Mom and Dad are going to Nevada on Saturday and they’ll be gone for three weeks. I find that I am sad—not exactly worried, or anxious, but just sad to see them go, sad to wonder “What if they don’t come back?”

I remember having the same wigglies in my stomach and gnawing in my chest when my sons left for camp. There was this same question “What if something happens to them?” but I could talk myself out of worrying about the kids easier than I can convince myself to give it up about my folks. After all, Dad is 82 and Mom is almost 80. They’re closer to heaven than they’ve ever been before.

Mom had emergency gallbladder surgery on September 19. We’ll keep a follow-up appointment with the surgeon this Thursday, just two days before she and Dad board Southwest Airlines for a direct flight to Reno. She’s not 100 percent yet, but her zigzag, one-day-good-one-not-so-good recovery has propelled her to at least a healthy A-minus. She tires very easily and still has some discomfort in her abdomen. And she’s going to ride across country in an airplane. Is she really, really, really ready to go…

Dad is cleaning off the bank of the ravine in back of the property. He devised a clever system of laying a tall ladder on the bank with the bottom rungs and feet anchored against a big tree. Then he shinnies down the ladder with his tools. The trees and undergrowth support him as he makes his way across the bank, felling scrub trees and pulling heavy vines. When he gets tired—actually, he says when he is “about to get tired”—he crab-walks back to the ladder and climbs back to the yard.

The second day he went down the bank, I took his picture. He looks like a strong-as-an-ox 70-year-old farmer, maybe even younger, in worn overalls, a faded blue bandanna wrapped around his bald head for a do-rag. I hear him hacking through the brush as I write. He is happiest when he is working outdoors. I can’t help but wonder “Will he come home in as good a condition as he is now?”

My brother Denny and his wife Bev will host this trip. They don’t know—can’t know—all the “little things.” They are borrowing an SUV for Mom and Dad’s ride, and I hope they realize the need for a step-stool of some sort to get on the running board. They’ll have some bourbon for Dad and some wine for Mom, and I hope they aren’t surprised that Dad only has one drink per day—at 5 o’clock—and that Mom rarely drinks anything alcoholic these days. They’ll try to feed Mom and Dad well, and I hope they know that neither one eats much at any given meal but Dad has two or three bowls of ice cream every day (cookies and cream, or chocolate chip cookie dough) and Mom has to have her daily grapefruit.

We only have four more days to get ready for this trip. There’s a battle to be won with the Medicare Part D carrier that decided that Dad only needs one Protonix pill per day instead of the two that his doctor prescribed. Mom and I have waxed and colored and coiffed. We’ve discussed luggage and purses and outfits. Dad has made the wire cages that I need to winterize the roses and we’ve decided that I need to go buy the pansies pretty soon but wait until he comes home to plant them in the barn wood planter boxes. They’ve both given permission for use of the apartment for a guest house while they’re gone and they made me promise to find someone who needs the entire turnip green patch; after all, Dad sowed another one that will come in just about the time they get home.

This morning, Dave and I went to Waffle House for breakfast. A fire engine turned through the intersection and we followed it like two old people (or maybe like two teenagers). It pulled in the parking lot of the bank on the corner and the paramedics ran up a small hill to a dumpster. As we proceeded through the Wal-Mart parking lot to the restaurant, we saw the old man slumped over in a wheelchair wedged against the dumpster. A uniformed man, I think from the auto parts store next door, stood waiting for the EMT’s.

“Is he dead?” Dave and I asked each other. And then, “Why is he out here alone?”

“He’s obviously homeless. And it was cold last night.”

“And nobody cares for him. I don’t mean ‘cares about him.’ Nobody cares for him.”

It was cold last night, uncharacteristically so for this time of year. The ambulance followed shortly behind the fire truck.

Dave said, “I think that ruins breakfast.”

When we left Waffle House not too long after, the fire truck and the ambulance were gone. The empty wheelchair was propped against the dumpster.

“Oh, no,” I said. “That wheelchair won’t be there when he comes back.”

“He’s probably not coming back.”

“I wish somebody would take care of him.”

I wondered what happened to his children, or his nieces, or the grandchildren of his neighbors and friends in the old days, the ones who might worry now about his ice cream and his prescriptions and his ride. I wondered why none of the gazillion faith communities in South Nashville couldn’t adopt him as, I don’t know, Honorary Grandpa or something like that.

Mom and Dad will do fine, and Dave and I will, too. There are lots of us to care for Mom and Dad. Out there in the West, they’ve got Denny and Bev; grandkids Jim and Wendy, Angie and Joe, Jena and Mike; and seven great-grands who can’t wait to see Grandmama and Grandpapa. Please put the accent on the last syllable—Grand MaMA and Grand PaPA. The great-grands decided on those names for Mom and Dad several years ago.

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