Sunday, October 30, 2016

“Hello in there…”

I took my time getting home yesterday from my visit to see my Dad. After most of these trips back to my childhood home, I need time to think about what has just transpired. A million thoughts and feelings dance in my head as I amble through rolling pasture lands with their cattle, horses and rolls of hay waiting to be hauled away, chopped up and baled. This day, as I head back to my home in the heart of a city, I am overwhelmed with a flood of conflicting feelings and stray thoughts.

I need time to think. I need time to be alone.

I’d come over to accompany Daddy to his latest chemotherapy appointment on Thursday. The nurse had had difficulty finding his vein to insert the IV. She kept apologizing and Daddy kept telling her not to worry, it’d work out. And, of course, it finally did. The nurse who stepped in to help laughed and said, “You didn’t even know I’d gotten it in there, did you?”

We sat together in the treatment room watching the drip bag funnel poisons into his vein that would kill the lymphoma but not the surrounding tissue. At least that’s what the doctors are telling us.

The woman in the LazyBoy recliner across from Daddy was a teacher. I thought at first  we might have a decent discussion of education until she mentioned that it was her car that had the “Hey America! Fear this! Trump” bumper sticker.

Suddenly working the Wall Street Journal crossword puzzle I’d picked up in the waiting room became urgent.

Around us sat other patients, most of them older, some with little of their hair remaining, their faces gaunt, their expressions thinly masking anxiety if not utter terror. Many of them have come to treatment alone. Is it because their spouses have died and left them to trudge along toward the finish line solo? Did they have children? Are they near enough to accompany them to treatment? Do they even know their mother or father is there?

Soon the timer goes off and the nurse comes scurrying over to disconnect the now empty bag. One of the attempts to find Daddy’s vein has punctured a vein wall and he has discoloration from seepage up his arm. He says he isn’t worried about it. I just wonder how much pain and fear might actually be hidden beneath that constantly upbeat façade.

 Soul Food Relief

My sister and her older boy meet us for lunch at a locals’ favorite, Aunt Fannie’s. This is when I know I still have a good dose of Southern in me. There are few things better at helping a Southerner cope with stress than soul food, instantly bringing back memories of the suppers Henrietta, our black nanny, fixed us each evening when I was growing up. (Yes, I know the meals weren’t in need of repair – it’s a Southernism)

I got the vegetable plate and chose four servings from a long list of options: the turnip greens (with pepper sauce, of course), black eyed peas, French fried eggplant and cucumber salad. Of course, my Southern credentials might well be pulled if anyone knew I ordered unsweetened ice tea. 

Oh, the scandal!

That night I would spend the evening with my Dad, trying to ignore the Fox channel he seems to always be watching, reading my own study materials from Richard Rohr and checking on Facebook from time to time.

Periodically Daddy awakens from his naps or puts down his paper long enough to talk. He says he wants me to help him mark photos to give away to people. He keeps reminding me of where all the important papers are for after his death (I’m the personal representative of the estate, one of the ways I pay back his having put me through law school). And he keeps asking me if there is anything I want from the house.

Truth be told, we are in the process of downsizing ourselves. More stuff is the last thing I want or need.

Contentment with a Life Well Lived

I usually stay until our late breakfast or early lunch the day after his treatments. At the beginning it was primarily to make sure he didn’t get sick from the chemo but more recently it’s just to have time to talk with my Dad. For a man who will be 90 this March, he’s doing pretty well. But I do worry about him. Time for talking is at a premium.

“Do you ever get lonely, Daddy?”

He says not. He says people come to visit him, former students and colleagues. And I know they do. Most of the people under 40 in town learned to drive from my Dad. 

I’ve learned that when people say “Hello, Mr. Coverston,” they're not talking to me. It’s probably someone he’s taught at some point in their lives. I’ve also learned to reassure him it’s OK when he cannot readily remember their names. Given all the names he’s had to remember in nearly 90 years, I’m just glad he remembers his own.

He says he is content to look out the picture window of his home to watch the birds coming to the feeder in his front yard. He occasionally gets out in the yard to look out over the 12 acres of his little domain that my brother and I helped him clear in order to build our home when we were kids.

That was where I learned what the word “thicket” really meant as I grubbed out palmetoes and burned them on piles of lighter knots left over from the days this land was a turpentine plantation named Edenfield. I also learned what rattlesnakes sounded like when surprised (just back away, slowly) and what bobcats, panthers and bears sound like when they howl. It’s where I learned the wide variety of plants that are native to Florida and how I learned the subtleties of the four seasons in a state where people come to avoid winter.  

Most importantly, this was where I learned to love the land itself and to know I belong to it, not vice versa. As an adult I continue to realize the insight I gained from that time in the woods with my father, the master teacher. 

So I can see how he might be content to sit with his thoughts, his many photos of a life fully lived, a life that stretched from the western Pacific in World War II and then back to this little town where he was born to which he returned as an adult to teach school for four decades. 

But I still wonder: Does he really ever get lonely? And would he tell me if he did?

I don’t know. And as I roll along the woodlands and cow pastures of the Snow Bird Road shortcut to US 27 and the Turnpike back home, I wonder if I, too, will have to answer that question one day.

“Old People, They Just Grow Lonesome“

When I was first out of undergraduate and began teaching at the middle school in the next town over from the once small town where my father still lives, I spent part of my first pay check on an album by Bette Midler, The Divine Miss M. One of the songs on that album has stuck with me for years.

Entitled “Hello in there,” it speaks to the diminished dreams and hopes of the aging process. After numerous glasses of cheap wine bought in gallon jugs at the Winn-Dixie (which was all beginning teachers could afford), I would sometimes sing along with Bette and weep. I knew only too well what loneliness felt like, isolated in that hostile little redneck town where I sometimes feared for my life. Indeed, I sometimes wondered if I’d ever survive to be the lonesome elderly person Bette sang about.

As I drove along sifting through the deluge of feelings about the days just completed and the flood of memories being in this place of my childhood had just triggered, Bette’s song came back to me. Here are some of the lyrics:

We had an apartment in the city.
Me and my husband liked living there.
It's been years since the kids have grown,
a life of their own, left us alone.
John and Linda live in Omaha.
Joe is somewhere on the road.
We lost Davy in the Korean war.
I still don't know what for, don't matter any more.

Someday I'll go and call up Judy.
We worked together at the factory.
Ah, but what would I say when she asks what's new?
Say, "Nothing, what's with you?
Nothing much to do."

You know that old trees just grow stronger,
and old rivers grow wilder every day,
ah, but, but old people, they just grow lonesome
waiting for someone to say,
"Hello in There. Hello."

Midler’s lyrics and the melancholy piano accompaniment capture the aching loneliness and despair at depths that words alone cannot. I was overcome with sorrow when I first heard them 40 years ago, huddled in that lonely apartment in that hostile little town, crying out my own loneliness and fear into oversized plastic cups of cheap wine. And it comes back just as quickly today as I listen once again to one of the modern masters of song ply her trade.  

Six weeks is too long a time to go without visiting my Dad. It’s an hour’s drive from Orlando one way but the last half of it is through the back country, much like the proverbial old shoe – scuffed, worn but familiar and comfortable. Though he says he’s not lonely, I think my Dad could use the company and I can always use the wisdom I inevitably encounter in our visits.

Most of all, while I don’t like to think too long about it, I know our visits are increasingly numbered.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


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