Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Merciful Man

A nurse came in and began hooking up a new machine. “I thought I was going to get to go home,” Mom said, her voice thick with disappointment. Instead, the nurse connected mother’s dwindling body by tubes to yet another pain pump, and we began to watch her die. Six siblings and their spouses and children—in and out of a small and stuffy hospital room, round the clock, three weeks. It was tense, excruciatingly painful, depressing, exhausting. But none suffered more than Mom. Day after day she moaned, refused her food, stared at nothing, cried, hurt. Nurses said it was time to turn her. As they tugged on the bedding beneath her, she groaned, then cried out as the movement cracked her disintegrating bones. Please leave her alone; no more turning, we pleaded. The nurses understood. There was no more turning. And then one day, with a burst of energy that was shocking and terrifying, Mom sat straight up in bed, her voice hoarse but firm: Help me! 
Mom's doctor was a fine man, a solemn man, a merciful man. Two hours later, Mom’s suffering ended.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

If Only I'd Listened . . .

Among my strongest memories of childhood are those of Dad and the garden. As a kid, I spent a lot of time in the garden, but I seldom did much work. I was more interested in the soft dirt that was good for making mudpies. I was attracted to the organization—freshly weeded plants all in long straight rows. I remember skipping from one end to the other, then back again, delighted by the pathways. Once Dad found a very old dime while hoeing; he pondered who might have lost it—and when? He put the dime in a glass ashtray inside the kitchen cabinet where he emptied his pockets every day. The dime stayed there for the rest of his life.

Occasionally I was required to help out with work in the garden, but more often I helped with the harvest and processing of the fruits of Dad's labor. I spent many afternoons shucking corn. Dad used to tell us that he'd pay $10 to the first person who found a red corn cob. Of course, he knew there wasn't one, and I think I really knew it, too, but I'd look anyway, everytime I peeled the shucks back from the ear. I also had to help string and break green beans. Mom usually did the stringing, and the kids would have to do the breaking. Bushels of green beans. Bushels of corn. We were a big family, and a big, productive garden was essential for filling our bellies. Dad also raised cattle, and in winter months we ate beef. But often in summer the table was stocked with only vegetables fresh from our garden—corn, green beans, potatoes, squash, okra, cucumbers, and tomatoes.

One hot Saturday morning in July, Dad asked me to help him pull corn. I had other plans, but he responded to my complaints with a stern reminder that he was boss. I followed him to the corn patch and began pulling ears to toss into the bushel basket. Suddenly I felt a burning sensation on my arm, and in an instant I was screaming in pain. Dad was soon beside me and calmly explained that I had probably been stung by a packsaddle. He lifted leaves of the corn stalks closest to me until he found the culprit and showed me how it hid underneath the leaf. I didn't care. Tears were running down my face, and I was still screaming. Dad sent me to the house for the comfort of Mom and ice.

On another hot day, probably earlier in the season, Dad told me he needed me to help him hoe the corn. I griped and complained but Dad just handed me the hoe and assigned me a row. He went to work on the row next to me, whistling as he always did, occasionally bursting into song. He loved working the soil under a hot sun. At some point he noticed that I wasn't making much progress, and he tried to teach me the art of hoeing. "Let the hoe do the work," he said. And later in life, when he built my house, I remember him telling me as I nailed studs beside him, "Let the hammer do the work." On that morning in the garden, he tried to show me how to rhythmically swing the hoe so that the blade cut into the soil just below the surface and cleanly cut the weeds. He tried to explain the art of this task that he so enjoyed. But I was thinking that I just wanted to go back inside and call one of my friends on the phone to talk about boys and songs on the radio.

I planted a garden this year—my first garden in many years. I sowed field peas, set out basil, tomato and pepper plants, buried onion sets and potato eyes, and dropped seeds for cucumber, squash, watermelon, and pumpkin. Then I took some time off for a summer tradition—travel. Dad used to love summer vacations. He took us to Florida or Carolina beaches nearly every year, once to Washington, D.C., and another time west to the Grand Canyon. Regardless of where we went, one thing was a constant: Dad's daily comment on the progress of weeds overtaking his garden.  Every day we stayed on the road meant more hoeing when he got home. We'd be building sandcastles at the edge of the surf, and he'd say something like: I'll bet those weeds are enjoying our absence. When I returned recently from exploring castles and museums, I discovered that the weeds had enjoyed my absence. I carried the hoe to the garden and went to work. My back and my hands ached, and the sweat dripped from my face and ran down between my breasts. This job was taking longer than I had anticipated, and I wished that I had put on sunscreen. I tried to remember what Dad had attempted to teach me about swinging the hoe. Something about standing up straight and letting the hoe do the work. What else had he said? If only I'd listened.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Learning from children

We all could learn a thing or two from our children and grandchildren. My 3-year-old grandson stayed overnight at my house, and being with this pleasant and appreciative young man during play time, story time, bed time, and breakfast was a reminder of how gratifying it can be to spend time with someone who is polite, kind, and courteous. I must have heard "Oh, thanks, Nana" 20 times. I also heard "That's so nice of you, Nana" more than once. His utterances of common courtesy were genuine and appropriate. At one point he said to me: "Nana, we are having so much fun!" We were sitting at the breakfast table having conversation over cereal—nothing more, but yes, we were having fun.

I don't often hear such common courtesies or expressions of gratitude in the adult world—not in my world of work and certainly not in public places such as the grocery store. Acts of kindness are even more rare. And if I'm honest, I must say that I don't utter these courtesies or perform acts of kindness as often as I should. In other words, my grandson's model for such civility is not me. No, he is the model, and I am the learner.

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


One of my favorite parts of summer is watching the color of my blueberries develop. I was delighted this week when, returning from travels for both work and pleasure, I discovered the emerging blue color of the berries. My grandson and I had been watched them closely from tiny blossoms to small green berries. He saw the first color a couple of weeks ago, and he responded with raised eyebrows and an open mouth. But I had to explain to him that the berries needed a little more time to develop and ripen. They are so close now—a few can be plucked for sampling each day, but in a couple of weeks we'll have a full harvest from the two shrubs that bear the biggest and sweetest berries.

What moves me

What could be better than a glass of wine, a Springsteen album, and a blank page!
I've been listening to Springsteen since 1975, and his music still moves me, sometimes to tears, 36 years and counting. Geez! Was it really that long ago that I first began this relationship? It seems like yesterday that I saw Springsteen in Knoxville, Tennessee (I think it was 1976). The initial concert date was cancelled and moved to a smaller venue, which was thrilling to the true Springsteen fan. It meant we'd be more up close and personal. And we were! We rocked long and hard. I especially remember 10th Avenue Freeze Out. It has always been my favorite. I've seen Springsteen in concert four times (Knoxville, Memphis, Raleigh, Atlanta), and I'd go again in a heartbeat! What a show! What a storyteller!
One of my favorite Springsteen lines: "Spare parts and broken hearts keep the world turnin' around." After reporting, before teaching, I worked a couple of years for a heavy equipment repair company, and I used to have the Springsteen lyric pasted on my computer.
Oh, but I have lots more favorites. Find a Springsteen album or tune in to E Street Radio and just listen. You will be glad you did. 
In the years to come, Springsteen's voice will help our great grandchildren understand us.