Photo and Essay by Janet Grace Riehl
Yesterday Pop’s walk with Charlie was cut short. He came back and crashed into bed around 3. Dead out. Still sleeping at 7 that evening. My brother Gary and I conferred, and decided to wake him up to get properly ready for bed. He took his breathing treatment, medicine, and took out his teeth. I read to him from one of the books that he’s written for ten minutes and he was off to dreamland once more. Or, maybe before…
This morning as I moved through the dining room he called out, “I’m awake” earlier than he has been in quite awhile.
Pop: I had the best sleep last night.
Me: Yes, you did! You had a proper rest.
Pop: What’s happening today?
Me: Not much. Gary and Patty go home today. It’s the last day of August. Tomorrow is officially Labor Day.
Pop: What do we need to do?
Me: Let’s get your breathing treatment going. Then I’ll get your teeth and you can take your medicine. After his breathing treatment he pops right up.
Me: You’re strong today. I’m impressed.
But when I bring in the plastic container that holds his teeth and set it on his lap, he’s not so sure.
Pop: What do you want me to do?
Me: Put your teeth in.
Usually he’s an ace at this. Until a week ago he trotted into the bathroom and did this all by himself.
Pop: Where are they?
Me: Right here, Pop. On your lap.
He bumbles around. Gets them turned around.
Me: I think these are the bottom ones. Okay. The top ones. No, they go around the other way.
Each of these small markers is a tiny shock to us. A tiny grief. It’s the slow, slow fade, incremental, molecular that’s the hardest to take. Increasingly I see that courage is in these tiny daily details for all of us.
I camp out on the bed to make sure he gets all the pills down. He takes them along with tiny bites of a banana. He moves at a fast clip and gets them all.
Now to the trousers. I get the legs of the trousers over his legs–not deftly, but it’s done.
Me: Stand up now.
Pop: You want me to stand up?
Pop (grins a bit): I just wanted to make sure we were in agreement on the direction of progress.
I grin, too. It’s this mixture of confusion with droll wit that’s so endearing and slightly heartbreaking.
Pants up, shirt tucked in. I see that his oxygen tube is underneath his belt. We fix that.
Me: Off we go.
Me: To your chair.
He moves along at a fast clip for a guy who usually moves at a snail’s pace. Then he levers himself into his Lazy Boy.
When it’s time for breakfast, I outfit him with the cowboy apron I bought him so long ago. The design of the cowhand on his horse twirling his lariat is a little harder to make out with each washing.
Breakfast is standard: oatmeal with raisins. But Pop laid out the specs long ago. We have two aluminum measuring scoops at the ready that I’ve been using since girlhood (quite a long time ago!) 1/4 oatmeal. 1/2 cup water. Raisins. Two minutes in the microwave. Milk and sugar.
I serve his food on a large white enamel flat-bottom pan trimmed in blue. The iron shows through the corners. I can’t remember anymore what we used this for all these years ago. While he eats his oatmeal with dispatch, a goodly amount lands on his cowboy apron.
Me: Pop, that’s an Olympic record!
Pop: What’s happening this next week?
Me: Nothing special. All routine.
Pop: Then I can go to sleep now.
Me: Yes, and snooze throughout for the next five days.
I putter around in the kitchen until I hear my brother shaving Pop. Gary and I talk a few minutes in the kitchen to compare notes on what we know about Pop.
As Gary says good-bye to Daddy before he goes up to his house up the way, he says (with the boyish grin I don’t see often enough): “Don’t let Janet work you too hard.”
The sun shines through the window. The trees are green. Mother’s day lilies are blooming. All is well with our world.
Janet Grace Riehl lives on both sides of the Mississippi River between her place in St. Louis and her father’s place in Illinois on the bluffs that overlook the river. Learn more about Janet’s work at http://www.riehlife.com. Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century. Creating connections through the arts and across cultures.