Small joys

Two evenings ago Dad and I experienced an unexpected interlude of quiet joy after what had been a harrowing day. He had found Mom early that morning unconscious and naked at the end of a trail of blood and excrement that led from her bed to the bathroom floor. After calling the ambulance, Dad had called me in a state of extreme agitation and worry. He was afraid she would die, and he had no idea how on earth to clean up the mess. The ambulance came and took Mom to the hospital where they revived her with lots of fluids and blood products. Turns out she had an upper GI bleed due to taking blood thinners for the past couple of months to prevent the formation of more blood clots in her leg and lungs. By the time I saw her in the hospital shortly after noon, she was alert and comfortable, and completely unaware of what had transpired, where she was or why she was there. In the end, I do not think that is a blessing. It would be much better for someone to understand why she can’t pull out the IVs or just toddle on over to the bathroom. Watching her lie there and have to defecate in the bed despite her strong desire not to do so was heart-breaking. The doctor, a lovely young man that looked like he had just graduated from the eighth grade, but who spoke authoritatively and clearly about Mom’s condition, explained that she was very ill and he enumerated a long list of her problems, some of which were news to us. It sounded dire. After listening to Dad goddamn medicine and the doctor that had put Mom on blood thinners, and explaining to him once again about the blood clots, my brother, Dad and I started talking about options like palliative care, comfort care and hospice for the first time. It was premature to make any decision in that regard, but we all left with heavy hearts and a lot to think about. We had to give Mom a day or two to see how she responded to conservative treatment and bedrest. We did agree there should not be any heroic efforts made to save her if she took a turn for the worse.

Dad and I drove back to his house, poured ourselves a drink, talked things over some more, spinning our wheels round and round. His eternal optimism would bubble up to the surface from time to time, and he would talk about bringing Mom home and things returning to “normal.” I would gently try to encourage him to accept that her quality of life is poor already, and if she didn’t recover well from this incident, the kindest thing we could do for her is to let her go as peacefully and as comfortably as possible. He’s not quite ready to accept that, except as an abstract theory.

We took ourselves to the local tavern for supper, where our entrance was greeted with warm handshakes and inquiries from a couple of guys at the bar as to the state of Dad’s collar bone. One of the guys had been at the dump the day Dad fell and had helped him to his feet and packed him off to home in his car, or as Dad put it, “picked his sorry ass up off the ground.” I was introduced to the dump guy, greeted equally warmly, and Dad and I settled at the other end of the bar to order. Our drinks came, courtesy of the dump guy, and we ordered our food. Pretty soon we heard soft singing coming from the other end of the bar, and it sounded really good. Dad chuckled, and jerked his head toward the other guys. “Ah, they’re singing, just like the old days. That’s nice.” I said they sounded pretty good, and Dad said, “Oh, yeah, those Kentucks got a lot of music in ’em.” So, these were some of the “Kentucks” I had been hearing about my whole life–moonshiners from Appalachia that had moved to northern Wisconsin during Prohibition. According to Dad, you can still find old stills out in the woods. They finished their song, and I heard someone say, “You know who has the best voice around is Doc here.” Dad didn’t hear that, but I nudged him and told him. He just laughed. “Hey, Doc, you should sing a song.” I thought he would demur, but before I knew it, Dad had gotten up from his bar stool and was walking over to them. I jumped up to join him as I heard him start to sing an old Jimmy Driftwood tune that I knew from my childhood. Dad was always playing Burl Ives’ and Jimmy Driftwood’s folk songs on the stereo, in addition to lots of classical music, Barbra Streisand, and Della Reese. You can listen to the original recording of the song “Fi Di Diddle Um A-Dazey” here if you’re interested:

I was amazed that Dad remembered most of the verses. He does have a beautiful baritone voice, and always liked to sing to us kids. When we finished our ditty, the other guys clapped and told us it was fine. They reminisced about the old days for a few minutes, told my dad why they had always liked him, and I finally made the connection about who the second guy was. I had been hearing his name my whole life, but had never met him. He now plows and spreads sand on Dad’s driveway so he can get up the little rise at the end. He assured me he considers my dad “kin” and would never let him get stranded. I thanked him, shook his big rough hand, and Dad and I went back to our stools.

Every now and then I get a glimpse into my dad’s world and the reason he finds living where he does so desirable.  There’s something about singing a silly, happy song amongst sympathetic folks that makes life’s tribulations rest a little lighter on your shoulders.


On death, the afterlife and new cars

Death and dying are frequently on my mind these days because of recent events with my parents, and I assume they are topics that also preoccupy my Dad. Both he and my mom have experienced some potentially life-threatening health problems over the past couple of years, and my mother’s dementia steadily worsens. Couple those issues with their eighty-plus years of age, the death and decline of friends, various stays in hospitals and nursing homes, and the subject of death is bound to be foremost in his mind. While he’s perfectly capable of being absolutely maudlin at times, my dad’s sense of humor does extend also to the subject of death and the afterlife. He is fond of ruminating out loud to his black Lab and best companion Paco, “Paco, Paco, you have it so good. We haul the food to you and the shit away. When you die, you just die, and that’s it. When I die, I have to go to hell yet, besides.” Dad also refers to death as “going to the fields (of ambrosia).”

Despite any preoccupation with death and its imminence, my dad recently bought himself a new car even though it was probably not essential. But, who doesn’t love a new car? I take it as a very good sign that he’s not ready to “go softly into that good night” yet himself. Unfortunately, cars have changed enough in the past few years to create a rather steep curve around learning how to operate a new vehicle. For example, the lack of a key, having to depress the brake pedal in order to start the engine, figuring out how the cruise control functions, and–the biggest frustration of all–the placement of the fuel intake on the passenger side of the car. That discovery unleashed a flood of “pungent vernacular language,” some might say a diatribe, over the absolute idiocy of fixing something that wasn’t broken. Somewhere Dad believes it was written that the gas intake goes on the driver’s side, by God, and that there is no possible good explanation for putting it on the other side, necessitating walking around the car in order to fill ‘er up. Oh, the aggravation of having to take ten extra steps! A month ago I would have told him it was good for him to take those extra steps, given his very sedentary lifestyle. However, in mid-December he fell at the dump, standing right next to his car–lost his balance on icy terrain just turning around and probably broke his collar bone. I say probably because he has opted to treat himself with gin and hydrocodone rather than go to the doctor to confirm the break or not. Why pay $500 just for an x-ray and a sling? So, now I’m not so sure that any extra walking out in the wintry elements is a good thing for him, and I wish I could turn the clock back to a time when their local gas station offered full service. But, then, if I could turn back the clock to easier times, there would be no need to fret about infirmity, death, hell or cars with push buttons.

Weather reports

Winter has come early to Wisconsin, especially to the northwoods. “God’s country” or the “Garden of Eden,” as Dad calls it. I call it “God-forsaken” in the wintertime. When I called him during their first major snowstorm a week or so ago, he reported that the weather was “still and clear–still snowing and clear up to your ass.” On the other hand, if the weather in the southern part of the state is foul, and up north it’s sunny and mild, he tells me they “have an ordinance against” temperature extremes/snow/sleet/rain/hail/fog–take your pick. While he does get a little cabin fever by the end of winter (which didn’t come until May this year), he doesn’t seem to mind just hunkering down in front of the fire and reading the hours away with breaks to check the weather forecast on T.V. Nonetheless, a visit from one of us kids is always a welcome break from the tedium of being “Mama’s little helper.” Last winter I never even made it up there. After the big car accident on Christmas Day, at first I was just a tad leery about driving, period. Once I got my nerve back, the weather just never cooperated. I’d plan to drive up, Dad and I would both study the weather forecast and agree that it wasn’t a good idea due to extreme cold, predicted snowfall, bad roads, etc. I think in addition to the weather being really awful, he just didn’t want me on the road and vulnerable to the vagaries of other idiot drivers again so soon. So, we talked on the phone a lot–largely about the weather.

Watching the weather forecast on T.V. plays a huge role in Dad’s daily routine, and I must admit, I don’t like to go to bed at night without having watched the weather report on the news. And, yes, I know I can go on-line at any time and get an up-to-the-minute forecast. It’s just not the same. The weather people are our friends. Dad even has nicknames for them. The local news programs he watches are broadcast out of Green Bay, and the meteorologists (Dad would never call them that) are “Bright Eyes,” “El Greco,” and “Miss Goodbody.” Except, I believe that Miss Goodbody has moved on to another job and is no longer on the air. That was a sad day for Dad.

Oftentimes, my first awareness of bad weather in other parts of the country where family members live comes from Dad. He really does keep his finger on the weather pulse. “Jesus Christ, it was minus 12 in Denver yesterday! Whatever happened to global warming?” Or, “Christ Almighty, have they been flooded out yet down there in Johnny Reb country? God must be really pissed off at the Baptists.” Or, “Geehovies, it’s over a 100 degrees in Houston! Thank goodness, we got an ordinance against that up here in God’s country.”

What taxidermy has to do with love

A while back I was reading a collection of contemporary Mexican short stories, and one particularly struck my fancy. In fact, I laughed out loud because it reminded me of something weirdly humorous that my dad used to say to tease my mom. Hardly anyone has the wide-ranging sense of humor that he has, so it was particularly delightful to find a common joke between him and a modern Mexican author, and a female to boot.

The short story, Los conservadores, by Ana Garcia Bergua tells the tale of a woman whose husband dies and whose nephew, a taxidermist, offers to preserve the body of his late uncle so that it will not decompose in the mausoleum, but will remain relatively intact for the widow to observe on her visits to her husband’s tomb. The aunt is enchanted and much comforted by the idea, but makes what the nephew thinks a strange request of him: rather than place the embalmed body in the mausoleum, he is to position the late uncle’s preserved corpse in his easy chair in her sewing room in front of the TV, so it will seem as if he never died. (The husband was never much of talker anyway.) The nephew reluctantly complies, and the consoled widow is happy for a while tending to her silent and slowly shrinking late husband. The story goes from the ridiculous to the sublime when the nephew’s fiancee, the daughter of a mortician, falls in love with the hapless corpse, the indignant widow feels scorned and finally banishes the philandering mummy to the cemetery after all.

So, here’s the joke: Dad would remark from time to time that if my mom died before he did, he was going to “send her to Jonas Brothers to get her stuffed” so he could keep her around–you know, as a tribute to what a “trophy” wife she had always been, etc. Dad attributes this line to someone else, who would apply it to any woman that he thought a particularly exemplary specimen of womanhood. For most of his adult life, Dad was an avid hunter and took many hunting trips to the western U.S. and Canada for elk, antelope, moose, bear, bighorn sheep, and mule deer. His house is decorated with quite a “dead zoo” of heads, skins, birds, fish, antlers and skulls–none human. The renowned Jonas Brothers taxidermy studio that he referred to was in Seattle, but there were other studios in Denver and New York as well. In fact, in downtown Denver there is still a tall brick building emblazoned with the Jonas Brothers logo on the side. You can read more about Jonas Brothers at in case any of you are inspired to have any of your trophies, human or otherwise, mounted for posterity.



We Dodged Another Bullet

I haven’t written anything for a while, in part due to my usual laziness when it comes to writing, but there’s another reason as well. I was kind of angry with my Dad for a couple of months after Christmas and having a hard time appreciating his charm and humor. Here’s why. On Christmas Day, Dad, my two sisters and I were involved in a very serious car accident. A drunk driver spun out of control and ran into us as she approached us on a snow-covered road just five miles from my house. It was a violent crash, and several people involved sustained serious injuries, including my sister Mary, who suffered a fractured sternum and bruising to the heart and lung. Dad got really banged up and had horrible looking bruises from his neck to his ribcage on one side and a foot that turned black on the other side. (True to form, Dad refused to be transported to the hospital by ambulance from the scene, saying, “I’ve been biffed around before.”) The two of them were riding together in the back seat. Jenny and I were in front, and we only sustained some bruising and whiplash. All in all, we are lucky to be alive, given the speed and violence of the crash, and the fact that our car flipped over once in the air. Miraculously, we landed on the wheels in the soft snow in the ditch. So, why would this make me angry toward my father? Because, HE WAS NOT WEARING HIS SEAT BELT! “I think seat belts are a good idea, but I’ll be goddamned if the government is going to tell me I have to wear one.” (As you can imagine, the little dinging reminder to fasten one’s seat belt drives him into fits of profanity.) So, he wasn’t wearing his seat belt, and when he saw that we were going to crash, he dove down between Mary’s knees and the front seat as best he could. Now, you can admire such quick reflexes in an 80-year-old man, and I do. However, I figure he became a human missile in the crash, and probably his head slammed into Mary’s chest at some point. In addition to the drunk, I blame him and his bloody-minded libertarianism for Mary’s cracked sternum. At this point, three and a half months later, Mary is getting close to 100% healed up, she has not expressed anger at Dad, he has not expressed remorse but rather some sort of laissez faire amusement at the probability that he caused her injury, and now I always make sure he has his seat belt fastened when he’s in my car. It’s ironic that Dad was quite outraged over the fact that this woman was driving drunk on Christmas Day at 2:00 in the afternoon and had no insurance. “Drunk?! At two o-clock in the afternoon! On Christmas Day! Jesus Christ!” I’m not at all sure he would deem his own behavior in this incident irresponsible, but I sure do. Anyway, I’m over it and focusing on feeling grateful that my whacky family is intact and appreciating all their many wonderful idiosyncrasies.


How to Save the Postal Service and Get Revenge at the Same Time

I don’t think my dad has ever read Don Quijote, but he certainly shares some characteristics with that valiant old man of La Mancha. I was reminded of one of those traits the other day when a postage-paid reply postcard fell out of a magazine I was reading. You know the ones. You can fill them out and send them back to subscribe to the magazine (as a gift, perhaps), and they always fall out onto your lap or the floor or the ground as you anxiously pluck the latest edition from the mailbox. They’re a mild annoyance, and most of us just throw them away or use them as a convenient bookmark. Who would think that such an insignificant piece of marketing material could be reason to wage all out war? Enter, The Ingenious Don Bill Pence of Sawyer Lake. These little bits of cardstock falling into his lap so infuriate my dad that he has taken it upon himself to attempt single-handedly (because I’m pretty sure no one else bothers to do this) to put an end to this offensive practice. His strategy? He mails every single one of them back to the magazine, without filling out any information of course, thereby, according to his twisted logic, causing the magazine to incur unnecessary costs for return postage and wasted time processing the useless documents. And, naturally, my dad does not do all of this quietly and calmly. He rants and raves with a predictable string of profanity every time a postcard falls out of magazine and someone is there to hear it. My questions are these: Does anyone else do this? Do you think the magazine publishers have noticed? If we got a grass-roots campaign going to mail back all of the reply postcards out of magazines, do you think we could save the Postal Service? Do you not agree that this would be an endeavor worthy of Don Quijote?