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.


Nicknames (2)

The person with the most nicknames might be my mom, which makes sense since Dad has known her longer than almost anyone. As far as I can tell her first nickname was “Snake,” short for “Snake Hips.” She was really slender when she was young, and I can remember him calling her that when I was a little kid.

At some point, probably when I was in middle school, he started calling her “Opal.” Mom did not like this nickname, as its origin is a funny, but sexist joke that goes something like this: An old Kentuck and his buddy were sitting around a campfire drinking moonshine and telling lies while watching the comings and goings of Opal, the Kentuck’s wife. Opal was frying fish over the campfire and otherwise waiting on the men hand and foot, whenever her husband would call her over. “Opal, bring us some more whiskey!” “Opal, come pull off my boots!” “Opal, come throw some wood on this fire!” After a while, the frying fish smelled a little too hot to the Kentuck, and he called, “Opal, come turn these here fish!” Opal complied by hurrying over with the spatula and flipping the fish over. They were black underneath. “Well,” remarked the Kentuck to his friend, “reckon I should have called her sooner.” Even though she didn’t like it at first, the name “Opal” stuck, and my mom learned to live with it. She is nothing if not a good sport.

“The Dowager” is another moniker that Dad has hung on my mom, probably in the last twenty years. I think he just likes the word and likes teasing my mom about getting older and the likelihood that she will outlive him and inherit the “estate.” My efforts to convince him that this nickname is illogical since he is still alive have been in vain.

In one of my early posts I asserted that my dad isn’t acquiring new material for his vernacular, but that is not entirely true. He keeps his ear to the ground and adopts new lexicon when it suits him. An example is the most recent nickname that he has bestowed on my mom: “Lady Gaga.” Where he learned about Lady Gaga, I can only guess. The Today Show? Anyway, it’s not because of her singing voice or her outlandish costumes. It’s just that my mom has dementia and is kind of ga-ga, and she’s the first to recognize that her brain doesn’t work as well as it used to. But her grand sense of humor is still intact, and she can laugh at herself, and she still thinks my dad is funny (sometimes) after more than 57 years of marriage.