April 28, 2017

My Father’s Keeper…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:26 pm


We are the sons of our father, and we shall follow the print of his foot forever.

—Thomas Wolfe

I knew the day was coming. It had been decreed, for some time. It’s Ira’s turn to go down to Florida, to Pinecraft, for a week, to take care of Dad. So it was spoken. Let it never be unspoken. So let it never be unsaid. And early on, I had told my sisters. I’ll go. I’ll take my turn. But it sure would be nice if I could get down there while it’s cold up here. I mean, if you’re taking a trip to Florida, the folks back home might as well be feeling bad about the winter weather they’re stuck in. But I guess I wasn’t needed, then. Now, as the first day of April approached, I was.

I figured to drive down, make a nice little road trip out of it. I detest all those security goons at airports enough that I’ll drive most times. Even two days. So I called Enterprise a few days before I planned to leave. Save me something like a Ford Focus, I said. That car had worked real well, going up to Canada for that funeral a month back. And the day I was leaving came sliding in at me. The tenant had been notified, here at home. Get my mail, and look after things. Keep an eye out, when I’m gone. I’ll be back a week from Sunday. He wished me a safe trip, like he always does.

And I gotta say. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Dad is 95 years old. And more than half cranky most of the time, from what I had heard. I mean, at that age, I guess a man has a right to get cranky just about any time he’s got a mind to. But still. It would get real tiring, real quick, if we just fussed around all week. That was the last thing I wanted. I didn’t sweat it much, though, walking toward it. I’ll figure it out when I get down there, I thought to myself. Just let life flow at you. Just walk. And rest, as you can. But keep walking. And I packed my bags that Thursday evening. Tomorrow, I’d head on south. Way south. I slept fitfully that night.

The next morning I was waiting outside the Enterprise office when it opened. The skies were spitting rain, as predicted. It was coming hard, all morning. The young Enterprise man greeted me as I walked up to his desk. I got a car reserved, I told him. A Focus, or something like that. What do you have? He glanced at the gaggle of keys spread on the counter. “I have a Hyundai Elantra,” he said, all bright and happy. I looked at him. He instantly sensed there was a problem. That will not work, I said. I won’t drive a Hyundai. They ain’t got no headroom. I’m going to Florida. A Hyundai simply will not work. What else you got? Any Chargers on the lot?

He shook his head, and flash of irritation shot through me. Come on, I said. You guys have always taken care of me. I will not drive a Hyundai. There has to be another option that will work. “Well,” he said. “I have a Jeep Wrangler, here.” And he told me the upcharge price. It was more than I wanted to pay, but I shrugged. OK, I said. Bring it up. I guess I’ll run with that. He brought it up. Shining, black as coal, a real Jeep. I had no clue of how fateful that moment was. No clue at all. I guess I’ll be a Wrangler man for a week, I told the guy. He grinned. “A lot of people really like them,” he said. I headed home to load.

And shortly before eight, I was loaded up and heading out. When you drive somewhere, you can just throw in the kitchen sink, if you want to. I packed my big suitcase, and a couple of smaller bags. My shirts, I just laid them out, there in the back of the Jeep. I wasn’t sure what to think of my black beast, right at first. But it didn’t take me long to figure it all out. It was primitive, no question about that. Manual locks. You had to crank the windows up and down by hand, for crying out loud. I was a little dubious. But not for long.

The Lord was sure looking out for me, when that Jeep came at me that morning. That’s about all I can say. The forecast had called for heavy rains, all that morning, all through the region. And this time, the weather people got it right. Rain came down at me in heavy sheets. Wave after wave after wave. For three hours. Most times, visibility was less than an eighth of a mile, I figured. The Jeep rolled right through it all like a freakin’ tank. I was simply amazed. I don’t think it ever realized it was raining that hard, at any time. And I looked to the heavens in gratitude. Thank you, Lord, I said. Thank you for looking out for me, in even such a small thing as this. After three hours down 81 South, I finally drove into clear skies.

I pushed hard, and fast. The Wrangler bucketed along, down through Virginia, then over to South Carolina. I wanted to get about three quarters of the way down, before stopping for the night. So I pushed and drove and drove. I was increasingly impressed with the Jeep. It rode as smooth as Big Blue. It handled real nice. And it felt like I was driving a mean machine of some kind. I could really get used to this, I thought to myself.

And by 7:30 or so, I pulled off on an exit along I-64. Not far from I-95, which would take me right on down to Florida. I picked an exit that had all the signs for a dozen motels, or more. And all kinds of good restaurants. I would check in. Relax. And tomorrow, I’d head on down to Dad in good time. I pulled into my first choice for a motel, five stories high, right across the street from a TGI Friday’s. I’d check in, then walk over for some food. The place was packed and hopping. And the clerk told me, when I finally got to her. No rooms. They were booked solid. Wow, I said. That seems strange, on a random Friday night.

I drove a block down, and walked into another high rise place. This time, the clerk just shook her head. No rooms. Why? I asked. “There’s a Jehovah’s Witness convention, and every room is booked, in every motel here,” she said. And a flash of irritation swept through me. Not at her. At the JWs. They bother me at my home front door, now and again. And now, they were keeping me from getting a room. Good grief. Oh, well. I guess they have the right to assemble, just like any other group has. I’ll head on down the road.

I slept in a trashy $50 a night motel, down south a bit on 95. A nice Indian lady checked me in. And surprisingly, the place was clean, the bed was firm. I went out to get some food, then crashed in my room. It had been a long day. I slumbered well that night, inside that trashy motel.

I need to get to Pinecraft, or this blog will never get done. Talking about the pace of the narrative, I mean. I have no idea of how it will shake out, but it looks like it might be long.

The next morning, I gassed up the Jeep and headed south. Traffic was fairly light. I cruised right along at 80. And driving along that morning, along a fifty-mile stretch, I saw it in my mirror. A black Jeep Wrangler, carbon copy of what I was driving, swung in behind me. He lurked back there, and we traveled together for a while. Our own little convoy. It felt wicked cool. I could get used to this Jeep world, I thought to myself.

Around Jacksonville, I left the interstate, to connect on 301 to I-75 in Tampa. And I should have known better. I was following some SUV into a small town. The speed limit abruptly dropped to 45. The SUV kept right on cruising. I followed. And a road bandit was waiting. A thug cop. He yanked us both over. And half an hour later, he let me go, along with a ticket for $191.00. It’s a racket, all of that crap is. I had harmed no person. But because a road bandit was watching, I got robbed. It all just makes me crazy. As a general principle, I don’t like or trust cops. This is part of the reason why.

The interstate around Tampa was totally clogged. Traffic stopped abruptly, in the middle of nowhere, for no reason. I seethed and fussed. And eventually I got around, and headed south. And by four or so, I took the exit for Sarasota. Pinecraft. Twenty minutes later, I pulled in to the house where Dad was staying on Hines Street. I parked the Jeep under the canopy and got out and stretched. It had been a long and frustrating day of driving. Dad was sitting out by the little shed in the sun, reading The Budget. He is by far the oldest Budget scribe. I walked up to him. Hello, Dad, I said, holding out my hand. He looked up, and took it. “Ira,” he said. “You made it.” Yep, I said. I’m here.

For 95, Dad doesn’t look that bad. He sits in his wheelchair, mostly, these days, to get around. He can still walk with a walker, though. But the wheelchair is just easier. And he’s a little thin, now, too, I thought. I guess he doesn’t eat that much, anymore. When you’re 95, I figure you can do about what you feel like doing. Eat what you want, too, when you want it. Just my thinking.

Well, I said to myself. I’m here. I’ll be here for a week. Might as well get settled in. I asked Dad. Where’s Jonas? “Oh, he left to run some errands,” Dad said. You’re here all alone? I asked. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I’m fine.” Jonas Miller is the Amish widower who somehow connected with my family in Pinecraft. He comes around every day to be with Dad, and he sleeps in the corner bedroom most nights, so he’s there to help Dad get dressed in the mornings. I had not met him, yet, but was fixing to, pretty soon, now. The man was just simply a Godsend, as far as I’m concerned.

I chatted with Dad a few more minutes, then walked to the Jeep to unload my bags. I carried my stuff in to the northeast corner bedroom in the back. Dad rents a whole house from his friend, Glen Graber. It’s an old house, kind of worn, but still. It’s roomy. And a palace, for Pinecraft. Some of the little huts you see down there are barely big enough to turn around in. I unpacked, hung up my shirts. Changed immediately into shorts and flip flops. The Florida weather was so warm and inviting. After a while, I walked out to bring Dad back up the ramp to the house. Soon it would be time for supper.

I had come to stay with my father for a full week. And I wasn’t sure what was expected of me. I mean, when your Dad’s 95, you can’t be too surprised by anything, I don’t think. We sat and visited, there in the kitchen. And soon the door opened, and a wiry Amish man strolled in. Jonas. He looked to be in his seventies. I stood and we shook hands and introduced ourselves. He knew my name. Dad had told him I was coming. He was tall, wiry, active, and seemed extremely capable. “I don’t like to cook,” he told me. “You get the meals ready, and I’ll take care of everything else.” Well, I said. I’m no chef, but I figure I can whip up some meals as we need them.

I checked out the fridge. It was loaded with lots of stuff, but much of it wasn’t good, I figured. Tomorrow I would clean it out, and restock with food from the grocery store. Tonight, I’d get some soup at a nearby deli. I asked Dad for his credit card. I’m going to get supper, I told him. He handed over his Visa, and I put it in my wallet. It would stay there all week. I soon returned with a tub of hot soup, and set the table. Dad likes to eat supper around six or so. And we sat down, the three of us, for the first of many meals together. We sat and bowed our heads. And then Dad spoke it, his voice cracked and faltering a bit now. That old-time German blessing for a meal.

After the meal, I cleared the table and washed the dishes. That would be my function during my time with Dad. Cook, serve the food, then clean the table and wash the dishes. After supper, we just sat around and visited for a while. And I don’t know where the question came from. Dad looked at me. Then he asked. “How many hours do you work on each blog, before posting it?” I was startled.

Uh, twenty-five hours, at least, on each one, I told him. And then I said. The hardest thing to do in writing is to write something that reads so easy, the reader thinks it was easy to write.

He grappled with that. Looked blank. He wasn’t getting it. What I’m saying is, writing is hard work, I said. You know that. He chuckled. “Yes,” he said. “I know that. I know writing is hard work.” And I marveled a little bit at that conversation. Me and my Dad, talking about what it is to write. That’s a day I probably never figured I’d see. Thank you, Lord, I said silently in my heart.

Sunday morning. The first day. I slept in. I heard Dad and Jonas clumping around out in the living room. And then they were off to church. There’s a real Amish church in Pinecraft. The only one of its kind in all the world. Dad faithfully attends when he’s there. I had lunch ready when they got back around noon. We sat and ate, and talked. And out of the blue, Dad popped out a strange question. “So,” he said. “What’s your second book going to be about?”

I flinched a little. I couldn’t just say. You. So I hedged. We’ll see, I said. We’ll see if a publisher picks it up. And then we’ll see what that publisher wants the book to be about. He seemed content with that. And I’ve wondered a bit, since that moment. How would he have reacted if I had just told him? The second book will be a lot about you.

I had cleaned out the fridge that morning, while Dad was in church. Whatever was even remotely suspicious, I just threw it out. And that afternoon, while Dad was napping, I took off in my black Jeep. North on Beneva, a little more than a mile. To the large Publix grocery store on the left. I grabbed a cart, and began walking. Anything and everything I thought we might eat that week, I threw into the cart. Bread. All kinds of spreads. Yogurt drinks. Virgin olive oil, to cook with. Bacon. Eggs. Hot dogs. Bologna. Anything and everything.

I settled in, then, there in the house. The week was gonna come at me. And Monday morning arrived soon enough. He had a doctor’s appointment, at a complex a few blocks away. So after breakfast, I pushed him out and down the street, to get there. A blood test. Some other minor things. And after we got out, he wanted to go shopping at the CVS a few blocks south. So I trundled on down, pushing my father in his wheelchair. It was a glorious, sunny morning. Only in Florida. Only in Pinecraft.

I kind of felt my way through, cooking those first few days. My sister Maggie had been there the week before. And she had cooked up some delicious homemade vegetable soup, and stuck it in the freezer, in little containers. She used to feed me like that, years ago when I was a student at Bob Jones. And here, she left her magic again. And that Monday, for lunch, we had soup, Dad and me. I fried up a couple of hot dogs, too. Jonas was gone every day, during the day. So for lunch, it was always just Dad and me.

And that first day, he told me what he wanted for dessert. A root beer float. Of course, I said. You can have all the root beer floats you want, any time you want them. I got a cup and scraped in some ice cream from the freezer. And poured in the root beer. Dad took a spoon and slurped away.

And it was so strange, how the conversation went between us. I mean, it was just me and him. No one else around. All week, the talk just kind of went where it would, like the wind. And I can’t remember if it was that Monday, or the next day, when he got to telling me a story. I think it was Monday.

Anyway, the narrative briefly involved Nebraska. The state. He stopped, and paused a bit. “Nebraska,” he said. “Didn’t you live there once, for a year?”

This, then, is how he remembered my first desperate flight from home at seventeen. I lived there, in Valentine, yes, and worked on a ranch, I told him. But it was only for six months or so. He nodded, and went back to telling his story.

And the week just came at me. It always happens the same, I think, when you walk into a new place like that. You’re not sure of what’s gonna happen. You walk forward. And the days come at you, and pass, as if by magic. Looking back, that week with Dad, down in Pinecraft, was one of the more magical weeks I’ve ever seen.

Every morning, Jonas knocked on my bedroom door as he was helping Dad get dressed and ready for the day. I hopped out of bed, pulled on shorts and a T shirt, and got to the serious business of cooking breakfast. Bacon and eggs, every morning. And toast. And juice, and coffee. By the time Dad came wheeling around, I had the table set, and the food ready. We sat and bowed our heads and he spoke his prayer. And then we ate.

After breakfast, every morning, Jonas and I sat on the two couches in the living room. Dad took the German Bible and read a passage aloud. And then he took that little black prayer book in his hands. He knows the prayers by heart. But these days, I guess he doesn’t trust himself. He reads the prayer aloud from the book. Jonas and I just sat there. No one knelt, like we used to do. I guess the fire of it all dies in you a little bit, when you get to 95, like Dad is. His rhythm and flow is broken now, compared to what it was. But still, I can hear the voice I grew up with, speaking those beautiful morning prayers. And every morning, I sat there and absorbed that. Not a whole lot of people get to hear their father pray aloud when he’s 95.

Dad praying

After devotions, Jonas always took his leave. Will you be here for supper? I always asked him. Yes, he would be. And then it was just Dad and me, for the day. The man gets visitors, every day. His star has receded tremendously, but his name is still well known in a place like Pinecraft. Randomly, at all hours, but usually in the afternoon, the doorbell jangled. Loudly. Dad would look up from what he was doing, anticipation on his face. And I looked out the front window, to see who was knocking. And I always walked out to the front door to invite the people in. There was an endless and fascinating stream, seemed like.

On Wednesday afternoon, my friend Katie Troyer stopped by. Katie is a “little person,” and a very good friend of mine. She will go down in history as the most prolific photographer of the Amish people, anywhere. And especially the Amish people as they lived and looked like in Pinecraft. Katie has the eye, for a great photo. And her shots are always amazing, simply from her perspective, as a short person. Anyway, she dropped by, and I welcomed her. And we caught up. Dad came wheeling in, too. And he and Katie got to talking about the old days at Pathway in Old Aylmer. Katie worked at Pathway, right after we moved to Bloomfield.

Dad and Katie

And I figured that was about it, for that Wednesday, after Katie left. But no. Very soon, the doorbell jangled again. I looked out the window. A plain man and woman. Not Amish. Maybe Beachy. The man had a long beard. The woman wore a substantial covering and a cape dress. I walked to the door, and invited them in. They were all smiling and friendly. A little startled, maybe, at how I looked. They had stopped before, and knew Dad. And they had to think it was a little strange, me standing there. In my khaki shorts and T-shirt, wearing a black biker’s chain necklace. Long hair. Bearded. Who is this heathen, in David Wagler’s house in Pinecraft?

We walked in, and Dad greeted them. They were leaving for home the next day, and had stopped in to say good-bye. We sat there on the couches. And before Dad came wheeling in from the other room, the woman looked at me. A little sharply, I thought. And she asked me who I was.

I’m David’s boy, Ira, I said. “Are you married?” She asked. I am single, I said. She was persistent. “But were you ever?” She asked. I had to concede. I was. I’m divorced. She looked pityingly sympathetic. But she smiled bravely.

It turned out they were Sleeping Preacher people. They look and dress just a little different than most Plain groups. And they speak the Mother tongue. PA Dutch. We chatted right along. They actually had a copy of my book at home, and she asked me to sign and date a scrap of paper, so she could paste it inside the front cover. I’m glad to, I said. And I did.

I had a lot of questions about the Sleeping Preacher churches. They bristled at that term. It’s spirit-filled preaching. They call themselves Amish-Mennonites. They spoke much of Unsere Leit. Our people.

They have a lot of rules. No internet. Cell phones are blocked, so no one can surf the web. The man told me. “There’s a committee, and every year, everyone has to get their cell phones checked, to make sure they’re in compliance.” He may or may not have seen my look of horror. He added, all wise. “It would be nice if we could build a fence high enough to keep Satan out. But he always finds a way to get over it or through it.”

Yeah, I’ll bet you can’t build a fence high enough to keep Satan out, I thought to myself. I didn’t say that, though.

The week was winding down, faster than I figured could be possible. I kept on cooking, every day, three meals a day. Bacon and eggs for breakfast. Soup and whatever for lunch. And for supper, I usually sliced up some potatoes. Mixed in some meat. And fried it all up in a big pan. During my little shopping spree, I had picked up a pack of yogurt smoothies. And one day, during lunch, I pulled out a bottle and opened it. This is a healthy yogurt drink, I told Dad, as he was finishing up his meal. I gave it to him, and he took a sip. He was impressed. “I like it,” he told me. “I don’t know why I’ve never tasted a drink like this before.” Well, I thought to myself. If you knew how much they cost, you probably wouldn’t wonder why it is that you never bought any.

And every afternoon, Dad wanted to go check the mail. And get some sunshine. I opened the doors, and he wheeled himself out. And on out the drive, to the mailbox. And every day, he just sat there in the sun, looking off into the distance. An old man, alone. Who knows what thoughts were going through his mind? For twenty minutes or so, he sat there, and then he slowly turned and wheeled back to the house. I always watched for him, to go out and help him up the little ramp to the front door.

Dad in the sun

And Friday came, then. The last full day here. Tomorrow, I would head for home. The week had just shot by, I thought. And that morning, the doorbell jangled again. More visitors. A very nice middle aged Holdeman couple. The Holdemans are a little like the Sleeping Preacher people in that they’ll call themselves all kinds of other fancy names. Like Church of God in Christ Mennonite. And it takes you a while to dig it out. You’re Holdemans.

They’re some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, the Holdeman Mennonites. So warm. So welcoming. And they are so the One True Church. They smile and smile until you join them. And then the mask comes off. You can never, never leave, not without being excommunicated and condemned to the fires of hell. It’s a brutal thing.

This couple this morning was real nice and friendly. Dad had a great visit with them. They made a few connections. They had read Dad’s writings for years. And he even hawked his books to them, and they bought. They left, then.

And I thought about it, how it all seems so hopeless and so futile. All these little groups like the Sleeping Preacher people and the Holdemans. And the Beachy Amish, too, and the conservative Mennonites. All separated from each other, all walking their own little paths, and all convinced that they are the One True Church. All judging each other relentlessly. I don’t question the right of any group to separate, to make their own rules, and to serve the Lord as they see fit. It’s none of my business, really. And I stridently defend their rights to be who they are. But still. I wonder sometimes. How surprised are a lot of these people going to be when they get to heaven and see all those other unwashed “sinners” up there, too? And maybe even some Amish people. (That’s a joke, but only about half.)

I don’t remember what triggered it. But Dad got to talking that morning about the day his own father died. Back in Daviess in 1940. They were threshing that day. His father, Joseph K., was up on the wagon, throwing bundles into the threshing machine, in the hot sun. And suddenly, he just collapsed from a heat stroke. He fell, and would have slid off the wagon, had his son-in-law not caught him. They carried him to the shade of a nearby tree. He died there a short time later.

“I was nineteen when my father died,” Dad said. His voice was tired and heavy. “He was fifty-nine years old. I thought he was an old man.” He paused, then muttered an afterthought. “You don’t ever forget a thing like that.”

I ran out to do a little shopping that last afternoon. The Publix grocery stores are not bad. Dad needed more ice cream for his root beer floats. And I was out of bacon and eggs. I strolled around the store, just browsing. And then I saw it, in the seafood section. Little trays of sushi. And it just hit me. I bet Dad never tasted sushi. So I bought two little trays, two separate flavors. And a tiny bottle of soy sauce.

Later, I cooked up a small pot of soup, and Dad and Jonas and I sat down to eat. I served him the soup, and showed him the sushi. He was suspicious, when I told him it’s raw fish wrapped in rice and seaweed. But he tried a piece, and claimed it wasn’t bad, even with the wasabi sauce. And then he just chowed down like he’d done it all his life.

That night, I packed my bags and loaded the Jeep. Tomorrow morning, early, I was heading north for home. I hoped to get there before too late on Sunday afternoon. The next morning, before breakfast, I shook my father’s hand and said good-bye. I thanked Jonas, too, for all his help. And then I walked outside, boarded the Jeep, and headed out on the long road north.

It had been a remarkable week. The days just flew right by. And I looked back over the week that was. I wasn’t sure how it would go, being he’s 95 and all. At that age, anyone has earned the right to be cranky now and then. That week, he almost never was. I guess I figured, when I got there. Let the man be as independent as he wants to be. Let him do what he wants, as long as he’s not hurting himself. And let him eat what he wants, when he wants it. That formula seems to have worked.

I am grateful for the time I got to spend with my father. It was a gift, all of it, every minute of every day. And I am grateful for the road that was my life that week.
And looking back over that week, it seems a little strange. Or maybe not. What do you expect from a 95-year-old man? He never mentioned Mom, all that week. There was no reason to, I guess. I never brought up her name.

She died three years ago, this morning, at 6:40. It was a brutal thing, to see her suffer, and we were relieved, all her children, that the Lord had finally removed her from all that senseless pain. It was past time, we thought. But we were grateful. We remain grateful. Mom is now in a place of joy, a place where she will never suffer again.

It’s a strange and complex thing, this journey we call life.