Zoe on Zoom taught me that an “access point” is a moment in space-time when I feel sufficiently safe to risk human connection, and I found myself musing after sundown that every moment of my lifetime of space-time is either an access point or the absence of an access point: I am either seeking or avoiding connection. Dad felt safe enough to tell Cecilia his leg felt “off.” Cecilia felt safe enough to tell Mom that Dad’s leg was alarmingly swollen and red, and Mom told Jeanette, and Jeanette told her siblings, and announced to Mom and Dad: “We are going to the doctor, now.” And fear entered my heart, and I wondered, what does this mean? and I thought he might lose his leg to diabetes and infection and gangrene and amputation, altering his life and our lives horribly, this story’s end sprinting too-fast forward. But the doctor diagnosed cellulitis, a skin infection, and sent Mom and me to Walgreen’s for antibiotics while Jeanette trundled Dad home. A mere skin infection—nothing serious—a relief. Sarah sobered us with facts: cellulitis can lead to sepsis and to septic shock and to death, and she was soooooo glad Jeanette acted quickly. My sisters are heroines, aren’t they? They regularly save the day. Dad became downright chipper, perhaps from the relief of realizing he would keep his leg, and he tooled around the yard in his power chair with his electric hedge trimmers giving each of the many bushes a mullet cut: he could not reach the bush backs. When Dad was six, he used that leg to climb the neighbor’s old cherry tree, high into its branches, and the neighbor groused, “Get down from that tree!” but the boy only climbed higher. The neighbor threatened to squirt him with water from the garden hose, but the weak stream reached only part way up. And the neighbor sighed and pulled a nickel from his pocket and offered it to the boy if would climb down from the branches of the old cherry tree. That day in 1941, a six-year-old boy skipped home five cents richer. On another day in another tree, Dora grumbled for the boy to come down at once, and he did, with a “Yes, Mother,” because he loved her. Zoe told me over Zoom that our first and deepest question as human infants is this: Are my needs in life going to be met? and I found myself reflecting that I have asked this question long past my infancy, across my childhood and over my adolescence and into my marriage and my mid-life and will ask this question still in my old age. And with the asking I also answer: Yes, I will give myself to you, to you, and to you, and to you….
Tag Archives: Family
Courage at Twilight: Someone Else to Push the Chair
Jeanette has come, and I have left her with the work and fled to my upstairs office to read Brian Doyle’s humorous penetrating moving essays, and have escaped to the yards to trim low shrub runners and pluck crab grass and spray the arborvitae with putrescent eggs spiced with clove oil that mule deer despise, and I beg off from the evening walk to the end of the street and back, my feet aching from a bloody self-pedicure and the day’s hike, content that someone else has come to push the wheelchair. I want to heave at the odor of commercialized rot—I am desperate to deter the deer—and decide to follow a neighbor’s suggestion to cut in half bars of Irish Spring soap, drill a hole in each half, and drape a green perfumed necklace to each faltering arborvitae tree. Nearly half of the trees’ greenery was eaten by deer, and nearly the other half froze and dried and sluffed away, but new green, darker than the soap, richer, is peaking out from what I thought were dead twig ends. A new day, and Sarah has come, and she has rousted Dad from his reading lethargy to come watch the cousins play cards and to coax the cousins out the front door and down the homemade ramps, and Jeanette and Sarah have struck off to the end of the street, Amy aahing at divinely gorgeous flowers. I had followed, too, and waived at Greg, the thirty-three-year veteran retired police officer whose garage walls are speckled with five thousand police agency shoulder patches from all over the U.S. and the world, though he used to have six thousand patches and has sold one-thousand on e-Bay to self-fund a missing dental plan. I shoved off and caught up, and we ended the walk in the back yard on Memorial Day and encouraged Mom and Dad to tell stories of their long lives. Dad’s first memory of his mother came when he shut his finger in the screen door and sprouted tears and a purple blood blister, and Dora cooed and chortled over him and kissed his finger and comforted and promised he would be okay, and Dad decided at that moment in his life that he would be okay. Dad’s first memory of his father came from working outside in the yard, where Owen had a bucket of dirty transmission oil, and where Owen and Owen Jr., the latter only three, each dipped a paint brush in the black oil and slathered it darkly onto the thirsty sun-bleached wood-fence slats, an inexpensive waterproofing stain. Dad’s first memory of Mom was of the church dance when he was 25 and she was 21 and they met and he asked her for her phone number and she willingly gave him her number, and over the coming months he gazed at her often and thought how kind and smart and beautiful she was, and how nice it would be to live a long life together. They have moved inside for ice cream, and I have watered my pumpkin-seed mounds, waiting for sprouts to emerge, upon which I will shave flakes of green soap against the deer.
Yours Truly with sweet sisters Jeanette and Sarah.
Courage at Twilight: She Loves Me
“I slept so much better last night,” Dad crowed, reporting how much softer his mattress felt now that it was flipped over. I quietly asked Mom if she had noticed a difference, too, and she slightly shook her head no. Whether placebo or fact, I felt glad his sleep had been more comfortable, devoid of aching hips and nightmares. What would an 87-year-old have nightmares about? Answer: dreams of walking effortlessly to any destination he desires, and then waking up paralyzed. The waking is the nightmare. He grunts and he groans, but he rarely complains, and he keeps fighting for his best life. With Dad awake, showered, and breakfasted, the time had come for Mom’s requested Mother’s Day gift: an outing in the faithful Suburban to the forgotten little town of Copperton, located 20 miles straight west of us. Dad and I did not even know it existed. “This is very educational,” he opined. Copperton lies hidden behind a sandy bluff at the foot of the world’s biggest strip mine, the Bigham Canyon Mine, boasts about six gridded blocks, houses 829 inhabitants, and was founded by Utah Copper in 1926 as a model subsidized town for Mine employees. Mom and Dad grew up in the shadow of the Mine, and Dad postponed his education to work for Kennecott prior to university study and missionary service. He labored at two grueling tasks, the first shoveling up ore that had sloshed out of house-sized steel tumblers, tossing the escaped ore back in, and the second keeping free of obstruction sluices conveying rushing liquified ore. The tumblers destroyed his hearing. The sluices swept away lives as well as ore, lives of men trying to clear mine beams and fence posts and boulders from the flumes and instead getting swept away and drowned and crushed by the rushing rock. He risked limb and life for his education, for his mission, for his future. But in Copperton, all those agonies were 70 years past. Today, in the Mighty V8, we crawled past well-maintained century-old brick and stucco houses with steep Scandinavian gables and porticoed porches, neat little lawns and rose bushes, and friendly old-timers returning our waves. Mom loves roses, especially yellow roses. She instructed Dad to buy no more than a single yellow rose, but I bought her a dozen-cluster of miniature yellow rosebuds, ready to burst. She set the vase on the fireplace hearth where she could see the roses all the long lazy days. Washing dishes that evening, I watched through the kitchen window a scarlet-headed house finch perched on a lilac twig, tearing at the tiny purple petals one at a time, as in a game of She loves me—She loves me not—She loves me.
Courage at Twilight: With a Vehemence
“Welcome home!” Mom cheered with a bright smile and her arms raised high. “Welcome Home, Raj!” Dad echoed. (“Rog” looks sensical but rhymes with “Frog.”) The day was just another of 400 days I have come home to Sandy from work 55 miles away in Tooele. Yet Mom and Dad made me feel like the son newly home victorious from the front lines of life. Slurping our Lazy Rigatoni with sausage and sauce, I told them about volunteering that day at the free NoMas immigration clinic (No More a Stranger), and how I wished the facts for my asylum application were stronger, but that stronger facts would include kidnappings or beatings or murders, and how returning the man and his family to Maduro’s Venezuela likely would mean kidnappings and beatings and murders, and about how well I performed my work might mean escape, and if not escape, returning the man and his family to…. That morning, the shower pipe had again slipped into vibrating screams, which I loathe with rending vehemence, screaming in my soap-slimed face: “You’re doing it wrong! You’ll never be good enough!” and I had again adjusted the water quickly to quiet the unbearable banshee. And that evening, after dinner, Mom handed me a note Dad had written to Tamara, and asked if could deliver it, but after a twelve-hour work day I did not want to find the emotional energy needed to deliver a note to a woman dying of pancreatic cancer, feeling awkward with what to say, but I said simply, “My Dad wrote you a note: he loves you and hopes for you, we all do.” Tears and smiles: they arrive with our suffering and hope. We do hope for her. This is our faith, that in healing or in dying she finds hope and finds love. Pine needles had fallen thick over the years, an unruly mat in the back yard, and I quickly filled both cans, pensive about Tamara, waiting for next week to fill the cans again. With his bowl of chocolate ice cream and a slice of warm chocolate-chip pecan banana bread, Dad complained that he could not sleep the night before, how his hips and legs had hurt, how he sat on the edge of the bed in darkness wondering whether years of sleeping in the same spot on the same side of the same mattress might suggest turning the mattress over. In the day’s eleventh hour, I hurriedly stripped the bed, flipped the queen mattress over, and strapped on fresh sheets. Rising slowly in the stair lift, still they caught me in the last tuckings. “Which way did you flip it?” Dad asked. “I flipped it,” I answered. I hope he sleeps better. We shall see.
Courage at Twilight: Reminiscing with Mr. Towhee
The Spotted Towhee pecked at seeds on the ground and flitted from tree to rock to limb. I watched him for a full 20 minutes, and decided he was such an adorable little creature. I think he has taken up residence in the tangle of arctic willow trunks. Watching the pretty bird in the cool evening breeze, I reflected on many things. On how Dr. Seegmiller has decided to care for his invalid patients by making home visits, kneeling at recliners to clip nails and shave callouses. On how the new Church missionary from our neighborhood, off to Argentina for 18 months, had discounted her “simple faith” because it was not more sophisticated or profound, not realizing, yet, that simple faith is pure and powerful faith: genuine. On how Dad observed one evening, “Rog, if you got married now, we would be in a rest home” and I thought he might be right, and I determined to continue my mission to minister to my parents in their days of feebleness and need. On how I gave an ethics presentation to the city’s Public Works Department (water, sewer, and roads divisions), a tough crowd in boots and ball caps and dirty jeans, and how I coaxed them to laugh and to think, and how Mom and Dad insisted I show them my PowerPoint slides in an abbreviated show, and how we learn ethics through living, and promise to do better next time. On how I took Mom and Dad for a roll, pushing Mom’s wheelchair, past the guard shack and gate, into wealth and privilege, all the Porsches and Audis and Lincolns and BMWs racing by, and how they are not representative of most of America, or of me, and how I joked with Dad that he would be pulled over if he didn’t stop riding off the edge of the asphalt trail. And on how Steven had remarked that for all Dad’s disappointment and misery, and despite two minutes of agony every two hours (when nature calls), he is happy in his life, reading his books (several a week), scanning the New York Times (daily), watching television (totally at Mom’s mercy since he cannot operate the remote), enjoying tasty nutritious food (yesterday French sauteed chicken in onion cream sauce), visiting with visitors (from church, mostly), balancing his checkbook (check register in one hand, pencil in the other, calculator on his lap), doting on grandchildren and great-grandchildren (I have lost count), and chatting with his white-haired sweetheart (of 62 years). And Mr. Towhee hopped and flew all the while.
Above: French sauteed chick in onion cream sauce, roasted tarragon asparagus, and scalloped potatoes from a box.
Below: The melted jumper cables from my failed attempt to jump start Mom’s dead car battery.
Courage at Twilight: Recharged
Dad has tired of ham-onion-Swiss sandwiches, and Mom has had to get creative with his lunches. A plate of mixed nuts, applesauce, a slice of cheddar, carrot sticks, celery and cream cheese, and a peach cup—do not forget the diet Coke, on the rocks—have been this week’s fare. And the bag of kettle-fried potato chips on the floor by his recliner. Mom assembles Dad’s lunches simply because Dad cannot. He seems to enjoy ordering her around a bit, e.g., “Lucille, get me some crackers.” While they munched, I dug out the Subaru owner’s manual and read the jumper cable instructions carefully, three times, connected the jumper cables, carefully, to Mom’s Legacy and the Mighty V8, rechecked the instructions twice, started the Mighty V8’s engine, then turned the key to Mom’s Legacy. Dad’s faithful Suburban soon began to falter, then died, and smoke curled up from both batteries. Mom’s car never started. Continue reading
Courage at Twilight: 1920 Model-T
“There’s a hole in my head!” Dad groused, fingering his newly-stitchless scalp. “Why did Hinckley leave a hole in my head?” I examined Dad’s new scar, which curved over eight inches of wispy-haired scalp. The scar centered on a remaining scab, where the initial cancer had been scooped deeply out. I reassured him that his head looked fine, that there was no open wound, that what he felt as a hole was just a scab. “Why didn’t he stitch the skin together so there isn’t a hole in my head?” When the scab falls out, I suggested, I was sure he would see how neatly sutured the whole incision was. “But there’s a hole in my head.” Mom scowled and rolled her eyes, and I let the matter go. I would not be able convince him there was not a hole in his head, and did not want to argue. Maybe the surgeon did leave a hole in Dad’s head—what could I do about it other than watch for both healing and infection? Continue reading
Courage at Twilight: Booby-Trapped
In the three weeks since Steven and I planted the four emerald green arborvitae, I have watched them disintegrate before my eyes, each day more pieces of green leaf littering the ground. I emailed the nursery pleading for help to keep them alive—we had worked too hard and brotherly to let them die—and the nursery’s diagnostician replied that the trees looked alive but badly eaten, and he wondered if we had deer in the neighborhood. Boy do we, I fumed to myself for the thousandth time. Mule deer roam the neighborhood by the dozen, nipping at tulip sprouts and lily petals and other flowers and shrubs and garden produce, transforming from wild novelty to neighborhood bane—but I had not thought they would eat evergreens full of resins. I drove to Lowes immediately and purchased two deer repellent products, the first a powder of dried blood (the package did not say whose) that would trigger the instinctual flight response in deer (so the package promised), and the second a liquid concoction of putrescent egg solids graced with garlic. Eager for the trees to begin their recovery, I sprayed them liberally with putrescence, and discovered instantly why deer and rabbits—indeed any sane creature—would stay away. Then I spent an hour manicuring the tree moats and surrounding grounds, skunked and gagging the while. I would have done well to reverse the order of things. But by the time I had finished, the revolting stench had become strangely comforting: if it worked, our trees would recover and fill out, emerald green and evergreen fragrant (except for the days of repeated treatments). After my report to Dad, he explained how he has had increasing trouble rising from his shower chair after bathing. He thought he must be getting fatter because the arms of the chair hugged his hips tighter and tighter. Today he could not free himself of the chair, but stood with the chair clinging to his backside like in The Bishop’s Wife. Surely, he thought, he could not have gained that much weight in just a few days. He asked Elie to take a look at the chair. After turning the chair over, Elie announced that the chair’s metal supports had cracked, allowing the chair to bend and the arms to squeeze, and that if Mom and Dad kept using the chair it would soon snap in half and collapse beneath them. Sarah lost no time sending over a newer, stronger chair, a pleasant blue color. I have contemplated many times, in fact constantly, the value of the help and service my siblings have gifted to our parents, and how the gifts are in turn mine, lessening the weight of burdens, making room for a break, unstringing the bow. And I am grateful. After dinner Dad declared, “Roger, it is so nice of you to get home late from work and make us a dinner of roasted vegetables.” The sweet potato and butternut squash wedges, roasted in olive oil and salt, had indeed been delicious. But the odor of putrescent garlicky eggs remains arrogantly in my nostrils.
Courage at Twilight: A Magic Box
The sconce light on the garage had worked itself loose in winter’s gales, and when the finials fell off, the fixture hung by its wiring, daring me to fix it. I did not take the dare for a month, but finally found the courage to attempt. Home from work, ready to face the challenge, I heard Dad call me over. He detailed for me his “mental list” of chores he needed to do, including 1) power thatch the lawn, 2) purchase crabgrass and weed killer fertilizers, and 3) apply the fertilizers. He was clear that this was just his mental list, and that the chores needn’t be done right away, although rain was forecast in two days. He thought he would hire Victor to do the work, but I told him I could and I would do them, and he should save his dwindling funds. I promised to pick up the fertilizers tomorrow on my way home from work, to run the mower over the lawn, and to spread the fertilizer, this last one a quick and easy chore, for me. He wishes keenly that he could do the work, but he just cannot. Maybe, just maybe, I can push him in his wheelchair down the ramps and into the garage and help him transfer to the riding mower (a most difficult machine to mount), just last year a doable and delightful chore for him. I am willing to try. But today I had planned to attempt the sconce light repair, I told him, and walked outside to study the situation for a long spell while attempting to envision a solution. I could salvage the two brackets, though they had twisted a bit in the world. And the wiring remained intact. But I could I find the right bolts, nuts, and washers in Dad’s bolt box? Bolts and nuts can be hard to match for their varying thicknesses and treads. I had scoured the blue metal box as a teenager when learning to fix broken things and to assemble my own creations, and the blue box never left me wanting: I always found the hardware I needed. The box seemed to have a bottomless supply of bolts, screws, washers, and nuts, with an occasional hinge, and I enjoyed the clinking sounds and the rough poking on my fingers as I rummaged. The box seemed a tinkerer’s tiny treasure trove. The box was Dad’s meager inheritance from his father, Owen, who in turn received the box from his father, Nelson—both Owen and Nelson died before I was born. And today, a century after, here I was searching for, and finding, exactly the hardware I needed. “It must be a magic box,” Dad mused as I boasted of my success. Indeed, it must be, in more ways than the supply of random parts, but also the sounds and scratches and smells that carry me back generations to my forefathers, master mechanics in the mines of Utah and Nevada. Truthfully, I was more relieved than proud to have succeeded in remounting the fixture to the brick, and whispered a “thank you” to heaven to have been spared the frustration of very possible defeat. Mom just had to come and see the makeshift repair, and we stood staring at the light with delight. As the sun began to set, I suddenly knew I needed to get Dad out of his recliner, out of the house, and into the cool twilight sun for a “walk”—winter has been so long, and the snow finished melting just yesterday. Dad struggled into his power wheelchair and zoomed away toward the front door and the ramps that followed—I called after him a warning that his new chair is much faster than the loaner—in fact, I had just tested top speed and had frightened myself careening through the house, with G-force sensations similar to flooring a Tesla (well, almost). I gathered Mom into the other chair and pushed her down the driveway and up the sidewalk, Dad tooling independently behind, feeling a new awareness, similar to the pleasure of walking one’s beloved pets—but not quite—and somewhat like the simply joy of walking one’s children around the block—closer, but still a bit off—and I thought how nice it was to be able to take both of my parents for a walk in their wheelchairs at dusk.
The magic box and the sconce light:
Courage at Twilight: Grandchildren and Easter Eggs
Each prior reunion had been held in the basement great room, but this year Dad had to acknowledge that their first mission reunion since Covid-19 swept the world could not be held downstairs. He confessed to me that in his obsessive deliberations he had even thought of going downstairs by sitting on the top step and “like a baby” sliding down on his butt, one step at a time, to reach the regular basement venue. Several disastrous and humorous images of potential outcomes flashed through my mind, and I acknowledged with a chuckle that this might be possible—but how would we ever get back up those stairs? He certainly could not crawl up them “like a baby.” Sarah and Megan moved the sofas and set up 60 chairs, upstairs—59 people came, beloved friends and former missionaries all. Mom and Dad thrilled to see them again, chatting up a storm, remembering the old memories of Brazil and of trapsing through the big cities and along beaches and on farm country roads, remembering especially the people they taught and loved, and singing the fervent songs—and eating Brazilian food! This twentieth reunion would be a cherished memory. A different and quieter assembly occurred at the house, when Brian brought my new grandson Owen to receive our Church’s traditional “Name and Blessing” ordinance. Normally performed in a church setting, Brian had obtained permission to conduct the simple ceremony at Mom’s and Dad’s house, so that Dad could participate. Brian held Owen inside the circle of family men, four generations of Bakers—Dad had maneuvered his new power wheelchair to join his hands with ours in holding the baby as Brian pronounced the blessing and made official the baby’s name. Of course, we enjoyed good food afterward: my big pot of savory chicken vegetable soup. And a fun and festive gathering transpired on Easter Eve, with Brian’s family serving traditional homemade Polish pierogi, with kielbasa, and with my French purple cabbage (baked with bacon, carrots, onions, tart apples, and sweet spices like cloves and nutmeg). I also boiled a dozen eggs for Lila (3) to dye. She plopped the color tablets into clear plastic cups, and I added first vinegar and then water. I coached her in using the ever-awkward wire egg spoon to dunk each white egg and a few minutes later retrieve magically brightly colored eggs. She called the order of dipping: “red” then “pink” then “green” and so on. Her dexterity impressed me. Tooth stockers and eye stickers and fins—this was a dinosaur egg-dying kit—added to her fun. Mom and Dad watched from the next room and chuckled, remembering their own three-year-old children, and then grandchildren, dying eggs at Easter. She called to me “Love you, Grandpa” as the little family drove away toward home. I love you, too, sweetheart.
Pictured above: One of Lila’s dyed-egg dinosaurs.
Pictured below: Yours truly with Lila and Owen and dyed eggs:
Some mission reunion photos:
Courage at Twilight: Spicy Dumplings
I made Mom cry twice in one day. And I feel terrible. For dinner I served Korean dumplings with fresh steamed asparagus and zucchini. After serving Mom and Dad, while fetching my own plate, I heard Mom erupt into gagging coughs and turned to see her surprised and red-faced. “These dumplings are HOT!” Oh no, I thought, running for the bag, which revealed the dumplings to be Spicy Pork & Vegetable Dumplings, the word “Spicy” in conspicuous red letters which I had missed at the store for my focus on the photo of the yummy-looking dumplings. Indeed, the dumplings were very spicy and burned my tongue and my lips unpleasantly for an hour. After dinner I stood to clear the TV tables and clean the kitchen when Mom asked me to tell her one thing about my work day. I sighed and rolled my eyes. I literally rolled my eyes! I wanted to move on with my day and rush to the next task to be checked off the to-do list. And I am not good at shifting mental gears once moving in a mental direction. And I spent six years utterly alone with no one to talk to after work about my work day. And I spent three decades not talking about my work at home because my work was overwhelming to me and uninteresting to others and I wanted less to do with work, not more. And I have never been much of a talker. And I run all day from task to task to task and after dozens of tasks I struggle to remember what I even did that day. And those are my excuses, anyway. Weak ones. And as I rolled my eyes Mom coughed strangely and I looked to see her moving to cover her reddened face and tearing eyes with her soft blue fleece, her cough in reality a choking cry. My heart sank. I had hurt my sweet octogenarian mother. And I could not unhurt her. “Let me think,” I said, looking at the ceiling and not at her, to avoid her feeling self-conscious, “if I can remember what happened today.” I told her about finishing the book Just Mercy about a young Harvard lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in the deep South and fought for the freedom of Black men who had been wrongfully arrested and maliciously prosecuted and who spent years in solitary confinement on death row before their executions, or, for the lucky ones, their exonerations. I told her about working with my friend Paul the engineer to resolve difficult problems with real estate developers. I told her about the high-pressure 14-inch natural gas pipeline embedded in the bank of a flood channel and how the bank is eroding and how the gas company and the property owner want the City to fix the problem at taxpayer expense. And I told her about my commute home and the high winds that tried to blow me off I-80 and the clouds of dust and fog and snow and how heavy the traffic was. And I feel terrible, but I cannot un-ring the bell, or reverse time, or breath back in my words, or undo any of the other things I wish I could undo after I have done them. I am thinking tonight about how blessed I am that my mother loves me and is devoted to me and is interested in my day. I am thinking tonight about Mom announcing to me, “You will be so proud of me: I rode the bike today!” and about how she needs me to be proud of her, and about how I am proud of her, and need to tell her. I am thinking tonight about the responsibility I have to buttress her self-esteem, to affirm her, and to return love and devotion and interest. I am thinking tonight about how tomorrow night she will not need to ask me to tell her one thing about my day because I will have two or three already lined up.
Courage at Twilight: As If They Belonged
The March afternoon shone sunny and warm, and after struggling to help Dad transfer from his recliner to his power wheelchair, I asked him if he would like to take a “walk” to the end of the street and back, thinking he would enjoy a change of scenery and the fresh air. “What I’d really like,” he replied, was to ride his mower, set low, to pull up winter’s dead grass thatch. I sighed. I told him I respected his desire to ride the mower and prep the lawn, but if he was having so much difficulty climbing into the chair, I did not think he could safely mount the mower. He sighed. And he yielded. And I suggested the alternative of riding in his power chair to inspect the yard in preparation for riding the mower next week. He nodded, and I walked after him as he rode his chair out the front door, down the ramps, and onto the lawn. In the back yard, we found the grass saturated and squishy, and I urged him toward the higher ground. But he felt afraid to tip the chair on the incline and stuck to the lowland valley, filling the wheel treads with dead grass and mud. I sighed again. Back in the house, I parked the chair on the hardwood floor and let the mess dry, and in the evening picked the treads clean with chop sticks and vacuumed up the detritus. For dinner I cooked Tieghan Gerard’s delectable garlic lemon shrimp, to Mom’s delight: “I love shrimp!” I did not know but was pleased to discover her “favorite.” Sarah came over and, with the hospital bed gone, helped Steven and me reestablish Dad’s office—he had invited us to bring back his grandfather Nelson’s solid oak desk, but to orient the furniture so he could see out the window while using the computer. We grunted and strained in moving the desks and shelves and cabinets and books and endless computer chords into a simple configuration we thought best utilized the space. Dad ambled in and disapproved, but struggled to express what he wanted. I had lazily resisted trying other configurations—the stuff was heavy and awkward, after all—but dug into my shallow reservoir of patience, breathed deeply, and acquiesced. He finally announced his great pleasure in the outcome, and I felt compelled to confess his configuration, indeed, was the best, and to acknowledge the office was his and should be organized as he wanted. But my reservoir was dry, and I felt exhausted and desperate for time in a dark cave. Recovered by the next day, I enlisted Steven to help me select and plant juniper trees in place of the fallen spruce. We measured and drew the space and planned the tree spacing and earth sloping. At Glover nursery, we texted photos to Dad of seemingly acceptable replacements—we were not about to bring home trees he did not like—and he selected an emerald arborvitae. Four would occupy nicely the space yet leave room for them to fill out. As we dug the holes, Dad tooled out in his power chair and watched the entire two-hour process, contributing his encouragements: “Don’t dig the hole too deep.” “Are you sure it’s okay to bury the balls in their burlap?” Mom watched from the warmth of the kitchen window. Having approached the project carefully and technically, and having involved Dad in every decision (Mom was happy with whatever we did), the result pleased us all, and we had four new friends marshalled together under the falling spring snow, standing as if they had always been there, as if they belonged.
Pictured above: four new emerald arborvitae.
Nursery staff expertly stuffing four 7-foot-tall trees into my Subaru.
Courage at Twilight: Wet Feet
“Could you help me with something?” Mom whispered to me with concern wrinkling her face. For the first time in her adult life, after more than half a century, she could not reconcile her checkbook with her bank statement. We spent the next hour studying each entry, each check, and each deposit, adding and subtracting each entry on the check register. I just could not find the mistake—the math worked. Where had the money gone? I realized abruptly that one deposit had been entered twice, inflating the balance she had thought available. Visiting from North Carolina, Steve suggested I add forensic accounting to my resume. A simple login and transfer of funds on my smartphone set things right, to Mom’s tremendous relief. “You saved my life!” she exclaimed. Thankfully, Mom and Dad added me to their accounts just last week, so I was able to quickly and easily fix the problem from the comfort of the kitchen table. To cover her account, Mom had thought we would need to drive to the bank to determine the true balance, then return home for a check from Dad to move from his account to Mom’s, then drive back to the bank to deposit the check. The experience impressed Mom and instilled greater confidence in on-line banking, though Dad still will not allow me to deposit a check with my Wells Fargo app. The night before, I arrived home at 10 p.m. after a 14-hour Wednesday (due to City Council meeting). After greetings to Mom and Dad, I sat in my recliner (yes, I have one, too) to relax a moment before going to bed. Steven poked his head around the door frame and ventured, “Um, there might be a little problem in the basement.” Standing in his basement bedroom in stockinged feet, he began to notice an odd physical sensation, his brain slowly waking to the strange realities of wet socks and squishy carpet. He found the window well inundated with six inches of water, which somehow was finding its way through the foundation. We grabbed cups and buckets and began bailing gallon after gallon of muddy water, pouring at least 20 gallons carefully down the toilet, flushing between pours to keep the line clear. Steve stomped on bath towels while I ran for Dad’s carpet cleaner. The towels (a dozen) soaked up additional gallons, and the vacuum even more. We pointed a box fan at the moist area and will let the air blow for a week. We drew straws to see who would give Mom and Dad the bad news (Mom had spotted me trying to hide a five-gallon bucket as I slunk down the basement stairs at 11 p.m., still in my Sunday suit) and I lost. But they took the news well and appreciated our quick thinking and response. Several feet of snow, banked between our house and the neighbor’s, had melted too quickly on that one warm day, oversaturating the lawn with little lakes, and the water followed low spots in the landscaping to flood the window well. Happily, the other window wells were dry. The next day Steve texted me a photo of a baby cottontail rabbit which had fallen into another window well. “What next?!” I texted back. Donning long sleeves and gloves (just in case, though I have never been bitten by a rabbit), I opened the window and gently pressed a hand on the bunny, but he kicked at me and astonished us by jumping four feet straight up the window well wall, a foot short of the top. On my second attempt, I pounced more forcefully and captured the little creature, but it screamed and screamed, and there was nothing little about that human-sounding scream. I dredged from old memories a method of calming distressed animals by covering their eyes with a cupped hand, and succeeded in calming the bunny. I rubbed its little head and loose ears and soft gray fur. We introduced the bunny to Mom and Dad, stepped out the back door, knelt low to the ground, and released the rabbit. It bounded across the lawn, then stopped to look back, doubtless contemplating the miracle of having survived the attack of a gigantic predator. How grateful I felt that Steven had been here, at this time, to discover the flooded window well that would have gone undiscovered for weeks, that would have destroyed the basement bedroom, and here also to find the baby bunny that would have perished in another window well, and see to its rescue.
Courage at Twilight: Drying the Dishes
Home from work, I cleared the countertops and sinks of cups and bowls and spoons, loading them in precise fashion in the dish washer—I know exactly how each piece fits in its space. For decades I have taken great offense [hear my self-pitying sigh] at finding a dish in the sink after I have used copious quantities of my time and energy to empty the sink, and since I am the one that empties the sink, leaving a dish in the empty sink implies an unfair presumption that I am the family dishwasher servant [more self-pity]. When Mom takes these random dishes out of the sink and puts them in the dishwasher, I thank her, and am grateful for her courtesy to me. But it was time to stop ruminating and to load Dad into the Faithful Suburban so the dermatologist could examine this tag and that mole and this scab that will not heal, the skin doctor who is smiley and polite but profoundly disinterested. “Hello! How are you!” Three minutes of examination, and a declination to remove this or that because it is harmless even if Dad does not want this or that attached to his body because it does not belong and asks to have it removed. “Good-bye! Have a great afternoon!” I had terrible trouble getting Dad into the car, both times, succeeding only with an ungainly combination of pushing and lifting and shoving until he was on the seat and my muscles quivered and my lumbar complained. I had wondered what I would do if he could not rise from his wheelchair or if he collapsed once risen, and I had no answer—the only answer was getting him in somehow. “That was our last trip to Dr. Jensen,” I whispered to mom, distressed. And that distress and my tweaked back stalked me through making dinner and eating dinner and cleaning up after dinner and up the stairs and down the weeks and months of wakings. But Mom is sweet, and recently has taken to putting aside her needlepoint and shuffling over to the kitchen sink to towel dry and put away the pots and pans I have just washed, and I appreciate her effort to say thank you with a towel and an empty sink.
(Pictured above: felt rose craft I made for Valentine’s Day.)
(Pictured below: my valentine from my sweet granddaughter Lila.)
Courage at Twilight: Calling Stanley Steamer
Poor Dad has been obsessing over the imminent missionary reunion, making a long mental list of everything to be done. He had become justifiably worried, to the point of fright, about holding the reunion in the basement great room: the stairs would simply be impossible for him unless he were carried, and with a bunch of former 20-year-old missionaries now in their 70s, attempting to carry his muscular bulk up and down a flight of stairs would be dangerous and reckless for everyone involved. While I was taking way too long to slowly and gently bring him around to this realization, Sarah simply announced the change of venue as a fact for him to deal with. Quick and efficient and effective. Dad knows not to argue with Sarah, though of course it was his best interest she had at heart. I appreciated her bringing quick resolution to the issue. Dad wanted the cream shag carpets to look clean and new, and called his favorite carpet cleaner Stanley Steamer—using the name “Stanley” makes the company seem downright personable. He did his best with poor hearing and trembling fingers to navigate the endless telephone menus only to be stonewalled by a nation-wide collapse of Stanley’s computer reservation system. Before I had my winter coat and traditional Portuguese hat off after work, Mom asked me to help Dad call Stanley Steamer. After dinner, I suggested Dad try again, and he called the number. Ten seconds later he handed the phone to me: “You talk to her. I can’t hear a thing she’s saying.” A minute later the reservation was made, for the next morning. Mom and Dad both sighed with relief at crossing this item off the mental list. Even his recliner received a steam cleaning, along with its food-stained carpet curtilage, and he sat in the chair with the protection of two blankets against residual moisture. I had mentioned to Mom and Dad the thick layer of dust lying on their closet shelves and clothes and other contents, and wondered aloud about the possibility of having the air ducts and vents vacuumed. They rightly stewed about the cost, but got a consultation and bid from friendly Stanley. Stay tuned. While I assembled our Hawaiian chicken and coconut rice dinner, Dad moseyed over to me behind his walker, puffing and grunting with the enormous effort—I could have told him not to bother, but did not want to insult his dignity—to apprise me of their strategy for paying this year’s income taxes and for stretching out their dwindling savings, and to tell me all the reasons why planet Earth is perfectly situated for life, rotating on an add axis angle that allows for changing seasons and hydrologic cycles and a balanced breathable oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere and how the moon’s gravity causes ocean tides and even land tides. Did you know New York City rises and falls 14 inches each day under lunar tidal forces? I didn’t.
Courage at Twilight: Dusting the Chandelier
The reunion is not for another month yet. But Dad wants everything to be perfect for his former missionaries when they come. He has made a mental list of all the little jobs he wants done, though he does not say he wants me to do them. He and Mom have not been able to hold an April reunion for two years due to Covid-19. But on March 31, up to one hundred of them, all dear friends, will descend upon the house and descend the basement stairs to tell stories and sing hymns and eat Brazilian food and bask in love and memory. As their mission president, he was a young 36 (Mom 32), and they about 20. Now he is 87 and they about 70. As Dad rattled off his list, he tossed sections of the New York Times from his chair to the couch—better than dropping them on the floor to be tripped and slipped on, although sometimes he misses—and I grabbed pen and paper to write the tasks. (I can remember a list of only two things; give me three and I am sunk.) The first task was to clean the chandelier and replace all the bulbs, and I volunteered. I could see no dust or grime, and all the teardrop lights worked fine, so I thought it a wasteful task. But to honor him I dragged in the ten-foot step ladder, climbed to inspect, brought up a pack of baby wipes to wash off the dust, and swapped out all seventeen bulbs. While I could see nothing wrong with the chandelier before, now it seemed to shine with twice its prior brilliance. Most important, Dad was happy, which made Mom happy. While I question the wisdom of a reunion, not wanting to see Dad push himself into an exhaustion difficult to recover from, the camaraderie will make him immensely happy. And who knows if this will be the last reunion he hosts. Dad’s days are growing shorter and shorter, by which I mean he rests longer and longer at night and during daytime naps. He no longer reads until three in the morning. Even midnight has been trimmed to 10:30, when Mom helps him upstairs after the ten o’clock news. He keeps a volume of the encyclopedia upstairs and another downstairs, to sneak in minutes of study between CNAs and naps and Mom’s NCIS and meals and voyages to the restroom. Upstairs is volume “A”. I heard him telling Cecilia all about Air and Africa. Downstairs is volume “R” and he reads until his bladder forces him to move. I have wondered what should be my reaction to his grunts and groans as he moves around. Are they signs of acute distress to which I should run in response? Or are they a learned habit reflecting a pervasive state of chronic daily distress? I know I cannot live my life poised tautly on the brink of anxiety, responding in a rush to all his distress, which would become my own acute and chronic mental distress. I would break down teetering always on the edge of emergency. My present reaction is to continue my activities while listening with one ear for signs of extreme distress, like Dad yelling, “Rog! I need your help!” That is when I run. Far from acute, but still distressing, is when Dad or Mom ask me about things I have just finished telling them about. I brought home from Zacateca’s Market three Big Burritos, filled with chopped steak, and announced the steak-filled burritos for dinner. Taking a bite, he asked, “Is this steak? My burrito has steak in it.” Yes, I respond, I just told you it was a steak burrito. “Oh,” he said, both of us feeling bad, for different reasons. I am learning too slowly to be patient with fading memories and ears hard of hearing.
Courage at Twilight: An Argument over English Muffins
Sleepiness oppresses me on my hour-long drive after Wednesday night City Council meetings. I often arrive at home after 10 p.m., in time to sleep and make the return commute the next morning. My late-night commuter ritual includes a stop at Macy’s grocery store for a bag of bulk milk chocolate almonds or lemon yogurt almonds or Bit o’ Honey candies, which I munch compulsively until they are gone or until my stomach growls at me to quit. On less disciplined nights, I fall for Franz donuts and chocolate milk. This bad habit has become entrenched, and needs to be reformed. So, I bought instead a bag of raw peanuts, having the virtues of being tasty, cheap, healthy, and wakeful. Healthy and wakeful and cheap they may have been, but tasty they were not. I reckon I am too accustomed to salted roasted nuts to enjoy them raw. Mom wants Dad to avoid white flower breads, due to diabetes, and since Dad has been enjoying English Muffins, she instructed me to pick up the whole wheat variety: tasty and healthy. My stomach gnawing for dislike of raw peanuts, I toasted a whole wheat English muffin, topped with butter and raspberry jam, and crunched off a bite with high anticipation. But the taste and texture were awful. The next morning, Dad declared, “Rog, those whole wheat things are not English muffins, they are just bread, and they’re awful.” I was ready to concede they were awful, but not that they were not English muffins. “Yes, they are English muffins,” I countered, “but made with whole wheat flour.” “No, they’re just bread.” “They are not just bread. You may not like them, but they are still English muffins.” “They are not English muffins: they have no wholes in them: they’re just dark round breads they call an English muffin.” “Well, it doesn’t matter,” I yielded, “because I bought some white flour English muffins I am sure you will like,” and toasted him one. Though arguing over nomenclature, we agreed they were horrible, and I threw them away. That night brought 15 inches of new snow, followed by hours behind the snow blower. CNA Cecilia called to report the roads were impassable, which they were, and apologized for not being able to come, which we understood. While I pushed snow, Mom helped Dad shower and dry and dress. I settled Dad to his chosen breakfast of yogurt and a toasted white-flour English muffin with butter and sugar-free jam. I had not thrown the raw peanuts away because Dad suggested a little hot oil and salt in my iron pan might roast them nicely. My roasted and only slightly-burned peanuts were in fact tasty, in addition to being cheap and only slightly less healthy. The roasted peanut aroma permeated the house as I wandered to the basement at one in the morning to flip the heat cable switch so the gutters and downspouts would not fill and freeze. I followed a whining sound to a glass bowl containing Dad’s hearing aids, and opened them to disconnect the batteries. I munched a few homemade peanuts. The snow continued to fall.
Courage at Twilight: In Shadow Still
The doorbell rang, and my friends, our friends, came happily through the door I opened for them. One spoke no English. Another spoke no Portuguese. The other five all spoke fluently or toward the proficient end of the spectrum. On the menu was Indian butter chicken, which I had simmered and stirred in the crock pot all day, to be served over coconut basmati rice. I had arranged the visit because I love Portuguese and I love Brazil and I like her and her friends, and wanted to meet her mother who is here for a month from Brazil. I pulled the dining room table apart and inserted the two leaves that allowed us to comfortably seat ten. She contributed cotton candy grapes, delightfully delicious. The conversation slid quickly into the old times of 1956 and 1964 and 1972, when Dad and Mom knew their families, the old ones now passed away. And Dad launched into all the old stories about becoming honorary members of an indigenous tribe, about trips to the beaches at Santos and past the tall paraná pines in Londrina’s interior, about my bus trip to Rio de Janeiro as an infant, where I sat on the beach in a picnic basket—yes, I have been to Rio—about taking the bonde (trolley) to the fim da linha (the end of the line) just to see what was there, about Mom pushing me in the stroller to the American Embassy every day for our mail, and remembering half-century-old conversations. Everyone chuckled and chimed in. I tried to add my boyhood experience, but could not quite find a way in—I do not like talking over people. And Dad and the guests laughed and reminisced and talked about the old Brazilian crooners, like Vinícios de Morais, and Tom Jobim (think “Girl from Ipanema”), and Dorival Caymmi, who I adore, who sang about a heartsick youth missing the beaches and palm trees and girls of his home town, and Dad broke into croaky Caymmi song with “Coqueiro de Itapoã” (Itapoã coconut palm) and the areia (sandy beach) and the morenas (beautiful dark-skinned women) and the youth’s saudades (such nostalgia pulling at his heartstrings), and the guests giggled and shouted “I remember that one!” But I could not quite find my way in. “Não vale a pena,” I whispered to her: It’s not worth it. Everyone loved my butter chicken, and as they talked and sang, I cleared the table and washed the dishes. When they left, my work would already be done, and standing at the kitchen sink I felt no pressure to compete or contribute or wiggle my way in. Between plates and pans, I munched on cotton candy grapes, delightfully delicious.
(Photo from eBay, under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Courage at Twilight: Standing Guard
Dad explained that with the hard plastic mat under his new office chair, he could not stand up from it because the chair moved chaotically around beneath him on its coasters, and he invited me to remove the mat. This was fortunate for me since my mat was cracked and broken. A week later Dad remarked that without the hard plastic mat under his new office chair, he could not move the chair at all because its coasters sank into the shag and refused to roll, and he is stuck, too far (three feet) from his walker. He asked me to return the mat. I had since thrown my broken mat away, so now my chair is stuck in the shag. As I carried the mat downstairs in the early morning, Mom walked past the door of her dark room dressed in her long white night dress. She joked with me later that I must have thought I had seen a ghost. I rejoined about having seen an angel with white hair in flowing white robes. She laughed. Bringing Dad home from the doctor at the end of the day, I prepared to build momentum to roll him up the long ramp. (I am amazed at the gravitational difficulty one single foot of elevation makes behind a loaded wheelchair.) “Where’s my javelina?” he interrupted. “We just passed it,” I replied, not about to stop our progress mid-ramp to point out the pig. I position the pig at the foot of the ramp, a warning to would-be ramp walkers (trippers), but moved it to make way for him and his wheelchair. “Well, make sure not to leave him out in the rain and snow where he will rust too much,” Dad instructed. You may recall that this particular javelina was plasma cut from a sheet of pre-corroded sheet steel, intended to mature with age and element, to continue rusting out of doors, the surface corrosion adding to the sculpture’s rustic charm but not damaging the structure. I admit to returning the javelina to its guard post after depositing Dad inside. But he was pleasant all evening, he praised my dinner of spicy chicken-and-sausage dirty rice, and this morning, when Cecilia asked cheerily, “How are you?” he responded with his trademark, “Marvelously well, thank you,” and moved on to his life’s great physical challenge: the journey to the shower.
Courage at Twilight: A Still and Silent Pen
My pen has been still and silent. No pleasant scratching of the nib with Shoreline Gold on porous paper. No clicking of the keys. But my mind? Though my tongue is quiet, my mind screams what cannot be written for want of vocabulary, for want of courage, and for fear of offending the innocent. I spent a week away, helping family move along a flip house toward the closing that will pay the debts and determine the quarter’s income. I painted, schlepped, installed vanity lighting in three bathrooms, and installed six ceiling fans, dubbing myself the Ceiling Fan King. Jeanette worked with me, cutting, twisting, and splicing wire, holding parts aloft for long periods of time while I installed insanely difficult-to-insert screws, bolting on fan blades (making sure the right color faced down), and leveling light bars, and by some miracle our record of correct installation, meaning the lights came on, was 11 for 11. And my sighs of relief were 11 times audible and sincere. And then the time came to leave for home, the home I cannot seem to make my own because it is not my own, but someone else’s, in which I borrow a small space, in which I produce culinary delights, with flops here and there—which Mom and Dad still call brilliant—because I’m not a nurse but a general problem solver and cook. And I am shouting again because they do not wear their hearing aids and I would rather shout that say everything twice with a “What’s that?” in between. And Dad dictates the news as he reads it from the New York Times: 35,000 Russian men seeking asylum to escape conscription for Putin’s aggressions in Ukraine; former President Trump’s latest lunacy; the ongoing hunt for dark matter. And Dad says again the absurdly obvious, “Lucille, I’m getting weaker.” Last week, Mom gave me a page from her 1983 journal, written when I was 18 years old, after I left home for college, when a mother’s heart broke for the first departure of her firstborn. “I miss Roger,” she wrote. “There are so many things a mother feels for her children. They are just very dear to her. She remembers nursing them as tiny infants, carrying them around as little children, making cakes and going on walks, helping them in school, etc. She remembers hugs and kisses and little things they made for her. Then the children leave, and it is hard for her. The empty bedroom, the missing place at the table, all the little things that were fixed or made better by them. At the same time, it is right that children leave. They grow and become independent and contributing adults. That’s the way of it. Roger will always be a part of me and I will always love him.” I do not think I have ever read a sweeter rumination about the pining sweetness of a mother for her child. And here I sit, home again—to stay—at 58, a full 40 years after leaving that first time, and Mom remembers my leaving still and appreciates my coming home all the more, and calls me “Dear” and “Baby” and asks me to text her when I get safely to work, and asks about my day when I come home, and has a problem or two for me to solve, which I solve, and clings to me sweetly with the softest skin of an old woman’s hands. And the next time one of us leaves home, it will be her, and I will miss her, and I will gaze into the empty bedroom, and I will remark the missing place at the kitchen table. And I will write my feelings about it all, though for a while my pen will be as still, and as silent, as the empty house.
(Pictured above, Mom at 82 holding great-grandson Wiggy.)
Courage at Twilight: Members of the Tribe
My ears are attuned to every little sound: the clicks of the break release handles on Dad’s downstairs walker; Mom’s syncopated shuffle; the single beep as the stair lift arrives at the end of the track, upstairs or down; cursing from the bathroom. This morning I awoke to the muscular sound of an industrial-strength vacuum in the master bedroom. Through the doorway I saw Dad sitting on the walker seat and pushing the carpet cleaner forward and back next to the bed. I did not ask, but I knew without asking. His weekday CNA Cecilia—faithful, pleasant, and kind—came shortly after and helped him shower. From my home office I could hear their one-way conversation: she said very little. “Do you know how old the earth is?” he asked her. “Four and a half billion years old!” He knows and loves the Bible and its God, but informed Cecilia that “God did not make the earth in six days.” Rather, He probably took billions of years to make our globe. Dad explained to her about the sun burning hydrogen in nuclear fusion, with enough hydrogen still to burn brightly for billions of years more. He told her that the only way we know how to use nuclear fusion reactions is with a hydrogen bomb, and referenced the atom bombs dropped on Japan. He expounded about ocean currents, and about the hydrologic cycle of evaporation and precipitation and the rivers of water vapor coursing through the skies, and about Argentina’s defiant propensity to default on its international debts, and about the formation of galaxies and stars. “I like to know things,” he summed up. Cecilia, an excellent listener, interposed an occasional affirming “really?” and “oh.” He told her about our family visiting an Indian tribe in Brazil in 1974, and how the tribal elders would not let us into their compound without being members of their tribe, and about how the tribal elders allowed us to become members of their tribe by following them on a course through the grounds and buildings, ending at a ceremonial tree, and about how we bought blow guns and bows and arrows from the indigenous women of the tribe. This is a true story. I know because I was ten and I was there. Dad’s stories sometimes jump from one unconnected subject to another, shifting like an old car with a worn out clutch. Dad lamented to Cecilia, “A few months ago I was a normal person. I could walk. I could do things.” That is not true. I know because I am 58 and I have been there with him, watching the insidiously steady downward degeneration culminating in painful undignified immobility and having to use the carpet cleaner in the mornings. He is not untruthful—he just forgets. And he cannot retrieve his books from his bookshelves or his checkbook from his desk or a glass of ice water, and has to ask Mom and me to fetch these and other things for him. He asked me to bring him Mom’s youthful portrait from his desk, placing it on the end table by his recliner, where he can see it all day as he reads. I remember seeing that portrait of Mom on his desk thirty years ago when I visited his New Brunswick office in the Johnson & Johnson tower. He has gazed at Mom’s youthful portrait for more than six decades, and he tells Mom everyday what a wonderful person she is, and that he loves her. And he steals hugs when she walks by, and she returns the hug and runs her fingers through his sparse wispy hair.
Courage at Twilight: Mangos for Lunch
Hyrum called me from Brazil, where two weeks ago he began his two years of missionary service for his Church. He was tired but happy, overwhelmed but enthusiastic, intimidated but feeling the Spirit of God, not knowing the language but still communicating, exactly what a new missionary would expect to feel. I encouraged him to be patient and compassionate with himself, to not think about the long two years of days ahead, but about today, one intentional day at a time. The burly tatted barber gave him a nice haircut. And I talked with Brian in Tooele. Poor Lila has another cold, and Owen is already laughing. Avery’s business is looking up. Brian’s Fiverr clientele is growing—he raised his prices because he was too busy with too many clients, but they all requested him anyway. He and Avery are finding balance in the chaotic life of a young family. And I talked with John in Idaho. Their bathroom ceiling fell in while they were out of town. Luckily, the leak from their upstairs neighbors was gray water (washing machine) not black water (toilet). Their landlady put them in a hotel for a few nights, and hired a handyman to fix the ceiling and walls. I fasted a Sunday to seek God’s help in their search for employment after graduation. Henry is almost walking, and puckers and blows kisses. And I talked with Caleb and Edie in Panama, who arrived safety despite cancelled flights and chaotic connections. At church they rejoiced at seeing dear mission friends and converts. The hammocks by the mangrove lagoon were nice, too. Edie is a Marco Polo wiz. And I talked with Hannah over lunch at Costa Vida. This father is trying to find ways to connect with his teenage daughter. We are writing in the pages of a daddy-daughter journal, passing it back and forth, sharing our dreams and goals and interests. She drove herself to my office for the first time. And I talked with Laura in Chicago. I sent her pretty fabrics, and she is full of quilting ideas. Connor is studying furiously in medical school. William has four teeth and loves blackberries. And I talked with Dad and Mom. Dad’s CNAs help him bathe, dress, and get settled downstairs. He has been sending them home early, but paying full price, partly from magnanimity, partly from disliking pampering. Mom and I frequently do chores they could do, like vacuuming the floor of spilled food around his recliner. They are sweet to him; they are his friends; they listen patiently to his stories and laugh at his jokes and sympathize with his pains and indignities, but also need to work the time for which they are paid. He did not disagree. And I talked with Chip at church, who said he would stop by to see Dad, and did. He is a retired east coast cop who speaks his mind, and exclaimed, “Just put on a double diaper and come to church anyway!” He was only partly kidding. “We miss you.” People do miss Dad at church, and inquire after him. A few actually come over, walking the talk, practicing what they preach. Terry brought over a bag of cold apples for Dad to enjoy; peaches are not in season. In Patos de Minas, mangos are in season, and my missionary son’s church meetinghouse nurtures two enormous mango trees in the yard. He is loving both the mangos and the mission. He is feeling the truth of the Gospel message, sharing the good news of the restored Church. He is feeling the presence of God through His Spirit, and love for the people and the place. He says he is Brazilian at heart. A father could not wish for more for his son.
(Pictured above: Yours Truly with 6 of my 7 wonderful children, plus spouses (missing one), and my four beautiful grandchildren.)
Courage at Twilight: Count Your Blessings
(This chapter was to be posted on December 10 but I neglected to click the “publish” button! Hopefully, better late than never.)
When one counts one’s blessings, should the recounting of one’s afflictions come before or after? Or at all? I am certainly greatly blessed in having moved from my solitude to my parents’ home. Living the legacy of faithful family. Serving and contributing and giving care. Cooking and shopping and driving and repairing and cleaning up. The gratitude and love and support of one’s devoted parents. Reading dozens of books during my commute. But the coin’s obverse also reveals itself, sometimes painfully. My state-mandated divorce class emphasized how harmful is a parent’s geographic distance from a child. I have paid a price by living an hour away from my teenage daughter. We used to share an evening a week, and some weekends, cooking, baking, listening to music, playing games, sitting in the hot tub, doing crafts, conversing, dreaming. Now I am lucky to take her to lunch twice a month. She is 16. She just earned her driver license. She takes voice lessons and sings at church and in an audition choir. She feels so far away. In a similar vein, pursuing a romantic relationship has proven impractical what with the worries and fatigues of caregiving and homemaking. Though I have dated, the added stress of relationship building (and, more to the point, relationship failure) has heaped new heaviness to my burdens. My sisters tell me they love me and pray for me, that God is with me, but caution me to be aware of my limits and my needs, and to express them, so I can enjoy health and happiness, too. That is good counsel. One date said to me, There are lots of ways of caring for your parents without living with them. That seemed to cheapen the revelation that brought me here. That felt like questioning my intentions and deliberations and decisions. That belied and belittled the magnitude of my mission and the refining value of my consecration. Moving here was the right thing to do—even a providential revelational opportunity—but did come at a personal cost. Was that cost worth paying? My daughter Laura encouraged me to wrap myself in Psalm 23 as I experience this caregiving phase of life: The LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. There is no turning back. I am here to stay, come what may.
Courage at Twilight: Slick As Ice
I did not lie. I was truthful. But my truth was incompletely portrayed. I had peeled back only one or two layers of the cathartic onion. Perhaps a reader would not want or need more truth about my Christmas struggle. “TMI” one of my children might say to another of my children who might catalog the day’s (bowel) movements: Too Much Information. But I did not write this exploration for a reader: I wrote this exploration for myself, to study and understand what happens in the heart, to maintain my mental health amidst pressures not before encountered, and to remember the tangy sweet-and-sour of these last days. I have grieved living alone. I have grieved losing my spouse. I am beginning to process the griefs of living with, and caring for, my dear dying parents. My true Christmas griefs—frustratingly fresh, still, after seven years—are none of these. My true Christmas griefs are the loss of hopes and dreams for a life with an intimate loving partner, the loss of a family unit in a church culture in which the nuclear family is the dreamed-for idyll, the loss of family-together traditions, family reunions, family camping trips, family vacations, family portraits. I insist that we are still a family—families come in all shapes and sizes and varieties—and under the doctrine of my Church, we are an eternal family unit, connected forever and ever, if we want to be. That this family has lost something, however—something living and vital and happy—is my sorrow and sadness and grief. TMI, perhaps, especially for my children, who bear their own crosses of grief and loss and sorrow which they did not deserve and were not their fault. Crosses I cannot carry for them. But I can love them, I can lift them, I can believe in them, and I can trust them as they pilgrim through life. And now I am part of another family, another variety of family, made up of a very old man and woman married to each other for 60 years, and their 58-year-old baby (Mom often calls me “baby,” as in “good-night baby” and she and Dad frequently tell me the old stories of when I was an actual baby in cloth diapers and plastic pants and gumming the crib railing and crawling to the cabinet to empty it of clanging pots and pans and lids)—a threesome family. And the father of this family went to the hospital today for an MRI of his lumbar back, to look for and rule out an injury that would be causing his dramatic and worsening wasting and weakness, for Dad has no strength to walk, stand, pivot, lift or drop the foot plate on his wheelchair, lift his feet onto the foot plate or slide his feet off the foot plate, or heave himself into the Mighty V8. What he has called “paralysis” for months, and what the doctors said was not paralysis but profound weakness, has become factually a very real paralysis. As I walked through the garage door from work, Dad called urgently to me from the bathroom—I ran to help lift his fleece pants over his hips and pivot to lean heavily into the walker. The bathroom routine has many procedural steps, all important, but the procedural nightmare is, ironically, a doctor visit—the doctors may kill him before his illness does, what with all the consultations and tests. Sparing the minute sequential detail, I will mention only one step, that of rolling Dad in his wheelchair down the eight-foot ramp. In the fall I stained and finished the ramp, and it is handsome and shiny and brown…and slick as ice when wet from rain and snow. The snow came last night, a warm heavy snow, leaving every surface thoroughly wet, and I simply could not wheel him down the ramp today, not without falling on my backside or my face and losing Dad and the chair to gravity and the sloping driveway. So, in a huge irony, and with great difficulty, I helped Dad up out of his wheelchair, down two steps, and back into his wheelchair, bypassing my beautiful ramp. If the temperate 50-something weather holds (it will not—this is December 28), I will slather on a grip-paint product recommended by a neighbor, who I think is worried I will kill my dad or myself on my ramp.
Courage at Twilight: Sunset Deliveries
I thought they were cute. Maybe others disagreed. But the notion of old glass dressed up and repurposed appealed to me. I made 78 of them, each unique, with patches and stripes and twists and belts in pastels and bright colors. My children helped me as we sat around the kitchen table with our diluted white glue and our strips of colored tissue, inventing patterns on the fly. I bought 78 plastic flowers from a dollar store and planted them in the jars, filled with gravel. I sold some. I gave some away as gifts. I put electric candles in them and arranged them to form a colorful lantern lane at Laura’s wedding. And I put the leftovers in boxes which I stored in the garage, which I brought with me to Mom’s and Dad’s house, and which have been sitting idle in their basement. The time had come either to throw them away or to give them away. Later this afternoon I would decide. For now, Hannah was playing in the wet snow rolling and assembling snowman parts, using Austrian pine needles as whiskers and pine cones for eyes, and an Olaf stick for a tuft of hair on top. And I knew this was my chance to play, to turn away from my infinite chores and to play, to play with my daughter making snowmen and a fort, a massive fort, founded with spheres of heavy wet snow too large for three adults to roll any farther, a five-gallon bucket making big cylindrical bricks for walls with battlements on top. And my son Caleb loved me enough to leap from the house barefoot and giggling to run madly in the snow and to tackle me with laughter and glee and rolling in the snow and throwing wet snow in each other’s faces and laughing like little boys—he loved me that much. When they left to spend Christmas elsewhere, I sank back into that dark lonely place, knowing that to claw my way out on this Christmas eve I would be wise to find a way to look outward from myself to someone else, and those dusty papier mâché mayonnaise and pickle jars in their basement boxes came to mind. While Mom made a list, I rushed to a dollar store for fresh plastic winter flowers and a bag of cheap gravel, and made 20 homemade vases to deliver on Christmas eve. Mom beamed when I asked her to come with me and to navigate to her 20 chosen homes, where in the orange wisps of sunset I set the vases on doorsteps to be found on the eve or on the day of Christmas.
Courage at Twilight: Happy Birthday, Dad
Dad turned 87 years old today. Which means, he said, the day was the first of his 88th year on this planet earth. Eighty-seven is just an arbitrary number to me, but its numerical value in a human-life context does imply advanced age and all the ailments and challenges and wisdom that accompany. And 87 seems awfully close to 90, which everyone knows is old. But to me, Dad is just Dad, whatever his age. He refused my recent suggestion that we move our traditional Baker Christmas Eve party from the 24th to the 23rd—he would not countenance celebrating himself in juxtaposition with the Celebration of Christ. What’s more, he shares a birthday wish Joseph Smith, born in 1805, to whom the Father and the Son manifested themselves in fiery visitation and through whom They revealed a restoration of the gospel and church of Jesus Christ. No, Dad would not set himself up for celebratory propinquity with the Son of God and His great latter-day Prophet. I conceded the point and informed him of the family conveniences of celebrating Jesus and Joseph and not him on the 23rd, and that any festivities would be purely coincidental and all pointed heavenward. So, the family gathered, and we ate a hearty meal, and we sang Christmas carols and hymns, and Dad narrated the story of the birth of Jesus in the company of animals and the humblest of people, and how even the earth’s great scholars from eastern lands came to honor and endow. Two great-grandchildren, Lila and Gabe, arranged the animal and human figurines as the story played out in their three- and four-year-old minds. And, yes, we sang happy birthday to Dad, by which point he could not escape our ebullient attentions. And he received our gifts, some wrapped in gold paper. Now we are two days from Christmas. People in politeness persist in asking me if I am ready for Christmas, to which I answer “almost.” But I wonder if I am ever ready for Christmas, if any of us are ever really ready for Christmas. I did manage to purchase all the gifts and mail all the cards which convention and family require. I helped decorate the house and the yard and helped cook the meals and bake the pies. I joined in the board games and snowman building and the Christmas-movie watching. But is my heart ready for Christmas? Is my heart ready for all seven of my children and their spouses and children to be elsewhere for Christmas? Is my heart ready to make Christmas special for Mom and Dad, the objects of my awkward caregiving, and I in turn the past and perpetual object of their careful childrearing? Am I ready to be humble and kind and generous? Am I ready to forgive and to move forward with courage into newness? I want to answer, Yes, I am ready, or will be in time, but the silent truth is, I am not ready—not really—but I’m trying. I was ready enough to stand around the piano with the family group and sing my part, and I was ready to join the friendly snowball fight with the children and to be tackled by my barefoot smiling son in the snow and to roll frostily around grinding snow in each other’s laughing faces, and I was ready to say “I love you” to my cherished ones.
(Pictured above: my Nutella French Silk Pie, in a Julia Childs pie shell.)
(Below: glimpses of a celebration, with birthday boy under the light of the lamps.)
Courage at Twilight: Help with the Turkey
“Can I help with the turkey?” Dad inquired at 8:00 a.m., approaching slowly, barely able to stand, with his thrift store not-a-walker, which has become his favorite walker. “No,” Mom responded definitively. Of course not. She has planned this Thanksgiving turkey bake for weeks. She bought the frozen turkey a month ago, placed it in the refrigerator a week ago, and dressed it an hour ago. “Should we turn the oven on now?” he queried, wanting to helpful, but much to late in the process to be helpful. “No, the turkey isn’t going in until 9:00,” she explained. The more Dad tried to help, the more he intruded on her well-made plans. “If we turn the oven on now, it will be pre-heated by 9:00,” he ventured again. “That’s too early,” she barked. “The oven only takes ten minutes to pre-heat.” Dad slinked away slowly, unable to be helpful, because he had not made the plan and did not know the plan, and because his too-late suggestions interloped on the well-established plan. He had been good-hearted, well-meaning, but extraneous. I watched this collapsed negotiation and felt an ache. Mom and Dad have navigated their relationship for 62 years. Are they any better at it now than early on? Are the negotiations any easier than at first? Relationships are always a challenge, always a negotiation, always a struggle of overlapping egos and an accommodation of disparate wills. Even the good-hearted and well-meaning work to exhaustion nudging those two wills to one purpose. After my 27-year marriage, I was beyond tired, and I wonder still these seven years later if I would ever find the courage and strength to take up anew the dance of negotiation and compromise. Being alone is so much easier, having only occasional arguments with myself. But at times I pull out the scales and examine the platters hung on chains, weighing the ease of aloneness against the terribleness of loneliness, watching them teeter on the fulcrum of elusive equilibrium. Dad asked me to string the bushes with Christmas lights, since he cannot do it anymore, with particular colors in a particular order on particular bushes, and I invited my capable creative son John to help me. He suggested a fun variety of colors for adjacent bushes, nowhere close to Dad’s plan, but I figured Dad would not really notice, not being able to walk anywhere near that far, and rarely seeing his yard after dark. Just then Dad shot through the front door on his power wheelchair to come inspect my work. And I figured it would be better, in this case, to ask permission than forgiveness, so I intercepted him en route, told him of John’s color notion, and asked him if that would be alright. Of course, having been asked, he said yes, and sat in his chair on the sidewalk, cheering us on, expressing his excitement and gratitude. “I just love seeing Christmas lights on my bushes. This is important to me, and makes me happy.” That negotiation worked out well—I love happy endings—and did not even leave me feeling taxed. The job done, he wheeled and we walked into the house for small slices of very rich French pear almond tart.
Courage at Twilight: Tzatziki
We both arrived home at 5:00 p.m., me from work, ready to cook dinner, and Dad from the podiatrist, holding his and Mom’s Burger King “lunch.” I decided to cook dinner anyway, because I had planned it, and I wanted to eat something wonderful, and I had all the fresh ingredients, and the chicken breast was thawed. Listening to the news blaring for two hours while I cook had many times left me frustrated and depleted and sensorily overstimulated. But I finally discovered I can listen to music while I cook, with my new headphones, old fashioned and corded, for watching movies on the airplane seat back screen. Suddenly lost in Adam Young’s masterful short scores, like Apollo 11 and Project Excelsior and Mount Rushmore. Instead of squinting absurdly as if to shut out the shouting commentators, I began to smile and bop and groove as I mixed my tzatziki sauce. Chicken gyros were on the menu. Before I started cooking, Mom asked me to tell her one thing about my day at work, and I evaded, mentioning lunch with a friend, like saying “Recess” in answer to “What’s your favorite class?” I don’t know if I do not want to talk about work, or if I am simply uncomfortable talking. I am not a talker. Dad, now, he is a talker. In my conversations with Dad, he does the talking. I contribute an occasional “um hum” or “that’s interesting” or “I didn’t know that” as he expounds Christian doctrine, analyzes personalities, described his perpetual 87-year-old aches and pains (“it’s getting worse, Rog”), and worries about family members and finances. He passes the time and fills the voids with continuous intelligent talk. He dredges up the old stories: about a policeman we knew, JM, who was caught running two brothels in New Jersey and got caught and rejected an invitation to retire and was convicted and imprisoned instead; about the diminutive old German, Buntz, who died, and Dad stepped up to be executor of the estate, and the man’s coin collection (I remember it) lay stacked in short pillars on the ping-pong table in the basement, and fetched $20,000 for Buntz’s family; about the union tradesmen in 1971 who picketed the construction of our East Brunswick church building, being built by the labor of church members—Dad was the volunteer contractor—until they grew ashamed of themselves for picketing a church being built by its members, and they pitched in and wished us well with smiles; about how Jesus is good and true and trustworthy, doing more for us in every moment that we can possibly perceive or understand, though we will see it all one day. I play the role of hushed filial audience, always impressed, frequently annoyed, often sighing burdened and dismayed. I say little and am uncomfortable with the stage performance that is conversation, never heedless of how my hearers react. But when my distress is sufficiently severe, and I have gathered my courage for weeks or months, I venture to tell Mom and Dad my troubles, and I am articulate and smart despite the awful hurt, and they listen carefully and interject carefully and do not grow weary. And then we fall back into our conversational roles, and later while Dad watches the news with Mom, I listen to Adam Young and dance and cook chicken gyros with tzatziki sauce.
(Pictured above: chicken gyros in tzatziki sauce, with pita bend awkwardly buttressed.)
Courage at Twilight: Bouquets of Yellow Roses
Mom’s favorite flower is the yellow rose, and on the most momentous of the year’s days (including Mother’s Day and Mom’s birthday), Dad brings home a big bouquet of yellow roses. “What do you think of that one, Rog?” he pointed from his power cart at a bouquet of 18 yellow roses. “Let’s get it,” he encouraged without awaiting my affirmation, and I placed the flowers in the basket. He asked me what I thought about a second bouquet of muti-colored flowers, and instructed me to add it to the basket. Then a third, with roses the color of sweet aromatic ripe cantaloup, joined the other bouquets. “Are all of these for Mom?” I wondered. “Of course! It’s her birthday!” One 18-rose bouquet would tell her she is special, a second that she is very special. But a third would make a definite statement about her being supremely special, especially to him. Stuck in a chair he exits only with difficulty and pain, Dad often calls to Mom, “If you were to walk by, I would give you a hug.” Or sometimes, the more direct, “I want to hug you.” Just when I expect her to huff with the sentimentality and inconvenience, she sidles up to him, holds his hand, caresses his head, kisses his cheek, and reaffirms her love: “I love you, too, Dear.” Mom at her most tender. She held his hand today, too, in the radiology recovery room after the lumbar puncture that sucked from him two tablespoons of spinal fluid, sent to the Mayo Clinic with his blood for advanced diagnostics. Dad is hopeful that a firm diagnosis can finally be had, with a corresponding treatment. I am hopeful his fighting spirit can outlast the ticking months of decline without diagnosis. Answers bring knowledge, and with knowledge, hope. Having no answer to the mystery causes of his mystery disease is like waiting for the ice to melt in the arctic: a very long wait with an uncertain outcome of dubious value. His head still rang with singing from Mom’s birthday party the night before, at which the family gathered and sang the old campfire songs—nearly the whole book of them—we have sung around real campfires through three decades of family reunions. Old songs like “Springtime in the Rockies” (chorus lyrics below). During their occasional moments of marital tension, I tell them “I can’t take it” and I leave the room, and Dad assures me later that he has never had an argument with my mother, has never even been angry with her, which is nonsense, of course. But these are sentiments he honors and believes and embodies. My father loves and honors my mother. He seeks her counsel and her tender affections still, after 60 years of marriage. And he gives her big bouquets of yellow roses.
When it’s springtime in the Rockies,
I’m coming back to you.
Little sweetheart of the mountains,
With your bonnie eyes of blue.
Once again, I’ll say I love you,
While the birds sing all the day.
When it’s springtime in the Rockies,
In the Rockies far away.
Courage at Twilight: Mission Land
As a young man of 20, I spent two years living in Portugal, as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a white shirt and tie and pocket name plaque, teaching the Gospel to whoever would listen, and buttressing the new members of our young congregations. I became fluent in the beautiful Portuguese language, and I delighted in the clang of trolly cars and in the countryside of olive groves and vineyards, windmills and farms, cork trees and salt air blown in off the sea. I returned to the United States a changed man, having strengthened my convictions, and having sacrificed and labored on behalf of these people who I had come to love. Now 58, I was contemplating how I could strengthen my connection with my 16-year-old daughter, who is moving so quickly toward womanhood, who all to soon will fling herself into adulthood, and I thought, maybe a trip somewhere. I wanted meaning, meaning and beauty, and a bond we would share our whole lives. With those parameters, the solution soon became apparent—Portugal. Between them, my sisters Jeanette and Sarah spent every night I was gone caring for Mom and Dad, making the trip possible for everyone. After months of planning, our threesome launched, and trapsing one week in bustling chaotic Lisbon and one week on the idyllic island of Madeira, both my former fields of missionary labor. (Hannah invited her older brother to tag along, and he added so much to the adventure.) We saw, of course, Lisbon’s compulsory tourist sights. We sought out the traditional pastries (pasteis de nata were our favorite) and historic neighborhoods (like the narrow winding cobbled streets of Alfama on the capitol city hillside) and authentic working-class restaurants (where we ate sauteed cuttlefish our first night). Madeira’s scenery is achingly beautiful, and we explored the whole mountainous island, its coasts and peaks, is black-rock beaches and high scenic overlooks, its fruit markets and terraced vineyards. Most precious of all, I reunited with the first member of my Church on Madeira—Amélia, now 87 years old: cheerful, feisty, and lonely—at whose house the first Church meetings were held, and the small oval inlaid wood table where the first sacramental emblems were blessed and distributed to the just-as-small congregation. We visited her three times, telling the old stories, laughing at old blunders, baking banana bread, preparing a Sunday meal for her and her family, taking pictures, hugging, weeping at parting. Visiting Amélia meant infinitely more than visiting the gorgeous cathedrals and ancient castles, though we saw plenty of those, too. And on the long flight home, I contemplated how this had been a monumental trip for Hyrum and Hannah (and for me). It changed their lives, their perspectives of the world and their place in it, their perspectives of their parents and family and how they fit in, their perspectives of their Church and of missionary work and of the power of forging relationships of faith in the mission field through genuine loving labor, and the deep and eternal nature of those bonds. My children may not fully comprehend the power of their adventure, the transformational power, for a long time, perhaps not until they take their own children to their fields of mission labor a generation after. That is how it is with the generations, each learning what it can from the one before, and then teaching what it can to the next: “I lived right over there. I walked this street every day. This is what I often ate: half of a grilled chicken brushed with hot pepper oil; stewed squid; pasteis de bacalhau, pasteis de nata, papo seco bread with creamy cheese and quince marmelada. Look at the cobblestone streets and mosaic stone sidewalks, and up there the Castelo de São Jorge, and over there Cristo Rei….” And then to hear Hyrum bubble over, “I am so excited!” for his own imminent missionary service in Brazil. And then to hear Hannah effuse, “Dad, thank you so much!”
(Pictured above: the north shore of the island of Madeira.)
Lisbon and us from St. George Castle.
Visiting our Church’s Lisbon Temple (dedicated 2018).
A restored and working Portuguese wind mill, circa 1810.
Courage at Twilight: Witch Season
My relative mood seems tied directly to Dad’s relative strength, and today has been his weakest in the eight days since his homecoming, too reminiscent of pre-hospital days, days of barely standing and of barely walking and of legs quivering. “Up up up!” I commanded, using physical therapy’s compulsory three-times repetition (is that diacope, palilalia, or anaphora?). Straighten your legs. Pull your butt in. Chest out. Chin up. All this harassment to make standing and walking as safe and easy as possible. Leaning over a walker is never safe, for the walker can run away, leaving its master behind on the floor. My spirits had sunk with his sinking strength. But Jeanette and I pushed Mom in her wheelchair as Dad motored himself very slowly down the street—until I showed him how to switch from “slow” to “moderate” (there is no “fast” in a power wheelchair), allowing us to walk along at a normal pace. The Wasatch mountains looked powerfully but benignly down upon us, boasting a vast patched skirt of oranges and reds from the gambel oaks and mountain maples transitioning toward winter. And Mom and I assembled and painted our witch craft kits—all cute and no scary—I added no warts but mere freckles to her nose—and added them to the decorated front porch, along with a witch’s broom I fortuitously forgot to put away yesterday, and purple mums, and pumpkins newly painted by Jeanette and Amy, next to the wheelchair ramps now stained and sealed as well as sturdy. And we sat on the back patio in the cool evening air, so pleasant on the skin, discussing already our traditional family Christmas Eve gathering, the shadow of the sinking sun climbing up the mountain’s skirt, the vibrancy of red and orange leaves delighting in matching sunset hues, both fading now to the subdued, the sleepy.
Courage at Twilight: The Big Leak
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.”
Courage at Twilight: Sparking Lives
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.
Courage at Twilight: Getting Ready
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.)
Courage at Twilight: How’s Your Dad?
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.)
Courage at Twilight: Marvelously Well
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
Courage at Twilight: So Many Prayers
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.)
Courage at Twilight: So Many Cards
Cards have begun to pour in from the Church primary children, and from some of the men and women of the neighborhood, and from family members, and former missionaries, all with sincere and adorable and tender messages to Dad, including great-grandchild scribbles. We taped all the cards to Dad’s rehab room wall, where he must see them every day, to remind him that many people love him and hope for his healing and return home.
You Are the Best!
Never Give Up!
I want to play Legos at your house.
Hurry up and get better. We miss you at church!
I love you so much!
I hope you get well soon!
Please know you’re in our prayers and thoughts.
I think about you every day!
I like to play outside and look for pinecones in your backyard.
I hope you get better soon.
Hoping and praying for you every day.
You are the goodest Baker in the world.
We love you.
You can do this. Never give up.
I love you Grandpa.
Courage at Twilight: Something to Hope For
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.
Courage at Twilight: Simple Gifts
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.
Courage at Twilight: Visiting Hours
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.)
Courage at Twilight: Insult to Injury
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.
(Artist renditions of pathogen by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.)
Courage at Twilight: The House Is Oddly Quiet
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.
The Gambel Oak acorn Mom brought home from the Temple Quarry Trail.
Courage at Twilight: A Box of Peaches
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.)
Courage at Twilight: Squishy
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.
Courage at Twilight: The Young Come After
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.
Courage at Twilight: Paths to the Peak
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.)
Courage at Twilight: The Best Bad Experience
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.
Courage at Twilight: Cabin Fever
“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.”