Yesterday I really thought Dad was dying. He wasn’t comfortable. If he was sitting, he wanted to go to bed; if he was in bed, he wanted to get up again. He’d sit on the edge of the bed for a long time; he lingered at the bathroom sink washing his hands and then grew still as if asleep or even dead just standing—He was slowing down; it took him forever to eat a sandwich, hours, head bent, sometimes asleep, eyes closed, toothless chewing and chewing. Teeth only go in now if he’s going to the doctor and then they stay in all day. “I don’t want to die. Nobody wants to die,” Dad said to me the other day. Nobody is pretending. At the doctor’s, “This is hospice care now,” she said in his presence: “If he wants a Doctor Pepper, he can have a Doctor Pepper.” And I do make what Dad likes. Eggs and potatoes, jellied buttered toast—Mashed potatoes and gravy, tapioca pudding with sliced bananas and whipped cream on top. Kick out the jams! Yesterday Dad groaned getting into bed and lay on his side. When he looked comfortable, I went upstairs, but he called me back immediately. “Donny!” he yelled. I hurried down the steps bracing myself to look at him, eyes open, hand still on the blanket—I thought he was dead, but then, “Call Cathy,” he said and I did and Cathy came quickly—she only lives a mile away further back in the mountain in a beautiful colonial sandstone house that really is something. Cathy sat on the edge of the bed and took his pulse. “I’m tired of this,” Dad said. “I want it over with.” “If you want to go, Dad, go, don’t let us stop you.” Dad kissed her hand and lay there for a while like that, Cathy by him, me at the end of the bed standing. Then Dad had to go to the toilet. I am preparing myself for that moment when he can no longer get up, but so far so good. He uses his walker. I let him wipe himself first, and then I wipe him. Before I began all this, I said to myself, “What are you going to do?” And then you just do it. I helped take care of several friends when they were dying of AIDS; I’ve been urinated on; I’ve cleaned up folks before in all the special places, but it is different with your father. When I’m wiping shit off his testicles, I can’t help but think that is where I came from and it gets very intimate, very personal, very private. I have a dear friend who told me when he was wiping shit out of his bedridden mother’s vagina, he thought of how he used to clean his infant daughters, parent-child remembering. We end where we begin, Is that how it is? In my adult years I’ve called my father “Dad” not “Daddy” like I did when I was a kid. I find myself calling him “Daddy” again. My brother Scott came and I went outside and said to him, “I thought Dad was dying today. I almost called you.” Scott looked in the window and then looked at me with a look that said, Are you kidding? “He is eating pie with whipped cream,” my bemused brother said to me. “What?” I looked in the window too and there Dad was, fork full of pie, under the lamp light, sitting at the table ready to play Checkers with Cathy.
Evening. Dad’s pond.
Wet leaf on a limestone road.
The days have often been foggy. Walking you could be anywhere at anytime; it wouldn’t be that surprising if a dinosaur or Jack the Ripper walked out of that mist–not that you’re scared. The crows caw like they have always cawed. There is a cold slight rain, just enough to cancel a long walk. I did not watch or read any news today, but watched slate colored finches come to the feeder flitting and hopping from the ground to the feeder to a branch of hemlock individuals in one motion connected as if by puppet wire or better yet a conversation bringing them together giving them their direction. They have gray wings and white bellies and at first seem very common until you look at them. Almost everything is beautiful when you look but not everything.
The fog continues here in the South Mountain. Day number three. On day one, Dad fell asleep during the inauguration and I turned it off. I would catch DT’s speech later on C-Span, but I was not watching it while it was happening. Folks around here kind of brag to you that they don’t watch or read even the local news except for the sports and the obituaries; they do catch a bit of it on the radio, however, which tends to be white Christian conservative; they live in an insulated world, and know the thoughts their friends share with them at the weekly Bible study for example. When it comes to Trump, they don’t want to hear about him or discuss him. And they are adamant about that. One woman I know began singing, “I’m not listening; I’m not listening,” when I wanted to talk about the “carnage” lie DT spoke during his inauguration speech. Nor did she want to know that “America first” was a pro-Nazi anti-semitic slogan in the 1930s. But as I walked through the fog yesterday the sadness in my spirits was changing, becoming happier and clearer; inside I knew where I was. The fact that so many of my friends and relatives were marching in various cities: DC, Philadelphia, Seattle, Charleston, NYC, San Francisco to name a few was so heartening and even healing, I was grateful from the bottom of my heart and plan tomorrow morning to do some phone-calling not to my senators and congresswoman, who will vote as I would vote, but to others like Marsha Blackburn, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell—oh they are going to hear from me. Continually. On Meet the Press this morning, Chuck Todd called out Kellyanne Conway when she said that the Trump folks had “alternate facts”; “alternate facts” were “falsehoods” Chuck Todd said to her—Why the hell wasn’t he saying that to her during the campaign? Folks in the media seem unable to say the word “lies” yet. But finally they are working up to it.
Dad has had a fall and his arm is hurting. I hold him gently by the wrist and rub some BenGay in. He Oooos and Aaahs not in delight but pain—Skin and bone is what Dad is. In the old days he was strong always cutting firewood, clearing brush, holding a chainsaw, stacking logs. There was an Irish walking stick somewhere at someone’s house or club that nobody could bend and break until my father picked it up and snapped it in two. I’m sure this is true because Mom used to proudly tell the story. Dad sits on the edge of the bed and calls Cachito, “Hey, buddy!” From behind the couch Cachito comes—he has been lying next to the radiator. I put the sheet and comforter over them as Dad groans and Cachito curls next to him. The last blanket has John Wayne on it with the words THE DUKE above. John Wayne is—I guess we all know—fake news. He never fought in WW II, but because he played soldiers who did and cowboys too the man became an American hero, a myth. Truth is John Wayne didn’t enlist because he was having an affair with Marlene Dietrich and didn’t want that to end. Many actors in Hollywood like Tyrone Power, Jimmy Stewart and even Sabu joined and served. In fact, because he was short, Sabu became a ball turret gunner on B-24 Liberators on so many missions he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross after the war. The generous Marlene Dietrich risked her life too leaving John Wayne to perform for the troops on the front in Eastern Europe and Northern Africa making love to many young soldiers, no doubt, along the way while her new lover Jean Gabin smiled and waited. When Dietrich died in 1992, they put the French flag on her coffin in Paris; on the train to Berlin the American flag was placed, and then the German when she was laid to rest, three flags on one coffin, the real thing. Some say John Wayne’s alcoholism and belligerent flag-waving later on was a direct result of the guilt he felt. An alternative fact, John Wayne in a cowboy hat lies on top of my Dad who enlisted in the Navy the day after he graduated high school by the way. John Wayne moves a little bit with every heavy breath Dad has, a frayed image on a cheap blanket. Who remembers Sabu? I do.
Seven pretty pictures all pretty much about the same thing: a bright windy day very different from the cold foggy wet rainy freezing frozen days that preceded them. Dad’s pond, South Mountain.
Today was very busy, very full; I may write about it tomorrow. Today was also beautiful. Just a few photos from the beginning of a walk. Bright and warm enough to have the coat unzipped but windy enough to have dead branches come falling down with a thud crashing, crumbling and breaking on the ground; they could have done some damage had they fallen on my head but it was also a lucky day and they didn’t.
Cathy told me to give Dad Imodium the night before he goes to the VA because he gets very anxious. My father has always been anxious, but in old age more so. I have been anxious myself most of my life, but I think I have learned that whether I am anxious or not I get through whatever I am anxious about and often it goes quite well and if it doesn’t so what? The Imodium? I forgot. My father got up at 5:30 this morning in anticipation of his 10:15 appointment, a simple taking of blood to see how his Coumadin is doing. Dad sat playing checkers with himself, but had to go to the bathroom suddenly racing with his walker. He didn’t make it, and I found my bare-bottom father still playing checkers when I came down. It wasn’t bad though: his pants were a mess, but a soak and a wash would take care of that; and he managed to get his Depend off and clean himself well I could see as I checked him here and there and gave him a little scrub, but he had already done a good job. Still Dad was anxious about getting to the hospital. Would he have another accident? He was breathing heavily and moaning as he got into the car. At the end of the driveway, I asked, “Do you want to go or don’t you?” “Let’s go,” he said and off we went.
I think the Lebanon VA is very good. Dad never has to wait long and the staff is nice to him. We were finished in 15 minutes. Coming down on the elevator there was a man who was probably my age, overweight who obviously had done a lot of smoking and drinking because his face was ravaged and bitten, his nose decaying away, and just standing there took his breath in quiet gasps as he said, “I was glad to see Trump this morning. If Obama was still hanging in the lobby, I would have thrown him in the garbage.” Those around him said nothing or smiled, one thin old man in a cap laughing when the wheezing vet continued: “I am too old to be politically correct.” No one else said anything and I wondered what everyone else did think. We kept our thoughts to ourselves. In my younger days I may have opened my mouth, but I understand now not to start. Reason needs more time than it takes to get from the second to the first floor. Walking out to bring the car, I marveled at the clouds filling the blue sky rolling dark and white, vast and wide above the parking lot.
The Lebanon VA has been here my whole life. Because everything has been cut down into acres of vast lawns and parking lots, and because beyond the hospital itself farmers’ fields surround it, you can see the Lebanon VA for miles. The first time I remember it I was a child. It is going to sound like a miracle, but the story I am going to tell is true. I am not sure what time of the year it was, but there was snow and it was cold. My uncle who had come back from the Korean War was living with us, Uncle Al. He was going somewhere and went out to his car surprised to see a man fiddling in the driver’s seat wearing a robe and pajamas and some shoes, I’m sure, because he could not have made the journey in slippers. My uncle asked the man who was trying to start the car without a key to come inside because he was shivering. My mother drew a bath for him and while he soaked she looked through his clothes and saw the label of the VA hospital on them. My father hid all the knives in the kitchen and after the man had dressed in some of his clothes my mother and my father sat at the dining room table and played canasta with him. He was a very good card player mother said later. Uncle Al took me to my grandparents and called the VA. Nurses came for the man who got up when he saw them and left as calmly as he had come. How that man got from the VA hospital to our house is something to think about. He would have had to have walked over the mountain. He could’ve easily gotten lost. Why hadn’t he frozen to death? Why wasn’t he frostbitten? Why hadn’t anyone seen him on the open stretches of road past miles of snowy fields? How had he out of nowhere come to our home?
My father is and my mother was hospitable, and some folks including their children might say, “They were generous to a fault.” My mother wasn’t afraid of anyone either. When I was a kid the house we lived in was miles from anyone alone on a mountaintop along Route 322 meandering following the contour of the mountain down into Cornwall. If someone stopped and needed help, my parents helped, my father with a chain pulling someone out of the mud or my mother with a plate of food for a bum. Mother often told a story she had heard about a woman who was very kind, but one day when she was very busy, a hungry hobo stopped, and she said, “I’m sorry.” As he walked away she saw there were nail holes in the palms of his receding hands; it was Jesus and mother didn’t want us to forget that.
Mother wasn’t even afraid of snakes. One time at a barbecue with her girlfriends she saw a black snake in a sapling by the spring house and pulled the snake out holding it in its middle so that the snake swung out in space, its upper part trying to bite her, but she only laughed and walked through her friends parting like the Red Sea for Moses depositing the snake in the cellar. “It will eat the mice.” she informed her quivering friends.
Going from the VA, we stopped to pick up Aunt Nancy who was waiting for us on the porch coming quickly with a bag full of cookies walking on her cane. “Isn’t the day beautiful?” she asked me and I agreed driving through Goose Town taking that way to Minersvillage so they could see the new houses and talk about how things had changed. Suddenly Dad got agitated and said to Aunt Nancy completely out of the blue: “Trump said he wants to go to Iraq and take their oil. We have 5000 soldiers in Iraq and Trump is making the Iraqis think they are there to take their oil. Trump is putting our soldiers in danger. They’re sitting ducks and for what?”
“Dad,” I say, “calm down. I am the one who’s supposed to get angry.”
“He’s crazy,” Aunt Nancy said as I remembered the cocktail party Sunday night at the White House that Trump had for a bipartisan crowd of politicians. I saw footage of it on television. At this party Trump went among both Democrats and Republicans telling them that he had won not just the electoral votes, but the popular votes as well because five million illegals had voted for Hillary Clinton. If you look at the look on the faces of the senators, the congressmen and congresswomen—Schumer, Pelosi, McConnell, Ryan—each has a frozen smile as they listen and look just like those Roman senators must have looked with an outer smile but an inner trembling listening to Caligula thinking, “The emperor is mad.”
When we get home, I get them seated at the table, serve coffee, coconut custard and the short breads that Aunt Nancy brought, and leave to walk in the woods seeing new birds at the bird feeder first, chickadees and one that grabs the vertical like a woodpecker, take pictures of the beautiful day, and write to you just now. This has been the day so far.
Good morning. Resist. Don’t stop. There are sanctuary cities. Be a sanctuary yourself.
Last afternoon walk for a while in the South Mountain. My sister Peggy will be taking over and I will be returning to New York—seeing how things go I will be back in March.
The universe must know I am home. Here it is almost six and some folks are putting on a light show in La Plaza. Is that real ice? Part of me is still in Pennsylvania; I walked by the sofa just now and thought Cachito was sleeping on a pillow; it was only a shadow.