At various times of the day—like 6:30 a.m., or 9:30 a.m. on a Friday when I work from home, or noon on a Saturday when I am cooking apple cinnamon oatmeal—I hear that shuffling across the floor, one drag longer than the other, and the other more marked than the first, each a pull and scrape across the carpeted floor upstairs: I hear them from the kitchen downstairs, like short fingernails raking a blackboard, like a breeze sighing through bare winter branches, like a phlegmatic chronic cough, like Marley’s chain of evil and despicableness but not of evil and despicableness rather of righteous cheerful painful endurance and enduring every hour of every day of every year into 90 years and of refusing to give in and of fighting to give and to give, to give out energy and love and forgiveness—to let go of anger and pain and absurdity—to give away one’s remaining sins and stubborn imperfections. I laud the man who owns that shuffle, who owns those twisted falling swollen aching feet which make those whispering shuffling sounds. Mom slips on his socks in secret: he does not want his horrid—he thinks—and helpless feet to be seen, to be exposed and known. And I hold my breath and tense my whole body hoping those feet keep on shuffling across the uneven floor, praying those feet do not stop their shuffle in trade for a fall and a crash and an end. I have never shuffled my feet, yet, though my shuffling soul has dragged itself whining but unpretentious through much of its mortality, vertical and moving, weak and slow—moving. My direction is what matters: my trajectory: my desire’s focus. You and I, we keep on shuffling. He shuffles perseveringly on.
Hannah spent the morning with Mom and Dad and me, playing the piano, baking Guinness treacle bread, playing Carcassonne, and warming leftovers for lunch, topped off with last night’s Tarte Tatin (French up-side-down caramel apple pie). She played pretty hymn arrangements and the perennial sublimity of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune—Moonlight. Mom sat listening on the sofa with her eyes closed. Dad reached the bottom stair just as Hannah finished playing. “That was beautiful,” he complimented her. “I think you played that exactly the way Beethoven would have liked.” Hannah and I glanced at each other and smiled. No one laughed, of course, because the music was so moving and his loving accolade so sincere. The week Dad retired, more than 20 years ago, the law office joined him for a final jog through Johnson Park. One heavy-breathing attorney, O’Shaunessy, panted amiably to Dad as they ran, “You know, Nelson, I appreciate that you are religious. Before you came here, I had never heard the story of Moses and the Ark.” A third attorney asked if O’Shaunessy meant Noah instead of Moses, and a friendly argument ensued, with Dad caught in the middle, not weighing in. Maybe O’Shaunessy was not too far off, though, since Pharoah’s daughter had found the baby Moses floating in a tiny reed ark. And Beethoven did compose the famous Moonlight Sonata. As Hannah left for home, Dad called to her, “I love you,” and commented to me about what a delightful young woman she is. He sat at his computer to type her a note. I had judged him for pressing the mouse button so forcefully and deliberately, like an old person who had grown up flipping toggles and pressing mechanical switches. But sitting later at Dad’s computer to retrieve a “lost” document, I realized his chorded mouse was not functioning properly, and that if I did not lean forcefully into the mouse, it did not respond. I had judged incorrectly, as I often do, placing pride and arrogance before compassion and respect. “Dad,” I called, “I’m sorry your mouse doesn’t work correctly,” and he thanked me for noticing, and I drove to the store and purchased a new mouse with a smooth wheel and a soft clicking touch.
Taylorsville Utah Temple
Church President Russell Nelson announced the construction of 17 new temples, from Montana to Texas, the Congo to Spain, New Zealand to Peru, bringing the total number of temples to 282 worldwide. I drive past two temples under construction every morning and afternoon, one near my home—the Taylorsville Temple—and one near my work an hour away—the Deseret Peak Temple. While I could drive an alternate way, I feel drawn to the temple route, where twice a day I get to see the construction progress. Through the winter, the crews completed the steel framing of the Taylorsville temple, and dressed the ribbed walls with foam-panel insulation. Behind scaffolding, marble and granite slabs began to clad the ground floor, and just today enormous cranes lowered the steel-gray steeple. In Tooele, the Deseret Peak temple shows only the steel-beam super-structure forming the ground floor, mid-section, and tower, the walls yet to be built. These temples are sacred edifices to the Latter-day Saints, Houses of God. There Church members learn about the purpose of life on earth and the possibility of eternal life with an omni-beneficent Father. There we make covenants to be determined disciples of Jesus: chaste, sacrificing, kind, generous, and honest disciples. And there we are “sealed” or joined to our families in eternal unbreakable familial links and bonds. I look forward to seeing what the crews accomplish each day, and I rejoice in the progress toward the ultimate stunning exalting beauty of the final buildings. I wondered aloud to my siblings about this fascination of mine, and realized that the slow incremental transition from the foundation cornerstone to the steeple capstone gives me hope, hope in the life process of slow and careful creation toward a perfect end. Like the temples, I hope my character is being similarly dressed and shaped and polished. I know this: as I age, every act of meanness and gossip and pride and stinginess brings me pain, and every instance of kindness and compassion and generosity and forgiveness brings me pleasure. So it is that I joy in driving by these two temples, twice a day, knowing they will be finished and perfect, in time, and hoping the same for me.
Deseret Peak Temple in Tooele, Utah
(Photos from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Chatting with Mom and Dad one evening, we were all startled by a loud triple chirp typical of a smoke alarm whose battery is expiring. (In my last house, the alarm actually spoke to me, a creepy whispered warning in the middle of the dark and dreary winter night—never in the light of day.) I knew where the 9v batteries were, and retrieved two, just in case. What I could not discern was from which alarm the chirping emanated. I wandered the house, standing under each alarm, growing increasingly agitated at the incessant three-minute chirp cycle. But the irritating chirp always came from somewhere else. Chagrined and swearing now, after checking each alarm on three stories—twice—I stood on a chair inches away from the alarm where the damned ventriloquistic chirp was loudest. I replaced its battery, twice, with no effect. With my head near the ceiling, I abruptly realized the chirruping sprang from below. And there it was, behind Mom’s cedar chest, a real homemade aromatic brass-castered cedar hope chest, built by her grandpa James. A carbon monoxide alarm. As I glared at the thing from up close, it dared to chirp a triple-chirp, in my face. I yanked it roughly out of the wall and changed out the battery—but it continued a defiant chirp. Now I began to worry I might die of carbon monoxide poisoning, and fled to retrieve a different unit, with a red readout screen. I showed a “0” and I allowed a deep breath. Marching down the stairs, I found Mom and Dad and complained about the stupid monitor, at the same time wondering why I was disproportionately distressed. And then I remembered: my new house in Erda in 1998, with three floors of smoke alarms, all connected electrically, so that when one alarm began its screaming, they all bansheed, deafeningly, terrifyingly, and of course, in the middle of the dark and dreary winter night, the children crying in their beds and me frantically yanking out batteries and yanking off alarms and flipping breakers while the crying children stood shivering and crying on the front lawn while the demons screamed on. Oh, I thought, so that’s why I’m upset: that stupid little triple-chirp triggered the trauma of faulty smoke alarms setting off, of course, in the middle of the cold night. Disgusted with the monitor, I banished it to the back porch, where it kept on chirping, until I realized I could simply end the drama by taking out the battery and tossing the cursed object, now powerless, into the trash. Which I promptly did.
The year was 1945, the last year of the great and terrible War, and Dorothy languished from pneumonia. The family thought she would die. Mom was the oldest child, but still a little child. At his last house call, the country doctor said he could do no more for Mom’s mom. But when he came to the house another night, he offered a glimmer of hope: he had a new medicine to try. “I don’t how much to give you,” he hedged as he filled a syringe full with yellow fluid, “so I’m going to give you a big dose.” Six years old, Mom watched the physician inject the fluid into her wasted mother. “We’re just learning how to use it.” Called Penicillin, it showed promise, he said. Professor Alexander Fleming discovered in 1929 that the Penicillium bacterium produced a “juice” deadly to rival bacteria. In the early 1940s, Penicillin had transitioned from a laboratory curiosity to a serious infection-fighting medicine, of special value to wounded and diseased soldiers. Penicillin became widely available to the public in the spring of 1945, just in time for my grandmother Dorothy. Very quickly after the injection, she turned a corner and began her journey back to the land of the living. These 77 years later, Mom asked rhetorically as she reminisced on her childhood, “Can you even imagine the world before antibiotics? People got sick and just died!” How grateful I have been, as I have carried and rocked sick babies in the middle of the night, for the miracle of antibiotics. Without antibiotics, I myself would have died a dozen times over.
(Photo from Scientific American, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
The men of the Church assigned to see to her welfare told Dad she could not be visited. As the lay leader of the congregation, Dad bore responsibility for the welfare of every member of the congregation, whether they wanted to participate in the Church or not. “What does ‘unvisitable’ mean?” he queried. Apparently, “unvisitable” meant she did not want anyone from the Church to visit her. For Dad, the deeper questions were “Why is she unvisitable? What is happening in her life to distance her from the Church and from people.” Sitting at his desk in the law department of Johnson & Johnson, pondering over this unvisitable Church member. A thought pressed itself irresistibly onto his mind: Call her. Now. Having learned to never put off a prompting, he picked up the phone and called her. “Sandy? This is your bishop. I’m coming over right now,” and did not wait for a protest. He found Sandy living in squalor and disrepair, and terribly depressed and overwhelmed. The trees and shrubs had overgrown the house and porch. The front stairs had fallen away from the porch, and the mailman could not deliver the mail. Stacks of newspapers filled the rooms and hallways, with only narrow trails from place to place. She had not read them yet, she explained. The window frames had been painted while open, and remained stuck open, even in winter, when she shoved crumpled newspapers against the screens for insulation. “I will help you,” Dad promised, and he spent the next year helping Sandy transform her living space, which in turn transformed her life. He suggested she start her reading with the next day’s edition, and emptied the house of newspapers and trash, taking many loads to the dump. He cut out the trees and pulled out the shrubs, planting new ones. He cut the windows free of old paint so they could be open or shut with the season. He jacked up the stairs and put rock and new cement under them. He repaired all the plumbing. He painted all the walls. Mom asked him once, “Why don’t you involve the other men of the Church instead of doing all this work yourself?” And he explained that descending en masse to fix the house was all fine and well, but would not fix the occupant. She needed frequent, regular visits of encouragement, acceptance, and assistance. In the course of that year, Sandy began to smile, and to converse, and to return to Church. She and Mom became friends, sometimes hopping on the train to New York City for Broadway’s “two-for” matinees. In telling the story four decades later, Dad was clear it was not to boast, but to teach me this lesson: No one is unvisitable. We just need to ask the Savior how to do it, and He will show us the way. To God, all persons have equal worth, and we can be his hands in reaching out to the unreachable. No one is unvisitable.
(Photo from lily pond at Island Lake in the high Uintah mountains, 2007.)
“It’s time, Dad,” I announced. With winter weather in the recent past, and any remaining snows sure to melt fast, I told him the time had come to park his faithful Suburban in the garage and for me to take my extended turn parking in the driveway, where guests should park their cars. But, before the Suburban would fit in the garage, I had to stow the kayaks somewhere, and just in time for kayak season on the Jordan River. The big car would not fit in the garage with the kayaks leaning against the wall. I was not too thrilled with Dad’s idea about where to keep one of the kayaks, but as I had no better ideas, I gave his a try. Reorganizing the various gardening and cleaning and camping and bar-b-que supplies, I cleared a top storage shelf and heaved up a kayak. To my surprise, the boat fit perfectly on the high shelf, anchored by two stiff bungie cords (so it would not fall on Mom’s cute Subaru). With my Outback parked in the driveway, I exchanged the ice scraper for the windshield visor. Dad’s beloved car will sleep sheltered in the garage starting tonight. He said just yesterday as we drove to the Post Office and then to the grocery store, “I just love my car.”
Mom and Dad and I had just paid our respective income taxes, and the need to be frugal was on our minds and in our conversation. “You know what? That reminds me….” And Dad began his story. It was 1947, and the world heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, defended his title against contender Jersey Joe Walcott. Sonny (Dad, age 11) pedaled the bicycle, with little brother Wiggy (Bill) on board, some 40-odd city blocks, in the cold December air, to their grandpa William T Greene’s little shack: no plumbing, no running water, no furnace, no bathroom, no stove or oven. The place boasted only a hand pump and an outhouse and a wood stove, which served both as heater and cook stove. And he had a vacuum tube radio on which the threesome listened to the 1947 world heavyweight championship boxing match. Sonny and Wiggy tallied the score as the announcers called out the blows. Mom broke into the story here: she (age 8) and her family had gathered around their diminutive black-and-white television, watching the same fight. Sonny counted the blows. Mom’s family kept score, too. Jersey Joe knocked Louis down twice, and had more points, according to Sonny, listening to the radio, and according to grandpa Wally, watching the television, and they felt confident Jersey Joe Walcott would be the new world champion. But in the end the judges called the fight for the incumbent Joe Louis, and the commentators rationalized that only a decisive win could unseat a world champion like Joe Louis. The morning after the fight, Sonny snagged an enormous brook trout from Mill Creek. “Now that’s more like it,” Grandpa Greene cheered. “Let’s cook him up for breakfast. Get some sticks and let’s light the fire.” Grandpa William T Greene, at 80, liked his grandsons, and was happy for their company—and the boys loved him. He told Sonny once that he was afraid of dying. He would not know where to go, or what to do. He would not belong. But later he explained to the boys that the spirit of his long-dead sister had appeared to him, standing at the foot of his bed. “You don’t need to worry, William,” she reassured. “When you die, I will be there waiting for you. I know where you need to go, and I will take you there.” He would join her in 1956 after 89 years on this earth. And Sonny would miss his champion grandpa.
(Pictured above and below: William T Greene.)
When I hear the 23rd Psalm and envision myself walking beside still waters and lying down in green pastures, I do not think of triple-forte fff. But exultation is the spirit of Gordon Young’s arrangement of The Lord Is My Shepherd. Mom had been working her way through her filing cabinet stuffed with choir music—hundreds of pieces—keeping her favorites and tossing the rest. As she began plunking the allegro maestoso introduction on the piano, the music and the memories drew me irresistibly down the stairs and across 45 years to the church choir where I learned to sing under Mom’s enthusiastic and competent direction. I stood behind her now, put aside my usual inhibitions, and belted out “God is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” from memory. Mom pounded out the triplet eighth-note chords, and this 57-year-old returned to 12 and sang the melody. Abruptly and appropriately subdued to meno mosso, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, very temporarily, for I need fear no evil with my Shepherd with me, providing comfort, preparing my table, and anointing my head with aromatic oil. I confess that my cup ran over as the music washed over me and the song neared the fortississimo fff promise of dwelling forever with the Lord. Suddenly very happy, I thanked Mom for the break from my work, climbed the stairs to my home office, absorbed in emotional echoes of musical memory, and sat at my old desk to write, grateful to my Shepherd.
Mom’s gait has grown increasingly halting and unsteady, and she digs into the floor with each step to assure herself of not falling. At choir practice, she leans hard on my arm to ascend the single step into the host’s house. When I asked her if it were becoming harder to walk, she confessed that “my knees hurt.” Three years ago, she had cortisone shots in her knees, which reduced arthritic swelling and pain. But now the pain was back, especially when enduring the stairs in her house. One day she declared, “I’m not going to the gym anymore, and I’m done riding the bike at home, too—my knees hurt too much.” She asked if I would get the mail for her, and I said “nope” full of cheek, explaining gently (I did not want to seem rude and hurt her feelings) that if she could not go to the gym or ride her stationary bike, she would have to walk to the mailbox, and invited her to keep on going to the street corner. So she walked to the mailbox. Tough Mom. Movement was important for her heart and her general strength. Mom often tells me, “I’m so happy every day when you walk through the door from work.” Sweet Mom. I was not so sure she would still feel that way after I made her walk to the mailbox on her old knees. But she loves me still. I “broke” my knee in high school, bending it sideways in a basketball game and severing the anterior cruciate ligament, the infamous ACL. The non-invasive MRI machine was not widely available in 1982, and to diagnose my injury the doctor shoved a 10-penny needle into my knee, injected contrast, and manipulated the wounded joint under live x-ray trying to discern soft tissue tears—what agony. So, when Mom made an appointment to get shots in her knees, I cringed. She reported later that the doctor numbed her skin with spray, inserted the needles under her knee caps, and injected a syringe-full of liquid—but she felt no pain. Brave Mom. “Come back in six months, not three years,” the doctor instructed. Mom is already walking better, and we will see about the stationary bicycle. That night Mom and I delivered the results of my latest baking adventures—pains au chocolate (chocolate croissant rolls) and bacon fougasses (flat bread shaped like a leaf)—to several neighbors. She was happy to be my delivery buddy and to get out of the house for even the humblest of adventures. Fun Mom. Back home in her recliner, it was time for her favorite daily ritual: a bowl of Farr chocolate ice cream, which, of course, I cannot resist either, though I add milk for a thick chocolate shake.
(Pictured above: leaf-shaped Fougasses–the French answer to Italian Focaccia–with bacon and onions.)
For over a century, my Church has preached a ministering program called “home teaching,” where Church members, two by two, visit with assigned families to make sure their temporal and spiritual needs were being addressed. At the awkward age of 14, I was Dad’s home teaching companion, and he was the “bishop” or unpaid lay minister of our large congregation—he knew all the Church members and their many problems and hardships. He saw on the records the name of a young woman he did not know, Continue reading
The men of my Church historically were divided into two groups or quorums, one for the older men and men with leadership responsibilities (called “high priests”), and one for the younger, less-experienced men (“elders”), where each could relate best to his peers. Dad has been a high priest from his mid-20s, having been assigned to lead larger and larger congregations. The Church recently merged the two quorums into one, for the purposes of (1) eliminating an age hierarchy within a single priesthood, (2) giving the younger men the benefit of the older men’s wisdom and experience, and (3) becoming a more cohesive group of “priesthood brethren” focused on church instruction and service. For Dad, at 86, the combining of quorums has been counterproductive, and he feels anonymous and isolated and invisible, due to age and condition. His legs do not work, so he staggers and uses a cane, and rising from his chair takes all his strength. He raises his voice a bit because his ears do not work, and he uses hearing aids. But in the minds of some, the cane and the voice and the hearing aids and the trembling effort indicate both physical and mental decrepitude. In quorum last week, Dad raised his hand to comment, the lesson topic being faith in Christ. The young instructor did not acknowledge him, calling on others with raised hands. He raised his hand several more times, but was ignored. The elderly gentleman sitting next to Dad got the instructor’s attention and demanded, “Nelson has something to say.” But the instructor said the class time was up and he had not been able to call on everyone for comment. “I used to be relevant,” Dad lamented to me when I returned from my weekend trip, “but I don’t matter anymore. The teacher thinks I don’t know anything, that I’m an old useless fuddy-dud.” In my 30-year career of professional acquaintances, Dad remains the most intelligent, learned, and discerning man I have ever known. He graduated top of his class from the University of Utah law school, received a master of laws (LLM) in international corporate law from New York University, and worked a 33-year career as legal counsel for a major international corporation. He presided as lay minister over congregations from 200 to 2,000 souls for 35 years. He reads a book a week during his late-night solitude. He holds his own discussing the world’s great philosophies, histories, religions, and personalities. But at age 86, with his stumble and his cane, his voice and his hearing aids, he feels invisible to his younger peers. Actually, “invisible” is the wrong word, for they are aware of him. But they misjudge, seeing him as irrelevant and obsolete. He thinks he does not matter anymore. And it makes me furious.
(Pictured above: Dad circa 1972.)
It is a Friday night, and I am home alone in my upstairs office, reading, and writing, and I am not out with friends and I am not being entertained by superheroes. Every hour upon the half, I roll out and fold over a butter and bread-dough laminate—24 layers—for tomorrow’s chocolate croissants, and between rolling I am reading the Selected Speeches and Writings of Abraham Lincoln. I bought a copy for myself after reading another Lincoln biography, but Dad was so excited to dive into the book, and cannot read without a yellow highlighter (like I cannot read without a yellow highlighter) that I gave him my copy and bought a second for myself. Already I have learned the words “vulpine” and “hagiography” and learned that Mr. Lincoln was not merely the stoic statue of still photographs, but faceted and furious and considerate and cutting and desperately sad and brutally patient, and witty, and he loved to tell stories, for stories will tell the truth faster and longer-lasting than the truth itself. Dad told Lincoln stories at the dinner table, but he looked very tired; he had seemed tired all day. When I first saw him this morning, and asked him “How are you today, Dad?” he responded with his characteristic “Marvelously well, thank you!” But later he confessed to feeling “very poorly” and tired and weak. When I finished my work day, he said he would go outside to blow the rock wall clean of pine needles and leaves and dirt. And I began mixing my dough. I kneaded and listened, tense, and soon heard a desperate bellowing from the back yard and rushed out the door to see Dad, on his hands and knees, sinking to splay on the concrete, shaking with vain exertions to move. I managed to lift him back up onto his knees, and in a huge joint effort he inched up the arms of a patio chair high enough for me to kick another chair behind him, where he sat, trembling and pale. “I fell,” he observed flatly. Despite his state, he insisted on mounting the mower and cleaning up the grass. Between bites of chicken and broccoli, he told us, “I think my legs just collapsed.” Feeling traumatized, I blurted, “We need to have a conversation. You cannot work in the yard if you are feeling weak and I’m not here. If you fall when I’m not here, you’re not getting back up, and it will be an ambulance and a hospital and who knows what!” Inside my head, I screamed, You’re not allowed to be stubborn! To be stubborn is to die! I had felt terror at finding him helpless on the patio concrete, at my not being strong enough to muscle his bulk off the ground, of his visible deterioration week to week, of knowing this is a one-way track with a finish line I don’t want to cross. Seeing that my fury came from my fear, I could forgive myself and forgive him and calm myself into a nice family dinner. It is a Friday night, and Dad is watching the Jazz game from his recliner, and I am reading and writing and rolling out my croissant dough, and after the rolls bake tomorrow, Dad and I will go outside together with rakes and shovels to do a little yardwork before dinner.
My son John explained to me that he allows himself only five minutes of social media time each day. He is accountable to his wife Alleigh. I felt proud of him for recognizing how social media distracted him from weightier life matters, consumed hours of time better committed to real learning and real recreation and real entertainment and real human interaction. After watching the documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix (I wrote to my children about it), I resolved to reform my social media and game-app habits. I uninstalled Solitaire—I was on level something hundred, after thousands of games. Quitting Solitaire was hard, like quitting caffeinated soda or chocolate. I stopped checking 37 times a day (is that all? you ask) for Facebook likes and WordPress visits and Instagram hearts, opting instead to check once or twice a day for family photos and life updates, and to make and respond to personal comments. I no longer scroll. Those visits and likes and love emojis have such a power and pull toward measuring life and success by their numbers: lots of visits = high value; just a few likes or hearts = low worth. Very quickly I could decide I am not liked, I am not worth much, I am unattractive, or out of shape, or obtuse. Such falsehoods and lies. Besides all this, I had lost my power of concentration and focus, interrupted unceasingly by smartphone lights and sirens, in the guise of blinks and dew drops—my days were fractured—so I turned off light and sound notifications except from the most important and least disruptive apps. And, I do not want some algorithm deciding for me what political and social views I should have and which products and services I should want to buy. I have intelligent, respected friends who decline to use Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram, and they are no worse off for it, and perhaps better off for having lifted their eyes up from their phone screens, to experience the world. So, instead of browsing videos and reels tonight, I am going to watch The Great British Baking Show and choose a decadent dessert recipe for tomorrow, I think chocolate croissants—from scratch.
With heavy snows and sub-freezing temperatures just three days ago, today reached 65 degrees, made warmer by the bright sun and blue sky. I found Dad settled heavily in his recliner, looking exhausted, which he was. He explained that he had worked “all day” in the yard, raking out thick mats of pine needles and milkweed stalks from the landscaped beds. He had reached above the rock wall and stretched the rake as far as he could—he can no longer climb to the terrace. “Can you help me?” he wondered, asking me to pick up the piles and compact them in the big garbage can. I used the technique my son Brian taught me, scooping a snow shovel underneath the pile and pinching from the top with a rake, then picking up the pile and dumping it in the can. Before long, the piles were gone, and the can was compacted and full. I jumped up onto the terrace and quickly raked the area Dad could not reach, filling the can beyond the brim. “Doesn’t that look nice and tidy?” he asked, pleased. He was thrilled to have worked in the yard after the long winter, though he characteristically worked too hard and too long and barely made it staggering back to the house, to settle heavily in his recliner, too tired even to eat. But Dad came outside and sat in a chair to watch me finish the work he once did, to crow over the tidy beds, and to sigh at his beautiful snow-capped mountain view. “Isn’t the mountain just beautiful? Lone Peak is now a designated wilderness area. There are no maintained trails.” He had climbed to Lone Peak 20 years earlier, exulting on the 11,253-foot peak, neglecting to take enough food or water, and making it back thanks to nice young hikers who noticed and shared. “Did you hear they just found a wolverine in those mountains? A wolverine! Here!” We had seen the story on the news, of game wardens in a helicopter filming a black wolverine racing through the snow in that wilderness. They trapped it without injury, anesthetized it, measured and weighed it, radio tagged it, then released it, excited to track its forest wanderings. Relatively little is known about wolverines, but the solitary aggressive carnivores often roam 15 miles a day in the most rugged mountain wilderness. “I just love sitting here looking at the mountain,” Dad said as I went in the house to cook dinner. He had me leave his tools outside, ready for tomorrow’s spring yard work.
(Pictured above, a view of Lone Peak, from YouTube, used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
The ophthalmology technician was pleasant, respectful, and competent as she walked with Dad toward the examination room, chatting along the way. Mom commented to her how cute her name was: Lexi. Lexi laughed and explained freely that before she was born, her infant brother Alex had passed away. When she was born, her still-heartbroken parents named her Lexi, in memory of Alex. I wondered silently if it were a good thing for a girl to be named after her deceased brother. But she felt honored by her name and proud of how she came by it. Lexi invited Dad to sit in a chair and put his chin on the machine. “I hate that machine,” Dad protested, but Lexi reassured him, “We’ll get through it together.” She administered numbing and dilating drops, and instructed him on the procedure. “Blink…Hold open…Good. Blink…Hold…Good.” She held a gentle hand on the back of his head to support the position his arthritic neck resisted. With the pressure test and glaucoma examination over, Lexi congratulated him: “See? You got this!” “That wasn’t bad at all,” he agreed. “It’s the other machine I hate.” Lexi promised Dad he would not have to do the peripheral field-of-vision test with all the blinking lights and needing to push the button with every light and not being sure if that was a light and whether he should press the button because he wasn’t sure and not being able to move fast enough and feeling anxious and frustrated. “We won’t make you do that one again for a while. Your eyes look great. No damage from diabetes. Keep up the good work. And your new lenses have grafted nicely. You’re seeing 20/20!”
Scott came to the house to help Mom and Dad prepare their tax returns. Dad had all their documents ready. Fifty years ago, Scott served as a young missionary in São Paulo, Brazil, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Dad and Mom presided over the mission for three years, becoming much beloved by the 200 missionaries. And here was Scott, five decades later, their bonds of affection intact. From my upstairs office, I could hear the tender tone of their conversation, their occasional laughter, and place names in that most beautiful language of Brazilian Portuguese: Piracicaba, Juiz de Fora, Itapoã, Rio Grande do Sul, Curitiba (some of their fields of labor). They remembered fondly old friends like Helvécio and Saul Messias and Camargo. After an hour, Scott drove away in his black BMW sedan. “That big BMW was part of Scott’s required profile at Price Waterhouse Coopers,” Dad explained. “Now he teaches at the University. It was very nice of him to come see us.” Dad has spoken to me many times about his own “profile” as both an international corporate attorney for Johnson & Johnson, wearing the compulsory navy-blue pinstripe suit, one identical suit for each day of the week, while also being a lay minister for the Church in New Jersey. As part of his ministry, he visited many people in poverty, and he decided his car should be as humble as theirs. He drove to work and to church and on family vacations in a 1970 Dodge Dart, in which I learned to drive, with “three on the tree,” meaning a three-gear manual transmission with the shifting lever on the steering column. That clutch was touchy and stiff, you can take my word for it. But I mastered that clutch, and did not roll back on the hill into the shiny new black Trans Am with red racing flames. Later in his career, Dad upgraded to an Oldsmobile 98 (hardly a luxury Lincoln or Cadillac), which he drove one evening to the projects in New Brunswick to visit a fraught Church member. Upon leaving the squalid high rise, he found a gang surrounding his Olds, the gang leader sitting on the hood. “Hello,” Dad said pleasantly. “Can I help you?” The gang leader sauntered over, opened Dad’s suit, and removed his wallet from the lapel pocket. “Thank you very much,” he sneered and swaggered away. Dad spoke up: “I am a minister. I have just been visiting Sister Morales, who is a member of my Church and my flock. She needs help, and I was seeing what I could do for her and her children.” The gang leader turned, handed back the wallet, and said to Dad, “Have a nice day, Minister. Thanks for coming.”
(Very nice photo of very nice 1970 Dodge Dart courtesy of Hemmings, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Dad’s running days are over, as are his cycling days. In fact, even his walking days are over. His walker days, however, have arrived, though he still refuses to use the big blue walker. During his jogging career, Dad ran 13 marathons. His training regimen included running seven miles a day during his lunch break, and 20 miles on Saturdays. He and other Johnson & Johnson attorneys and executives enjoying running together in Johnson Park along the Raritan River. After changing into his running shorts one day, he bolted from the locker room to join the jogging group. One attorney in the group, a woman, commented to him, “Nice shorts, Nelson.” He looked down to find himself wearing only his tight red underwear. In his hurry, he had neglected to slip on his running shorts. Darting back to the locker room, he soon returned more appropriately dressed. The group set off, and no one said another word about it. To Dad’s credit, he did not mind telling us children the story, many years later, including both horror and the humor of the episode.
From my seat in the choir loft, I looked out upon a sea of 500 faces. Panning slowly, I looked at the details of each face, especially the eyes. And I could tell that all these people sitting in church on a Sunday morning were good people, wanting to do their duty to each other and to God and the Church. Many couples sat beside each other, their children by their side, or alone where their children had grown. A number of adults sat without partners. Like mine, each face held a story of heartache and loss and grief, and joy. I pondered how their stories are not part of mine, and how my story is not part of theirs. We may cross paths from time to time, but we do not walk the same specific path together. I experienced again the sensation that I would walk the remainder of my path alone. The possibility remains that I might meet a compatible companion, who I now cannot imagine—it might happen. But to flourish in this present moment I have to let go of that ephemeral possibility. Several times I have worked hard to make a relationship happen, but these fabrications have always failed, painfully. In this and other oceans of faces, good faces, I have found no face or soul to belong to. And that is just as well. I have written elsewhere about my setting out to find wildlife in nature, how the harder I search, the less I find. I have learned that when I relax, and breathe, and labor faithfully without expectation, when I prepare myself and allow nature to arrive on her own terms, she and her creatures arrive, beavers and bullfrogs, muskrats and turtles, herons and kingfishers, wild iris and rose. As with nature, so with natural relationships: I must relax, and breathe, and labor faithfully without expectation—I have to be prepared for the universe to arrive with her abundant blessings. For the present, my job is to get used to being alone, to sacrifice and to love alone, to contribute alone, to maintain spiritual standards and practices alone, to be healthy and fit alone, to cook and eat gourmet meals alone, and to forego the pleasures and pains and joys of intimate companionship. My opportunity is to learn the lessons of living from my particular life. Your opportunity right now is to sing with the choir, I thought, emerging from my reverie. To end the long church conference, the choir director led Mom and me and the choir in singing Be Still, My Soul, arranged by Mack Wilberg. The women sang with one clear voice, to which the men added another, moving together into a pleasant perfect eight-part harmony. A spirit of beauty washed over the ocean of faces. After the benediction, Dad walked slowly beside me toward the exit, his arm heavily upon mine. Stepping through the door, we saw that the snow had begun to fall, and remarked upon how beautiful it was, and how cold upon our bald heads.
(Pictured above, Utah’s Jordan River from my kayak.)
Dad always has words of wisdom for me and for all his family: lots of words, and lots of wisdom. When he says, “You know, Rog…” I know a sermon is coming, and I flinch and tighten and brace. We are eternal beings of tremendous power. We are not weak beings sent to earth to become powerful. We are powerful beings sent to earth to learn humility and love. Love is the greatest power in the universe. By refusing earthly power and choosing kindness and humility and love, we demonstrate to God that we are worthy of the greater power he wants to give us in the eternities. I have asked myself many times why I have this ungrateful selfish resistant reaction, when his words are so gentle and so profound and so true. Yet, every time, I cringe. God has given us the secret for knowing how to live in this mortality. He has told us that we can put our trust in whatever leads us to do good, to be fair, to walk humbly. Pursuing the spirit of goodness, we will find that God will share himself with us, will enlighten our minds, with strengthen our spirits, will fill us with hope and joy. We can always trust impulses to do good. I have been listening to Dad’s impromptu sermons for decades, and have been recoiling for just as long. After a particularly good sermon to which I was particularly stiff, I doubled down to answer my own question. And the answer came. Putting my emotional walls up is a self-protection mechanism. I do not need protection from the message or its delivery, for the messages are redeeming. But I have discerned my problem: hearing Dad’s expositions hour upon hour, day after week, month after year, I often feel both tired and trapped. Jesus said, “He that sent me is true. I do nothing but what the Father has taught me. I do always those things that please him.” We can trust God the Father, for he is true. We can trust Jesus the Beloved Son, for he does and says only what the Father instructs him to do. I love the Father and the Son for being true and trustworthy and loving and good. I love a good chocolate chip cookie, homemade, with butter, brown sugar, pecans, and Ghirardelli dark. I can easily eat three or four or five, with ice cold milk, in one sitting. In fact, just dispense with dinner and go right to the delectable dessert. Dad’s teachings are similar to my cookies: rich, sweet, and satisfying. But I am immersed in them constantly, whenever Dad and I are together. Were I to forego dinner every evening, and be required to eat only the most delicious cookies instead, unable to seek other food, soon I would grow weary, reluctant, resisting, resentful, and even ill. The analogy is imperfect, but simply put, I may have too much of a good thing. Jesus knows us intimately and infinitely. He ascended above all things. He descended below all things. He is in all things, and through all things, and round about all things. This describes his atoning sacrifice, because of which he comprehends all things. He knows us. He is there for us, working within us, at every moment of our existence, wanting to bring us to him. One day, Dad will be gone, his voice silenced but in my journals, where I have recorded his sermons and stories. And my world will seem achingly empty and bereft. I will miss his teaching above all things. I think I’ll have another cookie.
On our last voyage to the grocery store, Mom ensconced a flat of vanilla cream sandwich cookies in her full cart, and I watched them lustily as they made their way to the kitchen pantry. The sugar and the fat are the problem: I am determined to stay unheavy and unfat and unflabby and to not come down with diabetes. The first night I was valiant in resisting the temptation of sweet creamy crunch. The second night I snuck two, which was allowable because my childhood allotment was three cookies so two could not possibly do me any harm. The third night I carried off three to my bedroom, breaking off tiny nibbles to extend the pleasure. Three was acceptable because the childhood allotment has long since taken on moral weight as the universally correct number of cookies for a human being to consume in one sitting. The fourth night I lifted four, a guilty excess of the universe’s cookie threshold, and I knew I was in trouble. If one could not stop at three, after all, when would one stop? On the fifth day, I carried the half-consumed package to Mom and explained, “Mom, these cookies are causing way too much trouble.” She looked worried. “They are just too good, and I’m going to eat all of them if you don’t do something with them.” That is the way it works for me: if I can resist buying them and bringing them home in the first place, I can abstain. But once they are in the house, I am powerless. Mom grinned and promised, “I will hide them from you.” I swear, I will not hunt them down as my sisters and I might have done in decades past. I felt instant relief that the exquisite cookies would tempt me no longer, and instant remorse for having to say good-bye.
I had seen around the house a transparent resin cube with an unfurled orange rose magically carved inside. A cute knick-knack, I thought. I have encountered such sculptures in souvenir shops, and wondered how they were done, by what computer-guided techniques and machines. Mom saw me admiring the embedded rose, and announced proudly, “My daddy made that. When he was a shop teacher at Brockbank junior high.” I asked her how in the world he had done it. “He said it was easy. He used a rotary tool to drill up into the cube, making the petals and leaves, then brushed dye into the empty spaces. We had dozens of these in our house when I was a girl. This is the only one left.” I admire the rose-in-the-cube every day now. What I had judged cheap kitsch now was transformed into family treasure, blooming on my filing cabinet. Tokens like these are to be cherished and admired and saved.
Word circulated that a neighbor was moving and for the men of the church to report at the neighbors’ house on Saturday morning at 10. Mark is a family practice physician who has treated Mom’s and Dad’s posterity for two decades since their retirement, and Julie has a PhD in nursing and works with sexual assault victims and law enforcement agencies. While 20 other men grunted over boxes and furniture, Julie set me to work wrapping dozens of framed family photos in protecting plastic. I started with a portrait of the young couple with their first child, a laughing toddler, and progressed through the family portraits as more children joined the family, which grew to a unit of ten souls, always smiling, huddled with mother and father, and growing again to welcome spouses and new laughing toddlers. Seeing the photos brought me happiness for them. But a part of me mourned that I will not have what they have—my family photos will be without father or without mother. Though we are devoted to our children, we are inexorably apart. I have delightful family photographs from earlier years as our family grew, but they are incomplete since 2015. “It is what it is,” I commonly hear from people coping as best they can with their particular set of life circumstances. I frequently acknowledge to my staff that “the facts are what they are”: I can choose only what to do with them. A corner room in Mark’s and Julie’s house was piled high with items slated for the local Deseret Industries thrift store. In one corner sat a sleek black 27-inch flat-screen television, in good condition. I had been looking for just such a television for Primus, who had only an old gray 10-inch TV as deep as it is wide. As a man picked up the television to cart it to the waiting truck, I quickly asked Julie, “May I give this television to my disabled friend who has practically nothing?” telling just enough of his story to convey the need. Primus came to this earth with a form of muscular dystrophy that overdeveloped his brain’s left hemisphere and underdeveloped the right. He is brilliant at absorbing and discussing books on history and politics and religion and biography, having read over 5,000 hefty books, but he cannot use a can opener. And he is frequently bullied. Primus met and befriended me one day, and we have enjoyed long discussions over pizza dinners since. The nursing professor welcomed me to take the television for Primus. And Primus was very happy to receive it. I moved the tiny old TV, on which he has watched his movies for a decade—the characters’ heads must be all of an inch wide—and set up the “new” TV. The DVD player began Robin Williams’ Jumanji in an instant improvement to Primus’ quality of entertainment life. I walked Primus through the remote-control functions and left him to enjoy his movie. In church the next week, Mark handed me a small tub of dark chocolate fudge and a card from Julie signed “With Gratitude” thanking me for wrapping their many family photos, so rightly precious to them, and I felt equally grateful for the enriching experience of helping and being helped.
Though Dad is newly mobile at the grocery store, I stick with him to help open the produce bags and reach for the fresh produce in the higher bins. “We don’t need cauliflower,” I mentioned. “We have two at home already. Same with spinach.” I left him at the butcher counter, free to exercise his whims, and tooled through the aisles, quickly crossing items of my list. Herbal tea. Chicken stock. Frozen peas. Strawberry jam. We met up at the check stand, where he told me that every time he stopped to look up at a shelf, another customer asked him, “Can I help you reach something?” or “Can I get something for you?” While I thought about how many shelves are still inaccessible to persons in wheelchairs, he thought about the kindness and goodness of most of humanity. Danny helped us bag our multitudinous groceries into the motley assortment of reusable sacks, and asked cheerfully, “Can I help you to your car?” Seeing how happy he was to help, though I did not need his help, I said, “Sure, Danny. Thank you very much.” He took my cart while Mom and Dad leaned heavily on theirs, and began loading the bags into the faithful Suburban. “You have a great day!” Danny cheered as he took off with our carts. In the car, we remarked on Danny’s cheerfulness and friendliness. He lived his life with a mental disability, but did not let it slow him down or darken his day. We discussed how this Smith’s grocery store welcomed disabled employees, and how they shined and flourished there, brightening our day and easing our effort, adding to the pleasant environment at the store. After I carried the reusable bags to the kitchen, Mom and I unloaded the groceries, and I noticed a new head of cauliflower and another carton of baby spinach. It seems that at the Baker house vegetables come in threes. Time to get cooking.
(Photo from Smith’s Facebook page, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Arriving home from choir practice, I found Dad sitting on the edge of his bed in his undergarments. I needed to leave immediately to get Mom to church on time, and I could not come back to get him right away because the choir was performing, and I was singing in the choir. “You go ahead and take Mom to church,” Dad read my mind. He seemed very tired, and without Mom to help him with his socks, and exhausted from yesterday’s long funeral, this Sunday seemed like a good day for him to rest. Mom and I had been sitting in our customary pew for only ten minutes when Dad appeared in the aisle beside us, hunched over his cane. Surprise understates my reaction—I was shocked. Mom and I leapt up to allow him into the pew (we could never have climbed over him to join the choir), where he huffed and heaved to regain his breath. He had walked to church with his cane in one hand and an umbrella in the other. “I tried 100 times to get my socks on,” he whispered, a bit too loud, as the young men distributed the emblems of our Lord’s body and blood. “I was collapsing—I wasn’t going to make it.” That is when a teenager in white shirt and tie jumped from his car and grabbed Dad, walking with him to the church doors. “You don’t really need my help,” the boy reassured as Dad leaned on him hard, “but I’ll just stay with you until we get into the church.” The boy helped him past the doors and down the chapel aisle to our bench. “I must have tried 20 times to get my socks over all of my toes,” he bemoaned. “My knees are still hurting.” After his breathing calmed, I reached over Mom and patted him on the knee, giving him a thumbs up sign. He smiled and brightened at my recognition of his heroism. “After you left, Rog, I realized how much I wanted to be in church.” Yes, I say heroism. Walking 50 feet to the mailbox is a major effort, taxing him for hours, and he had just walked 20 times that distance. “I only have this much strength in a day,” he gestured a distance of two feet, “and I have totally used it all up.” How many times have I decided ambivalently that I was too tired or discouraged to go to church? And this old man, nearly lame from post-Polio—this old man, with a big heart full of love for his Savior and humanity—he wanted very badly to go to church and worship, and he defied his circumstance and went.
(Pictured above: a fairly typical church meetinghouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Image used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Mom and I left Dad at the kitchen table half-dressed, his suspenders dragging to the floor, to have his breakfast of Quaker granola (hardly sugar free, but he doesn’t care anymore) and to finish buttoning his white Sunday shirt. Always a suit and tie man, he has given up on ties, or rather on his shoulders, which he cannot raise to fold down his shirt collar, and on the collar button that cannot find the button hole under command of his trembling fingers. We found him in pretty much the same state an hour later after choir practice, with ten minutes to get him ready for church. “I’m slow, aren’t I?” he said to me with a grin. “I know it. I’m like a tortoise.” Mom and I exhaled exasperated sighs. “I’m slow but I’m steady.” And that he is. Steady in his love and acceptance and absence of judgment and discerning intellect and in his love of chocolate chips. I rushed outside to sweep the snow off the faithful Suburban, to shovel and salt the driveway, and to turn the car on and turn up the heat setting and the fan, all in time for Mom and Dad to hop in, or rather to creep up and in. The church meetinghouse is just around the corner, but we insist on seatbelts, even though Dad’s seatbelt clasp cannot find its latch for his stiffened hands and shoulders and back, and in frustration he let out an “Oh, for cripes’ sake!” which I have learned is a euphemism for “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” which I will not tell Dad, for he loves and reveres Jesus Christ, his Redeemer, his Savior, and has spent his life in Christ’s service, and he would never in a century take his dear Lord’s name in vain. I stood by his car door, knowing not to shut the door for him, but merely close it to the mid-point so he could reach out and shut it himself. In the men’s priesthood class after sacrament services, an ancient welcoming sympathetic man gestured Dad to a chair next to him. I could tell that the chair looked a long way down as Dad turned to point his backside to the chair and joked to his friend, “Point and fall, Brother, point and fall.” Having pointed, he allowed himself to fall into place, where he enjoyed the group’s discussion about exercising our particles of faith.
Snow fell and temperatures plunged as I stood before the Planning Commission into the night instructing on the Utah laws of conditional uses and open and public meetings. Brian and Avery had offered me their guest room should I decide to stay the night, sometime. Well, sometime was tonight. I texted Mom and Dad, and drove the three miles from City Hall to Brian’s apartment, which had been my apartment for the six years preceding his arrival, the apartment to which I moved when divorce drove me from my home. The walls of that apartment watched six years of pain and coping and enduring and learning to live instead of aching to expire—of figuring out how to flourish. Entering that home tonight and making my bed and eating and bathing and sleeping there felt surreally strange. My little girl was nine years old when I moved out. I told her mother that our divorce would rip the little girl’s heart out. “She’ll be fine.” No, she won’t be fine: this will tear her heart out. “She’ll be fine….” A young woman now, her little girl heart still yearns for reconciliation, and I am unable to tell her why it cannot be—she has lost those dreams, compelled to make her own. Brian and Avery were so kind to me, with dinner and conversation, bedding and a towel, and snacks. And little Lila rejoiced as I stepped through the door and hugged her and read books and played blocks and Hot Wheel cars and watched Mr. Rogers snorkel and tell the world why we need to protect our oceans, both for the exquisite ocean life, and for ourselves. Driving the short distance to work the next morning, in ice and snow, I realized how much I preferred my one-hour commute with its biographies and histories and meditations over these familiar three miles with their echoes of anguish.
(Pictured above: my apartment, a blessing, built for the manager, but rented to me.)
Every day at noon, Dad’s breakfast hour, he calls “Lucille!” for her to help him start his socks. He can no longer reach his toes to start pulling on his socks. When Mom was away one day, he called for with, “Hey, Rogie, will you help me get my socks started? You mom’s not here.” I scrunched the left sock up and covered his toes. “I can get it from there,” letting me do only what he absolutely could not do for himself. Next the right foot. I have offered to help at other times—chagrined, he responds that he wants Mom do help him. I understand.
Home from the grocery store each week, I am appalled at the number of plastic grocery sacks that enjoy single-use lives of less than one hour, only to be discarded. Sometimes the baggers put only one item in a bag. At least we take them back to the grocery store to be recycled instead of sending them to the county dump. Penn State says Americans throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags per year! “You know, Mom,” I ventured, “we could take reusable bags.” She quickly warmed to the idea, and remembered her stack of such bags on a shelf in the garage, where they had sat for 20 years waiting to be useful. Mom grabbed the stack and threw it in the back of the faithful suburban so we would not forget them the next time we shopped. At the grocery store the following week, she filled my cart with the dozen sacks, a motley assortment, from Intermountain Hospitals, Public Broadcasting System (Mystery!), Utah Shakespearian Festival, Consumer Reports, and an old canvas bag from Dad’s employer Johnson & Johnson. Several were small unmarked duffels, and one was printed with red hearts and an assortment of colorful cats and dogs. These dozen bags held as much as thirty or forty plastic bags would have held, and were easier to carry. “I’m so proud of us,” Mom crowed as we unloaded the groceries at home, having used not a single plastic grocery sack. Back to the faithful Suburban I took the bags, ready for shopping next week and every week thereafter.
“Remember when you spread the fertilizer on top of new snow and the whole yard turned yellow?” Dad asked me, chuckling. Yes, I remembered. Pushing the spreader through six inches of heavy wet snow took all my strength. Dad had commented then that “It looks like a whole herd of deer peed in my yard!” Yes, it did. Now it was early March, and more snow was coming, and Dad wanted the lawn fertilized before the snow fell, and Mom asked if I could do it since Dad could not. The day before, Dad had started up his riding mower, dropped the blade to the lowest setting, and set off around the yard sucking up pine needles and the thatch of dead grass. “No problem,” I said, anxious to get back to my rising bread dough. “It will only take me 15 minutes.” Pouring the bag of yellow fertilizer into the drop spreader, dozens of hard chunks fell out, too hard to crumble with my fingers. An hour later I was still wrestling with the smaller chunks that clogged the drop holes. I repeatedly jolted the spreader to clear the apertures, spreading fertilizer in uneven spurts. I delivered a frustrating report to Dad, and found him pounding fertilizer stones with a rubber mallet, reminding me of an older prisoner tasked for years with breaking rocks. But these yellow rocks would not break. “I think we should take this bag-full of hard chunks back to the store and ask for a new bag,” I suggested. But he did not want the fight, and I remembered that it is his privilege to choose his battles, not mine. So, I let the matter go, spread the fertilizer that would spread, dropped the bag of chunks in the garbage, and stomped into the kitchen, where I found the ciabatta dough fermenting nicely. And I began to look forward to our dinner of homemade gorgonzola, ham, and tomato-cream pizza.
My local congregation announced a church dance near Valentine’s Day, for adults. I serve on the committee that plans and executes our church activities. Mostly the chair couple does the planning, and I help set up and take down. “I’ll be there to help you set up for the dance,” I offered to the chairman. “But I will not be attending.” He did not quite know what to make of me, so I explained. “As an older single man, I will not feel comfortable at a romantic dance for married couples.” And I was not about to spend the evening standing against the wall like a terrified teen. I have wondered how I ought to describe myself in conversations like these, and “older single man” seemed accurate and adequate. “Middle-aged divorced man,” would have done fine, too, but sounded stiff and stilted. For several hours I helped the committee set up chairs and tables and decorate and string high lines from which we hung glow sticks and vinyl records (the theme was “dancing through the decades,” with a playlist of old classics to match). When 7:30 rolled around, I could not help but think of who had come to the dance, and whether they were having fun—I hoped so. Mom and Dad and I enjoyed a dinner of steamed buttered vegetables—cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, butternut squash—while we watched Jimmy Chin’s documentary about the Thai youth soccer team stranded for two weeks without food miles inside an inundated cave, their oxygen dwindling, and about the group of middle-aged unmarried men, the best in the world at their solitary sport, who focused their feelings and faculties and did the impossible and brought every boy out alive.
(Image from thetimes.co.uk, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
“My daddy had a thick black beard,” Mom recalled when I apologized for my three-day scruff, though he did not let it grow long. As a child, she loved sitting on her father’s lap and rubbing her soft little hands on the prickly stubble of his weekend beard. I learned this because she said to me one Saturday afternoon, “Come here—I’ll show you what I used to do to my daddy when I was a little girl.” Then she rubbed her soft old hands on my prickly weekend stubble. I shave on days one and three because on day two there isn’t quite enough to comfortably shave. I wore a full salt-and-pepper beard to Brian’s college graduation. But I looked old and heavy and worn in all the photos. So, I decided to lose weight and lose the beard. One less beard and 40 less pounds later, I feel better and look younger (relative). Besides, I could no longer endure the never-ending itching against the pillow. And I cannot imagine a woman wanting to kiss a man’s lip hair, so I shave my lip on principle. I shaved my beard one time because a coworker said it looked like an armpit. Nope—no more beards for me. I think we will not make a habit of Mom rubbing her hands on my whiskery face. But she blows me a kiss every night as I wander up to bed and she finishes the nightly news. “Hey Baby,” she calls. “I sure love you.” And I blow her a kiss back.
Pictured above: Wallace “Wally” Bawden c. 1962.
After Luana’s chewing out, Dad agreed to use a motorized shopping cart at the grocery store. He took to it naturally, like a soaring eagle riding an updraft above the wilderness far below—a bit too dramatic? He took to it naturally, like an earthworm in moist dirt. Instantly my stress levels have fallen off, since I do not have to worry from moment to moment when his strength will give out and when I might find him splayed on the floor in the cold cereal aisle waiting for an ambulance. And his own distress has diminished, being able now to enjoy the shopping experience. In fact, he may be enjoying it too much. While I use my shopping list to target exactly what groceries we need, he glides leisurely down each aisle dropping into his basket whatever tickles his whim. In checkout lane, Luana stated more bluntly than she meant, “I see you obeyed my orders.” He smiled up at her from the driver seat and changed the subject: “Aren’t these eggplants beautiful?” Dad rode his cart all the way to the car door, happy and with a little energy left, instead of the customary staggering and leaning against me and gasping, “I’m not going to make it, Rog.” Life just got better for us both. The only problem is that we have a month’s supply of fresh spinach. But I am not complaining about the chocolate pudding cups he snuck past Mom, or the yogurt pretzels she snuck past Dad.
Gabe came over on Saturday just as I was rolling out the pie crust dough for quiche shells. He watched me roll the dough onto the rolling pin, unroll it over the quiche pan, and tuck the dough carefully down into the pan. “I want to bake!” he declared. “I want to bake banana chocolate chip muffins—with you, Uncle Roger!” like we had done once before. “I get the bananas!” No matter how cheerily bright his eyes shone, I could not pivot to baking with him after spending an hour mixing and shaping the dough, and preparing the quiche mix. And the raw shells had to go into the preheated oven, right now, for seven minutes filled with aluminum foil and ceramic baking beads, and three more minutes without. He retrieved a green mixing bowl and placed it on the counter, letting me know he was ready. “Nope,” I begged off, empty of patience and tact. “I’m not starting another baking project.” Gabe looked crestfallen. “But look at all this extra pie dough,” I offered him a ray of hope. “We can make cinnamon pie-crust cookies.” I showed him how to roll some of the buttery dough into a ball, press the ball onto the cookie sheet, and poke a depression into the cookie with his thumb, followed with a spoonful of Dad’s cinnamon-Splenda mix. Gabe was a pro, and soon had most of the dough formed into cookies, which we baked after the quiche shells came out slightly browned, partially baked—they would compete their bake with the ham, cheese, egg, and cream filling. When I had arranged the hot finished cookies on a plate, Gabe ran up expectantly for one. “Nope,” I stopped him. “Before you eat a cookie, you need to take this plate and serve everyone else a cookie.” The four-year-old, surprised by this important responsibility, took the plate first to Mom, then to Dad—Gabe’s great-grandparents—inviting them to take and taste one of his cookies. He looked enormously proud and pleased. The cookies were quickly consumed, and he brought me the empty plate, wearing a big smile. “Good job,” I praised. “Now, come with me—I have another job for you.” Dad had purchased a new showerhead, and had asked me to install it. Gabe carried the crescent wrench up the stairs into the bathroom, while I talked him through how to change a showerhead. I removed the broken showerhead and hose, and told him they needed to be thrown away. “Can I throw them away?!” he asked hopefully. The deed happily done, I hoisted Gabe up in my left arm, joining my right hand with his small hands to thread on the new showerhead, over a strip of Teflon tape wrapped tight. “Turn it good and tight,” I instructed, and he did. I turned the water on, and Gabe pressed his face against the glass where the water pounded. “Now, go tell Grandpa.” Gabe raced down the stairs and reported to Dad that the he had thrown Dad’s old showerhead away and put the new one on—and it worked! I felt pleased at his sense of accomplishment. “What are we going to do with the rest of the pie dough?” I asked him. “Do you want to make a strawberry pie?” He nodded eagerly, and I helped him shape and roll the dough. His dad helped him spoon strawberry jam into the center of the circle, then bring one side of the dough over the jam to form a semicircular turnover. I sealed the edges with fork tines, and slid Gabe’s pie into the oven. When the turnover came out, nicely browned, Gabe glowed. He let his pie cool, then cut it and took pieces to Mom and Dad, and Sarah and Tracy, who raved and praised, much to Gabe’s delight. “You did a lot today, Gabe,” I reminded. “You made cinnamon pie crust cookies, you put on a new showerhead for Grandpa, and you baked a strawberry pie!” “Thank you, Uncle Roger,” he sighed, self-satisfied, knowing he had learned important new skills. “Next time,” I offered, “let’s bake banana chocolate-chip muffins.”
(Pictured above: Gabe’s strawberry pie.)
Dad’s aluminum cane is covered with blue-and-white flowers. Its use around the house is no longer optional. I thought he might like a more “manly” or “classy” cane, and suggested we procure a genteel wood cane. “I don’t think so,” he declined. Later in the evening he explained, “In my own mind, a wooden cane embodies permanence, and I am not ready for this to be permanent.” I suddenly understood, and apologized, not having meant to suggest his permanent need, only the enjoyment of something refined. Thus esteemed, he acknowledged that he is not likely to turn back the clock and not need his cane. I admire his courage to look the future in the face, to stare hard at its reality. I admire his long fight for a flourishing life. His fighting spirit has not dimmed. He will win the prize—indeed, has already won.
My children’s other grandfather is dying from his fourth attack of cancer. Tumors like softballs stud his chest and torso. Prior cancers removed his lower jaw and all but a thin fold of vocal cord. Family group texts to my children kept me informed of his worsening condition and of the many tender family visits from his eight children and thirty-six grandchildren and twenty-eight great-grandchildren. Though I have not been his son-in-law for six years, I love and respect the man, and I knew it would be right for me to say good-bye. Sitting at his bedside, we fist-bumped and we talked and reminisced and we shared our hopes for our families’ futures. He expressed his love and admiration for my seven wonderful children. I conveyed Mom’s and Dad’s expression of love and admiration and respect—“Right back at ‘em,” he chimed. He told me stories of his early life, like when he was a little boy and he and his cousins laid on their grandmother’s down-tic mattress listening to her tell stories of their Mormon pioneer ancestors. “She was barely 4-foot 10-inches tall,” he marveled. “We loved her. But you didn’t want to make her mad!” like when the children tried to ride the sheep. When I asked what he most looked forward to on the other side, he listed reunions with his father, Charles, who died by train in the shunting yard in 1961, and his mother, Jessie, who died of a stroke the year I married (1988), and many other family members, like his brother Kay, who died of the hardships of homelessness. I told him I felt very sorry that things had not worked out for his daughter and me, but that I loved him. “You are family,” he assured me in exhausted whispers, “and I love you.” He squeezed my hand hard, then let me know he was so tired and needed to sleep for a while. He stopped eating five days ago—he made it to March 1—everyone has said good-bye—I have said good-bye and god speed.
The photographic mind of my 86-year-old father is slowing its shutter speed, narrowing its F-stop, and the images emerging are beginning to blur. I am accustomed to him telling me the details of prominent lives based on his reading over many decades, the names, dates, relationships, events, places, and joys and tragedies. Stories still flow, but the names occasionally disappear or bungle. I always allow a long, respectful pause before supplying a name, if I know it. And when he insists on Middlesex County College (in New Jersey) instead of Salt Lake Community College (in Utah), I do not correct. What would be the point—to remind him of his and all humanity’s persistent deterioration? To try (in vain) to appear as smart as him? That would be cruel and arrogant of me. On each occasion when I do supply a name, I find that he is the one that originally supplied me with the name. So much of what I know comes from him telling me neverendingly about his readings and experiences. When he is gone, I will feel bereft of my teacher. I am reading a great deal in an attempt to open my brain on my own, but I observe with chagrin that the names and dates and events already do not stay in my memory—they have fled almost by the time I finish the book. What do remain inside me are the impressions, emotions rolled up with images my brain has supplied, and admiration and love for the humanity of each person I read about. While I may not be a useful repository of information, yet I trust my soul has stretched and grown by bringing those people into myself. These I never forget.
The tiny boy in my hands is a perfectly proportionate finely-featured human being in miniature. His eyes are shifting from newborn gray to paternal blue. His hair is growing from newborn black to maternal chestnut: lots of it, and curly. And I am holding him, baby Henry, the child of my child. In January. Holding him feels natural—I know the moving parts and the comforting positions, and where he needs support. At three weeks old, he looked into my eyes—he really did—and gazed at me for a good long time—he really did—and a not-gas-bubble smile began to play in the corner of his moving mouth on one side while he gazed—it really did. Somehow the world seems good and whole when holding a newborn. The problems melt away, and love flows. And I speak in gibberish the infant can understand because the sounds come from a smiling face and a lilting voice and dancing eyes, and those little ears take in the sounds and smiles and glints of light and love. Until three weeks ago I had one grandchild, the source of my greatest joy. Now Henry is here, and the stable of my heart has grown to make ample room for him in the manger, and will make more room in April, and more in October, and yet more….
(Above: Henry on a quilt sewn by his aunt Laura.)
Henry on a blanket crocheted by his great-aunt Carolyn.
Henry with his wonderful parents John and Alleigh.
I have seen the Red-shafted Northern Flicker flash her orange primary underfeathers, and her white backside button, as she torpedo-dove from her hole in the snag. I have heard the Flicker’s sad cry, piercing and irresistible. I have watched the Flicker stand cantilevered on the trunk to feed her clamorous young. But I have never heard the machine-gun rap of her beak on deadwood, as I did today, echoing through Dimple Dell. But there she was, high in the dead cottonwood. I know the bird better now, and love her more.
(Images from Birdsofafeather.org and Newsweek.com, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
I pulled into the driveway after 11:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, commuting the long hour after a long City Council meeting. The garage light shone through the door’s glass panes. How convenient, I could have thought. I would not have to gather my things and make my way to the house door in the dark. Instead, I thought about how Mom had been thinking of me that day and that night, and how she had made a point of turning on the light for me, to make my path bright and easy. And I thought about Mom and Dad sitting me down first thing every night to ask me about my day, in the process teaching me the consideration of asking them about their day—now, I try to ask them first. And I thought about how they answer the phone every day to listen to one of their beloved daughters, the troubles and worries and defeats and victories. And I remembered how Mom was there when I had my tonsils removed (1968), and my appendix removed (1982), gangrenous and tight, and my knee reconstructed and my leg immobilized for six weeks (during the dark ages of 1983), and my hernias patched (2012) and how in their 80s they brought me home to recover from my last surgery (2019), along with a pot of homemade chicken-vegetable soup. And I remember how Mom gathered us on Monday nights after fried pork chops to teach us a new church song, posterboard prompts held high, and Dad expounded his lifetime of scriptural insights, which bless me deeply every day, and how we ended with donuts or ice cream or rice pudding or little bowls of M&Ms. And I ponder their devotion and sacrifice and how they deserve my devotion and sacrifice. So, when I saw the garage light on, I jolted with the sudden but not-surprising awareness that their light has always been on for me.
Mom poked her head shyly into my home office and asked, “Have you heard of Joyce Kilmer?” I had not. “Well, I thought you might like to make a post about him sometime.” As I listened to her story, I thought, Indeed, I would. She held up a piece choir music, Kilmer’s 1913 poem “Trees” set to song in 1922. In the late 1960s, Mom sang with a group of church ladies who called themselves the Singing Mothers (“a stupid name” Mom lamented) from congregations all over New Jersey. They rehearsed in the Piscataway church building, the Hightstown high school building, and elsewhere in northern and central Jersey. Mom sometimes dragged me and baby Megan along to rehearsals, though I was too young to remember. During one rehearsal, Megan had a slight fever, from a cold, and Mom had put a bottle of children’s aspirin in her purse. These were the days before Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Motrin (ibuprofen)—aspirin was the fever-reducing miracle medicine of the time—and before child-proof caps. The baby pawed through Mom’s purse, opened the aspirin bottle, and chewed up the whole bottleful of aspirin. Mom rushed Megan to the hospital where nurses pumped the baby’s stomach. On occasion, our Church held conferences in Manhattan, and for one conference the Singing Mothers were invited to sing. Mom hopped on the train to New York City and joined in the performance of Joyce Kilmer’s and Oscar Rasbach’s “Trees.” While some consider “Trees” overly sentimental, the poem became popular and beloved across America. An American poet, Joyce Kilmer earned a one-paragraph entry in World Book Encyclopedia (1990 ed.). New Brunswick, New Jersey, where Kilmer was born, and where Dad later worked for Johnson and Johnson for 30 years, boasts a Joyce Kilmer Avenue. Kilmer died in 1918 in France in The Great War, by a sniper’s bullet.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
(Images from Wikipedia and Rutgers University. Used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
The Bible teaches that God knows what we will pray for before we pray. The value of prayer, therefore, cannot be to inform God of our desires and thoughts and needs, for he already knows them. Rather, the value must come in the act of turning our hearts heavenward, expressing our needs either in fury or humility, mustering gratitude for blessings in spite of adversities, and exerting faith in the impossible and unknown. Still, prayer has never come easily to me. My scattered thoughts bounce off the walls of my brain until my short patience is spent. Based on the example of the Lord’s Prayer, I do manage to acknowledge God and express love and respect for him, and I thank him for bringing his kingdom to the earth and allowing me to be a small part of slowly building it. Then I launch into what I want and what I need, which usually devolves into begging on behalf of my children and family for their growth and well-being. Emerging from my bedroom to brush my teeth one night, I heard Mom talking to herself in her bedroom. But then I overheard some of her words: “Roger is not feeling well. Please bless him to sleep soundly. Please bless him to get better. Please bless him to be able to go to choir practice and to church tomorrow.” I had already decided I did not want to go to choir practice or to church, but to sleep and rest. But now someone sweet and loving was beseeching God on my behalf, and I could not allow laziness and apathy to prevail over her sincere prayer. So, I willed myself to get out of bed and be the answer to her prayers, and I confess to asking God to helping me answer her prayers on his behalf. Against expectations, I ended up enjoying choir and church, and feeling a little better. When Dad awakes after his late-night reading, he shuffles to his sofa, covers himself with a quilt Mom sewed, closes his eyes, and points his heart and mind and silent words to God in prayer, and he stays there until he feels he has been heard and answered. I have walked in on him a time or two, thinking he had dozed, but he looked at me and exclaimed, “Rog! Come in! I was just talking with Jesus.” I have come to believe that prayer is not delusional or wasted effort, but rather a powerful expression of the hope of faith, and the necessary exercise of the muscles of faith, faith that works change within us and nudges us toward goodness, love, and light. Given that, I keep at it. Maybe prayer will come naturally to me someday. Maybe this essay is my prayer.
Comfort-eating has taken sinister hold of me. I seem powerless to resist. I conquered hunger a year ago, imposing discipline, and losing 40 pounds. With 10 pounds still to go, I moved, and hunger pounced on me and conquered. Fasting had been a key element to my success, not for the diminished calories but for learning not to be afraid of hunger. And there is an element of religious spiritual practice, looking to the Divine to consecrate my fast to help me obtain personal spiritual objectives. After shopping for the evening’s boeuf bourguignon—I had company coming—and approaching the end of my day’s fast, I determined to spend one-half hour walking in nature, in the Dell. Stepping through the trail’s new snow, I felt lean, my belly taut and my mind exhilaratingly clear and controlled. I had forgotten my walking stick, again, but found an old one leaning against a tree trunk, and helped myself. I relished being alone in nature in the crisp air as occasional flakes fell. My 15-minute turn-around timer sounded—the apricot brioche was done rising. “Bike up!” announced a cheerful woman on an expensive mountain bike with enormously “fat” tires, perfect for riding in snow, sand, and mud. She wore all the right gear, head to toe, for the weather, including goggles. “Have fun!” I called after her. A leash-less blue pit bull approached me, its owner explaining, “she’s gentle.” Being a city attorney who sees dozens of dog-bite cases a year, I become irritated when owners do not leash their dogs, and I countered, “You may know she’s gentle, but no one else on this trail knows it.” He muttered something about me knowing it now, and a little voice chided me for introducing darkness into the world and for failing to share light, to impart goodness, to lift another. The voice continued the instruction: even when irritation might be justified, choose to be kind in spite of the justification. Alright, I will, I promised, chastened. I can’t fix it this time, but I will do better the next. Immediately a huge black Labrador trotted toward me, his owner 50 yards behind. Another leash-less dog! I whined to myself, but to the owner I gave a friendly “Good morning!” The face that barely looked up at me was so sad and downtrodden and depressed—I was glad he had his dog-friend with him on a walk in the Dell in the snow, and I was glad I had not further darkened his day. I set the walking stick against the tree trunk for the next forgetful hiker. Climbing to the parking lot, two morbidly obese men with disheveled beards smoking cigarettes wearing greasy ball caps sauntered down the trail, obviously father and son, following their remote-control Hummers. “That looks fun!” I called cheerfully. “Good times,” Dad hissed past his cigarette. And I could see that father and son, indeed, were creating a good time, together. Half a day of cooking later, the boeuf bourguignon, stewed with red wine and beef stock, topped with braised shallots and sautéed mushrooms, triumphed, enjoyed by Mom and Dad, and by Solange and Ana, my two Brazilian friends, who thought the meal marvelous, and who listened with genuine interest as Dad and Mom told story after story about the family and Brazil.
In our class at church, the coordinator asked the men for two volunteers to work a shift at the church dairy. No one raised their hand. But after church I was able to clear my calendar, and signed up. Gordon, a retired orthopedic surgeon, picked me up the next morning and we drove to the dairy processing plant of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. The plant is one of 18 facilities on Welfare Square that produce 143 food items, including peanut butter, powdered milk, honey, beef, canned fruit, cheese, bread, pasta, and staples (wheat, rice, oats). These products stock the shelves of about 129 Bishops’ Storehouses and are available at no cost to needy Church members and others. Gordon and I were assigned to work in the cheese plant. Forty-pound blocks of cheese, aged in the cooler for a month, slid across rollers and through slicing harps. The result: 40 one-pound blocks of cheddar ready to be packaged in plastic, labeled, weighed, stamped with expiration date and batch number, and rolled up the conveyor belt to yours truly, decked out in blue hair net, yellow face covering, and black gloves. Frequent volunteers, Scott and Kent instructed me in my job: loading 20 blocks into each box, running the boxes through the tape machine, and stacking the boxes on a pallet. Each pallet held five rows of 18 boxes, or 1,800 cheese blocks. We filled four pallets, for over 7,000 one-pound blocks of cheese in one day—3.5 tons! The dairy receives about 128,000 gallons (1.1 million pounds) of milk every week, which is bottled as well as transformed into chocolate milk, cheddar cheese, sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, powdered milk, hot cocoa mix, and butter, all made there at the modern, gleaming, clean facility. The Church’s “Welfare” program came into being when Church members were unemployed and hungry during the Great Depression, as a way for the Church to take care of its own rather than turning to government assistance. The whole program is funded by the financial contributions of Church members, who also clock millions of volunteer hours a year (like my five hours today). I grabbed and boxed blocks of cheese as quickly as I could to keep up with the conveyor flow. After several hours of packing thousands of cheese blocks into boxes in a 40-degree room, my shoulders and back grew fatigued and sore from the repetitive reaching and lifting. I welcomed two breaks fueled with cheese remnants and chocolate milk. After our shift, the volunteers were permitted to purchase dairy items at market cost—you better believe I brought home a gallon of the amazing chocolate milk, plus five pounds of butter to feed my baking habit. Leaving the dairy, I felt exultant. I learned yet again how joy comes from working to help others. And how proud I felt to be a small part of the ambitious Welfare Square endeavor to help humankind.
(Pictured above: dairy products I purchased after working at the Church’s dairy processing plant.)
40-pound blocks of cheddar cheese.
The finished one-pound package.
A full pallet.
Yours truly, incognito.
She announced early in February that she was taking the children camping in Nevada where the sun shone warm and the sky vibrated blue and the sandstone grottos would shelter their tent in shimmering desert solitude and beauty. How wonderful and fun, I thought, but she announced this trip was for her and the children and I was not invited. So they went camping and I went to work those gray snowy foggy days in February. The still sandstone dunes radiated rainbow stripes of pinks and rusts and creams with occasional dripping springs and mystic hoodoos and ancient cryptic bat woman petroglyphs and piles of petrified wood and iron-spiked barrel cacti and mellow bighorn sheep and scurrying blue-throated lizards and deep trails of rust-red sand. These filled and enthused the returning children, who told me brightly all about their wonderful fun adventure, not knowing anything was the matter. It is February again, and they are there.
(Pictured above: Elephant Rock in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada)
I am not doing well. Of course, that sentence is so vague as to mean nothing at all. Let me see if I can rephrase. I am feeling acute prolonged distress on account of continuous daily events like watching my father exert all his earthly energies merely to rise from a chair and stumble on the verge of forward falling with each step as he crosses a room and knowing that one fall with a blow to the head or a broken leg or hip would take him from his home and land him in a hospital or assisted living whence he might not return and knowing the finances and the absence of long-term care insurance and that the needs for the little that is left, the needs, the needs, come constantly and persistently and if Mom and Dad are long-term hurt or long-term sick and cannot stay home the bills would take their home from them for we likely would have to sell the home, the home, and then where would our family be? and I can’t even think or ask When will this end? because the only end is a sad and tragic end which I abhor and eschew and don’t ever want ever and so we endure together and we make the best of things which often is pretty excellent though always under pall. I know I am not doing very well because I am writing in hysterical stream-of-consciousness and I swear frequently under my breath and I am consuming large quantities of lemon-yogurt-covered almonds and milk-chocolate-covered almonds and colorful crunchy Jordan almonds and feel a general awfulness inside and out and the frequent need to sit in a dark quiet room in my recliner under a soft fleece throw.
MRI machines are everywhere today. Not so in the early 1980s. Johnson & Johnson, for which Dad worked as international legal counsel, owned the company that developed magnetic resonance imaging. The technology opened up a new world of medical diagnosis and treatment. But sale of the technology to other countries was severely restricted by the U.S. government, both to protect American technology from theft and to prevent abusive repurposing of American technology. A Chinese medical institution approached J&J about purchasing an MRI machine for its hospital, and the question of whether J&J could do it came to Dad. He consulted with U.S. customs and security officials, who determined the only way to safety (and legally) sell the MRI machine, even for a legitimate medical purpose, was to first dip the machine’s complex circuit boards in clear epoxy, allowing the machine to function but not be reverse engineered. “Do you still want the machine, even encased in epoxy?” Dad inquired. “If the machine malfunctions, it cannot be repaired.” When the Chinese insisted, J&J prepared and delivered the machine, complete with its innards frozen in a block of plastic, with U.S. government approval. With today’s ubiquitous MRI procedures, such measures may seem clumsy. But industrial espionage was and remains a major economic and national security threat. Hopefully that first-generation MRI machine helped the Chinese hospital and its doctors and patients for a good long time.
Valentine’s Day is not my favorite holiday: too many painful memories and unrealized dreams. Though many couples are successful, for me, at 57, the intimate romantic logical vulnerable safe knitting together of two lives seems like an impossibility. The fabric feels always dangerously close to fraying. But Mom and Dad have made it work for 63 years, including their courtship. To celebrate the day, they teetered to the chocolate cottage down the street and bought each other some goodies—for Dad, a box of sugar-free chocolate cherries—for Mom, a one-pound log of rocky road! Dad also brought home two dozen yellow roses for Mom, her favorite color. Mom called me at work to wish me a happy Valentine’s Day and to invite me to go to dinner with them. “This is your romantic day,” I demurred. “You and Dad should enjoy dinner for two. I’d be a third wheel.” “Nonsense,” she rebuffed. “We’d love to have you with us. We’re a family!” In the end, I proved useful, carrying plates and drinks and silverware, helping Dad into and out of his seat. A cheerful vibrant pony-tailed server about my age waited on us. I could not help but wonder about her circumstances. Ever friendly, Mom asked her if she had children. “I have six!” the woman enthused. Her oldest is serving our Church as a missionary in Costa Rica. Several of my children served such two-year missions, in Oklahoma, Florida, California, and Mozambique (in Portuguese-speaking southeast Africa). We had that in common. I do not know if she is married, but she was waiting tables, and I was being waited upon, and I was with my parents, and we were surrounded by scores of listening people. Enjoying our meals, Dad reminisced about when his mother worked as a waitress and janitor. She worked at night cleaning the Kearns building downtown Salt Lake City during World War II. As a seven-year-old, Dad would accompany her and empty the waste baskets. The foreman arrived to give Dora her pay. Dad informed the man he had worked too, and where was his pay? Without meanness, the man picked up a pencil from a desk and handed it to Dad: “Here’s your pay, little man.” Dad had thought it “chintzy” pay for the work. Not to be chintzy in turn, he left a nice tip for the cheerful vibrant mother of six. “She has a family to support.” Walking slowly to the car, Mom thanked me for taking her and Dad to dinner. “I should be thanking you,” I answered. “Thank you for including me in your Valentine’s Day.” Back at home, I climbed the stairs to my home office. On my laptop rested a yellow chocolate rose lollipop, with a ribbon bow, a gift from my vibrant cheerful mother.
Dad stood hunched over the kitchen sink snapping the bases off the thick asparagus stalks, tossing them in the pan. I cannot see asparagus without remembering the walk through the woods to the grassy field between the forest and the highway in New Jersey where the wild asparagus grew. Mom carried the basket. We children searched randomly for the thin green three-foot monoliths and snapped the stalks at the base and laid them tenderly in her basket. Mom had trained our eye. And I cannot remember that asparagus field without remembering the thick blackberry thickets along the same highway in New Jersey where we picked blackberries by the bucketful and took them home to boil with sugar and pectin, straining out the infinitude of stony seeds, pouring deep purple goo into pint jars, topping each with a quarter-inch of hot paraffin wax to seal the jars against pathogens. That black blackberry jam tasted so delicious on crispy English muffins toasted brown in the broiler. And I cannot remember that blackberry jam without remembering the asparagus walk and how we came home covered in ticks and never again took that wild asparagus walk. I still love blackberry jam.
Wild asparagus in long and spindly:
Burt Brothers called to tell us what the repair would cost. We had worried the cost would be higher. When I poured the windshield wiper fluid in the reservoir the afternoon before, the fluid gushed out onto the driveway. I struggled to remove the heavy battery so I could see the reservoir and its tubing, and found both tubes (to front and rear wipers) broken in the same place. I left small pieces of my finger behind reinstalling the battery. The service project the next morning had caught my eye on Facebook, on the page I follow about the Jordan River, where I kayak and cycle. But the event appeared to not catch many other eyes, for only two volunteers came, plus the Jordan River Commission Executive Director, who dispensed gloves, trash bags, and garbage pincers. Our goal was to bag all the garbage at the river-side park before the wind blew it into the river. I have kayaked around huge floating masses of flotsam on the river, some growing their own vegetation. The Director thanked me for coming, dispensed some tips about good kayak launches for avoiding dams and portages, and handed me trail mix and fruit snacks. Returning home, Mom and Dad and I drove two cars to drop off Dad’s faithful Suburban at the garage to repair the tubes, and we continued on in Mom’s trusty Legacy to the grocery store for the weekly shopping. I felt happy as we arrived at Smith’s, but left the store an anxiety-ridden wreck. I lost Dad in the store—he was not sitting at the deli where I usually find him when I have finished shopping. I found him with Mom funneling into Luana’s check-out line—she is their favorite checker, and she always orders me to “take good care of them.” “I’ll do my best,” I always promise. Dad began trembling behind his cart—“I’m not going to make it, Rog,” he said. “I need to sit down—now.” Luana sent a bagger running for a chair he could not find, while another bagger drove up with a motorized cart onto which Dad collapsed. “Nelson,” Luana chided (partly on my behalf, since she could get away with it), “the next time you come, you either will use this motorized cart, or you will not come at all!” Dad nodded and smiled sheepishly, relieved just to be sitting. He took to the cart naturally, motoring easily to the car. Unloading the week’s groceries, Burt Brothers called to say Dad’s car was already fixed. With Dad sitting in his recliner eating his onion and Swiss on multi-grain bread, Mom and I raced off to retrieve the faithful Suburban, good as new, and for a fair price, before the store closed at 5:00. Mom crowed that she and I were the heroes of the day for retrieving the repaired Suburban. We celebrated with pizza, salad, and Paul Hollywood’s beautiful fig and date bread.