Sunday, September 1, 2013

What Sarah Said

I once asked my fictive son, Steve, if it was alright to write about him, about our relationship. He simply said, “I don’t care what you write about me because I know you won’t hurt me.  All I ask is that you be honest.” It was a good message to hear and as I continue to write I try to keep that in the back of my mind and always try to be honest.  So, here’s some honesty for you.  I generally hate Labor Day weekend.  There are too many things to think about, too many things to remember.  I’m not sure Labor Day will ever be the same as when I was a kid, my family went camping, and there was laughter and smiles all around. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe it is a time that should be reserved for nothing more than thinking about my father.

Four years ago. It was the Saturday morning before Labor Day.  I received a call from my brother.  He told me that my father had fallen ill and was now in the hospital wing at the nursing home where he was scheduled to move shortly.  He said that he and Melissa were already there, but that Stacia and I needed to get there as well. I asked him if it was serious.  He said, “I don’t know, but they said we should gather the family.”  Within a few hours time Stacia and I were in her van racing down to Muncie, Indiana, where he was living then, to be by his side.  When Stacia and I arrived she went right to his room.  I stayed back to talk with Melissa who was just returning from the nurse’s station.  I gave her a hug and asked, “What are we dealing with?”  She said, “We’re still not sure. Ginger says he was fine just a few days ago. They took Jack to the dog park, but then all of a sudden he went to sleep and didn’t wake up.  She took him to the VA hospital and then he was transferred here.” I asked her what the prognosis was.  She said, “The doctor says there are signs that he might be in the active state of dying.”  Only in American healthcare could anyone come up with such an oxymoronic, or just pure and plain moronic, statement ever.

I went t into my father’s room and found his wife, Ginger, stretched out in the bed beside him.  She was rubbing his head and talking to him. She kept saying, “Garl, can you hear me.?”She was looking for any kind of response from him but none came. Compared to the last time I saw him he looked so thin and frail.  I went and kissed him on the forehead.  I said “Bud, I’m here.  We’re all here.”I talked to my sisters and brother for a minute and then I went outside to see if I could process what was going on. 

I don’t why but I thought about an afternoon when, Ben, my oldest, was sitting in the kitchen talking to me while I cut up cobs of corn.  This was at time when I first started getting shaky but had not yet acknowledged that there might be a problem with me.  I was cutting through a not particularly ripe ear and I sent the knife right through my finger.  I looked at it, and Ben said, “That’s bleeding really bad. You need stitches. Get a towel; we have to go to the hospital.”  I wrapped my hand and he drove me there. They got me in pretty quick, because I was willing to be treated in a pediatric room. Ben sat with me the whole time as they fixed things.  Driving me home he said, “You know what?  I totally get what it must’ve felt like every time you brought me, or Matt, or Meredith to the hospital. How worried you must’ve been.”  As I stood and smoked a cigarette out in the nursing home courtyard that afternoon, I realized just what Ben meant. It's hard enough seeing your kid in a hospital; seeing your father is a whole different ballgame.

My youngest brother, Jeff, and his family were on a weekend trip but they detoured and came to the nursing home as soon as they could.  While Jeff is not my real brother; he is. When my mother died and my father got remarried Jeff and his sister, Melinda, came to finish high school and live at my father’s house.  It’s funny.  I have never thought of them as step-brothers and sisters; only as an extension of our clan who I love as much the rest. Jeff is the godfather of my daughter, and that is a decision I have never regretted ever.  When Jeff came to the home he did just like his mother.  He curled up next to my father, rubbed his head, and started talking to him. At one point I went to call Karen and give her an update.  While I was in the common room, Jeff’s daughter, Hannah, came and found me. She gave me a huge hug.  She said to me, “Mommy says you all might be kind of sad and that I should give out lots of hugs.”  I hugged her back.  By the far one of the best hugs I have ever had.

We all stayed at the nursing home for three days, keeping vigil.  We had a room at a local hotel where we would go and shower or sleep for awhile if we could.  We would take turns going to get breakfast or lunch, or just stuff, like water and sweatshirts we needed from the WalMart.  The television in the common room apparently only had one channel, so we were subjected to listening to day-long marathons of Little House on the Prairie and Who’s the Boss.  Mostly we sat and talked to with one another and to Dad, worked on our laptops, and waited for what every day became more and more inevitable. 

One afternoon when Jeff’s young son, Will, was getting restless I took him out into the courtyard.  Will is an interesting boy. He is very smart and very curious, and for his age very wise. As we played in the yard he kept coming up with grand projects.  I kept coming up with practical reasons to shoot them down.  After awhile he got tired of me.  He started slapping his forehead.  He said, without reservation, “Uncle Tom, I have ideas.  Why won’t you work with me?  I started laughing.  I said, “You’re right, Will.”  After that we spent about an hour devising ways that we could catch birds by putting nuggets from the tree-hanging feeders on our chests and waiting for them to land.  Just as good as a Hannah hug and just what I needed.

It was at midnight on the Tuesday or Wednesday after the holiday that my father died.  All the waiting, all the watching, boiled down to a minutes as he stopped breathing.. We stood and watched and said our final goodbyes to him. We as a family embraced. We cleaned up the room of all of our stuff, and went back to the hotel.  Ginger was stunned, stumbling and numb.  I held her arm and led her to the room. She kept asking, “What now? What now?” I didn't know how to respond.  She had just lost her man of twenty-plus years.  What do you say? We had a toast to my father from what was left over of the beer in the cooler, and then everyone who had stayed up for so long went to sleep.  My brother said to me, “You’re not going to lie down, are you?”  I said, “No, not yet.”  He smiled and patted me on the check.  “I figured. Just don’t lock yourself out.”

There was a time when you could smoke in hotels.  Those days have come and gone… for the better.  That night though I really wanted to have another beer and smoke a cigarette. I went down to the parking lot and did just that.  I did a lot of thinking too.  I love quotes and poems, and that night two came with crystal clarity into my mind. The first is a poem by W.H. Auden.  It goes:

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. 

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. 

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

The second is lyrics from a song called “What Sarah Said” by the band Death Cab for Cutie.  It goes like this:

“Amongst the vending machines and year-old magazines in a place where we only say goodbye
It stung like a violent wind that our memories depend on a faulty camera in our minds
But I knew that you were a truth I would rather lose than to have never lain beside at all
And I looked around at all the eyes on the ground as the TV entertained itself.

'Cause there's no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous pacers bracing for bad news
And then the nurse comes round and everyone will lift their heads
But I'm thinking of what Sarah said that ‘Love is watching someone die’

So who's going to watch you die?”

In deference to Steve, and others, I am being as honest as I can in telling you why I hate Labor Day.Yet on the other hand it’s not a bad time for remembering, especially when you remember someone you have always loved and will always keep in your heart even though they're gone.  My father, Garl, was my teacher, my mentor, and when I became a man, my friend. He was good but not a perfect man, but he was good enough for me and the rest of us who loved him so.

Goodnight, Garl, wherever you are. Maybe your ashes maybe are still floating on breezes around the river where we cast  I don't know. Just know this though; you're still always on my mind  and that I love you.  Pals forever, never letting go.