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.
Mom and Dad and I had just paid our respective income taxes, and the need to be frugal was on our minds and in our conversation. “You know what? That reminds me….” And Dad began his story. It was 1947, and the world heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, defended his title against contender Jersey Joe Walcott. Sonny (Dad, age 11) pedaled the bicycle, with little brother Wiggy (Bill) on board, some 40-odd city blocks, in the cold December air, to their grandpa William T Greene’s little shack: no plumbing, no running water, no furnace, no bathroom, no stove or oven. The place boasted only a hand pump and an outhouse and a wood stove, which served both as heater and cook stove. And he had a vacuum tube radio on which the threesome listened to the 1947 world heavyweight championship boxing match. Sonny and Wiggy tallied the score as the announcers called out the blows. Mom broke into the story here: she (age 8) and her family had gathered around their diminutive black-and-white television, watching the same fight. Sonny counted the blows. Mom’s family kept score, too. Jersey Joe knocked Louis down twice, and had more points, according to Sonny, listening to the radio, and according to grandpa Wally, watching the television, and they felt confident Jersey Joe Walcott would be the new world champion. But in the end the judges called the fight for the incumbent Joe Louis, and the commentators rationalized that only a decisive win could unseat a world champion like Joe Louis. The morning after the fight, Sonny snagged an enormous brook trout from Mill Creek. “Now that’s more like it,” Grandpa Greene cheered. “Let’s cook him up for breakfast. Get some sticks and let’s light the fire.” Grandpa William T Greene, at 80, liked his grandsons, and was happy for their company—and the boys loved him. He told Sonny once that he was afraid of dying. He would not know where to go, or what to do. He would not belong. But later he explained to the boys that the spirit of his long-dead sister had appeared to him, standing at the foot of his bed. “You don’t need to worry, William,” she reassured. “When you die, I will be there waiting for you. I know where you need to go, and I will take you there.” He would join her in 1956 after 89 years on this earth. And Sonny would miss his champion grandpa.
(Pictured above and below: William T Greene.)
Dad’s running days are over, as are his cycling days. In fact, even his walking days are over. His walker days, however, have arrived, though he still refuses to use the big blue walker. During his jogging career, Dad ran 13 marathons. His training regimen included running seven miles a day during his lunch break, and 20 miles on Saturdays. He and other Johnson & Johnson attorneys and executives enjoying running together in Johnson Park along the Raritan River. After changing into his running shorts one day, he bolted from the locker room to join the jogging group. One attorney in the group, a woman, commented to him, “Nice shorts, Nelson.” He looked down to find himself wearing only his tight red underwear. In his hurry, he had neglected to slip on his running shorts. Darting back to the locker room, he soon returned more appropriately dressed. The group set off, and no one said another word about it. To Dad’s credit, he did not mind telling us children the story, many years later, including both horror and the humor of the episode.
Dad always has words of wisdom for me and for all his family: lots of words, and lots of wisdom. When he says, “You know, Rog…” I know a sermon is coming, and I flinch and tighten and brace. We are eternal beings of tremendous power. We are not weak beings sent to earth to become powerful. We are powerful beings sent to earth to learn humility and love. Love is the greatest power in the universe. By refusing earthly power and choosing kindness and humility and love, we demonstrate to God that we are worthy of the greater power he wants to give us in the eternities. I have asked myself many times why I have this ungrateful selfish resistant reaction, when his words are so gentle and so profound and so true. Yet, every time, I cringe. God has given us the secret for knowing how to live in this mortality. He has told us that we can put our trust in whatever leads us to do good, to be fair, to walk humbly. Pursuing the spirit of goodness, we will find that God will share himself with us, will enlighten our minds, with strengthen our spirits, will fill us with hope and joy. We can always trust impulses to do good. I have been listening to Dad’s impromptu sermons for decades, and have been recoiling for just as long. After a particularly good sermon to which I was particularly stiff, I doubled down to answer my own question. And the answer came. Putting my emotional walls up is a self-protection mechanism. I do not need protection from the message or its delivery, for the messages are redeeming. But I have discerned my problem: hearing Dad’s expositions hour upon hour, day after week, month after year, I often feel both tired and trapped. Jesus said, “He that sent me is true. I do nothing but what the Father has taught me. I do always those things that please him.” We can trust God the Father, for he is true. We can trust Jesus the Beloved Son, for he does and says only what the Father instructs him to do. I love the Father and the Son for being true and trustworthy and loving and good. I love a good chocolate chip cookie, homemade, with butter, brown sugar, pecans, and Ghirardelli dark. I can easily eat three or four or five, with ice cold milk, in one sitting. In fact, just dispense with dinner and go right to the delectable dessert. Dad’s teachings are similar to my cookies: rich, sweet, and satisfying. But I am immersed in them constantly, whenever Dad and I are together. Were I to forego dinner every evening, and be required to eat only the most delicious cookies instead, unable to seek other food, soon I would grow weary, reluctant, resisting, resentful, and even ill. The analogy is imperfect, but simply put, I may have too much of a good thing. Jesus knows us intimately and infinitely. He ascended above all things. He descended below all things. He is in all things, and through all things, and round about all things. This describes his atoning sacrifice, because of which he comprehends all things. He knows us. He is there for us, working within us, at every moment of our existence, wanting to bring us to him. One day, Dad will be gone, his voice silenced but in my journals, where I have recorded his sermons and stories. And my world will seem achingly empty and bereft. I will miss his teaching above all things. I think I’ll have another cookie.
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.
Dad has complained to me often about his extra big white Sunday dress shirt. In the larger sizes, retailers skip from neck size 20 to neck size 22. There is no size 21. But he is neither a 20 nor a 22—he is a size 21. The 20 strangles him, and the big and tall 22 hangs on him like a clown suit (his words). Add to this indignity that his shoulders no longer work, and he can neither affix his tie nor fold down his collar. Thus, the bow tie, relentlessly crooked, which he grumbles only accentuates the suit. I turned to JCPenney for a solution, knowing that Stafford makes the Men’s Wrinkle Free Stain Resistant Big & Tall Stretch Super Shirt, which builds an elastic into the collar button, effectively expanding a size 20 neck to a size 21. I knew the shirt might not work, but decided it was worth a $40 try to diminish Dad’s distress. When the shirt arrived, Dad reported it fit perfectly, though due to Covid-19 we were not able to attend worship services for the next two months.