“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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
Don’t tell him about the big leak, I exhorted myself. Victor will fix it on Monday. But Dad is home, at the end of a month of hospitalization and rehabilitation, and will want to know why Victor is digging up the back yard. So, I told him, at the end of his first day home, and that Victor and I knew exactly the problem, and it would be fixed on Monday. Dad is home. He drove his power wheelchair slowly up the smooth and sturdy ramps on a 5:1 slope, drove his chair through the front door and into the house and directly to his recliner. “Those ramps are great, Rog. Smooth and sturdy, and perfect.” In his institution rooms, after the visitors had left, he stared at the ceiling through the long nights, fighting off loneliness and despondency. Daily daytime visits from family and former missionaries and church members—and especially from Mom—had injected him with love and with hope, had fortified him against the dark nights. In his recliner, he gazed slowly around the room, taking in the familiar surroundings, which looked different now, somehow, feeling an immense swelling gratitude for “every window and wall,” for the heavy scrolled wood dining table and hutch that he and Mom had bought in 1975 for $700 from a newly-divorced mother who need cash, now, and for the painting by Greason of a pre-industrial French countryside at dusk, for the many lamps that light his late-night reading, for the windows and chairs, for the front-door which had opened for his return, for Mom’s needlepoint of Noah and his wife and the animals and the ark, and for the kitchen counter laden with fresh fruit, the gratitude of survivors, of soldiers who nearly lost, but somehow managed to not, life’s latest battle, finding everything the same, but different, seeing with the eyes of someone returning home from war. So, I did not want to tell him how I had begun to suspect a sprinkler problem, when pressures dipped, and when Station 7 was dry, and knew for sure when I stepped in two inches of water in the back yard, and saw the mat of grass rising, floating on the pond growing underneath, and turned the valve to off. But I chose a good moment, and told him, and he was glad Victor was coming on Monday to fix it. His hospital bed arrived in time to learn to raise the head and knees, to raise the whole bed, and to make the bed with sheets and blankets, and to add to the décor the laminated magazine page with the painting of Jesus which he had taped to the rehabilitation bed floorboard, which visage, together with the afterglow of the visits, helped him endure intact the interminable nights. Sarah made him motor down the ramps for a walk in the cool darkness of the autumn evening, and then back up, praising again my solid and sturdy ramps. He looked at me with a twinkle and vowed, “I’m going to climb the stairs”—and I said we were going to have a conversation about that (in other words, no, you’re not)—“but not today.”
Sarah introduced me to Jennifer, who explained the caregiver services her staff will provide every morning from 9:30 to 11:30, seven days a week—help Dad get out of bed, get showered and dried and dressed, get his Cheerios-and-blueberry breakfast, get him settled in his recliner with the newspaper and his books, wipe down the shower, empty and clean the commode, take out the trash, wash the dirty clothes, clean up after breakfast, prepare his lunch for later, help him pull weeds and trim bushes, get him ready for church on Sundays, and carry on conversation. Your staff will do all that for him? “Sparking lives” is what her company pledges—helping Dad find the “spark” in a life heavy with deepening disability. My own heaviness eased a bit with the hope of burdens shared. Mom has been Dad’s spark these long weeks, spending hours with him every single day, smuggling hamburgers and fries, reading Trivial Pursuit questions, listening to his complaints and discomforts, patting and rubbing his hands, kissing him good-night, and calling “Good-night, Dear” on her way out the door every night. I do not recall ever seeing Mom and Dad kiss as I was growing up, or later, or now. But she has insisted on delivering to her husband a tender and definite kiss on the mouth every night. Jeanette and Sarah and Carolyn and Megan have been sparks of pleasant light with their frequent visits, bringing comfort and cheer and strength and love. I hope cooking nice dinners will sparkle their days, meals they can look forward to and enjoy. Dad’s last two dinners at the rehab facility—if one can call them meals at all—consisted of two bologna and cheese sliders one night, and two boiled hot dogs on buns the next. Having enjoyed a clandestine bacon-burger shortly before dinner, Dad ate only one hot dog, and gave the other to Mom, which she wrapped in a paper towel and lodged in her purse for later. Cooking starts tomorrow because Dad comes home tomorrow; not that I did not cook for Mom—we enjoyed steamed vegetables and hard-boiled eggs many evenings—light, simple, and healthy meals (making allowance for bowls of chocolate after-dinner ice cream). For Dad to ride his power wheelchair from the van into the house, I needed to supply wheelchair ramps, two to hurdle the porch and one to access the drop-step living room. No suitable ramps could be had on KSL Classifieds or on Facebook Marketplace or at Harbor Freight—all suggested to me by the wheelchair supplier—and I refused to spend $559 each from the grab bar vendor—so I resolved to make the ramps myself. I sketched a simple design and made a materials list. With no workshop of my own, I appreciated Lowe’s for cutting my lumber to specs at no additional cost. I assembled the ramps at home, pushing through moments of tool-frustration and self-doubt, and they are sturdy and smooth and precise. If Dad wants, we can paint over the bare plywood later. For now, when he comes home, he will be able to motor himself from the transport van (Sarah is his chauffeur) into the house, able to reach every corner of the ground floor. He can read as long as he wants in his living room recliner, and then motor himself to his hospital bed. But if wants to go upstairs to his own room and bed, his familiar comfortable bed, the deadline for his staircase climb will be 10 p.m. sharp.
For a second time, United Health Care served a termination notice, ending Dad’s care the next day. Sarah scrambled to assemble her second appeal, bolstered by Dad’s nurse and physical therapist who averred he “would benefit from continued skilled therapy to maximize patient’s independence at home and reduce rehospitalization risk.” And for the second time the appeal was granted only after Dad was to have been expelled. But we only need two more days, and then he will be coming home. Not to his own bed, sadly, but to a hospital bed on the main floor, in the office and library we transformed into a bedroom, still finding room for a computer—Mom’s wedding portrait sits framed on the desk these 60 years later—and a shelf full of his favorite books, with paintings of Jesus on the walls. The bed will come in two days, and I will assemble the commode tomorrow. In the meantime, Dad has worked hard pushing the walker down the hall and climbing up and down two railed stairs, after which he is exhausted for hours. Still, he makes incremental progress every day. With new hope, lost for a time, he has been hinting stubbornly that he anticipates settling back into his old-friend habits of reading late into the night and climbing the stairs alone at 3:00 a.m. to fall into bed, and arising at 10:00 a.m. to shower and dress and to brave the stairs and eat breakfast at noon. And my mind shudders from the memories of pulling him up the stairs with a belt and lifting him off the toilet and hoisting him into bed, repeatedly, and his trembling and groaning and collapsing under me, and the thought of continuing fills me with dread and frustration and my own trembling, and I want to scream that I’m not doing this anymore!!! In my mind I have been rehearsing speeches to him about how his unhealthy night-owl habits not only weaken him but frighten and exhaust Mom and me, and how the thought of picking up where we left off the day of the ambulance ride, as if that ride had never happened, and thinking absurdly that I’m all better now when he almost died and he still barely can move and each step alone on the stairs is a tooth-clenching death dare. The extent of Dad’s recovery is remarkable; I had felt the reaper breathing foully on me from too close. Still, the thought of Dad’s homecoming has brought me no joy, only stress and anxiety and the phantom smell of raw onions, and visions of mayonnaise smeared on the kitchen counter, and the awful wait as Dad somehow pulls himself slowly up 16 stairs at 3:00 in the morning when I should be sleeping soundly but cannot for knowing how impossibly difficult each stair is to step up, and how easily he could misstep and tumble to the landing in a crumpled pile, mooting in three seconds the so-long month of pains and efforts, setbacks and struggles, fears and tearful longings, and the small but hard-won victories during four weeks of hospitalization and convalescence—all that for nothing, all that for the pride of doing it my way.
(Pictured above, Dad’s office-turned-bedroom awaiting his hospital bed, and him.)
At church I was besieged by men and women asking me “How’s your dad?” and asking Mom “How’s Nelson?” and the judgmental part of me—a too-big portion—wanted to say that if they really cared they would telephone personally (not text) or stop by the house, make some kind of effort, instead of waiting until we are sitting in church, preparing for the service, to dart in and nibble on the news like a tame piranha on a fried chicken leg. But I look into their eyes and see their love and sincerity, and I answer their questions—Dad is getting a little stronger and we hope to bring him home next weekend—and I ask my God and my Lord to both forgive me my trespasses. After all, church is our social center, and our cultural conditioning makes us most comfortable making inquiries at church. We tell them we have rearranged Dad’s office-library into a bedroom, and that the hospital bed is scheduled for delivery next Saturday morning, but we made room for one bookshelf with his favorite religion books and histories and biographies. And I do not tell them (nor did I tell Mom or Dad) that the insurance company gave us notice they were going to release (evict) Dad yesterday, though he cannot yet care for himself at home, and that Sarah appealed the typical too-early discharge (eviction), and won the appeal and an extra week’s therapy and care. I did not tell Mom and Dad because it would have upset them needlessly, what with the pending appeal becoming the approved appeal, mooting the whole question, the threatened early departure suddenly irrelevant. Dad is still very unwell, and though he tells the world he is “marvelously well, thank you,” he whispers to us he is still so sick. Mom will visit Dad today for the 18th consecutive day, and I am her driver, in her royal blue Subaru Legacy. But first Burke has stopped by in his new BMW convertible to take Mom for a spin through the neighborhoods, the wind in her white hair, her hands raised high as they take off with a muscly roar down the street, and I feel grateful for the Burkes of the world, who look out for the little people, whether driving BMWs or Subarus or Fords.
(Pictured above, Dad’s office-library turned bedroom, awaiting the hospital bed, with room still for his computer desk and one very full bookshelf.)
One might suppose that Dad, as a rule, feels good about his life, for whenever anyone asks him How are you? he responds, “I’m marvelously well, thank you.” Living so close to him as I have, I know this response to be a well-studied lie. How can he truthfully lie helpless in his hospital bed and truthfully represent himself as being marvelously well? Not for several decades did I realize that Dad is not necessarily doing well all the time, and at times might be feeling great distress, and that his rote response manifests an intentional positivity in the face of serious adversity. Mike, the physical therapist, brisked into the room with a How are you today, Nelson? And Dad whispered hoarsely, I’m marvelously well, thank you. Continue reading
Dad tore the glossy page from the Church magazine (the Liahona) and had Mom tape it to the wall of Dad’s rehab center room. But in the shadow of the armoire, the painting hung disappointingly obscured. “I made a mistake, Rog,” he mourned. “I can’t see Him. I should have left the picture in the magazine.” Without asking, I simply removed the picture from the wall and taped it to the armoire door, in the room’s full light, and Dad’s face lit up with pleasure and relief. “That’s so much better. Thank you, Rog.” The picture was a reproduction of Dad’s favorite painting of Jesus, who Dad adores and knows as his personal Savior and Friend. “You know, Dad, people are praying for you, in the name of Jesus, all over the world.” I listed some of the locations where friends and families assured me they were praying for Dad, and for Mom, including in the Church’s sacred temples: Utah, New Jersey, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Illinois, Virginia, California, and Texas; Cardston, Alberta, Canada; Brazil and Portugal. Next door and down the street. Larry texted me: “I just paused and offered up a prayer for your dad, your mom, and you. Please let them know we love them.” And at church, numerous people have shown genuine concern, and have reassured us with, “Nelson is in our prayers.” Hundreds of people are praying from the soul spaces of love and faith, in the name of the Divine, for Dad. I have felt too fatigued to pray much formally, to kneel and bow and form words in the normal pattern. Some would say I do not pray. But I do. I am a walking prayer, a driving prayer, a working prayer, a mealtime prayer, a mountain bike prayer, a hospital bedside prayer. At night, too tired and heavy to remain vertical, I contemplate the ceiling from my bed and open my heart and mind to the Divine, casting my will upward, not really caring if I connect, but just opening myself and giving myself to Whoever orders the vast Universe, offering up what little I have to give, giving thanks that Christ’s Kingdom continues coming, giving thanks for the privilege of being a small part of the Kingdom’s growing, using no words, being simply a willing consciousness. “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire / Uttered or unexpressed.” (See Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, #145. Text by James Montgomery, 1771-1854.)
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.
The pace of progress crawls and stalls, and we wonder at times if there is any hope for his healing or merely the painful prolonged waiting for the inevitable end. “I don’t know if your dad will ever be able to come home again,” Mom softly wept to me, bravely facing possibilities of future truth. In the skilled nursing facility, Dad wondered similar thoughts, whether he would ever leave his hospital bed, if his suddenly imprisoned legs would ever find a measure of old freedom. For non-medicals like me, “auto immune response” is a vague and strange euphemism for individual internal corporal civil war, the body’s immune system besieging and dismantling other vital systems and organs it is meant to protect. He sits in a reclining bed unable to do anything but to exist, and to think long about life, and to sleep. He wakes from post-visitor exhaustion and is so relieved to find Jeanette still in his room, at night, and reaches for her reassuring hand to squeeze before she leaves. “I’m so glad you’re here. I feel very sad. I wonder if there is any hope of ever getting better.” Though aged 87, he does not feel old. He says he is not ready to go. “Well, Dad, we must find something to hope for,” I remarked, like knowing that with a power wheelchair he will have full and easy run of the main floor, most importantly of fridge and pantry—that is something to hope for—and knowing that in his power wheelchair he can roam the yard with his hoe and rake and weed-picker and work in the yard as long as he wishes—that is something to hope for—and knowing that he can back his reclining wheelchair into his recliner rocker space, under his white spindle lamp, under his favorite French countryside painting, with his books and mixed nuts and sugar-free chocolate chips and a tall glass of ice water—that is something to hope for—and knowing that if he works as hard as his feeble body can work to regain some little strength, he can leave the hospitals and facilities and centers, he can come home, for however much time is left—that is something to hope for—and knowing that though the world may no longer think it needs his strength and wisdom, he remains very much needed by his sweetheart and his children and his grandchildren and his expanding posterity who all look to him with adoration and tenderness—that is something to hope for, both for you and for me—because I need something to hope for, too.
Vases of aromatic garden flowers. A gallon of two-percent milk. Enormous sweet grapes on a plate. Crayon-colored cards for dear Brother Baker from Church primary children who don’t know who he is but still care. Burger King Whopper and fries: Mom’s favorite. Rides to the hospital from women who know the way well—a beloved son with bacterial meningitis; a husband who fell from a second-story ladder; an amputation gone wrong—and visiting along the way. Baked chicken salad wrapped in puff pastry. Soups and a salad. Giant chocolate chip muffins. A man on a bicycle checks my sprinkler leak, and will get back to me. Chocolate-caramel brownies—oh my. Our names prayed over in temples across the world. Smiles, and waves, and inquiries: How’s Nelson? Well-wishes. A quiet house. Love, and hope for tomorrow.
Visiting hours are 9 to 9, which seems quite generous. The other rule, however, is not. Only two visitors at a time. Despite the three-person couch and other chairs and the spacious room. So, my saintly 83-year-old mother, who has gone to the hospital for eight days straight, must leave her sick husband’s side for two neighbors, or two siblings, or two children, or two grandchildren to visit. Or Mom stays in the room and only one other visitor is permitted. I had seen the rule on signs in the elevator, nursing station, and the patient room doors. But since none of the staff had troubled us over three visitors, or four, for five consecutive days, and since we are quiet, peaceful, clean, and helpful people, I thought perhaps the hospital did not mind so much. Not so. On day six Big Meanie nurse instructed all but two family members to leave. It’s IMC’s rule. I did not argue or accuse or abuse, but I did inquire, in an effort to understand, and to explore flexibility. Did it make a difference that I am Dad’s attorney in fact and have his advanced directive in my briefcase? I’m sorry, but no. Did it change things if I am the authorized physician contact for when the doctors stop by to explain their diagnostic and treatment efforts? No. What about the fact that we are all Covid-19 vaccinated and boosted? No. Did it make a difference if immediate family were gathered bedside to perform my Church’s religious ceremony of invoking the power of faith and pronouncing a blessing of health and healing on the sick? No, and that isn’t the case here anyway. Well, it was the case when Dad’s three siblings and their spouses, and my brother and sister and me, gathered around him to give him such a blessing. A beautiful thing for loving, spiritual family to do, perhaps the last opportunity to do such a thing for Dad, to offer this expression of faith and hope and love, and perhaps of good-bye. Did you know that we have been very helpful to the nursing and therapy staff, adjusting the bed angle and height, feeding Dad, sponging him off, helping slide him head-ward when he had slipped down the sloping mattress, brushing his teeth, shaving his chin, helping him stand, pivot, transfer, use the toilet, take a seated shower, stand, pivot, transfer back to the bed? For all her strength and grace and experience, Heather could not have done it all without us, and thanked us for our contribution and learned expertise. So, I left Dad’s room and walked down the hall to sit uselessly on a cracked and stained sofa, where I could not help or comfort or observe. I felt angry at the rule, and thought it inhumane—a bureaucratic pronouncement out of context. (I learned later that the two-visitor limitation was not IMC policy, which was, instead: Maximum number of visitors at the bedside is determined at the discretion of the care team. Discretion was allowed, after all.) I felt angry at Big Meanie nurse who enforced the rule so militantly. And after two days she went off shift and the familiar smiling nursing staff welcomed us all back to be helpful and complimentary and appreciative. To be present. For our father. For each other.
(Photo from intermountainhealthcare.org, use pursuant to the fair use doctrine.)
The text came at 2:32 a.m. “I am sick. Siiiiiick.” Vomiting. Chills. Sweats. Body Aches. Withering weakness. He thought it might be food poisoning from the cold cuts or hard-boiled eggs sitting in the hospital cafeteria cartons for who know how long. Or a bug. Either way, he was down for the count. The next night, Mom threw up, but she did not get sick, just a bit tired. I drove Steve to the airport Sunday morning, glad he was better, glad Mom did not get sick, glad I had escaped. But about 2:45 a.m. the next night the scene replayed itself, and I was siiiiiick. I was useless to the world, no help to anyone. I just hunkered down under the covers, chugged Pepto Bismol, slept, tried to watch movies, tried to stay hydrated, tried to keep the family abreast, tried to stay abreast. The hospital had sent us home with a norovirus. A gift. A joke. Sarah has held down the hospital fort, with Carolyn and Megan for company, even though her own father-in-law passed away in-between-times. She goes back to work tomorrow, at the facility to which Dad will be moved, perhaps tomorrow. Jeanette flies in the next day to take a long shift. We are all managing, if barely. And it is enough.
Imagine being strapped to another’s body and operating it from behind, climbing the stairs, lifting the body’s leg with yours to climb one step, then the other leg and another step, and more steps, the body sinking heavily into yours, a big body, a body too weak to move without help. That is how my brother managed to convey Dad upstairs to bed. We consulted, and we realized Dad needed hospital help, and we realized we could not safely convey him down the stairs and into his wheelchair and into the car, and we called for an ambulance. Such sudden profound weakness: Dad could not move. “I don’t understand it,” he bemoaned. “I could do this two days ago. Now I am so totally and absolutely weak and wasted.” We had taken Mom and Dad to the Temple Quarry Trail in their wheelchairs. Dad had not wanted to go—he felt too tired. But we insisted he come, for his face to soak in some sun, for the fresh air to move around him and fill his lungs, to see the green of wild cherry and mountain maple and gambel oak—Mom brought home a pretty hatted acorn—and boxelder trees, to hear the river spilling noisily over quartz monzonite boulders. To see Gabe gazelling down the trail with a four-year-old’s ebullient life dance. But then the stairs, and the ambulance, and the utterly profound weakness. “Common infections can present with profound weakness and disorientation in older patients,” the doctor explained. Dad is now too weak to talk, too weak to chew his turkey cream cheese cranberry sandwich which sits drying on a plate, too weak to reach for his diet coke, staring through the 8th floor window at his beloved Wasatch mountains towering over the valley. A last look before leaving his room for the evening: Dad is sleeping exhaustedly, his face glowing with diffuse light from the lamp above his bed, and he seems to lightly inhabit two worlds at once. We are keeping up our spirits up at home, Mom and siblings and me. We have experienced precarious near-collapses and kind ambulance EMTs and the ever-dragging emergency room and tests and scans and the making of plans one hour at a time. We are weary. And something feels different in the house. Dad’s floor lamps do not burn until 3:00 a.m. with his reading. His New Balance shoes sit empty by his chair. Mom looks over the railing in the middle of night, like she does every night, to check on her beloved, to see him sleeping or reading and happy, but the chair is empty and dark. The house seems oddly quiet, with someone missing. And we pray for him to come home.
Three sons and their wives and children and a brother and sisters converged for the holiday weekend on “Grandma and Grandpa’s house” where I live. They slept on sofas and air mattresses and foam pads and emptied the closets of sheets and blankets and towels. They devoured Dad’s supply of sliced ham and Swiss, which pleased him immensely. John had called to tell me he and Alleigh were bringing peaches from Pettingill’s Fruit Farm, and how many did I want, a whole box-full or a half. I opted for the whole box (a half bushel) because one can never have too many fresh ripe peaches in one’s home on a holiday weekend with family. I would give him the $30 when they arrived, I said. But they would not let me pay, announcing the peaches as their gift for the weekend. We enjoyed peaches and cream, peaches and almond milk, peaches on cold cereal, peaches in oatmeal, peaches blended in fruit smoothies, and peaches plain. Mom and Dad were good sports to have their quietude disrupted with happy energy and noise. And they joyed to be with three great-grandchildren. Lila carried around a big sunflower from the vase. Gabe ran through the sprinkler in 102 degrees F. And Henry, teething and drooling, always chewing on some toy or other, and babbling and gurgling like babies do, with occasional excited squeals. And my sons laughing and tossing corn-hole beanbags—how happy I am they are friends. Living with Mom and Dad, I think of myself as a son, not a grandfather—Dad is “Grandpa,” not me. But this grandpa worked hard to coax smiles out of the seven-month-old cherub. Helping Dad down the stairs, keeping a mortal fall at bay with a taught sling around his chest from behind, we heard Henry jabbering from downstairs. “Is that little Henry?” Dad chuckled. “It’s just so fun to hear his little voice.” Here was this old man straining to step down the stairs, and this little boy just beginning to figure out the world, each on the move. Dad pointed and fell into his recliner, and we brought him Henry, who as if on cue lighted up in a big smile for great-grandpa. When people are grown up and gone and I think of Labor Day weekend 2022, I will remember Dad’s tenuous stair descent, and the sounds of Henry’s brain growing and mouth teething and grinning and voice babbling and gurgling, and Dad’s rueful chuckle across four generations, and the box-full of gift peaches, juicy and aromatic.
(Pictured above: four generations of Bakers.)
Fear burned in my body as we launched our tiny boats onto the vast fast water, a strong wind whipping up whitecaps and magnifying the rapids. My efforts at control were no match for the frightful power of the deep current, the churning eddies, the rocks and rapids. On a mountain bike, fear skids me out of my flow, and I tense and hit every rock and cut short the curving berms, and feel close to crashing. Now, on this huge current of water, I am stiff and afraid and not having a good time at all. Fear affects the quality of my experience, always. But I remembered the dusty trails and the times I had found the flow and had raced fearless and free and skilled down the mountain. Intense. Joyful. And I relaxed now on the water, feeling my tiny boat in the groove of the current, feeling my tiny boat bob humbly and determinedly through the rapids, feeling the effects of each nuanced paddle stroke. Fear had turned to fun, and John and I called to each other, two men, connected, seeking happiness and truth, one older and the other young, one a father and the other his son, calling excitedly to each other about the water’s power and surprise. Benefitting from a little experience, I settled into competence and enjoyment and the intense focus of joining with the colossal headlong course of the river. We were coming to understand each other now, the malevolence and panic were gone, and neither was a threat to the other—we rushed together toward some distant sea.
An enormous diversion structure seemed to dam the enormous river, straight ahead, and I could imagine getting sucked into some deadly sluice or turbine or chute. That fear again. The structure obscured the river curving invisibly and sharply to the right. My son flipped his boat on the brink of a very shallow spillway that tricked us both into thinking it was the correct river course. I pivoted my kayak to look and paddle upstream, a ridiculous effort in the incontestable current, like whistling in a hurricane. Before it was too late, and I was crushed and drowned in the diversion, I needed to get off the river, now, and found an eddy and a willow bush by the bank. John came carrying his kayak, and I announced that I would not brave what was coming without knowing exactly what I was braving, without studying the thing up close and planning our way through. So, we pushed through thick brush, hundreds of burs sticking to my gloves and pants, thistle spikes stinging my legs—this was what John called shwacking (short for “bushwhacking”; adj. “shwacked”). And, finally, we stood at the point and saw the big harmless diversion structure and studied the frightening current of the river curve with its rapids and lateral waves that gleefully would tip a tiny boat. And we talked through how we would hug the bank to the point and turn the kayaks hard and chute the center of the rapid, away from the capsizing laterals. And we shwacked back to the boats and launched with trepidation but also with the courage born of knowledge and preparation. And we hugged the bank and rounded the bend and ran the rapid and defied the swamping waves and skirted the eddy, and we looked back and at each other with smiles, wondering what all the worry had been about, ready to do it again.
Every day I shwack through politics and arguments and deceits. I shwack through relationships and confrontations and responsibilities. I shwack through court records and divorce decrees and dating apps. And burs weigh me down by the millions and nettles slice my skin and dust reddens my eyes and I bruise my shins on fallen tree trunks as I shwack through to my observation points. The current is compellingly strong. Running the rapid is required. There is no possibility of portage. I must go through to beyond. So, I hug the bank and pivot the stern and slingshot through the rapids. And I make it through.
(Pictured above: Yours Truly with my awesome son John.)
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.
Lila has come to spend the weekend with Mom and Dad and me. Being only two (almost three), she brought her parents along. I did not mind because I like them, too, in addition to her. “Come play Legos, Gwumpa Waja,” she sing-songed, and I sat by her little pajamaed body while we pieced together the bricks and sorted marbles by color. Lila dragged me over to the neighbor’s to push her on the swing with the blue seat. My sweetest memories of the last year include visiting my three grandchildren in Kentucky, Arizona, and Texas, now in Utah, Idaho, and Illinois. Their smiles and laughs and cuddles banish fear and distress and fill me with feelings of love and tenderness. With Lila here, however, at Mom’s and Dad’s house where I live, I find the generations confused, or mixed, in that I am both a grandfather and a child, the “Grandpa” of my children’s babies but still my mother’s “Baby.” “Are you tired, Baby?” Mom asks when I come home late from work. She showed me her journal entry from January 26, 1965, when I was seven months old: “Roger is really a big boy. He crawls all over the floor, coming after me. He holds onto chairs and things, and stands up. He also bumps his head plenty. His favorite foods are applesauce and bananas. He has a tooth now.” Dad delights to tell visitors how enthusiastically I emptied the cabinets of their pots and pans and lids, that no sooner had he put them away, then I would take them out again. And now here is Lila asking her grandpa to plant a garden with her, and to get the tiny shovels. We dig holes behind the shrubs, and plant rocks. And she jabbers in two languages, English and Spanish, as we dig and look for rocks to plant, and cover them up “for squirrels to find,” and she runs to drop the blue and red beanbags in the cornhole goal. Dad is 79 years older than Lila, and pointed out that when I am his age, Lila will be 30 years old. And I want her to stay two forever.
The Indian Food Fair sounded fun: the food (coconut chicken shahi korma is my favorite), the pulsing weaving music, the dance and gold-threaded dress, the lilting languages I do not know. I called Hannah to see if she might like to attend the fair with me. But she would be summiting, she explained, Utah’s Little Matterhorn (also Pfeifferhorn) on the same day with her mother and three brothers. Dad and I summitted this peak 25 years ago, thrilled to see moose munching on willows by the creek, exhilarated by the perfume of pine and fir on the cool mountain air, charmed by the tinkling rivulet, and finally reaching the boulder-strewn summit to be awed by the Salt Lake valley views. I felt that familiar nostalgic pang of loss at no longer being part of the equation, the sting of not being invited, even though my damaged feet would not have allowed me to join for the neuromas and surgeries and scars. I thought of them this morning, wondering where they were on the trail, if they had seen any moose, whether the air smelled of the pine and fir, if their thighs were burning beyond toleration, and hoping their boulder hopping on the fractured ridge line would be safe. I thought of them looking out over the Salt Lake valley from 11,586 feet, looking down on Salt Lake City, on Liberty Park, on the Indian Food Fair, on me sitting on a park bench eating my tikka masala in the shade. I thought again how it is my lot and my opportunity, both, to chart a new course, even if alone, to follow different paths to different peaks. I had invited a new friend to meet me at the park to eat Indian food, and we walked, and we talked, and we swayed to rhythmic melodies, and we enjoyed sitting on our park bench and savoring our tandoor and basmati, and we glanced at each other and wondered at each other’s thoughts and at our futures, and I pondered how paths unexpectedly converge, and split, and find each other again, to wander off.
(Image above of the Little Matterhorn’s fractured boulder ridgeline and summit, from Wasatch Magazine, used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
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.
“I have cabin fever,” Mom sighed as we finished our Sunday dinner of baked pork chops with mustard-cream sauce and cumin-seed cabbage. “Then let’s go for a ride,” I offered. Mom would have been satisfied with a brief ride around the neighborhoods, but I drove the Mighty V8 toward Little Cottonwood Canyon, glacier gouged and gorgeous, boasting pine forests, enormous slabs of granite, and a cascading river. We commented on the incomparable beauty of these mountains as we drove up the narrow winding road, and expressed our gratitude at having these scenes so close to home. “That’s enough for me,” Mom said as we passed the Snowbird resort. “I’m ready to go home. I don’t have cabin fever anymore.” Back at home, I pointed out how multiple consecutive triple-digit days, and some active hummingbirds, had emptied the hummingbirds’ sugar water quickly, and the feeder hung empty. We watched a tiny Black-chinned hovering, testing, and not finding liquid food. Google says the correct mix is four parts water to one part sugar—and not to add red dye—so I refilled the feeder and brought back the birds. The doorbell rang, and Carolyn D’s daughter delivered a white Afghan, crocheted with time and love and tenderness, for Dad had compiled her husband’s World War II recollections before they died with him, just in time. Like Dad, Carolyn can no longer walk well, scooting along laboriously with a walker. But she can crochet. An hour later a violent summer thunderstorm blew and spat, teasing us unkindly with scant muddy drops that streaked the windows brown. Dad sat in his kitchen chair, watching the wind whip the trees, and hazarded to Mom, “If you were to wander over here, I would give you a hug.” In other words, I want to hug you, so please come to me, since I cannot come to you. In his hoped-for embrace, he expressed to Mom, “You’re such a wonderful person. I just love you.”
Dad hears better from the front church pew, which is cut out on one side to accommodate a wheelchair. Mom sits in the pew, and Dad sits in his wheelchair, the two holding hands with their faces lifted appreciatively toward the speakers. One eighty-year-young friend of Dad’s observed, “It’s good to see you using a wheelchair, Nelson,” implying how awful it has been to see him leaning into his cane and hanging on my arm and still barely making it down the aisle. In choir practice before church, we rehearsed the hymn “Have I done any good?” and at night I lay in my bed asking that question of myself, with dark and pressing doubts. For today is day 365 since I left my life alone and moved into a life with Mom and Dad as an awkward caregiver in their waning—today is my first anniversary, our first anniversary. Will there be any more anniversaries? Even before moving into their house, I knew the experience would be intense and trying, not for any fault of theirs, but from the story’s inexorable ending, and from my own character flaws, and that I would tend to lose my sense of self, my sense of direction in life, my sense of fatherhood in my renewed sonhood, my sense of the future and self-purpose, and I knew I would need to write about my experience, daily, to work things through in my mind, to keep from being swallowed alive. I felt compelled to write, and indeed I did write daily entries for 265 consecutive days before faltering in fog and fatigue. This is essay #290: 290 shards of shattered glass through which to examine and strain to comprehend my experience in all its complex facets. If I have not done much good, that failure has not been for lack of arduous effort. If I have done some good after all, that good was worth the effort. This post is not pandering for praise or angling for affirmation, and is not focused on self-flagellation. This post simply poses the question, and makes a way for me to move on in the mission of doing what I can to bring comfort and safety to my parents as they careen toward their end, that the end may be comfortably and safely in their beloved home at the foot of the great snow-topped aspen-clad mountain. But, still, and always, I shall ask myself that question, and sing the hymn quietly in the darkness to myself at night.
Have I done any good in the world today?
Have I helped anyone in need?
Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad?
If not, I have failed indeed.
Has anyone’s burden been lighter today
Because I was willing to share?
Have the sick and the weary been helped on their way?
When they needed my help was I there?
Then wake up and do something more
Thank dream of your mansion above.
Doing good is a pleasure, a joy beyond measure,
A blessing of duty and love.
“I can’t walk!” Dad began as the home health case manager began his three-hour assessment. I felt proud of Dad for facing forcefully the reality of his condition. “And I’m going downhill fast.” Weston listened to everything Dad had to say as he inquired about every aspect of Dad’s health, from medications and mental health and mobility to bowels and balance. He invited Dad to stand up from his kitchen chair, which required all Dad’s strength and induced level-8 pain in his legs. “One gets to the point,” Dad explained, “where the pain induces one to not get up from the chair. But I’m still getting up.” Weston invited Dad to walk from the kitchen to his living room reading chair, using his cane and the kitchen counters and the piano top to surf to his destination and to point and fall in his chair. Medical professionals measure balance on a 25-point scale, with 25 being the ideal, and, say, 9 being very concerning. “The goal is not to get you to the ideal of 25,” Weston explained, “but to get you to from 9 to 10, or 12, or 15, to achieve improvement. Improved balance always leads to increased safety.” Dad was not confident he could improve, but promised to give it a try, to do whatever works. I have talked often with my children about improving their life balance, between work, school, church, play, social life, health, exercise, nutrition, and family, and that our balance shifts constantly with our life changes. I balanced my life as well as I knew how when I felt utterly crushed by work and responsibility and church and duty and sickness and keeping food on the table and clothes on their little backs and the bills paid. And at times I teetered and did not balance well. But not for lack of effort: I worked at balance, practiced it, and grew and strengthened and improved. So, I teach them today about balance. Weston taught Dad how to practice and improve his balance by standing in the corner against the walls of a room, with a walker in front, and letting go of both the walls and the walker for seconds at a time, seconds of being supported by nothing but his own balanced strength, knowing he could lean onto the walls or into the walker, wheels braked of course.
I could hear a new voice from upstairs, a raised voice that began with “Hello!” and I knew that Sarah was giving Dad a long talking to. Through Marco Polo I had told her I needed professional advice on how to help Dad, and she had come with resources and with the right tone of voice, the tone of voice Dad learned years ago not to argue with or fight against, the tone of voice that said, This will happen! When I thought the most important declarations had been declared, I thought I ought to join the conversation. “Dad, you won’t ever get better. Getting better is not the goal. That’s the reality of where you are. You should have begun using the walker a year ago, not never. You should have begun using the wheelchair six months ago, not last week. The goal is to keep you safe. It’s time you ordered a motorized wheelchair.” And he did not want to discuss an electric wheelchair. “But Dad, when people see you zipping around in your motorized chair, they will think how young and active and motivated you still are, and how smart. When they see you hanging on Roger and leaning on your cane and stumbling all stooped, they think how old you are and how you’re going downhill and how decrepit you’ve become. The wheelchair is not a humiliation. What you’re doing now is a humiliation. The wheelchair is a tool of triumph, and will extend and improve your life and give you new energy and independence!” And I agreed with every word she said, because they were all true. She was not angry or rude, of course, just insistent that we face our reality and adjust our strategy. She softened her voice: “We’re not ready for you to go, Dad. Your mind is still laser sharp: you read several books a week. We don’t want you to fall. We don’t want you to break an arm or a leg or a hip. We want you to stay safe so you can live in your home for years.” And I agreed with every word she said, because they were all true. Dad knew, too, that she spoke truth, insistent and intractable and loving truth. And he assented. “I’m not ready to go,” he declared. “I will do whatever works.” Home health is coming next week. Physical therapy is coming next week. Occupational therapy is coming next week. Dad’s a fighter, and is not ready to yield the fight. Dad has time yet, years of time, and we are determined to help him live those years.
(Pictured above: Mom and Dad in 2008.)
“I don’t care,” Mom reacted as Dad explained his concern. In my experience, peoples’ declarations of “I don’t care!” betray a deep caring about the very things they disavow caring for. I do it myself, though each time I utter the phrase, I pause to examine why I care so much, and I find that instead of apathetic, I am feeling threatened, or stressed, or vulnerable, and wish I did not have to care so much. Dad said “I don’t care” when the resident mule deer nibbled all the tiger lily blooms just before they opened—irresistible moist sweet morsels. He loves to see the doe and her fawns saunter across the back lawn, and delights when they bed down under the low pine boughs. Mom and Dad and their visiting children and grandchildren never tire of calling out, “Look! Deer!” at the sleek lithe wild pretty creatures glimpsed through the kitchen window. I opened the plantation blinds Tuesday morning to see a miniature mule deer covered in creamy spots chewing contentedly on lilac leaves and felt, like Dad, that I did not care if the fawn consumed every flower in the garden. So, while the neighbor shoos the deer out of his yard, we sit at the kitchen table and stare at them with wonder in our own yard. Still, I shaved a whole bar of Irish Spring in and around the lily bushes in hopes the new blooms would be spared. “I have watched them cross the road,” Dad explained. “They stand at the curb and look left, then right, then cross when there are no cars.” Hunger and cold push the mule deer out of the mountains that tower above our neighborhood, and once acclimatized they never leave. Those mountains called to us this week, so we drove to the Albion Basin at the very top of Little Cottonwood Canyon to see the wildflowers and to hike to Cecret Lake. A winter avalanche filled the alpine lake with ice and rocks and mud, the brown piles of ice still melting in July. We asked the forest ranger about the lake’s name, and he told us that while 19th-Century miners were hard-working and enterprising, they were not necessarily men of letters—they spelled phonetically, and Cecret sounded every bit as correct as Secret, so their Cecret name for the lake stuck. The glacial basin nestling Cecret Lake is decorated with jagged rock escarpments, pine and fir forests, and wildflower meadows. The many beautiful flower colors and shapes inspired us: exotic creamy columbine; blue beardtongue and larkspur; purple lupine; pink and red paintbrush; yellow glacier lilies; delicate sticky geraniums; white and pink and red firecracker penstemon; and tiny-petaled blue forget-me-not’s. “I call them ‘remember-me’s’,” Hannah announced, to my delight, and I pondered how nice it is to be remembered, and wanted, and respected, and loved. How nice it is when someone cares.
(Pictured above: field of Forget-Me-Not’s in the Albion Basin.)
(Pictured below: the Albion Basin, near Cecret Lake.)
“I’ll tell you what’s on my list,” Dad announced. (1) He wanted to mix a few tablespoons of cement to fill the cracks where mortar had fallen out of the brick mailbox pedestal when it capsized. (2) He wanted to trim new growth from the juniper hedge where the twenty-foot-tall trees, covered in powder-blue berries, had begun to infringe on the public sidewalk. (3) He wanted to hoe the remaining weeds out of the flower garden—the deep-rooted entwining morning glory grows a foot a day. (4) He wanted to clean the sidewalks of dust and sticks and leaves with his two-stroke blower. “I’m not saying these jobs are for you,” he insisted. “I’m just telling you my job list for myself.” Of course, I knew his body would balk at these jobs, except maybe the mortar. With a free hour, I went to work with the DeWalt hedge trimmer and carefully, slowly, carved a clean new vertical line against the sidewalk edge, taking care not to leave bulges and not to carve out concave curves. My critical eye searched out and eliminated defects Dad might detect. The aromatic trimmings filled a thirty-gallon garbage can. A smiling walker came along just as I finished the job, and she thanked me. Then the hoeing and weeding and sweeping and blowing. Dad, meanwhile, set to on the mortar. An overturned garbage can served as a stable palette for mixing mortar, a camp chair his painter’s seat, and the grass his paint box with the tools and ingredients arranged. He mixed and scraped and mortared and rubbed, perfectly able and happy to do the job, and I did not hover, though I admit to watching from my upstairs office, writing. The new mailbox is in, though Burke had to cut off the back, remove a two-inch ring, then reattach the two pieces of the box with duct tape to insert into the hole. The old capstone is sledged to pieces and in the city garbage cans, and the new stone installed. Dad finished the job and sat long in the sun, slathered with SP100, gathering strength for the great labor of standing up from a chair. I checked the hedge again today just to make sure it was still straight, and exhaled my relief. In the flower bed, three little ice plants had surfaced, having survived last month’s ice plant purge. These I transplanted to two orange crocks, where they immediately set to blooming, and I cannot wait until they spread and overtop the rims and cast their bright blooms to the sun. The blooms begin close as the sun begins to set and the sky dusks. Excuse me for a moment: I can see Dad needs my help getting up from his chair at the curb.
I waltzed up the river with strong strokes. Pull-rest-rest. Pull-rest-rest. The hen and her ducklings huddled tight against the bank looking every bit the bunch of muddy roots. How do ducklings love their father drake? I wonder. He has flown this stretch of river. “Happy Father’s Day, Dad!” came the texts. Is that how it is done, I wonder: four small typed words with a diminutive exclamation mark? I handed Dad a thick old book, yellowed, wrapped in newspaper, in a red paper sack, to thank him for being my father. Fiorello LaGuardia: the Italian Mayor of New York City who took on the Tammany Hall political machine, and won. A black-crowned night heron rose from the riverbank with five-foot wings barred black and white, as silent as my waltzing river pondering. How do his chicks say Happy Father’s Day? I wonder. With urgent shrieks for regurgitated fish, no doubt, and by leaving the nest! What a magnificent beautiful creature. I imagine the carp fingerlings say nothing at all, glad not to be gobbled. And I baked a pesto chicken orzo casserole and a sticky pudding cake full of dates and walnuts dribbled with hot toffee-cream syrup. Oh, and first dibs to Dad on my book by Beryl Markham, an early pilot who flew single-props with open cockpits, who flew so intimately with planet earth, skimming the tall tree tops—she could see the waves and smiles of the farmers and they could see hers. I have reached my three-mile turn-around too soon—I feel I could paddle up this river forever, relaxed and calm, not having the answers, and at peace with that unknowing. My two youngest played cello-piano duets to Mom and Dad and me, moving us with their beauty and the music’s beauty. “Rafting the river . . . I remember you naming every single type of butterfly we saw. You knew everything about them. And the trees and birds and wildflowers, too. You taught me to look for the small and simple things, and remember the value they add to our lives.” Thank you, son. (I’ll have you write my epitaph.) Maybe Bullock’s orioles chitter cheerfully to celebrate their fathers, flashing their oranges blacks and whites in their excitement. I don’t know that little turtles thank their big-shell papas, sunning exclusively on fallen tree trunks, necks and legs stretched out pleasurably, imperiously, a knot of dried algae on one’s back. I sent my sons-turned-fathers a handmade card with a personal note of admiration and encouragement and a token ten-dollar bill. Does that count? Yes, that counts—every sincere expression counts. “Oh, my dear Daddy. How I love and honor you and appreciate with deep gratitude all that you do for me.” Thank you, sweet daughter of mine. A Clark’s grebe with white face and black crown and piercing yellow beak and piercing scarlet eye dove and dove as I approached, then appeared twenty-five yards behind me. What a magnificent beautiful creature! His chicks would easily admire him. “I love you Daddy!” That’s how it’s done: with love. I love you, too.
Pictures above and below: scenes from the Jordan River, in Utah, today.
Yesterday: I was not angling for a pat on the head, but neither did I expect a rap on the knuckles. I had listened to everything Dad said he would do to get ready for the wedding: string trim the grass along the sidewalks and the rock wall and around the landscape beds; hoe and pull all the weeds and tall grass and wild morning glory vines from the shrubs and beds. He could do none of it, and I suspected the man he had hired would not show up (he didn’t), so I set to work hoeing, snipping, trimming, raking, bagging, sweating, near collapse from illness and fatigue. Six neighborhood men converged for a successful second attempt to winch the impossibly heavy brick mailbox pedestal into its hole. They repaired the broken sprinkler pipe, stacked the sod, and will come back in a couple of days to see how the pedestal has settled, pour fresh cement, and restore the soil and grass. Dad sat and watched and worried and advised, straight from his bed, without taking his medicine, without drinking, without eating—straight to the job for the long-haul, sitting in the driveway in the hot sun, sweating out his strength, begging on the misery of seizures and exhaustion. Four friendly Columbians assembled the wedding tent and I stumbled to be friendly in Spanish, treating them to cold Brazilian Guaraná soda (“No es cerveza?” “No, no tiene alcohol.”) I finished my work after six hours, and putting the tools away, Dad told me I had done the string trimming wrong. No “thank you.” No “looks great.” No “you did a lot today.” Like I said, I did the work because it needed doing, and I was proud of the beautiful manicured result—I was not pandering for praise. But if you expect a job done a certain way, tell me at the beginning of the job; do not wait until the job is done and then criticize the result. I felt suddenly furious, and announced I was done because I had worked beyond my limits, which I had, and my arms and hands were shaking and my breathing tight and short and all I wanted was to lie down in a cool dark room. But I found little Gabe (almost four already!) and asked him the question he always hopes to hear: Do you want to bake some cupcakes, little friend? He measured and poured and stirred and tasted at every step, from bitter cocoa-powder paste to rich batter to sweet butter-cream icing to small spoonsful of sprinkles, the various chocolaty substances fingerpainted on his face. But Gabe’s all-time favorite game is Hide-and-Seek. “Nobody wants to play Hide-and-Seek with me,” he bemoaned as everyone worked, and I thought maybe I could find a little hiding and seeking energy for my little friend. When he counts, he counts fast, and ten “seconds” was barely enough time to bound off and stumble behind a bush, where he found me when I poked up for a peak and he squealed and I laughed and his mama watched us from the kitchen window, giggling. Gabe took most of the cupcakes home, thankfully. Later I laid in bed wondering at my still-smoldering anger and how outsized it was to the offense and wondering where it came from and pondering my six-decade relationship with the great man I call “Dad” and learning long ago not to expect praise but to get the job done right and wondering what my three daughters and my four sons think of their “Papa” and whether my expectations were reasonable, and reasonably expressed.
Last Night: And at 1:00 a.m. my sleeping ears began to hear Dad’s far-off call “Rog!” and at the second “Rog!” I jumped from my bed, threw off the loathed CPAP cup, grabbed my 45-year-old homemade brown terrycloth bathrobe and ran to the stairs to confront the whole spectrum of trouble. But there sat Dad in his recliner, reading, munching, happy, perfectly fine and safe, waving, smiling curiously at me looking distressed in my underwear at the top of the stairs. I hung my bathrobe on its hook and resumed staring at the dark ceiling, ready to let go of unintended offense, ready for sleep, ready for the last Mary Berry cupcake the next day, a Sunday, a day of rest.
Today: Dad, sitting with me at a round table under the wedding tent: “Rogie, did you do all this work in the yard? There’s not a single weed in the shrub beds, and they are all raked out so nice and neat. And the string-trimmed edges of the lawn are perfect. It’s all perfect. You have made the hard look so nice for the wedding. Thank you.”
Do you know the sound of stainless-steelware clanging on a ceramic tile floor, that ear-thumping clatter that causes a physical cringe and sometimes an annoyed bark or expletive? When I hear that awful sound, I jump up from whatever chair or sofa I am occupying and bend to pick the knife or fork up, because Dad cannot. “The floor is no-man’s land,” he looked at me with a rueful chuckle. He cannot bend to pick up the knife, or the onion ring, or the paper between the Swiss cheese slices, or the potato chip that falls to the floor. “This is such a joke!” he laughs, looking at the butter knife on the floor. But his laugh is all wrapped up in sadness and frustration and a growing discouragement, and his reference to the “joke” is chagrined—not bitter or angry or hateful, rather just recognizing the irony and perhaps cruelty but inevitability of one’s late-life dis-abilities. I am certainly not laughing at this life-joke. Watching his painful struggle for every inch of territory crossed, charting his daily deterioration, pains me into my own sadness and frustration and growing discouragement. It just is no fun to watch a loved one march steadily toward the end of life. The beginning of life brings an entirely different set of challenges, which most toddlers handle with a combination of cheerful enthusiasm and intense determination. I invited two-year-old Lila to help me start the cherry cheesecake by crushing graham crackers inside a zip-loc bag, pounding them with our fists and grinding them with a rolling pin, a smile playing on her whole face from the unanticipated joy of harmless destruction. Lila, and her parents, and my parents, and our neighbors (and myself) vastly enjoyed that cherry cheesecake. I felt pleased with the culinary triumph, though besmeared with the butter in the crust having leaked through the seam of the false-bottomed tart pan and puddled smokily in the bottom of the oven for me to wipe up at night when I was too tired and never wanted to see another cookbook or dirty mixing bowl again. But that weariness will have worn off by tomorrow, and soon I will bake a tarte citron or soufflé au chocolat, which we will all enjoy a bit too much.
The church responsibility I would like least of all—and every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a church responsibility—is being in charge of recruiting families to clean the church every Saturday morning at 8:00. But Jim does not seem to mind, and called to remind me that my turn would be this Saturday. The six families had last names beginning with the As and Bs, plus a holdover Y. Jim set me to work vacuuming the cultural hall (a carpeted basketball court and social hall). Until my first decade in life, if Church members wanted a church meetinghouse building, they funded the building, built the building, operated the building, and maintained the building with their own labor and funds. In 1971-1972 Dad worked nearly every night on our nascent New Jersey church building, digging footing trenches, laying brick, mountain baseboards, painting cinderblock walls, stretching carpet. Dad had been put in charge of the enormous volunteer project, in addition to his job as an international corporate lawyer, his job as a lay minister, and his jobs as husband and father. My siblings and I have marveled at how he did it all, and did it all ably and well. Everyone that helped with the construction project received a small plaque made from scrap wood trim showing the number of hours worked: Dad’s plaque announced his 312 volunteer hours. Half a century later, the Church now builds and operates its meetinghouses with Church funds, collected from the tithing of members worldwide. But Church members clean the buildings that they attend. My willingness and cheerfulness about rising early on Saturday to scrub toilets and vacuum floors in my Utah church building is one of several built-in barometers by which I can measure my mental health. (The frequency and virulence of under-my-breath profanity is another faithful manifestation of stormy emotional weather.) My cheerfulness this Saturday to rise early and clean the church was a good sign, in contrast to past years where despair and tension and exhaustion kept me in bed. And I only swore a few times when tripping on the vacuum cleaner cord—no one knew but me. Other church members on our A-B (and Y) team were a commercial litigation lawyer, a pediatric anesthesiologist, a happy shy Downs syndrome man, a retired long-haul truck driver, and assorted children. Wielding our rubber gloves and spray bottles, status and position meant nothing—we all put our shoulders to the wheel, counted our blessing of service, and counted our blessing of being together in the community of our Church. And on the other side of the country, my younger brother was scrubbing toilets and vacuuming carpets in his North Carolina church building, his barometer reading gentle spring weather with wisps of clouds in a blue sky.
Brother Liu rang the door chime and asked me to deliver the Mother’s Day sermon in church in two weeks. Feeling honored, but also intimidated and overwhelmed, I set to researching my Church’s teachings about motherhood, and searching my memory for vivid images of meaningful times spent with my mother. A good place to begin was this simple statement of Church doctrine: “Just as we have a Father in Heaven, we have a Mother in Heaven.” A prominent Church member and businesswoman, Sister Dew, explains that Eve mothered all of mankind when she made the most courageous decision any woman has ever made, to leave the Garden of Eden and to begin the mortality both of Earth and of humanity. Eve modeled “the characteristics with which women have been endowed: heroic faith, a keen sensitivity to the Spirit, an abhorrence of evil, and complete selflessness.” Never married, and without children of her own, she asserts what I welcome as divine truth: as daughters of our Heavenly Father, and as daughters of Eve, all women are mothers. Every time a woman builds the faith or reinforces the nobility of a young woman or man, every time a woman loves or leads anyone even one small step along the path, that woman is true to her endowment and calling and inherent nature as a mother, declaring, Are we not all mothers? I can easily use the word “endowment” to refer to my own mother’s presence in my life. In our weekly family gatherings, Mom taught us children new Church primary songs by writing words and symbols on posterboard. Every morning before school I found a bowl of steaming whole wheat cereal, made from wheat she ground, and creamed with powdered milk she mixed in the blender. On Sunday afternoons, Mom read us wonderful books—like The Secret Garden—while we munched on small quantities of M&Ms. She took us to free concerts and musicals in the park. She was my church choir director for nine of my years in New Jersey. Mom took me to pick wild asparagus, and taught me to make blackberry jam, sealing the jars with hot paraffin wax poured on top. She gave me swimming lessons and supported me in Scouting. She nursed me through endless ear infections, cheered for me when I succeeded, believed in me when I failed, and buttressed me when I mourned. And she drove me all over the Garden State to give me enriching musical, educational, cultural, and nature opportunities. Coming from a rural Utah town, Mom took on the world when she and Dad moved to New York City, living in Greenwich Village, and then to São Paulo, Brazil, for post-graduate school and work, soon settling in New Jersey for a 35-year career. And she relished it all. I have heard endearing stories about children who burst through the door after school, calling, “Mom—I’m home!” At almost 60 years old, I again get to experience the privilege of walking through the front door each day after work and calling out, “Hi Mom. I’m home.” I think the word “mother” is synonymous with “home.” My 20-minute sermon ended with the blessing of living Apostle Holland upon all mothers, “Be peaceful. Believe in God and in yourself. You are doing better than you think you are. Thank you. Thank you for giving birth, for shaping souls, for forming character, and for demonstrating the pure love of Christ.” How relieved yet invigorated I felt after finishing the talk! And Mom seemed happy with my tribute to her on Mother’s Day.
(Pictured above: Mom’s Mother’s Day bouquet.)
“I’ll go with you!” I enthused when Mom showed me her invitation to her 64th high school reunion, for the Class of ’58. I have never once attended my high school, college, or law school reunions, but felt excited about going to Mom’s. But the morning of, she confessed to being very nervous and perhaps not wanting to go. I suggested we just go for an afternoon drive and perhaps stop in at the reunion to see what it was like. We drove through the old dilapidated Magna neighborhood, Mom pointing out “Uncle John’s” house here and “Uncle Jim’s” house there. With Mom hanging on my arm, we entered the high school cafeteria and saw milling around a milieu of gray smiling heads and gnarled mottled hands with an assortment of canes and walkers. Faces mostly were unrecognizable to Mom after 64 years, but looking at each other’s nametags through the bottoms of their trifolds, recognition dawned and faces lit up. “Lucille!” one woman cried. “Valorna!” Mom called back. They were young girls again. Louie Notarianni wandered over with a pleasant hello. “He was so cool then,” Mom whispered to me. “Now look at him!” I guess carrying the cool is harder at 85. “Neil wasn’t very nice,” she remembered, but noted how pleasant he was to everyone now. And her second cousin Gay (with the same maiden name, Bawden) ambled over with a smile and a hug. “When I called in and found out you were coming,” Gay rattled to Mom, “I decided the long drive from Portland would be worth it.” Still sweet friends. Don Lund welcomed the crowd and explained how Doreen Harmon had catered the lunch from Harmon’s grocery store as a gift to her class. Don held up like a waving flag a typed list of 147 Gone But Not Forgotten classmates, 147 out of a class of 200. The list sobered me, knowing Mom was one of a dwindling minority of surviving members of the Class of ’58. Which one of these good cheerful persons will be next to join this list? I wondered. I hoped it would not be Mom, turning 83 this year. The scull & crossbones on the reunion announcement added a macabre touch to the event, even knowing the Pirate was the mascot of Cyprus High. Mom decided she had had enough of a good thing, and that we could “go home now.” I hurried over to cousin Gay, a spritely youthful woman, embraced her (for the last time in this life), and crowed, “The Bawdens are great!” twinkling to her husband that the Iversons were okay, too.
I was happy to see Sunshine in person on a short trip to visit Amy’s family. And he seemed happy to see me, too, even if I do say so myself. Sunshine ate shredded kale from my outstretched fingers, and clambered right up to a shoulder perch (above). He’s still plenty spikey to pet, but so calm and gentle–and grown up!
My son John and his wife Alleigh invited me to join them on a trip to visit their aunt Jeanette—my sister—in the Arizona desert. Of course, my two-month-old grandson Henry would be coming, and he would not just be with us but would be the center of everyone’s excited attention. In the last eight months, I have not left Mom and Dad for more than one night, and on this trip I would be gone seven. Before leaving, I emptied the upstairs freezer then restocked it with food they could cook while I was away. I even drew a rough diagram showing them which foods were on which parts of each freezer shelf. For example, the bottom shelf had (from left to right) beer-battered cod, lima beans, mixed vegetables, four chicken breasts in bags of two each, and Impossible-brand plant-based “chicken” nuggets. Excited for their beans and franks, they left the hot dogs in the refrigerator. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine,” Mom reminded me. I called her mid-week to report our outing to the Superstition Mountains where we saw a large yellow-diamond rattlesnake with five rattle segments, and a gray-blue Peregrine Falcon skimming red outcroppings on the cliff walls, and the Boyce Thompson Arboretum with acres of cacti, succulents, yuccas, and trees from the world’s deserts, and how much I loved the tall strange Boojum tree and the huge unlikely endangered Saguaro and the skeletal Cholla and Ocotillo, and how John and I saw a vivid orange-and-black Hooded Oriole and fantastically-scarlet Cardinal. “I miss you,” Mom brooded. “I love it when I hear the door nob turn, and the door open, and your footsteps down the hall, and I love to see you walk into the room with your briefcase and your lunch bag. I just love having you here.” Such affection so freely offered, and me stammering an awkward, “Thanks, Mom,” not adept at receiving or expressing such depths, but still marveling at the love and acceptance and absence of judgement at my weaknesses and joy my mother pours out onto this 57-year-old son of hers, and no less upon my five younger siblings. How lucky am I—are we. And when I asked what they had cooked for their dinners, she described the chopped frankfurters mixed with cans of pork-and-beans and stewed tomatoes—the epitome of hardy simplicity. Returning home after my week abroad, I found the food in the freezer largely as I had left it, the easier now for me to cook. Sarah had brought milk and eggs and Easter treats both savory and sweet. And Mom had been right: I need not have worried. “Welcome home.”
(Pictured above: Sis, Yours Truly, and Mr. Boojum)
(Pictured below: Cactus gardens at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum and in the Superstition Mountains outside Phoeniz, AZ.)
“I love you,” Mom called to me after I said good-night and turned to step the stairs to my rooms. “Love you, too, Mom.” I love you. Those three little words convey such daring risk, exposing a fathomless aching hope to be loved in return. Two little pronouns with the world’s biggest word tucked between, mediating, welding. Perhaps many children hear those words from their parents. Perhaps few. Perhaps hearing those words does not matter all that much. Perhaps they mean everything. To my best recollection, “I love you” was not stated in my childhood home. My father did not hear these three words as a child, and did not utter them as a father. But Dad’s love and sacrifice for his children are fierce and burning and unstoppable. He says I love you in so many frequent ways that do not use the words. And he employs other words, like “That was such a great meal, Rog!” or “Rog, you did so much work today!” or “Don’t wash any dishes, Rogie—leave them right there and I will wash them!” though he does not wash them because he cannot, not comfortably, not without energy and strength he no longer has, and not without pain which he endures so cheerfully. But when Hannah was leaving today after a few hours’ visit, he called out to her, “I love you, Hannah.” And she responded, “I love you, too, Grandpa.” That is how love works: articulated and reciprocated. Love practiced always produces proficiency. One day I found the courage to utter “I love you” to one of my children, one of my boys, a teenage boy, and how strange and awkward saying those words felt—how I had to choke and pull them out over and around obstructive anxiety—but I got them out, and often afterwards, because I do love my children, so why not love them openly and enthusiastically and say these three little words, why not sing the words unembarrassingly out, out to that boy, out to all my girls and boys. I had to practice saying those three small words over the course of days and weeks and years, and saying them with my voice still feels both compelling and strangling. But I feel that love, deep and real, and I want to demonstrate and verbalize that love, for I know that refraining is avoiding and damaging and sad—perhaps the greatest and most mournful of lost opportunities—while unfettering the words infuses with confidence and reassurance and comfort. As we express love back and forth, love eases and grows. Too often I stammer out a mere “Love ya Bud!” But when John or Caleb or Hyrum or Hannah or the others end every phone call and every visit with “Love you, Dad!” I know they mean it, and I know they have taken a daring risk to express their love for me and to hope to receive love back from me, and I respond with pleasure, “I love you, too, son. I am proud of you. I have complete confidence in you.” And I do.
(Pictured above: yours truly mountain biking with his son Caleb in 2018.)
Dad always has words of wisdom for me and for all his family: lots of words, and lots of wisdom. When he says, “You know, Rog…” I know a sermon is coming, and I flinch and tighten and brace. We are eternal beings of tremendous power. We are not weak beings sent to earth to become powerful. We are powerful beings sent to earth to learn humility and love. Love is the greatest power in the universe. By refusing earthly power and choosing kindness and humility and love, we demonstrate to God that we are worthy of the greater power he wants to give us in the eternities. I have asked myself many times why I have this ungrateful selfish resistant reaction, when his words are so gentle and so profound and so true. Yet, every time, I cringe. God has given us the secret for knowing how to live in this mortality. He has told us that we can put our trust in whatever leads us to do good, to be fair, to walk humbly. Pursuing the spirit of goodness, we will find that God will share himself with us, will enlighten our minds, with strengthen our spirits, will fill us with hope and joy. We can always trust impulses to do good. I have been listening to Dad’s impromptu sermons for decades, and have been recoiling for just as long. After a particularly good sermon to which I was particularly stiff, I doubled down to answer my own question. And the answer came. Putting my emotional walls up is a self-protection mechanism. I do not need protection from the message or its delivery, for the messages are redeeming. But I have discerned my problem: hearing Dad’s expositions hour upon hour, day after week, month after year, I often feel both tired and trapped. Jesus said, “He that sent me is true. I do nothing but what the Father has taught me. I do always those things that please him.” We can trust God the Father, for he is true. We can trust Jesus the Beloved Son, for he does and says only what the Father instructs him to do. I love the Father and the Son for being true and trustworthy and loving and good. I love a good chocolate chip cookie, homemade, with butter, brown sugar, pecans, and Ghirardelli dark. I can easily eat three or four or five, with ice cold milk, in one sitting. In fact, just dispense with dinner and go right to the delectable dessert. Dad’s teachings are similar to my cookies: rich, sweet, and satisfying. But I am immersed in them constantly, whenever Dad and I are together. Were I to forego dinner every evening, and be required to eat only the most delicious cookies instead, unable to seek other food, soon I would grow weary, reluctant, resisting, resentful, and even ill. The analogy is imperfect, but simply put, I may have too much of a good thing. Jesus knows us intimately and infinitely. He ascended above all things. He descended below all things. He is in all things, and through all things, and round about all things. This describes his atoning sacrifice, because of which he comprehends all things. He knows us. He is there for us, working within us, at every moment of our existence, wanting to bring us to him. One day, Dad will be gone, his voice silenced but in my journals, where I have recorded his sermons and stories. And my world will seem achingly empty and bereft. I will miss his teaching above all things. I think I’ll have another cookie.
Snow fell and temperatures plunged as I stood before the Planning Commission into the night instructing on the Utah laws of conditional uses and open and public meetings. Brian and Avery had offered me their guest room should I decide to stay the night, sometime. Well, sometime was tonight. I texted Mom and Dad, and drove the three miles from City Hall to Brian’s apartment, which had been my apartment for the six years preceding his arrival, the apartment to which I moved when divorce drove me from my home. The walls of that apartment watched six years of pain and coping and enduring and learning to live instead of aching to expire—of figuring out how to flourish. Entering that home tonight and making my bed and eating and bathing and sleeping there felt surreally strange. My little girl was nine years old when I moved out. I told her mother that our divorce would rip the little girl’s heart out. “She’ll be fine.” No, she won’t be fine: this will tear her heart out. “She’ll be fine….” A young woman now, her little girl heart still yearns for reconciliation, and I am unable to tell her why it cannot be—she has lost those dreams, compelled to make her own. Brian and Avery were so kind to me, with dinner and conversation, bedding and a towel, and snacks. And little Lila rejoiced as I stepped through the door and hugged her and read books and played blocks and Hot Wheel cars and watched Mr. Rogers snorkel and tell the world why we need to protect our oceans, both for the exquisite ocean life, and for ourselves. Driving the short distance to work the next morning, in ice and snow, I realized how much I preferred my one-hour commute with its biographies and histories and meditations over these familiar three miles with their echoes of anguish.
(Pictured above: my apartment, a blessing, built for the manager, but rented to me.)
Home from the grocery store each week, I am appalled at the number of plastic grocery sacks that enjoy single-use lives of less than one hour, only to be discarded. Sometimes the baggers put only one item in a bag. At least we take them back to the grocery store to be recycled instead of sending them to the county dump. Penn State says Americans throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags per year! “You know, Mom,” I ventured, “we could take reusable bags.” She quickly warmed to the idea, and remembered her stack of such bags on a shelf in the garage, where they had sat for 20 years waiting to be useful. Mom grabbed the stack and threw it in the back of the faithful suburban so we would not forget them the next time we shopped. At the grocery store the following week, she filled my cart with the dozen sacks, a motley assortment, from Intermountain Hospitals, Public Broadcasting System (Mystery!), Utah Shakespearian Festival, Consumer Reports, and an old canvas bag from Dad’s employer Johnson & Johnson. Several were small unmarked duffels, and one was printed with red hearts and an assortment of colorful cats and dogs. These dozen bags held as much as thirty or forty plastic bags would have held, and were easier to carry. “I’m so proud of us,” Mom crowed as we unloaded the groceries at home, having used not a single plastic grocery sack. Back to the faithful Suburban I took the bags, ready for shopping next week and every week thereafter.
“My daddy had a thick black beard,” Mom recalled when I apologized for my three-day scruff, though he did not let it grow long. As a child, she loved sitting on her father’s lap and rubbing her soft little hands on the prickly stubble of his weekend beard. I learned this because she said to me one Saturday afternoon, “Come here—I’ll show you what I used to do to my daddy when I was a little girl.” Then she rubbed her soft old hands on my prickly weekend stubble. I shave on days one and three because on day two there isn’t quite enough to comfortably shave. I wore a full salt-and-pepper beard to Brian’s college graduation. But I looked old and heavy and worn in all the photos. So, I decided to lose weight and lose the beard. One less beard and 40 less pounds later, I feel better and look younger (relative). Besides, I could no longer endure the never-ending itching against the pillow. And I cannot imagine a woman wanting to kiss a man’s lip hair, so I shave my lip on principle. I shaved my beard one time because a coworker said it looked like an armpit. Nope—no more beards for me. I think we will not make a habit of Mom rubbing her hands on my whiskery face. But she blows me a kiss every night as I wander up to bed and she finishes the nightly news. “Hey Baby,” she calls. “I sure love you.” And I blow her a kiss back.
Pictured above: Wallace “Wally” Bawden c. 1962.
After Luana’s chewing out, Dad agreed to use a motorized shopping cart at the grocery store. He took to it naturally, like a soaring eagle riding an updraft above the wilderness far below—a bit too dramatic? He took to it naturally, like an earthworm in moist dirt. Instantly my stress levels have fallen off, since I do not have to worry from moment to moment when his strength will give out and when I might find him splayed on the floor in the cold cereal aisle waiting for an ambulance. And his own distress has diminished, being able now to enjoy the shopping experience. In fact, he may be enjoying it too much. While I use my shopping list to target exactly what groceries we need, he glides leisurely down each aisle dropping into his basket whatever tickles his whim. In checkout lane, Luana stated more bluntly than she meant, “I see you obeyed my orders.” He smiled up at her from the driver seat and changed the subject: “Aren’t these eggplants beautiful?” Dad rode his cart all the way to the car door, happy and with a little energy left, instead of the customary staggering and leaning against me and gasping, “I’m not going to make it, Rog.” Life just got better for us both. The only problem is that we have a month’s supply of fresh spinach. But I am not complaining about the chocolate pudding cups he snuck past Mom, or the yogurt pretzels she snuck past Dad.
Gabe came over on Saturday just as I was rolling out the pie crust dough for quiche shells. He watched me roll the dough onto the rolling pin, unroll it over the quiche pan, and tuck the dough carefully down into the pan. “I want to bake!” he declared. “I want to bake banana chocolate chip muffins—with you, Uncle Roger!” like we had done once before. “I get the bananas!” No matter how cheerily bright his eyes shone, I could not pivot to baking with him after spending an hour mixing and shaping the dough, and preparing the quiche mix. And the raw shells had to go into the preheated oven, right now, for seven minutes filled with aluminum foil and ceramic baking beads, and three more minutes without. He retrieved a green mixing bowl and placed it on the counter, letting me know he was ready. “Nope,” I begged off, empty of patience and tact. “I’m not starting another baking project.” Gabe looked crestfallen. “But look at all this extra pie dough,” I offered him a ray of hope. “We can make cinnamon pie-crust cookies.” I showed him how to roll some of the buttery dough into a ball, press the ball onto the cookie sheet, and poke a depression into the cookie with his thumb, followed with a spoonful of Dad’s cinnamon-Splenda mix. Gabe was a pro, and soon had most of the dough formed into cookies, which we baked after the quiche shells came out slightly browned, partially baked—they would compete their bake with the ham, cheese, egg, and cream filling. When I had arranged the hot finished cookies on a plate, Gabe ran up expectantly for one. “Nope,” I stopped him. “Before you eat a cookie, you need to take this plate and serve everyone else a cookie.” The four-year-old, surprised by this important responsibility, took the plate first to Mom, then to Dad—Gabe’s great-grandparents—inviting them to take and taste one of his cookies. He looked enormously proud and pleased. The cookies were quickly consumed, and he brought me the empty plate, wearing a big smile. “Good job,” I praised. “Now, come with me—I have another job for you.” Dad had purchased a new showerhead, and had asked me to install it. Gabe carried the crescent wrench up the stairs into the bathroom, while I talked him through how to change a showerhead. I removed the broken showerhead and hose, and told him they needed to be thrown away. “Can I throw them away?!” he asked hopefully. The deed happily done, I hoisted Gabe up in my left arm, joining my right hand with his small hands to thread on the new showerhead, over a strip of Teflon tape wrapped tight. “Turn it good and tight,” I instructed, and he did. I turned the water on, and Gabe pressed his face against the glass where the water pounded. “Now, go tell Grandpa.” Gabe raced down the stairs and reported to Dad that the he had thrown Dad’s old showerhead away and put the new one on—and it worked! I felt pleased at his sense of accomplishment. “What are we going to do with the rest of the pie dough?” I asked him. “Do you want to make a strawberry pie?” He nodded eagerly, and I helped him shape and roll the dough. His dad helped him spoon strawberry jam into the center of the circle, then bring one side of the dough over the jam to form a semicircular turnover. I sealed the edges with fork tines, and slid Gabe’s pie into the oven. When the turnover came out, nicely browned, Gabe glowed. He let his pie cool, then cut it and took pieces to Mom and Dad, and Sarah and Tracy, who raved and praised, much to Gabe’s delight. “You did a lot today, Gabe,” I reminded. “You made cinnamon pie crust cookies, you put on a new showerhead for Grandpa, and you baked a strawberry pie!” “Thank you, Uncle Roger,” he sighed, self-satisfied, knowing he had learned important new skills. “Next time,” I offered, “let’s bake banana chocolate-chip muffins.”
(Pictured above: Gabe’s strawberry pie.)
My children’s other grandfather is dying from his fourth attack of cancer. Tumors like softballs stud his chest and torso. Prior cancers removed his lower jaw and all but a thin fold of vocal cord. Family group texts to my children kept me informed of his worsening condition and of the many tender family visits from his eight children and thirty-six grandchildren and twenty-eight great-grandchildren. Though I have not been his son-in-law for six years, I love and respect the man, and I knew it would be right for me to say good-bye. Sitting at his bedside, we fist-bumped and we talked and reminisced and we shared our hopes for our families’ futures. He expressed his love and admiration for my seven wonderful children. I conveyed Mom’s and Dad’s expression of love and admiration and respect—“Right back at ‘em,” he chimed. He told me stories of his early life, like when he was a little boy and he and his cousins laid on their grandmother’s down-tic mattress listening to her tell stories of their Mormon pioneer ancestors. “She was barely 4-foot 10-inches tall,” he marveled. “We loved her. But you didn’t want to make her mad!” like when the children tried to ride the sheep. When I asked what he most looked forward to on the other side, he listed reunions with his father, Charles, who died by train in the shunting yard in 1961, and his mother, Jessie, who died of a stroke the year I married (1988), and many other family members, like his brother Kay, who died of the hardships of homelessness. I told him I felt very sorry that things had not worked out for his daughter and me, but that I loved him. “You are family,” he assured me in exhausted whispers, “and I love you.” He squeezed my hand hard, then let me know he was so tired and needed to sleep for a while. He stopped eating five days ago—he made it to March 1—everyone has said good-bye—I have said good-bye and god speed.
The photographic mind of my 86-year-old father is slowing its shutter speed, narrowing its F-stop, and the images emerging are beginning to blur. I am accustomed to him telling me the details of prominent lives based on his reading over many decades, the names, dates, relationships, events, places, and joys and tragedies. Stories still flow, but the names occasionally disappear or bungle. I always allow a long, respectful pause before supplying a name, if I know it. And when he insists on Middlesex County College (in New Jersey) instead of Salt Lake Community College (in Utah), I do not correct. What would be the point—to remind him of his and all humanity’s persistent deterioration? To try (in vain) to appear as smart as him? That would be cruel and arrogant of me. On each occasion when I do supply a name, I find that he is the one that originally supplied me with the name. So much of what I know comes from him telling me neverendingly about his readings and experiences. When he is gone, I will feel bereft of my teacher. I am reading a great deal in an attempt to open my brain on my own, but I observe with chagrin that the names and dates and events already do not stay in my memory—they have fled almost by the time I finish the book. What do remain inside me are the impressions, emotions rolled up with images my brain has supplied, and admiration and love for the humanity of each person I read about. While I may not be a useful repository of information, yet I trust my soul has stretched and grown by bringing those people into myself. These I never forget.
The tiny boy in my hands is a perfectly proportionate finely-featured human being in miniature. His eyes are shifting from newborn gray to paternal blue. His hair is growing from newborn black to maternal chestnut: lots of it, and curly. And I am holding him, baby Henry, the child of my child. In January. Holding him feels natural—I know the moving parts and the comforting positions, and where he needs support. At three weeks old, he looked into my eyes—he really did—and gazed at me for a good long time—he really did—and a not-gas-bubble smile began to play in the corner of his moving mouth on one side while he gazed—it really did. Somehow the world seems good and whole when holding a newborn. The problems melt away, and love flows. And I speak in gibberish the infant can understand because the sounds come from a smiling face and a lilting voice and dancing eyes, and those little ears take in the sounds and smiles and glints of light and love. Until three weeks ago I had one grandchild, the source of my greatest joy. Now Henry is here, and the stable of my heart has grown to make ample room for him in the manger, and will make more room in April, and more in October, and yet more….
(Above: Henry on a quilt sewn by his aunt Laura.)
Henry on a blanket crocheted by his great-aunt Carolyn.
Henry with his wonderful parents John and Alleigh.
I pulled into the driveway after 11:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, commuting the long hour after a long City Council meeting. The garage light shone through the door’s glass panes. How convenient, I could have thought. I would not have to gather my things and make my way to the house door in the dark. Instead, I thought about how Mom had been thinking of me that day and that night, and how she had made a point of turning on the light for me, to make my path bright and easy. And I thought about Mom and Dad sitting me down first thing every night to ask me about my day, in the process teaching me the consideration of asking them about their day—now, I try to ask them first. And I thought about how they answer the phone every day to listen to one of their beloved daughters, the troubles and worries and defeats and victories. And I remembered how Mom was there when I had my tonsils removed (1968), and my appendix removed (1982), gangrenous and tight, and my knee reconstructed and my leg immobilized for six weeks (during the dark ages of 1983), and my hernias patched (2012) and how in their 80s they brought me home to recover from my last surgery (2019), along with a pot of homemade chicken-vegetable soup. And I remember how Mom gathered us on Monday nights after fried pork chops to teach us a new church song, posterboard prompts held high, and Dad expounded his lifetime of scriptural insights, which bless me deeply every day, and how we ended with donuts or ice cream or rice pudding or little bowls of M&Ms. And I ponder their devotion and sacrifice and how they deserve my devotion and sacrifice. So, when I saw the garage light on, I jolted with the sudden but not-surprising awareness that their light has always been on for me.
She announced early in February that she was taking the children camping in Nevada where the sun shone warm and the sky vibrated blue and the sandstone grottos would shelter their tent in shimmering desert solitude and beauty. How wonderful and fun, I thought, but she announced this trip was for her and the children and I was not invited. So they went camping and I went to work those gray snowy foggy days in February. The still sandstone dunes radiated rainbow stripes of pinks and rusts and creams with occasional dripping springs and mystic hoodoos and ancient cryptic bat woman petroglyphs and piles of petrified wood and iron-spiked barrel cacti and mellow bighorn sheep and scurrying blue-throated lizards and deep trails of rust-red sand. These filled and enthused the returning children, who told me brightly all about their wonderful fun adventure, not knowing anything was the matter. It is February again, and they are there.
(Pictured above: Elephant Rock in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada)
I am not doing well. Of course, that sentence is so vague as to mean nothing at all. Let me see if I can rephrase. I am feeling acute prolonged distress on account of continuous daily events like watching my father exert all his earthly energies merely to rise from a chair and stumble on the verge of forward falling with each step as he crosses a room and knowing that one fall with a blow to the head or a broken leg or hip would take him from his home and land him in a hospital or assisted living whence he might not return and knowing the finances and the absence of long-term care insurance and that the needs for the little that is left, the needs, the needs, come constantly and persistently and if Mom and Dad are long-term hurt or long-term sick and cannot stay home the bills would take their home from them for we likely would have to sell the home, the home, and then where would our family be? and I can’t even think or ask When will this end? because the only end is a sad and tragic end which I abhor and eschew and don’t ever want ever and so we endure together and we make the best of things which often is pretty excellent though always under pall. I know I am not doing very well because I am writing in hysterical stream-of-consciousness and I swear frequently under my breath and I am consuming large quantities of lemon-yogurt-covered almonds and milk-chocolate-covered almonds and colorful crunchy Jordan almonds and feel a general awfulness inside and out and the frequent need to sit in a dark quiet room in my recliner under a soft fleece throw.