Don’t tell him about the big leak, I exhorted myself. Victor will fix it on Monday. But Dad is home, at the end of a month of hospitalization and rehabilitation, and will want to know why Victor is digging up the back yard. So, I told him, at the end of his first day home, and that Victor and I knew exactly the problem, and it would be fixed on Monday. Dad is home. He drove his power wheelchair slowly up the smooth and sturdy ramps on a 5:1 slope, drove his chair through the front door and into the house and directly to his recliner. “Those ramps are great, Rog. Smooth and sturdy, and perfect.” In his institution rooms, after the visitors had left, he stared at the ceiling through the long nights, fighting off loneliness and despondency. Daily daytime visits from family and former missionaries and church members—and especially from Mom—had injected him with love and with hope, had fortified him against the dark nights. In his recliner, he gazed slowly around the room, taking in the familiar surroundings, which looked different now, somehow, feeling an immense swelling gratitude for “every window and wall,” for the heavy scrolled wood dining table and hutch that he and Mom had bought in 1975 for $700 from a newly-divorced mother who need cash, now, and for the painting by Greason of a pre-industrial French countryside at dusk, for the many lamps that light his late-night reading, for the windows and chairs, for the front-door which had opened for his return, for Mom’s needlepoint of Noah and his wife and the animals and the ark, and for the kitchen counter laden with fresh fruit, the gratitude of survivors, of soldiers who nearly lost, but somehow managed to not, life’s latest battle, finding everything the same, but different, seeing with the eyes of someone returning home from war. So, I did not want to tell him how I had begun to suspect a sprinkler problem, when pressures dipped, and when Station 7 was dry, and knew for sure when I stepped in two inches of water in the back yard, and saw the mat of grass rising, floating on the pond growing underneath, and turned the valve to off. But I chose a good moment, and told him, and he was glad Victor was coming on Monday to fix it. His hospital bed arrived in time to learn to raise the head and knees, to raise the whole bed, and to make the bed with sheets and blankets, and to add to the décor the laminated magazine page with the painting of Jesus which he had taped to the rehabilitation bed floorboard, which visage, together with the afterglow of the visits, helped him endure intact the interminable nights. Sarah made him motor down the ramps for a walk in the cool darkness of the autumn evening, and then back up, praising again my solid and sturdy ramps. He looked at me with a twinkle and vowed, “I’m going to climb the stairs”—and I said we were going to have a conversation about that (in other words, no, you’re not)—“but not today.”
Sarah introduced me to Jennifer, who explained the caregiver services her staff will provide every morning from 9:30 to 11:30, seven days a week—help Dad get out of bed, get showered and dried and dressed, get his Cheerios-and-blueberry breakfast, get him settled in his recliner with the newspaper and his books, wipe down the shower, empty and clean the commode, take out the trash, wash the dirty clothes, clean up after breakfast, prepare his lunch for later, help him pull weeds and trim bushes, get him ready for church on Sundays, and carry on conversation. Your staff will do all that for him? “Sparking lives” is what her company pledges—helping Dad find the “spark” in a life heavy with deepening disability. My own heaviness eased a bit with the hope of burdens shared. Mom has been Dad’s spark these long weeks, spending hours with him every single day, smuggling hamburgers and fries, reading Trivial Pursuit questions, listening to his complaints and discomforts, patting and rubbing his hands, kissing him good-night, and calling “Good-night, Dear” on her way out the door every night. I do not recall ever seeing Mom and Dad kiss as I was growing up, or later, or now. But she has insisted on delivering to her husband a tender and definite kiss on the mouth every night. Jeanette and Sarah and Carolyn and Megan have been sparks of pleasant light with their frequent visits, bringing comfort and cheer and strength and love. I hope cooking nice dinners will sparkle their days, meals they can look forward to and enjoy. Dad’s last two dinners at the rehab facility—if one can call them meals at all—consisted of two bologna and cheese sliders one night, and two boiled hot dogs on buns the next. Having enjoyed a clandestine bacon-burger shortly before dinner, Dad ate only one hot dog, and gave the other to Mom, which she wrapped in a paper towel and lodged in her purse for later. Cooking starts tomorrow because Dad comes home tomorrow; not that I did not cook for Mom—we enjoyed steamed vegetables and hard-boiled eggs many evenings—light, simple, and healthy meals (making allowance for bowls of chocolate after-dinner ice cream). For Dad to ride his power wheelchair from the van into the house, I needed to supply wheelchair ramps, two to hurdle the porch and one to access the drop-step living room. No suitable ramps could be had on KSL Classifieds or on Facebook Marketplace or at Harbor Freight—all suggested to me by the wheelchair supplier—and I refused to spend $559 each from the grab bar vendor—so I resolved to make the ramps myself. I sketched a simple design and made a materials list. With no workshop of my own, I appreciated Lowe’s for cutting my lumber to specs at no additional cost. I assembled the ramps at home, pushing through moments of tool-frustration and self-doubt, and they are sturdy and smooth and precise. If Dad wants, we can paint over the bare plywood later. For now, when he comes home, he will be able to motor himself from the transport van (Sarah is his chauffeur) into the house, able to reach every corner of the ground floor. He can read as long as he wants in his living room recliner, and then motor himself to his hospital bed. But if wants to go upstairs to his own room and bed, his familiar comfortable bed, the deadline for his staircase climb will be 10 p.m. sharp.
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.)
At church I was besieged by men and women asking me “How’s your dad?” and asking Mom “How’s Nelson?” and the judgmental part of me—a too-big portion—wanted to say that if they really cared they would telephone personally (not text) or stop by the house, make some kind of effort, instead of waiting until we are sitting in church, preparing for the service, to dart in and nibble on the news like a tame piranha on a fried chicken leg. But I look into their eyes and see their love and sincerity, and I answer their questions—Dad is getting a little stronger and we hope to bring him home next weekend—and I ask my God and my Lord to both forgive me my trespasses. After all, church is our social center, and our cultural conditioning makes us most comfortable making inquiries at church. We tell them we have rearranged Dad’s office-library into a bedroom, and that the hospital bed is scheduled for delivery next Saturday morning, but we made room for one bookshelf with his favorite religion books and histories and biographies. And I do not tell them (nor did I tell Mom or Dad) that the insurance company gave us notice they were going to release (evict) Dad yesterday, though he cannot yet care for himself at home, and that Sarah appealed the typical too-early discharge (eviction), and won the appeal and an extra week’s therapy and care. I did not tell Mom and Dad because it would have upset them needlessly, what with the pending appeal becoming the approved appeal, mooting the whole question, the threatened early departure suddenly irrelevant. Dad is still very unwell, and though he tells the world he is “marvelously well, thank you,” he whispers to us he is still so sick. Mom will visit Dad today for the 18th consecutive day, and I am her driver, in her royal blue Subaru Legacy. But first Burke has stopped by in his new BMW convertible to take Mom for a spin through the neighborhoods, the wind in her white hair, her hands raised high as they take off with a muscly roar down the street, and I feel grateful for the Burkes of the world, who look out for the little people, whether driving BMWs or Subarus or Fords.
(Pictured above, Dad’s office-library turned bedroom, awaiting the hospital bed, with room still for his computer desk and one very full bookshelf.)
One might suppose that Dad, as a rule, feels good about his life, for whenever anyone asks him How are you? he responds, “I’m marvelously well, thank you.” Living so close to him as I have, I know this response to be a well-studied lie. How can he truthfully lie helpless in his hospital bed and truthfully represent himself as being marvelously well? Not for several decades did I realize that Dad is not necessarily doing well all the time, and at times might be feeling great distress, and that his rote response manifests an intentional positivity in the face of serious adversity. Mike, the physical therapist, brisked into the room with a How are you today, Nelson? And Dad whispered hoarsely, I’m marvelously well, thank you. Continue reading
Dad tore the glossy page from the Church magazine (the Liahona) and had Mom tape it to the wall of Dad’s rehab center room. But in the shadow of the armoire, the painting hung disappointingly obscured. “I made a mistake, Rog,” he mourned. “I can’t see Him. I should have left the picture in the magazine.” Without asking, I simply removed the picture from the wall and taped it to the armoire door, in the room’s full light, and Dad’s face lit up with pleasure and relief. “That’s so much better. Thank you, Rog.” The picture was a reproduction of Dad’s favorite painting of Jesus, who Dad adores and knows as his personal Savior and Friend. “You know, Dad, people are praying for you, in the name of Jesus, all over the world.” I listed some of the locations where friends and families assured me they were praying for Dad, and for Mom, including in the Church’s sacred temples: Utah, New Jersey, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Illinois, Virginia, California, and Texas; Cardston, Alberta, Canada; Brazil and Portugal. Next door and down the street. Larry texted me: “I just paused and offered up a prayer for your dad, your mom, and you. Please let them know we love them.” And at church, numerous people have shown genuine concern, and have reassured us with, “Nelson is in our prayers.” Hundreds of people are praying from the soul spaces of love and faith, in the name of the Divine, for Dad. I have felt too fatigued to pray much formally, to kneel and bow and form words in the normal pattern. Some would say I do not pray. But I do. I am a walking prayer, a driving prayer, a working prayer, a mealtime prayer, a mountain bike prayer, a hospital bedside prayer. At night, too tired and heavy to remain vertical, I contemplate the ceiling from my bed and open my heart and mind to the Divine, casting my will upward, not really caring if I connect, but just opening myself and giving myself to Whoever orders the vast Universe, offering up what little I have to give, giving thanks that Christ’s Kingdom continues coming, giving thanks for the privilege of being a small part of the Kingdom’s growing, using no words, being simply a willing consciousness. “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire / Uttered or unexpressed.” (See Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, #145. Text by James Montgomery, 1771-1854.)
They came from Texas to Utah, and wanted to stop by the rehab center and see Dad. They had met each other in 1972 in São Paulo, Brazil, and had met Dad then, too, when they were 21 and he was 36, the President of the Brazil South Central Mission, their President. They were serving as volunteer youth missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (misnomered “Mormons”), preaching the Gospel of Jesus and of faith and repentance and baptism and of Christ’s Church restored in 1820 through the prophet Joseph Smith. They met me, too, in 1972, but I was only eight. I had met Steve and Dorothy and the others many times at mission reunions in Mom’s and Dad’s basement great room, with their name tags and paunches and gray hair (or no hair), with a taste for mousse de maracujá (passion fruit mousse) and guaraná (Brazilian soft drink) and feijoada (Brazil’s black-bean stew), and with love in their hearts for Mom and Dad and for the people of Brazil, and with still-vivid memories of their formative experiences with a benevolent personal living God. Dad served a mission to Brazil in the 1950s. I accepted a mission call to Portugal in 1983. And my children were sent to Oklahoma and Florida and South Korea and Mozambique and Brazil. Missionary service is not compulsory in my Church, but every young man and woman is invited to serve. We dedicated two years of our time, energies, and resources to share our convictions about God’s plan for the eternal happiness of humanity. Covid-19 ended Mom’s and Dad’s annual reunions, and we felt a new emptiness, one of numerous new voids compelled by the pandemic. But Larry emailed the group, and a Zoom mission reunion was conceived. Mom and Dad sat at their kitchen table, looking at my laptop screen, as dozens of thumbnails popped up, of their beloved former missionaries, with whom they had labored, with whom they had been reviled, with whom they had formed strong bonds of caring, who now listened as Dad declared his convictions, evoked their common tender memories, and expressed to them his love (as did Mom). And at the click of an icon they were gone, and we sat on the sofas, Mom and Dad and me, and reminisced about Brazil, and about how at mission reunions I had led them all in the old Caymmi songs: Maracangalha (1957): a young man so excited to attend a party in the next town; Coqueiro de Itapoã (1959): a youth missing the sand and the waves and the coconut palms and the beautiful morenas of Itapoã.
The pace of progress crawls and stalls, and we wonder at times if there is any hope for his healing or merely the painful prolonged waiting for the inevitable end. “I don’t know if your dad will ever be able to come home again,” Mom softly wept to me, bravely facing possibilities of future truth. In the skilled nursing facility, Dad wondered similar thoughts, whether he would ever leave his hospital bed, if his suddenly imprisoned legs would ever find a measure of old freedom. For non-medicals like me, “auto immune response” is a vague and strange euphemism for individual internal corporal civil war, the body’s immune system besieging and dismantling other vital systems and organs it is meant to protect. He sits in a reclining bed unable to do anything but to exist, and to think long about life, and to sleep. He wakes from post-visitor exhaustion and is so relieved to find Jeanette still in his room, at night, and reaches for her reassuring hand to squeeze before she leaves. “I’m so glad you’re here. I feel very sad. I wonder if there is any hope of ever getting better.” Though aged 87, he does not feel old. He says he is not ready to go. “Well, Dad, we must find something to hope for,” I remarked, like knowing that with a power wheelchair he will have full and easy run of the main floor, most importantly of fridge and pantry—that is something to hope for—and knowing that in his power wheelchair he can roam the yard with his hoe and rake and weed-picker and work in the yard as long as he wishes—that is something to hope for—and knowing that he can back his reclining wheelchair into his recliner rocker space, under his white spindle lamp, under his favorite French countryside painting, with his books and mixed nuts and sugar-free chocolate chips and a tall glass of ice water—that is something to hope for—and knowing that if he works as hard as his feeble body can work to regain some little strength, he can leave the hospitals and facilities and centers, he can come home, for however much time is left—that is something to hope for—and knowing that though the world may no longer think it needs his strength and wisdom, he remains very much needed by his sweetheart and his children and his grandchildren and his expanding posterity who all look to him with adoration and tenderness—that is something to hope for, both for you and for me—because I need something to hope for, too.
Vases of aromatic garden flowers. A gallon of two-percent milk. Enormous sweet grapes on a plate. Crayon-colored cards for dear Brother Baker from Church primary children who don’t know who he is but still care. Burger King Whopper and fries: Mom’s favorite. Rides to the hospital from women who know the way well—a beloved son with bacterial meningitis; a husband who fell from a second-story ladder; an amputation gone wrong—and visiting along the way. Baked chicken salad wrapped in puff pastry. Soups and a salad. Giant chocolate chip muffins. A man on a bicycle checks my sprinkler leak, and will get back to me. Chocolate-caramel brownies—oh my. Our names prayed over in temples across the world. Smiles, and waves, and inquiries: How’s Nelson? Well-wishes. A quiet house. Love, and hope for tomorrow.
Visiting hours are 9 to 9, which seems quite generous. The other rule, however, is not. Only two visitors at a time. Despite the three-person couch and other chairs and the spacious room. So, my saintly 83-year-old mother, who has gone to the hospital for eight days straight, must leave her sick husband’s side for two neighbors, or two siblings, or two children, or two grandchildren to visit. Or Mom stays in the room and only one other visitor is permitted. I had seen the rule on signs in the elevator, nursing station, and the patient room doors. But since none of the staff had troubled us over three visitors, or four, for five consecutive days, and since we are quiet, peaceful, clean, and helpful people, I thought perhaps the hospital did not mind so much. Not so. On day six Big Meanie nurse instructed all but two family members to leave. It’s IMC’s rule. I did not argue or accuse or abuse, but I did inquire, in an effort to understand, and to explore flexibility. Did it make a difference that I am Dad’s attorney in fact and have his advanced directive in my briefcase? I’m sorry, but no. Did it change things if I am the authorized physician contact for when the doctors stop by to explain their diagnostic and treatment efforts? No. What about the fact that we are all Covid-19 vaccinated and boosted? No. Did it make a difference if immediate family were gathered bedside to perform my Church’s religious ceremony of invoking the power of faith and pronouncing a blessing of health and healing on the sick? No, and that isn’t the case here anyway. Well, it was the case when Dad’s three siblings and their spouses, and my brother and sister and me, gathered around him to give him such a blessing. A beautiful thing for loving, spiritual family to do, perhaps the last opportunity to do such a thing for Dad, to offer this expression of faith and hope and love, and perhaps of good-bye. Did you know that we have been very helpful to the nursing and therapy staff, adjusting the bed angle and height, feeding Dad, sponging him off, helping slide him head-ward when he had slipped down the sloping mattress, brushing his teeth, shaving his chin, helping him stand, pivot, transfer, use the toilet, take a seated shower, stand, pivot, transfer back to the bed? For all her strength and grace and experience, Heather could not have done it all without us, and thanked us for our contribution and learned expertise. So, I left Dad’s room and walked down the hall to sit uselessly on a cracked and stained sofa, where I could not help or comfort or observe. I felt angry at the rule, and thought it inhumane—a bureaucratic pronouncement out of context. (I learned later that the two-visitor limitation was not IMC policy, which was, instead: Maximum number of visitors at the bedside is determined at the discretion of the care team. Discretion was allowed, after all.) I felt angry at Big Meanie nurse who enforced the rule so militantly. And after two days she went off shift and the familiar smiling nursing staff welcomed us all back to be helpful and complimentary and appreciative. To be present. For our father. For each other.
(Photo from intermountainhealthcare.org, use pursuant to the fair use doctrine.)
The text came at 2:32 a.m. “I am sick. Siiiiiick.” Vomiting. Chills. Sweats. Body Aches. Withering weakness. He thought it might be food poisoning from the cold cuts or hard-boiled eggs sitting in the hospital cafeteria cartons for who know how long. Or a bug. Either way, he was down for the count. The next night, Mom threw up, but she did not get sick, just a bit tired. I drove Steve to the airport Sunday morning, glad he was better, glad Mom did not get sick, glad I had escaped. But about 2:45 a.m. the next night the scene replayed itself, and I was siiiiiick. I was useless to the world, no help to anyone. I just hunkered down under the covers, chugged Pepto Bismol, slept, tried to watch movies, tried to stay hydrated, tried to keep the family abreast, tried to stay abreast. The hospital had sent us home with a norovirus. A gift. A joke. Sarah has held down the hospital fort, with Carolyn and Megan for company, even though her own father-in-law passed away in-between-times. She goes back to work tomorrow, at the facility to which Dad will be moved, perhaps tomorrow. Jeanette flies in the next day to take a long shift. We are all managing, if barely. And it is enough.
“It’s a joke!” Dad has said to me many times. He drops something on the floor and stares at it, unable to bend to pick it up. “It’s a joke!” He relies on Mom to pull on his socks and pant legs, to straighten his shirt collar and do up the buttons. “It’s a joke!” The push mower pulls him faster than he can follow and he falls, but not, of course, until he has reached the concrete driveway. “It’s all a big joke!” I have never thought these jokes particularly funny, but I can certainly recognize the ironies. And at the hospital he found new things to declare a joke, like when he couldn’t hold his spoon and we fed him his mashed potatoes and meatloaf. A joke. And the newest: radiculitis. Encephalitis, as I understand it, is a swelling of the brain. Meningitis, they tell me, is a swelling of the membranes protecting the brain and spinal column. They are dangerous and painful, caused by invading vectors, bacteria or virus. They can kill you. But all of Dad’s spinal fluid tests were negative for both. Had the cause been bacteriological, antibiotics would have been the treatment. Had the cause been viral, merely time and careful attention. Now a new theory, the meningitis and encephalitis are not caused from the outside, but from the inside, from some internal mechanism creating the inflammation in the membranes and nerves, radiating out from the central nervous system. Radiculitis. “Guess what?” Dad quipped. “I have ridiculitis! It all a joke! Ridiculous! My central nervous system is trying to kill me! A big joke!” And he laughed. I was glad he could summon the mental and physical wherewithal to laugh. They injected strong steroids for three days, and he began to move again, and raise his legs and feet, and feed himself, and engage intellectually and coherently with the physicians and therapists. And to be willful and stubborn again.
I made the mistake of characterizing Steven’s help as heroic. With a look of alarm, he disclaimed any hint of heroism. Even before his reaction, I realized that “heroic” was not the right word. “You’re a hero” is a lazy cliché, and I should have made an effort to find more accurate words. He supplied them for me: “I was just glad to have been useful.” I had watched him use his own feet to move Dad’s feet up the stairs and across the room to the bathroom or bed. I had watched him help Dad shower in the hospital, passing dallops of soap to Dad’s own hands, and washing Dad’s inaccessible extremities. Nurse Chloe had gently adhered special heel bandages because Dad’s heels pressing into the mattress, hour upon hour, day after day, had begun to blister his skin, and we worried the tissue would die from insufficient circulation. And she had wrapped his feet and ankles in foot-shaped pillows to further reduce diabetic risk. And my brother had used sanitary wipes to scrub Dad’s soiled shoes clean and white and like new. He certainly had been useful, indispensable even. And that is what sons and daughters ought to be in their parents’ old age: not heroes, but servants. Useful. Doing what needs to be done. Meaning well while acting in all their weakness. And they were. And I naturally thought of another servant who washed out the stains and washed the feet and set the example for us all. Steven flew home today, a home far away—and when people tell me I’m heroic, now, I demur, and reply that I am just glad to have been useful.
Photo above: a fresh bouquet today for Mom from a neighbor Church member.
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.
Three sons and their wives and children and a brother and sisters converged for the holiday weekend on “Grandma and Grandpa’s house” where I live. They slept on sofas and air mattresses and foam pads and emptied the closets of sheets and blankets and towels. They devoured Dad’s supply of sliced ham and Swiss, which pleased him immensely. John had called to tell me he and Alleigh were bringing peaches from Pettingill’s Fruit Farm, and how many did I want, a whole box-full or a half. I opted for the whole box (a half bushel) because one can never have too many fresh ripe peaches in one’s home on a holiday weekend with family. I would give him the $30 when they arrived, I said. But they would not let me pay, announcing the peaches as their gift for the weekend. We enjoyed peaches and cream, peaches and almond milk, peaches on cold cereal, peaches in oatmeal, peaches blended in fruit smoothies, and peaches plain. Mom and Dad were good sports to have their quietude disrupted with happy energy and noise. And they joyed to be with three great-grandchildren. Lila carried around a big sunflower from the vase. Gabe ran through the sprinkler in 102 degrees F. And Henry, teething and drooling, always chewing on some toy or other, and babbling and gurgling like babies do, with occasional excited squeals. And my sons laughing and tossing corn-hole beanbags—how happy I am they are friends. Living with Mom and Dad, I think of myself as a son, not a grandfather—Dad is “Grandpa,” not me. But this grandpa worked hard to coax smiles out of the seven-month-old cherub. Helping Dad down the stairs, keeping a mortal fall at bay with a taught sling around his chest from behind, we heard Henry jabbering from downstairs. “Is that little Henry?” Dad chuckled. “It’s just so fun to hear his little voice.” Here was this old man straining to step down the stairs, and this little boy just beginning to figure out the world, each on the move. Dad pointed and fell into his recliner, and we brought him Henry, who as if on cue lighted up in a big smile for great-grandpa. When people are grown up and gone and I think of Labor Day weekend 2022, I will remember Dad’s tenuous stair descent, and the sounds of Henry’s brain growing and mouth teething and grinning and voice babbling and gurgling, and Dad’s rueful chuckle across four generations, and the box-full of gift peaches, juicy and aromatic.
(Pictured above: four generations of Bakers.)
Fear burned in my body as we launched our tiny boats onto the vast fast water, a strong wind whipping up whitecaps and magnifying the rapids. My efforts at control were no match for the frightful power of the deep current, the churning eddies, the rocks and rapids. On a mountain bike, fear skids me out of my flow, and I tense and hit every rock and cut short the curving berms, and feel close to crashing. Now, on this huge current of water, I am stiff and afraid and not having a good time at all. Fear affects the quality of my experience, always. But I remembered the dusty trails and the times I had found the flow and had raced fearless and free and skilled down the mountain. Intense. Joyful. And I relaxed now on the water, feeling my tiny boat in the groove of the current, feeling my tiny boat bob humbly and determinedly through the rapids, feeling the effects of each nuanced paddle stroke. Fear had turned to fun, and John and I called to each other, two men, connected, seeking happiness and truth, one older and the other young, one a father and the other his son, calling excitedly to each other about the water’s power and surprise. Benefitting from a little experience, I settled into competence and enjoyment and the intense focus of joining with the colossal headlong course of the river. We were coming to understand each other now, the malevolence and panic were gone, and neither was a threat to the other—we rushed together toward some distant sea.
An enormous diversion structure seemed to dam the enormous river, straight ahead, and I could imagine getting sucked into some deadly sluice or turbine or chute. That fear again. The structure obscured the river curving invisibly and sharply to the right. My son flipped his boat on the brink of a very shallow spillway that tricked us both into thinking it was the correct river course. I pivoted my kayak to look and paddle upstream, a ridiculous effort in the incontestable current, like whistling in a hurricane. Before it was too late, and I was crushed and drowned in the diversion, I needed to get off the river, now, and found an eddy and a willow bush by the bank. John came carrying his kayak, and I announced that I would not brave what was coming without knowing exactly what I was braving, without studying the thing up close and planning our way through. So, we pushed through thick brush, hundreds of burs sticking to my gloves and pants, thistle spikes stinging my legs—this was what John called shwacking (short for “bushwhacking”; adj. “shwacked”). And, finally, we stood at the point and saw the big harmless diversion structure and studied the frightening current of the river curve with its rapids and lateral waves that gleefully would tip a tiny boat. And we talked through how we would hug the bank to the point and turn the kayaks hard and chute the center of the rapid, away from the capsizing laterals. And we shwacked back to the boats and launched with trepidation but also with the courage born of knowledge and preparation. And we hugged the bank and rounded the bend and ran the rapid and defied the swamping waves and skirted the eddy, and we looked back and at each other with smiles, wondering what all the worry had been about, ready to do it again.
Every day I shwack through politics and arguments and deceits. I shwack through relationships and confrontations and responsibilities. I shwack through court records and divorce decrees and dating apps. And burs weigh me down by the millions and nettles slice my skin and dust reddens my eyes and I bruise my shins on fallen tree trunks as I shwack through to my observation points. The current is compellingly strong. Running the rapid is required. There is no possibility of portage. I must go through to beyond. So, I hug the bank and pivot the stern and slingshot through the rapids. And I make it through.
(Pictured above: Yours Truly with my awesome son John.)
“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.
“So what does the caregiver do for self-care,” Kristine asked me, and I was stumped. All my possible answers sounded stupid. Watch episodes of Disney’s Obi-Wan and Marvel’s What If. Write posts for this platform. Bake bread and cakes and cookies (and eating them). Check Facebook and WordPress and Instagram and Gmail. But her question is one that begged to be asked, and one I would do well to search carefully for answers. I know I have several built-in barometers that warn me of high-pressure storm systems in the forecast, of high winds and flash floods and booming lightning and sinkholes. The first is the profanity barometer. Not that I am a profane or indecent person, and not that I cuss at people or the world or God. Rather, I have discovered a direct correlation between by levels of emotional distress and my swearing under my breath at any little inconvenience, like dropping a paper clip at work or spilling on my favorite shirt. The second is the compulsive eating barometer. I doubt that one ever conquers hunger, but I have made real inroads: I lost 40 pounds through fasting, portion control, soda abstinence, and sweet avoidance. I have discovered a direct correlation between levels of emotional distress and my compulsive eating, usually of chocolate covered almonds or Jordan almonds or lemon yogurt almost (what is it with almonds?)—but muffins and cookies and breads and other sweets will do in a pinch. But sometimes fasting seems like a sugar-free marathon. I feel disgusted with myself for such a lack of discipline and for having put back on ten of the old pounds. Much of my distress comes from the perpetual pressures of caregiving, some from adding long work days to caregiving, some from adding a long commute to long work days. And, no doubt, significant distress has come from having signed up for that dating app and corresponding with several women at once and the labor of making new friends and the terror of dating and that most exhausting of questions What next? “So how does Roger care for Roger?” she asked. Well, I am not sure, but I am writing this entry (does that count?), and I will arise at 6:00 a.m. to ride the stationary bike and read N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus and leave for work without eating and listen to the birthing pains of the Civil Rights movement and respond to other people’s emergencies all day and drive home at rush hour and ask Mom and Dad about their day and cook another dinner and wash the dishes and search for hidden chocolate covered almonds and watch another episode of What If? and get to bed too late only to start it all over again tomorrow. Whatever. In any event, I feel too tired to worry about self-care tonight.
(Photo is of cherry chocolate chip bread baked yesterday.)
Another Saturday morning. Time for the critical yardwork, the kind one does not do every week, but does as-needed to manicure the grounds. As clouds heavy on the mountain darkened, I shaped the bushes, clipped their low runners, collected hundreds of twigs the arborist left behind in the bushes, and trimmed the dead branches out of the dwarf pines—we thought the pines were dying, but the dead belonged to just one spreading branch. Rain began to fall, pleasant, a summer shower. How nice, I sighed after a week of high-90s temperatures. Though I had finished the most important chores, I removed my hat and found other chores: I wanted to stay in the cool wet grayness. If I were to lie down on the grass, every passerby would stop to see if I were dead, so I reclined behind the brick wall, on bark chips, and would have been under the pear canopy but for the aggressive arborist, and now looked up into a uniform gray blur. I became aware of the raindrops gently tapping every inch of my body. I giggled to myself as raindrops tickled my upper lip, where I once had a mustache, and, in the decades that followed, every Roger that saw the old Roger pictures thought the mustachioed Roger look ridiculous. And I chuckled at how my closed eyelids blinked involuntarily with every drop that found them. Receiving the delicate moist massage, I felt my tension melt away. A vague worry came to me about what Mom would think if she saw me lying on the ground in the rain—she would think I was dead, and might call 911. I entered the house dirty but cheerful and relaxed, and called out a casual “Hi Mom!” She, indeed, had seen me lying motionless on the ground in the rain, and had wondered if I were dead or hurt or sick, and had resolved to brave the rain to check on me after just a few minutes more had passed. “We need milk, and I need poster board for my weekly schedule,” she mentioned. And I needed curry powder and cream, for French cooking. At Smith’s, I rode the electric cart from the store entrance to Dad, who waited at the car, and I wondered what people might think seeing me ride when no impediment to walking was visible, and I contemplated the nature of unjust judgment. Dad called out in the produce department, “Rog, do you think we need some grapefruit?” How endearing for my father to begin every pronouncement with my name, until at the 117th daily instance I slip into serious irritation. My answer was to grab a bag and move toward the grapefruit. “Don’t get any squishy ones,” he admonished. In a fraction of a second I thought, In the year I have lived with you I have never brought home a squishy grapefruit, in fact in my whole life I have never brought home a squishy grapefruit, and do grapefruit even get squishy? I did not roll my eyes or glare of quip, I simply handed him a grapefruit, then two more. “This one’s good.” “Okay.” “That one will do.” For dinner I fried turkey patties, and mashed steamed parsnips, a most aromatic tuber, mixing them with a tablespoon of butter, a quarter cup of cream, a sprinkle of salt, and a healthy pinch of nutmeg.
I sat in my car in the driveway facing west toward the Oquirrh mountains, toward Tooele, toward where I have poured out my life’s energies to protect the little town. Dear God, I thought somewhat desperately, I am off into the world again to do my little part and to make my little contribution, and wondered if I could do this another day and another month and another year and feeling so tired. A tiny hummingbird swooped down deliberately and recklessly and precisely from over the tree canopy to hover at tall red penstemons, darting its beak into the flowers where I knew the tiny pink tongue was licking at nectar. If that little bird in this big big world can swoop down from the sky its tiny glorious fragility, maybe I can go forth another day after all. And I put the car in gear and rolled out of the driveway. Mom and Dad sat in their camp chairs in the driveway looking west to the sinking sun as I backed into my spot in the driveway after work. The day was a Wednesday, my weekly twelve-hour day. I sat with them and explained how I was investigating a discrimination allegation and preparing a new zoning ordinance and drafting a tricky contract, and how I would like their permission to call the home health company and express my disappointment in their brusque behavior, their dearth of skills training, their disappearance after two meager visits—but Mom and Dad did not want the fight. I have decided that I am not willing to fight battles they themselves do not want to fight and do not want me to fight—I opt to respect their opinions and their emotional energy—and I do not want to incur Dad’s displeasure, again. Besides, he had derived some benefit from the home health debacle: we purchased furniture risers that lifted the sofa three inches; we raised his recliners three inches with double two-by-fours; we now owned a sock aid (that he tried successfully with his biggest loosest pair of tall thick black socks), a long-handled shoe horn, a dressing stick for pulling on pants and shirts and pushing off socks and shoes, a new cane with a wide gripping foot, and grabbers for picking fallen objects up from the “no man’s land” of the floor. Now Dad just needs to practice—practice will bring expertise, which will bring greater independence. Mom had the tree service come, and I now looked toward the five decorative fruitless pear trees, in the spring gloriously green and full, now looking like corpses missing limbs. The trees would grow back with relish and beauty next spring, the man assured Mom and Mom now assured me. When I prune trees, I follow the rule of thirds: never prune more than one third of a tree at one time so as not to shock the tree. These trees now were missing half their limb length and 80 percent of their leaves, with the 100-degree heat wave still blasting in August. I hope they live. Dinner would be late again tonight. I feel so tired of cooking, and I only reluctantly voice the question, “What should we have for dinner tonight?” My vim for fancy French meals has vanished, though I bring them out once every month or two. The French menu has regressed to fish sticks and hash brown patties. Or grilled bratwurst. Or grocery store pot pies. Or chicken tenders. They all are tasty, and we enjoy them, but my waistline is growing for the lack of discipline and planning. At least I always add a green vegetable or two, and we are in season for corn on the cob. Winding down dinner at the kitchen table, I spy the male hummingbird on the feeder, his black head and black-bead eyes merging into his black needle beak, and I remembered that I can do this.
Lila has come to spend the weekend with Mom and Dad and me. Being only two (almost three), she brought her parents along. I did not mind because I like them, too, in addition to her. “Come play Legos, Gwumpa Waja,” she sing-songed, and I sat by her little pajamaed body while we pieced together the bricks and sorted marbles by color. Lila dragged me over to the neighbor’s to push her on the swing with the blue seat. My sweetest memories of the last year include visiting my three grandchildren in Kentucky, Arizona, and Texas, now in Utah, Idaho, and Illinois. Their smiles and laughs and cuddles banish fear and distress and fill me with feelings of love and tenderness. With Lila here, however, at Mom’s and Dad’s house where I live, I find the generations confused, or mixed, in that I am both a grandfather and a child, the “Grandpa” of my children’s babies but still my mother’s “Baby.” “Are you tired, Baby?” Mom asks when I come home late from work. She showed me her journal entry from January 26, 1965, when I was seven months old: “Roger is really a big boy. He crawls all over the floor, coming after me. He holds onto chairs and things, and stands up. He also bumps his head plenty. His favorite foods are applesauce and bananas. He has a tooth now.” Dad delights to tell visitors how enthusiastically I emptied the cabinets of their pots and pans and lids, that no sooner had he put them away, then I would take them out again. And now here is Lila asking her grandpa to plant a garden with her, and to get the tiny shovels. We dig holes behind the shrubs, and plant rocks. And she jabbers in two languages, English and Spanish, as we dig and look for rocks to plant, and cover them up “for squirrels to find,” and she runs to drop the blue and red beanbags in the cornhole goal. Dad is 79 years older than Lila, and pointed out that when I am his age, Lila will be 30 years old. And I want her to stay two forever.
The Indian Food Fair sounded fun: the food (coconut chicken shahi korma is my favorite), the pulsing weaving music, the dance and gold-threaded dress, the lilting languages I do not know. I called Hannah to see if she might like to attend the fair with me. But she would be summiting, she explained, Utah’s Little Matterhorn (also Pfeifferhorn) on the same day with her mother and three brothers. Dad and I summitted this peak 25 years ago, thrilled to see moose munching on willows by the creek, exhilarated by the perfume of pine and fir on the cool mountain air, charmed by the tinkling rivulet, and finally reaching the boulder-strewn summit to be awed by the Salt Lake valley views. I felt that familiar nostalgic pang of loss at no longer being part of the equation, the sting of not being invited, even though my damaged feet would not have allowed me to join for the neuromas and surgeries and scars. I thought of them this morning, wondering where they were on the trail, if they had seen any moose, whether the air smelled of the pine and fir, if their thighs were burning beyond toleration, and hoping their boulder hopping on the fractured ridge line would be safe. I thought of them looking out over the Salt Lake valley from 11,586 feet, looking down on Salt Lake City, on Liberty Park, on the Indian Food Fair, on me sitting on a park bench eating my tikka masala in the shade. I thought again how it is my lot and my opportunity, both, to chart a new course, even if alone, to follow different paths to different peaks. I had invited a new friend to meet me at the park to eat Indian food, and we walked, and we talked, and we swayed to rhythmic melodies, and we enjoyed sitting on our park bench and savoring our tandoor and basmati, and we glanced at each other and wondered at each other’s thoughts and at our futures, and I pondered how paths unexpectedly converge, and split, and find each other again, to wander off.
(Image above of the Little Matterhorn’s fractured boulder ridgeline and summit, from Wasatch Magazine, used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
As we left church, Dad half wheeled and I half pushed his wheelchair down the sidewalk toward the handicapped parking stall where waited the Faithful Suburban, the Mighty V-8. He looked up at me and enthused, “This wheelchair business is working out pretty good!” I fell speechless with pleasant surprise. Dad was adapting, and while his condition continues to deteriorate, the wheelchair has actually improved his quality of life. Suzie came a few days later to give the house another look over for ways we could adapt the house to Dad, rather than Dad to the house. I had already elevated his reclining rockers by three inches, which Suzie was thrilled to see. Kindly and encouraging, she talked with Dad about how to dress more easily and safely, how to bathe more easily and safely, how to avoid falls and fatigue, and how to pace himself. She has us ordering various items of adaptive equipment, like a sock aid (complete with six illustrated sock aid steps) to pull on his socks without him needing to bend over or pull his feet up to his knees, and like a dressing stick to pull on his pant legs one at a time, and like a long-handled shoehorn to slip his feet into his shoes, and like sofa risers to lift the sofa height so he can escape the soft cushions. When the power wheelchair comes (I committed the unfortunate faux pas of calling it an electric chair), we will order 5:1 (five feet long to one foot tall) portable foldable ramps for the living room, and longer ones for the garage and front porch. Dad does not want to do any of this, but desire has become irrelevant: functionality is now what matters. These simple, inexpensive devices will help adapt his surroundings to himself, and himself to his condition. Like a sailboat tacking powerfully into the wind, I hope Dad will be able to pick up some speed and better enjoy the race.
I seethed and I fumed as I trimmed and I shaped the bushes and as I pruned the tree branches back from the house and as I ruminated on our home health debacle. My shoulders ached from raising the twenty-foot-long pole high into the canopy. I had been so excited to observe Weston spend three hours patiently gathering Dad’s medical condition data, kindly listening to Dad describe his growing paralysis, and giving us tidbits of helpful advice (like elevating the recliners). I had been so excited to have a physical therapist and an occupational therapist come to coach Dad how to live safely in his home, how to become stronger even. Knowing Dad liked his yardwork, Weston said PT would show him how to work safely in the yard and how to keep his balance. But PT came and pushed him too hard to ride the stationary bicycle and pushed him too hard to circle the house behind his walker and for days he was nearly too weak to move and never took him outside to train him in yardwork techniques and balance exercises. PT’s second visit contained no therapy at all, only computer problems, and an abrupt announcement that she was no longer needed and would not be coming back. Dad was too genteel to report her rudeness and abrasiveness to Weston, partly because he did not want her coming back to boss and belittle. And OT came and reported that, indeed, a few grab bars would be helpful, which Dad had in the first place informed her. Case manager Weston came a second time, today, spent no productive time with Dad, offered no suggestions or course of action, stated PT would not be returning, said he (the home health supervisor) had no idea who Dad might call to have grab bars installed, instructed Dad to do whatever exercise he felt was right for him and to devise his own treatment and strengthening plan, offered to get out of Dad’s hair, and announced that home health’s role was finished. He would not be coming back. That was it. That was the beginning and the end of home health. They had done nothing. I elevated the recliners (giving them full credit for the idea). Mom will find someone to install the grab bars. Nothing at all. Except I’m sure they billed Medicare for every visit. Dad felt diminished, belittled, abandoned, and disheartened, as if the great Home Health had decided he were a lost cause, too decrepit and paralyzed, too close to knocking off for home health to do any good. The great Home Health left Dad with the advice to figure out his own course of treatment and strengthening and balance and activity, as if the sum of their meager efforts was, We can’t help you. Figure out how to help yourself, if you can. Maybe Weston thinks Dad does not need home health care, that I, Roger Baker, am the de facto home health care provider. In 295 installments, I have not used this forum to vent anger or sarcasm or skepticism, but to find strength and tenderness and hope in the details of a very challenging experience. But today I am beside myself with frustration and discouragement at the utter lack of home health or home help or home care and feel abandoned to stumble along do our best by ourselves. But we still watch in wonder the hummingbirds from our dinner table, see the sugar-water level dropping, refill the feeder, marvel at their tininess and beauty, and contemplate agog their brave twice-yearly over-ocean migrations to warmer lands during our winter, and to know that the world is a beautiful and good place to be, home health be damned.
The two Brazilian women had invited us to dinner at a Brazilian restaurant where we looked forward to reminiscing on our many tender connections to Brazil. They run a small housecleaning business and work very hard scrubbing toilets and mopping floors and scouring sinks and vacuuming carpets to make a passable living. I had planned to pay for the group, but in the order line they whispered happily to me that they were paying for the group. I felt grateful for their generosity and mortified by their sacrifice. I mumbled a feeble protest, not wanting to hurt their feelings or draw attention. “Não pode ser,” I said—This cannot be. Would my dad be angry? they wondered. How could I say that Dad and I would both feel embarrassed without embarrassing and hurting them? Instead of explaining, I offered a compromise: they could pay for themselves and for Mom; I would pay for myself and for Dad. They accepted without hurt. But no one expected what followed. Dad’s steak and onions came out timely and well (medium), then Mom’s seafood stew. While Dad munched on his steak and Mom hunted for shrimp, we reminisced over avocados the size of cantaloupes, the colors and smells of the traveling street market feiras, neblinha fog rolling in from the Atlantic and over the big city of São Paulo, the fine falling garoando mist-rain for which we do not have an English word, and the cheerful generous people of Brazil. And Dad cannot simply resist telling about how when I was born the world had only cloth diapers and he had to wash them out by hand and how they strung ropes across the apartment to hang my drying diapers, but in the cold June humidity they would not dry so he pressed them dry with a hot iron, and I was beyond embarrassment and simply dumbly smiled. We spoke mostly in that most pleasingly musical language of Brazilian Portuguese. But our food never came: Solange and Ana and I had ordered several favorite Brazilian appetizers for our meal—coxinhas, bolinhos de bacalhau, esfihas, pasteis, kibe—and they never came. The owners were vacationing in Brazil, half the cooks and servers had called in “sick,” and the remaining two teenagers ran around overwhelmed and frantic. We checked with them several times on our orders. Several times they brought us the wrong orders, meant for other frustrated customers. Solange pilfered some white rice and black bean feijoada from the buffet, but the rice was only half-cooked—al dente would be kind. At nearly the three-hour mark, the frenzied young manager came to our table, apologized profusely for the problem, refunded some of our money, offered us free brigadeiro cake and vanilla pudim, and begged us to give them another try on another day with another kitchen staff. We thanked him. We laughed at our experience. We could have vented angry frustrations, but we laughed. We laughed because we had enjoyed such wonderful conversation, memories, impressions, and stories (even if they were about my cloth diapers). Solange’s and Ana’s meekness and cheer and forgiving positive spirit made anger and frustration impossible. And they had received no dinner at all! But the five of us together for three hours relished company and conversation, generosity and kindness, and had the best bad restaurant experience of our lives. Solange and Mom hugged a rocking dancing hug, smiling and laughing, and Ana jumped in. Dad received abraços, too, though he is not a hugger. And I did not complain at being embraced by two pretty ladies from my birth country of Brazil.
Dad made the rounds on his riding mower, the single yard-maintenance task left to him. He donned his straw hat and sprays his arms with SPF 100 sunscreen and vroomed rapidly around the yard, missing corners and spots here and there and not knowing or caring. On his mower, he is master. No driver license required. No traffic rules. He sat on the back patio, resting, after finishing the job, when a tiny Black-chinned Hummingbird zoomed across the yard but stopped and hovered one foot from Dad’s face, eyeing him closely, pointing a long sharp beak at him in an ambiguous manner, neither clearly malevolent nor benevolent, but clearly curious. Then she veered away to land on the feeder and lick sugar water with a pink tongue through that long beak. Did you know the Portuguese name for Hummingbird is Beija Flor, meaning Flower Kiss? Appropriate and romantically sweet. Dad found the up-close-and-personal hummingbird encounter endearing and exhilarating, and stumbled into the house to tell Mom and me. Dad does not get to see the hummingbirds Mom and I are always heralding with “There she is!” since he cannot turn his head and stiff neck. His encounter was thus all the more personal, far from routine. Hummingbirds are a fascinating combination of aggression and cuteness, peevishness and beauty. But Mom and Dad and I are just glad they have found us and keep coming. Their olive-green wings seem drab until the sunlight catches them just right, revealing a jeweled florescence. Three days later, a rotting stench filled the garage, and I remembered that Dad had mowed the lawn, leaving the grass to compress and putresce in the canvas mower bags. Vile black liquid dripped from the bag bottoms like bile. I steeled myself against a recurring gag and plastic-bagged the grass for disposal in the outside cans, where the grass will continue to rot in the hot sun for another five days before the garbage truck rescues us. Driving off to the grocery store later, Dad ventured, “Hey, Rog, you can ride the electric shopping cart, too, if you want to!” I tried to smile at this prospect that held no attraction for me whatsoever but that offered some insight into his initial lack of enthusiasm for the motor-assisted cart. After parking, I finally responded: “I’ll be right back, Dad,” and ran into the store to commandeer a cart and scoot it out the store doors and across the parking lot to Dad’s car door. “What did you think?” I pretended not to hear as I rushed a push cart over to Mom. But I think we found a new grocery store routine.
Weston sent Sarah and Suzie, a physical therapist and an occupational therapist, to see Dad a few days after the intake assessment. Sarah put him on the stationary bike and instructed him to ride until he was too tired to ride anymore, and to repeat the burnout every day. And she had him do what he will not do for me—amble around the house with his heavy-duty metallic blue walker, a stopwatch in her hand—and instructed him to practice every day because she would be timing him at every visit to see if he is improving. The day after Sarah’s “therapy,” Dad could not walk at all, and the therapy seemed obviously counterproductive to him. Suzie, who has a dozen hummingbird feeders at her house, looked over Dad’s house for ways we could make his life a bit easier. Dad’s most painful moments of the day, both physically and mentally, are standing up from his recliner. His pain is an 8 out 10 on the grimace scale, so severe that he avoids leaving his chair. She suggested we attach risers to the feet of his recliners so Dad does not have to rise from such a plush depth, but can slide out more easily to a standing position. What a simple idea, I thought. (Another Duh.) So, I brought home from Lowes some quality 2×3 lumber, cut it to size, drilled pilot holes, and attached two 26-inch lengths to the 26-inch two feet, then two more, adding a full three inches of height to the chair. He was quite excited to try his elevated chair, now much easier to stand up from. Of course, the increased height puts greater pressure on his hamstrings, so he must keep his feet elevated, which is better anyway for his edema. Dad came outside and watched me while I measured the lumber, and cut it with a crosscut saw, and drilled the pilot holes, with divots for the screw heads. Before he made it back into the house, the lumber risers were firmly anchored and his “new” chairs were ready. Such a simple aid for such a serious problem. And as we sat at the kitchen table eating our chicken rice almond casserole, two tiny spotted fawns wandered into the yard, stopping to nibble generously on Dad’s potentilla bushes. Both the mule deer and the potentilla are endemic to the nearby mountains, so go well together also in our yard. Each pull at the leaves tugged at me somewhat urgently me to shoo the fawns away, but Dad said, “Let them eat the whole bush. I don’t care. Don’t shoo them away. I like to see them, such darling creatures. I’m glad they are here. And I’m glad the hummingbirds come to the feeder.”
“I have cabin fever,” Mom sighed as we finished our Sunday dinner of baked pork chops with mustard-cream sauce and cumin-seed cabbage. “Then let’s go for a ride,” I offered. Mom would have been satisfied with a brief ride around the neighborhoods, but I drove the Mighty V8 toward Little Cottonwood Canyon, glacier gouged and gorgeous, boasting pine forests, enormous slabs of granite, and a cascading river. We commented on the incomparable beauty of these mountains as we drove up the narrow winding road, and expressed our gratitude at having these scenes so close to home. “That’s enough for me,” Mom said as we passed the Snowbird resort. “I’m ready to go home. I don’t have cabin fever anymore.” Back at home, I pointed out how multiple consecutive triple-digit days, and some active hummingbirds, had emptied the hummingbirds’ sugar water quickly, and the feeder hung empty. We watched a tiny Black-chinned hovering, testing, and not finding liquid food. Google says the correct mix is four parts water to one part sugar—and not to add red dye—so I refilled the feeder and brought back the birds. The doorbell rang, and Carolyn D’s daughter delivered a white Afghan, crocheted with time and love and tenderness, for Dad had compiled her husband’s World War II recollections before they died with him, just in time. Like Dad, Carolyn can no longer walk well, scooting along laboriously with a walker. But she can crochet. An hour later a violent summer thunderstorm blew and spat, teasing us unkindly with scant muddy drops that streaked the windows brown. Dad sat in his kitchen chair, watching the wind whip the trees, and hazarded to Mom, “If you were to wander over here, I would give you a hug.” In other words, I want to hug you, so please come to me, since I cannot come to you. In his hoped-for embrace, he expressed to Mom, “You’re such a wonderful person. I just love you.”
Dad hears better from the front church pew, which is cut out on one side to accommodate a wheelchair. Mom sits in the pew, and Dad sits in his wheelchair, the two holding hands with their faces lifted appreciatively toward the speakers. One eighty-year-young friend of Dad’s observed, “It’s good to see you using a wheelchair, Nelson,” implying how awful it has been to see him leaning into his cane and hanging on my arm and still barely making it down the aisle. In choir practice before church, we rehearsed the hymn “Have I done any good?” and at night I lay in my bed asking that question of myself, with dark and pressing doubts. For today is day 365 since I left my life alone and moved into a life with Mom and Dad as an awkward caregiver in their waning—today is my first anniversary, our first anniversary. Will there be any more anniversaries? Even before moving into their house, I knew the experience would be intense and trying, not for any fault of theirs, but from the story’s inexorable ending, and from my own character flaws, and that I would tend to lose my sense of self, my sense of direction in life, my sense of fatherhood in my renewed sonhood, my sense of the future and self-purpose, and I knew I would need to write about my experience, daily, to work things through in my mind, to keep from being swallowed alive. I felt compelled to write, and indeed I did write daily entries for 265 consecutive days before faltering in fog and fatigue. This is essay #290: 290 shards of shattered glass through which to examine and strain to comprehend my experience in all its complex facets. If I have not done much good, that failure has not been for lack of arduous effort. If I have done some good after all, that good was worth the effort. This post is not pandering for praise or angling for affirmation, and is not focused on self-flagellation. This post simply poses the question, and makes a way for me to move on in the mission of doing what I can to bring comfort and safety to my parents as they careen toward their end, that the end may be comfortably and safely in their beloved home at the foot of the great snow-topped aspen-clad mountain. But, still, and always, I shall ask myself that question, and sing the hymn quietly in the darkness to myself at night.
Have I done any good in the world today?
Have I helped anyone in need?
Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad?
If not, I have failed indeed.
Has anyone’s burden been lighter today
Because I was willing to share?
Have the sick and the weary been helped on their way?
When they needed my help was I there?
Then wake up and do something more
Thank dream of your mansion above.
Doing good is a pleasure, a joy beyond measure,
A blessing of duty and love.
Dad hates to be pampered or waited upon. Being waited on implies weakness and inability and obsolescence. I deflect the issue by saying, “I’m already up for my own second helping—I might as well get yours.” For he can no longer carry his dinner plate to the table, or his glass of milk to his chair, needing both hands for the cane. We discovered, though, a new use for the unused walker: a delivery device for his dinner plate, riding on the cushioned seat. So, I am back to not waiting on Dad—if he is already up, that is. At night Dad leaves his cane downstairs, hanging on the banister, because he cannot carry the cane as he pulls himself up the stairs by dual railings. Weston suggested the acquisition of a second cane for upstairs, to help Dad from the bed to the bathroom and back. (Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?) Jeanette ordered a sleek black telescoping cane on Amazon Prime, and the cane came that very night. Dad enjoyed opening the box and piecing the cane together and adjusting it. The new cane became his primary cane, his downstairs cane, his daytime cane, and the faded blue floral aluminum cane, its rubber foot wearing dangerously slanted and smooth, was retired from active duty to become the midnight bathroom shuttle cane. When Dad dropped his reading glasses, and when Dad snarled about the unreachable unfathomable no-man’s-land floor, Weston suggested we purchase a grabber, where, upon squeezing the handle, pincers at the rod’s end close upon the fallen object. (Duh! Again.) Jeanette added two grabbers to the cane order, one for upstairs and one for down. “You’ve got your own handy-dandy fancy-shmancy picker-upper now, Dad, so I’m relieved of pick-up duty.” If we could help Dad turn his head on his arthritic neck, he would see more quickly the Black-chinned Hummingbird landing on the sugar-water feeder, slipping its long needle beak into the fake flower holes—the sugar is real—suspended three feet from the kitchen window. Perhaps a simple change of seat, looking head-on out. (Duh!) “There he is! He’s so pretty.” Mom erupted, excited, when the tiny bird landed then flew off. “He’s back!” Eating our thin spaghetti and sauce and chicken meatballs, with fresh buttered salted corn-on-the-cob on the side, Dad began to sing an old comic song, “You get no bread with one meatball!”
“I can’t walk!” Dad began as the home health case manager began his three-hour assessment. I felt proud of Dad for facing forcefully the reality of his condition. “And I’m going downhill fast.” Weston listened to everything Dad had to say as he inquired about every aspect of Dad’s health, from medications and mental health and mobility to bowels and balance. He invited Dad to stand up from his kitchen chair, which required all Dad’s strength and induced level-8 pain in his legs. “One gets to the point,” Dad explained, “where the pain induces one to not get up from the chair. But I’m still getting up.” Weston invited Dad to walk from the kitchen to his living room reading chair, using his cane and the kitchen counters and the piano top to surf to his destination and to point and fall in his chair. Medical professionals measure balance on a 25-point scale, with 25 being the ideal, and, say, 9 being very concerning. “The goal is not to get you to the ideal of 25,” Weston explained, “but to get you to from 9 to 10, or 12, or 15, to achieve improvement. Improved balance always leads to increased safety.” Dad was not confident he could improve, but promised to give it a try, to do whatever works. I have talked often with my children about improving their life balance, between work, school, church, play, social life, health, exercise, nutrition, and family, and that our balance shifts constantly with our life changes. I balanced my life as well as I knew how when I felt utterly crushed by work and responsibility and church and duty and sickness and keeping food on the table and clothes on their little backs and the bills paid. And at times I teetered and did not balance well. But not for lack of effort: I worked at balance, practiced it, and grew and strengthened and improved. So, I teach them today about balance. Weston taught Dad how to practice and improve his balance by standing in the corner against the walls of a room, with a walker in front, and letting go of both the walls and the walker for seconds at a time, seconds of being supported by nothing but his own balanced strength, knowing he could lean onto the walls or into the walker, wheels braked of course.
I could hear a new voice from upstairs, a raised voice that began with “Hello!” and I knew that Sarah was giving Dad a long talking to. Through Marco Polo I had told her I needed professional advice on how to help Dad, and she had come with resources and with the right tone of voice, the tone of voice Dad learned years ago not to argue with or fight against, the tone of voice that said, This will happen! When I thought the most important declarations had been declared, I thought I ought to join the conversation. “Dad, you won’t ever get better. Getting better is not the goal. That’s the reality of where you are. You should have begun using the walker a year ago, not never. You should have begun using the wheelchair six months ago, not last week. The goal is to keep you safe. It’s time you ordered a motorized wheelchair.” And he did not want to discuss an electric wheelchair. “But Dad, when people see you zipping around in your motorized chair, they will think how young and active and motivated you still are, and how smart. When they see you hanging on Roger and leaning on your cane and stumbling all stooped, they think how old you are and how you’re going downhill and how decrepit you’ve become. The wheelchair is not a humiliation. What you’re doing now is a humiliation. The wheelchair is a tool of triumph, and will extend and improve your life and give you new energy and independence!” And I agreed with every word she said, because they were all true. She was not angry or rude, of course, just insistent that we face our reality and adjust our strategy. She softened her voice: “We’re not ready for you to go, Dad. Your mind is still laser sharp: you read several books a week. We don’t want you to fall. We don’t want you to break an arm or a leg or a hip. We want you to stay safe so you can live in your home for years.” And I agreed with every word she said, because they were all true. Dad knew, too, that she spoke truth, insistent and intractable and loving truth. And he assented. “I’m not ready to go,” he declared. “I will do whatever works.” Home health is coming next week. Physical therapy is coming next week. Occupational therapy is coming next week. Dad’s a fighter, and is not ready to yield the fight. Dad has time yet, years of time, and we are determined to help him live those years.
(Pictured above: Mom and Dad in 2008.)
You can imagine cream-colored carpets gathering dirt during regular big-family events where my siblings and their children and their children’s children gather to eat and talk and sing and eat more and tell stories and play games. Certain high-traffic areas are especially prone to pollution: passages between sofas; recliner curtilages; where the little ones play. Dad has always enjoyed keeping the carpets clean, with his own carpet shampooer that begins with clear water and soap and ends with water dyed black. He brings the carpets back to clean newness. When I came home from work on an evening, I found him pushing the machine with one hand, barely balancing with his cane in the other, grimacing and red, and awkwardly bent at knee and hip, seeming ready to sink at any moment. Seeing a crisis in the making, I stood with my back against the wall, waiting for him to collapse, my body tense and taut and my mind stressed and focused. I do not take over and I do not chide or boss. I wait and watch. But this waiting is far from a passive, peaceful exercise: while the body is poised and still, the energized state of preparedness to pounce in advance of disaster takes a toll. And at church he leans so heavily on my arm as I tip-toe stoically past the pews, waiting again for the trip and fall, or the spontaneous collapse. Whether or not he was ready, for me the time for the wheelchair had come, so we had a talk. I explained that our church mobility method was too stressful for his body, leaving him weak and fatigued for days, and was too stressful for my mind, with his every step an imminent disastrous fall. I confessed to not being mentally sufficiently strong to stop my life’s orbit to stand with my back against the wall and watch him struggle and anguish over once-easy tasks, to stand tense and taut waiting for him to fall, at which moments I want to scream at my impotence and the agony and futility of his struggle. I gave the kindest gentlest ultimatum I knew how: “When we go to church tomorrow, I would like you to use your wheelchair.” It would be much easier for him and for me both, and I would appreciate it. He looked at me, emotionless, then looked into some unseen distance, without a word, and I knew he was wrestling with overwhelming feelings of uselessness and obsolescence and whether the fight were worth the effort. Dad has told me a hundred times, “I’m a fighter!” and his fighting spirit has seen him through many an adversity, has kept his family and his own life going in spite of terrible obstacles. Assaulting Dad’s dignity and dousing the hot ember of his fighting spirit would hasten his demise and would be perhaps my life’s greatest sin. So, I left my ultimatum-turned-plea floating heavily in the silent room, hoping he could find the mental niche that would allow him to use his wheelchair and to still fight on for life. The next morning, he greeted me from his bowl of Cheerios and blueberries with a smile and called out, “Rog! It’s time for church! Grab that wheelchair and start up the Mighty V8!” Hallelujah! sighed my spirit. Glory Hallelujah!
We were here! At the Temple Quarry Trail, for a new adventure, the adventure of the rolling immobile, Mom and Dad guided by myself and my sister Sarah pushing their wheelchairs. I discovered the short asphalt trail when finding my hiking/biking trail which starts from the same trailhead. Availing ourselves of the handicapped parking, and knowing the restroom was there just in case any of us needed it, we set off on the trail, Mom and Dad debuting their “new” used wheelchairs. The trail was paved, but there was nothing flat about it, and I strained, my body slanted to 45 degrees, to muscle the chair and its occupant up the incline. This was the place where a century and a half ago the newly-arrived Latter-day Saints chiseled by hand enormous granite blocks from the mountain as foundation stones for their new Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah. The men worked in pairs, one holding a pointed steel bar, the other striking it with a sledgehammer, the bar man turning the bar a quarter turn, and the sledger striking the bar again, and the turn, and the strike, slowly drilling a hole six inches into the rock. I cannot help but wonder how many arm bones and hand bones and finger bones were shattered by errant blows. After a line of holes had been “drilled,” the mason inserted steel wedges and hammered until the granite broke with a “crack” in a neat line. We could see the wedge holes in the giant slab of rock before us, and we shook our heads in awe at how the rudimentary techniques and tools of the time nevertheless resulted in a gloriously beautiful and sacred structure, a monument to the Living God and a tribute to his humble stonemasons and carpenters and plasterers and painters and tinsmiths and goldsmiths. We pushed on, the river cascading in our ears, the granite mountain soaring overhead, the trees closing in gently over the trail where we pushed our parents. There were their childhood canyons and rivers, their playgrounds and adventure grounds, and now here they were at the ends of their lives able to enjoy again, though differently, the sounds and sights and smells, because of wheeled chairs we all wish they did not need but which make these nature walks possible and pleasurable and safe (presuming one always engages the wheel breaks when letting go of the handles, which as a novice wheelchair facilitator I was careful to do). Then the darkening clouds opened and baptized us with a gentle warm summer shower, and we turned our faces upwards and embraced each raindrop. The Salt Lake Temple was completed and dedicated in 1893, a full forty years after its commencement. The temple foundations stones weighed dozens of tons each, and broke the wagons and exhausted the oxen and foundered the canal boats and finally came more easily when the railroad spur reach the quarry. But these remarkable people built that stunning thing which we call The House of the Lord. The Temple stands strong and tall on its old granite foundation stones, not granite at all, actually, but quartz monzonite, a pretty white with black specks. “White granite” they called it, and I am happy to call it granite, too. We all thought we should roll the Temple Quarry Trail often, to get out of the house, to get into nature, to see the canyon as the seasons change and the gambel oaks and mountain maples and boxelders and wild cherries lose their leaves and the stream slows and freezes and the granite mountain stands as strong and as tall as ever.
In Little Cottonwood Canyon on the Temple Quarry Trail.
(Granite stonemason photo from Getty Images, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
(Salt Lake Temple photo from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
I had served Mom and Dad their plates of chicken strips sauteed with red bell pepper and onion, and their bowls of refried and black beans, cumin-taco seasoned, with cucumber slices and crenshaw cubes on the side, and was preparing my own dinner plate, when Mom shrieked, “Roger! Terry just fell into the window well! One moment he was standing there, and the next he was gone!” Spurred by the memory of Window Well Horrors Act 1 and Act 2, I spurred out the back door in my red socks, wrapped in my baking apron, to where Terry’s head poked up from the window well, blood streaming into his eye and down his face from a head gash. Hooking an arm under his, I heaved while he stepped up the ladder (thank goodness there was a ladder), his legs trembling, his face ash gray, and sat him in a chair, triaging: How do you feel? (fine) Where do you hurt? (my chest) Are you dizzy? (no) Can you walk? (I think so). With him stable, I barged into his house to blurt the situation to his wife, grab wet towels, and shove ice cubes into a grocery bag. First on his head went the wet towel, second the bag of ice. Then I begged his patience as I wiped blood from his eye, nose, mouth, cheeks, chin, and neck, and removed his blood smeared glasses. “How are you feeling now?” I asked for the second of a dozen times. “Stupid!” he spat. Like with Gabe and Dad, a perfectly placed step on the window well cover had cause Terry’s to flip from its seat and drop him into the deep hole, gashing his scalp as he fell. And the blood had flowed. Off Pat rushed him to the hospital, emerging four hours later with stitches and a bandage and Percocet for the pain of his upper body being suddenly spread and stretched by his arms hitting the well on the way down. But no broken bones or torn muscles or ligaments. “How are you feeling now?” I asked at midnight. “Sore,” he signed. “And stupid!” A loaf of chocolate chip banana bread the day after, and fresh corn on the cob from Dad the next, and we had become “the best neighbors ever.” Neighborliness aside, had Mom not glanced out her window at precisely the moment Terry fell into the well, no one would have known, perhaps for a long time, and the list of possible horribles is too long. But Mom did look out her window at that precise moment, and Mom did see him fall, and Mom did send me bolting with a scream, and I was there when I was needed. And Terry (82) is alright, asleep, Percocet prone in his recliner. He is safe. In one short year, window wells at our two houses have gobbled up three people. If we were a statistical cohort, the country would be in a serious window well epidemic. At some point in the late night, I realized I had been privileged to enact the rescue in all three scenes, and with my presence being the common denominator, I hereby decree that, from henceforth, stepping by any person on a window well cover of any type, shape, or material, for any reason, is hereinafter strictly prohibited.
“This reminds me of Brazil!” Mom exclaimed, not so much for the garish lemon-yellow and orange-burnt-umber and royal-blue paints and the grimy broken baseboards and the uncleanable black-and-white-checkered linoleum-square floor, but the for smells and humid heat of fried corn paste and stewed pinto beans and shredded port, and for the smiling brown-skinned servers and the radio trumpets and the humble homemade feel of the place. I had brought Mom and Dad to Carlos’ El Salvadoreño Café, for grilled bean-and-cheese pupusas and cinnamon-rice horchata and fried plantain empanadas with sweet cream for dessert. “Las pupusas se tardan. Por favor tengan paciencia.” Pupusas take time. Please be patient. I knew this from experience, and so we reminisced beneath a blue El Salvadoran flag pinned to the wall. We ordered two pupusas each, but could eat only one-half each—I had forgotten how filling pupusas are—and took the leftovers home for next day’s dinner. I helped Dad walk to the restroom, but the return trip took a bad turn. Even with my arm hoisting under his, his legs suddenly and simply would not move; they began to shake and buckle. A kind and friendly teenage server rushed to buttress Dad’s other arm, and we inched across the restaurant floor. “I don’t feel old,” Dad lamented, “I feel paralyzed.” And I wondered if both were two faces of the same reality. Mom was waiting in the cooling Mighty V8, which I had parked just outside the restaurant door. Despite the struggle, we considered the outing a success. It does Mom good to get out of the house, and it does Dad good to be out with Mom. We may not venture out again, to Carlos’ Café or anywhere else, without a wheelchair, but I am thankful the wheelchair may make further fieldtrips possible, safe, and even enjoyable. My Sunday-night snack of pupusa revuelta, with a slice of hot banana chocolate walnut bread, hit the spot, though I wish I had saved some horchata.
The mountain bike trail proved too challenging for me: too steep and too rocky for too long. I stopped pedaling a dozen times to rest and drink and slow my racing heart. Walking the steepest stretches, I finally reached the top of the trail, marked by a bridge over the river, set Dad’s red vintage Specialized against a tree, and stepped down the fractured granite to the riverside, where I knelt and cupped icy water onto my feverish head. How relieving that cold water felt, and I calmed and relaxed. The river cascaded violently and deafeningly down and past, lurching between thousands of giant rough angular granite boulders. My peripheral vision detected a short-tailed gray bird land on a mid-river rock downstream, bobbing on her backward knees, lifting her very-short tail with each bow. She fluttered from boulder to boulder, thrusting her black beak into the current to pick nymphs and rollers off rocks, working her way toward me, at times even immersing and walking along the river bottom to find insect morsels. I sat perfectly still and she paid me no heed as she came to within six feet, preening her delicate gray plumage before me in a spot of full sun, then hopped back into the shadows to work her way upstream and around a bend fifty feet off. What an encounter! Forty years ago, Dad and I left the Sawtooth Mountain trail to follow the stream, and saw a little gray bird with a short tail hopping and bobbing along a log fallen across the stream. The bird grasped the bark with its long feat and stepped around the circumference of the log from dry air to upside-down and under water, emerging dry and pretty on the other circumference side. Dad and I were gob smacked. A Robin-like bird that walks and hunts underwater in a swift mountain stream? We had never heard of such a bird. But our field guide introduced us to the American Dipper, and, though a colorless non-descript little bird, she has become one of our favorites. Memories of our first Dipper and the stream and the forest and the mountains and the moose and trout and bear and beaver and the wild blueberries flooded back to Dad’s perfect recollection as I described my new and fortuitous encounter. I discovered as a boy that Nature comes to me when I am still. I do not call her or pursue her. I study and I watch and I wait, in good places and at right times, and Nature’s path veers toward mine to grace me with intimate unearned wildlife experiences. My children know this, and we both marvel at Nature’s magical providence. The butterflies come, and I know their names and their habits, and I talk to them: “Hello Beautiful,” I whisper to the Tiger Swallowtail or the Red-spotted Purple. “You look lovely and strong today.” The deer come, and the beaver, the Red Slider turtle and the Belted Kingfisher and Clark’s Grebe and Black-crowned Night Heron. “Hello pretty Mama,” I once whispered to a Mule Deer doe suckling her spotted fawn, the mother taut with fear, ready to pronk away, and I reassure her, “Don’t worry, little Mama, I will not hurt you or your magical spotted fawn. You need not fear me. I will wait right here until you are ready for me to pass.”
(Photo above from eBird.org, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Pictured below: photos of Little Cottonwood trail, creek, and canyon. The trailhead is a ten-minute drive from Mom’s and Dad’s house.
“Look! There are two birds perched in the top of that quaking aspen tree,” Dad enthused. “Those aren’t birds, Nelson,” Mom corrected. “They are leaves.” A month later, while I weeded the flower garden of its “carpet of weeds,” as Dad called it, I saw that the two resolute bird-leaves clung to their spot in the tree. When Dad discovered I was working outside in the cooler heat of a summer morning, he hurried with all the torpor of a nearly 90-year-old to dress and join me in the yard. “I want to work outside with Roger,” he told Mom. Before he came outside, I hoed and raked and piled weeds, and shaved Irish Spring soap on the flowers to deter the urban deer from munching, and I thought about meeting my date the night before, and several other women I met at the singles conference and on the dating app I both like and loathe. Dad shot me an avuncular grin last week when I informed him I had a date. I met Shar, with long flowing red hair, at a park where I had unfolded a blue gingham tablecloth and set out the quiche I had managed to bake that day. She was sweet and kind and affirming despite my awkward boyish 58-year-old attempts at romance. “You did all this for me?” she asked with some emotion. Yes, I did, because I wanted to make our meeting nice for her, and for me. I did not want ham sandwiches or fried chicken; I wanted to make and bring a special homemade meal. In recent weeks, I have met Rie, persisting through bar exam preparations despite a traumatic brain injury, and Chris, who thought the restaurant’s azeite olive oil of low quality, and Sol, who sallies forth to text once in a while then withdraws, and Deb, who has grown distant, and Lynn, who teaches Bronte and came down with Covid and cancelled, and Tawny, with seven children, and I have seven children, and oh my gosh! can I imagine having fourteen children with all their spouses and children? no I cannot. All wonderful, kind, pleasant women whom I have enjoyed meeting and whom I respect. I am learning (again) that dating requires meeting new people, and meeting new people requires courage and effort, and finding courage requires me to believe in myself in spite of rejection and risk. Shar and I dipped strawberries in sour cream and rolled them in brown sugar and munched the pleasurable sweet-tart-sour combination. And we painted canvas boards and glued on buttons and paper dragonflies, and I felt so grateful she thought the evening was fun and so grateful she did not mind my timid nerdiness. “Rog!” Dad called out when I walked through the door. “Tell us all about your date!” And I happily did.
“I don’t care,” Mom reacted as Dad explained his concern. In my experience, peoples’ declarations of “I don’t care!” betray a deep caring about the very things they disavow caring for. I do it myself, though each time I utter the phrase, I pause to examine why I care so much, and I find that instead of apathetic, I am feeling threatened, or stressed, or vulnerable, and wish I did not have to care so much. Dad said “I don’t care” when the resident mule deer nibbled all the tiger lily blooms just before they opened—irresistible moist sweet morsels. He loves to see the doe and her fawns saunter across the back lawn, and delights when they bed down under the low pine boughs. Mom and Dad and their visiting children and grandchildren never tire of calling out, “Look! Deer!” at the sleek lithe wild pretty creatures glimpsed through the kitchen window. I opened the plantation blinds Tuesday morning to see a miniature mule deer covered in creamy spots chewing contentedly on lilac leaves and felt, like Dad, that I did not care if the fawn consumed every flower in the garden. So, while the neighbor shoos the deer out of his yard, we sit at the kitchen table and stare at them with wonder in our own yard. Still, I shaved a whole bar of Irish Spring in and around the lily bushes in hopes the new blooms would be spared. “I have watched them cross the road,” Dad explained. “They stand at the curb and look left, then right, then cross when there are no cars.” Hunger and cold push the mule deer out of the mountains that tower above our neighborhood, and once acclimatized they never leave. Those mountains called to us this week, so we drove to the Albion Basin at the very top of Little Cottonwood Canyon to see the wildflowers and to hike to Cecret Lake. A winter avalanche filled the alpine lake with ice and rocks and mud, the brown piles of ice still melting in July. We asked the forest ranger about the lake’s name, and he told us that while 19th-Century miners were hard-working and enterprising, they were not necessarily men of letters—they spelled phonetically, and Cecret sounded every bit as correct as Secret, so their Cecret name for the lake stuck. The glacial basin nestling Cecret Lake is decorated with jagged rock escarpments, pine and fir forests, and wildflower meadows. The many beautiful flower colors and shapes inspired us: exotic creamy columbine; blue beardtongue and larkspur; purple lupine; pink and red paintbrush; yellow glacier lilies; delicate sticky geraniums; white and pink and red firecracker penstemon; and tiny-petaled blue forget-me-not’s. “I call them ‘remember-me’s’,” Hannah announced, to my delight, and I pondered how nice it is to be remembered, and wanted, and respected, and loved. How nice it is when someone cares.
(Pictured above: field of Forget-Me-Not’s in the Albion Basin.)
(Pictured below: the Albion Basin, near Cecret Lake.)
They did not know what to say, so they said nothing, and I suffered alone. When I separated and divorced almost seven years ago, not one neighbor, not one congregation member, not one ministerial leader approached me with friendship or compassion or support. They did not know what to say, apparently, so they stayed away and said nothing at all, and I anguished utterly alone. (Thank God, Mom and Dad and Sarah and Jeanette and Carl and Paul and Megan and Don and Carolyn and Steven—parents, siblings, and three friends—they loved me through.) I think that “I don’t know what to say” is a hideous excuse for pretending not to see, and for withdrawing and withholding, and for saying nothing. I reject it. How easy it would have been for anyone to say, “I am so sorry!” or “What can I do to support you?” or “You will get through this, and I want to be there with you as you do.” I reject it: actually, we do know what to say, but we are reluctant to feel another’s pain, afraid to do the emotional work of empathy. Just: say anything kind. That ought to be easy. When our neighbor’s infant grandson died in his crib in their house this week, constricted by a blanket laid there to warm and comfort the baby boy, dozens of men and women rushed to the house and kept coming every day for weeks, with meals, with hugs, with encouragement, with loving silence, with tears, and with other assurances of love and hope. I did not know what to say, and I did not go, right away. But I had rejected that justification, and I had determined never to stay away for the lack of the right words. Instead of words, I took over a plate of hot crêpes stuffed with chocolate almond frangipane (French pudding) and handed the goodie plate over with a smile and said the words “You might want to use a fork—they are a bit messy” and “This is an authentic French dessert” and “I don’t know what words to say” and “So many people love you and care for you and mourn with you and have hope for your healing and happiness.” And he embraced me and said, “Thank you. I can’t wait to give them a try.” After church today, a group of women surrounded the grieving grandmother and talked and cried and hugged and counseled—they loved. Dad observed to me, “That is more than just a group of women talking. Christ is there with them, healing.” And I knew Dad spoke truth.
The front door nob when turned emits a pervasive little squeal upon the first turn, never the second or third, such that our comings and goings are never a secret. The squeak begs for lubrication, and goes without—once the door shuts, I forget, for the squeal comes with the opening not the shutting of the door. Out that door we piled, into the suburban, loaded with coolers and cabanas and chairs, on our excursion “to the Uintas” the old east-west range in the younger north-south Rockies. We set the “easy-up” cabana over the picnic table at the edge of Moose Horn Lake, and we eased Mom and Dad down the shallow trail to their camp chairs under the cabana from where they gazed out over the lake where the zebra trout were rising for gnats, at the towhee flitting low in the dwarf spruces, at the robin dangling a worm lakeside, at the paintbrush and wild strawberry and blue columbine blossoms, at the layered formations on the back side of Bald Mountain, some lying flat and dark, others standing crumbled and rusty, evidence of tectonic cataclysm. These views formed Dad’s definition and experience of wonder. “I used to come here when I was young,” Dad began, recounting how he bought an old jalopy and cut off the roof to make the car a convertible and draped a blanket over the occupants with holes cut out for their heads, how he put a “bumble bee” on his fly line and lowered it from his perch on a house-sized boulder and how when the bee hung six inches above the water an enormous trout leapt to devour the bee and how the beautiful sleek strong creature hung wriggling for a moment then flipped itself free and flew back to the water. Dad told us how he came often to the lakes of the high Unitas to fish, and how his best fishing day was when the rain drizzled down and he floated his fly and the fishes struck and struck and he caught and caught. Purple-black clouds began to gather, as they can do several times a day in these high mountains, and knowingly we packed up and shoved off, grateful to be in a warm suburban with a roof to protect us from the sudden deafening blinding hailstorm that carpeted the forest with billions of white balls of ice. Might this be Dad’s last trip to the Uintas, where he can relive in context the happy youthful memories of driving the jalopy and dangling the bee and looking up into the rain? Reaching home, 98 degrees Fahrenheit to the Uinta’s 46, I turned the door knob and did not hear the iconic squeal, for I had oiled it as we left.
Pictured above: Glacier Lilies
Most of Barber’s Adagio for Strings is intensely hushed and weeping, so Mom turns up the volume, but then The School for Scandal blares its horns and winds and Mom mercifully lowers the volume down to middling. Yesterday’s emotional volume flood-gushed and cymbal-crashed and left me feeling worn and ready to withdraw for an extended sabbatical to my cool dark cave. More than five-hundred singles had gathered at their annual conference, people just like me: 41+ years old, friends and members of my Church, divorced, widowed, or never married. I had plumbed my vulnerability reserves and found just enough courage to attend my first-ever event for older singles. I stood in a corner and scanned the crowd, not as a predator, but as a fascinated intimidated spectator who feared being thrust into the arena. People of all sizes, styles, and shapes, elegant to homely, hubris to humility. Women glanced at me curiously (thirstily?), and men haughtily, and moved on. I recognized that here was a room filled with pain and struggle, filled with dark disappointments, filled with raw effort and growth and triumph—these have all been mine, too, so I guessed I fit fairly in. I met many over ice-breakers and Polish sausages: Jessica, who has lost 70 pounds, no longer eats sugar, and does not work, being supported by her children; and Keith, who lost his wife to cancer, waited six months, and now is on the hunt; and Deborah, a graphics artist and child advocate who lost a son to muscular dystrophy and loves nature and hiking and was delightful to talk to; and Eric who recently moved from the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico and who “just” runs a local warehouse; and Eileen, who jumped in to help set up round tables and unfold steel chairs and toss tablecloths because she was there and was needed; and many others during a black-out bingo mixer in which I would not participate because one had to make animal impressions (I finally yielded one dead-pan “ruff ruff”) and show off dance moves (having lost them decades ago, if I ever had them), gaze into someone’s eyes unspeaking for sixty seconds (oh God, never again!), and play rounds of Rock Paper Scissors to help ladies get their “bingo!” (kind of fun, actually). Keith decided he was my pal, and stuck to me while I mingled and politely conversed with the ladies. A room full of pain, I thought, and triumph. And I decided I admired every single person present (well, they were all single) for their willingness to be vulnerable, their courage to show up and be seen, their determination to hold intact their sense of value, their resolve to grow through suffering. Dancing came later, but I felt too terrified to attend, and Mom and Dad had a neighborhood party to go to, and I was their driver. I would like to see Deborah again.
(Pictured above: a small number of our group who hiked to the lower falls of Battlecreek Canyon, my favorite part of the singles conference activities.)
“I’ll tell you what’s on my list,” Dad announced. (1) He wanted to mix a few tablespoons of cement to fill the cracks where mortar had fallen out of the brick mailbox pedestal when it capsized. (2) He wanted to trim new growth from the juniper hedge where the twenty-foot-tall trees, covered in powder-blue berries, had begun to infringe on the public sidewalk. (3) He wanted to hoe the remaining weeds out of the flower garden—the deep-rooted entwining morning glory grows a foot a day. (4) He wanted to clean the sidewalks of dust and sticks and leaves with his two-stroke blower. “I’m not saying these jobs are for you,” he insisted. “I’m just telling you my job list for myself.” Of course, I knew his body would balk at these jobs, except maybe the mortar. With a free hour, I went to work with the DeWalt hedge trimmer and carefully, slowly, carved a clean new vertical line against the sidewalk edge, taking care not to leave bulges and not to carve out concave curves. My critical eye searched out and eliminated defects Dad might detect. The aromatic trimmings filled a thirty-gallon garbage can. A smiling walker came along just as I finished the job, and she thanked me. Then the hoeing and weeding and sweeping and blowing. Dad, meanwhile, set to on the mortar. An overturned garbage can served as a stable palette for mixing mortar, a camp chair his painter’s seat, and the grass his paint box with the tools and ingredients arranged. He mixed and scraped and mortared and rubbed, perfectly able and happy to do the job, and I did not hover, though I admit to watching from my upstairs office, writing. The new mailbox is in, though Burke had to cut off the back, remove a two-inch ring, then reattach the two pieces of the box with duct tape to insert into the hole. The old capstone is sledged to pieces and in the city garbage cans, and the new stone installed. Dad finished the job and sat long in the sun, slathered with SP100, gathering strength for the great labor of standing up from a chair. I checked the hedge again today just to make sure it was still straight, and exhaled my relief. In the flower bed, three little ice plants had surfaced, having survived last month’s ice plant purge. These I transplanted to two orange crocks, where they immediately set to blooming, and I cannot wait until they spread and overtop the rims and cast their bright blooms to the sun. The blooms begin close as the sun begins to set and the sky dusks. Excuse me for a moment: I can see Dad needs my help getting up from his chair at the curb.
I waltzed up the river with strong strokes. Pull-rest-rest. Pull-rest-rest. The hen and her ducklings huddled tight against the bank looking every bit the bunch of muddy roots. How do ducklings love their father drake? I wonder. He has flown this stretch of river. “Happy Father’s Day, Dad!” came the texts. Is that how it is done, I wonder: four small typed words with a diminutive exclamation mark? I handed Dad a thick old book, yellowed, wrapped in newspaper, in a red paper sack, to thank him for being my father. Fiorello LaGuardia: the Italian Mayor of New York City who took on the Tammany Hall political machine, and won. A black-crowned night heron rose from the riverbank with five-foot wings barred black and white, as silent as my waltzing river pondering. How do his chicks say Happy Father’s Day? I wonder. With urgent shrieks for regurgitated fish, no doubt, and by leaving the nest! What a magnificent beautiful creature. I imagine the carp fingerlings say nothing at all, glad not to be gobbled. And I baked a pesto chicken orzo casserole and a sticky pudding cake full of dates and walnuts dribbled with hot toffee-cream syrup. Oh, and first dibs to Dad on my book by Beryl Markham, an early pilot who flew single-props with open cockpits, who flew so intimately with planet earth, skimming the tall tree tops—she could see the waves and smiles of the farmers and they could see hers. I have reached my three-mile turn-around too soon—I feel I could paddle up this river forever, relaxed and calm, not having the answers, and at peace with that unknowing. My two youngest played cello-piano duets to Mom and Dad and me, moving us with their beauty and the music’s beauty. “Rafting the river . . . I remember you naming every single type of butterfly we saw. You knew everything about them. And the trees and birds and wildflowers, too. You taught me to look for the small and simple things, and remember the value they add to our lives.” Thank you, son. (I’ll have you write my epitaph.) Maybe Bullock’s orioles chitter cheerfully to celebrate their fathers, flashing their oranges blacks and whites in their excitement. I don’t know that little turtles thank their big-shell papas, sunning exclusively on fallen tree trunks, necks and legs stretched out pleasurably, imperiously, a knot of dried algae on one’s back. I sent my sons-turned-fathers a handmade card with a personal note of admiration and encouragement and a token ten-dollar bill. Does that count? Yes, that counts—every sincere expression counts. “Oh, my dear Daddy. How I love and honor you and appreciate with deep gratitude all that you do for me.” Thank you, sweet daughter of mine. A Clark’s grebe with white face and black crown and piercing yellow beak and piercing scarlet eye dove and dove as I approached, then appeared twenty-five yards behind me. What a magnificent beautiful creature! His chicks would easily admire him. “I love you Daddy!” That’s how it’s done: with love. I love you, too.
Pictures above and below: scenes from the Jordan River, in Utah, today.
I bought a wheelchair. Sarah found it on a local classified service: 20 inches wide, three-inch memory foam seat cushion, like new, $200. I wheeled around the house to see if it would work for Dad. Weeks ago, the Mobility Plan vanished from the refrigerator door and from Dad’s end tables, and his mobility has fled with the plan. At least Mom and Dad did not contract Covid-19: my week’s utter isolation worked. I often lose weight when I am sick, but cooped up with Covid I ate compulsively, not junk, mostly, except for pounds of my favorite chocolate almond candies, and my tummy has rounded and my abs slacked—it seems Covid sapped my physical as well as my emotional strength. But that strength is returning, and with it some discipline, and my stevia-sweetened herbal tea for breakfast and my 16-8 intermittent fasts and my planks and pushups and lunges and stationary bike. While I languished, five men fixed the brick mailbox pedestal, with new rebar and cement, repaired sprinkler pipe, new sod, the rotten rusted mailbox chiseled out and replaced, and a new filial point on the capstone. They kept coming, day after day, to see to the details—they chose to leave their families and hobbies and entertainments and pleasures and labors and worries, to help us. An ennobling choice. Steven and I have contemplated together the nature and effect of life’s experience, for who does not wonder about this life? Humans encounter and interact with reality through five physical senses, their electrical impulses interpreted by our brains. Add to those senses instinct, intuition, conscience, spirituality, and love. Our brains interpret every moment of contact with temporal reality, and I call this Experience. But experience is a mere catalyst, vehicle, method for something far greater: Becoming. We become through experience and choice and consequence. I feel hunger pangs, and I choose to eat, and I enjoy the consequence—each food choice leads to my physical and mental becoming. I feel anger after injury, and I choose to forgive, and I enjoy the consequence—each letting-go allows freedom from hatred and angst and bitterness, and contributes to my emotional and spiritual becoming. Irrespective of religion or morality or belief, life’s great paradigm is experience leading to choice leading to becoming. What will I choose to become? Steven likens becoming to learning to play the piano. We work and work over days and weeks to master a new piece of music, like Hot Cross Buns. To our surprise and delight, the day comes when we have mastered the piece. And at that moment, our Teacher turns the page and invites, “Wonderful! Now learn The Muffin Man.” And we can’t do it—we just can’t. We don’t know it. But we set to, and we struggle with one note after the other until, hours and days later, we have miraculously mastered the song. Then Teacher turns the page again, and again, and again. Becoming is effort, often painful grinding struggling effort. Becoming takes courage and vulnerability. Becoming involves more failure than success. But we cannot avoid it: we are becoming something, because we have experience, and confronting experience, we cannot resist choice, and choice creates. So, who will I choose to become? Sitting at the kitchen table, Dad taught me that life’s greatest gift is the ability of self-sight, to see oneself and to choose to change based on what we see: I cannot become what I want to become if I cannot see who I am. And sitting at the kitchen table, we exclaimed at the exquisite beauty of the Black-chinned Hummingbird sitting at the red-sugar feeder, fluorescent and alive.
Pictured above: not an old car muffler, but Mom’s and Dad’s mailbox after it was chiseled out from its mortar-sealed brick pedestal.
Pictured below: Dad’s “new” wheelchair. I’ll let you know when he uses it, but don’t hold your breath.
My nephew’s wedding day had finally come. I had worked many hours over several days to make Mom’s and Dad’s back yard—the wedding venue—look beautiful. But as I sat at my circular blue-clothed table listening to the couple exchange their self-customized vows, I wondered at the irony and futility of my work. In other words: not one living soul would have cared if the grass edges had not been string trimmed or if a weed or two had been missed—these would not have dampened anyone’s excited happiness. My parents and my sister appreciated my effort more for the sacrifice and love it expressed than for the merits of the landscaping, and rightly so. For the next event, will I target the same energy toward the venue appearance, or will I focus on weightier matters, like visiting with distant cousins and playing with the grandchildren and preparing heartfelt messages for the celebrants and lessening family burdens? The temperature plunged from 92 degrees the evening before to 53 degrees on the morning of the wedding day, with rain falling all night and all morning. But we tumbled the table cloths in the dryer and the clouds broke in time to warm and brighten the ceremony. Poor Dad could not walk—he could merely lean heavily with both hands on his front-and-center cane and drag each foot forward a few inches, with screwed face and suppressed groans. And that “walking” presupposed an ability to stand from his chair, which he could not. I turned around to see a very-former son-in-law vaunting mock magnanimity by grabbing Dad by limbs and joints and hoisting with humble hubris. But Dad preferred to wait for me, because the two of us together know just how to get the job done, with a heave of my elbow under his armpit to slowly stand, then his arm pretzeled heavily in mine to move across the grass toward the house. The bride looked lovely and confident and serene, despite the morning’s rain and the morning’s drama by some guests who were invited to stay home. And my nephew looked a naturally boyish nervous though he knew the marriage was right and good, and that his bride was the right bride and friend and life companion. Little Gabe, almost four, came jaunting proudly down the center aisle carpet holding up as if for royalty a pillow to which were tied the bouncing rings, lifting them high toward the couple, his uncle and brother, his aunt and sister, who read to him and bathe him and feed him and play games with him before his tired mother returns late from work, for she pays the bills, and the bills must be paid. Before the wedding, he fell and bonked his head and cried more from insult than from pain, wanting the comfort of love over a bag of ice, so I held him in my rocking chair and listened to his very big small-person sadness and fear—he was worried the new couple now would move to a house of their own and leave him alone and lonely. But they will keep their comfortable niche in the family house and continue to be Gabe’s protectors and nurturers until his mom and dad come home from work. Gabe’s head and heart felt better and soothed and he laughed at being tickled and dressed in a three-piece suit and praised. Weddings are not my favorite occasions because I know how much is at stake and how much trouble and pain lie ahead and how awry things can go, and I hope they will make it against the odds, and I hope they can find happiness, together. I always hope for a new couple, for who am I to jinx their joy with my suppressed sense of doom? I am no one, and the doom is a false projection of bad prophecy. We just need to put away our pride, and focus on the other’s happiness and fulfilment and meaning, and trust in life and in the Divine—then we can make it.
(Pictured above: Yours Truly with his two wonderful youngest children at my nephew’s back-yard wedding.)
Yesterday: I was not angling for a pat on the head, but neither did I expect a rap on the knuckles. I had listened to everything Dad said he would do to get ready for the wedding: string trim the grass along the sidewalks and the rock wall and around the landscape beds; hoe and pull all the weeds and tall grass and wild morning glory vines from the shrubs and beds. He could do none of it, and I suspected the man he had hired would not show up (he didn’t), so I set to work hoeing, snipping, trimming, raking, bagging, sweating, near collapse from illness and fatigue. Six neighborhood men converged for a successful second attempt to winch the impossibly heavy brick mailbox pedestal into its hole. They repaired the broken sprinkler pipe, stacked the sod, and will come back in a couple of days to see how the pedestal has settled, pour fresh cement, and restore the soil and grass. Dad sat and watched and worried and advised, straight from his bed, without taking his medicine, without drinking, without eating—straight to the job for the long-haul, sitting in the driveway in the hot sun, sweating out his strength, begging on the misery of seizures and exhaustion. Four friendly Columbians assembled the wedding tent and I stumbled to be friendly in Spanish, treating them to cold Brazilian Guaraná soda (“No es cerveza?” “No, no tiene alcohol.”) I finished my work after six hours, and putting the tools away, Dad told me I had done the string trimming wrong. No “thank you.” No “looks great.” No “you did a lot today.” Like I said, I did the work because it needed doing, and I was proud of the beautiful manicured result—I was not pandering for praise. But if you expect a job done a certain way, tell me at the beginning of the job; do not wait until the job is done and then criticize the result. I felt suddenly furious, and announced I was done because I had worked beyond my limits, which I had, and my arms and hands were shaking and my breathing tight and short and all I wanted was to lie down in a cool dark room. But I found little Gabe (almost four already!) and asked him the question he always hopes to hear: Do you want to bake some cupcakes, little friend? He measured and poured and stirred and tasted at every step, from bitter cocoa-powder paste to rich batter to sweet butter-cream icing to small spoonsful of sprinkles, the various chocolaty substances fingerpainted on his face. But Gabe’s all-time favorite game is Hide-and-Seek. “Nobody wants to play Hide-and-Seek with me,” he bemoaned as everyone worked, and I thought maybe I could find a little hiding and seeking energy for my little friend. When he counts, he counts fast, and ten “seconds” was barely enough time to bound off and stumble behind a bush, where he found me when I poked up for a peak and he squealed and I laughed and his mama watched us from the kitchen window, giggling. Gabe took most of the cupcakes home, thankfully. Later I laid in bed wondering at my still-smoldering anger and how outsized it was to the offense and wondering where it came from and pondering my six-decade relationship with the great man I call “Dad” and learning long ago not to expect praise but to get the job done right and wondering what my three daughters and my four sons think of their “Papa” and whether my expectations were reasonable, and reasonably expressed.
Last Night: And at 1:00 a.m. my sleeping ears began to hear Dad’s far-off call “Rog!” and at the second “Rog!” I jumped from my bed, threw off the loathed CPAP cup, grabbed my 45-year-old homemade brown terrycloth bathrobe and ran to the stairs to confront the whole spectrum of trouble. But there sat Dad in his recliner, reading, munching, happy, perfectly fine and safe, waving, smiling curiously at me looking distressed in my underwear at the top of the stairs. I hung my bathrobe on its hook and resumed staring at the dark ceiling, ready to let go of unintended offense, ready for sleep, ready for the last Mary Berry cupcake the next day, a Sunday, a day of rest.
Today: Dad, sitting with me at a round table under the wedding tent: “Rogie, did you do all this work in the yard? There’s not a single weed in the shrub beds, and they are all raked out so nice and neat. And the string-trimmed edges of the lawn are perfect. It’s all perfect. You have made the hard look so nice for the wedding. Thank you.”
The wedding is in three days, the last of many weddings and receptions and courts of honor and baby blessings to enliven Mom’s and Dad’s beautiful back yard over two decades, under the big tent. And we are getting ready. Since neither Dad nor I can face yardwork this week, Dad hired a man to string trim and mow the lawn to wedding-standard perfection. But the man’s mower had a flat tire and every pass left high spots on one side and stripes of drying grass on the other. The man promised to come back later after his other jobs, but his truck broke down. So Dad offered to mow the lawn himself (Dad: “I can ride my own mower”), and the man promised to come back tomorrow and string trim (Dad: “but I can’t string trim”). Dad moved on to scrape the peeling garage side access door, prepping for new paint, while I pulled weeds and crab grass in the flower beds—we each lasted half an hour—whereupon we retired to our respective recliners, him for an onion sandwich and me to use my literal lap top to address the latest urgent legal problem that couldn’t (wouldn’t) wait for my recovery. My home office sits above the garage, and the electric rumble of the automatic door motor, embedded in the floor joists of my office, startles me every time. After the door climbed its track today, I heard a woman’s wailing and I bolted barefoot for the garage, racing with the image of Dad dead on the concrete floor and Mom weeping unconsolably over him. But the garage was quiet, and Mom’s car was gone, and Dad was going round two with the door frame—and a branch chipper ground away down the street, sounding every bit the wailing old woman. As my heart settled a bit, I wondered at my paranoid catastrophic jumping to unwarranted conclusions based on some perhaps far-off future. You worry too much! (I know). Brad, a nice neighbor, brought his muscle truck and yellow straps to wrestle the 800-lb. brick knocked over mailbox back into its hole, and Ray wandered over to help, and Darrell, and every car driving by stopped to comment and encourage, but Dad had to watch from his chair, feeling useless, and I chose to watch from my upstairs office window, feeling useless, because I was not going to be the person who gave Brad and Ray and Darrell and Mom and Dad this modern plague of Covid-19 like the giving person who shared it with me in Dallas last week, despite the fancy hep filters and my liberal use of germ killer. I’m just glad Dad was not lying on the concrete floor with Mom wailing, and the wedding can enjoy the celebration it deserves.