The Fox

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.

***

Things I’ve Kept

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.

Goodbye, Wichita Lineman

Glen Campbell died on my birthday.

Driving home after birthday greetings, giggles, jokes, and toasts with my writing tribe, I thought how there was never a time I didn’t like Glen. He wasn’t anything like a heartthrob; he was just the consummate performer and he, or somebody working for him, knew how to pick a song.

When I heard Wichita Lineman for the first time, I had just finished my first year at San Jose State and decided to set out my sophomore year in Lewistown, Montana. The California college system had decided I was an out-of-state student, even though I hadn’t left California when Dad took a church and teaching position in Montana during my senior year at Pittsburg High School. I had to pay out-of-state tuition–in arrears–before they’d give me my grades.

I’d broken an engagement. I was emotionally adrift in a place as foreign to me as the moon. Mom and Dad did their best to take care of me. Dad and I decided to drive to California in his brown Dodge station wagon to move my “things.”

I don’t recall what we moved but I remember the car was full from the rear door to the front seats. We drove straight through Nevada, with only occasional stops for meals and a few naps.

We stopped for breakfast in the little town of Blackfoot, Idaho. We’d been on the road for about twelve hours, just about two-thirds of the way home. I know it was Blackfoot because we started talking about the Blackfoot Native American tribe before we hit the city limits. Mom and Dad had taken three little boys from Great Falls as foster children at Christmas time and they were “half-American Indian and half Chinese.” At that time, there was no information about their tribal heritage; we could only speculate.

“Is it possible the boys might be Blackfoot?” I asked.

“I suppose so,” Dad said. “Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve heard Cree, Creek, Blackfoot, Lakota. I don’t think anybody really knows.”

When Dad pulled in the gravel parking lot a little before 6:00 o’clock, we noted on the sign outside that the place was open from 6:00 a.m. one day until 3:00 a.m. the next. Our waitress, also one of the owners, brought coffee to the table before we sat down. She said their long hours gave them the after-bar business, and it was the only early-morning breakfast spot within a good radius. She and her husband took turns sleeping for more than the three-hour break, allowing for one of them to always be onsite. She seemed happy–and proud.

“Whatcha gonna eat this morning?” she asked.

Dad sighed. “Whatever you want to cook. I’m more interested in this coffee.”

“How about some bacon and eggs–or would you rather have ham–our ham is good–or I’ve got some good kielbasa, and how do you want those eggs?”

I answered this time. “Bacon and eggs, scrambled, and toast.”

“I’ll try some of that kielbasa,” Dad said. He didn’t say how he wanted his eggs and she didn’t ask.

“I’m gonna bring you a pot of coffee,” she said, on her way to the kitchen window.  She didn’t hang her order on the clothes pin line, just handed it through the window to her husband and whispered.

She turned toward the jukebox against the front wall of windows and fished some coins from her apron. “We need some music. I won’t play anything too rowdy.” Then she picked up a pitcher thermos from behind the counter and set it on our table.

“I like him,” she said. “Glen Campbell. By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”

I nodded. “I like him, too.”

“He can sure play that guitar,” Dad said.

When she left, I said, “Funny how he sings traveling songs.”

“All of them?” Dad asked.

“Well, Gentle On My Mind is about a guy jumping trains. And this one is he’s on his way to Phoenix.”

“Hadn’t thought about that.”

By the time the steaming plates arrived, we’d all moved on from Glen Campbell. I don’t remember what else played. The man stepped out of the kitchen, reached behind the jukebox, and turned the volume down.

While we were eating, the place filled up with working men and two more waitresses tied on aprons over white polyester dresses. There were no other women except for me. I felt obligated as the new target of ogling and sat up straight in my chair. A new waitress removed our dishes and we poured the last of the coffee.

“Are we rested enough to get on the road?” I asked. “I’ll drive.”

“Yeah. Let me finish this cup of coffee. We better hit the restrooms before we leave.”

About that time, a burly bald-headed guy at a table yelled, “Hey, Jack, turn that up.”

“Jack” stepped out of the kitchen again, wiping his hands. “I’m busy back here,” he said. But he turned up the music and we heard, “And the Wichita lineman is still on the line.”

“Make it play over,” Mr. Burly said. “That song’s about me.”

Somebody across the room said, “This ain’t Wichita,” but Jack pulled the plug on the machine. “Somebody needs to get over here and feed it some dimes. I’m busy back there.”

Our waitress sat her coffee pot on the top of the jukebox and fished out some more coins. “Alright, I’m paying,” she said, “but somebody needs to get over here and pick out.”

Burly obliged, pulling up his Duckheads as he punched numbers.

Dad reached in his pocket and laid some bills on the table. “We better get going.”

“Shhhh, shhhh,” I said, “that’s Glen Campbell. That’s his new song.”

Go ahead. Play Wichita Lineman.

I got up and headed for the ladies’ room when I heard, “…and I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.” I didn’t cry until I got in a stall.

I feel the same way about Glen Campbell that I remember feeling when John Denver died. I didn’t know how much I’d miss him until he was gone. Wichita Lineman ranks right up there with the best songs ever written and, without doubt, Jimmy Webb, its penman, in the top ten songwriters, maybe five. He lucked out, or maybe he was just smart, when he chose Glen Campbell to interpret his songs.

Trish Yearwood sings a Hugh Prestwood song called The Song Remembers When. The song testifies to the way that music can instantly–and intensely–give rise a memory that hasn’t shown itself in years. Funny, the woman in the lyrics says she was “standing at the counter, waiting for some change” when it happened:

Still I guess some things we bury
Are just bound to rise again
For even if the whole world has forgotten
The song remembers when
Yeah, and even if the whole world has forgotten
The song remembers when.

I know what she means.

 

 

 

 

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.