Can I visit with you for a second, Rog? I know you’re up to your elbows in dishes right at the moment. Thanks for coming over to me—I couldn’t have come to you. I see everything you are doing for us. You are doing all the cooking and cleaning up after. I feel bad about that. I would like to help you cook dinner and wash the dishes. But I just can’t. And I’m getting worse. My legs hurt so bad when I try to stand, worse every day. I’ll call the doctor tomorrow and see if they have sent my spinal fluid to the Mayo clinic—it’s been two weeks already—and I’ve gotten a lot worse. I hope they find something so they can treat me. I can’t stand just sitting here and deteriorating and not knowing why, or what I can do about it. I just can’t walk at all—even with a walker my legs are too weak to walk. Look, my walker is three feet away and I can’t even get to it without you pushing it to me. I can’t help you, and I feel bad. I’m so very grateful for everything you do for your mother and me. Your meals are delicious and healthy. Tonight’s pesto chicken pasta, and that braised asparagus, were both superb. Do you think Olive Garden makes anything like that? You always have to pick up after me: when I drop something, I can’t bend over to pick it up, so there it stays, unless you pick it up for me. I love working in the yard, but you do the yardwork because I can’t. And you fix what’s broken, like the toilet valves and the sink stoppers. This year, you put up the Christmas lights for me. They look so cheerful, and I’m so happy they are up and shining and bright. Aren’t you? I just couldn’t do it. Two years ago, I did the lights myself. Last year, I helped you a little. This year, I just watched from the sidewalk, from my power wheelchair. I tried driving it on the grass, to get closer, but the wheels just sank, and I couldn’t go anywhere but back the way I’d come. I’m very grateful to you. Well, that’s all I wanted to say.
I arise at 6:00 a.m. (ideally), slip on my gym clothes, and slink down the stairs without a sound to sit on the stationary bicycle. I must read when I ride or I go mad with boredom and from focusing on the discomfort of hard exercise. But Dad’s room is immediately adjacent, and the light would strike him fully in the sleeping face. My headlamp is the answer. I puff as I push and as I read N.T. Wright’s New Testaments translations and commentaries, and Dad is none the wiser (though I certainly hope I am). But today the headlamp became moot, and I flipped the light switch on. We are poorer in the pocket, but enriched with new possibilities for mobility and independence. The stair lift finally has been installed. And the taste is sour-sweet. As Dad held the lever in the “up” position, the chair he sat slumped in rose slowly to the landing, pivoted 90 degrees, and carried him to the top of the staircase. He ascended with a vacant emotionless expression. Dad has new independence, even with increased weakness. Dad has improved mobility, even with increased paralysis and pain. Dad carries a dual humiliation: the marathon runner who cannot walk; sitting hunched in a chair, himself motionless, being rack-and-pinioned to the second floor. Not a time of celebration. Rather, a time of adjustment to a new tool and to a new routine, a time of relief with the decreased risk of ending his life horribly by falling down the stairs, a time to confront the fact that he will never climb the stairs again under his own power. I asked for the opportunity to talk through how bedtime would now work, not just for him, but for Mom and me also, and I thought we settled on moving toward the stair lift and toward bed at 10:30 p.m. after the nightly news. But discovered that he had settled on reading until midnight and moving himself achingly with his not-a-walker to transfer to the stair lift and push the “up” paddle, to push his heavy-duty blue walker to his bed, where he climbed in next to his sweetheart for the first time in ten long weeks, without an ounce of worry from me because of the lift. A cause for celebration after all. Four-year-old Gabe joined me in my own celebratory ride by sitting on my lap as I held the paddle in the “up” position and we rack-and-pinioned our way slowly up the stairs.
Dad sat reading volume “F” of the 1990 World Book Encyclopedia—“I haven’t read ‘F’ in some time”—and later at the dinner table expounded to Mom and me about Fahrenheit and Faulkner and Freedom. I think volume “L” might be his favorite. Whereas last week he had to ask Mom to bring this and that book or plate or newspaper to him—because he could not hold both the walker handles and the object he wanted—his new caddy allows him the independence of transporting things himself. While I searched the Deseret Industries thrift store for exercise dumbbells, which I did not find, the walker fairly stuck out its handles and introduced itself. Fifteen dollars later, I walked into the living room and declared to Dad, “This is not a walker.” He seemed fond of his floral-pattern walker, and I worried he might not welcome an interloper. I explained, “This is a food caddy and a book caddy and an anything-else caddy.” Dusty from sitting neglected in someone’s garage, I cleaned every inch of the caddy. Next day, Dad transported his books and his lunch plates without relying on Mom or me. He liked the like-new not-a-walker. In a related story, Dad announced to Mom and me in church that his wheelchair cushion was freezing his bottom—we keep the wheelchair and the memory foam cushion in the faithful Suburban, and the night before had dipped to 19 degrees Fahrenheit. I grinned and encouraged him to find consolation in not feeling too hot, for a change.
(Pictured above: Dad’s new thrift store not-a-walker caddy.)
Dad always slathers one piece of bread with mayonnaise and mustard which oozes out onto his hands and clothes when he bites into his onion-ham-and-Swiss sandwiches, until one day he saw my son John evenly spread a thin layer of mayo on one slice of bread and a thin layer of mustard on the other. That does not sound revolutionary or even noteworthy to me, but to Dad it was a revelation. He had discovered “a better sandwich.” But he was unhappy about the hand soap Mom had bought, grousing that it did not foam, but merely dribbled down the side of the bottle instead of onto his hand. Well, put your hand under the nozzle, Mom grumbled under her breath, unheard through his dead-battery hearing aids. He insisted he go shopping with us so he could pick out the “right” hand soap. I did not give him the chance: I bought some very regular foaming soap at Wal-Mart for about $1.59 each, and gave him a choice: “Which one do you want in your bathroom, the coconut-lime or the vanilla jasmine?” Buried in the New York Times, he did not reply. Later, he off-handed, “Thanks for the soap, Rog.” Fleeces are another complaint. The fireplace will not be fixed for another week, and Dad feels cold in his recliner. He quite eagerly wished to explore the fleece jackets at Big 5. They had very few, but we hung an XXL of four different styles. Dad seems incapable of buying anything for himself without insisting that Mom or I or whoever is with him first buy something for themselves, which is both sweet and annoying, Mom and I loathing shopping. When we know what we want, we do not take long reconnaissance sorties, but charge in, buy the thing, and bug out. Mom walked quickly through store, announced that the store had nothing she wanted, and sat on a bench to await the results of his fleece deliberations. Dad did choose two nice fleeces, though when we returned home he stayed in my old torn faded hoodie because of the convenience of already being in it. Dad cannot raise his foot to the running board of the Might V8, let alone to the floor. I found how to lift his leg easily from behind the knee into the car, to give him “a leg up,” after which he can hoist himself into his seat. We went through this exercise four times on our Big 5 outing, then four more on an evening jaunt to Smith’s grocery store, and again today for church, where on the last lift he discovered how to use his right hand to lift his own left leg—another victory for self-sufficiency. I began to worry about the wheelchair ramps I had built of wood, which had warped and twisted just enough to form half-inch lips perfect for tripping already compromised walkers. Being a lawyer, I was disappointed in myself for not having thought sooner of the risk management implications, and drove to Wal-Mart for a roll of neon green duct tape which now decorates the toe and crown of each ramp, nicely set off against the red-brown stain. And I baked banana cream pies for Mom’s birthday party, and finished editing my Portugal trip journal, and repaired the bathroom sink trap, and carried ham and ice cream and lima beans to the basement freezer, and mounted a grab bar in the garage to help Dad up three steps, which might as well be three mountains, and cleaned the seated walker I found at the Deseret Industries thrift store for Dad to use as a meal caddy and book caddy and other-things caddy, and ordered dress ties and a belt for Hyrum who leaves soon for Brazil, and baked the Madeiran Bolo do Caco with sweet potato and garlic. I am a doer, always moving briskly from one job to the next, getting a lot done. But I rarely feel satisfied, and often feel irritable, rarely savoring the things accomplished. The doing of the thing has become more important than the thing being done, it seemed. After checking off an arms-length of boxes, I collapse, tired and tense and wanting to do nothing more. I could stand to slow down, to enjoy the doing of the thing rather than the mere checking of the box. I would, perhaps, relish each accomplishment. I confess that the banana cream pies did look wonderfully delicious.
(Pictured above: Bolo do Caco, traditional on the island of Madeira, a flat cake with sweet potato mixed in with the dough, brushed with garlic parsley butter.)
“I’m cold,” I heard Dad protest to Mom, who suggested he put on something warm. I retrieved his sweatshirt from his office/bedroom and helped him find the arms. Mom draped a crocheted blanket over him. Normally, Dad, when cold, would ask the leading rhetorical question, “Should we turn on the fireplace?” But the fireplace quit, despite the pilot light still burning—I was glad I smelled no gas—so we guessed a bad switch. Out of fear of dying unpleasantly, I do not tinker with gas plumbing or electrical wiring, so we called Adam’s HVAC, who can come in two weeks. Warmed up and growing hot, Dad cast off his blanket and shuffled to his office to write an email to a grandchild. Sitting in his office chair, it suddenly sank on failed hydraulics to its lowest setting, and he could not get up from the chair without help, and I could not repair the chair. While I baked cored apples filled with brown sugar, Splenda, and butter last week, I noticed the oven not heating well, and saw a molten metal bubble forming on the element. When the box from Amazon came, I switched the breaker to “off” (that I will do) and installed the new element, though the old wiring needed coaxing to fit the new leads. And I twisted and bent my glasses, because I put them on my bed and sat on them squarely. Things break. Sometimes they can be fixed. Dad’s new physical therapist, Jerry, came one evening with his New Zealand speak to do therapy, and I learned why therapists order, “Up up up!” when having Dad stand, so that he engages his hip flexors and quadriceps so he can stand tall and take full steps and not a mere forward-leaning controlled-fall shuffle. Jerry was gentle and patient and caring—I am always grateful for gentle, patient, caring people, in any profession. But later Dad complained to me about how weak he was, that this was his worst day since he left the rehab center a month ago. Such pronouncements sag my spirits, and I fret over any number of imagined impending crises. Yeah, things break. I pushed Dad in his wheelchair into the chapel Sunday morning—we were late, and I felt unhappy about being late—and Dad waved like teen royalty on a parade float as many congregants waved and smiled at him as we rolled down the aisle to the front handicapped pew. If his legs will not work, the wheelchair works wonderfully well. But I did not wave or smile—I was just the driver. My mayor’s mother passed away unexpectedly from a random blood clot lodged in her heart, and I expressed my genuine condolences with a little ornamental pepper plant looking like a bonsai Christmas tree with tiny red lights. I had known my boss’ mother, enjoyed meals and jokes, and I liked her and felt sad she was gone. Old people go, frequently, and I came home that night with renewed gratitude for my parents, an increased measure of tenderness and patience, for they are sweet and loving and generous, and I have them still. Things break, and we fix them, when we can, and continue onward.
Eleven o’clock at night, and Dad’s reading light burned above his recliner, with Dad comfortably settled in, intently focused on a book. I felt very tired and wanted to be in bed an hour before, what with my 6:00 a.m. wake time routine. Voiced echoes of “back to normal” and “climb the stairs” raced chaotically in my brain. Daring to interrupt his reading, I asked carefully if we could have a conversation. “Of course,” he said pleasantly, plainly happy to be home. I explained to him how frightened I felt of him attempting to climb the stairs in the middle of the night, and how traumatized I felt from weeks of pre-hospital hauling him up the stairs with a gate belt and easing him down the stairs with the gate belt (he does not remember this), and I asked him, please, for his commitment to not climb the stairs tonight, and suggested now would be an excellent time to go to sleep, when Mom and I were going to sleep, being both so tired, so we did not need to worry about him moving safely around in the night. He had come home just that day, after all. “I am going to climb the stairs,” he asserted with confidence, “but I will not do it tonight. I know my limits, and I am not going to be stupid.” “Stupid” is a word that simply could never ever describe Dad. “Super-intelligent,” yes. “Super-determined,” absolutely. But I have watched Dad dozens of times push himself beyond his capacity, with the predictable collapses that followed, and wondered if he really did know his limits, or rather knew what his limits used to be, or what he wanted them to be. Still, physical therapists had been working him hard, and the idea of him being newly cognizant of his current limits was plausible. With no further argument, Dad shuffled to his downstairs bedroom with a “good-night,” his book and a bag of mixed nuts in hand, while I stepped up the stairs. The next morning, a Sunday, with the new CNA’s arrival, Dad expressed his understandable desire for a shower, which meant, of course, climbing the stairs. I sat down with him again and practically yelled at him out of my fear of his falling down the stairs. He deferred (after the CNA demurred), and accepted a sponge bath instead. But on Monday, day three at home, after I left for work, the CNA helped him up the stairs to the shower—how wonderful and liberating that shower must have felt—and back down again, without incident, and I was glad I had not been there, and I was glad the CNA had felt sufficiently comfortable helping him, and that the story for that day had a happy ending. True to his word, he indicated to the caregiver on Tuesday that he felt too weak to attempt the stairs. And with all this my tension eased somewhat. But I knew, as I have not known before, that now was the time to install the obscenely-expensive stair lift, and that only with the stair lift could we eliminate the issue of stair climbing and substitute constant dread and risk with comfort and ease and safety and freedom and independence, if not accomplishment. As I myself plopped down the steps to discuss stair lifts with Mom and Dad, grasping the wood handrail, my hand suddenly slipped where the housecleaner had oiled the wood, and I caught myself without falling, and I pictured Mom grasping the railing and leaning out over the stairs to let her arthritic legs follow after, and I pictured Mom’s hand slipping on the greasy handrail and Mom going down, down, the stairs with nothing to stop her, and I knew the stair lift was her safe solution as well. Straightaway, I ran for a spray bottle of kitchen degreaser and wiped the handrail squeaky grippy clean.
For a second time, United Health Care served a termination notice, ending Dad’s care the next day. Sarah scrambled to assemble her second appeal, bolstered by Dad’s nurse and physical therapist who averred he “would benefit from continued skilled therapy to maximize patient’s independence at home and reduce rehospitalization risk.” And for the second time the appeal was granted only after Dad was to have been expelled. But we only need two more days, and then he will be coming home. Not to his own bed, sadly, but to a hospital bed on the main floor, in the office and library we transformed into a bedroom, still finding room for a computer—Mom’s wedding portrait sits framed on the desk these 60 years later—and a shelf full of his favorite books, with paintings of Jesus on the walls. The bed will come in two days, and I will assemble the commode tomorrow. In the meantime, Dad has worked hard pushing the walker down the hall and climbing up and down two railed stairs, after which he is exhausted for hours. Still, he makes incremental progress every day. With new hope, lost for a time, he has been hinting stubbornly that he anticipates settling back into his old-friend habits of reading late into the night and climbing the stairs alone at 3:00 a.m. to fall into bed, and arising at 10:00 a.m. to shower and dress and to brave the stairs and eat breakfast at noon. And my mind shudders from the memories of pulling him up the stairs with a belt and lifting him off the toilet and hoisting him into bed, repeatedly, and his trembling and groaning and collapsing under me, and the thought of continuing fills me with dread and frustration and my own trembling, and I want to scream that I’m not doing this anymore!!! In my mind I have been rehearsing speeches to him about how his unhealthy night-owl habits not only weaken him but frighten and exhaust Mom and me, and how the thought of picking up where we left off the day of the ambulance ride, as if that ride had never happened, and thinking absurdly that I’m all better now when he almost died and he still barely can move and each step alone on the stairs is a tooth-clenching death dare. The extent of Dad’s recovery is remarkable; I had felt the reaper breathing foully on me from too close. Still, the thought of Dad’s homecoming has brought me no joy, only stress and anxiety and the phantom smell of raw onions, and visions of mayonnaise smeared on the kitchen counter, and the awful wait as Dad somehow pulls himself slowly up 16 stairs at 3:00 in the morning when I should be sleeping soundly but cannot for knowing how impossibly difficult each stair is to step up, and how easily he could misstep and tumble to the landing in a crumpled pile, mooting in three seconds the so-long month of pains and efforts, setbacks and struggles, fears and tearful longings, and the small but hard-won victories during four weeks of hospitalization and convalescence—all that for nothing, all that for the pride of doing it my way.
(Pictured above, Dad’s office-turned-bedroom awaiting his hospital bed, and him.)
Is this the end? Will he get better? What help do I ask for? What help do I accept? How do we get him to the bathroom, up the stairs, into bed? Do we carry him down the stairs and to the car and drive him to the hospital, or do we call 911 because we cannot safely manage? Did you bring his hearing aids? What brought you to the emergency room today? Is a lumbar puncture more dangerous than a spinal tap (or are they the same thing)? What is the difference between meningitis and encephalitis? Will he ever come home? What do I tell the family? And what do I not tell? Is the occupational therapist single? Why won’t he eat? How do I manage multiple group texts, frequent updates wanted? Why am I binging on onion rings and chocolate ice cream? Why am I so tired? Why am I so tense? Why do I want to vomit? Will I get through this? How am I going to get through this? What will I do when my brother goes home? What are the visiting hours? Who will take care of Mom when I’m at work? Will you pray for him, please? Do you want to watch TV? A movie? High Road to China or White Nights or Nacho Libre or The Scarlet Pimpernel? Do you have a Galaxy S9 charging cord? How are his blood glucose levels? I wish I could retire. What are their insurance co-pays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket maximums? How can I get all my work done? Will the mayor fire me? Why do my colleagues keep sending me work when they know where I am? Did the nurse sponge his back and give him his insulin shot? Why is his knee pain so intense? Why is the knee fluid brown? Why won’t he take the narcotic? Why won’t he swallow? Can he swallow? What do I do if he chokes on his food? Who brought the pretty flowers, the red and white carnations wrapped in baby’s breath? Do you have any questions, sir? Will I know when it’s time to gather the family? Did you bring his hearing aid batteries? What did you have for lunch? Where did we leave off with James Herriot? Wasn’t that a lovely story? How were your onion rings, Mom? Does he have an advanced directive? What is your name and what day is it and where are you right now and who is the president of the United States? Do you consent to the procedure on Mr. Baker’s behalf? How are you feeling tonight, Dad? Can I raise your bed or rearrange your pillows or bring you another blanket? Can I help you brush your teeth? Can you see the mountains from your window? How can I know the truth about anything? What will fill the emptiness? Are you with me, God?
(Photo from Intermountain Health Care used pursuant to the fair use doctrine.)
Imagine being strapped to another’s body and operating it from behind, climbing the stairs, lifting the body’s leg with yours to climb one step, then the other leg and another step, and more steps, the body sinking heavily into yours, a big body, a body too weak to move without help. That is how my brother managed to convey Dad upstairs to bed. We consulted, and we realized Dad needed hospital help, and we realized we could not safely convey him down the stairs and into his wheelchair and into the car, and we called for an ambulance. Such sudden profound weakness: Dad could not move. “I don’t understand it,” he bemoaned. “I could do this two days ago. Now I am so totally and absolutely weak and wasted.” We had taken Mom and Dad to the Temple Quarry Trail in their wheelchairs. Dad had not wanted to go—he felt too tired. But we insisted he come, for his face to soak in some sun, for the fresh air to move around him and fill his lungs, to see the green of wild cherry and mountain maple and gambel oak—Mom brought home a pretty hatted acorn—and boxelder trees, to hear the river spilling noisily over quartz monzonite boulders. To see Gabe gazelling down the trail with a four-year-old’s ebullient life dance. But then the stairs, and the ambulance, and the utterly profound weakness. “Common infections can present with profound weakness and disorientation in older patients,” the doctor explained. Dad is now too weak to talk, too weak to chew his turkey cream cheese cranberry sandwich which sits drying on a plate, too weak to reach for his diet coke, staring through the 8th floor window at his beloved Wasatch mountains towering over the valley. A last look before leaving his room for the evening: Dad is sleeping exhaustedly, his face glowing with diffuse light from the lamp above his bed, and he seems to lightly inhabit two worlds at once. We are keeping up our spirits up at home, Mom and siblings and me. We have experienced precarious near-collapses and kind ambulance EMTs and the ever-dragging emergency room and tests and scans and the making of plans one hour at a time. We are weary. And something feels different in the house. Dad’s floor lamps do not burn until 3:00 a.m. with his reading. His New Balance shoes sit empty by his chair. Mom looks over the railing in the middle of night, like she does every night, to check on her beloved, to see him sleeping or reading and happy, but the chair is empty and dark. The house seems oddly quiet, with someone missing. And we pray for him to come home.
“Could this really be the end?” Dad wondered aloud to me. He could not even pivot on his feet to point-and-fall into his chair, and his legs trembled on the verge of collapse. His sudden decline accompanied his cold—he tested negative twice for Covid antigens. Yesterday was Wednesday, my long City-Council-meeting work day, and when I walked through the door at 10:30 p.m., Mom sighed with a drawn look, “I’m glad you’re home. Your dad had quite an adventure today!” Dad’s adventure was not watching hummingbirds on his back patio with Lone Mountain in the background, but a runaway walker crashing into the fireplace brickwork and Mom calling neighbor Brad to pick Dad up off the floor, which took several attempts. He could not rise from his newly-elevated recliner, even as I strapped the new sling around his torso and pulled hard on the handles. He could not walk to the stairs, but sat is his walker shuffling his feet as I nudged him forward. He could not, of course, ascend the stairs, and his arms and legs trembled and shook as I pulled up on the sling with all my strength on each step. (The quote for the stair lift was $14,000, which means we will not be purchasing the stair lift.) He could not get into bed until I lugged his legs up and in. He could not cross the bathroom after his shower this morning, when I wrapped him in a towel, turned him, and pointed him in a controlled fall onto the walker seat. Mom murmured “I can’t do this” several times, foreseeing what she would face when I was at work, and she is right: she cannot do it. I listened all night for panting groans and shuffling feet, and darted to his room at 5:00 a.m. when he was part way back to bed, about to collapse, and I grabbed him and dropped him on the mattress and hoisted his heavy lame legs into bed. So, is this really the end? I do not think so. But the end grows forebodingly closer, and I feel like I am staring down the long dark rifle barrel of inevitable imminence. While Mom helped him dress, I cooked up my daughter Laura’s “Foolproof Pancakes” with a twist of mashed baby red bananas and half whole wheat—and with bacon on the side, because why not? And Dad enjoyed his banana pancakes and bacon. And Mom enjoyed her banana pancakes and bacon. Me, too.
When Harvey turned 80, I gave him an antique workman’s lunch box, with oil rubbed into the rust—he adores antiques, and has a knack for turning junk into treasure. In the lunch box I included a homemade card with flower petals and leaves, and on the cardstock insert I wrote in my best longhand a celebratory message to my dear friend, Harvey, the hero of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road and a one-time tanner and rendezvous mountain man who wears quietly the name Many Feathers bestowed by Goshute and Navajo chiefs. A therapist once told me that emotional writing should be done longhand, accessing distinct brain quadrants than when typing, so I write in careful cursive my personal messages and in my journal. In solidarity with my son, Brian, I purchased from Noodlers Inc. a whorled resin fountain pen named Ahab for its whale-shaped clip, and filled its cartridge with a blend of ink called Black Australian Rose. But the mix was off in my ink batch, more of a cherry red than a red-and-black. But I had bought it, so I was going to use it, and began signing official city documents in bright red ink. “Signed in blood,” I joked rather lamely, a tad embarrassed for the bright resemblance. The ink even bled through the cheap copy paper. I thought to darken the red with a few drops of Moon Dust, and now the ink really does look like fresh blood instead of cherry juice, though I am enjoying signing in blood. My message to Harvey in his 85th birthday card was written in this ink-blood. When I came home from work on his birthday, I found a box from him on my desk. Before opening it, Mom wanted to show me the five new grab bars in the bathrooms, the most important of which was just inside the master shower door, there anchored securely now to help Dad step over the deep tiled lip of the shower. He acknowledged that shower ingress and egress had been precarious with him grasping the soap dish for lack of a bar. Now the simple act of showering will be far safer and more enjoyable. And with a doctor’s order we paid no sales tax. Mom was happy with the installer, Austin, who was so careful and thorough and kind, and upon inspection I, too, was satisfied. Retrieving Harvey’s box—how characteristic of the diminutive man to send me a gift on his birthday—I found inside his antique lunch box, for he had moved out after losing his third wife, and had no room for antiques in the bedroom of his daughter’s house, and did not how long he would be around anyway, and knew I would appreciate it more than anyone else in the world.
(Pictured above: Harvey on his 80th birthday with the antique lunch box.)
The antique lunch box.
My Ahab fountain pen resting on a pen bed made by Brian. See Brian’s YouTube channel “Down the Breather Hole” for fun fountain pen photos and videos.
Black Australian Roses “blood” ink handwriting sample.
As we left church, Dad half wheeled and I half pushed his wheelchair down the sidewalk toward the handicapped parking stall where waited the Faithful Suburban, the Mighty V-8. He looked up at me and enthused, “This wheelchair business is working out pretty good!” I fell speechless with pleasant surprise. Dad was adapting, and while his condition continues to deteriorate, the wheelchair has actually improved his quality of life. Suzie came a few days later to give the house another look over for ways we could adapt the house to Dad, rather than Dad to the house. I had already elevated his reclining rockers by three inches, which Suzie was thrilled to see. Kindly and encouraging, she talked with Dad about how to dress more easily and safely, how to bathe more easily and safely, how to avoid falls and fatigue, and how to pace himself. She has us ordering various items of adaptive equipment, like a sock aid (complete with six illustrated sock aid steps) to pull on his socks without him needing to bend over or pull his feet up to his knees, and like a dressing stick to pull on his pant legs one at a time, and like a long-handled shoehorn to slip his feet into his shoes, and like sofa risers to lift the sofa height so he can escape the soft cushions. When the power wheelchair comes (I committed the unfortunate faux pas of calling it an electric chair), we will order 5:1 (five feet long to one foot tall) portable foldable ramps for the living room, and longer ones for the garage and front porch. Dad does not want to do any of this, but desire has become irrelevant: functionality is now what matters. These simple, inexpensive devices will help adapt his surroundings to himself, and himself to his condition. Like a sailboat tacking powerfully into the wind, I hope Dad will be able to pick up some speed and better enjoy the race.
I seethed and I fumed as I trimmed and I shaped the bushes and as I pruned the tree branches back from the house and as I ruminated on our home health debacle. My shoulders ached from raising the twenty-foot-long pole high into the canopy. I had been so excited to observe Weston spend three hours patiently gathering Dad’s medical condition data, kindly listening to Dad describe his growing paralysis, and giving us tidbits of helpful advice (like elevating the recliners). I had been so excited to have a physical therapist and an occupational therapist come to coach Dad how to live safely in his home, how to become stronger even. Knowing Dad liked his yardwork, Weston said PT would show him how to work safely in the yard and how to keep his balance. But PT came and pushed him too hard to ride the stationary bicycle and pushed him too hard to circle the house behind his walker and for days he was nearly too weak to move and never took him outside to train him in yardwork techniques and balance exercises. PT’s second visit contained no therapy at all, only computer problems, and an abrupt announcement that she was no longer needed and would not be coming back. Dad was too genteel to report her rudeness and abrasiveness to Weston, partly because he did not want her coming back to boss and belittle. And OT came and reported that, indeed, a few grab bars would be helpful, which Dad had in the first place informed her. Case manager Weston came a second time, today, spent no productive time with Dad, offered no suggestions or course of action, stated PT would not be returning, said he (the home health supervisor) had no idea who Dad might call to have grab bars installed, instructed Dad to do whatever exercise he felt was right for him and to devise his own treatment and strengthening plan, offered to get out of Dad’s hair, and announced that home health’s role was finished. He would not be coming back. That was it. That was the beginning and the end of home health. They had done nothing. I elevated the recliners (giving them full credit for the idea). Mom will find someone to install the grab bars. Nothing at all. Except I’m sure they billed Medicare for every visit. Dad felt diminished, belittled, abandoned, and disheartened, as if the great Home Health had decided he were a lost cause, too decrepit and paralyzed, too close to knocking off for home health to do any good. The great Home Health left Dad with the advice to figure out his own course of treatment and strengthening and balance and activity, as if the sum of their meager efforts was, We can’t help you. Figure out how to help yourself, if you can. Maybe Weston thinks Dad does not need home health care, that I, Roger Baker, am the de facto home health care provider. In 295 installments, I have not used this forum to vent anger or sarcasm or skepticism, but to find strength and tenderness and hope in the details of a very challenging experience. But today I am beside myself with frustration and discouragement at the utter lack of home health or home help or home care and feel abandoned to stumble along do our best by ourselves. But we still watch in wonder the hummingbirds from our dinner table, see the sugar-water level dropping, refill the feeder, marvel at their tininess and beauty, and contemplate agog their brave twice-yearly over-ocean migrations to warmer lands during our winter, and to know that the world is a beautiful and good place to be, home health be damned.
Dad made the rounds on his riding mower, the single yard-maintenance task left to him. He donned his straw hat and sprays his arms with SPF 100 sunscreen and vroomed rapidly around the yard, missing corners and spots here and there and not knowing or caring. On his mower, he is master. No driver license required. No traffic rules. He sat on the back patio, resting, after finishing the job, when a tiny Black-chinned Hummingbird zoomed across the yard but stopped and hovered one foot from Dad’s face, eyeing him closely, pointing a long sharp beak at him in an ambiguous manner, neither clearly malevolent nor benevolent, but clearly curious. Then she veered away to land on the feeder and lick sugar water with a pink tongue through that long beak. Did you know the Portuguese name for Hummingbird is Beija Flor, meaning Flower Kiss? Appropriate and romantically sweet. Dad found the up-close-and-personal hummingbird encounter endearing and exhilarating, and stumbled into the house to tell Mom and me. Dad does not get to see the hummingbirds Mom and I are always heralding with “There she is!” since he cannot turn his head and stiff neck. His encounter was thus all the more personal, far from routine. Hummingbirds are a fascinating combination of aggression and cuteness, peevishness and beauty. But Mom and Dad and I are just glad they have found us and keep coming. Their olive-green wings seem drab until the sunlight catches them just right, revealing a jeweled florescence. Three days later, a rotting stench filled the garage, and I remembered that Dad had mowed the lawn, leaving the grass to compress and putresce in the canvas mower bags. Vile black liquid dripped from the bag bottoms like bile. I steeled myself against a recurring gag and plastic-bagged the grass for disposal in the outside cans, where the grass will continue to rot in the hot sun for another five days before the garbage truck rescues us. Driving off to the grocery store later, Dad ventured, “Hey, Rog, you can ride the electric shopping cart, too, if you want to!” I tried to smile at this prospect that held no attraction for me whatsoever but that offered some insight into his initial lack of enthusiasm for the motor-assisted cart. After parking, I finally responded: “I’ll be right back, Dad,” and ran into the store to commandeer a cart and scoot it out the store doors and across the parking lot to Dad’s car door. “What did you think?” I pretended not to hear as I rushed a push cart over to Mom. But I think we found a new grocery store routine.
Weston sent Sarah and Suzie, a physical therapist and an occupational therapist, to see Dad a few days after the intake assessment. Sarah put him on the stationary bike and instructed him to ride until he was too tired to ride anymore, and to repeat the burnout every day. And she had him do what he will not do for me—amble around the house with his heavy-duty metallic blue walker, a stopwatch in her hand—and instructed him to practice every day because she would be timing him at every visit to see if he is improving. The day after Sarah’s “therapy,” Dad could not walk at all, and the therapy seemed obviously counterproductive to him. Suzie, who has a dozen hummingbird feeders at her house, looked over Dad’s house for ways we could make his life a bit easier. Dad’s most painful moments of the day, both physically and mentally, are standing up from his recliner. His pain is an 8 out 10 on the grimace scale, so severe that he avoids leaving his chair. She suggested we attach risers to the feet of his recliners so Dad does not have to rise from such a plush depth, but can slide out more easily to a standing position. What a simple idea, I thought. (Another Duh.) So, I brought home from Lowes some quality 2×3 lumber, cut it to size, drilled pilot holes, and attached two 26-inch lengths to the 26-inch two feet, then two more, adding a full three inches of height to the chair. He was quite excited to try his elevated chair, now much easier to stand up from. Of course, the increased height puts greater pressure on his hamstrings, so he must keep his feet elevated, which is better anyway for his edema. Dad came outside and watched me while I measured the lumber, and cut it with a crosscut saw, and drilled the pilot holes, with divots for the screw heads. Before he made it back into the house, the lumber risers were firmly anchored and his “new” chairs were ready. Such a simple aid for such a serious problem. And as we sat at the kitchen table eating our chicken rice almond casserole, two tiny spotted fawns wandered into the yard, stopping to nibble generously on Dad’s potentilla bushes. Both the mule deer and the potentilla are endemic to the nearby mountains, so go well together also in our yard. Each pull at the leaves tugged at me somewhat urgently me to shoo the fawns away, but Dad said, “Let them eat the whole bush. I don’t care. Don’t shoo them away. I like to see them, such darling creatures. I’m glad they are here. And I’m glad the hummingbirds come to the feeder.”
“I can’t walk!” Dad began as the home health case manager began his three-hour assessment. I felt proud of Dad for facing forcefully the reality of his condition. “And I’m going downhill fast.” Weston listened to everything Dad had to say as he inquired about every aspect of Dad’s health, from medications and mental health and mobility to bowels and balance. He invited Dad to stand up from his kitchen chair, which required all Dad’s strength and induced level-8 pain in his legs. “One gets to the point,” Dad explained, “where the pain induces one to not get up from the chair. But I’m still getting up.” Weston invited Dad to walk from the kitchen to his living room reading chair, using his cane and the kitchen counters and the piano top to surf to his destination and to point and fall in his chair. Medical professionals measure balance on a 25-point scale, with 25 being the ideal, and, say, 9 being very concerning. “The goal is not to get you to the ideal of 25,” Weston explained, “but to get you to from 9 to 10, or 12, or 15, to achieve improvement. Improved balance always leads to increased safety.” Dad was not confident he could improve, but promised to give it a try, to do whatever works. I have talked often with my children about improving their life balance, between work, school, church, play, social life, health, exercise, nutrition, and family, and that our balance shifts constantly with our life changes. I balanced my life as well as I knew how when I felt utterly crushed by work and responsibility and church and duty and sickness and keeping food on the table and clothes on their little backs and the bills paid. And at times I teetered and did not balance well. But not for lack of effort: I worked at balance, practiced it, and grew and strengthened and improved. So, I teach them today about balance. Weston taught Dad how to practice and improve his balance by standing in the corner against the walls of a room, with a walker in front, and letting go of both the walls and the walker for seconds at a time, seconds of being supported by nothing but his own balanced strength, knowing he could lean onto the walls or into the walker, wheels braked of course.
I could hear a new voice from upstairs, a raised voice that began with “Hello!” and I knew that Sarah was giving Dad a long talking to. Through Marco Polo I had told her I needed professional advice on how to help Dad, and she had come with resources and with the right tone of voice, the tone of voice Dad learned years ago not to argue with or fight against, the tone of voice that said, This will happen! When I thought the most important declarations had been declared, I thought I ought to join the conversation. “Dad, you won’t ever get better. Getting better is not the goal. That’s the reality of where you are. You should have begun using the walker a year ago, not never. You should have begun using the wheelchair six months ago, not last week. The goal is to keep you safe. It’s time you ordered a motorized wheelchair.” And he did not want to discuss an electric wheelchair. “But Dad, when people see you zipping around in your motorized chair, they will think how young and active and motivated you still are, and how smart. When they see you hanging on Roger and leaning on your cane and stumbling all stooped, they think how old you are and how you’re going downhill and how decrepit you’ve become. The wheelchair is not a humiliation. What you’re doing now is a humiliation. The wheelchair is a tool of triumph, and will extend and improve your life and give you new energy and independence!” And I agreed with every word she said, because they were all true. She was not angry or rude, of course, just insistent that we face our reality and adjust our strategy. She softened her voice: “We’re not ready for you to go, Dad. Your mind is still laser sharp: you read several books a week. We don’t want you to fall. We don’t want you to break an arm or a leg or a hip. We want you to stay safe so you can live in your home for years.” And I agreed with every word she said, because they were all true. Dad knew, too, that she spoke truth, insistent and intractable and loving truth. And he assented. “I’m not ready to go,” he declared. “I will do whatever works.” Home health is coming next week. Physical therapy is coming next week. Occupational therapy is coming next week. Dad’s a fighter, and is not ready to yield the fight. Dad has time yet, years of time, and we are determined to help him live those years.
(Pictured above: Mom and Dad in 2008.)
You can imagine cream-colored carpets gathering dirt during regular big-family events where my siblings and their children and their children’s children gather to eat and talk and sing and eat more and tell stories and play games. Certain high-traffic areas are especially prone to pollution: passages between sofas; recliner curtilages; where the little ones play. Dad has always enjoyed keeping the carpets clean, with his own carpet shampooer that begins with clear water and soap and ends with water dyed black. He brings the carpets back to clean newness. When I came home from work on an evening, I found him pushing the machine with one hand, barely balancing with his cane in the other, grimacing and red, and awkwardly bent at knee and hip, seeming ready to sink at any moment. Seeing a crisis in the making, I stood with my back against the wall, waiting for him to collapse, my body tense and taut and my mind stressed and focused. I do not take over and I do not chide or boss. I wait and watch. But this waiting is far from a passive, peaceful exercise: while the body is poised and still, the energized state of preparedness to pounce in advance of disaster takes a toll. And at church he leans so heavily on my arm as I tip-toe stoically past the pews, waiting again for the trip and fall, or the spontaneous collapse. Whether or not he was ready, for me the time for the wheelchair had come, so we had a talk. I explained that our church mobility method was too stressful for his body, leaving him weak and fatigued for days, and was too stressful for my mind, with his every step an imminent disastrous fall. I confessed to not being mentally sufficiently strong to stop my life’s orbit to stand with my back against the wall and watch him struggle and anguish over once-easy tasks, to stand tense and taut waiting for him to fall, at which moments I want to scream at my impotence and the agony and futility of his struggle. I gave the kindest gentlest ultimatum I knew how: “When we go to church tomorrow, I would like you to use your wheelchair.” It would be much easier for him and for me both, and I would appreciate it. He looked at me, emotionless, then looked into some unseen distance, without a word, and I knew he was wrestling with overwhelming feelings of uselessness and obsolescence and whether the fight were worth the effort. Dad has told me a hundred times, “I’m a fighter!” and his fighting spirit has seen him through many an adversity, has kept his family and his own life going in spite of terrible obstacles. Assaulting Dad’s dignity and dousing the hot ember of his fighting spirit would hasten his demise and would be perhaps my life’s greatest sin. So, I left my ultimatum-turned-plea floating heavily in the silent room, hoping he could find the mental niche that would allow him to use his wheelchair and to still fight on for life. The next morning, he greeted me from his bowl of Cheerios and blueberries with a smile and called out, “Rog! It’s time for church! Grab that wheelchair and start up the Mighty V8!” Hallelujah! sighed my spirit. Glory Hallelujah!
We were here! At the Temple Quarry Trail, for a new adventure, the adventure of the rolling immobile, Mom and Dad guided by myself and my sister Sarah pushing their wheelchairs. I discovered the short asphalt trail when finding my hiking/biking trail which starts from the same trailhead. Availing ourselves of the handicapped parking, and knowing the restroom was there just in case any of us needed it, we set off on the trail, Mom and Dad debuting their “new” used wheelchairs. The trail was paved, but there was nothing flat about it, and I strained, my body slanted to 45 degrees, to muscle the chair and its occupant up the incline. This was the place where a century and a half ago the newly-arrived Latter-day Saints chiseled by hand enormous granite blocks from the mountain as foundation stones for their new Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah. The men worked in pairs, one holding a pointed steel bar, the other striking it with a sledgehammer, the bar man turning the bar a quarter turn, and the sledger striking the bar again, and the turn, and the strike, slowly drilling a hole six inches into the rock. I cannot help but wonder how many arm bones and hand bones and finger bones were shattered by errant blows. After a line of holes had been “drilled,” the mason inserted steel wedges and hammered until the granite broke with a “crack” in a neat line. We could see the wedge holes in the giant slab of rock before us, and we shook our heads in awe at how the rudimentary techniques and tools of the time nevertheless resulted in a gloriously beautiful and sacred structure, a monument to the Living God and a tribute to his humble stonemasons and carpenters and plasterers and painters and tinsmiths and goldsmiths. We pushed on, the river cascading in our ears, the granite mountain soaring overhead, the trees closing in gently over the trail where we pushed our parents. There were their childhood canyons and rivers, their playgrounds and adventure grounds, and now here they were at the ends of their lives able to enjoy again, though differently, the sounds and sights and smells, because of wheeled chairs we all wish they did not need but which make these nature walks possible and pleasurable and safe (presuming one always engages the wheel breaks when letting go of the handles, which as a novice wheelchair facilitator I was careful to do). Then the darkening clouds opened and baptized us with a gentle warm summer shower, and we turned our faces upwards and embraced each raindrop. The Salt Lake Temple was completed and dedicated in 1893, a full forty years after its commencement. The temple foundations stones weighed dozens of tons each, and broke the wagons and exhausted the oxen and foundered the canal boats and finally came more easily when the railroad spur reach the quarry. But these remarkable people built that stunning thing which we call The House of the Lord. The Temple stands strong and tall on its old granite foundation stones, not granite at all, actually, but quartz monzonite, a pretty white with black specks. “White granite” they called it, and I am happy to call it granite, too. We all thought we should roll the Temple Quarry Trail often, to get out of the house, to get into nature, to see the canyon as the seasons change and the gambel oaks and mountain maples and boxelders and wild cherries lose their leaves and the stream slows and freezes and the granite mountain stands as strong and as tall as ever.
In Little Cottonwood Canyon on the Temple Quarry Trail.
(Granite stonemason photo from Getty Images, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
(Salt Lake Temple photo from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
“This reminds me of Brazil!” Mom exclaimed, not so much for the garish lemon-yellow and orange-burnt-umber and royal-blue paints and the grimy broken baseboards and the uncleanable black-and-white-checkered linoleum-square floor, but the for smells and humid heat of fried corn paste and stewed pinto beans and shredded port, and for the smiling brown-skinned servers and the radio trumpets and the humble homemade feel of the place. I had brought Mom and Dad to Carlos’ El Salvadoreño Café, for grilled bean-and-cheese pupusas and cinnamon-rice horchata and fried plantain empanadas with sweet cream for dessert. “Las pupusas se tardan. Por favor tengan paciencia.” Pupusas take time. Please be patient. I knew this from experience, and so we reminisced beneath a blue El Salvadoran flag pinned to the wall. We ordered two pupusas each, but could eat only one-half each—I had forgotten how filling pupusas are—and took the leftovers home for next day’s dinner. I helped Dad walk to the restroom, but the return trip took a bad turn. Even with my arm hoisting under his, his legs suddenly and simply would not move; they began to shake and buckle. A kind and friendly teenage server rushed to buttress Dad’s other arm, and we inched across the restaurant floor. “I don’t feel old,” Dad lamented, “I feel paralyzed.” And I wondered if both were two faces of the same reality. Mom was waiting in the cooling Mighty V8, which I had parked just outside the restaurant door. Despite the struggle, we considered the outing a success. It does Mom good to get out of the house, and it does Dad good to be out with Mom. We may not venture out again, to Carlos’ Café or anywhere else, without a wheelchair, but I am thankful the wheelchair may make further fieldtrips possible, safe, and even enjoyable. My Sunday-night snack of pupusa revuelta, with a slice of hot banana chocolate walnut bread, hit the spot, though I wish I had saved some horchata.
My nephew’s wedding day had finally come. I had worked many hours over several days to make Mom’s and Dad’s back yard—the wedding venue—look beautiful. But as I sat at my circular blue-clothed table listening to the couple exchange their self-customized vows, I wondered at the irony and futility of my work. In other words: not one living soul would have cared if the grass edges had not been string trimmed or if a weed or two had been missed—these would not have dampened anyone’s excited happiness. My parents and my sister appreciated my effort more for the sacrifice and love it expressed than for the merits of the landscaping, and rightly so. For the next event, will I target the same energy toward the venue appearance, or will I focus on weightier matters, like visiting with distant cousins and playing with the grandchildren and preparing heartfelt messages for the celebrants and lessening family burdens? The temperature plunged from 92 degrees the evening before to 53 degrees on the morning of the wedding day, with rain falling all night and all morning. But we tumbled the table cloths in the dryer and the clouds broke in time to warm and brighten the ceremony. Poor Dad could not walk—he could merely lean heavily with both hands on his front-and-center cane and drag each foot forward a few inches, with screwed face and suppressed groans. And that “walking” presupposed an ability to stand from his chair, which he could not. I turned around to see a very-former son-in-law vaunting mock magnanimity by grabbing Dad by limbs and joints and hoisting with humble hubris. But Dad preferred to wait for me, because the two of us together know just how to get the job done, with a heave of my elbow under his armpit to slowly stand, then his arm pretzeled heavily in mine to move across the grass toward the house. The bride looked lovely and confident and serene, despite the morning’s rain and the morning’s drama by some guests who were invited to stay home. And my nephew looked a naturally boyish nervous though he knew the marriage was right and good, and that his bride was the right bride and friend and life companion. Little Gabe, almost four, came jaunting proudly down the center aisle carpet holding up as if for royalty a pillow to which were tied the bouncing rings, lifting them high toward the couple, his uncle and brother, his aunt and sister, who read to him and bathe him and feed him and play games with him before his tired mother returns late from work, for she pays the bills, and the bills must be paid. Before the wedding, he fell and bonked his head and cried more from insult than from pain, wanting the comfort of love over a bag of ice, so I held him in my rocking chair and listened to his very big small-person sadness and fear—he was worried the new couple now would move to a house of their own and leave him alone and lonely. But they will keep their comfortable niche in the family house and continue to be Gabe’s protectors and nurturers until his mom and dad come home from work. Gabe’s head and heart felt better and soothed and he laughed at being tickled and dressed in a three-piece suit and praised. Weddings are not my favorite occasions because I know how much is at stake and how much trouble and pain lie ahead and how awry things can go, and I hope they will make it against the odds, and I hope they can find happiness, together. I always hope for a new couple, for who am I to jinx their joy with my suppressed sense of doom? I am no one, and the doom is a false projection of bad prophecy. We just need to put away our pride, and focus on the other’s happiness and fulfilment and meaning, and trust in life and in the Divine—then we can make it.
(Pictured above: Yours Truly with his two wonderful youngest children at my nephew’s back-yard wedding.)
The wedding is in three days, the last of many weddings and receptions and courts of honor and baby blessings to enliven Mom’s and Dad’s beautiful back yard over two decades, under the big tent. And we are getting ready. Since neither Dad nor I can face yardwork this week, Dad hired a man to string trim and mow the lawn to wedding-standard perfection. But the man’s mower had a flat tire and every pass left high spots on one side and stripes of drying grass on the other. The man promised to come back later after his other jobs, but his truck broke down. So Dad offered to mow the lawn himself (Dad: “I can ride my own mower”), and the man promised to come back tomorrow and string trim (Dad: “but I can’t string trim”). Dad moved on to scrape the peeling garage side access door, prepping for new paint, while I pulled weeds and crab grass in the flower beds—we each lasted half an hour—whereupon we retired to our respective recliners, him for an onion sandwich and me to use my literal lap top to address the latest urgent legal problem that couldn’t (wouldn’t) wait for my recovery. My home office sits above the garage, and the electric rumble of the automatic door motor, embedded in the floor joists of my office, startles me every time. After the door climbed its track today, I heard a woman’s wailing and I bolted barefoot for the garage, racing with the image of Dad dead on the concrete floor and Mom weeping unconsolably over him. But the garage was quiet, and Mom’s car was gone, and Dad was going round two with the door frame—and a branch chipper ground away down the street, sounding every bit the wailing old woman. As my heart settled a bit, I wondered at my paranoid catastrophic jumping to unwarranted conclusions based on some perhaps far-off future. You worry too much! (I know). Brad, a nice neighbor, brought his muscle truck and yellow straps to wrestle the 800-lb. brick knocked over mailbox back into its hole, and Ray wandered over to help, and Darrell, and every car driving by stopped to comment and encourage, but Dad had to watch from his chair, feeling useless, and I chose to watch from my upstairs office window, feeling useless, because I was not going to be the person who gave Brad and Ray and Darrell and Mom and Dad this modern plague of Covid-19 like the giving person who shared it with me in Dallas last week, despite the fancy hep filters and my liberal use of germ killer. I’m just glad Dad was not lying on the concrete floor with Mom wailing, and the wedding can enjoy the celebration it deserves.
Do you know the sound of stainless-steelware clanging on a ceramic tile floor, that ear-thumping clatter that causes a physical cringe and sometimes an annoyed bark or expletive? When I hear that awful sound, I jump up from whatever chair or sofa I am occupying and bend to pick the knife or fork up, because Dad cannot. “The floor is no-man’s land,” he looked at me with a rueful chuckle. He cannot bend to pick up the knife, or the onion ring, or the paper between the Swiss cheese slices, or the potato chip that falls to the floor. “This is such a joke!” he laughs, looking at the butter knife on the floor. But his laugh is all wrapped up in sadness and frustration and a growing discouragement, and his reference to the “joke” is chagrined—not bitter or angry or hateful, rather just recognizing the irony and perhaps cruelty but inevitability of one’s late-life dis-abilities. I am certainly not laughing at this life-joke. Watching his painful struggle for every inch of territory crossed, charting his daily deterioration, pains me into my own sadness and frustration and growing discouragement. It just is no fun to watch a loved one march steadily toward the end of life. The beginning of life brings an entirely different set of challenges, which most toddlers handle with a combination of cheerful enthusiasm and intense determination. I invited two-year-old Lila to help me start the cherry cheesecake by crushing graham crackers inside a zip-loc bag, pounding them with our fists and grinding them with a rolling pin, a smile playing on her whole face from the unanticipated joy of harmless destruction. Lila, and her parents, and my parents, and our neighbors (and myself) vastly enjoyed that cherry cheesecake. I felt pleased with the culinary triumph, though besmeared with the butter in the crust having leaked through the seam of the false-bottomed tart pan and puddled smokily in the bottom of the oven for me to wipe up at night when I was too tired and never wanted to see another cookbook or dirty mixing bowl again. But that weariness will have worn off by tomorrow, and soon I will bake a tarte citron or soufflé au chocolat, which we will all enjoy a bit too much.
The dishwasher door springs both broke and the heavy door slammed down if not snapped securely shut, and with the anchor broken off the washer tipped forward and the dish-laden trays rolled out with a jarring clang. Brian helped me pull the machine out and install the new springs and pulley cords. Tracy helped fashion homemade counter-anchors from common elbow brackets—and they worked! On advice from the Bosch store, I had bought an expensive new dishwasher base, but was relieved to find the old base had a built-in slot for the new springs, and I was spared the chore of disassembling the washer and the exasperation of not being able to see in my mind how to reassemble the parts back into the whole (an annoying life-long intellectual weakness). As it was, You Tube was indispensable, even to replace the springs. I felt thrilled and relieved we had succeeded in fixing the dishwasher, and thanked my Lord the repair was simpler than anticipated. I had not realized the stress and pressure I was putting on myself to get the machine fixed. But then Brian found a pool of water under the kitchen sink, dripping from a filter cartridge seal, dripping down a hole into the cavity above the finished basement, and we could not find the filter wrench. The bowl I placed under the filter filled overnight and spilled again into the dark void in the floor. Following with my eyes the various colored hoses (blue, yellow, red, black, and white), I discerned how to turn off the water to the filter and close the bladder tank valve—and the drip stopped, just in time to leave for church. Staggering with his cane, Dad wondered if today would be his last day walking to our habitual pew near the front. “My legs just won’t work. I’m getting worse.” Post-polio sets in like a heavy dense discouraging fog that never blows or burns off but grows only heavier and denser and more oppressive, and one’s feet become increasingly thick and leaden and mired in an energy-sapping sink. He made it to and from church, today, with help under each arm. Terry asked me how Dad was doing, not needing my response to see the truth, and knowing my unspoken thoughts as he offered, “I have a good wheelchair. I’ll dust it off and bring it over.” I thanked him, and suggested I would come get it so I could sneak it into the house unseen. Dad thinks he likely will skip the walker and go straight from the cane to the wheelchair. After church and rice casserole and a nap, Mom showed me how the DVD player would not respond to the remote or to direct button pushing—it had swallowed the DVD and refused to give it back. She pried the tray open with a serrated Cutco knife, and the tray stuck stubbornly out, appearing much like a dead animal with its tongue lolling. Remembering the no-longer-used basement entertainment equipment, I brought up the old combination VCR/DVD player, made before HDMI technology, and plugged the red, white, and yellow audio/video cords into the TV. With new batteries in the remote, the old machine came to life, functioning correctly and obeying Mom’s commanding button bushes. She was so pleased she decided the moment was right for an episode of NCIS, which she learned was also a favorite of Gabe’s other great-grandparents, the Scotts. The word “surprised” describes my reaction to having fixed three broken appliance problems in two days—generally I am not very handy. I only wish I could fix the only real problem of these four: Dad’s crumbling legs and feet and disintegrating mobility. The best I may be able to do is to push his chair down the aisle at church to sit near our customary pew, on the front row, where space was left for a wheelchair.
The FedEx driver jumped from his parked truck and ran into our front yard. I had checked on Dad twenty minutes earlier as he puttered around the yard with a weeding tool doubling as a cane in one hand, and a folded camp chair serving both as cane and emergency rest station in the other. I bolted from my home office and found Dad sitting in his chair, in the park strip, calmly watching the busy Pepperwood traffic go by. “The driver helped me get to my chair,” he commented, telling me how he had again pushed past the limits of his strength and found himself hugging the sweetgum tree, too weak to stand, too weak to make it to his chair fifteen feet away, trembling violently. “I don’t know my limits until I have passed them!” Dad explained. The FedEx driver had walked him to his chair, where he now sat comfortable and calm, as if no crisis had occurred. I was not there when he needed me—and I cannot always be there when he needs me—but someone else was, and that is sufficient. No matter his state of exhaustion, Dad manages to ride the mower. “I’m just sitting,” he insists stubbornly, and I do not argue. With fertilizer applied, the sprinklers fixed and adjusted, and warm spring days, the grass is thick and green and growing fast. Cooking that evening, wearing my apron, I took a break to sit with Mom and watch the sunset. An enormous pile of cut grass in the front yard caught my attention. Dad had found the strength to dump it and mow on, but was too weak to bag it. I asked Mom when the sprinklers would come on. “Now,” she said. That pile of grass would be infinitely messier to pick up soaked with water, so I jumped out of my chair and grabbed a can and tools, running without shoes onto the lawn. I scooped up the grass with a snow shovel and filled the can, too heavy to lift. Dad had joined us while I scooped, and called out, “Just drag the can.” I imagine I was quite a sight, still in my dress shirt and tie, wearing a kitchen apron, sporting brightly striped socks, frantically scooping grass into a can with an orange snow shovel. Sprinkler heads popped up and sprayed me just as I reached the driveway, dragging the heavy can. My cooking called me back into the kitchen. Stanley Steamer had come earlier in the day to shampoo all the carpets, which were still wet, so I wiped my socks clean of grass and dust to not soil the newly-cleaned carpets. Dad told us after dinner that he could not find one of his hearing aids. In the dark the next morning, I slid his recliner from the kitchen back into its customary spot on the now-dry carpet, and searched the cracks of his recliners. I found the lost hearing aid on the kitchen table, and left the pair in a glass cup for him to find when he wandered down for breakfast. Despite another day’s mishaps and adventures, all was well as I drove off to work.
A pair of Mallard ducks dozing happily on the front lawn, waiting for the sprinklers to come on.
“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.