Date Line: New Year’s Eve Day 2011. Atop the bluffs above the Mississippi River. Evergreen Heights, our homeplace. This is the second in a series begun in December with “Daddy Care: Staying the Course.”
There we are in the late morning just chatting away in the sun room: my brother, his wife, and my friend Daniel visiting from Northern California. We can see the Mississippi in its wide swath as it flows around Scotch Jimmy’s Island on up to the confluence with the Illinois River. Eagles soar across the garden, over the woods, and down to the river where bird watchers are going wild. Even without binoculars we can see the eagle’s white tails which announce them. And, yes, there are some vultures soaring, too.
I rise to say good-bye—ready to walk the few stone throws down to the Big Brown House where my father has lived the last 96 years of his life.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” Gary says. We tag-team each other in caring for our father—to support his sense of independence which means the world to him. We give each other mini-bulletins by text, email, phone—and, sometimes—blessedly—face to face.
“Daddy hasn’t been feeling well today. He’s had an A-fib since early morning. I think it stopped a little while ago.” The rest of the message is implied—all that we feel, all that must be done, and all that must be borne by father and the rest of us.
Atrial Fibrillation. We just call them “A-fibs” in our house. Technically its cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heart beat). To me it’s his heart beating in syncopated time. In a phrase: “Heart jazz.”
Daniel and I walk down to the Big Brown House, and I go directly to Pop’s bedroom where he’s hooked up to his oxygen. Good for him. He’s looking poorly. The A-fib hasn’t stopped after all he says. I place my hand on his wrist. I’m not much at taking a pulse, but even I can feel the beat of a jazz drummer gone wild working his way around the drumset in an unrivaled percussive solo.
There’s not a lot to do, really. “We just have to live through it,” my father tells me. Well, anyway, that’s the plan. My father—ever in tune with his body—doesn’t want anything to eat or drink. “It was a mistake having breakfast.” I drift into the kitchen to poke my head into the refrigerator in search of something for Daniel and I to eat. Bingo: spaghetti, but not too much else.
I hear my father on the phone. He’s called Virginia—a retired nurse and family friend—who lives on the next hill. “She’ll be over within the hour,” he reassures me.
In the meantime we decide that it’s time to take the little pill that lowers his blood pressure to take the load of his heart. His chest pains subside. I call my brother. “We’re just at the turn-off towards home,” he says. “Do we need to come back?”
“No. I’ve checked with the Pere Marquette Lodge and we can easily cancel our reservation for the New Years Eve blast. Daniel and I will stay over.”
I meet Virginia on the porch before she has a chance to knock. We cut through his bathroom into his bedroom. She holds his hand as she takes his pulse and keeps up a laconic banter. Turns out she has A-fibs all the time and doesn’t even know it. Her brother Dick has them, too, but feels rotten when he does. For Pop—with his congestive heart failure—it’s a red alert. There’s no way we’ll take him to the hospital (unless he has a change of heart). He’s been there and done that a few years back. “I had two of these while hooked up to the monitor, and they didn’t even notice until I pressed my buzzer,” he grouses—quite rightly.
Then, and now, he’s a charming patient. Daniel, Virginia, and I gather around him as we suss it out. “He’s a good patient,” I remark. “Yes,” says Virginia, “otherwise we wouldn’t put up with him.” We grin.
“I’m not afraid to die,” Pop says. “I’ve done everything in my life that I need or want to do.”
It’s the inevitable. The when of it is the crap shoot.
After Virginia leaves, he brushes me away—not wanting to be fussed over. My niece Diane and her husband Kevin meticulously handle Pop’s medicine and overall medical portfolio. They’re enroute from Back East with their two girls. I text them to ask about the metoprolol—the real name for the little A-Fib pill. Are there any more if he needs one later tonight? Diane sends back a long text message. Luckily they’re driving to the airport, so I call her. She gives me the facts and I give her the feel.
“How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” I say breezily. “Everything is beautiful in its own way, as the song says.” It’s our family way in crisis. But, then, we’re always fine, no matter what.
It’s a waiting game. Meanwhile we’re expecting guests at 3 p.m. Grace Madison and her family are long-time friends. It’s a gorgeous winter day. There are other things to do besides sit in the parlor and visit.
I hear the car as it labors up our big hill, and walk out to meet them as they step out to take in the river view. “Here’s what’s happening,” I tell Grace. “My father has been in A-Fib for 12 hours. But, no worries. I have a plan. I’ll give you the tour on the land and inside the house. I want to show you what I’ve done these last months with the House Beautiful project.”
“Does someone need to stay with him?”
“Oh, no. He’ll call me before he kicks off.” (Or, maybe he’d rather be caught dead than call.)
I’m a good tour guide with lots of practice. There’s a history to all this reaching back to the 1860s when my maternal Great Grandfather Riehl, whose name I’ve taken, settled on our 100 acres here. My father inherited this land and house. This is our home place. It’s the place where he’s raised his children, nursed his wife before her death, and now faces his own death.
We make our way to the barn, up the wagon road, climb a small hill to the pine rows where we take in the alfalfa field that was. We pass the Old Gate Road until we reach the white gate that defines the edge of our property, and then turn back to the Big Brown House where we’ll explore the 14 rooms, 5 porches, and 6 rooms in the basement.
Grace peels off to visit with Pop who’s now made his way into his green chair with another great view of the glistening river. That’s not where he’s looking, though. He rouses from his chair nap. The Charming Patient transforms into The Charming Host.
Two hours later the Madisons head off towards their dinner reservation. They’re going to First Night at the local community college. We each retire to our resting corners. I cook bacon and eggs for Daniel and me as we prepare for our quiet evening at home.
Every once in awhile I check on my father. I lean over to plant a series of small kisses on the top of his head, while I inhale the aroma of his hair and skin. This is a smell I’ve known all my life. I’ll miss it when he’s gone.
Oh, yes! Riehlife is one of four blogs in the final round of Story Circle Network’s SuperStar Blogger Competition for 2011! You’ll find info here: http://www.storycircle.org/members/starbloggercontest.php If you are a Story Circle member, you can vote! You’ll need your username/password. Each blog is unique, and represents a different (and powerful) approach to blogging.
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