“I’m not feeling well this morning,” Dad muttered, and Mom cried out, “Oh, Nelson! Again? What are we going to do?” She tossed her needlepoint in sudden tears and shuffled to the kitchen, making herself busy with her morning herbal tea and granola breakfast, leaving Dad on his bedroom couch to contemplate the ever more difficult daily ordeal of shoving off to the shower and dressing. I hoped he would feel better after swallowing his medicine with a glass of water. And I hoped Mom could let go of her terrible fear for his welfare. His noon breakfast over, we left in the Mighty V8 for the grocery store. Grill fixings were in order with my son Brian visiting for his 32nd After finishing with produce and meat, I told Dad I would get the dill pickle hamburger chips, and rushed off down the aisle. I put the pickle jar in my cart, and he asked me as he rolled up if I had seen anything else we needed or that looked good to me as I had walked down that aisle. I looked at him, then down the aisle, unsure of what it contained. Focused on the pickle job, I had not seen anything else on the aisle, and reported as much. “I saw everything,” he asserted. “And I wanted everything I saw.” His unbounded enthusiasm became evident as we reached Luana’s check-out counter with three full shopping carts in tow. Home by 3:30 p.m., Dad announced lunch time, and set to work building his onion sandwich. Knowing the strain of walking and bending to retrieve the makings from the fridge, I tossed on the counter baggies with leftover onion and tomato, the mustard and mayonnaise, the sliced ham and cheese, and the multi-grain bread, then ascended stairs to my home office to finish remotely the afternoon’s work. Descending later for a cold water bottle (refilled now at least 400 times), I looked upon the familiar after-lunch scene: a half onion generously deodorizing the house, spiked with the protruding fork Dad used to hold the onion in place while he safely sliced it; the rubber scraper slathered with warm mayonnaise soiling the counter; slices of Swiss cheese exposed and drying in the package because he had scissored off the zipper his fumbling fingers no longer pulled. I have allowed this scene to annoy me a hundred times, and I am tired of being annoyed, and am choosing instead to incorporate into my afternoon routine the washing of a knife and a rubber scraper and the restocking of ham, cheese, mayo, mustard, potato chips, and the wiping down of the countertop with Lysol bleach. One day I will look at the empty, sterile countertop and miss the mess, all those things that will mean he was here with us then. Who else in this world will prepare every day an onion sandwich for lunch at 5:00 pm? There is no one, I am sure. From my desk, pondering the empty countertop, sudden quick shadows passed over the front lawn, shadows of Canada geese flying over the house with their honks and blares and gray feathers.
I was looking forward to my visit with Harvey, my old mountain man friend and friend to the west desert’s Native Americans. The night before I left, he called to let me know two things, first that he was looking forward to my visit, very much, and second that he and Mary were separating, selling the property, and moving from Enterprise, he to the obscure Arizona town of Eager, and her to the obscure Nevada town of Panaca. When the equity was split, he would receive about $30,000. He paid $40,000 for the house and property almost a decade earlier, before the housing boom, paying in cash, and owning the property outright, without debt. But she decided she needed money, mortgaged the house once then twice, couldn’t make the $120,000 loan payments—she could not say where the money had gone—and filed for bankruptcy, dragging Harvey along. He bought the property free and clear for 40K and sold it for $200,000, what would have and should have been a windfall but was instead a pittance of a retirement estate. Bankrupt. Only a small social security income—a fixed income, as they say. Not nearly enough to pay her debts. Enough to feed him a bird’s portion and to feed his birds, his roller pigeons and his Araucana hens. The birds is what the row was about, ostensibly. He loved his birds. He doted on and clucked to and spoke and sang and whistled to his birds. Enamored early in their first marriage, she now was tired of the birds at the end of their second marriage—his fifth marriage—because she wanted to travel and he, at 85, did not want to travel he could not travel because he needed to take care of his birds—this 85-year-old man that weighs 98 pounds and stoops to four feet tall and that loves his birds and feeds them and clucks knowingly to them. Harvey had become an inconvenient husband. And she had demanded, It’s me or the pigeons, Harv! Well, he guessed he’d keep the pigeons—they were less trouble and loved him more. So now he will lose both his wife and his pigeons, because he is moving far away to live with his daughter, who will treat him kindly and patiently in sync with his tenderness and devotion and love. I shouted at Harvey for the two days of my visit—my final visit to Enterprise and perhaps to Harvey—because when he could not make the payments, the company turned his hearing aids off, and he was deaf, and I had to shout to be heard, hollering after several uttered Hmmn?s and a final nod of comprehension—hunchbacks? NO LUNCH BOX! (the antique I gave him for his 80th birthday)—and if I had stayed another day I would have become hoarse and would have grown too sad. An inconvenient husband, Harvey, friend to Native Americans and knower of their ways and medicines and religion and rituals and pure hearts, Harvey the mountain man, Harvey my believing accepting humble grateful friend. Mom and Dad were kind enough to listen to my grieving when I returned home feeling the doom of human pride and selfishness. Harvey had wondered to me where he had gone wrong in his life—he had done everything he knew to do right—to lose three wives to divorce (two of them twice) and to lose all his earthly means and his tools and clever rustic scrap-wood outbuildings and to be alone at last at 85 without the love he has always craved. Lying in my bed staring at the ceiling fan in the early warmth of spring and remembering back three decades, I saw his beard’s two-foot-long white ringlets, his pet skunk Petunia hiding shyly in his quilted plaid jacket, his hearty chuckle and a good joke, and the glow of the hot rocks he placed in the center of the turtle lodge where the Sun Chiefs sang and blew the pipe smoke and whispered aho!
(Pictured above: Harvey with the tractor of his youth.)
“Tell me about your day,” I ventured as I drove Dad to Smith’s in the Faithful Suburban (also known as the “Mighty V8”). “Oh,” he began, “I had a good day, even though I didn’t accomplish one blessed thing.” I said I supposed one’s perspective of what a good day is might change at different times in one’s life. “Indeed,” he confirmed. “For me, a good day is to survive.” That’s all: to survive. Gone are the days of ebullient striving and thriving. The point comes where mere living is sufficient—as opposed to dying, from viral meningitis or a car wreck or heart disease or aspirating on one’s food or falling down the stairs or eating too much sugar or an abundance of other morose possibilities. Changing the subject, I mentioned I had stopped at the Bosch store to buy a part to fix the dishwasher door, which one day had lost all tension in the springs and fell open with a bang. The belligerent door had already hammered at Mom’s leg, leaving a big long angry purple bruise on her leg. Dad and I had driven to Smith’s with a particular mission in mind: a rotisserie chicken for dinner. And after dinner I slid the dishwasher out and found the suspected chords broken and detached from the springs. Then I discovered that the 1/16 of-an-inch-wide plastic anchors holding the stiff springs in place within the dishwasher frame had deteriorated from their old weld, and the springs floated anchorless in their plastic sockets. The new chords would do me no good with nothing to anchor the springs. Discouraged, I discerned that the door could not be fixed: the integrated plastic anchors had simply disintegrated, on both sides of the door. Things seem to be crumbling all around me, I thought, as the clip that held the dishwasher in place buckled and broke and the machine lurched forward and the loaded dish trays rolled out clanking. Already the first week of May, with already several 80-degree-F days behind us, heavy snow blew at a slant outside the kitchen window from low black clouds. I had arrived home late from work, and did not have time or energy to cook, hence the rotisserie run to Smith’s in the Mighty V8, where Dad motored off in the motorized shopping cart and another older patron quipped, “Drive safe.”
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I feel so anxious in the grocery store with Mom and Dad. In the produce section, I assess the fruits and vegetables with one eye even as I monitor Dad’s quickly waning strength with the other, tense and ready to catch him if he slumps. While Dad waits exhausted and uncomfortable at a deli table, I rush from aisle to aisle scratching items off the shopping list. I cannot suggest he stay home, and should not. This is his life, and he enjoys grocery shopping. If he wants to come with me, he should come. It is healthy for him to get out of the house, to see the abundant beautiful produce, to get excited about beer-battered cod and grilled bratwurst and baking salmon on Sunday. But he pays a steep price over and above the grocery bill. “I’m done, Rog,” he whispered as we stood in the check-out lane. “I hope I can make it to the car.” Back at home, I carry eight plastic shopping bags in each hand, thanks to the handles Connor made on his 3D printer. Mom and I put the groceries away, and stuff the plastic grocery sacks into a larger bag to be recycled. Wiped out and grateful, they sink into their recliners with their books and newspapers—or the TV remote—and their snacks and drinks. This is a perfect time for me again to urge Dad, captive to fatigue and comfort, to hydrate.
(Grocery bag carriers printed by my son-in-law, Connor.)
Mom showed me her summons to jury duty, and asked me what she should do about it. Having been a prosecuting attorney who tried many cases to a jury, I knew Mom would not be able to endure the experience, even the preliminary stage of jury selection. So, I helped her fill out the questionnaire, which asked, “Is there any reason you cannot serve on a jury?” I wrote in my best cursive, “I am too old to be on a jury. I cannot walk but a short distance because of arthritis in my knees. I cannot sit for a long time, and need frequent restroom breaks. I am getting hard of hearing. And my memory is not what it used to be. I am just too old and feeble even to show up for jury duty, let alone actually hear the whole case. And I am a caretaker for my husband, who is even older than me. I simply cannot report for duty. Please excuse me.” She signed the questionnaire after assuring me that my words conveyed her true sentiment. I felt confident that no judge would hold this feisty great-grandmother in contempt of court for not reporting for jury duty, especially after so articulate an explanation. Mom had served before on a jury in a criminal case. She had listened intently to the evidence, applied the relevant law, and found the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. She was proud to have fulfilled her constitutional obligation. She would be happy even now to serve again, were she able. But she is not able, and she knows it. And now the judge knows it. Nothing but the truth.
Dad has complained to me often about his extra big white Sunday dress shirt. In the larger sizes, retailers skip from neck size 20 to neck size 22. There is no size 21. But he is neither a 20 nor a 22—he is a size 21. The 20 strangles him, and the big and tall 22 hangs on him like a clown suit (his words). Add to this indignity that his shoulders no longer work, and he can neither affix his tie nor fold down his collar. Thus, the bow tie, relentlessly crooked, which he grumbles only accentuates the suit. I turned to JCPenney for a solution, knowing that Stafford makes the Men’s Wrinkle Free Stain Resistant Big & Tall Stretch Super Shirt, which builds an elastic into the collar button, effectively expanding a size 20 neck to a size 21. I knew the shirt might not work, but decided it was worth a $40 try to diminish Dad’s distress. When the shirt arrived, Dad reported it fit perfectly, though due to Covid-19 we were not able to attend worship services for the next two months.
I never take naps. Not because I don’t become sleepy on a lazy Sunday afternoon or a sultry weekday evening, but because upon waking from my naps I feel awful and ornery and not particularly happy about being alive. And then there is the problem of sleeping at night after napping during the day. I know people who take daily 20-minute “power naps” and wake up happy and refreshed, full of vim. Not me. But for Mom and Dad, naps have become necessary and pleasurable parts of the daily routine. At their age, the mere act of living is fatiguing, requiring rejuvenating naps. And after Dad mows the lawn or Mom finishes the laundry, they are ready to settle drowsily into their recliners, where sleep overtakes them. They awake cheerful and ready for the next round of life.
What a blessing is the handicapped placard hanging from the rearview mirror of the faithful Suburban. I tend to quick judgment when I see someone my age and looking just as healthy occupying a handicapped parking stall. But I try to turn that emotion into gratitude that I can park close to the store for Mom and Dad. With me driving, they scan the parking lot for the nearest best blue-signed pole. On our first grocery store outing, I pulled neatly into the stall, the passenger tires perfectly parallel and close to the cart-return curb. But the car was so close to the curb that Dad couldn’t get out and nearly fell. So now I look for the van accessible stall and turn wide into it, the driver tires in the hatched lines, with plenty of room for Dad and his shopping cart to maneuver. The three of us form a slow-moving line crossing the drive lane into the store, me in the front waving thanks to the patient cars, and Mom and Dad following—a kind of gaggle in reverse, with the gosling in the lead.
My siblings and I had begun to notice how ascending the stairs had grown more difficult for Mom and Dad. They huffed and wheezed and groaned. A wear pattern emerged on the wall where hands had sought some added traction and stability. My sister Sarah arranged for a company to install a railing on the wall side of the stairs, at equal height with the wood banister. Now it is much easier for them to push and pull their way up, using all four limbs, and to lean forward as they descend, easing the arthritis pains in their knees. I will not lie: I use the railing, too.
Dad loathes his walker. His walker is a royal blue, heavy-duty model, quite nice looking, I think. I kept it for weeks in the back of the faithful Suburban, then moved it to a corner of the garage, and finally retired it to the basement. Dad simply refuses to use it, and scowls at even a hint of a suggestion that he ought to use it. Hatred is not too strong a word for his feelings for that walker. On the other hand, Dad loves his garden tools, of which he has dozens of all shapes and varieties. I have tried to cast his walker as simply another tool for him to use for specific tasks, when only that tool will do. He was not persuaded. And I have not pressed the point. I think he feels embarrassed that even the simple act of walking is almost too hard for him, when he once ran marathons (yes, the 26.2-mile kind, 13 of them). He did remark to me recently, “I know a wheelchair is in my not-too-distant future, Rog.” I thought admitting that eventuality was remarkably brave of him. I hope before then the dreaded walker will become his fast and long-term friend.
I packed 30 boxes in one night. Packing boxes is such an odd life experience. Into each box I put my books, my genealogical records, my decorations, my journals. I seem to have more books and binders than any other type of possession. I cannot bear to part with the good books I have read, so into the boxes they go, with the label “Books: Read.” My latest favorites: The Plover by Brian Doyle, about a scarred sailor on a small sailboat who takes on several characters and through them heals his wounds; and, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, about the pervasive systematic racist policies of U.S. Government agencies that caused African Americans to suffer gross inequities in housing availability and affordability, safe neighborhoods, good jobs, adequate incomes, quality schools, clean environments, loan and mortgage equity, wealth generation, and military benefits. Each book has walked me in the shoes of great men and women, has taken me to new realms of science, has filled me with joy and sadness and that sick feeling that comes from reading about human cruelty. And when my bookshelves are empty and the boxes are full, I feel empty and bereft, as if my compartmentalized personality has been divided into boxes with labels, packed away to be loaded onto a truck and driven to my knew home and stacked in a corner of the basement until this new chapter, of which I have barely turned the first page, has ended (and I hope it is a long chapter). Then, I will carry the boxes again, still unopened, to some other domicile, where they will be unpacked and their contents organized on shelves and tables until my children come to care for me.
I didn’t go to Wal-Mart for boxes. I went there for snacks, including cheddar fish crackers, for a day trip to see Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with Hannah at Tuacahn. But there was the cheerful Pepperidge Farms lady collapsing boxes by the dozen, happy to give them to me when I asked. Packing is always a daunting task, and it starts with building boxes. With Ken Burns’ 20-hour Jazz playing b-bop and avant-garde, I started folding and taping flaps, and tossing the boxes in a heap. I feel so sad for genius Charlie Parker, playing sax music from heaven while drugs dragged him down to a living hell, with death at 34. At DVD’s end, the living room was a heap of empty cracker boxes, about to be filled with books I may never read but yet carry around by the decade. My life feels about to be reduced to a stack of heavy boxes marked “books.” But mine is a good life: I will have a safe, loving place to live with, and care for, my generous parents. Safe places—that is what we should be building. I guess it starts with building boxes. Forty down; so many to go.
With the plan in place, and the miracles having come about, the time to get to work had arrived. Boxing. Cleaning. Moving. Adjusting. Saying good-byes. And with that work came the second guessing. What was I thinking to invite this change? I am moving from my home, where I am comfortable and safe. I will be lengthening my commute from 3 miles to 53, from ten minutes to an hour, each way. I will be working day and night, six days a week. I will be living in someone else’s space. I will be giving up my solitary time for reading, writing, and film. Did I do the right thing? And yet, I know with a conviction, as powerful as any I ever received before, that this is the right thing to do. This is missionary work, and I have been called to this mission. I am holding on to that sure knowledge as I enter into a time of transition, a time of belonging neither in the old place nor in the new. I am holding onto that conviction and moving forward with faith, however weak.
I work as a municipal attorney for a small Utah town, advising the elected Mayor and City Council, the Planning Commission, and City department heads. This has been my work for 28 years. I rarely plan my days, which unfold in a never-ending series of problems and challenges, demands and crises. (I disfavor the word “crisis,” which takes a mere situation and elevates it to a crisis, with all the increased stress of a crisis, instead of making the same situation simply something to solve.) Working 50 hours a week in Tooele, plus ten hours of commuting, would hardly be conducive to fulfilling my primary purpose to care for my parents. For the plan to work, I would need permission to work a flexible, non-traditional schedule. Again, I solicited family prayers. I presented my plan and my proposed schedule to my boss, the Mayor. She enthusiastically approved, and even thanked me for choosing to help my parents at this point in their lives. I will work four partial days a week in Tooele, plus remote hours from home on those days, plus working remotely from home on Fridays, and when needed on Saturdays. I will still attend City Council meetings on Wednesday nights—after a career of some 5,000 Wednesday-night meetings, I see my week as Wednesday to Tuesday instead of Sunday to Saturday. Anyway, this schedule, hopefully, will allow me both to work full-time and to be home enough to make a difference for Mom and Dad. To my eye, this is another miracle. If the schedule itself is not, the kindness certainly is.
For me to implement the plan, I would need at least two miracles. I consider a miracle to be a desirable occurrence which is beyond human ability to create, brought about by some benevolent force, providential or universal. In my belief system, miracles have a divine origin, manifesting a loving Divinity. The first miracle I would need involved my apartment lease, which I had just renewed for another year. Should I vacate early, my landlords could accelerate the remaining lease payments and demand the forbidding sum of $12,000. An absolute impossibility. I asked my siblings and children to join me in prayer to soften my landlords’ hearts, to allow me to vacate early. I wrote to my landlords about my situation, and my reasons for moving. They responded quickly, agreeing to let me leave without penalty. Coincidentally, my son Brian and his wife Avery and their darling daughter Lila (my first grandchild) had decided to move from Kentucky back to Utah, to be closer to family. But they had not succeeded in finding a place to live. Utah is experiencing a persistent housing gap, with about 50,000 more families looking for housing than there are houses to buy or rent, and with soaring prices. Not only did my landlords agree to let me terminate my lease early, they agreed to allow Brian and Avery to sign a lease for my apartment. And because I will not need my furnishings at Mom’s and Dad’s house, Brian and Avery will step into a fully-furnished and decorated apartment at no additional cost. As these two critical pieces of the puzzle fell into place, I gave thanks in prayer for the blessings. An elegant, perfect, miraculous turn of events. Only one more major miracle was needed.
#5. My sister Sarah bought Mom and Dad a Facebook Portal, although they struggle with technology and do not want “a Facebook.” The Portal sits like a small TV screen on their kitchen table. Having my siblings’ blessing, I felt an urgency to talk with Mom and Dad immediately about my proposal to move in with them—so many puzzle pieces would need to fall into place in the right order—but I did not want to have such an important conversation on the phone, and right then I could not drive the hour each way to visit them in person. Why not use the Portal? When Mom and Dad answered, I saw them sitting big as life at their kitchen table. They lifted their heads slightly from looking through scalloped bifocals. They could see me at my desk in Tooele with my law certificates, plants, books, family photos, and Van Gogh paintings around me. For me, too, the bifocal tilt. I explained my concerns about their welfare and my proposal to move from my home to theirs, to help them live comfortably and safely in their home for as long as they wished. I mustered my most persuasive presentation, anxious about how they might react. Happily, Mom seemed relieved, and said simply, “Thank you, son. That would be wonderful.” Dad seemed grateful, but concerned—for me. We talked things through—my move, my commute, my work, my parenting with Hannah—and they agreed to the proposal. The plan was now in motion.
#4. Despite my conviction of needing to help Mom and Dad, I had to make sure my siblings agreed with the plan. I wrote to my four sisters and only brother to express my concerns for Mom’s and Dad’s health and safety (concerns they all shared), and to seek their blessing for me to move in. As a career municipal attorney, I have seen too many instances of children and grandchildren moving in with their parents and grandparents, manipulating them, taking advantage of them, and taking their money and property. Though my siblings know I am not such a person, still I felt it necessary to have their consent for me to assume such a trusted position with their parents. All five wrote back to me with love and gratitude and support. Megan wrote, “I support you 110%.” Carolyn wrote, “We are behind you.” Sarah, Jeanette, and Steven also gave their enthusiastic support. I knew that with their love and trust, perhaps I could do this. Their blessing in hand, now it was time to consult with Mom and Dad.
#3. The need is now. I am pondering the circumstances of my availability to leave my own home and to live with my parents in theirs. I find myself divorced and living alone. My seven children are mostly raised, with the youngest learning to drive. Five years have been sufficient to transition out of the trauma of exile and isolation. In those years I focused on healing, and too much, perhaps, on my own life, my little knick knacks, my art on the walls, my books, my mountain bike, my blog, my baking, my time, my my my . . . . It is time, perhaps, to look more outward, more toward the welfare of someone other than myself. And it is time for me to be available to do what I can do. My siblings are dedicated, loving persons, and could do so much better at caregiving than me. They already do so much. But they are not available to do some of what requires doing. I am available. So, the privilege and the responsibility are mine, and I cheerfully accept.
#2. I had planned to move in with Mom and Dad, if need be, in about a year, after my lease expired. But the evil lawn mower incident convinced me to move immediately. Dad loves his lawn: a source of pride and joy and exercise. Monthly fertilizer has yielded a deep emerald green turf, which Dad cuts twice a week on his riding mower. Plus: string trimming, driveway edging, shrub shaping, limb pruning, and dandelion digging—spread throughout the week in manageable increments. The push mower is for the corners the riding mower won’t reach. When Dad was pushing the mower downhill toward the garage one day, it ran away from him and dumped him on the concrete driveway. Providentially, Dad broke no bones. I knew that a broken hip or leg, or a blow to the head, could have been the beginning of the end, with long-term convalescence away from home. When they told me what had happened, I received a sudden conviction: now was the time—immediately—to move in with Mom and Dad and do what I could to keep them in their home for the remainder of their days (may they be long).
Courage at Twilight: An Introduction
Day #1. I knew the day would come. The day when my vibrant marathon-running violin-playing father and mother would grow old, grow feeble, stumble and fall. And I wondered how I could feebly stumble in my filial role to give them care. I am older than I thought parents could get, and certainly not me: a near-60 divorced lawyer writer mountain biker. One day it became clear the solution to the problem was to move in with my parents and provide for them the best care I knew how. And I knew writing would help me understand the experience. Join me as I travel this unfamiliar road, through short daily vignettes, to contribute to the quality of life of my aging parents, and to make sense of my life as they journey toward their life’s end and beyond.
August 1, 2021
–The measure of one’s greatness is one’s goodness.–
Sitting on the porch lacing my boots for a walk on Rabbit Lane, I heard the distant bellowing of a distressed calf. Something in the bray was not quite right, sounded a little off. I had heard lost calves calling for their mothers before. I had heard desperately hungry calves complaining before. I had heard lonely wiener calves bellowing for their removed mothers before. This calf call sounded strange; perhaps, I thought, not even a calf at all. I turned my head to pinpoint the source of the noise. It came from behind Austin’s house, where there should be no cows and, in fact, were no cows. An ignorant urgency sent me running through the intervening field to Austin’s back door. There lay Austin, helpless, in abject distress, fallen across the threshold of his back door and unable to arise, the screen door pressing upon his legs. He shouted and bellowed with his deep and distressed bass voice. I wrapped my arms around his prodigious barrel chest and heaved as gently yet as forcefully as I could to raise the big man from the ground. Continue reading