The Last Best Place on Earth

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.

 

Murphy bit my nose.

I knew it was coming someday, and it was my own fault. She was already in bed, curled up, occupying the space that would hold my feet if that little Punkin’ wasn’t there. I bent down at the foot of the bed to kiss her on the head and she didn’t feel me coming. Bless her, she can’t see, hear nor smell very well,  but most of the time she senses me present. She didn’t hurt me and didn’t growl. It was as close as she could get to biting without biting.

We’ll celebrate Murphy’s fourteenth birthday April 22.

2018-02-17 14.46.21

Jameson Blair Graham, the oldest grandson, will turn fourteen on May 17.  Our little black and white fuzzball Murphy Sweet Punkin’ has been plagued with medical problems, including an autoimmune disease, and has already lived past the average age of demise for a Shih-tzu. In contrast, Jameson is leaned in and fast approaching adulthood. He’s left all pre-teen notions behind and is a bonafide, full-fledged teenager.  He still loves his young cousin, and they think he’s wonderful. He’ll be driving on a learner’s permit in a little over a year.

Yeah, we know what’s coming, and we know it’s coming soon.

We bought a lift chair for Dad yesterday. It is a pretty chair, just the right size for his space, chocolate brown faux suede. LIFT chairDad turns eighty-nine in September. He’s fallen several times since Christmas, the time when his scleroderma started acting out as if on a mission. Some days, he’s needed help to get out of his old favorite recliner–or actually any chair he sits in. His legs won’t hold him up without his Rollator, and several times a day, he can’t even move his feet holding to the walker.

After Sunday Dinner this week, Dave and I made the decision to set the table at the apartment from now on. Mom always writes Sunday Dinner with the two capitals, I think because it’s one of their favorite times at our house.  We set the table with the good silverware and glasses, and we always use cloth napkins–unless we’re eating pasta with red sauce or pork barbecue. Dad was too weak to eat Sunday. It was exhausting to walk those one hundred steps or so to the table, impossible for him to navigate to a chair in the den, and futile to think he could get out of his at-my-house favorite, an old red chenille recliner.

Murphy loved Old Red in her younger years. It’s been a long time since she could jump on and off a chair.Murphy3

Monday morning, he was in the bedroom trying to play Merle Haggard on his new boombox (generously donated on Sunday afternoon by fellow book-clubber Susan) when he fell, punching out the cane back of his sturdy wooden chair. I hurried next door when Mom called. Dave was away from home, but I knew I could call on neighbor Don to help me get him up if necessary.  I found Dad on all fours, trying to crawl across the bedroom to the bathroom. He knew he needed to clean up and change some clothes. With Mom’s help, I convinced him to get his chest against his punched-out chair. It took three tries, but I got him up–and he helped. His voice was so weak I could barely hear him.

Once in the bathroom, he cleaned up as much as he could, holding himself upright by pressing against the clothes dryer. I “polished him off” and then scrubbed down the place, paying particular attention to the washer and dryer that acted as his props. I was reminded to find Mom a dryer since hers quit that very morning.  Later that afternoon, I bought a new dryer at Lowe’s and drove a few miles to Franklin to pick up my newly repaired sewing machine.

The dryer arrived on Tuesday morning.

We moved Dad’s old leather recliner downstairs to his study, a place nobody goes anymore except to water overwintering plants. We got another wooden armchair for Dad’s bedroom and started looking for a sturdy chair for the den, one that might be described as “easy in, easy out.”  Then we put Old Red up for sale, even though it really was the most comfortable seat in the house. It doesn’t match the den colors anyway.

So we’re prepared. We know what’s coming, but we don’t know how soon.

 

TomTom is gone.

I have grieved but not nearly as much as my dad. He made friends with the little grey and white kitten the first time TomTom crawled up the bank from the ravine. Dad was working outside and talked to his new friend every day until the cat was no longer afraid of him. Tom might have been six months old, or maybe just four. 2016-05-05-18-15-04

While Dad strolled around the Compound on his morning walk, Tom followed. Every chance he got, he rubbed Dad’s legs, sometimes winding between them to almost trip him. Dad learned to shake him loose. Tom didn’t mind.

One day I asked Dad if he had seen the tomcat that morning.

“Is he a tomcat?” he asked.

“Yes, he is.”

“You can tell?”

“Yes, I see some things that indicate to me that he is definitely a male.”

Dad named him TomTom, one of his favorite names for cats. He bought a little sherpa-lined bed and stuffed it into a protected spot on the apartment porch. Mom included Meow Mix on her grocery list.

TomTom chose Dave next. One morning, after he took the recycling cans to the street, Dave announced that Tom had let him pet him. I’ll admit I was a bit jealous.

“Well,” I said to Dad, “if that cat is going to stay around, I guess we better take him in for shots. And we need to have him neutered.”

I found a good community clinic with reasonable prices and told Dad I would give him Tom’s veterinary visit for his birthday. He was pleased. Tom wasn’t.

I borrowed a hard crate from a friend and set it outside–“so Tom can get used to seeing it.” Tom took off and didn’t appear until three days later when I returned the crate to the garage. We decided Tom had seen a cat-carrier, probably up close, at least once in his lifetime–and wasn’t fond of the experience.

My hairdresser told me she favored a soft-sided case, that it was easy to sort of “stuff the cat in and zip it up fast.” I started to purchase one, but my daughter-in-law said she’d loan me theirs. I figured I’d give Tom’s reluctance a couple weeks to subside.

He wouldn’t sleep in his little bed on Mom and Dad’s porch, so we moved it to the main house’s porch beside the den. He still wouldn’t use the bed, but he curled up almost every night on one of the wicker chair cushions. During the day, he’d walk or sit with Dad, stroll in the gardens, and nap in the sunlight on the bank or in the shade of one of the porches. He drank from a birdbath that I always filled with fresh water. He hunted up and down the ravine, the old home place he returned to at some point every day.

I started a morning-treat ritual with Tom, and he grew to like me. I gave him a small piece of meat or fish, and when I had no leftovers, I pulled out a small container of purchased cat food that I always kept on hand. After the appetizer, he climbed the steps to the apartment steps and finished off his bowl of Meow Mix.

Tom loved to aggravate our little Shih-tzu Murphy by meowing at her through the glass door of the den. She was always willing to growl, yap, and fuss at him. When Dave took her out for her bedtime walk, Tom either followed them down the street, Murphy barking and pulling at her leash until Dave had to pick her up and carry her away from the cat. Or if TomTom was already sleepy, he’d maybe open one eye from the middle of his warm, curled-up self and totally ignore that silly dog.

About the third week into our newly-cemented relationship, Tom began to walk into The Cellar when I’d open the door. He’d make one loop around the small kitchen area and then he was ready to get back outside. He also let me pick him up. He wouldn’t stay long, and he wiggled, but he didn’t really fight it, and he never scratched me.

I figured he was ready for the trip to the vet.  Easy-peasy this time.

I never got him there.

The last time we saw TomTom was right before the New Year, a couple of weeks after I’d sent out the Christmas newsletter where I included this photo of Tom sitting on a rock in the rose garden. It was also just about the same time that the neighborhood coyote sightings began. First, a woman posted that she’d seen a three-legged coyote. Next, another neighbor spotted one. One family came upon three in their back yard.

I put a Missing Cat notice on our neighborhood website. Several friends and neighbors told me, “He’s just tom-catting around. He’ll be back, and when you get him fixed, he’ll stop that.” In my heart, I knew he wouldn’t be found, wouldn’t be back. In my heart, I knew if TomTom could make it home, he would. He wouldn’t give up his morning ritual, he wouldn’t want to sleep anywhere else but the wicker chair, and he would never choose some other entertainment over tormenting Murphy.

It took me several days of missing Tom to put the pieces together, maybe because I didn’t want to. Actually, Dad said it first. “The coyotes got my TomTom.”

My post is still up on the NextDoor website. Last week, a sweet neighbor replied with a list of places to post notices for a lost animal. I wrote that I thought the coyotes got Tom. She replied she was sorry, and that she’d still look for him.

This morning, Dave spotted a coyote between two birch trees on the edge of our ravine. He said it wasn’t the three-legged one, so that meant there are at least two. I told him about the three seen together in the back yard a couple streets over. He hadn’t seen that post.

So here’s what I wrote on my Missing Cat thread this morning:  “I’m going to take this post down tomorrow morning. A coyote was in our back yard just now. Everybody, watch your animals.”

 

 

 

 

Day 18–Granny Ada’s Birthday!

My tiny great-grandmother, Ada Shoemake, was a hoss.
Her husband Johnny died young, and she remarried a man from the community. But she decided right away that she’d made a mistake and she didn’t live with him. I really don’t know if she ever got a divorce. She raised her kids by herself. She never had a haircut, wore a gingham-checked bonnet and a hand-sewn, button-front long-sleeved dress, and laced-up leather shoes. “Hand-sewn” means the whole dress was made with a needle and thread. She had one pattern. She kept her own garden and animals, and she slept with a shotgun beside her bed.

She was born on August 18, 1891. 2014-08-19 07.16.33

August 18 has always been something of a seminal date for me. I can always count on August 18 for an extra dose of quirkiness during my birthday month, and it’s always been a good day to make a decision or start a project. I always notice that date when it comes up in a novel. The first book that comes to mind is The Bridges of Madison County. I don’t remember what happened on that date, but there was somethingm important. Every person I’ve ever known who was born on Granny Ada’s birthday has been a bit, well, wild. I must not name names.

I did not choose the eighteenth day of my birthday month to plant one hundred fifty iris roots. The date chose me. Mom and I planned to make a jaunt to an orchard about an hour away to bring back Gala and Granny Smith apples.

Dad took the fifty-foot line of bearded varieties out of the ground last week. I convinced him to leave the clumps just a foot from where they were planted so that we could keep the colors half-way straight. I thought my job was to divide the clumps and drop the new plantings where they were to be seated, something I could do a little at a time over the next three or four days.

Dad divided them before I could get there. I sorted through the piles for the best roots and started dropping them. We reviewed the pattern of planting.

“See how I’ve got these laid out in triangles?” I asked.

He nodded, just about half-way. “You better stay out here with me. I won’t do it right if you don’t. I’ll make a big mess.”

“Dad, I can’t stay here all day,” I said. “I’ve got so much to do on the butterfly bed. I’ll cut the flags back and place them where you need to plant.”

“When I get this done, I’m going to put those red hot poker plants into that bed.” He nodded at a twelve by five-foot plowed and bordered spot where he’d had cosmos, zinnias, and marigolds this year.

He planted the first six iris bulbs, which are technically not bulbs at all but rhizomes. Long, thin roots stuck up in the air, a couple were too deep in the ground, and some weren’t in the ground at all.

“Uh, Dad,” I said, “I think maybe you should start cutting the flags back and I’ll plant.”

“Good idea.” He sat on the bank edge of the bed and tried to get his big fingers into my scissors handles. “This won’t work. I’ve got to go get something I can cut with.” He ambled down to his garage and came back with some huge bolt cutters.

“That ought to do it,” I said.

He picked up one rhizome at a time and cut the blades back, letting the long leaves fall back into the bed. I kept poking irises into the ground and tamping them down with my spade. The ground was too well-tilled for me to scoot across it on the ground, so I stood and bent. When I mopped sweat from my eyes for about the tenth time, I excused myself to get a headband and a drink. I called Mom and told her we’d plan to go to the apple orchard after her orthopedist appointment Tuesday. She thought that was a good idea.

I came back to the iris bed with a sweatband under my visor, a jug of iced tea with a straw, and a bandanna tucked into my left pocket.

“Dad, you know, it’s going to be difficult to pick up all these blades if you cut them into the bed.”

“Yeah, but it’s a lot easier for me to cut them and let them fall there.”

“Well, somebody is going to have to get into the bed with a wheelbarrow, and then pick them out of the loose dirt.”

When he didn’t answer, I said, “You know what? I think you should go ahead and work on those poker plants, and I’ll just work on these as much as possible today. I’ll just let this be my project.”

“Okay.” I took note of the delight in his voice.

About noon, I went inside to my couch recliner in The Cellar and flopped out in front of the fan. “Gotta rest,” I told Dave. He was working on some shelves for the pantry area. “Gotta cool off. Then I’m going back outside.”

“You better stay in for a couple hours. It’s too hot for you to be out there.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled, “I guess you’re right. I’ll throw some lunch together.”

“What are you cooking?”

“There’s some fajita meat in the refrigerator. I thought I could fry up some of those sweet green peppers and some onions and we could eat it rolled up in a tortilla with some fresh tomato on it.”

“That sounds good. You want me to go upstairs and get the meat?”

“Oh, the meat’s down here in this frig, but you could bring down some shredded cheese and an onion. And a couple tortillas.”

The aroma of that cooking mixture was divine, and Dave said so.

“Hey,” I said, “would you call Mom and ask her if they want some of this? It’s late, they’ve probably already eaten, but let’s ask anyway.”

They did, so Dave ran over to the apartment with a small casserole dish and more tortillas.

My courage returned when I had eaten, so I headed back outside and finished the row. I packaged up the remaining tubors, more than I’d just planted, and numbered them as they’d been dug up. At least we’ll have some shot at identifying the color and name. There’s a guy two streets over who wants irises! I cleaned up the piles of trimmings, dumped it all, and gathered up tools.

“I can’t sit down anywhere,” I told Dave. “I’m too dirty. I have to get in the shower.”

Yep, I was dirty, and I was tired. In the South, we call that kind of tired, “tard.”

Everyone who knows my mother and knew Granny Ada says Ethel Shoemake Blair is just like her Granny Ada. The word they generally use is “feisty.” My great-niece, Everley Diane Drew, was born on August 18th.Everley's FirstDayK She turned five this year, the fiery little redhead, and she started kindergarten on her birthday. The people who might be inclined to include “feisty” in their vocabulary would say Everley is feisty.

No one has ever said I’m like my great-Granny Ada, and when I finished that line of irises, I wasn’t feeling anything like feisty. But I knew I’d picked a good day to start–and finish–a project. And I was pretty sure I exhibited strong signs of hoss-dom, even if I could barely walk to the bathroom.

 

 

I’m no poet.

Some days I’m not sure I’m even a writer.  Writers are like that.

But Monday I took a small carton of blackberries to my friend and she wrote on a social media post: “Yum. Home grown blackberries with a little cream and raw sugar. Thank you, my sweet fruit fairy…”

Along with the blackberries, I shared a little ditty with her. She is a poet, a real one, but the fruit fairy was unashamed.

 

His Best Thing

 

I think blackberries are my dad’s best thing. Better than best, maybe best-est. Perhaps most best.

His briar patch is a twenty-foot arbor on the southwest side of our house.

He built it the spring after we all moved to the new place.

It might be a pergola, or maybe a trellis, but he named it Arbor and it stuck,

The propping place for fruit-heavy branches and gravity-driven berries on tender vine tips.

 

He stretched galvanized two by four-inch farm fence through its middle and across its top,

Secured in spaces on four-by-fours,

Sunk deep in the ground

To the credit of a post-hole digger he brought from the farm.

 

He offers them one non-negotiable itinerary–up and out–

And they don’t mind going there,

But old habits of reach and arch point them groundward.

They see by his wire that all they’ll get is a proper path built for their own good.

They repent, and bow to the farmer’s convenience.

 

I collect at the bottom. Think I don’t know what they say about low-hanging fruit?

I’ll always pick it first, unimpressed by gossip.

Sometimes, easy-does-it hides big treasures.

Besides, they contradicted themselves when they said

“Don’t step into a briar where a snake might lurk to strike.”

Once I saw one in my dad’s blackberries.

Skinny grass-green Flash tripped over my flip-flop, made me laugh.

 

To fill my basket takes six passes.

Once each side that-away looking down,

One this-away looking up (which makes four).

Two more trips, one each direction,

Flat-footing a rusted vintage chair, non-wobbly against a thick post.

I figured the top gatherings shouldn’t count for more than two passes,

Although–The twenty-steps afoot do require two moves of the ladder for each side,

Six mounts and dismounts, too.

 

If I wanted, I could count as trips the shorter jaunts between the makeshift scaffolding.

I could. The truth is these are my berries now.

I decide—to pluck or to leave,

Jam or jelly, canned or frozen, cobbler or double-crust, fresh or later.

Are they sweet this year? I take the largest one, let the taste linger.

No, my berries are tart, not at all like my dad’s, nothing to remind me of him.

 

Some say to stand on a rusty chair instead of a stepstool is to welcome a fall.

Sometimes, often, I think they’re right.

Picking across the top takes practice and balance,

And vision adapted to a peripheral gaze across a close horizon.

Within my reach waits a sturdy brace,

Sunk deep in the ground

To the credit of a post-hole digger he brought from the farm.