It’s true the branch holding the prayer wheel a grandson made for him broke and the prayer wheel hit the ground, but that’s just a tiny part of the story. And, really, there were a couple of corn-fed squirrels the size of ducks on the branch at the time so I’m more inclined to chalk that up to physics than metaphysics. Still, it set the stage for a day that can only be remembered the stuff of legend.
The Fourth of July has turned out to be a pretty significant day for our family. It’s when one of my sisters let us know she had MS, it’s when we confronted my father about his drinking, it’s when the day we found out that the seam in the ice cream canister was shot and the ice cream we’d been hand cranking all morning tasted of vanilla, cream, sugar and overwhelmingly of salt. It’s also the day my father died.
We knew it was coming. Papa had been undergoing treatment for colon cancer and had stopped chemo several months earlier when the treatment nearly killed him. He opted for a shorter life but more good days until the cancer finished its dirty work. When he got home from the hospital after stopping treatment he’d been too weak too walk up and down the stairs so he bumped down on his bum and crawled up on his hands and knees. He got stronger over the next several months; when the harsh winter hit he was up on the roof clearing snow to prevent ice dams. I called those his death–defying acts; he was reminding himself, and us, that he wasn’t dead yet and, damn it, he was going to live until he died.
The return of the red-winged blackbirds saw him start to slip. The pain in his back where the cancer had spread to his spine bothered him more but he seldom complained. He was ready for the next adventure as he phrased it. He even told us that if Grandma and Grandpa weren’t there waiting for him with sour cream cookies and a bushel of peaches he might just turn around and come back. He asked me to be the ‘speaker for the dead’ at his service.
Late June it was time to bring in hospice. That Friday evening he sat outdoors reading a biography of Mozart, the next day he couldn’t remember out how to use a walker, the day after that he couldn’t walk at all. Before the sun rose another five times he was gone.
Hospice arranged for a hospital bed to be put in the living room so Papa could see outdoors and so we would have easy access to both sides of the bed to care for him. Mom got her hair cut super short so it would be less to deal with. One of the last things Papa ever said was “I like your hair like that.” I drove up from Ohio and my sister Sue flew up from Virginia. Nancy made up a chart to keep us organized (which medications given, how much, when). Papa was slipping fast and wasn’t able to swallow so slow- release opioids went up the rear. Sue and I read out loud from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a book whose lessons he treasured.
The 4th dawned with the tasks for caring for a dying man and preparing for whatever the day would bring. Family started to gather for burgers and farewells. Helen (daughter) thought Papa might be able to smell so she started a batch of chocolate chip cookies; she thought it would be a comforting thing. I don’t know about Papa but it made the house smell like home for the rest of us. We made the mix for the ice cream. More people arrived and about 10 minutes after the last grandson who could get there arrived Papa turned gray and left us. Yes, I think he had some sense that it was okay now, that the family was together.
We, being lay people, couldn’t pronounce him dead that requires a pro; Nancy called the hospice people to report that Papa had expired. I’ll never forget that, when she was connected with the nurse she said “my father has expired.” This being an unattended death the police had to be called. The nurse came and confirmed what we already knew. While we waited for the police the nurse cleaned Papa and we stood around to say a prayer. Things they don’t teach you, how long are you supposed to stand in a circle looking at the departed? Life goes on–eventually someone has to pee.
When the circle broke up there was a crack and a limb fell from a tree and onto the hood of the nurse’s car. There were three small branches with a bud, a dead leaf and a green leaf on each. Whatever your belief system there was something in it for you–two of the friends and relatives were Wicca and brought it in to lay across Papa’s body. We thought that was a bit much and cut it down to something that wouldn’t raise suspicions. I mean, a man dead in the living room with a tree limb across the body? It tasks the little gray cells or, as Thoreau put it, “as when you find a trout in the milk”. We also managed to get a navy shirt on him and pinned his military honors on the pillow by his head.
The police came and asked if there had been any witnesses–about two dozen hands went up. Helen asked him if he’d like a cookie and offered up a plate of chocolate chippers (Papa’s favorite). Apparently we looked innocent even with the branch across the body and the police left.
That’s when the storm came up. Winds whipping, skies dark enough to trigger automatic lights, lightening, thunder, hail the size of cherries. It came and went so quickly you could hardly believe it had happened except for the chunks of ice on the lawn and the rainbow. Mom had us take down the Finnish flag because the house was now ‘under new management.”
Arnie’s mom was there and said something to Nancy who asked her to repeat it. Her memory was shaky, Nancy prompted her with a word and I asked “Deine Vater ist mitt den Herrn?” She smiled and said, as she always did ‘you speak German?’ This comes into play later.
The needs of the living can’t be ignored and one of the grandchildren asked when we were going to have lunch. “We’ll probably wait until they remove the body.” The question wasn’t as strange as it sounded–a cranky toddler needed a nap and a car ride is a great way to put them to sleep.
The 4th is also when we celebrate one of the grandson’s birthday so after dinner we had cake and ice cream. Someone called asking if Papa could help work a blood drive. Ah, no he can’t, he’s dead. That, folks, is the definition of an awkward conversation.
The morning of the 5th dawned and being a family of walkers and hikers we took a long walk for breakfast but we were still full of nervous energy so we decided to start clearing out the basement. Things came up to the car port and that drew attention. Are you having a garage sale? Might as well and the signs went up. Someone asked when our father had died; turns out that ‘yesterday’ is an off-putting answer in such situations.
By the time the sale was done for the day we were all exhausted and the house only partially cleared out. No one was in the mood to cook so we went out to dinner–Olive Garden. As a large group we needed to wait for seating and in came a hefty guy–all gut no butt. Hair sweat slicked back and luxuriously hairy ears. His t-shirt stretched tight across his tummy and his sweat-pants style shorts. He’d completed the look with the white cotton socks and brown sandals. Yes, poster child for Midwestern tacky. Arnie’s mom leaned over to me and stage whispered “ist er nicht ein grosses Schwein?” Those of us with some German doubled over with laughter and didn’t dare explain it.
This year we’re gathering again to celebrate our Mom’s life and to take the cremains of both our parents for interment in the memory garden of their church. Though as Mom said, it doesn’t really matter, “everyone we knew is dead” but we’ll hold back just a little to scatter in Lake Michigan where they sailed. We’ll be honoring her work with the Red Cross, her skill as a sailor, teaching and singing Dona Nobis Pacem in memory of her many years with the Girl Scouts. We’ll be making ice cream, grilling burgers, lighting sparklers and adding another set of memories to the 4th of July stories. It’s what we do.