My ears are attuned to every little sound: the clicks of the break release handles on Dad’s downstairs walker; Mom’s syncopated shuffle; the single beep as the stair lift arrives at the end of the track, upstairs or down; cursing from the bathroom. This morning I awoke to the muscular sound of an industrial-strength vacuum in the master bedroom. Through the doorway I saw Dad sitting on the walker seat and pushing the carpet cleaner forward and back next to the bed. I did not ask, but I knew without asking. His weekday CNA Cecilia—faithful, pleasant, and kind—came shortly after and helped him shower. From my home office I could hear their one-way conversation: she said very little. “Do you know how old the earth is?” he asked her. “Four and a half billion years old!” He knows and loves the Bible and its God, but informed Cecilia that “God did not make the earth in six days.” Rather, He probably took billions of years to make our globe. Dad explained to her about the sun burning hydrogen in nuclear fusion, with enough hydrogen still to burn brightly for billions of years more. He told her that the only way we know how to use nuclear fusion reactions is with a hydrogen bomb, and referenced the atom bombs dropped on Japan. He expounded about ocean currents, and about the hydrologic cycle of evaporation and precipitation and the rivers of water vapor coursing through the skies, and about Argentina’s defiant propensity to default on its international debts, and about the formation of galaxies and stars. “I like to know things,” he summed up. Cecilia, an excellent listener, interposed an occasional affirming “really?” and “oh.” He told her about our family visiting an Indian tribe in Brazil in 1974, and how the tribal elders would not let us into their compound without being members of their tribe, and about how the tribal elders allowed us to become members of their tribe by following them on a course through the grounds and buildings, ending at a ceremonial tree, and about how we bought blow guns and bows and arrows from the indigenous women of the tribe. This is a true story. I know because I was ten and I was there. Dad’s stories sometimes jump from one unconnected subject to another, shifting like an old car with a worn out clutch. Dad lamented to Cecilia, “A few months ago I was a normal person. I could walk. I could do things.” That is not true. I know because I am 58 and I have been there with him, watching the insidiously steady downward degeneration culminating in painful undignified immobility and having to use the carpet cleaner in the mornings. He is not untruthful—he just forgets. And he cannot retrieve his books from his bookshelves or his checkbook from his desk or a glass of ice water, and has to ask Mom and me to fetch these and other things for him. He asked me to bring him Mom’s youthful portrait from his desk, placing it on the end table by his recliner, where he can see it all day as he reads. I remember seeing that portrait of Mom on his desk thirty years ago when I visited his New Brunswick office in the Johnson & Johnson tower. He has gazed at Mom’s youthful portrait for more than six decades, and he tells Mom everyday what a wonderful person she is, and that he loves her. And he steals hugs when she walks by, and she returns the hug and runs her fingers through his sparse wispy hair.
Hyrum called me from Brazil, where two weeks ago he began his two years of missionary service for his Church. He was tired but happy, overwhelmed but enthusiastic, intimidated but feeling the Spirit of God, not knowing the language but still communicating, exactly what a new missionary would expect to feel. I encouraged him to be patient and compassionate with himself, to not think about the long two years of days ahead, but about today, one intentional day at a time. The burly tatted barber gave him a nice haircut. And I talked with Brian in Tooele. Poor Lila has another cold, and Owen is already laughing. Avery’s business is looking up. Brian’s Fiverr clientele is growing—he raised his prices because he was too busy with too many clients, but they all requested him anyway. He and Avery are finding balance in the chaotic life of a young family. And I talked with John in Idaho. Their bathroom ceiling fell in while they were out of town. Luckily, the leak from their upstairs neighbors was gray water (washing machine) not black water (toilet). Their landlady put them in a hotel for a few nights, and hired a handyman to fix the ceiling and walls. I fasted a Sunday to seek God’s help in their search for employment after graduation. Henry is almost walking, and puckers and blows kisses. And I talked with Caleb and Edie in Panama, who arrived safety despite cancelled flights and chaotic connections. At church they rejoiced at seeing dear mission friends and converts. The hammocks by the mangrove lagoon were nice, too. Edie is a Marco Polo wiz. And I talked with Hannah over lunch at Costa Vida. This father is trying to find ways to connect with his teenage daughter. We are writing in the pages of a daddy-daughter journal, passing it back and forth, sharing our dreams and goals and interests. She drove herself to my office for the first time. And I talked with Laura in Chicago. I sent her pretty fabrics, and she is full of quilting ideas. Connor is studying furiously in medical school. William has four teeth and loves blackberries. And I talked with Dad and Mom. Dad’s CNAs help him bathe, dress, and get settled downstairs. He has been sending them home early, but paying full price, partly from magnanimity, partly from disliking pampering. Mom and I frequently do chores they could do, like vacuuming the floor of spilled food around his recliner. They are sweet to him; they are his friends; they listen patiently to his stories and laugh at his jokes and sympathize with his pains and indignities, but also need to work the time for which they are paid. He did not disagree. And I talked with Chip at church, who said he would stop by to see Dad, and did. He is a retired east coast cop who speaks his mind, and exclaimed, “Just put on a double diaper and come to church anyway!” He was only partly kidding. “We miss you.” People do miss Dad at church, and inquire after him. A few actually come over, walking the talk, practicing what they preach. Terry brought over a bag of cold apples for Dad to enjoy; peaches are not in season. In Patos de Minas, mangos are in season, and my missionary son’s church meetinghouse nurtures two enormous mango trees in the yard. He is loving both the mangos and the mission. He is feeling the truth of the Gospel message, sharing the good news of the restored Church. He is feeling the presence of God through His Spirit, and love for the people and the place. He says he is Brazilian at heart. A father could not wish for more for his son.
(Pictured above: Yours Truly with 6 of my 7 wonderful children, plus spouses (missing one), and my four beautiful grandchildren.)
I thought they were cute. Maybe others disagreed. But the notion of old glass dressed up and repurposed appealed to me. I made 78 of them, each unique, with patches and stripes and twists and belts in pastels and bright colors. My children helped me as we sat around the kitchen table with our diluted white glue and our strips of colored tissue, inventing patterns on the fly. I bought 78 plastic flowers from a dollar store and planted them in the jars, filled with gravel. I sold some. I gave some away as gifts. I put electric candles in them and arranged them to form a colorful lantern lane at Laura’s wedding. And I put the leftovers in boxes which I stored in the garage, which I brought with me to Mom’s and Dad’s house, and which have been sitting idle in their basement. The time had come either to throw them away or to give them away. Later this afternoon I would decide. For now, Hannah was playing in the wet snow rolling and assembling snowman parts, using Austrian pine needles as whiskers and pine cones for eyes, and an Olaf stick for a tuft of hair on top. And I knew this was my chance to play, to turn away from my infinite chores and to play, to play with my daughter making snowmen and a fort, a massive fort, founded with spheres of heavy wet snow too large for three adults to roll any farther, a five-gallon bucket making big cylindrical bricks for walls with battlements on top. And my son Caleb loved me enough to leap from the house barefoot and giggling to run madly in the snow and to tackle me with laughter and glee and rolling in the snow and throwing wet snow in each other’s faces and laughing like little boys—he loved me that much. When they left to spend Christmas elsewhere, I sank back into that dark lonely place, knowing that to claw my way out on this Christmas eve I would be wise to find a way to look outward from myself to someone else, and those dusty papier mâché mayonnaise and pickle jars in their basement boxes came to mind. While Mom made a list, I rushed to a dollar store for fresh plastic winter flowers and a bag of cheap gravel, and made 20 homemade vases to deliver on Christmas eve. Mom beamed when I asked her to come with me and to navigate to her 20 chosen homes, where in the orange wisps of sunset I set the vases on doorsteps to be found on the eve or on the day of Christmas.
December 17. Twelve degrees Fahrenheit. I am hiking to Bell Canyon Falls. But I am not alone this time. My son John read about my December 4th loneliness and invited me to hike with him today. Dad slept still when we left, but Mom asked his questions for him, about whether we had water, food, good boots, warm gloves, our hiking poles. We pushed past where I had turned around two weeks before, pushed up to where the slow lay three feet deep beside the trampled trail. We talked about life and love, relationships and challenges, joys and dreams, and I rejoiced quietly in his conversation and his character. Cold in my bed two nights before, I had dreamt of death, a peaceful dream in which the presence of Death descended gently to touch those whose time had come to return—a soft, benign touch, not threatening, but caring and compassionate, possessing a perspective large as a universe about our journey through an eternity of time in an infinity of space. Still, when I awoke in the dark, I felt compelled to check on Mom and Dad, to see if the dream had been prophetic or merely a macabre play on my anxieties. As I stood in their bedroom doorway, the nightlight on the wall behind me cast an enormous human shadow on the wall before me, and I thought of the grim reaper, only I was grimless, and guileless, and I was not a messenger or a harbinger, but a steward and a servant and a son. Dad snored calmly, and Mom’s sleep had sunk beneath his snores. Throughout the week, groups of neighbors and church members had stopped by to wish Mom and Dad a merry Christmas. A group of six young women and their adult advisors came to carol. Dad had wanted to greet them in the formal living room, but he could not walk that far—he may never walk that far again. So he smiled and joined in the singing from where he was, holding the large gift basket in which lay a loaf of cranberry walnut bread, wool-blend socks (even a pair for me), and mint truffle hot cocoa mix. A bunch of boys with their adult advisors came to deliver a puzzle and oranges and blonde brownies and Andes mints. Couples delivered a pineapple, whole wheat bread, peach freezer jam, a poinsettia, ornaments for the tree, and green bananas (because Mom told them Dad likes green bananas, not the brown blotchy sweet ones she enjoys), each gift an expression of love and regard and caring. This is what I thought about as I slipped and rolled clumsily but harmlessly down the steep snowy mountainside, snow sticking to every inch of me, still with no spikes on my boots, still in the mountain’s cold shadow, my knees complaining loudly, the moisture from John’s breath frozen stiff on the whiskers of his mustache, my water bottle frozen in my coat pocket. And then sunlight struck the tops of the snow-laden trees and worked its way warmly down to the snow-covered sagebrush and the deep snow drifts and the path and two hiking men with their poles swinging in easy rhythm.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
“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.
They did not know what to say, so they said nothing, and I suffered alone. When I separated and divorced almost seven years ago, not one neighbor, not one congregation member, not one ministerial leader approached me with friendship or compassion or support. They did not know what to say, apparently, so they stayed away and said nothing at all, and I anguished utterly alone. (Thank God, Mom and Dad and Sarah and Jeanette and Carl and Paul and Megan and Don and Carolyn and Steven—parents, siblings, and three friends—they loved me through.) I think that “I don’t know what to say” is a hideous excuse for pretending not to see, and for withdrawing and withholding, and for saying nothing. I reject it. How easy it would have been for anyone to say, “I am so sorry!” or “What can I do to support you?” or “You will get through this, and I want to be there with you as you do.” I reject it: actually, we do know what to say, but we are reluctant to feel another’s pain, afraid to do the emotional work of empathy. Just: say anything kind. That ought to be easy. When our neighbor’s infant grandson died in his crib in their house this week, constricted by a blanket laid there to warm and comfort the baby boy, dozens of men and women rushed to the house and kept coming every day for weeks, with meals, with hugs, with encouragement, with loving silence, with tears, and with other assurances of love and hope. I did not know what to say, and I did not go, right away. But I had rejected that justification, and I had determined never to stay away for the lack of the right words. Instead of words, I took over a plate of hot crêpes stuffed with chocolate almond frangipane (French pudding) and handed the goodie plate over with a smile and said the words “You might want to use a fork—they are a bit messy” and “This is an authentic French dessert” and “I don’t know what words to say” and “So many people love you and care for you and mourn with you and have hope for your healing and happiness.” And he embraced me and said, “Thank you. I can’t wait to give them a try.” After church today, a group of women surrounded the grieving grandmother and talked and cried and hugged and counseled—they loved. Dad observed to me, “That is more than just a group of women talking. Christ is there with them, healing.” And I knew Dad spoke truth.
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.
My nephew’s wedding day had finally come. I had worked many hours over several days to make Mom’s and Dad’s back yard—the wedding venue—look beautiful. But as I sat at my circular blue-clothed table listening to the couple exchange their self-customized vows, I wondered at the irony and futility of my work. In other words: not one living soul would have cared if the grass edges had not been string trimmed or if a weed or two had been missed—these would not have dampened anyone’s excited happiness. My parents and my sister appreciated my effort more for the sacrifice and love it expressed than for the merits of the landscaping, and rightly so. For the next event, will I target the same energy toward the venue appearance, or will I focus on weightier matters, like visiting with distant cousins and playing with the grandchildren and preparing heartfelt messages for the celebrants and lessening family burdens? The temperature plunged from 92 degrees the evening before to 53 degrees on the morning of the wedding day, with rain falling all night and all morning. But we tumbled the table cloths in the dryer and the clouds broke in time to warm and brighten the ceremony. Poor Dad could not walk—he could merely lean heavily with both hands on his front-and-center cane and drag each foot forward a few inches, with screwed face and suppressed groans. And that “walking” presupposed an ability to stand from his chair, which he could not. I turned around to see a very-former son-in-law vaunting mock magnanimity by grabbing Dad by limbs and joints and hoisting with humble hubris. But Dad preferred to wait for me, because the two of us together know just how to get the job done, with a heave of my elbow under his armpit to slowly stand, then his arm pretzeled heavily in mine to move across the grass toward the house. The bride looked lovely and confident and serene, despite the morning’s rain and the morning’s drama by some guests who were invited to stay home. And my nephew looked a naturally boyish nervous though he knew the marriage was right and good, and that his bride was the right bride and friend and life companion. Little Gabe, almost four, came jaunting proudly down the center aisle carpet holding up as if for royalty a pillow to which were tied the bouncing rings, lifting them high toward the couple, his uncle and brother, his aunt and sister, who read to him and bathe him and feed him and play games with him before his tired mother returns late from work, for she pays the bills, and the bills must be paid. Before the wedding, he fell and bonked his head and cried more from insult than from pain, wanting the comfort of love over a bag of ice, so I held him in my rocking chair and listened to his very big small-person sadness and fear—he was worried the new couple now would move to a house of their own and leave him alone and lonely. But they will keep their comfortable niche in the family house and continue to be Gabe’s protectors and nurturers until his mom and dad come home from work. Gabe’s head and heart felt better and soothed and he laughed at being tickled and dressed in a three-piece suit and praised. Weddings are not my favorite occasions because I know how much is at stake and how much trouble and pain lie ahead and how awry things can go, and I hope they will make it against the odds, and I hope they can find happiness, together. I always hope for a new couple, for who am I to jinx their joy with my suppressed sense of doom? I am no one, and the doom is a false projection of bad prophecy. We just need to put away our pride, and focus on the other’s happiness and fulfilment and meaning, and trust in life and in the Divine—then we can make it.
(Pictured above: Yours Truly with his two wonderful youngest children at my nephew’s back-yard wedding.)
Yesterday: I was not angling for a pat on the head, but neither did I expect a rap on the knuckles. I had listened to everything Dad said he would do to get ready for the wedding: string trim the grass along the sidewalks and the rock wall and around the landscape beds; hoe and pull all the weeds and tall grass and wild morning glory vines from the shrubs and beds. He could do none of it, and I suspected the man he had hired would not show up (he didn’t), so I set to work hoeing, snipping, trimming, raking, bagging, sweating, near collapse from illness and fatigue. Six neighborhood men converged for a successful second attempt to winch the impossibly heavy brick mailbox pedestal into its hole. They repaired the broken sprinkler pipe, stacked the sod, and will come back in a couple of days to see how the pedestal has settled, pour fresh cement, and restore the soil and grass. Dad sat and watched and worried and advised, straight from his bed, without taking his medicine, without drinking, without eating—straight to the job for the long-haul, sitting in the driveway in the hot sun, sweating out his strength, begging on the misery of seizures and exhaustion. Four friendly Columbians assembled the wedding tent and I stumbled to be friendly in Spanish, treating them to cold Brazilian Guaraná soda (“No es cerveza?” “No, no tiene alcohol.”) I finished my work after six hours, and putting the tools away, Dad told me I had done the string trimming wrong. No “thank you.” No “looks great.” No “you did a lot today.” Like I said, I did the work because it needed doing, and I was proud of the beautiful manicured result—I was not pandering for praise. But if you expect a job done a certain way, tell me at the beginning of the job; do not wait until the job is done and then criticize the result. I felt suddenly furious, and announced I was done because I had worked beyond my limits, which I had, and my arms and hands were shaking and my breathing tight and short and all I wanted was to lie down in a cool dark room. But I found little Gabe (almost four already!) and asked him the question he always hopes to hear: Do you want to bake some cupcakes, little friend? He measured and poured and stirred and tasted at every step, from bitter cocoa-powder paste to rich batter to sweet butter-cream icing to small spoonsful of sprinkles, the various chocolaty substances fingerpainted on his face. But Gabe’s all-time favorite game is Hide-and-Seek. “Nobody wants to play Hide-and-Seek with me,” he bemoaned as everyone worked, and I thought maybe I could find a little hiding and seeking energy for my little friend. When he counts, he counts fast, and ten “seconds” was barely enough time to bound off and stumble behind a bush, where he found me when I poked up for a peak and he squealed and I laughed and his mama watched us from the kitchen window, giggling. Gabe took most of the cupcakes home, thankfully. Later I laid in bed wondering at my still-smoldering anger and how outsized it was to the offense and wondering where it came from and pondering my six-decade relationship with the great man I call “Dad” and learning long ago not to expect praise but to get the job done right and wondering what my three daughters and my four sons think of their “Papa” and whether my expectations were reasonable, and reasonably expressed.
Last Night: And at 1:00 a.m. my sleeping ears began to hear Dad’s far-off call “Rog!” and at the second “Rog!” I jumped from my bed, threw off the loathed CPAP cup, grabbed my 45-year-old homemade brown terrycloth bathrobe and ran to the stairs to confront the whole spectrum of trouble. But there sat Dad in his recliner, reading, munching, happy, perfectly fine and safe, waving, smiling curiously at me looking distressed in my underwear at the top of the stairs. I hung my bathrobe on its hook and resumed staring at the dark ceiling, ready to let go of unintended offense, ready for sleep, ready for the last Mary Berry cupcake the next day, a Sunday, a day of rest.
Today: Dad, sitting with me at a round table under the wedding tent: “Rogie, did you do all this work in the yard? There’s not a single weed in the shrub beds, and they are all raked out so nice and neat. And the string-trimmed edges of the lawn are perfect. It’s all perfect. You have made the hard look so nice for the wedding. Thank you.”
We had planned the celebration for months, and on the day of, I awoke too sick to attend. My sisters handled all the preparation and hosting. At the top of stair case, I listened to bursts of laughter amid the general soft murmuring of many friendly voices in catching up and conversation, like the gentle babbling of a booklet tripping down a mossy cascade, and in that gentleness I detected elements of acceptance and respect and affection, and of a love that could turn fierce in mutual defense. I enjoyed my chicken salad croissant and chips, watching through the railing as Dad, 86, launched into his stories, with occasional intervening from Mom. They had met at a church dance, at the end of which he asked for her phone number (“and she gave it to me!”). He called her the next day, and drove her to the university and dated for the next three years, and they married—60 years ago. “I know her much better now than I did then!” Law school over, they moved to New York City, living in Greenwich Village. While Dad was at school, Mom rode the subways just to see where they went. She played violin in a Washington Square orchestra, and during one concert the conductor’s baton hit the music stand and flew out of his hand into the audience. After three days of descending to the street at 5:00 a.m. to move the car the opposite side of the street, Dad sold the car to the bellboy for $50. Then off to São Paulo, Brazil, where I was born, to live in a tiny studio. Mom passed the time by walking me to the embassy library and taking me on every bus route (in the city of then 16 million people) to the “fim da linha”—the end of the line. “I can’t do this,” was not part of Mom’s vocabulary, Jeanette enthused. Dad befriended the city comptroller at school, and invited him to their studio, where they sat at a card table on folding chairs, their only furniture, for homemade pizza, which the millionaire graciously enjoyed. “I loved your mother when we got married,” Dad said, “but I love her more, and differently, today. I never look at her without thinking, ‘I love her.’” (“Even when I’m bossy!” Mom chimed in.) David told how Mom and Dad sacrificed several days to help clean and paint his house, and how their love is literally worked into the very walls of the house. “I want to tell you something,” Dad began, warming up to his life’s witness. “This is important to me.” And he quoted Jesus: “’Be faithful, and I will protect you from every fiery dart of the adversary. I will encircle you in the arms of my love.’ That is how our Savior feels about us.” When I was an infant in Brazil, Dad was assigned to visit ten families who no longer attended church. He had no car or phone, just bus schedules and maps. But he found them, and visited them every month of that school year. Walking home from his final bus ride in Brazil, Dad contemplated his ministering effort. That is when a voice in his mind affirmed, “I accept your offering,” and he felt an overwhelming loving presence embrace him. As I listened and watched through the bars of my separating sickness, I contemplated how close Dad is to walking home from his life’s final bus ride, and of my certainly that he will again hear the words, “I accept your life’s offering,” and will again enjoy that sublime embrace.
“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.)
“Hi baby!” Mom answered my phone call. I had called in honor of their special day, to make sure they were happy, to praise and cheer them, Mom and Dad. They had driven the faithful Suburban to Burt Brothers for a safety inspection and minor repairs. They had walked next door to Dairy Queen for burgers with bacon and for fries and for a chocolate Blizzard—“They were so good! But the walk about killed your dad,” Mom reported. “And the walk back about killed him again!” But it was a “lovely day,” a “perfect day,” she said, and she was very happy, I could tell. Approaching home near 10 p.m., I turned into Smith’s grocery store and selected a small bouquet of flowers of vibrant colors. Steven had sent a thoughtful happy card. Barbara had brought a lavender orchid. Others had called and texted and Facetimed. Entering the house with my inexpensive bouquet, I cheered, “Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad!” Happy 60th Wedding Anniversary. Sixty years of marriage. As I snipped off several inches of stems and slid the flowers into a clear glass vase, I heard Dad say from his recliner to Mom in her recliner, “I love you, Lucille. You are so wonderful.”
Pictured above: my real life Mom and Dad. Happy 60th!
Hannah spent the morning with Mom and Dad and me, playing the piano, baking Guinness treacle bread, playing Carcassonne, and warming leftovers for lunch, topped off with last night’s Tarte Tatin (French up-side-down caramel apple pie). She played pretty hymn arrangements and the perennial sublimity of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune—Moonlight. Mom sat listening on the sofa with her eyes closed. Dad reached the bottom stair just as Hannah finished playing. “That was beautiful,” he complimented her. “I think you played that exactly the way Beethoven would have liked.” Hannah and I glanced at each other and smiled. No one laughed, of course, because the music was so moving and his loving accolade so sincere. The week Dad retired, more than 20 years ago, the law office joined him for a final jog through Johnson Park. One heavy-breathing attorney, O’Shaunessy, panted amiably to Dad as they ran, “You know, Nelson, I appreciate that you are religious. Before you came here, I had never heard the story of Moses and the Ark.” A third attorney asked if O’Shaunessy meant Noah instead of Moses, and a friendly argument ensued, with Dad caught in the middle, not weighing in. Maybe O’Shaunessy was not too far off, though, since Pharoah’s daughter had found the baby Moses floating in a tiny reed ark. And Beethoven did compose the famous Moonlight Sonata. As Hannah left for home, Dad called to her, “I love you,” and commented to me about what a delightful young woman she is. He sat at his computer to type her a note. I had judged him for pressing the mouse button so forcefully and deliberately, like an old person who had grown up flipping toggles and pressing mechanical switches. But sitting later at Dad’s computer to retrieve a “lost” document, I realized his chorded mouse was not functioning properly, and that if I did not lean forcefully into the mouse, it did not respond. I had judged incorrectly, as I often do, placing pride and arrogance before compassion and respect. “Dad,” I called, “I’m sorry your mouse doesn’t work correctly,” and he thanked me for noticing, and I drove to the store and purchased a new mouse with a smooth wheel and a soft clicking touch.
The men of the Church assigned to see to her welfare told Dad she could not be visited. As the lay leader of the congregation, Dad bore responsibility for the welfare of every member of the congregation, whether they wanted to participate in the Church or not. “What does ‘unvisitable’ mean?” he queried. Apparently, “unvisitable” meant she did not want anyone from the Church to visit her. For Dad, the deeper questions were “Why is she unvisitable? What is happening in her life to distance her from the Church and from people.” Sitting at his desk in the law department of Johnson & Johnson, pondering over this unvisitable Church member. A thought pressed itself irresistibly onto his mind: Call her. Now. Having learned to never put off a prompting, he picked up the phone and called her. “Sandy? This is your bishop. I’m coming over right now,” and did not wait for a protest. He found Sandy living in squalor and disrepair, and terribly depressed and overwhelmed. The trees and shrubs had overgrown the house and porch. The front stairs had fallen away from the porch, and the mailman could not deliver the mail. Stacks of newspapers filled the rooms and hallways, with only narrow trails from place to place. She had not read them yet, she explained. The window frames had been painted while open, and remained stuck open, even in winter, when she shoved crumpled newspapers against the screens for insulation. “I will help you,” Dad promised, and he spent the next year helping Sandy transform her living space, which in turn transformed her life. He suggested she start her reading with the next day’s edition, and emptied the house of newspapers and trash, taking many loads to the dump. He cut out the trees and pulled out the shrubs, planting new ones. He cut the windows free of old paint so they could be open or shut with the season. He jacked up the stairs and put rock and new cement under them. He repaired all the plumbing. He painted all the walls. Mom asked him once, “Why don’t you involve the other men of the Church instead of doing all this work yourself?” And he explained that descending en masse to fix the house was all fine and well, but would not fix the occupant. She needed frequent, regular visits of encouragement, acceptance, and assistance. In the course of that year, Sandy began to smile, and to converse, and to return to Church. She and Mom became friends, sometimes hopping on the train to New York City for Broadway’s “two-for” matinees. In telling the story four decades later, Dad was clear it was not to boast, but to teach me this lesson: No one is unvisitable. We just need to ask the Savior how to do it, and He will show us the way. To God, all persons have equal worth, and we can be his hands in reaching out to the unreachable. No one is unvisitable.
(Photo from lily pond at Island Lake in the high Uintah mountains, 2007.)
For over a century, my Church has preached a ministering program called “home teaching,” where Church members, two by two, visit with assigned families to make sure their temporal and spiritual needs were being addressed. At the awkward age of 14, I was Dad’s home teaching companion, and he was the “bishop” or unpaid lay minister of our large congregation—he knew all the Church members and their many problems and hardships. He saw on the records the name of a young woman he did not know, Continue reading
From my seat in the choir loft, I looked out upon a sea of 500 faces. Panning slowly, I looked at the details of each face, especially the eyes. And I could tell that all these people sitting in church on a Sunday morning were good people, wanting to do their duty to each other and to God and the Church. Many couples sat beside each other, their children by their side, or alone where their children had grown. A number of adults sat without partners. Like mine, each face held a story of heartache and loss and grief, and joy. I pondered how their stories are not part of mine, and how my story is not part of theirs. We may cross paths from time to time, but we do not walk the same specific path together. I experienced again the sensation that I would walk the remainder of my path alone. The possibility remains that I might meet a compatible companion, who I now cannot imagine—it might happen. But to flourish in this present moment I have to let go of that ephemeral possibility. Several times I have worked hard to make a relationship happen, but these fabrications have always failed, painfully. In this and other oceans of faces, good faces, I have found no face or soul to belong to. And that is just as well. I have written elsewhere about my setting out to find wildlife in nature, how the harder I search, the less I find. I have learned that when I relax, and breathe, and labor faithfully without expectation, when I prepare myself and allow nature to arrive on her own terms, she and her creatures arrive, beavers and bullfrogs, muskrats and turtles, herons and kingfishers, wild iris and rose. As with nature, so with natural relationships: I must relax, and breathe, and labor faithfully without expectation—I have to be prepared for the universe to arrive with her abundant blessings. For the present, my job is to get used to being alone, to sacrifice and to love alone, to contribute alone, to maintain spiritual standards and practices alone, to be healthy and fit alone, to cook and eat gourmet meals alone, and to forego the pleasures and pains and joys of intimate companionship. My opportunity is to learn the lessons of living from my particular life. Your opportunity right now is to sing with the choir, I thought, emerging from my reverie. To end the long church conference, the choir director led Mom and me and the choir in singing Be Still, My Soul, arranged by Mack Wilberg. The women sang with one clear voice, to which the men added another, moving together into a pleasant perfect eight-part harmony. A spirit of beauty washed over the ocean of faces. After the benediction, Dad walked slowly beside me toward the exit, his arm heavily upon mine. Stepping through the door, we saw that the snow had begun to fall, and remarked upon how beautiful it was, and how cold upon our bald heads.
(Pictured above, Utah’s Jordan River from my kayak.)
My local congregation announced a church dance near Valentine’s Day, for adults. I serve on the committee that plans and executes our church activities. Mostly the chair couple does the planning, and I help set up and take down. “I’ll be there to help you set up for the dance,” I offered to the chairman. “But I will not be attending.” He did not quite know what to make of me, so I explained. “As an older single man, I will not feel comfortable at a romantic dance for married couples.” And I was not about to spend the evening standing against the wall like a terrified teen. I have wondered how I ought to describe myself in conversations like these, and “older single man” seemed accurate and adequate. “Middle-aged divorced man,” would have done fine, too, but sounded stiff and stilted. For several hours I helped the committee set up chairs and tables and decorate and string high lines from which we hung glow sticks and vinyl records (the theme was “dancing through the decades,” with a playlist of old classics to match). When 7:30 rolled around, I could not help but think of who had come to the dance, and whether they were having fun—I hoped so. Mom and Dad and I enjoyed a dinner of steamed buttered vegetables—cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, butternut squash—while we watched Jimmy Chin’s documentary about the Thai youth soccer team stranded for two weeks without food miles inside an inundated cave, their oxygen dwindling, and about the group of middle-aged unmarried men, the best in the world at their solitary sport, who focused their feelings and faculties and did the impossible and brought every boy out alive.
(Image from thetimes.co.uk, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
“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.
Valentine’s Day is not my favorite holiday: too many painful memories and unrealized dreams. Though many couples are successful, for me, at 57, the intimate romantic logical vulnerable safe knitting together of two lives seems like an impossibility. The fabric feels always dangerously close to fraying. But Mom and Dad have made it work for 63 years, including their courtship. To celebrate the day, they teetered to the chocolate cottage down the street and bought each other some goodies—for Dad, a box of sugar-free chocolate cherries—for Mom, a one-pound log of rocky road! Dad also brought home two dozen yellow roses for Mom, her favorite color. Mom called me at work to wish me a happy Valentine’s Day and to invite me to go to dinner with them. “This is your romantic day,” I demurred. “You and Dad should enjoy dinner for two. I’d be a third wheel.” “Nonsense,” she rebuffed. “We’d love to have you with us. We’re a family!” In the end, I proved useful, carrying plates and drinks and silverware, helping Dad into and out of his seat. A cheerful vibrant pony-tailed server about my age waited on us. I could not help but wonder about her circumstances. Ever friendly, Mom asked her if she had children. “I have six!” the woman enthused. Her oldest is serving our Church as a missionary in Costa Rica. Several of my children served such two-year missions, in Oklahoma, Florida, California, and Mozambique (in Portuguese-speaking southeast Africa). We had that in common. I do not know if she is married, but she was waiting tables, and I was being waited upon, and I was with my parents, and we were surrounded by scores of listening people. Enjoying our meals, Dad reminisced about when his mother worked as a waitress and janitor. She worked at night cleaning the Kearns building downtown Salt Lake City during World War II. As a seven-year-old, Dad would accompany her and empty the waste baskets. The foreman arrived to give Dora her pay. Dad informed the man he had worked too, and where was his pay? Without meanness, the man picked up a pencil from a desk and handed it to Dad: “Here’s your pay, little man.” Dad had thought it “chintzy” pay for the work. Not to be chintzy in turn, he left a nice tip for the cheerful vibrant mother of six. “She has a family to support.” Walking slowly to the car, Mom thanked me for taking her and Dad to dinner. “I should be thanking you,” I answered. “Thank you for including me in your Valentine’s Day.” Back at home, I climbed the stairs to my home office. On my laptop rested a yellow chocolate rose lollipop, with a ribbon bow, a gift from my vibrant cheerful mother.
I sat on the edge of Mom’s bed. She was 35 years old. And I was 10. A single tear coursed slowly down her cheek as she confided to me in that quiet private place that her father had died. My grandfather Wallace. We had lived with Wallace and Dorothy a scant two years earlier, where I started 3rd grade while we waited three months for our lagging visas. Dad had been “called” by our church to “serve” as a “mission president” in Brazil. Translation: Mom and Dad had been invited to work on a volunteer basis leading a group of younger volunteer proselyting missionaries sharing the Gospel of Jesus, as representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Dad took a three-year leave of absence from a generous Johnson and Johnson, and Mom and Dad and three young children, including me, made the long voyage to São Paulo, Brazil. It was October 1972. We left behind the tear-stained face of grandpa Wallace, locked in mortal battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Dorothy had tried every healing remedy she heard of, including a grape juice diet—after two weeks, her sick husband threw the offered juice across the kitchen in disgust. Wallace fought hard to stay alive until Mom returned home to Utah, and he almost made it. He passed away in April 1975, and we returned in July. Mom did not travel to the funeral, deciding instead to dedicate herself to the mission and to her young family, which then included a new baby. As I sat on the edge of Mom’s bed and watched the lone tear drip down her face, I felt the peaceful warm elixir of great sadness mixed with great hope, the sadness of love and loss, and the hope of healing in Jesus and the promised reunion of resurrection. During his 62 years, Wally (as his friends called him) had organized the construction of church buildings by church members, had led a congregation of thousands as a lay minister, had driven a milk truck and school bus and hay wagon, had picked tomatoes and peas and sugar beets for church welfare storehouses, had been “daddy” to my mommy. Though I last saw his face when I was eight years old, I do not remember his tears of knowing good-bye, but rather his gentle playfulness, his chicken coops and carrot rows and hand-pumped well, and his scruffy smile at me upon his lap.
Pictured above: my grandpa Wally in 1962.
After Mom turned six, in November 1945, her mother and father informed the children that there was no money for Christmas presents that year. The parents were sorrowful and resigned, while the children—Mom being the oldest—naturally felt disappointed. Still, they were used to not having many material things, so the news was not a shock or a trauma, just a disappointment. Though they were poor, they did not think of themselves as poor. They did not have many possessions, but they were tender and loving with each other and enjoyed the richness of home and family, church and community, music and literature. With this radiance, the children rapidly reconciled their disappointment and looked forward to Christmas morning nonetheless. Christmas was still a happy, hopeful season. Sauntering slipper-footed into the living room on Christmas morning, Mom saw a new doll in the corner, meant for her. She joyfully picked up the doll, not having expected any gifts at all, and began to love it and play with it. Soon, however, she discovered, with a sinking feeling, that the new doll was in fact last year’s doll, made up to look new. Mom’s mother, Dorothy, had clipped locks of her own auburn hair and sewn them to a band, which she stitched to the doll’s head, concealing the band with a new little bonnet. After her realization, Mom regrouped and was happy about her new doll, feeling gratitude for her mother’s efforts during a challenging era to provide for her and her younger siblings. The orange and peanuts in her stocking added a measure of pleasure to the day. Knowing Dorothy so well (she passed away at age 96), I was moved, thinking of her cutting off lengths of her own hair to make a gift for her little girl. Of course, this was only one of infinite sacrifices Dorothy made for her children. My mother, in turn, made infinite sacrifices for her children, as I have done for mine, and as my children are beginning to do for theirs. And so it goes.
At a family party, we asked Mom how she and Dad met. She related how she met him at an Institute dance in late 1959. Institute is the name given by my Church for an organized opportunity for religious instruction and for social interaction, mostly for young single adult members of the Church. Mom was about 20 years old, a freshman at the University of Utah. She remembers, “He was standing there, leaning against a door frame, looking very cute in his navy-blue suit.” It was the suit he wore on his mission to Brazil (1956-1959), and was well used, but “still looked great.” Mom’s friend, Dolores, whispered to her, “That’s Nelson Baker.” Dad asked Mom to dance, and before the evening ended, asked for her phone number. The very next day he called her on the phone, and came to visit her at the bungalow-style house her father built for her mother in 1932. Mom and Dad went out a lot, to the movies, to dances, to visit with Dad’s mission friends, to the Frost Top for shakes and fries. Dad drove her every morning to the University of Utah, where they both graduated with bachelor degrees. “Your mom was very beautiful,” Dad boasted. Sitting in his music appreciation class one day, on the third floor of the David Gardner building, he looked out the window to see Mom standing on a street corner waiting for a bus, to go to her elevator job. Seeing her there filled his heart with sweet feelings. They married on April 5, 1962, in the Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and will celebrate this year their 60th wedding anniversary. Of course, they can get on each other’s nerves, but they are eternally devoted and kind to one another. Now, that’s love.
Dad said to me one evening after dinner, as Mom and I bustled around with kitchen cleanup, “Rog, do you know how huggable your mother is? She is the most huggable person in the whole world.” He was too tired to stand just at that moment, and told Mom that if she ambled close to him, he would give her a hug. She rolled her eyes, and she ambled. “I need a hug,” Dad explained as he put his arms around her waist. She patted him reassuringly on the arm. “Rog,” Dad continued, “do you know you have the best mother in the whole world? Aren’t you just so lucky?” I do, I thought, and I am. Indeed. These occasional sweet expressions and displays of conjugal affection move me. Mom and Dad get on each other’s nerves on a daily basis, but they love each other and are devoted to one another. They cherish each other, and the family institution they have created. I need their example—the world needs their example. I need to believe marriage can work, and as they approach their 60th wedding anniversary, and as I see them work on their marriage every day, at being kind and patient and understanding, I can believe. The next time they snip at one another, I may remind them about their mutual huggability, and suggest Mom amble over in Dad’s direction.
Pictured above: Dad (86) and huggable Mom (82), with my sister and niece.
I awoke at eight—early or late?—on a Saturday, with no obligation but to live. I cooked Dad’s favorite apple-cinnamon oatmeal, with cream, for our breakfast, sweetened respectively with sugar for Mom, Splenda for Dad, and stevia extract for me. In the crock pot, I stirred the dry 15-bean soup mix, diced onion, minced garlic, ground chilis, leftover cubed ham, water, and the packet of smoke-and-ham flavored powder, and set it to simmering. Hyrum turned 20 this week. He is my sixth child, and dearly-beloved. So, I started baking a cake for his Saturday evening birthday party. And this was no hum-drum box-mix cake, but Mary Berry’s chocolate-orange mousse cake, and I hoped I could do the many-stepped recipe justice. After finishing the cake and washing, it seemed, half the kitchen’s bowls and mixing utensils, I needed to get out of the kitchen, out of the house, and out of my head. Nearby Bell Canyon beckoned. The trail’s snow was trampled down and icy, and I had forgotten my aspen-wood staff. As I slipped and tromped along, I began to ruminate, to puzzle over romance, over the panging hunger for romance, over the long absence from romance—I began to puzzle over love. A puzzle. Both uphill and downhill, the mountain trail presented many slippery slopes, and I stepped with care as I thought. An attractive woman passed me, planting her steel-tipped poles in the ice. She was smart to navigate the icy trail with poles. I was not so smart. I wanted to be there in the mountains, in the snow, in the crisp beauty—I was sincere and empty of guile—but I was un-smart in my own navigations. Always a puzzle. Hyrum and company, of course, loved the chocolate-orange mousse cake, and I was proud to have baked it. I am proud of him, no longer a little boy, but a man, a man of the best sort, a chocolate-orange mousse cake sort of a man.
We moved our Baker extended family Christmas Eve party to December 23 this year. My (former) wife and I began the tradition in 1992 when we lived with my paternal grandmother Dora, in the basement of her little house, after our return from Portugal, where I had been a Fulbright student. We enjoyed a simple “shepherd’s meal,” with bread and cheese and nuts and fruits and cold meat. We recounted the birth of the baby Jesus, and we sang Christmas carols. Dora, a cute 83 years old, dressed up as Mother Mary and held on her lap my two-year old son Brian. This year Brian brought his two-year-old Lila as we continued the tradition with Mom and Dad and our extended family of Baker siblings and their posterities. We moved the party from December 24 to December 23 to add Dad’s birthday to the Christ-child celebration. We had planned the move for last year to celebrate Dad’s 85th birthday, but Covid-19 dictated otherwise. So, we rescheduled for 86. But Dad would not allow us to celebrate his birthday at the party. Though December 23, this party, he insisted, was to celebrate the birth of Jesus, not the birth of Dad. He grudgingly allowed a few gifts, but focused on his Savior, and on another notable birth, also on December 23, the 1805 birth of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet who established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to whom the Father and the Son appeared in 1820. Those two birthdays counted, Dad said, not his. We rebuffed him with a respectful, “Yeah, whatever” and added Dad’s birthday to the trifecta celebration. Card tables and folding chairs accommodated the crowd, which passed by the kitchen island for plates of ham, scalloped potatoes, and my French glazed carrots and parsnips touched with ginger. And Sarah’s perfect homemade whole-wheat bread. We sang Christmas carols and rounds and hymns. We played a matching game with carol names and lyrics. We played again our indispensable traditional “Left-Right” game in which the group sits in a circle, each person with a wrapped gift, and passes the gifts to the left or to the rights as those words appear in the story Mom narrated about the “Wright” family, with laughter and chaos and flying wrapping paper—one never knew what gift one would receive. And Brian read the Birth story in Luke 2. And Dad blessed us again with his Christmas message of love for his Savior and love for his family and how the two inseparably embrace. The time came for everyone to disperse from whence they came, and Mom, Dad, and I felt content and happy and relieved that the Christmas Eve Birthday party—our 29th annual—had been a success, having celebrated the births of Jesus, Joseph, and Dad: quite our favorite trio.
(Pictured above: a family service project with Mom and Dad.)
Every six weeks, Mom gets her hair cut. Jen, a daughter of a neighbor up the street, is the beautician who cuts Mom’s hair. During the warm months of spring, summer, and fall, Jen comes to Mom’s house to cut her hair. Mom sits in a camp chair in the garage while Jen works her magic, and Jen sweeps up afterward. During the colder months, Mom sits at the kitchen table while Jen carefully snips here and there. Mom’s hair cut is not fancy, but is cute, and matches her fun personality. Once flaxen brown, Mom’s hair is now the prettiest white. Attending Mom’s community orchestra concerts, before Covid shut down public events, my children and I always looked for grandma’s white hair at her violin stand, proud of her for being talented and engaged and happy. Dad has always been fond Mom’s hair beautiful. A few years ago, he told me of coming back to bed on a winter morning and observing tenderly his wife’s white hair as she lay sleeping. Some time after, I wrote this short poem, entitled “Morning”: Warm sun in winter / hurtles white-capped / peaks and rushes through / wide windows / to halt and hover / over a head of tousled white / hair, aged, peaceful / upon her pillow.
(Pictured above: Mom and Dad after receiving their first Covid-19 vaccinations.)
“Can we come around 7:00?” she asked. “That would be lovely,” I answered. And they came, on a very cold Tuesday night, a small group of church youth with their leaders—two young women and two young men. “Merry Christmas!” they cheered. Mom and Dad brought them into the living room, where the group sat visiting on the sofas. The leaders sparked up a Christmas carol, and the youth sang in shy murmurs. Until Mom joined, that is. Though the youth came to serenade her, she jumped right in with her cheerful choral charisma and had the small group singing enthusiastically. After half-an-hour of caroling, the group called again, “Merry Christmas!” and filed out the door, Mom and Dad waving, everyone happier for the visit. “We had so much fun,” Mom beamed when I came home late from work. The youth left a beautiful gift basket with a poinsettia, various fruits, a loaf of Great Harvest cinnamon-raisin bread, Stephen’s mint truffle hot cocoa mix, and two pair of warm winter socks.
In a prolonged moment of self-doubt about my abilities and contributions, I remarked to my brother Steven about my “stupid little blog posts.” He quickly chided me, gently, and urged me to have compassion for myself. He assured me my stories are beautiful and real, and he loves reading them. My four sisters have given me similar encouragement. So, I trek daily ahead. Mom has commented to me, pleased, but humble, “Your blog posts are kind of like my biography.” She is right. In fact, I tag every post with “Memoir.” I am telling a story, painting vignettes, writing a family memoir, slowly, one day at a time. All the stories are true and real, and I hope they approach the kind praise of “beautiful.” Many of the world’s stories are dark and painful—still, they can be instructive and even revelatory. But, except for confessing my mistakes (like, not investigating a bang! in Mom’s bathroom when she lost consciousness in the shower on a Sunday morning before church), I choose to tell stories that are both real and redeeming. Steven is right to encourage me to have compassion for my own story. I wondered today, Why is the First Great Commandment to love God with all our heart? It cannot be that God needs the fickle adulation of seven billion squabbling humans. Rather, I believe that by loving God, we discover the capacity and desire to love others, including ourselves. So, I will try to believe in myself. I certainly believe in Mom and Dad: their lives and characters make telling heartening stories an easy exercise. Mom and Dad are endearing in their quotidian lives, smiling at each other across the distance between recliners, patting the backs of each other’s hands, reminding each other to take their medicine and to put in their hearing aids. They exemplify. They edify. They love and they struggle. They serve with such generosity. They are virtuous. They have value, and their stories deserve to be preserved. I am so grateful for Mom and Dad. I am telling their stories, and learning to love them more deeply day after day.
The day began with creamy apple cinnamon oatmeal for breakfast, gourmet for Mom’s birthday. She turned 82 today. The extended family in Utah gathered for a celebratory dinner. Cards and gifts piled up on her lap. “I think about you every day as I go about my day.” Later came chocolate mousse birthday cake, and candles to blow out. “I love you with all of my heart.” So many thanked her for their happy memories: camping trips in the mountains; picking blackberries and wild asparagus; surgically pressing the “record” button on a cassette tape player to sensor the song’s profanity; playing badminton in the back yard; watching for bats at twilight; playing owl calls so the owls would come; teaching us to read; directing the church choir in which we all sang; teaching us the family songs. “I really like Grandma’s hugs.” She raised six children and suffered with us and cried and laughed with us. She served dinner promptly at 6:00 every evening, and drove us to our music lessons and sports practices. She called a soprano “Yoo-Hoo!!!” when it was time for us to come home. Her favorite flower is the yellow rose. “My love always.”
“I wish I could do more for you,” Mom lamented one recent afternoon. “I am so sorry for all the mistakes I made as a mother.” For a moment I stood stunned at the revelation of my 82-year-old mother’s insecurity, especially as incongruous as it was with my memory of reality. Mom gave her whole soul to being a mother. Hot whole-wheat gruel steamed on the table before school, and she served a delicious dinner at precisely 6:00 p.m., every day. She washed by basketball socks and took me to buy my first pair of Levi’s. She gathered us every Sunday afternoon to play games—PIT was a favorite, with six kids clamoring cacophonously for “wheat!” and “rye!” and “barley!” The family car ran night and morning with rides to and from marching band practice, piano lessons, and early morning Bible class. I sat at the kitchen table one evening struggling with my homework, trying to remember the Spanish word for pain—dolor. She surprised me by bursting out protectively, “You know: dolor, just like Delores!” referring to my painfully unrequited infatuation for a girl at church. I never again forgot that word! She nursed me through dozens of ear infections and serious injuries followed by surgeries and staff. She organized a family vacation to the magical woods of Maine, and I have loved loons since. She even gave me an enema (my most embarrassing life memory) when I writhed from what the doctor arrogantly insisted was constipation but was in truth an appendix about to burst. And at 82 she says good-bye with “I can’t wait to see you when you come home!” and greets me after work with “There’s my boy!” Once again she is providing a safe and comfortable home for me, and listens without upbraid to her children in all their multitudinous troubles. “What mistakes?” I asked her sincerely. “I cannot remember any.” Even were they present, and I presume they were, they are long forgotten. We six siblings, and our numerous offspring, all cherish her. It is our turn now to wish we could do more for her.
I had never heard of a “gender reveal” before, and I confess my first involuntary horrid absurd notion was of holding aloft a naked infant for the invited guests to gawk at. Instead, I learned, a gender reveal is a party at which the soon-to-be parents and their guests learn from a trusted person the sex of the coming child, followed by balloons and confetti and thick-frosted cake, colored blue or pink, boy or girl. At John’s and Alleigh’s invitation, family and friends from Utah and Idaho gathered to Mom’s and Dad’s house for the celebration, happy to see each other, pumping hands and exchanging embraces, catching up on news and activities, eating chicken salad croissants, everyone eager for cupcakes with swirled pink and blue icing. Mom and Dad added little cups of deluxe mixed nuts and candy corn. We played cornhole, the always popular bean bag toss game. Then it was time for the revelation (or is it “the reveal”?). John and Alleigh each grasped a cardboard cannon, cameras whirring. On “3!” they pulled the cannon strings and out exploded clouds of blue confetti—and then the whoops and screams of delight. Their first child will be a boy! His two-year-old cousin, Lila, gathered up little fists-full of confetti and announced, “fireworks!” They had been equally contended with the thought of either sex. Their exuberance was not over the baby’s gender, but over the ever-more-real fact that their baby is coming, soon—the happiest of all possible news.
I live my days on the edge of anxiety, tense, waiting for the next unexplained bump or clang, in fear of the next fall, tense, nodding with sleep at my desk but ready to jump into action at the slightest premonition. The garage door opens, and I start at the sound, knowing Dad has ventured into the yard to clip or rake or hoe or mow or fertilize, and the temperature is 95 degrees, the sky cloudless, tool handles too hot to touch, the grass rotting and pungent in the can. My personal spiritual pursuit is to cultivate trust, a trust that life is beautiful and good, a trust that I can improve my character and mind, a trust that truth and goodness will prevail as often as possible, a trust that God is real and loves infinitely and actively, that he redeems and pays personal attention and dispenses mercy abundantly to all who want it. That is my labor. I feel tired. I’m going to go check on Dad.
After years of listening to Heitor Villa-Lobos music during his late-night reading, Dad abruptly shifted to Johnny Mathis. Seventeen tracks repeat every night. Amazingly, I know all the songs—I heard them on the radio growing up. And I learned to like his iconic voice. The CD insert did not include the song lyrics, so I offered to print them for him, from the internet. “You can do that?” he asked. “Of course,” I answered, feeling smart. I pasted the lyrics of the 17 songs into a Word document and handed him the stack of pages half an hour later. He was impressed. The next morning, however, he told me how disillusioned he felt with the song lyrics, which included a lot of “baby baby” and “I need you” and “our love will never die” stuff. I expressed my experience that while popular lyrics are often shallow, the music and the feeling can still be quite moving. Some lyrics are quite romantic and sweet, like in Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine, the beguine being a slow rhumba-like French dance. In the song, the commencement of the beguine dance music conjures powerful feelings of love and romance for the dancing couple. From my home office one morning, I felt tender feelings as I heard Dad’s gravelly waking voice singing Begin the Beguine to Mom, his sweetheart of 60 years:
Let them begin the beguine, make them play
Till the stars that were there before return above you,
Till you whisper to me once more,
“Darling, I love you!”
And we suddenly know, what heaven we’re in,
When they begin the beguine.
What I’ve always known—cognitively—is beginning to sink deeply in—emotionally—with emphasis on the word “sink,” and pulling me down with it: I cannot fix this. I do not have the power to heal the illness, to strengthen the tired muscles. The canes and walkers and wheelchairs, the doctor visits and blood draws and MRIs, the heart monitors and blood pressure cuffs, the shakiness and fatigue, the “take your pills” and “drink more water” and the worry worry worry—they are all here to stay. I am riding this streetcar with Mom and Dad to the fim da linha, the end of the line. One day, the streetcar will come to a stop and Mom and Dad will get off, and I will wave good-bye. And then the car will start again and turn some corner and carry me toward other stops. Until then, my power is found in my weakness, my strength in my service. All I can do is cook and clean and comfort, and listen, and love. And this is enough. In fact, this is the job. The job is not to fix anything as we ride the streetcar together, but to be with them for the duration of the ride, and to make the ride as comfortable and peace-filled and happy as my siblings and I can.
Mom said to me soon after I moved in, “I’m old, and I can’t do much, but I can do laundry and I like to do laundry. Would you let me do your laundry? I would like to do that for you.” I felt inclined to decline, and demurred. Dirty laundry is a sensitive subject for me. Returning from a five-month separation in 2014, I gently insisted on doing my own laundry. Home from my eviction, I found I could not allow her to handle my dirty laundry, though she wanted to. I could not let myself be vulnerable in that way. Now, with my mother’s request, I am trying be vulnerable enough to allow her to do something for me that she can do and wants to do and likes to do, even though I like doing it, too. For me, separating the colors from the whites and putting in the soap and running the machines is fun. And I like folding the clean clothes and putting them in their organized place. With Mom’s offer to wash my dirty clothes, I have come full circle to my childhood. Mama is taking care of me again. How tender that she wants to. After thinking it through and breathing deeply, I said to her, “Mom, I would be very appreciative of you washing my dirty clothes. Thank you so much for offering.”
In July, just before I moved, Mom told me about how she and Dad sat in picnic chairs in the driveway every evening at 8:45 to watch the sun set, enjoying the colorful clouds. I texted her one night that I would go stand by the apartment complex fence at 8:45 to see the sun set over the Tooele valley, in solidarity with her. While she gazed toward the Oquirrh mountains to her west, I looked toward the Stansbury mountains to my west, each with peaks over 11,000 feet. As July moved into August, our sunset time came earlier and earlier, today already at 7:45. Sitting there in the driveway, the three of us, on our picnic chairs, we waved at neighbors driving or walking by, talked about the day’s work and news, and admired the brilliant colors. With the worst California fires in history, Utah’s sun became an orange-poppy sphere that we could stare at without discomfort for the thick smoke. As the sun dipped behind the mountains one evening, Dad announced, “I can see Venus!” I looked and looked for several minutes, but could not see the “first star.” His cataract removal and lens implants seem to have given him telescopic eyes at age 85, while my 20-20 eyes (thank you Lasik) still searched for the pin point. As the sky darkened, Mom told of when she was six years old and sang at a neighborhood talent show, in the church building, and for the occasion her mother made a dress for her out of rolls of white crepe paper stitched together, with red paper trim and pink paper hearts. Then Dad led us in a round of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and told me how wonderful my mother is (which he tells me every day, and she is). Soon the automatic sprinklers popped up, and the quarter moon shone a rich orange through the smoky sky.
Prayer was opaque. Holy writ just words. I did not know where God was. We lifted things from the cardboard box, cupping them like fragile hatchling chicks: ukulele – senior yearbook – prom photo – drawings and doodlings – Church worthiness card – Eagle Scout medal – employee-of-the-month certificate – Godzilla action figure – hoodies and pajamas, smelling of him, a good clean smell. We planted a linden tree, tall and straight, ringed with daffodils. He didn’t know who he was. He didn’t have any sharp edges. Not. One. The only thing I hated about him was that he hated himself. I have to wonder if one more text, one more call, one more conversation or smile or hug might have tipped the scales. You slipped a letter in before the casket closed and asked him to remember playing Legos in Grandma’s basement and having play fights with Godzilla. A small thing, you said. I am numb and sick and angry and sick and numb. A man told me once, I am going to walk through that door, and when I do, the darkness will not come through with me. And the man walked through the door, and the darkness had to stay behind. Fight to choose light over darkness. Always. But our boy was not that strong, yet. A finger twitched. A demon slug. In the end, all we can do to make a difference in this world is to love. In your quiet times, you will feel a sweetness in your heart, a soft presence, and you will know it is him. And then, that Church conference on YouTube with the whole world watching during Covid-19 and the audience stayed home to watch and the tabernacle choir stayed home to watch, but recorded choirs sang from conferences past: and there he was, on the back row by the big organ pipes in his black suit, singing and singing and alive! Our angel alive and singing.
This piece is a word collage gathering the expressions and feelings and images of many family members surrounding our beloved Korey following his death by suicide. We love him, and feel him with us still, and always.
Our, Angel Gabriel
It was an unseasonably warm winter afternoon when Angel Gabriel came to visit. I was baking bread for his great-grandparents who sat thin-jacketed watching him lead my angel sister toward the enormous long-needled Austrian pine – she carried a five-gallon bucket that could have carried him – where he hunted his favorite treasure: Continue reading
Teasing Daddy’s Ear
I have been watching a man at church, sitting in his cushioned pew. His child sits belted in a wheelchair because she cannot use her legs at all and would flop to the floor if unrestrained. She is motion, her arms and hands fluttering around and her head wagging and her tight long ponytail swishing violently as if warding off some invisible and pestering thing. Continue reading
Cards of Leaves and Petals
I buy birthday cards at the dollar store: 6 for a dollar. If I’m lucky I find pack of 8 for one dollar. And I buy about ten packs which will last maybe a year. The cards don’t have HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! or anything else printed on them. Which doesn’t bother me because I can write HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! just well, or even better because I am practicing my handwriting. I have got the cursive G down and the S as well, but H has me harrumphing. The fronts of the cards Continue reading
Amy helped decorate the family Christmas tree: with lights, ornaments, and…a lizard. Sunshine’s pretty color fits right in. Sunshine is such a good friend to Amy, and Amy to sunshine. Everyone needs good, loyal, supportive friends. As 2020 winds down, we can find someone to be a friend to, someone who needs our friendship, our kindness, even our love. We can do it. We should do it. Try.
Jam and English Muffins
English muffin halves, toasted crisp, with butter and blackberry jam. When I wake up irrevocably at one-something o’clock in the morning, bladder bursting, feet tingling, back twisting, stomach chafing for food. I just know. I know that to wind back down I have first to wind up. The perfume of burnt bread wafts soothingly and intoxicatingly from the toaster. In sleepy waiting reverie, the harsh click of the popping-up startles. First the butter—used because it tastes richly divine, and why eat at all unless the food pleases?—then the blackberry jam—not too much—or maybe strawberry—I like to alternate. One smallish crispy bite of muffin. One sip of cold whole milk. Slowly. Savoring. One lamp lit to illuminate the book, and the fleece covering bare cold feet and other bare skin and undergarments. A bite and a swallow. Mmmm. Since I’m up anyway, awake and comfortable, enjoying a muffin for two minutes, I might as well read. Brian Doyle’s enchanting, funny, touching essays are right for this quiet moment and are just short enough and just long enough to finish with the last bite and sip. I read about hummingbird hearts the size of pencil erasers, and blue whale heart chambers the size of a room a man could walk through. I read of heart surgeries and the fear of loss and the pain of loss and the reconciliation to loss. I read of love and beauty and whimsey and the mystery of a loving soul. I read of how parents learn to live for their children, to see in their children the heights of heaven and the depths of anguished concern and the desperation of loss and the ephemeral and the letting go of what cannot ever be possessed or controlled. Or I read from the Bible: about Paul telling the Romans and Ephesians and Philippians and Colossians and Hebrews about that man Jesus, full of grace, the very Son God of the Father God, full of grace, full of truth and light. Or I read in the Book of Mormon about whole civilizations who turn from the God they know, turn intentionally away from him and his simple system for personal and societal peace and happiness—why would you reject what you know and love, all the truth and peace and light and joy, only to exterminate each other in a tempest of rage and blood and hate?—or the account of Jesus coming to them, descending, beaming his glory, radiating his light, his scarred palms outstretched for them all to feel and to witness forever, this Jesus come to teach and to correct, come to comfort and to heal, come to establish his order on earth. Finished with the food, and the word, I snuggle into the fleece and the couch and work to think big divine universal thoughts, but all I can achieve is to almost understand something bigger than this big small world, all I can manage is to almost feel by mental reaching touch the grand blinding serene Mind hanging out behind the veil of the infinite universe, that Creator, and the elegant laws of the cosmos and the evolutionary laws of life and DNA and of the amazing simple brilliant law of love, love one cannot measure on a scale, love one cannot reduce to an equation, love that is the greatest force in the universe for hope and for reformation and for redemption, love that allows forgiveness and invites a stretching reaching higher farther vaster than we thought possible… Sweet respite, this, these tangible almosts… Knowing I cannot ascend, yet, to where I wish, yet calmed and satisfied and inspired and touched, and fully awake, I know I can descend again now into sleep, and stay asleep until morning, though I do have to brush my teeth first.