Last weekend, wife Brenda, daughter Jess and I drove down to South Carolina, so Brenda could spend a little time with her aging parents. Truth be told, it’s not a pretty sight down at the in-laws’ house these days. Brenda’s parents are both 80-ish, and her mother, Lula, is like a fly caught between windowpanes. She’s just about given up, and she’s down to her last few buzzes. She’s cold to the touch. She’s nearly blind. I sat right across the kitchen table from her, and until I spoke, she didn’t know I was there. Her memory is gone. Friday morning, she asked Brenda: “When did y’all get here?”
“Last night, Mama,” Brenda answered.
“What day is today?”
“When are you leaving?”
Brenda and Lula had that conversation every day, dozens of times, while Brenda sat at Lula’s bedside.
If you want to talk with Lula, the bedside’s the place to be. She doesn’t get out of bed much. When she does, she does it when nobody’s looking, and something bad usually happens. Mostly, she gets her oxygen tubing tangled up with the bedside potty chair and ends up sprawled on the floor, with the potty on top of her, contents and all. Not to get into too much detail, but believe me when I tell you, that kind of thing can take all day to clean up.
Lula rambles the house at night. She gets out of bed, feels her way to her walker and wheels her way to the kitchen. When she gets there, she plunders through the fridge. Last weekend, she got hold of some peaches and left peach pits all up and down the hall. While she was at it, she spilled some milk in the kitchen. Down in South Carolina, if you’ve got peach pits and milk on the floor, you’re going to have a whole lot of ants. So, don’t you know, the mess from Lula’s midnight raids takes some cleaning up too.
For the last five years, Brenda’s daddy, Grady, has been the cleanup guy, the nurse, the cook, the feeder and the dresser. He’s maintained Lula’s oxygen machine, and he’s given Lula her shots and her baths. He’s driven Lula to the emergency rooms, the doctors and the hospitals, and back home again.
Every day, Grady takes Lula for a car ride. Lula thinks she’s going to town. Truth is, Grady’s just driving in circles around their farmdown the driveway, back to the tree line, down to the mailbox, out by the barn, repeat as necessary until Lula’s ready to go home. After the car ride, Grady sits with her on the back porch and patiently loops through the same conversation, over and over again.
“Yes, dear, that maple tree sure has grown. Yes, darlin’, it sure is nice out here on the porch. We’ve lived here since 1968. That’s 35 years. Thirty-five years.” With all the repetition, Grady sounds a little like Foghorn Leghorn. “I say, I say, Lula. The granddaughters’ names are Amanda and Jess. Amanda. And Jess.”
Soon after nightfall, Grady puts Lula to bed, takes out his hearing aids so he won’t wake up when Lula starts rambling in the middle of the night, and curls up with Lula like he has for the last 54 years. When the sun comes up, Grady gets up. He makes breakfast and goes through the feeding, cleaning, driving and talking routine all over again. Even when he has a house full of perfectly capable and willing daughters, granddaughters and me, he won’t ask for any help. He shoos us away if we try to do anything for him. I offered to strap the potty chair to the wall and put an end to those troublesome turnovers. He wouldn’t let me do it. If we get in his way, he gives us $7 apiece and sends us to the lunch buffet in town. He knows there’ll be a quarter in change, and he expects to get his quarter back.
At 80-plus, Grady’s not exactly fit to change the tires on the tractor. A helicopter crash 34 years ago cost him 2 inches of left-leg bone, and his left ankle won’t bend. Even so, he’s still got plenty of getup. He is, after all, a man who joined the Navy just so he’d have a decent pair of shoes, then managed to become one of just a few enlisted men to earn Navy wings. He learned to make carrier landings back when there were no computers to helpjust a man on the deck waving flags at the pilot.
Today, Grady’s a living example of what a man ought to be. He takes care of the people he loves. He does it patiently and sweetly, and he doesn’t have a whine or a quit in him. He won’t quit on his wife, he won’t quit on his daughters and he won’t quit on himself. Grady will finish his husband, father and grandfather jobs, and he’ll finish them right.
If I make it to 80, I want to be just like Grady.
E-mail Walter Jowers at email@example.com.