My father Erwin A. Thompson
Photo by Gerry Mandel
My father at 97 has set a lifetime record for nearly dying. He’s done this at least 10 times in the last 6 years since I’ve come back home to live, not just visit. We have partnered during these years to preserve his legacy and prepare in every way imaginable for as smooth a passing as possible. The business of death is never easy, no matter what. But we’ve attacked the project with the strong will we Thompsons are famous for. I wrote “Setting His House in Order” a few years back during one of these scurrying downturn times
Setting His House in Order
by Janet Grace Riehl
for my father Erwin A. Thompson
Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live. —Isaiah 38:1
Like a woman readying for delivery from pregnancy
he scurries between books, barn, and basements
to set his house in order.
For he is pregnant with the news of his life
and the coming of his death
when he will meet a new life.
What news he will learn in this new life
when the roll is called up yonder
he knows not.
He has charted the lead boat of a flurry of small skiffs
across so many troubled waters, wracked by waves
bigger than the lapping current and flooding of his beloved Mississippi.
He knows the turbulence of heavy waters
we must navigate in our small skiffs
when he is safely on the other side.
He knows he’ll be there, and we’ll be here, trying to sort it all out.
He sets us to sorting.
He wants to clear his space.
He wants to clear his mind.
And so, he sorts.
He sorts to clear a path to the canning jars in the root cellar.
He sorts to make categories of couplings in the antique basement.
He sorts the gardener’s lair, the old potting basement, stripping it back to basics.
He sorts metal scrap in the barn—a tractor steering wheel and a groundhog trap seeing how these things could be art.
He sorts and catalogues books, then stores them up high.
He sorts and types old family letters for the university archive.
He pours his memories out on paper.
He sorts his papers and book manuscripts.
He readies his new books for printing.
He passes on the bigness of himself in music, whittled wood, poetry, and prose.
He dreams of documenting the craft of generations of women in his family,
found in the cloth of quilts and comforters he helped his wife tie on the old frame.
He is a farmer.
He knows these rhythms of the seasons as surely as
he knows his own heartbeat and rasping breath.
He knows what it is to sort the seeds for planting.
He knows what it is to plow the field and plant these seeds.
He continues to farm himself and to plow our fields
so we shall be ready when the last of his seeds are flung
from his hands, and we are left to farm on our own
in fields cultivated and disked by the lessons of his life.