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.
I made the mistake of characterizing Steven’s help as heroic. With a look of alarm, he disclaimed any hint of heroism. Even before his reaction, I realized that “heroic” was not the right word. “You’re a hero” is a lazy cliché, and I should have made an effort to find more accurate words. He supplied them for me: “I was just glad to have been useful.” I had watched him use his own feet to move Dad’s feet up the stairs and across the room to the bathroom or bed. I had watched him help Dad shower in the hospital, passing dallops of soap to Dad’s own hands, and washing Dad’s inaccessible extremities. Nurse Chloe had gently adhered special heel bandages because Dad’s heels pressing into the mattress, hour upon hour, day after day, had begun to blister his skin, and we worried the tissue would die from insufficient circulation. And she had wrapped his feet and ankles in foot-shaped pillows to further reduce diabetic risk. And my brother had used sanitary wipes to scrub Dad’s soiled shoes clean and white and like new. He certainly had been useful, indispensable even. And that is what sons and daughters ought to be in their parents’ old age: not heroes, but servants. Useful. Doing what needs to be done. Meaning well while acting in all their weakness. And they were. And I naturally thought of another servant who washed out the stains and washed the feet and set the example for us all. Steven flew home today, a home far away—and when people tell me I’m heroic, now, I demur, and reply that I am just glad to have been useful.
Photo above: a fresh bouquet today for Mom from a neighbor Church member.
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.
The wedding is in three days, the last of many weddings and receptions and courts of honor and baby blessings to enliven Mom’s and Dad’s beautiful back yard over two decades, under the big tent. And we are getting ready. Since neither Dad nor I can face yardwork this week, Dad hired a man to string trim and mow the lawn to wedding-standard perfection. But the man’s mower had a flat tire and every pass left high spots on one side and stripes of drying grass on the other. The man promised to come back later after his other jobs, but his truck broke down. So Dad offered to mow the lawn himself (Dad: “I can ride my own mower”), and the man promised to come back tomorrow and string trim (Dad: “but I can’t string trim”). Dad moved on to scrape the peeling garage side access door, prepping for new paint, while I pulled weeds and crab grass in the flower beds—we each lasted half an hour—whereupon we retired to our respective recliners, him for an onion sandwich and me to use my literal lap top to address the latest urgent legal problem that couldn’t (wouldn’t) wait for my recovery. My home office sits above the garage, and the electric rumble of the automatic door motor, embedded in the floor joists of my office, startles me every time. After the door climbed its track today, I heard a woman’s wailing and I bolted barefoot for the garage, racing with the image of Dad dead on the concrete floor and Mom weeping unconsolably over him. But the garage was quiet, and Mom’s car was gone, and Dad was going round two with the door frame—and a branch chipper ground away down the street, sounding every bit the wailing old woman. As my heart settled a bit, I wondered at my paranoid catastrophic jumping to unwarranted conclusions based on some perhaps far-off future. You worry too much! (I know). Brad, a nice neighbor, brought his muscle truck and yellow straps to wrestle the 800-lb. brick knocked over mailbox back into its hole, and Ray wandered over to help, and Darrell, and every car driving by stopped to comment and encourage, but Dad had to watch from his chair, feeling useless, and I chose to watch from my upstairs office window, feeling useless, because I was not going to be the person who gave Brad and Ray and Darrell and Mom and Dad this modern plague of Covid-19 like the giving person who shared it with me in Dallas last week, despite the fancy hep filters and my liberal use of germ killer. I’m just glad Dad was not lying on the concrete floor with Mom wailing, and the wedding can enjoy the celebration it deserves.
The church responsibility I would like least of all—and every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a church responsibility—is being in charge of recruiting families to clean the church every Saturday morning at 8:00. But Jim does not seem to mind, and called to remind me that my turn would be this Saturday. The six families had last names beginning with the As and Bs, plus a holdover Y. Jim set me to work vacuuming the cultural hall (a carpeted basketball court and social hall). Until my first decade in life, if Church members wanted a church meetinghouse building, they funded the building, built the building, operated the building, and maintained the building with their own labor and funds. In 1971-1972 Dad worked nearly every night on our nascent New Jersey church building, digging footing trenches, laying brick, mountain baseboards, painting cinderblock walls, stretching carpet. Dad had been put in charge of the enormous volunteer project, in addition to his job as an international corporate lawyer, his job as a lay minister, and his jobs as husband and father. My siblings and I have marveled at how he did it all, and did it all ably and well. Everyone that helped with the construction project received a small plaque made from scrap wood trim showing the number of hours worked: Dad’s plaque announced his 312 volunteer hours. Half a century later, the Church now builds and operates its meetinghouses with Church funds, collected from the tithing of members worldwide. But Church members clean the buildings that they attend. My willingness and cheerfulness about rising early on Saturday to scrub toilets and vacuum floors in my Utah church building is one of several built-in barometers by which I can measure my mental health. (The frequency and virulence of under-my-breath profanity is another faithful manifestation of stormy emotional weather.) My cheerfulness this Saturday to rise early and clean the church was a good sign, in contrast to past years where despair and tension and exhaustion kept me in bed. And I only swore a few times when tripping on the vacuum cleaner cord—no one knew but me. Other church members on our A-B (and Y) team were a commercial litigation lawyer, a pediatric anesthesiologist, a happy shy Downs syndrome man, a retired long-haul truck driver, and assorted children. Wielding our rubber gloves and spray bottles, status and position meant nothing—we all put our shoulders to the wheel, counted our blessing of service, and counted our blessing of being together in the community of our Church. And on the other side of the country, my younger brother was scrubbing toilets and vacuuming carpets in his North Carolina church building, his barometer reading gentle spring weather with wisps of clouds in a blue sky.
The call went out for bars of soap—850 bars of soap. Soap was our neighborhood’s assignment. Other neighborhoods were to provide toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shampoo, hair brushes, and wash cloths. After the call went out for 850 bars of soap, Mom dropped into her shopping cart 16 soap bars, perfumed with cucumber and aloe, a soft and pleasing fragrance. She sent me to deposit them in the box at Mary Ann’s house. Lifting Hands International has been busy since the Syrian civil war displaced hundreds of thousands. The NGO sends hygiene kits, food kits, blankets, milk goats, and other items to ease the hardships of refugee life. Russia’s ridiculous war in Ukraine has displaced millions of desperate persons, and Lifting Hands has ramped up its work. Tonight, more than 200 volunteers gathered at our local church meetinghouse, lining up with gallon bags into which we stuffed one of each item piled on the tables. The line of volunteers circled the gym/cultural hall as we waited our turn to fill bags. The completed kits were loaded into large black plastic bags, in turn loaded onto trucks. Lifting Hands will load a shipping container and send it to Poland, or Moldova, or Romania for Ukrainian refugees. We all felt wonderful being a part of the service project. I am sure every woman and child receiving a hygiene kit will be grateful. But I could not help but wonder if we were doing much good, or if we were really serving or just joining a 45-minute social event after which we could pat ourselves on the back for doing our part to make a better world. Did the service improve refugee life in any meaningful way? Did the service change me in any significant, genuine way? What real good did our 16 bars of soap accomplish? And what more can I do to build a better world? I suppose that no good, kind act is ever wasted. I want to believe that every good, kind act is cumulative of every other good, kind act, and weighs against the mass of human brutality and pride. I want to believe that our 850 hygiene kits, joined with the 850 kits from each of 850 other neighborhoods—which, by the way, is 700,000 kits—joined with 700,000 school supply kits and 700,000 baby care kits and 700,000 bundles of clothes and bags of books and boxes of food—I want to believe these can be a formidable force for good in the world, even though they cost me only ten bucks and one hour of my time. Do not ever resist performing a small act of good due to its smallness and apparent powerlessness, because no good, kind act is small or weak. By small means are brought about great things, even miracles. Small means: like mothers and father comforting and teaching and building children, like smiles and whistling happy tunes, like cooking dinner for Mom and Dad, sending birthday cards, or visiting great-grandmothers in nursing homes. Do the good.
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
Word circulated that a neighbor was moving and for the men of the church to report at the neighbors’ house on Saturday morning at 10. Mark is a family practice physician who has treated Mom’s and Dad’s posterity for two decades since their retirement, and Julie has a PhD in nursing and works with sexual assault victims and law enforcement agencies. While 20 other men grunted over boxes and furniture, Julie set me to work wrapping dozens of framed family photos in protecting plastic. I started with a portrait of the young couple with their first child, a laughing toddler, and progressed through the family portraits as more children joined the family, which grew to a unit of ten souls, always smiling, huddled with mother and father, and growing again to welcome spouses and new laughing toddlers. Seeing the photos brought me happiness for them. But a part of me mourned that I will not have what they have—my family photos will be without father or without mother. Though we are devoted to our children, we are inexorably apart. I have delightful family photographs from earlier years as our family grew, but they are incomplete since 2015. “It is what it is,” I commonly hear from people coping as best they can with their particular set of life circumstances. I frequently acknowledge to my staff that “the facts are what they are”: I can choose only what to do with them. A corner room in Mark’s and Julie’s house was piled high with items slated for the local Deseret Industries thrift store. In one corner sat a sleek black 27-inch flat-screen television, in good condition. I had been looking for just such a television for Primus, who had only an old gray 10-inch TV as deep as it is wide. As a man picked up the television to cart it to the waiting truck, I quickly asked Julie, “May I give this television to my disabled friend who has practically nothing?” telling just enough of his story to convey the need. Primus came to this earth with a form of muscular dystrophy that overdeveloped his brain’s left hemisphere and underdeveloped the right. He is brilliant at absorbing and discussing books on history and politics and religion and biography, having read over 5,000 hefty books, but he cannot use a can opener. And he is frequently bullied. Primus met and befriended me one day, and we have enjoyed long discussions over pizza dinners since. The nursing professor welcomed me to take the television for Primus. And Primus was very happy to receive it. I moved the tiny old TV, on which he has watched his movies for a decade—the characters’ heads must be all of an inch wide—and set up the “new” TV. The DVD player began Robin Williams’ Jumanji in an instant improvement to Primus’ quality of entertainment life. I walked Primus through the remote-control functions and left him to enjoy his movie. In church the next week, Mark handed me a small tub of dark chocolate fudge and a card from Julie signed “With Gratitude” thanking me for wrapping their many family photos, so rightly precious to them, and I felt equally grateful for the enriching experience of helping and being helped.
In our class at church, the coordinator asked the men for two volunteers to work a shift at the church dairy. No one raised their hand. But after church I was able to clear my calendar, and signed up. Gordon, a retired orthopedic surgeon, picked me up the next morning and we drove to the dairy processing plant of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. The plant is one of 18 facilities on Welfare Square that produce 143 food items, including peanut butter, powdered milk, honey, beef, canned fruit, cheese, bread, pasta, and staples (wheat, rice, oats). These products stock the shelves of about 129 Bishops’ Storehouses and are available at no cost to needy Church members and others. Gordon and I were assigned to work in the cheese plant. Forty-pound blocks of cheese, aged in the cooler for a month, slid across rollers and through slicing harps. The result: 40 one-pound blocks of cheddar ready to be packaged in plastic, labeled, weighed, stamped with expiration date and batch number, and rolled up the conveyor belt to yours truly, decked out in blue hair net, yellow face covering, and black gloves. Frequent volunteers, Scott and Kent instructed me in my job: loading 20 blocks into each box, running the boxes through the tape machine, and stacking the boxes on a pallet. Each pallet held five rows of 18 boxes, or 1,800 cheese blocks. We filled four pallets, for over 7,000 one-pound blocks of cheese in one day—3.5 tons! The dairy receives about 128,000 gallons (1.1 million pounds) of milk every week, which is bottled as well as transformed into chocolate milk, cheddar cheese, sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, powdered milk, hot cocoa mix, and butter, all made there at the modern, gleaming, clean facility. The Church’s “Welfare” program came into being when Church members were unemployed and hungry during the Great Depression, as a way for the Church to take care of its own rather than turning to government assistance. The whole program is funded by the financial contributions of Church members, who also clock millions of volunteer hours a year (like my five hours today). I grabbed and boxed blocks of cheese as quickly as I could to keep up with the conveyor flow. After several hours of packing thousands of cheese blocks into boxes in a 40-degree room, my shoulders and back grew fatigued and sore from the repetitive reaching and lifting. I welcomed two breaks fueled with cheese remnants and chocolate milk. After our shift, the volunteers were permitted to purchase dairy items at market cost—you better believe I brought home a gallon of the amazing chocolate milk, plus five pounds of butter to feed my baking habit. Leaving the dairy, I felt exultant. I learned yet again how joy comes from working to help others. And how proud I felt to be a small part of the ambitious Welfare Square endeavor to help humankind.
(Pictured above: dairy products I purchased after working at the Church’s dairy processing plant.)
40-pound blocks of cheddar cheese.
The finished one-pound package.
A full pallet.
Yours truly, incognito.
You may remember our homemade greeting cards made from pressed leaves and flower petals, with the message “You Are Loved” artistically rendered inside. The cards were included in humanitarian hygiene packages sent to refugees around the world. The same NGO, Lifting Hands International, combined with our local Church leaders to organize a blanket drive. On a Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., we could drop off new blankets, which would be distributed to refugees the world over. After Mom announced told Dad and me that she wanted to participate, she and Dad drove off to Target. Leaning heavily on their shopping carts, they shuffled the miles and miles to the back stacks of the bedding section. Mom picked out a fluffy gray fleece, queen-sized, wrapped in a charcoal ribbon, and brought it home with a smile. Before the day of the drive arrived, the community had already dropped off over 100 blankets. At 11:00, Mom trundled off to her trusty Subaru, hugging her blanket, and drove off to make her contribution. I felt very proud of her. A blanket is a small thing. A thousand blankets are a thousand small things. And every small thing matters. But there is nothing small about my mother’s heart.
(Photo from Lifting Hands International. Used pursuant to the Fair Use doctrine.)
Blanket Drive Update: Lifting Hands International received 414 blankets from Mom’s community for Afghan refugees. Here are photos of the drive organizers and blankets, used with permission.
Dad, this morning: “I was sitting here remembering an odd experience. When I was a missionary in Brazil in 1956, my missionary companion [missionaries work in twos] rented a room in a house, where we lived. He got up in the night to use the bathroom, and when he turned on the bathroom light, the walls and the floor were covered with skittering cockroaches, and my companion screamed and woke everyone in the house up!” Dad is a storyteller, and when I hear, “I remember when…” I know a story is coming, and I had better just plant my feet in the floor for a few minutes. His stories are always touching or funny, even after a dozen tellings. I have typed up every story I have ever heard Dad tell about his life (and Mom’s stories, too). “I was allergic to flea bites. The bites would swell in great red mounds. The itching was terrible, and I scratched the bites with a wire brush—better the pain than the itch. I got good at catching fleas. Once I wrote a letter to my mom out of dead fleas. I stuck them to scotch tape, forming the shapes of the letters with the fleas, then taped them to the paper. I don’t know how I survived it—I poured a can of DDT in my bed so I could sleep without being eaten alive by fleas, with the sheet tucked up tight under my chin so I wouldn’t breathe in the power. The DDT killed the fleas, and I’m surprised it didn’t kill me.” Thirty years later, as a young church missionary in Portugal, I suffered from bed bug bites—the bugs crept out of their hiding places at night while I slept, and bit the backs of my hands dozens of times. Every morning I awoke with fresh and painful red bites. I did not know yet of Dad’s mission pesticide story. As if reenacting it, I bought a can of Raid and sprayed all the wooden joints and slats of my bed and sprayed under the mattress and on sheets. Fearing illness, or worse, I did all the spraying in the morning, hoping the bed bugs would be dead, and the poison dissipated, by bedtime. It seemed to work. And I have my own cockroach story: as a ten-year-old in Brazil, I reached up to open a high closet cupboard, and out poured dozens of two-inch cockroaches landing all over my head and face and shoulders. Shiver. I still cannot stand the sight of a cockroach. I look forward to Dad’s next stories, which likely will be told today.
Pictured above: Dad (far left) and his mission colleagues in Brazil, circa 1958.
An excellent church sermon, on the subject of serving humankind in small and simple ways, prompted me to visit the service clearinghouse JustServe.org. I browsed through hundreds of worthy service opportunities—everything from being pen pals with prison inmates to assembling hygiene kits to indexing gravestone photographs to tutoring young people in English and Math—and settled on a small and simple project I felt I could handle. The project was to make greeting cards with the message You Are Loved decorating the inside. I have made cards from pressed leaves and flower petals since my Grandmother Dorothy taught me decades ago. Against her office walls leaned four-foot-tall stacks of heavy books pressing thousands of slowly drying leaves and petals. The card-making process involves gluing pressed flowers and other decorations, like paper butterflies, to wax paper, gluing colored tissue paper to that, drying, ironing to melt the wax into the tissue, cutting, and folding. Into the card I insert a blank paper bifold, on which I write a personal message for upcoming birthdays and anniversaries. I love making cards because, while far from being an artist, I can make something beautiful to brighten someone’s day. Equally important, making cards connects me to memories of my dear grandmother. (For more photos and detailed instructions, see my essays Cards of Leaves and Petals and Grandma’s Pressed-Leaf Greeting Cards.) My sisters have supplied me with abundant pressed leaves and flowers (from Carolyn) and paper cutouts of birds and butterflies (from Megan). At the extended family Thanksgiving celebration, after our dinner, I enlisted family members to decorate the card inserts with colored markers, including the message You Are Loved. I explained that the cards would be included in kits delivered to refugees around the world. Upon opening the kits, the recipients will be greeted with the generic but safe and loving message: You Are Loved. With those refugees in mind, my family members, from my two-year-old granddaughter Lila to my octogenarian parents, enjoyed personalizing their cards. Only after Mom and I delivered the cards to Lifting Hands International, did I realize that today is Giving Tuesday. That coincidence brought me happiness. Thoughts of refugees being cheered, even if momentarily, by a loving personalized artistic message, brought me happiness. In fact, I find that helping others always brings happiness. Why don’t I do it more often? To be sure, our service was among the smallest and simplest—no grant accomplishment. But every good deed, no matter how miniscule, even when unnoticed, contributes to the world’s goodness, of which there can never be too much. I wonder what small and simple gift of service you may enjoy offering others? After making 60 labor-intensive cards, I need a break from card-making. But I am sure I will make more, maybe for Giving Tuesday 2022. Perhaps sooner.
Roger Baker is a career municipal attorney and hobby writer. He is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road and A Time and A Season. Rabbit Lane tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit. A Time and A Season gathers Roger’s poems from 2015-2020, together with the stories of their births. The books are available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.
I was in a hotel elevator, at a conference on domestic violence prosecution, in Provo, Utah, when I learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers. The scheduled speakers yielded to the television screens as we watched, stunned and horrified. Twenty years later, I walked amidst 2,977 American flags planted in a field, a Healing Field, in my new residence city of Sandy. Each flag had a tag with a name and a story of where he worked, how she was loved by family and friends, what their hobbies were, their age, their loved ones, and the location of their death: World Trade Center; Pentagon; Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field near Shanksville. I read a hundred or so tags on flags flying for the people who died on 9/11/2001. I had dressed in a jacket and tie, thinking it fitting. The next day I drove Mom and Dad slowly around the field, twice, because they couldn’t walk, but they wanted to see, they wanted to honor, and I told them about the persons I had read about—the Flight 93 pilot, the World Trade Center trader, the Pentagon general, the child traveling with her mother, the secretary, the cook. And the next day I descended on the field with 300 other volunteers to remove the tags, roll up the flags, and yank the three-foot rebar from the ground, one each for 2,977 persons, including 411 first responders, whom we have promised to always remember. I rolled flags and yanked rebar with people aged from 10 to 80. One of the octogenarians poked me with the butt of a flag, and apologized, and I joked, “You know, I have always been told to watch out for pretty ladies rolling up American flags,” and she laughed. A small older man followed me and others as we pulled rebar from the ground, carrying heavy stacks of the stuff to the flatbed trailer. I called him “Rebar Man” but his real name was Ishmael Castillo, a brawny little man with a big soft heart who came to help. I thanked the organizer, and he gave me a 20-year commemorative bronze medallion. I saw the Alta High School NHS photographer looking in the now-empty field for his lost lens cap, and I asked him if he had received a 9/11/2021 medallion, and gave him mine, because I had bought one for myself on 9/11. “That is amazing,” he gasped his thanks. The empty field will endure, now, until 9/11/2022.
I have asked Mom and Dad to save up for me the little chores they would like me to do when I come home from work. I’m no handyman, but I can do the little things: change a furnace filter, snap in a new smoke alarm battery, carry toilet paper to the basement bathroom, heft the water softener salt into the tank, unclog the corner rain gutter, snip out the old dog wire, tighten a door knob, pull the empty garbage cans back from the curb. These little chores give me pleasure, not only because they are quick and easy, and not only because I am capable of doing them, but also because Mom and Dad appreciate me for doing these little chores: my doing them makes their lives just that much easier.
Nearly a month into this experience, this mission, I began to notice rising feelings of distress. I felt irritable and overwhelmed and stretched—that old rubber-band feeling where any more pull will break the band. My emotional energy reserves were gone. And I didn’t really know why. My sisters encouraged me to have compassion for myself, to realize that after living alone for years I am suddenly sharing space with other people all day every day. Continue reading
I had intended to accept an invitation to gather with the men of the neighborhood to help an ill neighbor with yard work he could not do. “Bring your chainsaws,” the organizer goaded, “and show what real men you are.” I chuckled, knowing his heart was pure. As I sat with Dad in the back yard, however, and he talked about all the things he would like to accomplish in his yard, I decided to change course. I chose to stay home and help with his yardwork, which I suppose is my yardwork. An impish niggling voice accused me of being selfish for not helping the neighbor. But I shrugged it off and responded, “Nope. That is not my mission. This is my mission: to be here, to help here, to the end. This is missionary work.” And so I got to work pruning trees and weeding flower beds and yanking out the long Virginia creeper vines. A smile on Dad’s face, and his call of “Looks great!” confirmed what I already knew, and made me happy to be so engaged.
During a visit to Gilbert, Arizona to see my sister Jeanette, she took me to a state park near Sedona, high above the desert, with a little trout stream flowing through the pine forest. On the park lawn grazed a squadron of pig-like creatures called collared peccaries, or javelinas. I asked a uniformed park ranger about them—he told me javelinas are not pigs at all, but a cross between an old-world swine (which is a pig, I thought) and a new-world raccoon. I stared at him stupefied, wondering if were joking. Sadly, he was perfectly serious. Of course, such a cross is genetically impossible, for the same reasons a dog cannot breed with a cat, or a chicken with a rabbit: impossible. (Idaho does boast its jackalope, a cross between a jack rabbit and a pronghorn antelope—Google it.) On another visit, Mom and Dad brought back a life-sized rusted metal javelina that sits quietly on alert, on their front porch. When the Deseret News stopped its daily circulation, opting for online distribution, Mom and Dad subscribed to the New York Times, which is tossed every day out of a car window onto the driveway. Leaving the house for work in the morning, I noticed the newspaper, bagged in blue plastic, sitting on the javelina’s snout. I asked Mom about it, and she whispered simply “newspaper elf.” Another morning, I saw from my home office window a man crossing the driveway. Ah, so he must be the newspaper elf. But on Saturday the newspaper was in the driveway. “The newspaper elf doesn’t work on weekends,” Mom explained cheerfully. “We have to go and get it.”
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.”