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.

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A little bit more about the title and why I chose it

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the noun “vernacular” is defined as, 1. “The native language of a country or region, esp. as distinct from literary language.” (I’m not sure where that leaves Faulkner, one of Dad’s literary heroes.) 2. “The nonstandard or substandard everyday speech of a country or region.” (It’s definitely nonstandard, but more like superstandard than substandard.) 3. “The idiom of a particular trade or profession.” (I’m pretty sure most retired dentists don’t talk like Dad does.) 4. “An idiomatic word, phrase, or expression.” (Or, manner of speech in general?) 5. The commonly used name of a plant or animal as distinguished from the taxonomic designation.” (While they don’t necessarily pertain to plants or animals, Dad’s got dozens of unique terms in his vocabulary, so much so that I find myself interpreting his speech into ordinary English for the uninitiated. For example, in explaining to a cardiologist the chain of events of a heart attack a few months ago, Dad talked about how the “gut wagon” had taken him to the hospital. Blank look on the doctor’s face. Translation: ambulance.) 

As many of us did, my parents received innumerable phone calls during the recent election campaign cycle, and Dad was kvetching to me repeatedly about these political calls. I suggested he not answer them, since he has caller ID and can choose to answer a call coming from a unfamiliar number or whose identity is clearly the RNC or whoever. No, no, no passive aggression for him. He would answer, hoping it’s a warm body on the other end and not just a robo-call, so that he could “lay them out in velvet in the common vernacular.” What, exactly, he would say to the hapless volunteer on the other end of the line, he never specified, but I can imagine it went something like, “Sonny, (or Honey, depending), have you no self-respect? Working for those whores in Washington, pestering decent, elderly citizens in their homes at all hours of the day, trying to scare them with misinformation and lies so they will vote for your candidate? Do you think we can’t read, can’t make up our own minds about the issues? You know, most of us worked for a living and paid our taxes and kept our noses clean so that we could enjoy a comfortable retirement and pass along some of that prosperity to our children and grandchildren. But now, because of the irresponsible, no, criminal actions of those sons-a-bitches, your candidate included, in Washington, we are leaving our grandchildren a legacy of debt from which they will never extract themselves without great deprivation, or a bloody revolution. And you want me to tell you I’ll vote for that prattling fool who’s nothing but a damned politician that would say anything to get elected?” You get the idea. So, “lay them out in velvet” (think, corpse) is a phrase Dad uses for slaying someone with words. The “common vernacular” is not so common, but it is particular to him and the rest of the world be damned. Of course, his approach didn’t stop the phone calls or even slow them down, but it served to amuse him and fire up his passions, which is what keeps life interesting for all of us, at any age.