He wakes up early. Way before the sun slips over the southern Illinois corn fields. Nestled deep in the covers on the hideaway bed near the grandfather clock, I hear him whistling in the bathroom as he shaves and slides his silver steel comb through his jet black hair. He leans over me and nuzzles my cheeks with the remnants of his whiskers and calls me a “yon yock,” a term of endearment I have yet to decipher. Perhaps strange nicknames are the norm for a man who spent most of his life being called Snooky.

Breakfast is a smorgasbord; Post Toasties with milk, Jimmy Dean sausage patties, farm fresh eggs sunny-side-up and dripping with grease, toast with oleo and apple butter. If anyone left Memaw’s table hungry, they had only themselves to blame.

And then we kneel around Papaw’s chair to pray. Though he’d already prayed for the meal, in his familiar lilting yet muffled manner, “Lord, we’re thankful for this food, dear God . . . ,” this is the real deal. This is the prayer that will set the tone for the rest of the day. Memaw and Papaw always prayed together, each giving voice to their own praises and petitions in words that overlap in a strange sort of harmony, an old fashioned Pentecostal concert of prayer.

Papaw in his overalls, I in whatever Memaw determines will keep me relatively clean and dry. We head out the door with Melinda the Chihuahua in Papaw’s arms, make our way across the narrow wooden porch and down the cobblestone walkway, and then climb into Papaw’s bright red Farm Bureau truck with its truck bed tool box full of the implements of his trade. He’s a gauger, the guy who visits the storage tanks at the various oil leases and pumps out the ones getting full. It’s a dirty, physical job and he rises to the task with a song on his lips:


In the shade of the old apple tree

Where the love in your eyes I could see

When the voice that I heard

Like the song of the bird

Seemed to whisper sweet music to me.

I could hear the dull buzz of the bee

In the blossoms, as you said to me

With a heart that is true,

“I’ll be waiting for you,

In the shade of the old apple tree.”


We stop at some small town diner and he sees someone he knows. I listen as he chats about this or that and smiles his gentle smile at the stories they share. A storm remembered with details of lightning strikes and flash floods that wash out roads and makes his job difficult but seldom impossible. More often, there are easier memories of peculiar acquaintances with equally peculiar personalities. They share tales of the past with an air of wonder and gratitude. He is never coarse or vulgar but one who is “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” At the end of the day we stop for a fill up and he places a call to dispatch ticking off the day’s tally and signing off with “that’s the crop.”

This is how I choose to remember him.

He retired after thirty-five years and got a nice watch. In the early 90s he started falling down a lot. He drug his feet. He hunched over. He almost drove off the road near Griffith and pulled over so Memaw could drive. These things were not normal for my Papaw. In 1996 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Memaw did her best. She helped him eat. Struggled to bathe him and helped him go to the bathroom. For six years, amid her own medical difficulties, she stood by his side and served him with a dignity and compassion beyond her means. Eventually the family realized enough was enough and admitted him to a nursing facility. Into a room he has occupied to this day.

June 1, 2008. His 84th birthday.

My wife and I were married on Papaw’s birthday. He stood in the back of the sanctuary during our rehearsal seventeen years ago yesterday and got choked up when asked what our special day meant to him. Later he nuzzled me with his whiskers and told me to “treat her well.” He is the embodiment of his counsel.

I spoke with Memaw on the phone a few moments ago. She said he didn’t wake up at all today. This is now normal for my Papaw. There’s a part of me that hopes he rests so well because he knows he is loved. Respected. Cherished so much that it hurts . . .


Lost Hours

Tuesday, April 22, 2002. My wife’s parents arrive from Minnesota to spend a few days watching the kids and the house while I’m in Carmel. The kids are so young, their lives so full of fun and frolicking, that they won’t remember “fat dad” beyond the few pictures stashed away in scrapbooks and one wobbly video recording made the previous Christmas in which we hang popcorn strands amid twinkling lights, sing along with Bruce Cockburn’s “Mary Had A Baby,” and wrestle on the couch.

We crowd into our faithful white minivan with its brown leather seats stained with watermelon Kook-Aid and tinted windows spotted with “Have A Grrreat Day!” stickers courtesy of the smiley bank teller and drive to a local buffet – Minnesotans love buffets – and I eat heartily: fresh baked rolls piled high with scoops of honey butter; little meatballs smothered in barbecue sauce; a thick, hand-carved slice of glazed ham; long, steamy uncut green beans; a bowl of vanilla ice cream with Gummi Bears on top. I eat like I always have, fast and furious, talking with my mouth full, bellying up to the heating tables again and again, all the while pushing down the truth that keeps rising in my gut like so much swallowed breath and bile. . . I won’t ever eat like this again.

The next morning I kiss the kids goodbye. They’ve spent the night in mom and dad’s tiny bedroom, a sanctuary in our tiny home, good for bedtime stories about what Brown Bear sees and what Polar Bear hears, where dreams are filled with things-not-scary and grandma’s quilts and stuffed, smiling bears and bunnies are always within arms reach. They rouse enough to give clingy hugs and receive butterfly kisses, and then settle back down as the early-morning light peeks through the worn cotton curtains with flowery patterns that sometimes look like faces, caressing their rosy, smooth cheeks.

Details come easy when one is not heavily sedated.

I’m dressed in one of those too-thin hospital gowns as they wheel me into the surgical suite at 10:30 A.M., 120 miles from my baby blue front door. Pastor Neil goes out of his way to stop by and enlist the guidance of the almighty upon the assembled medical professionals. I like Neil. He’s the only pastor at our church who isn’t all pretentious smiles and pious small talk. His spiritual house is made of splinters and grungy carpet with nary a stained glass window for keeping things docile. He lives . . . truly lives . . . in a world of honesty, bristling amidst the mayhem, and I am grateful for his hand upon my trembling shoulder. A nurse dispenses with the small talk and asks if I’m ready to take a nap. I wonder if I have a choice. “Let’s do it,” I eventually manage and the drugs are pushed into my arm and I close my eyes.

It will be nearly two days before I’m deemed recovered enough to get a room of my own among the general population of patients.

Two days . . .

Like Neo in the real world, just after unplugging, my memories of those hours are patchy. I can’t pull focus on any one moment. A thought: God, I’ve been hit by a truck! I can’t move my arms. Every breath feels like I’m fighting against a pile of rocks on my chest. Someone tells me to take a deep breath and then breathe out on the count of three as they pull a tube, crusted red and then slimy and rotten-smelling, out of my nostril. A young female clad in white and sporting a long braid is guiding my morphine pump behind me as I shuffle to the toilet behind a curtain in a darkened corner. A series of slow-mo laps around the hexagonal nurses’ station, a smile upon my cracking lips and waiving a punctured hand as the nurses prod me on with encouraging words that bounce around inside my reeling head. A large black man in stunning white scrubs challenges me with a mock drill sergeant edge in his booming voice to just try and stop him from pulling me out of bed for another lap. A purple Popsicle melts on the bed tray next to the ice chips and Ensure.

All these images and words shrouded in a fog of timelessness and pain.

For my wife the hours drag by bringing their own burdens. She worries yet prays when a doctor comes out during surgery and says they are waiting on biopsy results from a dime-sized tumor found on my liver. Our faithful white minivan throws a tie-bar in the middle of a busy Indy intersection as she’s driving to fight boredom and loosen her stiff neck, scrounging for something besides hospital food for breakfast. Some old friends, a relocated couple from our church, answer her plea for a helping hand with grace and compassion, picks her up at the dealership and treats her to “the best doggone eggs and hash browns on the planet.” She scrapbooks away the hours trimming picture after picture after picture but not really accomplishing anything. She misses our kids and longs to spend time with her parents but she stays near me until the fevers fade and my mind clears and they wheel me upstairs.

Where the hours aren’t so lost anymore.

Breakfast (freewriting1.12)

Two pounds of bacon – fresh not frozen – direct from the Friendly Local Butcher Shop.

Aunt Jemima pancake mix . . . the kind where you have to add milk and eggs and oil . . . not the “complete” crap.

Orange juice and 2% milk.

Joe and Kody, two of my son’s friends, had spent the night. We’d stayed up until nearly three in the morning playing Dungeons & Dragons on the PS2. Kody, the cleric, went around swooping up all the gold while the rest of us fought our little fingers off. He did heal us frequently, however, so I guess there was that.

Being one not to waste a beautiful Saturday morning, I hauled their carcasses out of bed at the bright-and-early hour of 9:00 A.M. We sat around the table and ate like the adventurers we were, fresh off the hunt and famished. The little ones joined us, as did mom, and we shared stories of furious battles and mighty conquests in the name of good and justice.

Kody had to check in at home so Joe suggested we manipulate the game a bit and steal some of our gold back. We decked out our characters with the best of everything – shiny silver swords and daggers, spells out the wazoo, and enough resurrection stones to keep up alive, relatively speaking, for hours. Kody was pissed at first, but the purse needed a proper divvying and the light of day, clear skies and full bellies eventually made for clear heads and hearts. We battled on and beat the game with ease.

Breakfast never tasted so good . . .

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