Perhaps this is a little too personal and really isn’t appropriate to share here, however I consider many of you compatriots, if not friends, even though we haven’t met and what better place to let down your hair than among friends.
Too much of the past few months has been involved in temporarily moving my eighty two year old mother into my house and finally into a small senior apartment near me. On top of everything else, she has hoarders disease. This, with all the other day to day tasks along with being in the middle of harvest has not left much time for much of anything else. It has also triggered memories from fifteen years ago of taking care of her brother.
The sounds of screams echoing off the hillside might have convinced someone I was being skinned alive. Truth be told they were actually screams of negative anticipation mixed in with laughter. My Uncle was holding me by my ankles, upside down, over a small stream threatening to dunk me in head first. My weight seemingly nothing for his strength to hold in place no matter how much I writhed and twisted. Eventually, after getting just the top of my hair wet he set me down on the bank which immediately triggered a full on assault by myself and my two younger siblings in attempting to push him in the stream. We were no match for him and after we three were soaked to the skin I can still hear him saying “It didn’t work out like you thought, did it?”
In those days, even though he was of fairly small stature, his strength seemed enormous. I had watched him use a peavey to roll huge saw logs with negligent ease. The boulder retaining walls placed into the hillside around his home all muscled into place by hand, his hands. He could work from before can see to after can’t see and do it day after day. We would go berry picking in the mountains and after everyone else was making noise about going home he was the one to say give him a few more minutes there’s a thick clump of berries just up the hill then proceed to scale a vertical hillside, that would give a mountain goat pause, with ease.
He was a man’s man. As an example he was working on a dam project and while deep in a cavern in the rock a whole section of the cave roof collapsed and the cavern starts flooding with water trapping him and another fellow. If it hadn’t been for the old cat that was parked beside them they would have died in the cave in. The other fellow panics and can’t do anything. My uncle grabs him by the collar of his coat and starts working his way out in the darkness pulling his fellow worker through waist deep water. Before long the water is almost shoulder deep and if he just lets go of the other guy he could certainly make it out. Instead he keeps tugging the guy along. At the very last the water is almost over their heads and it’s getting difficult to breath. The last thirty feet they are completely under water but my uncle manages to keep going and they pop out and some other guys pull his unconscious partner from the water and start working on him, they both survive. The next day he’s back at the dam site at first bell ready to go back to work, the other guy has quit. This happened years ago and he shrugs off comments that he was a hero, “No, just doing my job” he says.
He had no children of his own and was there when I was born, well only a few rooms away at the most, and was there through most of my childhood. I had an open invite to put my feet under his table any time I wanted or needed to. I suppose in many ways I was the son he never had. Though he always had time for all his nieces and nephews I always felt we had a connection that went past what he had with the others. He would take me fishing and he had the damnedest honey holes in some of the most messed up terrain you could imagine, but it was always fun and we always caught fish. One of his favorite tricks was to flip rocks and catch crawdads. Then he would break off the tails, thread them on a hook and bounce it along the bottom on a slack line, he was always into the fish. I would try it and immediately get hung up on the bottom and break my line off. He was always patient in taking the time to rig me back up again. “You know, one of these days you’re going to need to learn to tie these knots yourself, because I won’t always be around to do it for you” he would express as I dropped my line back in the water.
Years later it was me taking him fishing. We were chasing bass and in a boat next to some weeds on a small lake. Every cast it seemed I had a fish on while he couldn’t buy a strike with a hundred dollar bill. Finally I tied a jitterbug on for him to try. He just grinned when I said “You know you ought to learn to tie a few of these knots your own self, I won’t always be here to tie a new lure on for you.” He put it out several times without any success and in a good-natured way accused me of giving him a dud lure. To show him it would work I took his rod and cast it out over the weeds and immediately had a fish on. To add insult to injury the bass came out of the water about eighteen inches to hit the lure. That was the straw that broke the camels back. “Take me home” he said. I never did stop ribbing him about that trip.
Another time we were out in a boat and I was fly fishing while he was drowning worms. He habitually wore a ball cap because the hair on the top of his head was long gone many years ago and his head would sunburn in a split second. I was working from the bow of the boat and in the middle of a big assed double haul when a gust of wind stalled my back cast and drifted my line towards the stern of the boat. It also blew his hat into the lake. My forward cast was already in motion and my fly line ended up whipping over the top of his bald head and leaving a red welt right across the center of his chrome dome. Thankfully the point of the hook was facing up as the fly ripped over his scalp. He never stopped giving me grief about that escapade.
He was something of a bird hunter in those years and I remember him taking me duck hunting when I was only knee high to a grasshopper. It was also the first time I shot his twelve gauge. We came up on this little pond that had a couple of mallards sitting on it like they were posing for a post card. They didn’t even fly off when we got in range. “Here you need to get your first duck so take the shot.” he says, proffering me his gun. I didn’t want any part of shooting his shotgun because I was afraid of the recoil and told him so. “Just hold the stock off your shoulder about three inches and you can absorb the recoil with your arms.” he told me “you won’t feel a thing.” So I ups with his gun, get a wavering sight picture with a green smear of a mallard in the middle of the wobble, push the stock forward off my shoulder and pull the trigger. I have this brief recollection of seeing half the surface of the pond blow off at the same time as getting kicked by a mule. It didn’t help matters that he was a reloader and had loaded up some pretty hot loads. I ended up dusting my butt and getting knocked flat on my back staring at the sky. He was laughing so hard he was bent double with tears running down his face. Both mallards were circling us, their quacking mixed in with his laughter, I think they were laughing at me too. He loved telling that story over the years especially when he got to the part “Damn, Wes pulled the trigger and when the gun hit him his feet were higher than his head as he landed on his butt.”
But he was there to pick me up and dust me off. He also doctored cuts, scrapes and bruises with that time honored means old men employed on young men back then, “Quit your sniveling, I cut myself worse than that shaving this morning.” Yet he took care of the real injuries and made sure I was ok. When I was real young he also scared away the boogie man a few times and helped me eventually realize there was nothing out there to be scared of, especially if I knew how to shoot and carried a weapon. To that end he habitually carried a .38 special on his hip. I watched him hit an apple swinging on the end of a string too many times to think it was just luck or an accident.
When he knew his time was getting near he asked if I could help him out. My Aunt had passed before then and he was living in absolute squalor. My Aunts’ passing hadn’t contributed much to the sorry state of affairs, in thirty years they had thrown nothing, not even garbage away. It took me three months, working seven days a week to get his house cleaned up and repaired enough to even begin to let my wife start cleaning.
Once we had things cleaned up and my wife was fixing his meals his health made a slight rebound. He improved even more after I had a sit down talk with his doctors and got him off half the meds he was taking, many of them intended to fight the effect of some other medicine he was taking. It was a major success when he was able to stand at a small saw buck and cut up some large tree limbs for firewood. It may sound odd but he got a great deal of pleasure from cutting wood and though his strength wasn’t enough to run a gas powered saw, it was enough to run a little electric saw. My oldest son, not much bigger than I was when held upside down over the stream was on hand to help him wrestle limbs onto the buck and stack the cut pieces in the wood shed.
This Uncle was quite a contrast to the Uncle of my youth, now I was the strong one and he was in my arms as I carried him into the bathroom to clean him up. He was greatly humiliated by this and never stopped complaining about not being able to wipe his ass. I took a two and a half year hiatus from my life to take care of him through end of life while cancer destroyed him bit by bit. The laughter in his eyes was the first thing to go. He was always a little absent minded and could forget from one moment to the next where he set his cap but as the disease worked its evil whole portions of his life slipped from his memories. He would forget something and cuss a blue streak because he couldn’t remember what it was he wanted to remember.
One day in the yard he fell over a pile of scrap. I rushed over to pick him up and dust him off as he had done many a time for me when I was young and he was the strong one and watched in horror as he scrambled away shrieking “Don’t hit me, don’t hit me.” I was completely taken aback by this as we had never even exchanged a harsh word over the years let alone blows. It was now my turn to scare away the demons haunting him and attempt to sooth the anguish during his lucid moments, at what was happening to him.
His one plea to me was “Don’t put me in a nursing or rest home and don’t bring in hospice, all they do is kill you off quick.” I told him I would keep that promise as much as any man could but there might come a time when I could no longer care for him properly and I wouldn’t let him suffer. Eventually I was needing both some help and a break. We had a hospice appointment scheduled for two in the afternoon. He passed in his favorite chair in the front room of the house at nine in the morning. I guess he went out on his own terms.
The last two days were tough and I think he was just waiting for my mom to get there. We knew the time was getting close and put out the call to the family. Everyone had been there except my mom. She was the only one of his siblings left alive and was hurrying from a couple states away to get there. Mom got there and they had a little chat then he went to sleep. It was only a short time later that he woke in a state of agitation. He was all upset and kept telling me that he was going to miss the bus. I couldn’t calm him down until I told him I would make sure we got him to the bus stop in time. He finally slipped back into a sleep and remained that way until a few minutes before he passed when he woke up, looked at me and grinned and reached up to rub the top of his bald head. I watched him take his last breath. He finally caught his bus.
Life had gone full circle for us, I miss you Unc.
I’m eight years old, in the hospital and scared spitless while waiting for the doctor to remove the suprapubic catheter that has been draining my bladder while recovering from surgery to repair a ruptured bladder. Mom sits at the edge of the hospital bed, holds my hand and soothes my fears.
She was there through thick and thin, always a champion and protector. Scraped knees, bee stings, getting crushed by a falling horse, dealing with the aftermath of everything from motorcycle wrecks to the emotional roller coaster of getting dumped by a girl, putting herself between us and the physical abuse by my old man, long distance support when I was in a hospital bed for three months battling bone cancer more than thirty years ago.
I’m a kid standing on a step stool in front of a kitchen counter. I remember catching a lot of grief from my siblings for wearing an apron but I was making a chocolate cake, from scratch I might add, and my mother wouldn’t let me proceed without donning the apron. It was a smart move as the spatula flipped out of my hand and splattered cake batter across my front. When my masterpiece was pulled from the oven it was this flat, dense mass in the bottom of the pan. “Baking soda” was my mom’s reply “the cake won’t rise without baking soda.” So far in life I haven’t forgotten that lesson.
The other day it was my wife insisting mom put on an apron to protect her shirt and lower legs, left exposed by the white shorts she was wearing. This time it was her that had the spatula slip from her grasp and painted the front of the apron with hot strawberry jam.
“There’s something wrong with these strawberries, I’m having to skim a lot of foam.” “No, mom, you just forgot to add a smidgen of butter to the berries as you cook them.” We stir in a dab of butter and add the foam back to the pot where most of it disappears in the mix. “Well, you know, I’ve never made strawberry jam before” she exclaims. I tell her she’s made gallons and gallons of strawberry and every other kind of jam. After a bit she says that maybe she has made strawberry jam before.
It’s back in ‘79 and I was getting discharged, had nowhere to go and was unable to ride (only had a big street bike for transpo at the time) because of a cast from my foot almost to my hip. She makes my dad come pick me up. Even though I’ve been on my own for years I temporarily move into their home. She putters around driving me crazy by trying to take care of me and chewing me out for not listening to the doctors about what I can and can’t do.
The shoe is on the other foot and I’m now the one chewing her out for not listening to the doctors after she fell in the strawberry patch while picking and hurt her arm. I won’t let her do anything and she gets irritated with me about fixing her a plate of food and bringing it to her. “I can take care of myself” she exclaims.
Taking three phone calls from her in a one week period and hearing the tears in her voice at the abuse she is getting from my brother and his wife and how she has been told to get out and has nowhere to go boils my blood. I tell her she can come to my house and we’ll sort everything out. I head over with my truck and trailer to get her belongings. While sorting stuff in their back yard she falls. I pick her up, dust her off and treat the scrape on her arm. Back at my house we make up a Grandma room for her and install a few of her things.
We are sitting at the table where I have a few things spread out. Among them is the compass my dad gave me many years ago. She has absolutely no recollection of it happening. Over the course of several weeks and many conversations there are ribbons of our past that have been completely erased from her memories. The difference between her and her brother is marked. Where he became upset and angry she just quietly states “I don’t remember that!”
Yet she is experiencing fear and having trouble understanding things. I help her go through the paperwork and wait time to get her into the senior apartments just a short distance away. Her money situation is a mess. My brother had been financially abusing her and she has no idea how much is in her checking account. The check register hasn’t been balanced for years so I set her up for online banking and we make sure she is not overdrawn at the bank. It takes a lot of explaining and she still doesn’t understand how to use it. I finally tell her I’ll just take care of it for her when we get all the power of attorney paperwork back.
She gets her apartment and we move her stuff in. She needs help with lifting and sorting (and throwing away). We’ve had to fix her TV and cable box controllers about twice a day, every day. She just can’t remember how to run the damn things.
I feel we are coming full circle, I’ll be here for you mom.
Thank you all of you for letting me abuse your time and attention.