I live my days on the edge of anxiety, tense, waiting for the next unexplained bump or clang, in fear of the next fall, tense, nodding with sleep at my desk but ready to jump into action at the slightest premonition. The garage door opens, and I start at the sound, knowing Dad has ventured into the yard to clip or rake or hoe or mow or fertilize, and the temperature is 95 degrees, the sky cloudless, tool handles too hot to touch, the grass rotting and pungent in the can. My personal spiritual pursuit is to cultivate trust, a trust that life is beautiful and good, a trust that I can improve my character and mind, a trust that truth and goodness will prevail as often as possible, a trust that God is real and loves infinitely and actively, that he redeems and pays personal attention and dispenses mercy abundantly to all who want it. That is my labor. I feel tired. I’m going to go check on Dad.
Dad rode off on his mower as I began my gut-tightening planks. (Thank you, planks.) At rep 5, I heard a muffled clang and noticed the lawn mower engine was not running. Outside the window sat the mower without its rider. I knew instantly what had happened. Bounding out the back door, I found Dad on the ground, one leg and half his pelvis in the six-foot-deep window well, where the welded-rebar cover had collapsed from under him. He could not move, despite body-shaking effort. All he could clutch was bark chips, which had shredded his forearms. This notorious window had previously swallowed my sister Sarah and her three-year-old son Gabe (see my story Angel Gabriel). An extrication procedure quickly became apparent. 1) Grab sweat pants behind hamstring and pull, lifting leg and shifting pelvis out of window well. 2) Grab sweat pants behind hamstrings and haul straight legs into kneeling position. 3) Embrace back and chest, and hoist body to hands and knees. 4) Grip under armpits and pull to a standing position. Thank God it worked. The nearest seat was the lawn mower, which Dad shakily resumed, turning the ignition key. “Do you promise me you are safe to ride?” I yelled above the roar, careful not to further bruise his already battered pride. He nodded and sped off. It occurred to me then: this story had a multitude of bad endings, and only one good ending. Mom’s first fall taught me never to minimize a noise or an impression. As a result of learning that lesson, I was at Dad’s side in seconds—but only because I was home early from work and was exercising in the only part of the house from which I could have heard the well cover collapse. How grateful I felt for circumstances to have aligned in such a way to allow my presence and awareness. I would never debase the occurrence with the words coincidence or luck. Miracle will do nicely, thank you.
After years of listening to Heitor Villa-Lobos music during his late-night reading, Dad abruptly shifted to Johnny Mathis. Seventeen tracks repeat every night. Amazingly, I know all the songs—I heard them on the radio growing up. And I learned to like his iconic voice. The CD insert did not include the song lyrics, so I offered to print them for him, from the internet. “You can do that?” he asked. “Of course,” I answered, feeling smart. I pasted the lyrics of the 17 songs into a Word document and handed him the stack of pages half an hour later. He was impressed. The next morning, however, he told me how disillusioned he felt with the song lyrics, which included a lot of “baby baby” and “I need you” and “our love will never die” stuff. I expressed my experience that while popular lyrics are often shallow, the music and the feeling can still be quite moving. Some lyrics are quite romantic and sweet, like in Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine, the beguine being a slow rhumba-like French dance. In the song, the commencement of the beguine dance music conjures powerful feelings of love and romance for the dancing couple. From my home office one morning, I felt tender feelings as I heard Dad’s gravelly waking voice singing Begin the Beguine to Mom, his sweetheart of 60 years:
Let them begin the beguine, make them play
Till the stars that were there before return above you,
Till you whisper to me once more,
“Darling, I love you!”
And we suddenly know, what heaven we’re in,
When they begin the beguine.
Mom received a letter that Dad’s urologist had retired, and to call for an appointment with the new urologist. She called in July for an appointment in September. Arriving home late from work, I saw immediately how exhausted Mom and Dad both were after their appointment. They told me they had waited for over an hour to be seen by the doctor. I felt immediately furious that people who were old and feeble and sick were made to wait an hour past their scheduled time. The exertion of waiting, compounding the exertion of getting to and from the office, left them spent and sick. I sent a complaint to the practice, telling them it is negligent to make such patients wait so long to be seen, the wait itself worsening their conditions. I have prevailed upon Mom to make future appointments for a day and time when I can take them. I am going to have to demand they be seen promptly and not made to wait. Being fragile, the last thing they need is the irony of their care providers jeopardizing their patients by leaving them waiting in exhaustion for their care. I am curious to see if the practice will be defensive or will acknowledge they could have and should have done better, and will do better next time. Fortunately, the care they finally received was acceptable. And a next time may not be necessary. The doctor said to Dad, “Look, you’re 86. If you don’t have prostate cancer by now, you never will. You don’t need to see me again unless something changes.” He renewed Dad’s prescription in perpetuity. True to their character, Mom and Dad did not complain but graciously accepted the blessing of that being Dad’s last visit to the urologist.
Roger to his neurologist ten years ago: “I had a brain MRI two years ago.”
Neurologist to Roger: “Really? What did it show?”
Neurologist: “Really?! Well, I’m sure it showed that you have a brain!”
Roger, soto voce, Oh, you are just so clever, aren’t you?
Mom describes her brain MRI as a horrifying experience, one of the worst experiences of her life. And this from a woman who had her childhood cavities filled without Novocain. Despite the standard-issue ear plugs, the rhythmic clanging banging of the MRI machine smashed past the plugs and into her cranium and rattled around tortuously. While I fell asleep during my last MRI, she did not know if she would survive hers. She was so spent and disoriented after the scan, she found walking implausible and opted for a wheelchair, and was never happier to be home in her recliner. I will see to it that her next MRI is preceded by a dose of valium.
Her MRI report has come in, with its “supratentorial” this and its “intraparenchymal” that, showing conditions “not unexpected for age” but otherwise “normal in appearance.” No signs of stroke. No tracks of tumor. No inklings of inflammation. Mom wanted to jump for joy, but settled for a grinning cheer and a shaking of upraised hands. She felt so relieved! So did I. But the mystery of fainting and abrupt general decline remains. Still, with nothing now to fear, Mom has resolved to resume exercising on the stationary bicycle and walking to the mailbox and back. Get well cards arriving by U.S. mail all look forward to her quick and total recovery. And her name is being uttered in many a fervent prayer.
Dad’s hobby is reading. He is the smartest man I know, reading biography, theology, philosophy, history, fiction, science, etc. He indulges his hobby from 10:30 p.m. until at least 2:00 a.m., every night. One night’s literary fare may be the Book of Mormon, the Bible, or other scripture. Another night may be The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels or Rumpole of the Bailey stories. Often he reads the World Book Encyclopedia, the next day telling me everything he learned during the night. Did you know nectarines spontaneously appeared on a peach tree in China over two millennia ago? Other days he reads books his children gave him for his birthday or Christmas, when book gifts are a sure thing. During those late-night reading hours, Dad listens to the music of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, particularly his Bachianas Brasileiras (my translation: Brazilian musical pieces after the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach). Having been a missionary, post-graduate student, minister, and international lawyer in Brazil, he loves Brazilian music. And he loves the Brazilian people. In 1971, while finishing the sweat equity on the new Baker house in New Jersey, a cassette tape of the Bachianas kept him company. At a particular point in Bachiana No. 7, an electrifying sensation suddenly swept through him, a visit from a spiritual plane, and he knew somehow that he would be asked the following year to take his family to Brazil to oversee the Church’s missionary work. The impression came to pass, and our little family went to Brazil for three years— I was eight years old. I, too, love the Brazilian people, and the food, and the language, and the music. Villa-Lobos—what a cool-sounding name—and it has a fun meaning as well: city of wolves. Heitor City of Wolves. Bachiana No. 7—at counter 16:55 in the Tocata/Desafio. World Book Encyclopedia: N for Nectarine. Two a.m. and all is well.
Music is always playing at Mom’s house. As a boy, I awoke on Sunday mornings to the sounds of Bach and Brahms and Beethoven filling the house. I associated music with Mom, and with home. On my 15th Christmas, she introduced me to Aaron Copland, whose music was the first to stir my soul in otherworldly ways. I learned to change out dull needles and set the stylus on the vinyl track I wanted to hear. Now, instead of one side of an LP, she places five CDs in the player, and pushes play for five concert hours. I hear the bossa nova of António Carlos Jobim, Von Williams’ Fantasy on Greensleeves, the symphonies of Mahler and Janáček, Copland’s quintessentially American ballet scores, Bartok’s concerto for orchestra, Barber’s concerto for violin, the virtuosic guitar suites of Villa-Lobos, Arty Shaw’s swinging clarinet, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. . . . I love them all. Her collection has inspired my musical loves, and I have lately expanded her eclecticism with Ceumar, Tó Brandileone, and Cainã Cavalcante, brilliant contemporary Brazilian artists. Music has some mysterious power to move us and to fill the corners of the spirit reason alone cannot seem to reach.
Dad’s daily lunch fare is—gasp—onion sandwich. (I do not like raw onions in any form or food.) He insists on the large Wala Wala or Vidalia mild sweet onions. With the onion cut in two, an inserted fork keeps one half in place while he cuts a large sandwich slice, which goes on multi-grain bread with a slathering of mayonnaise and spicy mustard, a slice of tomato, a square of Swiss cheese, and leaves of lettuce, with potato chips on the side and a cold Diet Coke for refreshment. Dad keeps telling me how delicious his onion sandwiches are, and I keep telling him I will try one someday. I don’t know that I will.
I was in a hotel elevator, at a conference on domestic violence prosecution, in Provo, Utah, when I learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers. The scheduled speakers yielded to the television screens as we watched, stunned and horrified. Twenty years later, I walked amidst 2,977 American flags planted in a field, a Healing Field, in my new residence city of Sandy. Each flag had a tag with a name and a story of where he worked, how she was loved by family and friends, what their hobbies were, their age, their loved ones, and the location of their death: World Trade Center; Pentagon; Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field near Shanksville. I read a hundred or so tags on flags flying for the people who died on 9/11/2001. I had dressed in a jacket and tie, thinking it fitting. The next day I drove Mom and Dad slowly around the field, twice, because they couldn’t walk, but they wanted to see, they wanted to honor, and I told them about the persons I had read about—the Flight 93 pilot, the World Trade Center trader, the Pentagon general, the child traveling with her mother, the secretary, the cook. And the next day I descended on the field with 300 other volunteers to remove the tags, roll up the flags, and yank the three-foot rebar from the ground, one each for 2,977 persons, including 411 first responders, whom we have promised to always remember. I rolled flags and yanked rebar with people aged from 10 to 80. One of the octogenarians poked me with the butt of a flag, and apologized, and I joked, “You know, I have always been told to watch out for pretty ladies rolling up American flags,” and she laughed. A small older man followed me and others as we pulled rebar from the ground, carrying heavy stacks of the stuff to the flatbed trailer. I called him “Rebar Man” but his real name was Ishmael Castillo, a brawny little man with a big soft heart who came to help. I thanked the organizer, and he gave me a 20-year commemorative bronze medallion. I saw the Alta High School NHS photographer looking in the now-empty field for his lost lens cap, and I asked him if he had received a 9/11/2021 medallion, and gave him mine, because I had bought one for myself on 9/11. “That is amazing,” he gasped his thanks. The empty field will endure, now, until 9/11/2022.
Today is the Sunday Sabbath. My laptop is hooked up to the flat screen via HDMI chord, and we are watching church by Zoom—the sacramental service, the hymns, the prayers, the speakers, the Sunday School class. I have brought to Mom and Dad bowls of six-grain hot cereal cooked with apples and cinnamon, cooled and enriched with cream. When church services are over, Mom asks me to take her envelope with her tithes and offerings—her alms—to the bishop, for the support of the Church and the poor of the Church. And I walk home to discuss with them the deep doctrines, and what to cook for dinner: chicken fricassee in creamy red wine paprika sauce with steamed zucchini and corn on the cob. After dinner will come attempts to read, and naps in recliners.
The desk on which my computer sits and at which I sit to type these vignettes is not a desk at all. It is a repurposed kitchen table. In fact, it is the very first kitchen table my young wife and I bought for our very old new home. It was made of typical gold-colored pine slats with white-painted legs. That small table served our little family for years. When the little family became a big family, we needed a larger kitchen table. The old table was passed from room to room as a desk for various children. Erin stained the table top a darker brown and painted a green-and-maroon border, with blue flowers on vines in the center. I thought it was beautiful. During my six-month exile of separation, I took the table to my construction zone quarters as my writing desk. I had gathered notes and observations for nearly 20 years, determined to someday write my book. I had felt compelled for years to write it, but never made the time. But now a chiding thought nagged at me: You’ve always wanted to write your book. You will never have a better time to do it. Now is the time. So, I got to work. Nights and weekends I typed up my chicken scratch notes, many written as I walked on Rabbit Lane, elaborated my thoughts, printed and sorted and organized, reassembled and knitted together the stories in chapters, until the manuscript took its first breath as a real creature. I published the book in 2016, entitling it Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road. I felt better about this book than anything I had ever accomplished. I knew I had done it well and had made something beautiful and worthwhile. As we placed the old kitchen table turned writing desk into the moving truck last month to bring it to my new office at Mom’s and Dad’s house, a leg irreparably broke off. I was prepared to let the desk go, despite its sentimental value, but while I was at work Dad and a friend sank three long screws to repair the desk for my ongoing writing. I am hoping one day to prepare new manuscripts of which I can be equally proud. And I never see those blue flowers in the center of the table without remembering my daughter Erin and her beautiful artistic soul.
In the grocery store, Mom followed her prepared shopping list—penciled on a yellow legal pad—items grouped by type and store location, and if it’s not on the list she doesn’t need it, because if she needed it, it would be on the list. Dad, listless, followed the whims of his heart and his hunger: Jarlsberg, Swiss, and Gouda, cauliflower and broccoli, fresh salmon and parmesan chicken, frozen pizzas, bags of roasted nuts. Any why not be whimsical with foods that look beautiful and sound delicious and that one is sure to relish? Why not enjoy both the shopping and the eating experiences? Neither approach is inherently correct, of course; both are equally acceptable, and complementary. Mom and Dad each pushed a sanitized dual-purpose shopping cart, for filling with food, and for leaning upon. While Dad meandered among the fresh produce and artisan cheese, Mom and I walked to the dairy cooler via the cold cereal aisle. A pretty middle-aged woman walking by surprised me with a generous smile. Her sleeveless summer dress exposed significant portions of her enhanced bosom. She passed us twice more, and each time that smile. After the third pass, Mom hissed at me, scandalized, “That woman is flirting with you. It’s so obvious! And her boobs are practically falling out of her dress!” Mom’s observations filled me with a sudden and unexpected panic, and I was in junior high again, awkward, anxious, and utterly unable to flirt. She’s flirting with me? I thought, stupefied. Why? I could not understand it. And I could not respond. Even had I been interested, my flashback to adolescent anxiety left me perspiring and paralyzed. Which is just as well—now is not the time or the season. The parking lot sloped away from the grocery store, and Mom and Dad pulled back on the reins, as it were, to keep the colts from bolting. I drove silently home, disturbed at the stirring sensations I have worked so hard to suppress. I focused on seeing how many shopping bags I could carry into the house in one trip, and helped my providentially protective mother put the groceries away in their various nooks and crannies on the pantry.
What I’ve always known—cognitively—is beginning to sink deeply in—emotionally—with emphasis on the word “sink,” and pulling me down with it: I cannot fix this. I do not have the power to heal the illness, to strengthen the tired muscles. The canes and walkers and wheelchairs, the doctor visits and blood draws and MRIs, the heart monitors and blood pressure cuffs, the shakiness and fatigue, the “take your pills” and “drink more water” and the worry worry worry—they are all here to stay. I am riding this streetcar with Mom and Dad to the fim da linha, the end of the line. One day, the streetcar will come to a stop and Mom and Dad will get off, and I will wave good-bye. And then the car will start again and turn some corner and carry me toward other stops. Until then, my power is found in my weakness, my strength in my service. All I can do is cook and clean and comfort, and listen, and love. And this is enough. In fact, this is the job. The job is not to fix anything as we ride the streetcar together, but to be with them for the duration of the ride, and to make the ride as comfortable and peace-filled and happy as my siblings and I can.
My children pooled their resources and purchased an Aero Garden for my Father’s Day gift. Nine little cones, each with their own seeds, sat immersed in water. Upon every garden planting, I struggle to believe the seeds will sprout, but they always do. Months later I have a jungle of basil and dill and parsley. The basil plants needed pruning badly, so I cut them back and dropped the three-inch leaves into a blender with garlic, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and olive oil: pesto! This was to top the focaccia dough proofing in the oven, warmed slightly by the oven bulb. Mom and Dad and I savored munching on the aromatic, flavorful flatbread. I drove some focaccia squares over to some Brazilian bread aficionado friends, and we enjoyed a taste of pesto over conversation. Ciabatta, sourdoughs from wild yeast starter, Scottish Struan, cheese bread with Guinness, and Challah—they are all fun to make and more fun to devour. And who doesn’t enjoy the therapy of kneading out one’s frustrations while stretching those gluten fibers?
Years ago Mom planted milkweed seeds in a patch of open dirt under the Austrian Pine. The plants are difficult to establish, but once established proliferate and dominate their territory. She likes the shapes of their leaves, the heads of pretty perfumed pink starlet flowers, and the conical green seed pods that brown and break open and spread thousands of fluff-laden seeds on the breeze. But the real reason she grows the milkweed is to attract Monarch butterflies. As a child in Brazil and New Jersey, I gathered Monarch caterpillars and fed them to maturity, watched them pupate and finally break free as butterflies with wet wrinkled wings that vibrate and spread into black-webbed fiery flapping sails. As an adult in Utah, I have helped my children do the same. The Monarch chrysalis is like no other, a soft powdery green with stripes of gold: a living jewel. Although Mom she has not yet seen a Monarch floating above her milkweed plants, still she hopes one will flutter by someday and stop to lay its eggs. I believe it will. For Mom, her milkweed patch has become a symbol of hope: hope for beauty and hope for successful growing up and taking off, a hope and trust in life.
I have been shouting a lot lately. Not because I am a brute or a bully or an offended narcissist, but because the hearing aid batteries seem to go dead every day. Or the hearing aids are not being worn. A person cannot wear hearing aids comfortably, of course, when mowing the lawn—such amplified sound would rattle their teeth and ruin what’s left of their hearing. And there is the surgical mask, which, when removed, catches on the hearing aid and flings it across the church parking lot. What an indignity to continually be shouted at, to have to ask “What?” and “Hmm?” all the time, to miss the happy songs of finches at sunset.
I tended my great-nephew Gabe on a recent Saturday afternoon. He is all of three years old. He lights up when he sees me because I love him and play with him. I light up when I see him because he is adorable and smart and fun and sweet, and likes being with me. On that Saturday we made my daughter Laura’s recipe for banana chocolate-chip muffins—the secret ingredient is sour cream, and these muffins are wonderfully moist and soft. Gabe and I set up our work areas on the kitchen’s center island. Given the attention span and dexterity of three-year-olds, I thought it best to give him his own bowls and measuring implements and ingredients. While I mixed the real recipe, he mixed his own concoction. The secret ingredient of Gabe’s muffins? Colored sprinkles, lots of them. And egg shells. As I was breaking eggs into my batter, he asked for an egg for his. He held the egg over his bowl, smashed it with his little hand, and dropped it into the bowl, shell and all. Mom and Dad watched smiling from the family room. I could hear a faint ringing echo as we mixed batter and talked, and I said to Mom, “Can you hear that ringing?” It turned out to be a hearing aid sitting on a table, reacting to my voice. But Gabe got off his stool and came over to hug my leg with a concerned look on his upturned face. He teared up and asked about the monster making the noise. When the hearing aid explanation meant nothing to him, I tried to reassure him by telling him confidently that there were no monsters in the house because I had eaten them all for breakfast—yum!—and that my favorite one was the chocolate monster—yum! And not one monster was left to bother him. He laughed, looked worried, and laughed again. As Gabe left with my sister and some sprinkle-topped muffins, I told him to gobble up any monsters he found at his house for his breakfast, and he smiled and said okay. Yesterday he left a crayon rainbow drawing on my pillow.
After a 30-year career in New Jersey, Mom and Dad retired to Utah, purchasing a home close to the Wasatch mountains. Loving the beautiful eastern forests, still they yearned to come back home to Rocky Mountain country. After dinner, Dad often retires to a chair on the back patio. Mom joins him there. They listen to the ebullient songs of finches and wonder at their happiness. They watch the mountains in all their moods, under sun, in storm, green with rain, dusted with snow, and desert dry. They remember old adventures: dragging a juniper root off Mount Timponogos and turning it into a red cedar lamp; hiking to Lone Peak with not quite enough food and water, and being aided by other hikers; the moose on the mountain trails; fly fishing for trout during a drizzle; boulder-hopping on the ridge to the Little Matterhorn; parties and picnics with children laughing. Such evenings are the perfect setting to remember good times, talk about how much we love our families, and listen to joyful birdsong.
Dad keeps his lawn green and trimmed and mowed. The lawn gets nourished monthly with the correct kind of fertilizer, and enjoys a haircut twice a week. Donning a straw hat against the sun and potential skin cancer, he drives his red riding mower, curving around the beds of bushes and flowers, happy to be in the saddle. A neighbor commented, “Nelson, you are the most determined man I’ve ever seen in caring for a yard.” One Friday night in spring, Dad asked me if I would fertilize the lawn first thing Saturday morning so that the coming snow would dissolve the fertilizer into the turf. Come morning, however, the lawn was buried in four inches of heavy wet snow. Not wanting Dad to be disappointed, I ventured to push the spreader anyway. With two wheels on the “ground” the spreader merely pushed against the snow. But with one wheel on the ground—the wheel geared to the spreader—and the other elevated, I made good progress. It is often hard to see where one has fertilized because the spreader swath is three feet on either side, and I lose track of where I’ve been. I did not have this problem now because the fertilizer sat on the surface of the snow. Unfortunately, the grains of this particular fertilizer were yellow, and now Dad’s entire yard was covered with yellow snow. Dad was astonished, having never seen fertilized snow. He commented, “Roger—it looks like the whole lawn was trampled by peeing deer.” Indeed, deer are frequent visitors, eating down spring’s lily shoots. Just yesterday I watched a nearby mule deer doe watching Dad as he string trimmed. Now, at summer’s end, the grass is green green. Dad cut the grass again last night. Now it’s my turn to do my job: take the push mower around the places where the riding mower can’t easily maneuver. And empty the bags of cut grass.
Arriving homing from work, I observed Mom ironing white linen handkerchiefs. Not knowing people who use handkerchiefs, let alone iron handkerchiefs, I inquired. She told me that when I was an infant in Brazil—(Dad was a post-graduate Fulbright law student at the University of São Paulo)—she would push me in the stroller down the noisy urban streets to the American consulate to retrieve their mail and to check out books from the consulate library. On occasion, just for the fun of exploring, she would board the street car and ride it to the “fim da linha,” the end of the line, to see what there was to see. Hearing of women who sewed lace, she rode to the fim da linha and walked to the little lace shop. Beautiful hand-sewn lace lined shelves and graced tables. With little money for nonessentials, she chose several thin white handkerchiefs into which were embroidered white vines and leaves and flowers. Nearly 60 years later, she held them with care and ironed them free of their wrinkles. Some of the stitching has come out, but still left are the needle holes and impression patters of where the lace used to be. Beautiful things made by beautiful people so long ago at the end of the street car line.
I am wallowing in self-reproach. Mom fell in the shower. She does not remember falling. She remembers only waking up on the floor, the water sprinkling down on her, the door flung open. And I did not know. And Dad did not know. I asked her at breakfast about the scratch on the bridge of her nose, but she did not know where it came from. As she sat in her Sunday dress, ready to go to church, Dad asked her how she felt. “Not so good,” she said, seeming very tired. I passed it off as a symptom of the sinus infection she is getting over. She told me later about her slumping from her chair. That morning I had awoken with a start when I thought I heard a bang. I could hear water tinkling. Remembering how the shower door clangs when it closes, I thought nothing more of it. We went to church like normal, moving a little slower. I cooked all afternoon to give Mom and Dad a nice Sunday dinner: tilapia poached in white wine with green onions, sauced with creamy mushroom-clam sauce. For dessert I made crepes stuffed with vanilla-cream sauced apples. It all tasted divine. But all I could think about as I cooked and ate and washed dishes was not being there when Mom needed me. I was there, in the same house, on the same floor, in the room next door, with Mom lying unconscious on the shower floor, being drizzled with warm water. But I was not there for her. I could have revived her, helped her up, given her care and attention. But I was not there. All this fancy French food and the effort it took and the palatable pleasure it brought meant nothing. What would have meant something was following through on the waking start and investigating assertively and helping my mother when she needed me. The bruise on her cheek bone is starting to show.
I have asked Mom and Dad to save up for me the little chores they would like me to do when I come home from work. I’m no handyman, but I can do the little things: change a furnace filter, snap in a new smoke alarm battery, carry toilet paper to the basement bathroom, heft the water softener salt into the tank, unclog the corner rain gutter, snip out the old dog wire, tighten a door knob, pull the empty garbage cans back from the curb. These little chores give me pleasure, not only because they are quick and easy, and not only because I am capable of doing them, but also because Mom and Dad appreciate me for doing these little chores: my doing them makes their lives just that much easier.
Nearly a month into this experience, this mission, I began to notice rising feelings of distress. I felt irritable and overwhelmed and stretched—that old rubber-band feeling where any more pull will break the band. My emotional energy reserves were gone. And I didn’t really know why. My sisters encouraged me to have compassion for myself, to realize that after living alone for years I am suddenly sharing space with other people all day every day. Continue reading
Mom received an invitation from one of the women of the Church. It was fancy, with vinery winding around the pretty graphics and text. An invitation to a Relief Society Garden Party. The Relief Society, established by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1842, and reestablished in 1868 after the “Mormons” were driven from Missouri and Illinois into the wilds of Utah Territory, created a “temporal and spiritual ministry” by which the frontier pioneer women cared for each other, Church members and not. The Relief Society organization, tradition, and mission thrives today, both with weekly meetings and countless acts of ministering to one another by over seven million women—a great worldwide sisterhood. And here was the Garden Party, 179 years on, with 60 neighborhood women converging on the designated garden. I dropped Mom off at the driveway and watched her gather with the welcoming throng. She beamed as she walked through the front door three hours later, happy, refreshed, built up by camaraderie and love. Dinner had consisted of a huge salad bar spread over several tables, plus one for desserts. She loved visiting with the women, her sisters, and particularly enjoyed those who beamed cheer despite personal hardship. For that is what we do: we take what comes and help each other through with smiles on our faces, sustained by a faith that all will work out in the end.
Dad loves his yard care tools, especially the power tools. The only power tool we owned growing up in East Brunswick, New Jersey was the push mower, with no power drive, for the half-acre corner lot at 2 Schindler Court (named by the developer-friend of Mr. Schindler of Schindler’s List). Now Dad enjoys a set of DeWalt battery-powered tools, including one of his favorites, the hedge trimmer. He often trims the bushes nicely round. But the trimmer cannot grab and cut the shoots along the ground, and bending and kneeling is out of the question. I, on the other hand, can (barely) bend and (barely) kneel, and I like the small hand pruner. So while Dad shapes the bushes, I kneel on a cushioned pad and reach under the bushes to cut their runners and shoots, leaving a collection of uniquely and pleasantly shaped orbs. The hard-to-get-to places are the ones longest neglected, but turning attention and effort to them yields pleasing results. There’s a metaphor there somewhere.
The negotiated terms of my ouster included me rescuing my children’s artwork from the attic storage closet. I wanted these paintings displayed and my children honored. They had made oil, acrylic, and collage paintings on old plywood, cardboard, canvas board, and posterboard. Many pieces were very good. Determined, I took a framing class at the Tooele Army Depot morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) facility. I learned to measure and cut the mats and the glass, assemble the frames, and apply the backing. I felt joyful and proud to hang these excellent art pieces on the walls of my apartment, which my father came to call my “art gallery.” They included scenes of Lisbon streetcars, Rio de Janeiro’s Cristo Redentor, the romantic streets of Paris, African villages, Korean dancers, and New York City street corners, plus a Panda Bear and a Great Blue Heron. The most venerable painting hanging on my apartment walls was an oil Dad painted in the 1950s of two children, a boy and a girl, walking hand-in-hand down a forest path. To move them safely, I wrapped these jewels in plastic and stacked them carefully in the Mom’s and Dad’s basement. After two weeks, I found myself ready to decorate my two rooms, too small to accommodate all the paintings I had framed. And I suddenly found that my connection to them was touched with old despair. For now, I will gently store them to await a time of greater healing and permanence, when I will take them out and again proudly display them. Now is not the time or the season. They are like so many priceless museum pieces wrapped in protecting plastic and stowed in crates, awaiting their grand retrospective. In the meantime, I have hung in my rooms several of Mom’s beautiful needlepoints, prints I bought on various trips, and the old oil of two children walking through the woods, holding hands.
On the way home from work, I stopped to buy a big bottle of Round-Up herbicide. Those pesky weeds keep popping up in the shrub beds and under the pine trees. Virginia creeper seems impossible to extirpate. As a teen, Dad taught me to mix concentrated pesticides with water in a three-gallon pressurized spray tank. With rubber gloves and a long sleeve shirt, I mixed the poison and sprayed the fruit trees against aphids and borers. Dad strictly instructed me never to get the pesticide—especially the concentrate—on my skin, and if I did to wash immediately with soap and water. He told me how these chemicals had killed people who touched them, or breathed their vapor. I took his word for it and followed his instructions carefully. A decade later I came across a first edition of Rachel Carson’s 1962 masterpiece Silent Spring, and carried it around for another decade before reading it. The book exposed the pesticide and herbicide industries for the dangerous nature of these chemicals to humans, animals (think DDT and Bald Eagle eggs), and ecosystems. Of course, all those chemicals have since been banned for home use because they, in fact, killed people. I am still careful with Round-Up, not spraying on a windy day, and washing with soap after. How glad I am that sensitive, smart, and courageous persons like Rachel took on the industrial complex at great personal sacrifice to share messages of truth larger than themselves. To introduce my book Rabbit Lane: Memory of a Country Road, and in admiration for how Rachel changed the world, I wrote this poem, expressing my sentiments 50 years after she penned hers.
not silent quite.
the growing hum
After I organized my home office, in the former guest bedroom, I received an email from Dad asking if my red office chair held sentimental meaning to me, and, if not, perhaps I should consider getting a new office chair. I bought the cushioned red cloth chair thirty years ago as my writing chair. I sat and rocked in it eight years ago as I typed the first, second, and final manuscripts of my book, Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road, as well as my volume of recent poetry, A Time and A Season. The red cloth has faded, the spring has stretched into a permanent recline, and the paint has been scratched off the wood arms. For years my son Brian used it in his room at his desk; daughter Erin also enjoyed the chair, and repainted the wood arms and legs. But it is showing its age, and Dad thought it might not represent me professionally on Zoom. Time to let it go. I asked Brian if he might like his childhood chair, and he replied in the enthusiastic affirmative. I will miss my old red chair, but it was starting to hurt my back, and I’m so glad Brian will enjoy sitting and rocking in it as he writes his poems and creative non-fiction essays and reads pictures book to little Lila. The old red chair will fit his MFA nicely.
I had intended to accept an invitation to gather with the men of the neighborhood to help an ill neighbor with yard work he could not do. “Bring your chainsaws,” the organizer goaded, “and show what real men you are.” I chuckled, knowing his heart was pure. As I sat with Dad in the back yard, however, and he talked about all the things he would like to accomplish in his yard, I decided to change course. I chose to stay home and help with his yardwork, which I suppose is my yardwork. An impish niggling voice accused me of being selfish for not helping the neighbor. But I shrugged it off and responded, “Nope. That is not my mission. This is my mission: to be here, to help here, to the end. This is missionary work.” And so I got to work pruning trees and weeding flower beds and yanking out the long Virginia creeper vines. A smile on Dad’s face, and his call of “Looks great!” confirmed what I already knew, and made me happy to be so engaged.
During a visit to Gilbert, Arizona to see my sister Jeanette, she took me to a state park near Sedona, high above the desert, with a little trout stream flowing through the pine forest. On the park lawn grazed a squadron of pig-like creatures called collared peccaries, or javelinas. I asked a uniformed park ranger about them—he told me javelinas are not pigs at all, but a cross between an old-world swine (which is a pig, I thought) and a new-world raccoon. I stared at him stupefied, wondering if were joking. Sadly, he was perfectly serious. Of course, such a cross is genetically impossible, for the same reasons a dog cannot breed with a cat, or a chicken with a rabbit: impossible. (Idaho does boast its jackalope, a cross between a jack rabbit and a pronghorn antelope—Google it.) On another visit, Mom and Dad brought back a life-sized rusted metal javelina that sits quietly on alert, on their front porch. When the Deseret News stopped its daily circulation, opting for online distribution, Mom and Dad subscribed to the New York Times, which is tossed every day out of a car window onto the driveway. Leaving the house for work in the morning, I noticed the newspaper, bagged in blue plastic, sitting on the javelina’s snout. I asked Mom about it, and she whispered simply “newspaper elf.” Another morning, I saw from my home office window a man crossing the driveway. Ah, so he must be the newspaper elf. But on Saturday the newspaper was in the driveway. “The newspaper elf doesn’t work on weekends,” Mom explained cheerfully. “We have to go and get it.”
Mom said to me soon after I moved in, “I’m old, and I can’t do much, but I can do laundry and I like to do laundry. Would you let me do your laundry? I would like to do that for you.” I felt inclined to decline, and demurred. Dirty laundry is a sensitive subject for me. Returning from a five-month separation in 2014, I gently insisted on doing my own laundry. Home from my eviction, I found I could not allow her to handle my dirty laundry, though she wanted to. I could not let myself be vulnerable in that way. Now, with my mother’s request, I am trying be vulnerable enough to allow her to do something for me that she can do and wants to do and likes to do, even though I like doing it, too. For me, separating the colors from the whites and putting in the soap and running the machines is fun. And I like folding the clean clothes and putting them in their organized place. With Mom’s offer to wash my dirty clothes, I have come full circle to my childhood. Mama is taking care of me again. How tender that she wants to. After thinking it through and breathing deeply, I said to her, “Mom, I would be very appreciative of you washing my dirty clothes. Thank you so much for offering.”
In July, just before I moved, Mom told me about how she and Dad sat in picnic chairs in the driveway every evening at 8:45 to watch the sun set, enjoying the colorful clouds. I texted her one night that I would go stand by the apartment complex fence at 8:45 to see the sun set over the Tooele valley, in solidarity with her. While she gazed toward the Oquirrh mountains to her west, I looked toward the Stansbury mountains to my west, each with peaks over 11,000 feet. As July moved into August, our sunset time came earlier and earlier, today already at 7:45. Sitting there in the driveway, the three of us, on our picnic chairs, we waved at neighbors driving or walking by, talked about the day’s work and news, and admired the brilliant colors. With the worst California fires in history, Utah’s sun became an orange-poppy sphere that we could stare at without discomfort for the thick smoke. As the sun dipped behind the mountains one evening, Dad announced, “I can see Venus!” I looked and looked for several minutes, but could not see the “first star.” His cataract removal and lens implants seem to have given him telescopic eyes at age 85, while my 20-20 eyes (thank you Lasik) still searched for the pin point. As the sky darkened, Mom told of when she was six years old and sang at a neighborhood talent show, in the church building, and for the occasion her mother made a dress for her out of rolls of white crepe paper stitched together, with red paper trim and pink paper hearts. Then Dad led us in a round of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and told me how wonderful my mother is (which he tells me every day, and she is). Soon the automatic sprinklers popped up, and the quarter moon shone a rich orange through the smoky sky.
The arctic willow bush tends to grow wildly, a thicket of unruly blue hair. And twigs die and turn brown in the midst, marring the uniform soft blue. Dad has always diligently pruned out the deadwood. This weekend he asked me if I would find that one elusive dead twig and cut it out. After a pine branch attacked me (see prior Pruning Pine Trees post), I wrestled my way into the willow tangle in search of brown. Like with the pine tree, once on the inside I found much invisible dead wood to cut out. I threw each brown branch onto the lawn, cut them up in short lengths, and filled an entire garbage can. Stepping back from the bush, there was that elusive brown twig still peeking through. Finally I found it. What a different removing the brown made to the quality of the blue. Nature is full of instructional principles, like how cutting out the dead keeps the living healthy and beautiful.
One of my purposes is to make mealtime easy, healthy, and pleasant for Mom and Dad, by cooking dinner for them. For two years I have enjoyed cooking for them occasionally on a weekend. Now it can be every day, if wanted. It brings me pleasure to bring them pleasure. I have always wanted to learn to speak French and cook French. I study French lessons on Duo Lingo once or twice a week—I may become competent in ten years so. And after watching Julie & Julia in 2020, I bought the 50th anniversary edition of Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This week we enjoyed (1) quiche in a buttery shell with green onions, mushrooms, spinach, and ham, (2) salmon soufflé, (3) crêpes with Splenda-sweetened fresh fruit and almond whipping cream (for my son Caleb’s 22nd birthday “cake”), (4) carrots and parsnips glazed in a buttery sweet sauce, and (5) cream of mushroom soup, all from Julia’s book. I have fun cooking delicious, appealing food, and we all enjoy consuming it. The recipes were hard at first, but have become second nature with repetition. Dad sent me an email today, “I will be cooking dinner tonight.” These six words implied so much: (a) I can cook, too; (b) I want to cook, too; (c) I love to cook, too; (d) I can do things; (e) I want to share the load; (f) thank you for your cooking; (g) I want to take a turn; (h) I want to do something nice for you like you do for us; and, (i) isn’t it wonderful how people take raw ingredients and make such creative, delicious dishes? So, tonight he cooked delicious “saucy pork burrito rice bowls” with ingredients and recipe provided by Hello Fresh. When I asked if I could be his sous chef, he said sure. As the three of us sat at the table with our fragrant rice bowls, Dad remarked, “We made this, together, didn’t we Rog!” We did. And it was very tasty.
I ducked under Austrian Pine boughs to step around its trunk to prune the Arctic Willow. The blunt end of a lopped pine bough jabbed me hard and square on the temple. I swore, thanked God it wasn’t my eye, and trudged off for a saw to cut off the offending limb. Dad’s neighbor, Terry, regularly shapes the enormous Blue Spruce that sits just inside his property line. One day he decided the bottom boughs were too low, and cut them all off to a height of about eight feet. A little aggressive, I thought. But Dad chose to admire how the pruning had opened up the view of the neighboring yards, “park-like.” We looked at the Spruce’s companion Austrian pine on our side of the property line, and decided its bottom limbs drooped too low. We had to duck to walk under them, and Dad hit them when riding his lawn mower. He consented to me providing a “slight haircut” to the pine. Underneath their canopy, I discovered a mass of dead limbs invisible from outside. I lopped off all those I could reach. I carefully pruned the lowest hanging limbs, lifting the canopy bottom up a couple of feet. The result looked natural and less cluttered, bringing a better balance to the landscaping. Mom and Dad were really pleased. Following my normal clean-up routine, I snipped the boughs into short lengths that could be compacted into the garbage can, which these days seems to be filling up long before pick-up day.
Preparing for the move, I wondered which room would be best for my bedroom. The basement bedroom is my favorite guest room because it is cooler, darker, more quiet, and more private—cave-like. The west-facing room with its big windows grows hot in summer. The other room has four bunk beds for when the grandchildren were younger. I decided that the basement would not do: if something went wrong in the night, I would not be able to immediately hear and respond. I consulted with Mom and Dad, and we decided to take the bunk beds down and move my bed in. They offered to let me use the larger (hotter) bedroom for my home office. The ceiling fan and window blinds will ease the heat. How gracious Mom and Dad were to volunteer this arrangement—it will work beautifully. The bedroom is simple, with my bed, dresser, and nightstand. The office has the only other furniture I brought: my 30-year-old first-ever kitchen table that my daughter Erin later refinished with black legs, dark wood-stain top, and painted flowers and vines, for my desk—at this desk, I typed the manuscripts of my book Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road; a wood filing cabinet; a glass-doored book case for my current journals, writing projects, and reading list; and, the tall driftwood specimen Dad carried off Mount Timponogos in the 1950s and transformed into a gorgeous lamp. It sits on my great-grandfather Baker’s low, round, oak table with lathe-turned legs. I feel like I have come home.
When church services ended, Mom led me to choir practice, held in the home of a neighbor. The director was thrilled to have a new bass, and gave me a choir folder with my name on it, filled with favorites like Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Consider the Lilies, and John Rutter’s I Will Sing with the Spirit. Mom was the ward choir director when I first started singing at the age of 12 in our New Jersey ward. I learned from her so much about the beauty, complexity, and dynamics of choral singing and conducting. She held this position for nine years. In my forties, I was asked to direct the choir in my Utah ward. I borrowed Mom’s choral music library, cleared the mental cobwebs, and put to work all the knowledge she taught me decades before. At the same time, I sang in a wonderful Salt Lake City community choir, learning even more. I have not sung with the church choir for a long time. While choral singing can be uplifting and therapeutic, too much pain kept me away from people for too long. I am happy to be singing again in the ward choir. And as Mom expressed in choir practice today, “I am so grateful to be singing.” Amen.
We drive 200 yards to church—walking is just not an option. I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. First, a little context. Our local church units are called wards. The ward one attends depends on where one lives. So, moving from Tooele to Sandy, my church record was transferred from the Westland Ward to the Crescent 18th Ward. A bishop presides over each ward. Every ward member is given the opportunity to contribute to the ward’s functioning (e.g., teaching youth classes) and to minister to the ward’s members. All ward members serve voluntarily, without pay. My first Sunday in the new ward, the bishop stood at the pulpit and invited to stand, telling the congregation of several hundred that I was new to the ward, and that I had moved in with my parents to help take care of them. As I stood up, I resisted the almost irresistible urge to tuck in my shirt and pull up my slacks. I am what I am; let them see me. I felt the unusual nature of my situation: an older single man moving in with his octogenarian parents. And I was sure Dad felt chagrined and being identified publicly as needing to be “taken care of.” But these are all good people, many of whom approached me after the meeting to welcome me enthusiastically into the ward. “I’m Brad.” “I’m Ann.” “I’m Bishop Callister.” “So glad to meet you. Your parents are such wonderful people.”
John Wayne stayed in Tooele, and Hannah went with her mom. But Brian and Avery came and to help me unload the truck. Lila (almost 2) ran around talking and playing and exploring and shyly approaching Mom and Dad, her great-grandparents. I had communicated, I was sure, with Mom and Dad about where I thought it best to store my belongings: in the main basement room against the east wall. In fact, I had not discussed it with them. I had only imagined discussing it, and had fabricated, apparently, a memory both of the conversation and of their assent. But this was not the storage location they preferred: putting my stuff there would turn their family gathering place into a storage room. I was stunned, not at their preference—it is their house and their space, and my obligation and opportunity to respect them. Rather, I was stunned at my having transformed the fantasy of my unuttered thoughts into the reality of a memory of a conversation that never took place. Dad pointed me to a small unfinished area of the basement I was confident would not fit my belongings. But I did some quick organizing, laid down my 2x4s, and got ready to bring in the boxes. I applied a wide strip of amazingly adhesive plastic down the stairs to the basement and up the stairs and down the hall to my room. I did not want the boot traffic and black dolly wheels to ruin the light-colored shag. Clanking down the stairs with boxes of books on the dolly was a chore straining our arms and legs and back. Brian and I were sore the next day! On the moving-in side, Brian and Avery were my heroes. By night’s end, I was, simply, exhausted, took two Aleve, and fell like a boulder into bed. But not without remembering sheepishly my first new-home blunder, committed before even moving in. I will need to be extra careful to clearly communicate so as to navigate my space while not infringing on theirs. Fortunately, Mom and Dad are generous, flexible, and forgiving.
Moving day finally came. I rented a 16-foot Penske truck from Home Depot, with a dolly—I was not going to schlep all those boxes of books one at a time. My son Brian (31) and daughter Hannah (15) volunteered to help me load the truck. I had been so focused on packing and cleaning that I neglected to ask for help loading the truck. Brian brought a friend he met years earlier in Oklahoma during his church missionary service. His Chinese name sounds like John Wayne, and he invited me to just call him that. Brian, Hannah, and John Wayne were heroic! We loaded a thousand boxes (actually 100) and a few pieces of furniture I am keeping. Most of my furniture and household furnishings I am leaving for Brian and Avery to use, since I will not need them (or have room for them) at Mom’s and Dad’s house.
Many poignant thoughts struck me as I drove the big truck away from Tooele to Sandy. (1) I am mourning leaving my apartment—my home. No matter how good the new circumstance, we often grieve the circumstance we leave behind. (2) Living alone in an apartment after 27 years of marriage was not my choice. But making that apartment my home was my choice. And I made it a beautiful, comfortable, safe, peaceful, happy home for myself, and for my children when they came to see me. (3) I struggle with transitions, that place of belonging neither here nor there, neither now nor then, of belonging to no place and no time. I am glad this transition is ending. (4) The last day in one place is as strange as first day in another. (5) I did it! I made it! I lived alone for six years after a traumatic divorce. And I made it through. Intact, even! Stronger! I emerged from a long, dark tunnel of trauma into the light of life and love, and even created my own light along the way.
I have kept a journal since I was a teenager in the late 1970s. My journal isn’t a diary of daily occurrences, but a collection of documents containing my thoughts, insights, struggles, joys, accomplishments, activities, and feelings, and those of others with whom I am closely connected, mostly family. All these documents go into one-inch black three-ring binders, the dates printed on the spines, lined on my bookshelves. Continue reading
My church encourages its members to have on hand one year’s supply of food in case of emergency. The Covid-19 pandemic affirmed that food storage isn’t a fool’s errand. After being counseled my whole life, and after six months of Covid, I finally started acquiring food storage. Not just staples, but things I would enjoy and that would be good for me. Canned: refried beans; sweet potatoes; mackerel; sweet corn; green beans; mandarin oranges; spaghetti sauce; diced tomatoes; black beans. Baking: flour; sugar; brown sugar; baking powder; corn meal; cassava flour; vegetable shortening; a gallon of vegetable oil; a gallon of corn syrup. Spices: garlic; onion; cinnamon. Bouillon cubes for chicken and beef broth. Pasta: angel hair (my favorite). Bottled water. Powdered milk. A stove in a can. Two hundred tea candles and pint-jar lanterns. I hope I don’t have to find out how long these stores, combined with their own, would last Mom, Dad, and me. But I have them just in case, in boxes, on shelves in Mom’s basement cold storage room.
My son, Brian Wallace Baker, a recent MFA graduate in creative non-fiction and poetry, wrote this kind post as a gift to me. I am deeply touched and grateful. Brian’s post:
As a writer, I think a lot about other writers, how some get big book deals, big prizes, and how even these writers aren’t household names. And it’s rare for a writer, no matter how popular, to be remembered beyond their generation. Thinking about this has made me realize that fame and success have little to do with being a good writer. There are so many good books out there, and more being written and published all the time, and most of them will have relatively small audiences. And that’s okay. I’ve learned that good writing has a lot more to do with changing hearts than it does with seeking fame and fortune.
I highly recommend this book. Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road can be purchased here: Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.
Thank you, Brian.
(Photo by Brian Baker.)
I packed 30 boxes in one night. Packing boxes is such an odd life experience. Into each box I put my books, my genealogical records, my decorations, my journals. I seem to have more books and binders than any other type of possession. I cannot bear to part with the good books I have read, so into the boxes they go, with the label “Books: Read.” My latest favorites: The Plover by Brian Doyle, about a scarred sailor on a small sailboat who takes on several characters and through them heals his wounds; and, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, about the pervasive systematic racist policies of U.S. Government agencies that caused African Americans to suffer gross inequities in housing availability and affordability, safe neighborhoods, good jobs, adequate incomes, quality schools, clean environments, loan and mortgage equity, wealth generation, and military benefits. Each book has walked me in the shoes of great men and women, has taken me to new realms of science, has filled me with joy and sadness and that sick feeling that comes from reading about human cruelty. And when my bookshelves are empty and the boxes are full, I feel empty and bereft, as if my compartmentalized personality has been divided into boxes with labels, packed away to be loaded onto a truck and driven to my knew home and stacked in a corner of the basement until this new chapter, of which I have barely turned the first page, has ended (and I hope it is a long chapter). Then, I will carry the boxes again, still unopened, to some other domicile, where they will be unpacked and their contents organized on shelves and tables until my children come to care for me.
I didn’t go to Wal-Mart for boxes. I went there for snacks, including cheddar fish crackers, for a day trip to see Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with Hannah at Tuacahn. But there was the cheerful Pepperidge Farms lady collapsing boxes by the dozen, happy to give them to me when I asked. Packing is always a daunting task, and it starts with building boxes. With Ken Burns’ 20-hour Jazz playing b-bop and avant-garde, I started folding and taping flaps, and tossing the boxes in a heap. I feel so sad for genius Charlie Parker, playing sax music from heaven while drugs dragged him down to a living hell, with death at 34. At DVD’s end, the living room was a heap of empty cracker boxes, about to be filled with books I may never read but yet carry around by the decade. My life feels about to be reduced to a stack of heavy boxes marked “books.” But mine is a good life: I will have a safe, loving place to live with, and care for, my generous parents. Safe places—that is what we should be building. I guess it starts with building boxes. Forty down; so many to go.
With the plan in place, and the miracles having come about, the time to get to work had arrived. Boxing. Cleaning. Moving. Adjusting. Saying good-byes. And with that work came the second guessing. What was I thinking to invite this change? I am moving from my home, where I am comfortable and safe. I will be lengthening my commute from 3 miles to 53, from ten minutes to an hour, each way. I will be working day and night, six days a week. I will be living in someone else’s space. I will be giving up my solitary time for reading, writing, and film. Did I do the right thing? And yet, I know with a conviction, as powerful as any I ever received before, that this is the right thing to do. This is missionary work, and I have been called to this mission. I am holding on to that sure knowledge as I enter into a time of transition, a time of belonging neither in the old place nor in the new. I am holding onto that conviction and moving forward with faith, however weak.
I work as a municipal attorney for a small Utah town, advising the elected Mayor and City Council, the Planning Commission, and City department heads. This has been my work for 28 years. I rarely plan my days, which unfold in a never-ending series of problems and challenges, demands and crises. (I disfavor the word “crisis,” which takes a mere situation and elevates it to a crisis, with all the increased stress of a crisis, instead of making the same situation simply something to solve.) Working 50 hours a week in Tooele, plus ten hours of commuting, would hardly be conducive to fulfilling my primary purpose to care for my parents. For the plan to work, I would need permission to work a flexible, non-traditional schedule. Again, I solicited family prayers. I presented my plan and my proposed schedule to my boss, the Mayor. She enthusiastically approved, and even thanked me for choosing to help my parents at this point in their lives. I will work four partial days a week in Tooele, plus remote hours from home on those days, plus working remotely from home on Fridays, and when needed on Saturdays. I will still attend City Council meetings on Wednesday nights—after a career of some 5,000 Wednesday-night meetings, I see my week as Wednesday to Tuesday instead of Sunday to Saturday. Anyway, this schedule, hopefully, will allow me both to work full-time and to be home enough to make a difference for Mom and Dad. To my eye, this is another miracle. If the schedule itself is not, the kindness certainly is.