The song that gave me confidence in 7th Grade at Mill Valley Jr. High.
I was one lonely pre-teen when we arrived at seminary housing in Mill Valley, California. We had taken Route 66, pulling a U-haul trailer behind our big old white Dodge with no air conditioner. Actually, I loved the trip to California. It was the settling in that caused my grief. It was late July, but San Francisco Bay seemed to fog in whatever the season. I lay in my twin bed in the living room of our two-bedroom apartment and soaked in the sadness of foghorn warnings wafting across the water from The City.
A song, “Stranger on the Shore,” was popular on the radio at the time. I identified with it, but if I sang it at all, it was very quiet or only to myself.
Here I stand, watching the tide go out, So all alone and blue, just dreaming dreams of you. I watched your ship as it sailed out to sea Taking all my dreams and taking all of me.
By the time I reached the ending question of the lyrics, I usually wept.
Why, oh why, must I go on like this? Shall I just be a lonely Stranger on the shore?"
I hear my mother singing a Hank Williams song in her apartment above the study where I write.
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill He sounds too blue to fly. That midnight train is whining low. I'm so lonesome I could cry.
Mom can sing a sad song and not sound sorrowful. That’s because she never gets lonely, she told me. Mercy. I could cry right now just thinking of the rest of the lyrics.
I've never seen a night so long When time goes crawling by. The moon just went behind the clouds To hide its face and cry.
I’m sure Mom would be surprised if I told her now the depth of my sadness when I walked in to my first seventh-grade classroom. When all the students were seated, the teacher asked some personal questions like, “What elementary school did you attend?,” and “Is your father the ‘Doctor’ Fields?” The one directed to me was, “Where are you from?”
“Lebanon, Tennessee,” I said, “about thirty miles northeast of Nashville.”
She smiled, kids snickered, some even mimicking. I sank. After that moment, my conversation was limited to required responses for the four months I attended Mill Valley Junior High.
I remember talking to only one other student, a girl who ate lunch with me. Everyone brought lunch from home. We sat on benches in a courtyard outside unless it was raining, and then we ate in our classrooms. To this day, I wonder why that particular girl chose me. I don’t remember her name.
Teachers seemed unapproachable. When my math teacher found out I was leaving for another school during the Christmas break, she said, “That’s why I don’t like you seminary kids. You’re always leaving.”
Lately the moon has been spectacular. The December moon phases were brighter than usual, placed against that backdrop of a shade slightly deeper and more shimmering than Sherwin Williams’ Moscow Night.
One late December night, Dixie and I took to the front yard for the last potty opportunity before bed. The moon was full and far away. My pup padded around as far as the leash and a few of my steps would take her. I watched the moon.
A few lonesome spells always seem to hit me around the holidays. For some reason, I started humming Stranger on the Shore. I remembered that feeling of being disconnected and unwanted, a totally invalid emotion for all the joy and family around me.
Then I remembered a song the Mill Valley Junior High Chorus sang that December, one day before my last day at Mill Valley Junior High. We walked, in a group, from hall to hall. Our school had no cafeteria and no auditorium of any kind.
I loved chorus. No one talked about my Southern accent there. We just sang. Mr. Stahlmann, our director, asked me to sing one verse of our selection alone–a solo, a capella. My heart beat almost out of my chest as I wondered why he chose me for this part, but I knew I could sing well.
This song, No Candle Was There and No Fire, was old and strange. I researched two of the antique words of the song. Between kine and effulgence, effulgence was my favorite.
We hadn’t practiced in the halls and I was mesmerized by the echo of my own voice filling one long, lonely space.
But the moon gave a radiance divine, And the stars an effulgence bright. And the only sound to be heard Was the lowing of kine in the night And the sighing of wind in the trees, and the flapping of angel wings.
The next day, that last day before we moved from Mill Valley, kids in my home room whispered and looked at me. Finally, one boy asked from across several rows of desks, “Was that you, you know, singing real high?”
“Yes,” I said, not daring to meet his eyes for long.
“Well, it was real good,” he said.
One by one, ten or so of the other classmates joined in. “That was so pretty,” “I wish I could sing like that,” and “Man, you sounded like you were far away.”
The last girl to comment said, “But I could still hear your accent.”
I thought, “Yeah, and I was far away, but you can’t take this away from me– I was effulgence bright.”
I saw a fox yesterday morning! He (or she–I couldn’t tell) sauntered across the back patio, turned his head to look at me, and trotted across the neighbor’s lawn and under his carport. He was a youngster, hadn’t gained all of the red coat he’ll sport in a few months. But the tip of his tail was white.
We haven’t seen foxes on the property in years now. The first year we lived here on the ravine we counted sixteen, eight of those babies born to two mamas. We watched them play from the window in Mom and Dad’s den. Mom would call, “Dad says come over here. The foxes are out.”
He loved the foxes. He was miserable and depressed that first year here from the farm, and what saved him the next spring were the foxes and his garden.
One sunny day, one of the mothers brought all eight kits up from the ravine to the south lawn. These two vixens seemed to babysit for each other. One of the kits aggravated this mother-in-charge so much that she finally smacked him into a somersault. He didn’t seem to be hurt, but he did stop jumping all over her. Dad laughed. “I guess she straightened him out!” Our six-year-old grandson said, “They look like little grey dogs!”
Too soon, the foxes grew into young red dogs who scampered around the back of the property and watched our every move. Very often, we’d see little heads pop up from the ravine to check us out when our own grandkits rolled a ball or staged races in the back yard. They kept Dad company from a short distance while he worked in the garden. Sometimes we’d hear him talking to them and they seemed to listen. At night, when driving in to the garage, shiny eyes appeared in precise formation along the bank.
And then they were gone.
At the time, I wondered if they left because Dad cleaned out too much of their cover from the ravine. Clearing the banks was his favorite thing to do next to growing his huge vegetable garden. I also saw somewhere that if a fox is sick, the others move away from him. Then I read some good wildlife research that said foxes only live communally when raising young. When the kits are ready to hunt alone, the skulk breaks up and each one goes his separate way. That made more sense.
Dad asked about them several times a week. “Have you seen any of the foxes?”
We did see two scraggly yearlings and researched treatment for sarcoptic mange in red foxes. On a trip to the co-op, I purchased injectible Ivermectin and began to lace bait. This is not a simple thing to do as the medication kills the mange mites but does not kill the eggs. So the Ivermectin has to be given consistently over a long period of time.
One of the two seemed to improve and the end of the second year, the only fox we saw was a very sick one not long for this world.
I told Dad, “Maybe they’ll come back and raise another family.”
I’m hoping the one I saw yesterday homesteads somewhere in the ravine.
Tuesday, November 19, was the first-year anniversary of Dad’s passing. I thought about it every day during the prior week, but it did not cross my mind until afternoon of the actual day, while driving to an appointment for cortisone injections in my knees.
I remembered taking Dad to the orthopedist at St. Thomas to look at his knees. I knew there would be no surgery, but Dad wanted to ask for replacements for his deteriorating joints. I even had the nurse put a sticky note reminder on Dad’s chart. “Dr. Shell, please note that Dad (Mr. Blair) has scleroderma.”
Dr. Shell is a loving doctor. He never mentioned the scleroderma but said, “Ernie, we don’t want to do any surgery, because I think it would just be too hard on you.”
Dad answered, “You’re the doctor,” and agreed to the cortisone shots. After a couple days, Dad said they didn’t help at all.
I was early for my appointment so I pulled in a shady parking lot off Woodmont Avenue close to the hospital.
“So what do I feel?” I asked myself. If someone had asked, “HOW do you feel?” the answer would have been “Okay” or “Fine, thank you, and you?” But what I really felt was a hard ball of emptiness in my middle, an insistent necessity to remember, and a full-body strangeness I could not identify. Perhaps it was just a self-protective disconnect.
I’ve tried to do what Dad asked. We moved my writing place from The Cellar to Dad’s study, not a small job. My new place is now labeled The Study. I’ve made it through all of the books, sorting boxes into Sell, ThriftSmart, Give-to ____, and Keep. A bookseller carted off 500. I’ve browsed through fifty-plus years of well-filed sermons, pulling out those with special meaning. A dear friend who teaches a men’s group wants the rest. We’re giving him the file cabinets, too. He’ll need to bring his big truck.
After a few minutes, I entered traffic to St. Thomas and parked three levels down in the basement. It’s the Heart section. The other parking levels are Star and Clover. I always park in the Heart section so I’m sure to remember where I parked.
I was still early but the nurse came to get me right away, deposited me in a room, and asked if I needed shorts or could I pull my skinny pants legs above my knees. I took the navy blue disposable shorts and laughed out loud when I pulled them on and climbed on the stool to the exam table.
I was overcome with grief so suddenly. In the room alone, I remembered the three weeks of absolutely mania in this hospital. On the third day, Dad turned combative and kicked an ultra-sound technician. He had to be restrained. He disowned me for allowing such treatment. I remembered trying to get him to eat. All he wanted was either a brownie or chocolate cake. Doctors and nurses alike brought him chocolate somethings. He finished none of it except for an entire brownie one day that a nurse brought from home. I remembered how he popped his heart monitor sensors as soon as the nurse who had reconnected them left the room. He took his clothes off and scooted down the bed several times a day. He begged me to give him “a shot to end all this.”
There was so much craziness managed as best they could by the well-trained, caring staff. I was so hopeful that my father would get out of this world soon, but it took a while.
Jonathan, the Physician Assistant, is talkative. He always has something topical to relate the moment he walks into the room. He shook my hand and patted my shoulder.
“How are you today? I mean, really.”
I started to cry. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Today is the first anniversary of my dad’s passing.”
He patted my shoulder some more. “Ah, that’s rough. Go ahead and cry. There’s nobody here but me and you.” He handed me a box of tissues.
“This is the same room where Dr. Shell saw Dad.” I explained that just being in the hospital triggered my emotion. He said he could understand, especially, you know, being this same room. Then he told me about his father’s passing. I think he said it was three years ago and that he still remembers. He said he feels something on the anniversary date but he doesn’t weep. His father was wracked with dementia for almost three years.
I said I was grateful that Dad’s three years prior to his death weren’t like that. I said three weeks was plenty. Jonathan said his dad wasn’t mean or combative and that three weeks of that would be plenty for anybody.
I noticed I had stopped crying. Jonathan said, “Well, should we get going on these injections?”
I thanked Jonathan when he left the room. I hope he knew that I was grateful for much more than the medication.
I thought about keeping my paper shorts. That made me laugh and I tossed them into the trash, left for check-out, and scheduled another appointment in February.
For some reason, I got off the elevator at the Clover level, two floors up from where I parked the van. When the elevator door closed, I started crying.
I plopped my purse on a bench in the hallway and sat beside it. A woman came by and asked, “Are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m okay. Thanks for asking.”
Then a woman pushing an old man in a wheelchair stopped beside the bench. “Honey, is there anything I can do for you?”
“No. Is that your dad?”
He grinned and answered for her. “Yes, I am. She has to do so much for me she probably wishes I wasn’t.”
She just shook her head and smiled.
“My father died a year ago today,” I said.
“Oh, dahlin’, you just cry all you want. Do you have a Kleenex in that big old bag?”
“I do.” I pulled out tissues and wiped my eyes.
The woman bent over and hugged me. She smelled of musk and vanilla.
“Okay, you gonna be okay, fine even. Now we got to get on up to the sixth floor.”
I thanked her and she said she knew I’d do the same for her.
When I got to the van, I remembered I needed to pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy. I re-applied mascara, eyebrow pencil, and tinted lip balm. I decided I looked fairly presentable.
I still feel the unnameable strangeness. Maybe it’s grief, or stress, or a bit of depression, I don’t know. No need to try to get rid of it but just live into it, as a pastor friend says I must.
I feel grateful for those people who “live into” my grief and comfort me.
My father’s spirit wafts over and through The Compound, this odd old place where we live, the house, grounds, and ravine. His presence permeates The Study. A chickadee hops around on the Rose’o’Sharon bush outside the window. Squirrels bury walnuts in the spot where the foxes played. This room is peace. My mind is quiet.
And yesterday morning, I saw a fox.
It’s a daunting task, this cleaning out of Dad’s books and papers. The job would go faster if I could resist reading everything that looks interesting. A few months ago, I found, on a shelf, a small cardboard box labeled “Things I’ve Kept.”
I opened it to find a used-up air freshener jar, two empty after-shave bottles, a thousand business cards, four wallets, three key cases, assorted key rings, a used battery, a floppy disk, eyeglass lenses, two pair of sunglasses, a tiny New Testament, a silver Western belt buckle, a clothes brush, a hairbrush and more.
Yeah, I chuckle about that box then remember my own “keeping” habit. My collections include bottles to be transformed into painted vases, corks, tissue and paper towel rolls, medicine bottle and rusted metal parts I might use in a collage or a mobile. Most of the time, some art teacher wants some of this stuff but I don’t part with the rusted pieces. I’ve loved making the mobiles–just want to be sure to have materials in case my muse visits.
And then there are the bags of seeds in the freezer.
Dad was a gardener. The berries he planted long ago yielded a couple gallons of strawberries and another of blackberries. Dave begged me not to plant vegetables this year, but I couldn’t help myself. A friend and I planted tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, bush beans (Dad’s favorite Pickin’ and Grinnin’), basil, and butternut squash. The rest of the space where Dad had full rows of everything looked so bare that we threw native plant seeds all over where grass and flowers co-mingle into beautiful gardens looking a bit like the English style.
It’s trouble keeping up with the gardens around this big old place. Dave still waters, but Dad always helped me with tilling, hoeing and harvesting. I look at my prolific plantings every day, but I still miss some cucumbers and they grow too large before I find them. That happened to Dad, too. He didn’t see well for several years, so I helped him find squash, beans, and cucumbers.
One day I found five foot-and-a-half zucchini, yellow squash so overgrown you could use it for a ping-pong paddle (if you could slice it up), and cucumbers I needed two hands to carry. I laid out all of them on the grass and hollered at Dad working in his shop.
“Hey, come look what I just found.”
He moseyed out, grinned when he saw the bounty.
“Well, those are inedible but I kind of hate that you pulled them off the vines.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I was saving them for seeds,” he said.
There’s a jungle in the strawberries now. Dad always kept the grass out. I try to rehab them but I got a late start this spring. I fail miserably at weeding when the humidity rises, but I keep on keeping on. My fingers get stiff and I wear a brace on my left hand. My hands are broad like Dad’s. I remember how those hands grew too stiff to weed when scleroderma attacked, so he hoed rather than pull.
Scleroderma is an ugly disease. Dad progressed to severe stomach problems and legs so unreliable he fell about once a week. His esophagus hardened into a long tube with no muscle action. He lived on protein drinks. He fell several times outside. Somebody always seemed near to help him up–one of us, a neighbor, the garbage truck driver, or the mail lady.
A couple years ago, a rheumatologist diagnosed my sudden inability to walk as an attack of polymyalgia. Usually polymyalgia symptoms disappear with a few days of a low dose of prednisone. I was immobile for only four or five days, but it took the lingering symptoms several weeks to abate and then with increased dosages of the corticosteroid.
Dr. Lyons told me that I had some form of inflammatory arthritis but that I did not screen for the rheumatoid variety. I hadn’t heard of such a condition, but I followed her treatment protocols and I feel okay most of the time. She also told me it was not unusual that I would turn up with these symptoms given that Dad had scleroderma. Dave says I have LupusLight.
In my file cabinet, I have several files labeled “Keepsakes.” If I allowed someone to look into those files, they’d find letters, special greeting cards, kids’ report cards and immunization records, college admissions paperwork, my own transcripts, a few torn out magazine articles, and jokes I’ve loved. In my desk, you’d find a gazillion business cards if I hadn’t pulled them out a few weeks ago.
It seems I’ve kept a lot of Dad, some inherited, some channeling I suppose. There’s the gardening thing, small hoarding issues and stiff joints, business cards, things I can’t part with because I might need them sometime, and things I want to always remember.
I pulled everything out of Dad’s “Things I’ve Kept” box and sorted it into giveaways, throwaways, and “Keep.” I kept a card from 2001 labeling Dad Chairman of the Smith County Democratic Party for some meeting at Legislative Plaza and a couple of campaign pins. I also kept an index card printed by Dad’s hand on one side and cursive writing on the other.
Side 1: Living according to God’s law enables us to live as God made us to live, taking our place in the created order with eyes opened to God’s glory.
Side 2: 1-24-2010. Psalm 19 reminds us that we are a part of a big world. The author invites us to look beyond our small selves to discover how God is at work.
Dad always allowed the freedom to translate anything he said in order to apply it to our own lives. I know I’m going to read Psalm 19 to see how it speaks to me.
Most of The Things I’ve Kept won’t fit in a box.
We always knew someone in The Compound would fall in the ravine. Lord knows Dad tried. He decided in 2010 he would cut brush and clean up the vines on the bank; you know, “clear the land.” He devised the perfect way to enter and exit the big ditch. He routinely lowered a tall ladder (a really, really tall one) over the edge of the bank and propped it against a tree on the steep side of the ravine. Before descending, he’d throw all the tools he might need somewhere near the ladder. When he finished with a tool, he reared back and threw the tool onto level ground.
You haven’t really lived–or maybe come so close to dying–as feeling a hatchet whiz by your head while peacefully attending the weeds in the lower garden.
I yelled as soon as I heard the whoosh of the ax. “Dad! You almost got me!”
He shinnied up the ladder, and when he finally saw me, said, “But I didn’t.”
Dad stopped his forays into the ravine a few years ago. I admit I was a bit relieved. He warned me, “Don’t get too close to that ravine. That ground is soft. You don’t want to fall in.”
The vines returned; Virginia Creeper, Japanese honeysuckle, wintercreeper, and a few muscadines. Brush re-established; same old non-native privet, pokeweed, winterberry, and thistles. We keep them controlled for about two feet off the back yard, what we can easily reach. We’ve also seen a fair assortment of plants whose roots or bulbs Dad tossed over the edge including Rose-of-Sharon, iris, cannas, and a couple berry briars.
This past May, I noticed a bunch of one- to two-foot Royal Pawlonia sprouts in the area where we’d taken down the tree several years ago. We’ve watched the grounds carefully since the removal of the offender, so I was surprised to see the scary little crop with the pretty purple flowers. Royal Pawlonia, or Princess Tree, is wildly invasive and spews out millions–no, really, I mean millions–of seeds every year. If you want to find out how bad it really is, just look it up in your Wikipedia.
“Dave,” I said, “you’re going to have to spray those little purple trees or we’re going to have hundreds of them full-grown before we know it.”
He chose to fertilize the roses and eradicate the Pawlonia shoots on a Sunday about 1:30. I knew he was tending to roses, but I did not know he’d loaded up a sprayer to kill the tiny trees.
I put on what I call my painting clothes, dug weeds, and had just gone upstairs to Mom and Dad’s apartment to tend to some needs of our old folks when I heard the special tune on the phone.
“Hello, I know it’s you,” I said to Dave.
He answered, “Help, I’ve fallen into the ravine and I can’t get out.”
“What do you want?” I asked my usual first question when he starts with some (lame) humor.
“I want you to come get me out of the ravine.”
“So what are you doing in the ravine?” I chuckled a little.
“I was spraying those purple things.” He blew out hard.
“You’re joking, right?”
His voice gained decibels. “No, I’m not joking. You have to come help me.”
“Well, I’m not…” I started to tell him no way was I going to go in with him. “No, wait, are you hurt?”
“Yes, I’m hurt,” he said.
“I’ll be right there.” I stuck my phone in my pocket and called to Mom in the kitchen, “He’s not kidding. He fell in the ravine.”
I hurried down the steps of the apartment and ran over to the edge of our beloved big ditch. He was lying on the bank in a mostly-vertical position, the spectre enhanced by a bush with little white flowers wreathed around his head. I saw blood.
“Where are you hurt?” I called.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think you’ve broken anything? A leg? Arm? Shoulder?” I asked.
“I don’t think so, but I can’t get up the bank.”
“Okay, let me just…” I tested three places on the ground above him. All were soft.
“I think we better call 911. I can’t get down there,” I said.
“No, don’t call them. Go get Don.”
I called our next-door neighbor, hoping he’d be home.
When he answered, I asked, “Don, are you at home?”
“Dave has fallen in the ravine. We need help.”
All the other times I call him, Dave is headed his way with soup or ham or pie. He could have been disappointed, but he was there in what seemed like two seconds.
“See that stump?” I asked. “He’s just to this side of the stump.”
Don called down to Dave to check his condition. I whispered, “I think he landed on his face. There’s a lot of blood on his face.”
“Have you got a long pole?” he asked. I don’t know what I gave him, but he told Dave he was lowering the pole. “You grab on and I’ll pull you out.”
Dave struggled to hold to the pole, and when he finally got it in two hands, his feet gave way to the slippery slope.
Don turned to me. “I’m going down.”
“No, don’t do that,” I said. “Then I’d just have two of you down there. Dad used to go up and down on a tall ladder. Maybe we should try that.”
“That’s right. Where’s the ladder?” he asked.
“Propped against the side of the garage over there.” I pointed. “I’ll help you.”
“I don’t need any help. I can get it,” Don said, but I still followed a few steps behind him. He picked up the ladder. We stopped at the edge and looked down. “I don’t see anything to prop it against.”
“What’s wrong with that stump he just face-planted?” I asked.
“Dave, I’m lowering the ladder right next to you. Do you think you can get on it if I prop it on that stump?” Don asked.
“Maybe,” Dave answered.
After two unsuccessful attempts Don said, “He can’t get his feet on the ladder.”
“I’ll go down on the ladder and pull him onto it,” I said.
Don was quick to stop me. “No, then I’d just have the two of YOU down there. I’ll go down.”
“I’m on the ladder,” Dave yelled.
“Did you get on it? Can you climb it?” Don asked.
At the top of the ravine, Don grabbed Dave and pulled him up.
“Thanks, Don. Dave, honey, come on, get in the van. We’re headed for the ER.”
He staggered after me in the garage. I threw a towel in the passenger seat for him to sit on.
Southern Hills Hospital is a mile and a half from us. We were there bloody, muddy, and generally nasty but triaged and in a bay in no time.
I looked at my watch. 4:30. My friend Peggy and I had a Lyft scheduled at 6:00 to take us to Schermerhorn Symphony Center to see PostModern Jukebox. This was the second time I’d bought tickets to PMJ. The first time I was ill and, even though I tried, no one used the tickets. The current set of tickets was a birthday gift to my friend and I had already reneged on another trip (another story) so I was determined. (I’m trying to pre-explain why I did what I did later.)
I messaged Peggy. Dave is in the ER. Fell in ravine.
Peggy: Is he hurt?
Me: I don’t think it’s too bad. I mean, he’s bloody and all that, but the doctor ordered x-rays and CT. They just came and took him to x-ray. He’s got a big gash on his face.
She asked more questions about his condition and then finished with No way we can get to the Schermerhorn on time.
I was quick. We’re going to see PostModern Jukebox.
Peggy: I’m dressed. I’ll wait until you tell me to leave home. The drive from Readyville to our house is about forty-five minutes.
After the CT scan, I was relieved to know that all Dave needed was a few stitches across one side of his face–the side that hit the stump. (He’d already started planning a story about how he got the scar in a bar, his favorite tale, something about defending my honor.)
I messaged Peggy. We’re going to go to the concert.
Peggy: But you’re not dressed. Didn’t you say you had to get in the shower?
Me: I can make do. I’ll hurry. I’m going to call Darrin (Dave’s son–mine, too). I should have already called him.
I messaged the whole story to Darrin and Dana, ending with, “So can you come and pick up Dave and take him home? They’re about to sew up his face and I’ve got tickets to PMJ.” I knew Darrin the Drummer would understand.
I turned to Dave. “Honey, do you think it would be okay for me to go home, get dressed, and go to the concert?”
“Sure,” he said, “but you’ll need to bring me a vehicle so I can drive home. Maybe Peggy could bring me the van while you get dressed.” He really hadn’t thought that she’d need to get back to our house somehow.
Peggy answered my earlier text. I don’t see how.
Me: Come on, we’ll figure it out.
I received a return message from Dana. Darrin is on a plane. (He travels for work.) Do you think it would be okay for me to bring Evan with me? Evan is their very active three-year-old.
I wouldn’t, I answered. What if you just came and picked him up? He can call you when he’s ready.
“Is that okay, honey?” I asked Dave.
“Sure,” he said.
She called. “I can pick him up. Tell him to call me and Evan and I will come and get him. I’ll stay with him for a while to make sure he’s okay.”
I told her I needed to leave like, right now, and to text me when she got Dave home. She told me to go on and have a good time.
At home, I threw off my filthy pants and shirt, washed my face and reapplied deodorant, sprayed some dry-cleaner on my hair followed by a some fluffing, and found some clothes decent enough to wear. At least I think they were decent enough.
Peggy yelled “I’m here” when she came in the door.
I was still in the bathroom. “You have to take Dave’s wallet to him.” I rushed to the bureau where he kept his wallet.
“To the emergency room?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, handing it to her.
While she was gone, I had plenty of time to smear some makeup around and grab earrings. It wasn’t my regular routine, but I declared it finished.
In the Lyft vehicle, I looked down to see that my feet looked like they were still in the dirt. I had two wipes in my purse and used both of them. My feet weren’t perfect but they were “better than they were,” one of Dave’s favorite sayings.
We arrived at the Schermerhorn just in time.
I checked messages every few minutes. No word from Dana. Finally, I texted her to ask how things went. She thought she had already messaged me. She said things went fine except… Oh my god Diana he looked like an ax murderer.
What a show, what a show! PMJ was all I thought they should be and more. At one point, I gave thanks for Dad’s ravine trips up and down the ladder, for Dave’s willingness to allow me to abandon him in his hour of need (he really wasn’t that bad off, okay?), for Dana’s pickup and delivery, but especially for my man’s survival with less-than-could-have-been injuries.
So, maybe the thanksgiving was after the concert when I got home to see him sitting in his recliner watching one of his favorite shows.
“I got all but about two of those little purple things,” he said.
I love that man.
For Dad, it’s Alive Hospice, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
The Nashville facility was full and the admissions nurse so determined that Dad needed to be there that she sent him to the Murfreesboro campus at midnight Friday.
Daddy rests in a large room halfway between the nurse’s desk and a family room containing comfortable chairs, recliners, and couches that flip into beds. There are several family rooms here, one with a dining area in front of a wall full of windows. The light streams in as if on cue.
In Dad’s room, we keep the lights dim. The room is quiet and peaceful; so is Dad.
He only stayed at the skilled nursing facility less than two days. We knew it was not the place for him, and when his kidneys began to fail Friday, the attending nurse practitioner recommended an immediate move.
With the help of the SNF’s social workers and nurses, Alive Hospice Nurse Gail ordered an ambulance for 11:00 P.M. They arrived at 11:45, two youngsters in ball caps reading Medic One.
“I’ll be riding in the back with him,” the smaller one said. “I see his diagnosis here is dementia. Has he ever become combative or kicked or punched a nurse or tech?”
I hesitated. “Yes, he did at the hospital, but that was when he was in complete psychosis. He’s not doing that now.”
“Well, I just wanted to let you know that if that happens….”
Big Guy butted in. “No, no,” he told his sidekick. “If something happens, you just let me know and I’ll pull over to the side of the road and come back there to help you get him calmed. We want to be very soft…soft.”
I could actually imagine a scene like that.
I left before the ambulance. The ramp to I-440 was closed, probably because of a fatal accident earlier in the day, but when I turned around to go the opposite direction, there were cars making left turns onto the interstate so I followed them.
I met Shirley, the night charge nurse, the techs, and the front door security guard. Shirley went over the care plan, medications that they’d be using, and ways they operate. She said the doctor would see me on Saturday. I told her it was already Saturday.
A nurse stuck her head in the room. “I am wondering what is taking that transport so long. Did you leave a long time before they did?”
“No, I was right in front of them, but I bet they got to that closed ramp and found another route.”
Turns out, that’s exactly what happened. They were automatically re-routed.
Dad was awake. Shirley explained what was happening.
“Ernie, we’re going to give you some pain medication and then we’ll give you a bath first thing and get you all freshened up.”
Two techs and two nurses busied themselves over him. He talked to them in slurred speech and from an altered state, but they caught about every third sentence.
“You are a handsome man,” one said. Another asked him about his 72-year marriage. “What’s the secret?” she asked.
“Let each other be free to grow and develop” is what we think we heard. I confirmed that he might have said that.
Then came the washing of the private parts.
“Ernie, we are going to have to wash you down there. Normally, we’d just let you do it, but you have some leftover bm there and we want you to be clean, okay?”
“Ah, you girls just want to look at me,” he said. “All the time.”
We all laughed at him.
“No, we don’t, but I’m going to raise your gown and clean you up and then we’ll put a fresh pad and gown on you.”
He picked up a towel a tech had left beside him. “Then I’m just going to put this over my face,” he said, and hid his whole head from the offending eyes.
We laughed some more, but they got him cleaned up and bundled up in his new bed.
Dad now gets a pretty stiff cocktail of haldol, morphine, and a valium-like drug. The dosage is small but repeatable. If he is not calm twenty minutes after the last offering, the nurse starts the routine again, or she slightly increases the morphine.
He lies quiet in the bed most of the time but when the meds start to wear off, he twists, grimaces, and mumbles.
The grandsons and families came to visit yesterday, including Jaxton and Savannah, ages 5 and 3. Neither was upset by Grandpa’s condition. Savvy said hi to him several times, anxious to get an answer from him. Mom was glad to see the little ones.
I stayed last night. I played music to him and sang to him, hoping something might connect. In the middle of the night, I heard him say, “Diana.” I wasn’t sure of that until I sat up and waited for him to call me again. It’s like what happens when you try to say my name without being able to move the tongue.
“Lie-ah-uh,” it sounds like.
“What, Dad? What do you need?”
He grasps my hand. I kiss him on his old bald head.
“You’re in a really good place,” I tell him.
My daddy hovers, sometimes thrashes, naked, his mind somewhere along an invisible jagged line between his tiny spot of time and space on earth and the ultimate reality of Infinity.
His heart beats so fast sometimes that we fear stroke. Doctors get his heart rate down and his blood pressure goes up. Get the blood pressure down too low and some other wheel falls off the old bus.
He fell in his bedroom sometime very early a week ago Tuesday morning. Before we found him on the floor with a bloody gash on his head, he’d pulled shirts, belts, and a bootjack from his closet. He told us he’d ducked into a shed for shelter from the rain and realized he’d stepped into some man’s corn crib. Then he couldn’t get out of the field and had crawled through rough straw for miles.
Dad did not get confused because he fell; he fell because he was already confused in the night and hallucinating. We’ve seen a slow slide toward dementia for about three years, but since last Christmas the disease has tracked him like a cat, consistently and with increasing speed. We’ve watched a wretched auto-immune disease rob him of the ability to enjoy food and then to swallow well. His legs grew weaker and weaker, so often he could not stand, even with his walker.
In the emergency room after the fall, he fought with three cats, two black and one black and white, that kept pouncing on the bed. Every time he kicked them off, they came back. I shooed them away. He re-told the corn crib story with variations and repeated an earlier adventure stripping tobacco with two youngsters who would not talk to him. He was pretty sure they could talk, they just wouldn’t. The ER physician called a hospitalist to provide overnight observation.
Once in the room on the fifth floor tests began, including an ultra-sound on his legs. The technician came in Wednesday morning, made it through the scan of one leg and then Dad refused. He kicked at the machine operator. She dodged and moved the equipment. He kicked some more. When nurses arrived to rescue the tech, he doubled his fists and slapped at them.
I said, “I don’t think you’re going to get that next one.”
She smiled and said, “I’m pretty sure of that.”
Within a few hours, the a-fib grew worse and Dad grew so wild and combative I wished for restraints. They came quickly. He did not sleep–not one wink-– for four days. One night, I bent over to pick something up just under the edge of his bed and even though his hands were tied, he grabbed my hair. It took a few minutes to pry his hand loose.
My dad’s wild mind fashioned a scary story with escalating horror. He gave me the base plot as he dressed me down. I was trying to kill him, leading a band of nurses are my followers. He kept saying that he can’t believe I would do this for money. “Greed. Evil. You are no daughter of mine.” I stood stark still, as if at attention, stung and disoriented. The words might have attached themselves to a deep sorrow if I hadn’t heard a voice. “This is not your dad.”
For several hours, there was a huge farm machine loose on his farm. We–the nurses, Jade, John, and I–had already destroyed the farm with this wrecker/excavator. We knocked down trees and ran through the shallow creek, breaking the flat limestone into small pieces. We were going to let it run over him, and then it was somehow above him and we were preparing to let it fall to crush him. One hour we were setting him afire. Another time, we were trying to poison him.
He disowned me, then started yelling again. I tried to slip a dry mouth lozenge in his mouth but I wasn’t quick enough. He can’t bite since he has no teeth but he clamped his jaws shut, turtle tight. Then he said to the air on his left, “Jameson, look at your mother. This is the kind of mama you have.” Jameson is my grandson, not my grandson, and he is safe at home in his own bed.
Dad got back to serious yelling. “Where is Mom [my mother]? She’s the only good person around here.”
The student nurse asked, “Does he like music?”
“Yes!” I said. “I can’t believe I haven’t thought of that. I should have brought in a player. There’s no music channel on the TV.”
Wait, I thought. I could stream from my laptop.
I grabbed my almost-dead HP from my bag and began the frustrating process of hooking up to the hospital free-for-visitors wi-fi. It’s a finicky network. I spent twenty minutes and then gave up.
Dad changed the venue. “Help! Come on, we’re down here in the bottom by the creek. They’re trying to crucify us all.”
The last time he had mentioned crucifixion, the nurses were attaching restraints. I watched him pull at the cords and thought of rodeos and roped calves. I remembered a pig bound and hung for slaughter at my grandfather’s farm, and of holding my dog Murphy for an injection.
That night, I left him praying. The words were plain and the sentences cohesive. “Lord, thank you for this life I’ve been given. And if you want me to die now, I’ll come. I ask you to forgive Diana and all these evil persons who are doing this to me. They know not what they do. Take care of their little children.” I walked out of the room, on down the long hall to the parking garage.
The next time, he was on the hill at the farm in Smith County. He called for his mother. “Mama, come on here. I’m up on the hill. They’re about to kill your last son. Don’t you see the smoke?”
He did not remember that seventy-two years ago on the same day, Halloween, he and my mother took a long taxi ride to Georgia and married. He was seventeen, she “fourteen-almost-fifteen,” they said.
My mom waits at home, not really worrying, just pondering. She is dressed in blue matching pants and top, her curly hair neatly combed back, and her ensemble accessorized with the usual rings, earrings, bracelet, and necklace.
After two days and several doses of psychiatric drugs, the restraints were removed. He was still agitated but not trying to hurt anyone. He rolled his sheet and blanket into a wad and tossed them to the floor. He pulled his arms through his gown, easing the heart monitor through a sleeve. The gown and a couple Chux pads found the floor. I heard a pop, pop, pop as he removed the leads to the heart monitor. He seemed pleased that he had wires to untwist. He repeated the process several times.
He slid down the bed and pounded the foot rail in a surprisingly steady rhythm. He called for my mother, yelling louder than he’s been able to in years.
I told him, “Dad, Mom is not here.”
Sometimes, for a minute or two, he believed me when I told him, “You’re in the hospital, Dad.”
“In the hospital? What am I doing here?”
I told him, “You have to stay for a while until you get better, and you are getting better.”
“Am I in South Carthage?”
“No, Dad, you’re in Nashville. At St. Thomas.”
At times, it connected and he said, “Oh-h-h-h-h-h.” Another time he added, nodding his head, “So that’s the problem!”
One afternoon, he asked, “Did you know the cats are back?”
“No,” I said. “What are they doing?”
“Oh, they’re just lying around down there at the foot of the bed.”
I said, “But you’re not trying to kick them off.”
“No, I got used to them.”
From time to time, the psychiatrist Dr. Le Coguic stuck her head in the room to ask a few questions with telling answers.
She: What year is it, Mr. Blair? He: 2017. She: When were you born? He: Five, twenty-nine, no. Five, nine, no. Twenty-five. She: That’s good enough! Now who’s the President? He: Truman. She: Hmmmmm.
I snuck in a word there. “He really knows. I asked him myself yesterday and he said Truman and I said, ‘No, it’s Trump, Dad,’ and he said, ‘Yes, that’s who I mean so just pretend I’m saying Trump when I say Truman.'”
Dr. Le Coguic laughs out loud. “Good enough!” she said.
The next time she asked him, he said, “Oh, that damn Trump. Truman.”
The morning of November 7, I walked into the room where a soft-spoken chaplain introduced herself to me as Gail. She was asking Dad if he was a spiritual person. She didn’t understand him, but he answered her, “I suppose so. I’ve got a Master’s of Divinity from seminary.” I translated a few sentences to her until Dr. Chris MacMurdro from the Palliative Care Department stepped in. Because Dad was still talking with Gail, Dr. Mac asked if we might step down the hall to talk.
“Call me Dr. Mac or Chris,” she said and explained her specialty. After several minutes of discussion about what I might expect or anticipate or decide, Dr. Mac told me with his refusal to eat or drink, Dad would likely be gone in two weeks. It’s too early for hospice, she said, but you will need them. If Dad goes to a skilled nursing facility, he might get a few days.
Just as Dr. Mac and I were ending our conversation, Gail approaches us from the doorway of the family waiting room. “Your dad,” she said, and placed her hand over her heart. “Oh my. And thank you for helping me understand what he was saying. I could understand him after that.”
“Good,” I said.
“This is the first time a patient has prayed over me,” she said.
“He did?” I asked.
She teared up. “I asked him if he would like me to pray with him, and he took my hands and said, ‘I’ll pray for you.'”
“And he did?” I said.
“Yes, and now I have to go sit down somewhere and cry.”
Later that day, when I told Dr. Mac the evening Zyprexa seemed to make Dad more agitated instead of less as it was supposed to do, she wanted to revisit his history of hallucinations and his increasingly weak legs. “Let me go back and look at his chart again,” she said. “I’ll call you back.”
“Dad,” I said, “would you drink one of your protein shakes? I have a cooler over here with three drinks in it. Which one–chocolate or vanilla?”
His eyes lit up a little. “Chocolate!”
I rolled the bed up and offered him the straw in the bottle. He tried to take the bottle.
“I want to drink it. Myself.”
“Well, okay.” I grabbed some Chux pads and tucked one around the top half of his body. I helped him hold the drink, with him struggling to wrest it from me, until I knew he’d had enough that he wouldn’t immediately pour the stuff all over himself.
He drank almost all of the eight ounces. He drank almost ALL of the EIGHT OUNCES, the most food of any kind he’d had since more than a week ago.
Dr. Mac called. “Diana, this is not Alzheimer’s. I’m thinking more like Parkinson’s with Lewy bodies. That would explain the reaction to the Zyprexa. Do you know much about Parkinson’s?”
“Enough. A lot,” I said.
She said he wanted to confer with the hospitalist, Dr. Meadors, about switching him over to something like Valium, which would be much more effective if we were treating Parkinson’s.
Sure enough, the Valium (or whatever it was) helped calm him. Dr. Mac called to say that Dad appeared now to qualify for in-patient hospice, and she had arranged a meeting with Rosie from Alive Hospice downtown. She explained her wish for inpatient hospice.
“The Parkinson’s thought changes everything. His medications seem to be headed in the right direction. He could use the meds management at inpatient to get them all tweaked to the point that you could manage him at home with the help of home hospice.” She fears for my ability to physically manage him at home right now and for my mother’s emotional health as she watches Dad decline.
I made her promise that she will always work toward our goal of getting him home. She repeats to me all the information I’ve given her, including the DNR and comfort care directives.
End of day, Wednesday, November 7. Dad slept peacefully almost all night.
Yesterday morning, he knew me when I arrived. He smiled and said, “Hello, honey.” Dr. Mac called to discuss the latest strategy since he has improved enough that he probably does not qualify for inpatient hospice. “We’re thinking we can send him over to the rehab facility.”
Dad and I sat in quiet most of the day yesterday. He was tired. He thought he might want sausage and eggs. I tried. He drank a bit of milk shake. I tried again. I massaged his aching hands with cream, swabbed his gums and washed out his mouth.
“You’re going to make me bald,” he said when I rubbed his head. That’s a little joke we have. Not long after that, we both dozed at the same time.
When I told him I was leaving for the day, he said, “Be careful driving home. Is it still raining?”
I said, “No.” It did not rain all day yesterday.
Just as I started to exit the room, he called softly but firmly, “You are going to call Red Blair to help you get that big machine off the hill, aren’t you?”
“I sure will,” I promised.
Murphy lay on the floor and barked. I felt myself shaking a little. I held out my hand to see if the shaking was outside or in-. In, I decided.
The veterinary technician was familiar and I like her, but I could not come up with her name. Maybe it’s Chrissy. Dave might know, but he wasn’t there. He was Murphy’s primary caretaker, spent more time with her than anyone else. No way my husband could do this. I could, so I did.
Chrissy told me how sorry she was, tears in her eyes.
“I have a couple of things to go over with you,” she said. “There are three options. With the first one, you’d take her home with you.” When she offered the second option, I said, “Yes, that’s what we want,” a communal cremation where the crematorium scattered her ashes in a private wooded area.
Chrissy went on to the procedure. I stopped her and said I’d already discussed with Mel, the long-term receptionist, when I booked the appointment.
“Do you want me to put her on the table?” I asked.
She said yes, so I hefted our puppy’s almost 15 pounds on top of the exam table. I still called her our puppy. Dave laughed at me and says “She’s hardly a puppy,” but her little Shih-tzu face still looked like a puppy to me.
Chrissy asked me to check and initial the preferred option and then sign permission. The initials ran off the line and I found it difficult to write my last name. Revell came out more like Reiwelll.
Dr. O’Neill eased the door open. She said she knew this was a difficult decision, and that we’d gone the extra mile for Murphy. “Do you want your friend to come in?”
“No,” I said and wrapped my arms around Murphy. The tech held her bottom half.
“Okay, sweet girl,” Dr. O’Neill said as she did the first injection, “you’ll sleep in a few minutes.” She stroked Murphy’s head. In sync, our hands touched. I instantly glanced at Dr. O’Neill, but she had already averted her eyes.
I held our Murphy Sweet Punkin while she drifted off to sleep. I knew she was asleep when she started to snore. She grew heavier and the tip of her tongue protruded. I smiled.
“I think she’s asleep,” Dr. O’Neill said.
I lifted Murphy’s back leg and let it fall–gently. “She is.”
The second injection of clear deep pink solution struck me as a good color. I’d always told groomers “She’s partial to hot pink” when they asked if they could put bows on her ears.
It took three tries for Dr. O’Neill to get a good vein. They were all small and kept collapsing. When the needle found the third vein, it seemed that my little old dog’s heart stopped beating within a couple of minutes. I held her tight and wept, happy to see a tissue box at the end of the table.
“Okay,” I said, “I’m going to leave her with you.” I kissed her head and said something like “Sleep, no more pain now.” I moved her gently from my arms to the table.
I know Dr. O’Neill and Chrissy said something. I don’t know what they said.
When I reached the waiting room, I nodded to my friend Peggy, who had driven me to Animal Care Center. At the counter, I said, “Do I need to sign…..”
“No,” the young woman at the desk said, “we’re good. I’m so sorry.”
I turned to Peggy. “Okay,” I said. She followed me out the door.
Past the beautiful statue of St. Francis and the animals, I remembered to pick up the bag of poop I’d left on the short wall around the clinic front patio. We didn’t see a trash receptacle so I put it on the floor of the van, along with the pink harness and leash.
When we got home, I gathered my purse, my water bottle, and the leash. “Oh, let me get the poop,” I said.
Peggy answered, “Whew, I’m glad you said that. It’s pretty ripe.” We both laughed a little.
“You mean you could smell it?” I asked.
“Lord, yes,” she said. “But I knew you couldn’t smell anything.”
I laughed. Peggy knew my sense of smell left with years of inhalers and other medications for asthma.
We hugged and I told her thank you, couldn’t say much more. I had to get inside to Dave and his grief combined with mine.
When I walked onto the porch and threw the bag of poop in the trash, I realized I never looked at Murphy’s face. No way I could look at that little face. But I’ll always remember it.
I have this card (or maybe I had this card) that says something like, “Roses are red, Violets are blue, I’ll always be…[open the card] younger than you!” I can’t find it.
Mrs. Grillo and I became forever friends in seventh grade, some fifty-six years ago. My family had only been in California six months, living in Mill Valley where my dad was a seminary student. We moved to Pittsburg when Dad was called as Pastor of Temple Baptist Church.
It was the start of the second semester at Hillview Jr. High. When the gym teacher said “Raise your hand if you do not yet have a locker,” I replied something to the effect of, “My locker has done been possessed.” My Southern accent combined with the funny way I said it inspired a great roar of laughter from every girl in the room, including the teacher.
I didn’t mind. I had been miserable at the Mill Valley school where I started seventh grade. When the kids laughed at me there, I knew they laughed at me, my hillbilly-ness, my inferiority. I knew this because one of the teachers told me. But that first day at Hillview was very different. It was as if I made them laugh and that was great! Maura Jean Snyder laughed, too, and she’s laughed at me ever since. Lots of times, she’s cried with me.
By the time we hit Pittsburg High School, we were the ultimate teenyboppers. We adopted nicknames. She was Ja, with one of those long vowel lines over the a, I was Dee. We were wild about the Beatles, our fashion choices inspired by the British Invasion. We sewed military-style wool jackets. Mine was camel, hers was grey. We loved Motown and soul, handed to us on a platter in the diversity of our town. We could jerk and we could twine. We wore wheat-colored jeans and short-sleeved sweatshirts out of class, the dress code for young women denying pants of any kind in school. Except for dance days, and then a female person could wear pants and huge plastic hair rollers. I never caught on to the hair-roller thing.
When my father graduated from seminary and accepted an appointment with the Home Mission Board to Lewistown, Montana, I stayed with Ja’s family to complete my senior year.
We danced. Jean was much better than I, a seasoned champion roller-skater. Really. She was a U.S. champ. I danced anyway. Ja and I choreographed a mournful dance to a Barbra Streisand song about loss wearing wide-legged jumpsuits we made ourselves. Hers was olive green, mine was a burnt orange. When senior awards were handed out, she got one for Best Dancer, I got one for Most Improved. My boyfriend asked me, “Does that mean you were the worst in the class at the beginning?”
We went to San Jose State together. The second year, I went to Montana to stay with my folks for a year, and Ja pledged a sorority. The third year, Ja came to live with my family in Montana and I went to the University of Montana at Missoula. Ja rode herd on the Wong boys, my three little foster brothers. She loved it.
The fourth year, we didn’t go to any school. We married best friends. Her wedding was at the end of March, mine mid-May. She decided we should enroll in dance classes at a local studio. Ja and her husband became godparents to our first son Jade. We moved to a farm in Norene, Tennessee when Jade was eleven months old. A year later, we went home to Montana for a visit. I was pregnant with John.
Ja and her husband, godparents again, came to Tennessee for the baptism when John was about five months old. Ja and I loved the visit, particularly the times when she and I could be alone with each other, two old friends catching up but not finding much to catch up on. After all, we had the U.S. Mail. We played cards after Jade went to bed, John sitting in Ja’s lap propped between the table and her middle.
She had previously told me that it didn’t look like she would have children. After seeing her easy rapport with Baby John at the card table, I bet her $5 that she would be pregnant in the next six months. Or maybe I bet her she would have a baby within the next year. I don’t really know which it was, although I’m sure she does. Just a few months later, I received an envelope from Montana. The only thing inside was a $5 bill.
There’s so much more–too much more, too many pages. A couple of girlfriends accumulate a lot of stories over fifty-six years. We divorced the best friends, went back to college (she graduated, I didn’t), worked hard (she became a math teacher–and then a math coach!), mourned losses, put kids through school, remarried, got grandbabies, and one day years and years after that first meeting in gym class, realized that we could not just call ourselves best friends.
We had begun to feel when things were going wrong with each another. We fret over each other’s husbands, kids, and grandkids. We research each other’s illnesses. We cry for each other when something’s not right. We give advice, solicited or not. We easily take or reject said advice. We whoop it up when joy arrives. We visit each other across the country whenever we can. There is never a day that either of us don’t think about the other.
Somewhere along the way, we became sisters.
I have called Mrs. Grillo very early every birthday morning. I’ve only missed a few, always for good reason. I missed yesterday. There was a good reason. I remembered at 7:00 Central Time. Years ago, I gave up the 5:00 A.M. call. It was just too early. Yesterday, I decided I would call at 9:00 o’clock, which would be 7:00 o’clock in the Santa Cruz hills of California. But then all hell broke loose, which is fairly routine around these parts, and I was caught up in the fray with my mind diverted.
Mrs. Grillo, the day event went more downhill, so to speak, or I guess Dave went downhill as he fell into the ravine. After the neighbor and I fished his bloody self out, I took him directly to the ER. He’s fine, no worries. He got stitches where he face-planted a stump, and he’s a tad sore all over.
I’ll be on Message+ or the phone later to tell you the rest of the story. I’ll make that happen before this day is over. It may actually come in another blog post.
I love you, Sis, and hope you had good stuff at Little Italy–Is that the name of that restaurant? No, I think it might be Little Napoli. Now I know you had some cold bubbly, and I toasted you with some Jack and Coke. Did you feel it?
When I was in my first year of college at San Jose State, three little brothers came to live with my parents in Montana. One of those little boys, Jimmy Lee Wong, died yesterday mid-day.
Jimmy Lee Wong was the oldest of the three, eleven months older than Jerry Lee, who was eleven months older than Johnny Lee. Two of the boys were mentally challenged as was their mother. Their father, Lee Wong, was very old and had died only a couple of months before. The boys had already been in three foster homes. Lee Wong was Chinese, thirty-five years older than Lucille Deserley of the Pembina Band of Chippewa under the leadership of Chief Thomas Little Shell. Lucille, a beautiful young woman in the one photo I’ve seen, died in childbirth when the boys were just toddlers.
It was a couple of days before my Christmas break when Dad drove the boys from the Social Services office in Great Falls to our home in Lewistown. When I arrived home from a long drive home from the Billings airport, Mom called them from their basement “suite.” They bounded up the stairs whispering to each other, hands over mouths, and lined up in the kitchen. I guessed which name went with which boy. What I remember most is their eyes. Against their copper/olive skin, their eyes were big, round, and almost black.
Everything the boys brought with them, all their worldly goods, the entirety of their belongings, fit in two cardboard boxes and one Chinese trunk. The trunk was almost empty except for an envelope of ten pictures, a couple of books, and a ginger jar they gave to Mom. The boxes contained a few pieces of clothing each and some old pots and pans. No coats. It was December in Montana and there were no coats.
Mom issued a “please help” to the ladies of the church. Those women blessed us and gathered good coats, jeans, shirts, and shoes. Mom sent me on a run to the five and dime (Woolworth’s, I think) for underwear. When the manager saw my pile of whitey tidies, tee shirts, and insulated pieces, he asked me who on earth I was shopping for. When I told him, he sighed and said, “I think we can afford a donation here.”
Those three didn’t talk much at first. I coaxed them, and then they turned loose. Well, Jerry and Johnny became quite the conversationalists; Jimmy, not so much. For all the years the Wongs were in the Blair home, Jimmy’s main communication consisted of “Good, Mom,” which he said after every meal, every snack, and “Mom, Mom, somebody farted.” Those two statements are etched into our family’s culture. We still quote Jimmy.
The years were good–and bad–to the Wong boys. Jerry and Johnny wound up in Tennessee when Mom and Dad moved back home. In his late teens, Jimmy developed schizophrenia in addition to his other challenges, and since the boys were unadoptable and wards of the State of Montana, he was moved by the State of California to Billings. He has been under the supervision of a caseworker as part of what we used to call sheltered workshops. It was a lucky move for Jimmy. He thrived there, always had some kind of job, and was eventually allowed his own apartment where he was found in the floor yesterday.
For the past several years, Jimmy came to Tennessee for Thanksgiving or Christmas. We always bought him DVD’s to add to his immense movie collection. As an older adult, all of the words he never said when he was a kid came out, constantly and with frequent repetition. He laughed loud–at anything and everything. He was excitable when talking about problems he may have had on his job or with some other member of the center. Almost every year, he wound up in the ER with an asthma attack.
The word from his caseworker is he died of a rupture in his esophagus where it meets the stomach, caused by Barrett’s Esophagus Disease and the cancer that followed. We had never heard that he had the disease nor the cancer. We just knew he had a lot of reflux issues, asthma, and heart problems.
He was visiting a friend in his apartment building yesterday morning and didn’t stay long. The friend said he’d make some coffee. Jimmy didn’t want coffee. He said he just wanted to go home. It wasn’t long until his best friend George went to check on him and found him in the floor. He was already gone.
Last night, after talking with Jerry several times, I emailed a scanned copy of written permission to the funeral home in Billings to perform the cremation. I explained that I have no legal right to do it, and that I was doing it at Jerry’s request. The woman said, “That’s okay, we just need a signature from a family member.” I didn’t offer anything else.
Jimmy Wong, you came to this earth for hard times, but it seems you finished well–with friends and family and helpers who loved you. In your voice, I’m saying, “Good Jimmy.”