed by the ebullient pretty songs of the house finches, charmed by the chickadee couple flitting from the pine boughs to the hole of their humble home.
Pictured above: new lily shoots with the grab grass carefully removed.
The dishwasher door springs both broke and the heavy door slammed down if not snapped securely shut, and with the anchor broken off the washer tipped forward and the dish-laden trays rolled out with a jarring clang. Brian helped me pull the machine out and install the new springs and pulley cords. Tracy helped fashion homemade counter-anchors from common elbow brackets—and they worked! On advice from the Bosch store, I had bought an expensive new dishwasher base, but was relieved to find the old base had a built-in slot for the new springs, and I was spared the chore of disassembling the washer and the exasperation of not being able to see in my mind how to reassemble the parts back into the whole (an annoying life-long intellectual weakness). As it was, You Tube was indispensable, even to replace the springs. I felt thrilled and relieved we had succeeded in fixing the dishwasher, and thanked my Lord the repair was simpler than anticipated. I had not realized the stress and pressure I was putting on myself to get the machine fixed. But then Brian found a pool of water under the kitchen sink, dripping from a filter cartridge seal, dripping down a hole into the cavity above the finished basement, and we could not find the filter wrench. The bowl I placed under the filter filled overnight and spilled again into the dark void in the floor. Following with my eyes the various colored hoses (blue, yellow, red, black, and white), I discerned how to turn off the water to the filter and close the bladder tank valve—and the drip stopped, just in time to leave for church. Staggering with his cane, Dad wondered if today would be his last day walking to our habitual pew near the front. “My legs just won’t work. I’m getting worse.” Post-polio sets in like a heavy dense discouraging fog that never blows or burns off but grows only heavier and denser and more oppressive, and one’s feet become increasingly thick and leaden and mired in an energy-sapping sink. He made it to and from church, today, with help under each arm. Terry asked me how Dad was doing, not needing my response to see the truth, and knowing my unspoken thoughts as he offered, “I have a good wheelchair. I’ll dust it off and bring it over.” I thanked him, and suggested I would come get it so I could sneak it into the house unseen. Dad thinks he likely will skip the walker and go straight from the cane to the wheelchair. After church and rice casserole and a nap, Mom showed me how the DVD player would not respond to the remote or to direct button pushing—it had swallowed the DVD and refused to give it back. She pried the tray open with a serrated Cutco knife, and the tray stuck stubbornly out, appearing much like a dead animal with its tongue lolling. Remembering the no-longer-used basement entertainment equipment, I brought up the old combination VCR/DVD player, made before HDMI technology, and plugged the red, white, and yellow audio/video cords into the TV. With new batteries in the remote, the old machine came to life, functioning correctly and obeying Mom’s commanding button bushes. She was so pleased she decided the moment was right for an episode of NCIS, which she learned was also a favorite of Gabe’s other great-grandparents, the Scotts. The word “surprised” describes my reaction to having fixed three broken appliance problems in two days—generally I am not very handy. I only wish I could fix the only real problem of these four: Dad’s crumbling legs and feet and disintegrating mobility. The best I may be able to do is to push his chair down the aisle at church to sit near our customary pew, on the front row, where space was left for a wheelchair.
The church responsibility I would like least of all—and every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a church responsibility—is being in charge of recruiting families to clean the church every Saturday morning at 8:00. But Jim does not seem to mind, and called to remind me that my turn would be this Saturday. The six families had last names beginning with the As and Bs, plus a holdover Y. Jim set me to work vacuuming the cultural hall (a carpeted basketball court and social hall). Until my first decade in life, if Church members wanted a church meetinghouse building, they funded the building, built the building, operated the building, and maintained the building with their own labor and funds. In 1971-1972 Dad worked nearly every night on our nascent New Jersey church building, digging footing trenches, laying brick, mountain baseboards, painting cinderblock walls, stretching carpet. Dad had been put in charge of the enormous volunteer project, in addition to his job as an international corporate lawyer, his job as a lay minister, and his jobs as husband and father. My siblings and I have marveled at how he did it all, and did it all ably and well. Everyone that helped with the construction project received a small plaque made from scrap wood trim showing the number of hours worked: Dad’s plaque announced his 312 volunteer hours. Half a century later, the Church now builds and operates its meetinghouses with Church funds, collected from the tithing of members worldwide. But Church members clean the buildings that they attend. My willingness and cheerfulness about rising early on Saturday to scrub toilets and vacuum floors in my Utah church building is one of several built-in barometers by which I can measure my mental health. (The frequency and virulence of under-my-breath profanity is another faithful manifestation of stormy emotional weather.) My cheerfulness this Saturday to rise early and clean the church was a good sign, in contrast to past years where despair and tension and exhaustion kept me in bed. And I only swore a few times when tripping on the vacuum cleaner cord—no one knew but me. Other church members on our A-B (and Y) team were a commercial litigation lawyer, a pediatric anesthesiologist, a happy shy Downs syndrome man, a retired long-haul truck driver, and assorted children. Wielding our rubber gloves and spray bottles, status and position meant nothing—we all put our shoulders to the wheel, counted our blessing of service, and counted our blessing of being together in the community of our Church. And on the other side of the country, my younger brother was scrubbing toilets and vacuuming carpets in his North Carolina church building, his barometer reading gentle spring weather with wisps of clouds in a blue sky.
The FedEx driver jumped from his parked truck and ran into our front yard. I had checked on Dad twenty minutes earlier as he puttered around the yard with a weeding tool doubling as a cane in one hand, and a folded camp chair serving both as cane and emergency rest station in the other. I bolted from my home office and found Dad sitting in his chair, in the park strip, calmly watching the busy Pepperwood traffic go by. “The driver helped me get to my chair,” he commented, telling me how he had again pushed past the limits of his strength and found himself hugging the sweetgum tree, too weak to stand, too weak to make it to his chair fifteen feet away, trembling violently. “I don’t know my limits until I have passed them!” Dad explained. The FedEx driver had walked him to his chair, where he now sat comfortable and calm, as if no crisis had occurred. I was not there when he needed me—and I cannot always be there when he needs me—but someone else was, and that is sufficient. No matter his state of exhaustion, Dad manages to ride the mower. “I’m just sitting,” he insists stubbornly, and I do not argue. With fertilizer applied, the sprinklers fixed and adjusted, and warm spring days, the grass is thick and green and growing fast. Cooking that evening, wearing my apron, I took a break to sit with Mom and watch the sunset. An enormous pile of cut grass in the front yard caught my attention. Dad had found the strength to dump it and mow on, but was too weak to bag it. I asked Mom when the sprinklers would come on. “Now,” she said. That pile of grass would be infinitely messier to pick up soaked with water, so I jumped out of my chair and grabbed a can and tools, running without shoes onto the lawn. I scooped up the grass with a snow shovel and filled the can, too heavy to lift. Dad had joined us while I scooped, and called out, “Just drag the can.” I imagine I was quite a sight, still in my dress shirt and tie, wearing a kitchen apron, sporting brightly striped socks, frantically scooping grass into a can with an orange snow shovel. Sprinkler heads popped up and sprayed me just as I reached the driveway, dragging the heavy can. My cooking called me back into the kitchen. Stanley Steamer had come earlier in the day to shampoo all the carpets, which were still wet, so I wiped my socks clean of grass and dust to not soil the newly-cleaned carpets. Dad told us after dinner that he could not find one of his hearing aids. In the dark the next morning, I slid his recliner from the kitchen back into its customary spot on the now-dry carpet, and searched the cracks of his recliners. I found the lost hearing aid on the kitchen table, and left the pair in a glass cup for him to find when he wandered down for breakfast. Despite another day’s mishaps and adventures, all was well as I drove off to work.
A pair of Mallard ducks dozing happily on the front lawn, waiting for the sprinklers to come on.
Two million persons trudged after their liberator, Moses, into the wilderness, where soon they murmured of hunger and thirst and accused Moses of leading them into the desert to die. At least in Egypt they had their flesh pots and ate their fill. So, God promised Moses he would rain down bread from heaven for them, and Manna was born. They awoke one morning and found the buttery flakes distilled out of the evaporating dew, melting away later in the scorching sun, and breeding worms and spoiling overnight. “Man-hu?” they asked each other—What is it? These men and women and children labored a good portion of every day to scrape and slurp enough manna to be filled for the day, manna lying on the ground like so much crepuscular frost. They consumed manna as their daily meal for forty years, grinding and baking it into little oily cakes. I do not like eating the same food two days consecutive, let alone two years, and perhaps we can sympathize with their licking frost every day for forty years, with a very occasional lusty glut on cucumbers and quail. No longer hungry, now they murmured about the monotony of manna, as would I, I am sure, and maybe you, too, sitting at their dinner table. “Our soul is dried away” they wailed upon seeing only manna, manna every day, weeks leading into four decades. What I could learn from their experience, I have wondered, both of being provided for and of complaining about the manna mundane. I have decided I can learn two principal lessons, the first to recognize quotidian providence, the second to choose elevated perspective, because I receive manna every day, tiny flaking flecks left after the night’s dew, in the form of little aids and prompts and truths that bless and build me. Uncountable portions of manna that nourish and connect us to Providence. I will grow weary of it, I know, and will yearn for meat and come to curse the blessing. The question is whether I am smart enough and strong enough both to recognize the manna in my life and to be grateful for that manna despite its endless humble ubiquity. Today’s manna is not getting into a wreck on my long commute and listening to accounts of U.S. Grant’s principled integrity and grit and Mom and Dad enjoying their broccoli rice stir-fry without the spoiled discarded shrimp and sitting by Mom watching the sunset and the lawn sprinklers working after winter and the green grass and the waddling Mallards and the absence of strife and the presence of abundance and the love of family and for Dad giving his big blue walker a try for my sister and this desk and this computer and this Holy Bible translated with brilliance and beauty 500 years ago by the mad King James’ hundreds of scribes and scholars and my comfortable box spring bed and the work that pays the bills and saves for the future and children that love me and call me Dad and the children that kiss my cheek and call me Gwumpa. These buttery bits make life livable, and the questions for me are whether I can see the morning’s manna and can choose to be meekly grateful every day of the long years for its divine source and sustaining nourishment. Some moments I can; many moments I cannot; and every day I try again, even while scraping and cooking and savoring my forty-four thousandth manna meal, my bread from heaven in my wilderness.
Brother Liu rang the door chime and asked me to deliver the Mother’s Day sermon in church in two weeks. Feeling honored, but also intimidated and overwhelmed, I set to researching my Church’s teachings about motherhood, and searching my memory for vivid images of meaningful times spent with my mother. A good place to begin was this simple statement of Church doctrine: “Just as we have a Father in Heaven, we have a Mother in Heaven.” A prominent Church member and businesswoman, Sister Dew, explains that Eve mothered all of mankind when she made the most courageous decision any woman has ever made, to leave the Garden of Eden and to begin the mortality both of Earth and of humanity. Eve modeled “the characteristics with which women have been endowed: heroic faith, a keen sensitivity to the Spirit, an abhorrence of evil, and complete selflessness.” Never married, and without children of her own, she asserts what I welcome as divine truth: as daughters of our Heavenly Father, and as daughters of Eve, all women are mothers. Every time a woman builds the faith or reinforces the nobility of a young woman or man, every time a woman loves or leads anyone even one small step along the path, that woman is true to her endowment and calling and inherent nature as a mother, declaring, Are we not all mothers? I can easily use the word “endowment” to refer to my own mother’s presence in my life. In our weekly family gatherings, Mom taught us children new Church primary songs by writing words and symbols on posterboard. Every morning before school I found a bowl of steaming whole wheat cereal, made from wheat she ground, and creamed with powdered milk she mixed in the blender. On Sunday afternoons, Mom read us wonderful books—like The Secret Garden—while we munched on small quantities of M&Ms. She took us to free concerts and musicals in the park. She was my church choir director for nine of my years in New Jersey. Mom took me to pick wild asparagus, and taught me to make blackberry jam, sealing the jars with hot paraffin wax poured on top. She gave me swimming lessons and supported me in Scouting. She nursed me through endless ear infections, cheered for me when I succeeded, believed in me when I failed, and buttressed me when I mourned. And she drove me all over the Garden State to give me enriching musical, educational, cultural, and nature opportunities. Coming from a rural Utah town, Mom took on the world when she and Dad moved to New York City, living in Greenwich Village, and then to São Paulo, Brazil, for post-graduate school and work, soon settling in New Jersey for a 35-year career. And she relished it all. I have heard endearing stories about children who burst through the door after school, calling, “Mom—I’m home!” At almost 60 years old, I again get to experience the privilege of walking through the front door each day after work and calling out, “Hi Mom. I’m home.” I think the word “mother” is synonymous with “home.” My 20-minute sermon ended with the blessing of living Apostle Holland upon all mothers, “Be peaceful. Believe in God and in yourself. You are doing better than you think you are. Thank you. Thank you for giving birth, for shaping souls, for forming character, and for demonstrating the pure love of Christ.” How relieved yet invigorated I felt after finishing the talk! And Mom seemed happy with my tribute to her on Mother’s Day.
(Pictured above: Mom’s Mother’s Day bouquet.)
Ely discovered water pooled on the laundry room floor and reported the flood to Mom. Together they mopped up the water with rags. Appliance said he could have a new pump shipped from Washing in a few days. I had procrastinated, and needed to wash my clothes that very day. I focused on yard work, putting off my evening trip to the laundromat. But when Terry and Pat, the nice neighbors, stopped by to visit, Mom told them about the washer and the laundromat and they insisted I come to their house to use their washer. “Do you want me to do it for you?” Pat asked kindly, but I do not allow anyone handle my dirty laundry, and told her I would enjoy doing it, thank you. Ely is a housecleaner. Dad has vacuumed the carpets and swept and mopped the floors and cleaned the bathrooms and scrubbed the shower walls his whole married life, but has run out of strength, mobility, and steam. Ely, a delightful, humble, thorough dual citizen, now takes care of what Mom and Dad can no longer take care of. They do not call her the cleaning lady; they call her Ely, their friend and indispensable helper. The house tidied, Brian and Avery arrived with two-year-old Lila to celebrate his 32nd birthday, and I was touched he wanted to celebrate with us. We set up cornhole and ring toss and a PVC scaffold onto which one tosses golf balls joined by short ropes. Lila objected to how my rope-tied-spheres hung from the rungs—“No! Gwampa Waja!” she insisted. She repositioned each hanging rope according to her adorable imagination, delightedly proclaiming the decorated structure her Christmas tree. At dinner, I decided ground sirloin is much tastier than hamburger, well worth the extra one dollar per pound. I had prepared a birthday dessert from my French cookbook—Brian chose chocolate mousse, which I have mastered after many trials. Into the dessert cups we jammed and lighted three candles. Lila made sure her daddy blew them out correctly. An unconventional birthday “cake,” still the result was superb (thank you Julia), with strong Pero substituting for strong coffee. The sun dipped low behind the house, and the air quickly chilled. Dad and I sat on patio chairs listening to the red House Finch sing with happy gusto, perched on a spiny blue spruce nearby. “Listen to that little guy sing!” Dad hooted. We commented on what a happy thing it is—a happy miraculous thing—that nature sings.
“I’ll go with you!” I enthused when Mom showed me her invitation to her 64th high school reunion, for the Class of ’58. I have never once attended my high school, college, or law school reunions, but felt excited about going to Mom’s. But the morning of, she confessed to being very nervous and perhaps not wanting to go. I suggested we just go for an afternoon drive and perhaps stop in at the reunion to see what it was like. We drove through the old dilapidated Magna neighborhood, Mom pointing out “Uncle John’s” house here and “Uncle Jim’s” house there. With Mom hanging on my arm, we entered the high school cafeteria and saw milling around a milieu of gray smiling heads and gnarled mottled hands with an assortment of canes and walkers. Faces mostly were unrecognizable to Mom after 64 years, but looking at each other’s nametags through the bottoms of their trifolds, recognition dawned and faces lit up. “Lucille!” one woman cried. “Valorna!” Mom called back. They were young girls again. Louie Notarianni wandered over with a pleasant hello. “He was so cool then,” Mom whispered to me. “Now look at him!” I guess carrying the cool is harder at 85. “Neil wasn’t very nice,” she remembered, but noted how pleasant he was to everyone now. And her second cousin Gay (with the same maiden name, Bawden) ambled over with a smile and a hug. “When I called in and found out you were coming,” Gay rattled to Mom, “I decided the long drive from Portland would be worth it.” Still sweet friends. Don Lund welcomed the crowd and explained how Doreen Harmon had catered the lunch from Harmon’s grocery store as a gift to her class. Don held up like a waving flag a typed list of 147 Gone But Not Forgotten classmates, 147 out of a class of 200. The list sobered me, knowing Mom was one of a dwindling minority of surviving members of the Class of ’58. Which one of these good cheerful persons will be next to join this list? I wondered. I hoped it would not be Mom, turning 83 this year. The scull & crossbones on the reunion announcement added a macabre touch to the event, even knowing the Pirate was the mascot of Cyprus High. Mom decided she had had enough of a good thing, and that we could “go home now.” I hurried over to cousin Gay, a spritely youthful woman, embraced her (for the last time in this life), and crowed, “The Bawdens are great!” twinkling to her husband that the Iversons were okay, too.
“I’m not feeling well this morning,” Dad muttered, and Mom cried out, “Oh, Nelson! Again? What are we going to do?” She tossed her needlepoint in sudden tears and shuffled to the kitchen, making herself busy with her morning herbal tea and granola breakfast, leaving Dad on his bedroom couch to contemplate the ever more difficult daily ordeal of shoving off to the shower and dressing. I hoped he would feel better after swallowing his medicine with a glass of water. And I hoped Mom could let go of her terrible fear for his welfare. His noon breakfast over, we left in the Mighty V8 for the grocery store. Grill fixings were in order with my son Brian visiting for his 32nd After finishing with produce and meat, I told Dad I would get the dill pickle hamburger chips, and rushed off down the aisle. I put the pickle jar in my cart, and he asked me as he rolled up if I had seen anything else we needed or that looked good to me as I had walked down that aisle. I looked at him, then down the aisle, unsure of what it contained. Focused on the pickle job, I had not seen anything else on the aisle, and reported as much. “I saw everything,” he asserted. “And I wanted everything I saw.” His unbounded enthusiasm became evident as we reached Luana’s check-out counter with three full shopping carts in tow. Home by 3:30 p.m., Dad announced lunch time, and set to work building his onion sandwich. Knowing the strain of walking and bending to retrieve the makings from the fridge, I tossed on the counter baggies with leftover onion and tomato, the mustard and mayonnaise, the sliced ham and cheese, and the multi-grain bread, then ascended stairs to my home office to finish remotely the afternoon’s work. Descending later for a cold water bottle (refilled now at least 400 times), I looked upon the familiar after-lunch scene: a half onion generously deodorizing the house, spiked with the protruding fork Dad used to hold the onion in place while he safely sliced it; the rubber scraper slathered with warm mayonnaise soiling the counter; slices of Swiss cheese exposed and drying in the package because he had scissored off the zipper his fumbling fingers no longer pulled. I have allowed this scene to annoy me a hundred times, and I am tired of being annoyed, and am choosing instead to incorporate into my afternoon routine the washing of a knife and a rubber scraper and the restocking of ham, cheese, mayo, mustard, potato chips, and the wiping down of the countertop with Lysol bleach. One day I will look at the empty, sterile countertop and miss the mess, all those things that will mean he was here with us then. Who else in this world will prepare every day an onion sandwich for lunch at 5:00 pm? There is no one, I am sure. From my desk, pondering the empty countertop, sudden quick shadows passed over the front lawn, shadows of Canada geese flying over the house with their honks and blares and gray feathers.
Humans are fascinated with fire. We sit fireside watching the soft flickering lights of the fire’s flames. We feel the pleasant warmth on our face, and the corresponding cold on our backs. We relax, we contemplate. Fire pulls stories from our hearts and memories, imagination from the dark dotted skies. We feel an unseen palpable connection to the mystery of life and cosmos. And the next morning we find fire replaced with cold ash. And what is the nature of ash? Oxygen and carbon plus heat produces a chemical reaction resulting in water, carbon dioxide, and ash. I asked my family that Sunday afternoon what ash might symbolize: something burnt up, spent, dirty, ugly; death, destruction, the end, no turning back; cold; releasing, letting go; mourning, grief, and loss; change, transformation, metamorphosis; refinement. These latter resonated because they are redeeming, like the iridescent shrieking phoenix rising from flame and death and ash. Ancient Isaiah prophesied of One who would “give beauty for ashes,” not reversing the irrevocable fire reaction, going from ash to beauty, not an exchange of one for the other, not a resurrection of ash back to wood. But a gift. Though the world turns everything to ash and dust and rust, there is One who overcame the world, and gives us beauty where only ash is expected. Beauty for ashes. As the family gathered that Sunday afternoon, this is what I taught them, this is how I coaxed from them faith, led them to hope, with the idea that the individual’s life of ash is just that, so much ash, but that beauty awaits us both here and beyond. I handed them each a lidded cup of ash from dried palm fronds I burned that morning, which had fallen from great palm heights onto Jeanette’s back yard, surrounded with orange trees, and I burned the fronds and let them cool, and spooned them into the cups and snapped on the lids, and handed a little cup of ash to each niece and nephew and child, and with that ash invited them to remember Beauty.
(Pictured above, the epitome of beauty, scarlet poppies and other flowers on the grounds of the Mesa Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mesa, Arizona, April 2022.)
I was looking forward to my visit with Harvey, my old mountain man friend and friend to the west desert’s Native Americans. The night before I left, he called to let me know two things, first that he was looking forward to my visit, very much, and second that he and Mary were separating, selling the property, and moving from Enterprise, he to the obscure Arizona town of Eager, and her to the obscure Nevada town of Panaca. When the equity was split, he would receive about $30,000. He paid $40,000 for the house and property almost a decade earlier, before the housing boom, paying in cash, and owning the property outright, without debt. But she decided she needed money, mortgaged the house once then twice, couldn’t make the $120,000 loan payments—she could not say where the money had gone—and filed for bankruptcy, dragging Harvey along. He bought the property free and clear for 40K and sold it for $200,000, what would have and should have been a windfall but was instead a pittance of a retirement estate. Bankrupt. Only a small social security income—a fixed income, as they say. Not nearly enough to pay her debts. Enough to feed him a bird’s portion and to feed his birds, his roller pigeons and his Araucana hens. The birds is what the row was about, ostensibly. He loved his birds. He doted on and clucked to and spoke and sang and whistled to his birds. Enamored early in their first marriage, she now was tired of the birds at the end of their second marriage—his fifth marriage—because she wanted to travel and he, at 85, did not want to travel he could not travel because he needed to take care of his birds—this 85-year-old man that weighs 98 pounds and stoops to four feet tall and that loves his birds and feeds them and clucks knowingly to them. Harvey had become an inconvenient husband. And she had demanded, It’s me or the pigeons, Harv! Well, he guessed he’d keep the pigeons—they were less trouble and loved him more. So now he will lose both his wife and his pigeons, because he is moving far away to live with his daughter, who will treat him kindly and patiently in sync with his tenderness and devotion and love. I shouted at Harvey for the two days of my visit—my final visit to Enterprise and perhaps to Harvey—because when he could not make the payments, the company turned his hearing aids off, and he was deaf, and I had to shout to be heard, hollering after several uttered Hmmn?s and a final nod of comprehension—hunchbacks? NO LUNCH BOX! (the antique I gave him for his 80th birthday)—and if I had stayed another day I would have become hoarse and would have grown too sad. An inconvenient husband, Harvey, friend to Native Americans and knower of their ways and medicines and religion and rituals and pure hearts, Harvey the mountain man, Harvey my believing accepting humble grateful friend. Mom and Dad were kind enough to listen to my grieving when I returned home feeling the doom of human pride and selfishness. Harvey had wondered to me where he had gone wrong in his life—he had done everything he knew to do right—to lose three wives to divorce (two of them twice) and to lose all his earthly means and his tools and clever rustic scrap-wood outbuildings and to be alone at last at 85 without the love he has always craved. Lying in my bed staring at the ceiling fan in the early warmth of spring and remembering back three decades, I saw his beard’s two-foot-long white ringlets, his pet skunk Petunia hiding shyly in his quilted plaid jacket, his hearty chuckle and a good joke, and the glow of the hot rocks he placed in the center of the turtle lodge where the Sun Chiefs sang and blew the pipe smoke and whispered aho!
(Pictured above: Harvey with the tractor of his youth.)
“Tell me about your day,” I ventured as I drove Dad to Smith’s in the Faithful Suburban (also known as the “Mighty V8”). “Oh,” he began, “I had a good day, even though I didn’t accomplish one blessed thing.” I said I supposed one’s perspective of what a good day is might change at different times in one’s life. “Indeed,” he confirmed. “For me, a good day is to survive.” That’s all: to survive. Gone are the days of ebullient striving and thriving. The point comes where mere living is sufficient—as opposed to dying, from viral meningitis or a car wreck or heart disease or aspirating on one’s food or falling down the stairs or eating too much sugar or an abundance of other morose possibilities. Changing the subject, I mentioned I had stopped at the Bosch store to buy a part to fix the dishwasher door, which one day had lost all tension in the springs and fell open with a bang. The belligerent door had already hammered at Mom’s leg, leaving a big long angry purple bruise on her leg. Dad and I had driven to Smith’s with a particular mission in mind: a rotisserie chicken for dinner. And after dinner I slid the dishwasher out and found the suspected chords broken and detached from the springs. Then I discovered that the 1/16 of-an-inch-wide plastic anchors holding the stiff springs in place within the dishwasher frame had deteriorated from their old weld, and the springs floated anchorless in their plastic sockets. The new chords would do me no good with nothing to anchor the springs. Discouraged, I discerned that the door could not be fixed: the integrated plastic anchors had simply disintegrated, on both sides of the door. Things seem to be crumbling all around me, I thought, as the clip that held the dishwasher in place buckled and broke and the machine lurched forward and the loaded dish trays rolled out clanking. Already the first week of May, with already several 80-degree-F days behind us, heavy snow blew at a slant outside the kitchen window from low black clouds. I had arrived home late from work, and did not have time or energy to cook, hence the rotisserie run to Smith’s in the Mighty V8, where Dad motored off in the motorized shopping cart and another older patron quipped, “Drive safe.”
Field grass had grown up through the thick ice plant groundcover in the front flower bed. Dad had sprayed with a product that avowed “kills grass, not flowers,” which did not kill the grass and did kill the flowers, just not the plants. He had spent hours poking at the grass with a long weeding tool, from a seated position. But he finally gave up. “Rog, I have made a decision. I want to dig all the ice plants out.” I began to dig in the dense matt. “Make sure to shake out the soil,” Dad instructed. I did so (and would have done so), tossing the dirtless plant clumps in his direction. I did not look as I tossed them, and was confident I was not hitting him with the clumps, but did toss them in the vicinity of his feet, where the remnant soil filled his shoes. “Roger’s revenge,” I quipped playfully. “Did you know you dig with your left foot?” Mom asked randomly. No, I did not know. I am fairly confident my long life of garden digging has been ambidextrous (or as the local newspaper recently headlined, “amphibious”), but for some reason my left boot liked this job. Dad had stumbled out with all his hand tools, but sat in his chair talking to me as I strained at the earthy tangles. Several times he enthused, “I’m enjoying just visiting and watching you work.” As long as he is happy, I am happy. Using a leaf rake, he pulled the clumps together and lifted them into the garbage can, which I had positioned near his chair. The filled bags were very heavy, and the wheeled can, with four filled ice-plant bags, felt full of rocks. After two hours, we had an 8×9 open space, penned in by old bushes, with soft sandy soil, an empty pretty, space. “I like it just like that,” Mom insisted. “I don’t want any more bushes that you have to take care of.” But Dad and I really wanted to decorate the space with new flowering plants. We took ten-year-old Amy to the nursery, and carefully selected the plants based on tolerance of full sun and low water, plant height, and especially color and beauty of flower. The empty space is now decorated with beautiful flowering plants, seen by every car that passes—a thousand a day, easily—and every person that walks by. They all know: That’s Nelson’s yard; look how nice he has made it. “You did a big job today, Rogie. I didn’t think we would even start this job, let alone finish.” Truth be told, neither did I. Both my back and my attitude held out. We finished at dusk, and I felt too tired to cook, so out came the leftover whole-wheat lasagna Sarah sent over days before, with canned corn and peas, warmed in the microwave. Remembering the ravenous mule deer roving the neighborhood, I ventured into the dark and chill to grate Irish Spring bar soap on and around the plants. Though we like seeing the deer, having our plants eaten overnight would have made us very sad. But the next morning, the plants were intact and happily boasting their blossoms.
(Pictured above: Dad’s ice plants, before the non-killing spray killed them.)
(Pictured below: our new flower garden, before and after.)
We had planned the celebration for months, and on the day of, I awoke too sick to attend. My sisters handled all the preparation and hosting. At the top of stair case, I listened to bursts of laughter amid the general soft murmuring of many friendly voices in catching up and conversation, like the gentle babbling of a booklet tripping down a mossy cascade, and in that gentleness I detected elements of acceptance and respect and affection, and of a love that could turn fierce in mutual defense. I enjoyed my chicken salad croissant and chips, watching through the railing as Dad, 86, launched into his stories, with occasional intervening from Mom. They had met at a church dance, at the end of which he asked for her phone number (“and she gave it to me!”). He called her the next day, and drove her to the university and dated for the next three years, and they married—60 years ago. “I know her much better now than I did then!” Law school over, they moved to New York City, living in Greenwich Village. While Dad was at school, Mom rode the subways just to see where they went. She played violin in a Washington Square orchestra, and during one concert the conductor’s baton hit the music stand and flew out of his hand into the audience. After three days of descending to the street at 5:00 a.m. to move the car the opposite side of the street, Dad sold the car to the bellboy for $50. Then off to São Paulo, Brazil, where I was born, to live in a tiny studio. Mom passed the time by walking me to the embassy library and taking me on every bus route (in the city of then 16 million people) to the “fim da linha”—the end of the line. “I can’t do this,” was not part of Mom’s vocabulary, Jeanette enthused. Dad befriended the city comptroller at school, and invited him to their studio, where they sat at a card table on folding chairs, their only furniture, for homemade pizza, which the millionaire graciously enjoyed. “I loved your mother when we got married,” Dad said, “but I love her more, and differently, today. I never look at her without thinking, ‘I love her.’” (“Even when I’m bossy!” Mom chimed in.) David told how Mom and Dad sacrificed several days to help clean and paint his house, and how their love is literally worked into the very walls of the house. “I want to tell you something,” Dad began, warming up to his life’s witness. “This is important to me.” And he quoted Jesus: “’Be faithful, and I will protect you from every fiery dart of the adversary. I will encircle you in the arms of my love.’ That is how our Savior feels about us.” When I was an infant in Brazil, Dad was assigned to visit ten families who no longer attended church. He had no car or phone, just bus schedules and maps. But he found them, and visited them every month of that school year. Walking home from his final bus ride in Brazil, Dad contemplated his ministering effort. That is when a voice in his mind affirmed, “I accept your offering,” and he felt an overwhelming loving presence embrace him. As I listened and watched through the bars of my separating sickness, I contemplated how close Dad is to walking home from his life’s final bus ride, and of my certainly that he will again hear the words, “I accept your life’s offering,” and will again enjoy that sublime embrace.
The call went out for bars of soap—850 bars of soap. Soap was our neighborhood’s assignment. Other neighborhoods were to provide toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shampoo, hair brushes, and wash cloths. After the call went out for 850 bars of soap, Mom dropped into her shopping cart 16 soap bars, perfumed with cucumber and aloe, a soft and pleasing fragrance. She sent me to deposit them in the box at Mary Ann’s house. Lifting Hands International has been busy since the Syrian civil war displaced hundreds of thousands. The NGO sends hygiene kits, food kits, blankets, milk goats, and other items to ease the hardships of refugee life. Russia’s ridiculous war in Ukraine has displaced millions of desperate persons, and Lifting Hands has ramped up its work. Tonight, more than 200 volunteers gathered at our local church meetinghouse, lining up with gallon bags into which we stuffed one of each item piled on the tables. The line of volunteers circled the gym/cultural hall as we waited our turn to fill bags. The completed kits were loaded into large black plastic bags, in turn loaded onto trucks. Lifting Hands will load a shipping container and send it to Poland, or Moldova, or Romania for Ukrainian refugees. We all felt wonderful being a part of the service project. I am sure every woman and child receiving a hygiene kit will be grateful. But I could not help but wonder if we were doing much good, or if we were really serving or just joining a 45-minute social event after which we could pat ourselves on the back for doing our part to make a better world. Did the service improve refugee life in any meaningful way? Did the service change me in any significant, genuine way? What real good did our 16 bars of soap accomplish? And what more can I do to build a better world? I suppose that no good, kind act is ever wasted. I want to believe that every good, kind act is cumulative of every other good, kind act, and weighs against the mass of human brutality and pride. I want to believe that our 850 hygiene kits, joined with the 850 kits from each of 850 other neighborhoods—which, by the way, is 700,000 kits—joined with 700,000 school supply kits and 700,000 baby care kits and 700,000 bundles of clothes and bags of books and boxes of food—I want to believe these can be a formidable force for good in the world, even though they cost me only ten bucks and one hour of my time. Do not ever resist performing a small act of good due to its smallness and apparent powerlessness, because no good, kind act is small or weak. By small means are brought about great things, even miracles. Small means: like mothers and father comforting and teaching and building children, like smiles and whistling happy tunes, like cooking dinner for Mom and Dad, sending birthday cards, or visiting great-grandmothers in nursing homes. Do the good.
I was happy to see Sunshine in person on a short trip to visit Amy’s family. And he seemed happy to see me, too, even if I do say so myself. Sunshine ate shredded kale from my outstretched fingers, and clambered right up to a shoulder perch (above). He’s still plenty spikey to pet, but so calm and gentle–and grown up!
My son John and his wife Alleigh invited me to join them on a trip to visit their aunt Jeanette—my sister—in the Arizona desert. Of course, my two-month-old grandson Henry would be coming, and he would not just be with us but would be the center of everyone’s excited attention. In the last eight months, I have not left Mom and Dad for more than one night, and on this trip I would be gone seven. Before leaving, I emptied the upstairs freezer then restocked it with food they could cook while I was away. I even drew a rough diagram showing them which foods were on which parts of each freezer shelf. For example, the bottom shelf had (from left to right) beer-battered cod, lima beans, mixed vegetables, four chicken breasts in bags of two each, and Impossible-brand plant-based “chicken” nuggets. Excited for their beans and franks, they left the hot dogs in the refrigerator. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine,” Mom reminded me. I called her mid-week to report our outing to the Superstition Mountains where we saw a large yellow-diamond rattlesnake with five rattle segments, and a gray-blue Peregrine Falcon skimming red outcroppings on the cliff walls, and the Boyce Thompson Arboretum with acres of cacti, succulents, yuccas, and trees from the world’s deserts, and how much I loved the tall strange Boojum tree and the huge unlikely endangered Saguaro and the skeletal Cholla and Ocotillo, and how John and I saw a vivid orange-and-black Hooded Oriole and fantastically-scarlet Cardinal. “I miss you,” Mom brooded. “I love it when I hear the door nob turn, and the door open, and your footsteps down the hall, and I love to see you walk into the room with your briefcase and your lunch bag. I just love having you here.” Such affection so freely offered, and me stammering an awkward, “Thanks, Mom,” not adept at receiving or expressing such depths, but still marveling at the love and acceptance and absence of judgement at my weaknesses and joy my mother pours out onto this 57-year-old son of hers, and no less upon my five younger siblings. How lucky am I—are we. And when I asked what they had cooked for their dinners, she described the chopped frankfurters mixed with cans of pork-and-beans and stewed tomatoes—the epitome of hardy simplicity. Returning home after my week abroad, I found the food in the freezer largely as I had left it, the easier now for me to cook. Sarah had brought milk and eggs and Easter treats both savory and sweet. And Mom had been right: I need not have worried. “Welcome home.”
(Pictured above: Sis, Yours Truly, and Mr. Boojum)
(Pictured below: Cactus gardens at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum and in the Superstition Mountains outside Phoeniz, AZ.)
After watching me mix and knead breads and bakes for eight months, Mom and Dad informed me we were purchasing a bread mixer. NutriMill makes a Bosch lookalike for half the price, and we brought one home, along with a “baker’s pack” because I am a baker and a Baker. On my first attempt, I dumped in all the ingredients and watched the dough not mix and the dough hook grab the poorly combined mass and whirl it around uselessly. Hannah (and the owner’s manual) instructed me on pouring in the liquid ingredients first, turning the mixer on low, and adding the dry ingredients slowly. The technique worked. Our first success was Paul Hollywood’s Guinness and Treacle bread. Into the bowl I poured a bottle of warm dark-and-stout beer, tablespoons of molasses, water, and yeast, and turned the mixer to level 1, while Hannah slowly tossed in the dry ingredients: whole wheat flour and strong white flour. The dough hook mixed the trickling flour into the yeasty treacle-beer until we had a sticky dough that the dough hooks pummeled and whipped enthusiastically. While the dough rested and rose, I sat at Mom’s laptop to help her with a Word document: she had made revisions accidentally using the Review tool and felt exasperated by the unwelcome blue insertions and red strikeout deletions. “I promise you, Mom: one button-click and your document will be fixed.” She was incredulous at the simple “Accept All Changes and Stop Tracking” function. That task accomplished, I lifted and hauled off Mom’s cracked and broken chair mat, and laid the new mat in place—the chair casters would no more anchor the chair immovably in the hole. Dad, in the meantime, had noticed how dusty the living room sofas had become, and was struggling with his carpet cleaner to shampoo the floral sofas. “Look how nice they look!” he crowed: the sofas did look bright and brand new. Just as the oven pre-heat bell sounded, I finished hanging the thistle seed sock feeders for the goldfinches, pine siskins, and house finches, which will land grasping the socks and pull and crack the tiny musky seeds one by one. Mournfully, we had discarded the other feeders because falling masses of disfavored seeds attracted a family of rats, and we could not have rats, and so also could not have bird feeders, much to Dad’s sadness. But rats will not be interested in empty Niger husks. The socks happily hung, I peeled the risen Guinness dough onto the 400-degree stone, and the house filled with a most delicious aroma.