Photo and Essay by Janet Grace Riehl
Excerpt from “King’s Sake” From “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary”
By Janet Grace Riehl
For my father, Erwin A. Thompson
The Old King is dying, and he knows it.
The Old Ways are dying, and he knows it.
The Old Music is dying, even as he plays it.
The only thing he’ll die of is old age.
Or, maybe old age and a broken heart that keeps on breaking.
The Old King is dying. Long live the King!
***** **** **** ****
Chatting About Death As We Were….
“Grace, shall we put the kettle on?” It’s the night before my 65th birthday and we’re celebrating with a friend nearing 90. After a yummy dinner out, we’re ready to snuggle in front of the fire, eat sweets, and open presents. Then the call comes. Pop has taken a bad turn. Daniel and I hug Grace good-bye, head for the car, and arrive back at Pop’s in 30 minutes—record time. I walk in the door, kick off my shoes, drop my coat and purse in an easy chair, and quickly move into his bedroom. Virginia, a long-time family friend, has come over from the other hill to stay with my father. She’s a nurse, and tells me how my father came near choking to death.
“I’m miserable. I feel like dying. My back hurts so much.” Coming from my father these words have additional force. He’s not a man who likes to admit any kind of weakness. We plug in the electric massager. I’m trying to do it one-handed while calling my brother when Virginia sensibly takes over. He leans back to rest. I call the Hospice night duty nurse. Fortunately we know the woman on call. Kim has met my father and like many a gal before her has fallen under his charm. It’s hard not to. When he wants to pour it on, it flows like a river. Pop gets on the phone. “Honey, I’m just fine. There’s no need to you to come out. I’d hate to bother you.” Virginia and I roll our eyes; we know this one so well. Then, because he hasn’t coughed for awhile, she goes home. It’s just Daniel, Pop, and me.
“What can I do to help?”
“The best thing is for you to get some sleep. This may be a long night, and at least one of us ought to be rested.”
Now it’s just Pop and me. He can’t get comfortable no matter how he tries—as a woman might in hard labor. He lurches from the bed he usually sleeps in to the nearby hospital bed we have at the ready. Then he rocks at the edge of the bed. As he lurches from bed to bed I spot him as if he were jumping on a trampoline. He repeats over and over the refrain: “I’m miserable. I feel like dying. My back hurts so much.”
I settle him on the hospital bed long enough to use the electric massager and knead him with my hands. Eventually he calms, and curls up to sleep.
Upstairs I change from my black velvet sheath into flannel pajamas. When I go back down, I sleep across the room from him. As I listen to his raspy breathing I imagine that it must be something like being with a baby in a nursery. When his breathing evens, I go upstairs to cuddle with Daniel in my bed. At 1 a.m. Daniel says, “I hear your father. He’s up.”
When I get to him, he’s on the toilet. I sit on the bathtub, and we chat about what’s happened. I need to change his clothes, but before I can get the clean set on, he staggers forward. “Don’t worry about that. I just want to get back to bed.” I support him as he walks the three yards before he dives into bed. This is not my father. Despite my father’s difficulty in getting around he has remained graceful and in touch with his body. I rush forward to straighten him out. He can’t lift his legs. I lift them for him and pivot them onto the bed. I’ve never seen him so weak. I call the hospice nurse back. She’ll be here in 40 minutes.
The quiet darkness is strangely comforting and strengthening. “My mind is clear. I am just having trouble.” There’s a lag time between thought and speaking. Just as he doesn’t have control of his body, he doesn’t have complete control of his language. He scans his body.
“My right foot hurts. I can’t feel my toe.” I rub my hands together like fire sticks so that my warmth can seep into his foot. “Is that better?” It is, but now his hip hurts. I move to the other side of the bed and lift his hip so I can find the tight muscle. “Better?”
Yes, and now his hand hurts. I come back again to clasp his hand. “I’m here, Pop. I’ve got your hand.”
“And, I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you do have my hand. You are my lovebird, my 24-hour girl. I love you.” Goodness gracious. My father is old-school. I’ve heard him say, “I love you” maybe 5 times in my life. In our family love is unspoken. If you don’t know you’re loved, then you are some kind of stupid. How could you not know? Still, it’s nice to hear. Is he talking to me or to my late mother, though? No matter, I am here. I’ll take it.
“Just think, Pop, it’s officially my birthday. You and mother had quite a go of it 65 years ago getting me born.”
“Yes, that was a good thing.”
The Hospice nurse arrives around 2:30. I meet her at the door. I’m so glad it’s Kim. She’s warm, matter-of-fact, calm, and totally has Daddy’s number.
“How are you Mr. Thompson? I heard you had a little adventure.”
“Honey, now that you’re here, I’m just fine.”
“Are you feeling pain anywhere?”
“No. How could anyone feel pain with a pretty nurse beside him?”
Kim looks over at me, and we do the eye-roll, shake our heads, and suppress a giggle. She checks his blood pressure, oxygen, heartbeat, and respiration. His hands are grey and waxy, but it looks like he’ll make it yet again. She’s there for over an hour. When he seems stable, she gets up to leave.
“Good-bye, Mr. Thompson. I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
“I need my hug. That’s the best medicine.” He gets a pretty good one. It’s not easy to leave my father. He keeps talking and talking. Finally I say, “Kim, you’re just going to have to go.” I walk her back to the door. He’s still talking when I get back.
“Janet, I hurt so much before. But now it’s like nothing ever happened. Everything’s alright.”
“It’s like a moment of perfect peace. No matter what happens, you’ll be alright.”
“Yes.” He drops off, and begins to snore softly.
At 4 I make my way upstairs for another round of sleep. When I wake at 7 and pad downstairs, he’s still sleeping. I hang out in the other bed until he opens his eyes and gets ready for the bathroom trek. Like last night I support him there and back. He is too weak to raise himself on the handles of the walker. Once again I lift his legs and pivot him back into bed. Later I bring in his morning medicine, and prop him up while he takes it.
“Janet, let me tell you about the good thing that happened last night.”
“I stopped hurting. I felt that everything would be alright.”
“Yes, it was a moment of perfect peace, wasn’t it? Even if you would have died then, you’d have been fine.”
When he wakes again around 11 he says, “Well, I’ve been lying around here long enough. Time to get up.” And, so he does. I help him dress, and lever himself up to the walker. Like a turtle on drugs he creeps towards his recliner. He makes it! We swing into the morning routine: breakfast, foot soaking, and so on. He stays up until 4.
“Why don’t you go to bed, Daddy?”
“I was just thinking about that.”
I help him get ready for bed, and then read him a bedtime story from one of the Westerns he wrote when we were children. “That’s it for tonight. We’ll take up the story tomorrow night where we left off.”
“Janet, let me tell you about a good thing that happened last night.”
And he does.