Trying hard to leave.

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.”

***

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Still a small smile.

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.

*****

 

 

 

 

 

The family that reunites…

Bites. Fights. Lights…Blights. Rights..or writes. Some of those may be true, but there’s no poem in this for me.

Mom and Dad didn’t go to church on Sunday. Neither had slept very well Saturday night. They both ached. No, they weren’t exactly “sick,” but they didn’t feel well. Sunday night proved not much better, so they were both dragging on Monday. It took them two days to recover from the family reunion.

Mom took her Rollator walker, Dolly, to the reunion for the first time this year. I guided the two of them over tree roots and loose rocks on the path to the picnic pavilion. “I just know they’re going to say, ‘What on earth are you doing with that thing?’ but I don’t care. There’s never a good place for me to sit anymore and I can’t get my legs under that picnic table. I’m going to sit on Dolly.” Mom had it all worked out and rehearsed by the time we got to the concrete.

Dad followed slowly, stabilizing himself with his cane on the rough ground. “Well, hello there, Sis, you did make it,” I heard him say to Aunt Elois. She’s the elder of the family now at 84. She was barely getting around, her voice weak. She won’t be at next year’s reunion. That’s the kind of thing you think, but you don’t say.

There are five remaining siblings remaining in Dad’s family, three brothers and two sisters. Each year, we believe there’ll be fewer the next. Every year, the “cousins”—that would be me and the rest of the children of these brothers and sisters—look older and older.

The Blair Reunion calls one and all, every year, the second Saturday in September at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park, Shelter No. 8—Don’t be late. Actually, my cousin Jerry Wayne is always late but we wait for him every year. This year he was on time. Being a Baptist preacher, you might think he’s a slam-dunk for the task of talking to the Good Lord on behalf of the Blairs, except that Daddy (“Toby” to the family) and Uncle Frank are also preachers. Frank Eddie is a Methodist. Toby was a Baptist and vows he’s still a Baptist even though he retired from the Methodists. Frankly (the “frank” has nothing to do with Uncle Frank previously mentioned), I’m not sure Dad’s a Baptist or a Methodist. You’d just have to talk to him to understand, and then you might not.

The other remaining brother, Francis Wilburn (“Bill”), has had a rough year. He had a stroke followed by the discovery of colon cancer. One of his sons brought him to the reunion. I heard somebody say, “Bill, nobody asked you to say the blessing.” He replied, in such a quiet and weak voice, that, being retired from the insurance business, it’s not his job to ask the blessing. He did say that he was glad to be there.

Jerry Wayne’s daddy, my Uncle Wesley, was a Baptist preacher, too. He was one of the first people to have open heart surgery at Vanderbilt—a valve replacement, I think. He was the first one of Shafter and Effie’s children to die.

Aunt Bessie, my dad’s youngest sister at age 69, is now in charge of the family reunion. It’s always been understood that the “girls” of the family will run the family reunion and nobody crosses them about it. I think Mammy Blair issued the command and the rest of the family hopped to. After Mammy died, Aunt Virginia, the oldest sister headed it up; she’s been gone for several years now along with Aunt Margaret, the next-to-youngest girl. Aunt Margaret never got a turn at being “boss” of the reunion. Aunt Elois was in charge for several years, but now she’s feeble—feisty, but feeble.

Aunt Bessie asked Jerry Wayne to pray, and “don’t take all day because we’re hungry.”

Jerry Wayne said, “How about Uncle Toby or Frank Eddie?”

“They don’t care,” Bessie said in a low voice to spur him on.

“What did he say?” Dad asked. He was standing right beside Jerry Wayne.

“I said, ‘Did you want to pray?’” Jerry Wayne answered, a bit louder than he normally talks.

“No, we’re too told,” Dad answered for both Frank and himself.

“Gracious Heavenly Father,” the prayer started. It ended with “I love you, Jesus. Amen.”

Some of us repeated, “Amen”—the men who are believers and the women who consider themselves liberated.

Food was everywhere, as usual. Four long picnic tables held courses of meat, salad, and vegetables. Desserts beckoned from the two tables adjoining the beverages and paper products. There are unwritten guidelines regarding the offerings of dishes:

1. Evelyn, my cousin three years younger, fries chicken—a lot of chicken. In addition to the legs, thighs, wings and breasts mounded in a two-foot by eighteen-inch aluminum roasting pan, she brings two cake pans of appetizers for a select group of the women: gizzards and livers. The aunts, mamas, and cousins who like gizzards are not “liver people,” and vice versa, but there are two of us who can, and do, go either way. We strategize to maximize our take. We watch the levels of the gizzards and livers, not an easy chore. The serving method for these delicacies is to leave the aluminum foil covering the pan (a coy encouragement for sneaking a bite) so if more than half the hands are reaching into the gizzards, the two of us know to eat gizzards first in order to get our share before they’re gone. Remember, the gizzard eaters won’t bother the livers, so they’re probably safe. By the time the Chaplain of the Year says “Amen,” the two cake pans are empty. When Aunt Bessie signals us women to “take the lids off,” some cousin fooling with the chicken always says, “I want you to look. There is not even a greasy spot left from those livers—gizzards either.”

2. Some of the rest of us fry chicken, too, but we understand that everybody is going to eat Evelyn’s first. No offense—no offense taken. It tastes just like Aunt Virginia’s.

3. Somebody always brings a pot roast, a ham, and some barbecue or meatloaf. There’s always pot roast and ham left, but not much meatloaf, and no barbecue at all.

4. There will be turnip greens, dressing, butter beans, corn, and green beans. Squash, sauerkraut, baked beans, and coleslaw are likely but not definite. Anything outside of those two lists of sides might be a culinary delight, just not expected.

5. Desserts will include pecan pie, chess pie, and chocolate pie; sometimes banana pudding. If you bring a new recipe of something sweet, don’t get tender when an unofficial vote is taken to determine if that one is worth squirreling away a piece to take home.

6. And, speaking of “taking home,” do not expect to take any of your dish home. There’s a small assembly, equipped with take-out boxes and Glad plastic containers, and they swoop in at the end of the meal, each vowing to “make me a plate to take home for supper.”

7. When all the seconds and thirds and supper-servings are finished, check your dish. If there’s more than a third left, bring something else next year.
I promised Aunt Bessie that I would make grape salad this year if she would bring Japanese fruit pie. She told me to make sure I brought enough for her to take some home. I did. I iced down a double batch. Aunt Bessie planned a little better for me. She brought an extra pie that remained in a Longaberger pie carrier under the table until we could put it in the van.

I think Evelyn will be in charge when all the aunts are gone. She seems so dedicated, something no one accuses me of when it comes to the reunion. Evelyn and I did discover one thing in common, though. When I first saw Evelyn on Saturday, I said, “Hey, you’ve got my shirt!” She was wearing a glitzy orange T-shirt studded with gold and sequins—just like mine!

“Well, did you get it at the Wal-Mart?” she asked, and we both laughed.
“I know, next year let’s both wear them!” I said.

When no one was paying attention, Evelyn and I agreed if we covered up our heads, no one could tell us apart. About the same weight and height, recognizable square bottom, same (ahem…) ample bosom, long skinny feet, freckly arms. We are kin. We hugged each other.

Evelyn ought to fry more chicken next year. I said I’d never bring another peach cobbler because nobody ate it. If I had brought that roast and had to take it home, I would not be cooking a pot roast again. One of the aunts-by-marriage said she’d remember to stop by Kentucky Fried on the way next year.

Aunt Bessie said she didn’t need to take up a collection this year because she had money left over from last year to rent the shelter for 2013. A few of the cousins circled up and vowed to bring some chairs that we could all get in and out of since some of the Blairs had such a hard time with the picnic tables and benches. We weren’t just talking about the aunts and uncles.

Tuesday morning, Mom announced that she was cooking a pork roast, butternut squash, and potato cakes for dinner. Dad cut a path down into the ravine and cleared off a third of the bank. When we sat down to the mid-day big meal, Mom said she thought maybe I ought to cook a pork roast for next year’s reunion. Dad said, “There’s never enough chicken.” Dave said there’s always way too much food.

I just hope somebody brings a guitar next year and we’ll sing—like we used to.

***