Daddy Care: Setting His House in Order

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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.

14 responses to “Daddy Care: Setting His House in Order

  1. This is wonderfully done and it’s so great your father has done so much to try to transition things smoothly. It’s not easy…I guess that’s one of my big fears. There is so much not done and my husband’s not able to do that I fear how I will be able to figure things out. I wish more people planned ahead of time for things.

  2. Quite a tribute that I can resonate with as my father also was a farmer. They are a hearty stock. He died at the age of 92.

  3. Great poem, Janet. I love the down to earth honesty of your writing, like a scrapbook of candid “photos” catching him in his daily activities, revealing what’s in his heart and on his mind.

  4. A lovely, eloquent tribute

  5. Linda O'Connell

    This is beautiful. My thoughts are with you at this time.

  6. Catherine A. Weirich

    Beautifully written Janet.Loved reading it. The whole time I was reading, I could picture your father doing the “deeds” he felt needed to be done, so as not to leave the work behind for your to do. Getting one’s life in order is no small job, especially for your father, who has been so creative, active, energetic and full of life. His mind is more than likely still full of things he wants to do. I think he’s still got time, There is still another summer and fall of his life to get through before beginning to “set his house in order”. God Bless him. What a wonderful life he has lead.

  7. Janet, This poem is exquisite! I envisioned your father moving through the property, setting things to rights, with determination, a strong sense of heritage and love. I’m gazing at my pig and dog, given to me by him several years ago. They are on my desk and will remain there for so long as I can imagine.
    Please give him a hug from me!

  8. Thanks to all of you for your appreciative and insightful comments. Our generation will soon be the elder generation. That day is coming soon. By the courage and grace we see around us, may we be heartened.

  9. So beautiful, Janet….

  10. Oh, Janet, this is so lovely. Your father sounds like a man who has done and seen so much in his life, an incredible man. My father-in-law was 96 when he died, but I don’t remember him doing any sorting to speak of. That is such a mindful task. I’m 70, and I’ve already started doing this. Because I don’t any of us know when we’ll leave this place, and I hate the idea of leaving unsorted clutter behind. I really enjoyed reading this.

  11. Someday your dad and Tom Hoe will swap stories in Eternity and I will go to join them and record what’s new. Something always will be new with Erwin Thompson, the man who knows the Second Mile so well… and is ready to Trek the Third. God bless him – and God bless you, Janet, as you navigate the trail’s end here on earth with him, helping him continue to sort and dream and pass on “the bigness of himself.” What a legacy! Thank you for sharing this poem. It is lovely. 🙂

    • Jan, yes. Tom Hoe and my father are definitely Twins-Separated-at-Birth.Thank you for your heartfelt comment. You have been there. The story that won our hearts for The Second Mile Award and the story of how he learned of it at the last minute is so touching. Worth the whole show.

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