Tag Archives: caregiving

Daddy Chat: Morning Time (the sun also rises)

February 2014 114

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?

Me: Yes.

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.

Pop: Where?

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.

Daddy Care: Chatting about death as we were…


Pop playing violin

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.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“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.

Daddycare: Gift of Space

By Janet Grace Riehl  (Artwork and essay copyright 2013)

Maze Map

“Interesting path. Is it a bend or a fork?” reads a friend’s Skype signature line.

 When I asked him about this, he said, “I just need a place to be, and right now this is it. A bend would be another place to live. A fork would be another career.”



(“Maze Map,” by Janet Riehl)

I felt something relax inside me. A place to be gives us space to be, and we can’t begin a new chapter in our life story until we have it. I’m in search of that space.

I’m 64-and-a-half-going-on-65. My life has followed an interesting path filled with bends and forks. My story so far?

I am a country girl who roamed the world, and then followed my heart back home.

Part 1: Country Girl. (First two decades) No matter where I go I’ll always be a down home heartland girl. I was born and bred in the Midwest on the bluffs above the Mississippi on a Homeplace our family settled in the 1860’s—in a family filled with legend and lore. Then, a fork.

Part 2: Roamed the world: (Roughly the next three decades) In my twenty’s I spent five years living and working in Botswana and Ghana—first with Peace Corps and later working directly with a village organization. My love affair with Africa has shaped every day of my adult life.

I’ve traveled to Asia (India, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan), Europe, Mexico, and South America. In the United States I worked in New Mexico and Northern California in training and development, project management, and whatever kind of writing (technical, educational, marketing, business) I could find that paid the bills. The heart of my work has always been to create connections through the arts and across cultures—as diverse as Native American pueblos, inner-city African Americans, Latinos, and—perhaps most foreign of all—the California computer industry.

When I turned forty, I once again chose a life of risk to focus on art, creative writing, storytelling, and music. Then, in my mid-fifties, I careened around a hair-turn curve in the road.

Round  About















(“Round About,” by Janet Riehl)

Part 3: Came home. On August 16th 2004 my older sister Julia—just 61—was killed in a car wreck. Julia’s husband and our mother were severely injured in the accident. A Good Samaritan pulled Julia’s grandson out of the car just befoe the car burst into

flames. The woman driving the SUV had argued with her daughter, passed three cars, and ran the red light. The superior force of her vehicle creamed the driver’s side of Julia’s compact. The woman and her daughter crawled out of their SUV with nary a scratch, and sat on the curb stunned at what their car had done.

It’s been nine years since she died, yet it seems no time at all. I still hear my brother’s voice over the phone when he told me she was dead, and the silence that hung between us over the line afterwards. No. No. I’m sorry. Just flat-out, no.

That day began my journey back to the Homeplace. At first I commuted between Northern California and Illinois to help my father take care of Mother until her death on May 1st 2006. Then I moved back to the Midwest full time, where I remain today with my family, keeping our ninety-seven-year-old father company during his long, slow journey towards death.

In the last nine years I’ve reigned in my free-spirited ways to fulfill the firm (and sacred) commitment I’ve made to my father and my family. That’s the chapter I’m in. I can turn the pages, but not close that book and put it back on the shelf. For each of us on the family care team our choices are limited by my father’s health, and the needs of the people on the team. Our anachronistic family-only model of care harks back generations.

I wouldn’t glorify that. At my breaking point earlier this summer I begged for a new model of care that includes people outside the immediate family. I wanted to get back to the business of being a daughter. At last Daddy agreed to allow people outside the family to help him. With the care load lightened, my brother and I each have an extra day in our weekly rotation. That day lightens my soul and gives me hope that there will be life after daddy.

I’ve joked with friends about my dream of a simpler scenario.  “If only I had a father who is just an ordinary guy,” I’ve said, “rather than the extraordinarily gifted and strong patriarch he is.”

“If only I had a father who lives in a two-bedroom ranch house (containing only a generation of stuff and memories) on a quarter-acre of land. How much easier that would be than being one of six generations who have lived on the land (now down to 100 acres) featuring a killer view of the river, with a cluster of family houses and 30 rental units. Our family has so much history and so many stories that we have archives in two major universities and several historical societies.”

“If only I had a father who I visited on Sunday afternoons—rather than living half my life in the Big Brown House as one of his primary caregivers.”

Of course if we lived in that simpler scenario, then we wouldn’t be the people or the family we are—stubborn and strong, ornery and resourceful. But, please God: Why did you visit us with such complexity?

My father’s death and what happens afterwards is a segue to a time when I’ll once again be able to make independent decisions about the course of my life. When once again I can contemplate forks—beyond this chapter filled with endless bends, mazes, and round abouts. After the estate is settled. After we begin to grapple with the loss of a man at the core of our lives and the huge shift in our life as a family. After we grope toward life after daddy. When all that calms down, then my world of choice will open. I’ll truly be able to identify what the bends and forks are in the path before me. Within that space I’ll find a way to be in that unmapped world—a new place to be.

A bend in the fork

(“A Bend in the Fork,” by Janet Riehl)

In memory of my sister Julia Ann Thompson whose work as a world-class physicist, coupled with her far-reaching efforts for equality and justice, made a profound difference in the world. You can read more about my sister, our family, and our father Erwin A. Thompson on Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century