The March family birthdays came and went. Grandson Evan turned FIVE on March 2, a Monday. Mom and I got our annual physicals from Dr. Linda Bonvissuto that day. Dave had an assortment of doctor visits the rest of the week, so we planned to take Evan a present the next week.
China was overrun by the Coronavirus, more accurately identified as Covid-19. We had a few cases, and one of them had died on February 29.
I called my son John on March 7, his forty-fifth birthday. He seemed more surprised to be forty-five than I was to be the mother of a son that age. For some reason I can’t remember, I talked to my ex-husband the same day. He asked me, “Can you believe we have a forty-five-year-old?”
“No,” I said, “because, in my mind, I’m just forty-five.”
I remembered my fiftieth standing in my kitchen together when I solemnly told my mother, “I cannot be fifty years old.”
She answered, “Of course, you can’t, Darling. I’m only fifty-five.”
Our sons and their wives could not come up with a suitable March date to celebrate birthdays. The first half of the month, The Compound oldsters were taken up by physician visits and procedures. The kids and grandkids were so busy we decided to have birthdays for March and April at the annual Easter Soiree at The Compound. Jerry Wong’s birthday is March 29th and Vicky’s April 5. We’d have a big party!
The Easter gathering is a B.I.G. event. The grandkids show up in their finest, the girls wearing dresses I make. We hunt eggs, play games, and everyone gets a prize. Last year, we whacked the Easter Llama and wondered if that might be considered an inappropriate observance of the death and resurrection of our Lord.
This year, Carly, Savvy, and I shopped for patterns and materials in February, giving Grammy a good two months to get the outfits finished. This year’s color is lavender and the style is Fancy. We settled on a satin dress with a cut-out heart on the back and an overlay of tulle on a big skirt. Savvy’s mom, Anjie, and I really wanted more sparkle on that bottom but the price of sequined or patterned sheers was wild. Savvy and Carly seemed fine with the plain tulle.
By March 10, we suspected our Easter assembly might be iffy. Vicky and I talked about how we were going to handle the fittings. We thought maybe I could hang the dresses outside when I had them ready to alter, Vicky could pick them up, mamas could pin appropriately and hang them back outside for some of us to pick up, drop off, etc.
I decided right then I did not want to sew the expensive material this year. The lavender frock would have to wait until next year, but squirreled away in a bureau downstairs, I knew I could find cotton to sew some casual get-ups which, if they fit or didn’t, things could be fine.
Vicky told me she and her bunch were taking extra-precaution and were severely limiting their exposure to the virus. The President warned to limit group meetings to ten people. Since the virus is especially deadly to seniors, all the residents of The Compound upper section began to take sheltering in place seriously. Neil continued to work since electronics and communications are necessary jobs.
We began to order groceries online, some delivered and some to be picked up. All physician visits for March and April were cancelled, either by the respective offices or me.
We’re pretty well socked in. I’m attentive to everyone’s aches and pains. If it happens, I want to catch it quickly.
Jerry Wong and I talked on his birthday. We all sent greetings and Mom bought him a Walmart gift card. I’m still looking for the perfect piano books! He says he’s doing well but that he has broken his fast of travel for a trip to Walmart. “I didn’t stay long,” he said and assured me that he’s washing his hands and wiping things down with Clorox wipes.
It was no surprise when he asked me about playing Amazing Grace with two hands on his keyboard.
“So do you play G then D?”
I stuttered a little. “I don’t understand what you’re asking.”
The conversation went downhill from there. I’ve taught music but that was not one of my finest explanations. I just didn’t know what he was talking about and not sure that he did, either. I do know where there’s a piano book with an easy version of Amazing Grace.
Vicky wants terra cotta pots for her birthday. I’m going to load up all that I can find here and figure out a way to do some more gardening stuff. Took care of John with a gift card yesterday. Now I have to deliver it. Evan gets another present, and Jerry Wong gets those piano books from Amazon.
We’ve now suffered more deaths from the virus than China. We expect more. Praying for more birthdays.
I’ve had a pretty good Valentine’s Day this year. I was home all day, something as delicious to me as Moose Tracks ice cream. I delivered my cards to Dave and Mom, having signed and sealed them last week. Such early preparation is so unusual for me.
Dave even got a small heart-shaped box of chocolates decorated with a Peanuts scene on the top. It matched my card.
Dave’s order of my Valentine gift did not arrive. He told me he’d tell me what it was if it didn’t arrive by 7:00. It didn’t. What I missed today was chocolate-covered strawberries, one of my favorite things in all the world.
Mom’s friend Gail surprised her with red roses and chocolates–and Mom told me a few days ago that she didn’t have a Valentine.
“Yes, you do,” I said. “You have friends and family and us.”
“I guess you’re right!” she said. “I do have Valentines!”
I didn’t get red roses. No chocolates. No strawberries. But it was a wonderful Valentine’s Day. I can hardly wait to get in bed!
It’s not what you think. It’s the bed!
About a month ago, Dave decided we should turn our mattress sideways, so as to even out the valleys we’d wallowed into the bed, rendering a big hump of a hill in-between the valleys. We turned the mattress, which did not help the way we thought it would–or, at all. It turns out Dave’s personal big ditch, turned sideways, made a hole that rendered getting out of the bed almost impossible. I tried every possible way to navigate the terrain before announcing, “We have to do something about the bed.”
What we had to do was go shopping for a new bed. When we chose the old bed several years ago, we didn’t buy so well. This time, we determined to do better. After all, as someone said, “This is the last bed we’ll buy.”
Jade and Anjie brought home a Sleep Number Bed a few years ago. We were impressed when they said they were still happy with it. In fact, Anjie said, it is still as good as the day they bought it.
Convinced, we made our first and only stop at the Sleep Number shop. It was the last day of the once-a-year sale, so after the presentation and the lying down, rolling around on the bed, and choosing our sleep number, we handed over a credit card and found out we’d have to wait nine days for them to bring it to our house.
We were pretty stoked on the day the new sleeping arrangement was to arrive. Two sweet and efficient delivery men removed our old mattress and set up the new one in minutes.
“Okay, time to learn the remote,” one guy said.
He reviewed the simple operations with me and then asked me to sign for the delivery.
“Okay,” I said, “but why does it sag in the middle?”
“I think your foundation is not strong enough,” he answered.
“Could I put a piece of plywood under it?”
“You could. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. Maybe you call the store first.”
Charlie said he thought it would work, too, but he added we could be responsible if a hose got damaged or the air bladder was in some way affected.
“So we need to buy your foundation?”
“That would probably be best.”
We completed the transaction and Charlie advised me that there would be another delivery fee of $225.
“Is this something we could do ourselves?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah, you could pick it up and install it yourselves. It’s pretty simple.”
“Okay, I want to do that instead of the delivery fee.”
“Well-l-l, since we have to order the item anyway…”
“The delivery fee still applies,” I finished for him.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
We scheduled a delivery date for ten days later. Meanwhile, we couldn’t sleep on the bed because we might damage…that air bladder.
So the foundation arrived today! The old foundation is gone! The bed is on the new foundation! The new comforter and shams are on the bed! I’m so excited!
But the foundation looks a little funny. It’s a two-piece contraption, and one side’s end is different from the other.
I’ll call Charlie tomorrow. Since I can’t see how it could possible hurt, and since I’m a sleepy old Valentine, I’m going to bed. Seriously. Maybe my strawberries will come tomorrow! I’ll yell, “Yippee-e-e-e-e!”
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 whippoorwillHe 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.
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.
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 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.
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. Dad 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.
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.
Dave saw them first and was so excited he stuttered a little. “Two…two f-f-foxes just r-r-ran into the ravine!”
I was too slow that time, but just a couple minutes later, he said, “They’re crossing that big log! Come quick!”
That time I made it to the dining room window in time to spot the two white-tipped bushy tails as they chased up and down the far side of the ravine. They looked like they were playing.
“They must be yearlings,” I said.
“No,” Dave answered, “They’re full grown, just small.”
We haven’t seen foxes in a few years now. The first spring we lived here on the ravine, two mamas had two bunches of little ones. We loved watching them play and grow. And then they were gone. Maybe it was the mange that ran through the skulk, or maybe it was Grandpa clearing brush from the banks of the big ditch. We miss them.
Like my friend Maybelle, I think fox sightings are a sign. I’m going to say that seeing two foxes running through the back yard and down into the ravine is an omen of good to come in this new year.
2017 was a rough year. I thought it was better not to even attempt resolutions because, at The Compound, not only do they not come when you build it, but they don’t cooperate when you plan it too well.
Sounds like Maybelle is a bit weary of resolutions, too, and Maybelle definitely doesn’t want to be a bada**. Check her out. Maybelle says she plans to do the best she can. I can’t fault her for that. In fact, I think I’ll follow her lead.
Maybelle, guess what! We saw foxes in the ravine again. We saw two of them; one for you, and one for me. Happy New Year, Everybody!
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.”
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.
When I shook my top in the bathroom this morning, a full serving of Cap’n Crunch and olive oil crackers floated to the floor. I crave something crunchy; we only thought of carrots and celery today. I managed to sit on the toilet, sort of spread-eagle, and picked up three cereal pieces and half a cracker. I brought them with me to the den. These days I’m popular with Murphy.
I miss cooking. Tomorrow, Dave is going to put a roast in the slow cooker. I’m going to coach him, step by step. And I miss painting. I have a first coat of chalk paint on some chairs and a dresser, and there’s a full lineup of walls, furniture, and cabinets begging for attention. I suppose it will all wait until I can be on my feet, and that’s going to be a little while.
I sit in the one comfortable, one-sided position. I list to the right, then prop up an elbow with a pillow and stick out my left leg. Sometimes the leg wants to rest laterally on the couch, sometimes it would rather hang over the side pointing toward the door to the porch. It’s a humorous picture.
Lying down is much more unreliable. Sometimes there just is no way to stretch out that works. So I just assume my contortionist persona and sit up. Reminds me of Rosemary Woods, Nixon’s secretary who somehow erased eighteen minutes of the tell-tale tape in the Watergate case.I have a much more honorable intention. It’s not necessary to sit or lie pain-free, only to reduce the hurt to a manageable status.
So Dave says I’m a demanding patient. I suppose I am. I have that man stepping and fetching as never before! He feeds me, cleans up after me, and even helps with a shower. (It’s really amazing how unnecessary it becomes to shower daily. I have found I can go four days without that rigamaroll–and, amazingly, I don’t stink!)
Who takes over my management duties for The Compound? Dave. He’s taking on CEO, CFO, and COO all at once, and all of that is more demanding than I am, personally. The man’s a saint.
But now I want to cook. I have to cook. I don’t know for sure what I’m going to make, but I see there are some spent bananas on the counter just begging to redeem themselves in some banana bread–with nuts. Now, if Dave will retrieve the the flour, and the sugar, I’ll be shaking walnuts out of my clothes by bedtime.