Routines

This morning, Bob, one of the farmers who began working our family’s land once Dad retired, agreed to come over to install some safety features in the bathroom. Dad is home from the hospital, at least for now, but the house that my grandparents built clearly needed some updates to accommodate the situation. Although we don’t know for sure how much Dad’s life will change given his current diagnosis, Dad told me that he wants to stay at home if he can and feel as secure as possible going about his everyday routine.

As soon as Dad found out that Bob was headed our way, along with Bob’s brother-in-law/partner and the rep for crop insurance that they all work with, Dad began talking about needing help getting out of his pajamas and into his bib overalls and seed corn hat. The guys were coming to visit, and Dad wanted to look the part of, well, Jerry–a fourth-generation farmer whose standard attire has been the same for just about all of his 81 years.

As we sat waiting on Bob and the others, Dad and I started talking about a future with Congestive Heart Failure–the new “bland” sodium-reduced diet; morning rituals of recording and reporting vitals; an onslaught of visits from home health, home helpers, and friends and neighbors prepared to drive Dad to and from a host of appointments.

“I’m not sure how long I’ll last if I can’t get outside, walk out to the field, see the crops coming up,” he told me.

I reminded Dad that the purpose of cardiac physical therapy, which he’ll begin on Friday, is to help him restore as much strength as possible to his heart muscles and lungs. Over time, the goal is to move him closer to doing the very things that will make his life more like it’s always been.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the same, though,” he responded.

Dad’s eyes began to water as he told me that he isn’t confident that he can make so many changes at his age–and without my mom by his side.

I get it. I do. Dad’s being encouraged to accept a new normal that’s anything but. Especially for an Illinois farmer.

 

 

 

 

Sooner rather than later

During the past few years, my parents and I have been talking more openly about the future of the farm on which I was raised.

“One of these days,” my dad has often said, “you’ll be in the driver’s seat when it comes to running things.”

Bit by bit, Dad has taught me what he knows. A fourth-generation farmer, Dad has a wealth of knowledge to share–about planting, harvesting, marketing, buying and selling land. Perhaps the greatest thing my parents have taught me, though, is that the land on which they’ve made a living is something to be cherished. When my ancestors immigrated from Ireland, they discovered rich soil in Central Illinois and chose to settle here–a decision that has continued to shape how my parents and many others in my extended family have lived their lives.  Certain fields are reminders of the sacrifices that Mom and Dad made at different points in their marriage, plans and dreams they had for building their operation and creating a more secure future for our family.

As Dad and Mom have shared their wisdom and memories, I have drunk in their stories and know-how. And I have thought about how my life will change when, one day, I am involved directly in the business of farming. As well as how much my life will represent another chapter in the history of our family.

What I hadn’t considered, though, was how soon this change might occur. Four weeks ago, Dad showed up at the local ER with Congestive Heart Failure. On the same day, Mom was transferred to the nursing home with a host of physical problems and increasing dementia. Neither Mom nor Dad seems to be bouncing back, and I am scared that my responsibilities on the farm might come “sooner” rather than “later.”

I pray that we’ll all have more time together. And that when the moment arrives for me to step up and take charge, I will do my parents–and all those who came before–proud.

Trump and tractors

Today marks my 15th day in Illinois. I headed this way on Monday, April 24 after receiving a phone call from the ER nurse at the local hospital in my hometown telling me that my 81-year-old father had been admitted with congestive heart failure. It just so happens that my 80-year-old mom was being transferred to a nursing home on the same day to address a damaged knee following a bad fall at my parents’ home the week before.

The past 15 days have brought much strife.

After local doctors confirmed that Dad’s heart was operating at minimal capacity, Dad was sent to a larger facility in a nearby town. More bad news followed. A heart catherization showed extensive blockages in two of his arteries, a leaky valve, and confirmation of a number of other heart issues that have grown worse with age. During the past week, Dad and I have sat at home counting down the minutes until he can go to a more sophisticated cardiac center for a needed, albeit risky, procedure.

In the meantime, Mom has continued to struggle with her injuries and with increasing confusion and signs of dementia. Once or twice a day, I set out for the nursing home to visit and field phone calls in-between visits to help Mom sort out where she is and what’s going on in our lives. We spend time arranging things in her room at the nursing home and talking about things we’ve done over the years–a visit to the Norman Rockwell Exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art, seeing the Rockettes Holiday Spectacular one Thanksgiving, our mother-daughter trip to Australia, and other memories that are ingrained in Mom’s mind.

Dad and I pass the days {and nights} talking, reading farm magazines (when he feels up to it) and writing (when I feel up to it), and watching television. Dad’s favorite channels are CNN for coverage of all things political and RFD (standing for Rural Free Delivery, the name of the postal service that delivered directly to rural areas). RFD shows address everything from crop yields to cattle feed to the pleasures of an agrarian life.

“All we watch is Trump and tractors,” I joked to Dad earlier today.

“Yeah, that’s about all there is,” he said with a smirk.

We both know that there’s so much more.

 

 

Tips from a cancer survivor and mom

I came across an amazing article in Working Mother from a mom with terminal cancer: http://www.msn.com/en-us/lifestyle/whats-hot/a-note-to-my-fellow-working-moms-as-i-near-the-end-of-my-life/ar-BBzLxej?li=BBnb4R7

Rachel Huff shares the choices she’s made now that her doctors tell her that she is nearing the end of her life. Rather than embarking on a trip across the ocean or retiring early to take it easy, Huff says that she is relishing in the everyday joys of her life. The people she sees and tasks she completes at work. Opportunities to drive her kids to school and activities. Time to sit and sip a cup of tea. A day without debilitating pain.

Huff’s words made me pause and think about all that I have to be thankful for: a beautiful family, a job I love, a place to lay my head at night, and all the little extras that fill my days that I too often take for granted.

 

Heroin in the heartland

A story about drug abuse and overdoses in the heartland appeared in The New York Times on a day when I was visiting my parents in Illinois. Our family–and our family’s farm–has been affected for decades by my brother’s addiction to alcohol and drugs, so the story resonated with me:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/12/us/opioid-epidemic-rural-farm.html?emc=edit_th_20170313&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

In the small farming community where I grew up, drugs were everywhere. And my brother, Joe, found them, at age 13.

I still remember the first time I saw my brother high. My parents were out of town and my grandmother was staying with us. We drove to town on a Friday night to pick up Joe from a movie with friends. Instead, Joe had spent the evening with other friends a few blocks away and was standing on the corner waiting for us when we pulled up. He was weaving back and forth, bending over, shaking his head of long 70s hair back and forth, I assume in an attempt to shake off the fuzzy feeling in his head. It was the beginning of a very long relationship between my brother and the drugs of choice that would continue to tempt him over the years.

Like most farmers’ sons, Joe was the assumed heir to the farming life. Dad, who’s a fourth-generation farmer, always figured that Joe would follow in his footsteps and I would work alongside my brother–likely from afar. But one mistake followed another–arrests for drugs and theft, foggy judgments that resulted in fights and plenty of embarrassment in our small town, increasingly clouded thinking and a habit of lying–until my dad, like Roger Winemiller, the Midwestern farmer featured in the NYT piece, lost trust in my brother to do the right thing. When something as precious as your life’s work is at stake, you can’t risk entrusting it to an addict. Even if he’s your son.

Good news

After a two-day delay, Edwina underwent surgery on Thursday. When we headed back to pre-op, the doctor who would perform the surgery gave us good news: The biopsy he’d sent off the week before had come back negative. No cancer! The worry in Edwina’s eyes immediately started to fade.

I called Edwina yesterday, as she was preparing to go home. While she was thrilled to be getting out of the hospital and to settle back into a familiar, far cozier environment, she knew she’d have some challenges when she got there.

Tyrone’s son would still be hanging out.

Her son, Steve, and his girlfriend would be running in and out.

Joe-Joe, Edwina’s brother, would be crashing on the couch some nights.

She’d still have a big bill to pay before she could get her car back in working order.

Edwina wasn’t sure how much food would be left in her refrigerator by the time she walked in the door of her apartment, or what kind of mess she’d find.

While it beats sleeping in a hospital, home isn’t always a worry-free zone.

 

A long walk

On Monday, I left my office and headed to my car after an exhausting rollercoaster of a day.

My brother, about whom I’ve written many times on this blog, has been a patient in a psychiatric ward for the past several weeks following an unfortunate incident in my hometown. On Monday, I learned that he was to be discharged from the ward and sent to a nursing home for care. I was stunned by the news.

Joe is 56 years old, and while he’s spent decades abusing drugs and alcohol which have taken a serious toll on his health, I never expected him to end up in a nursing home so soon. He’s been in and out of rehab centers, jails and prisons, and homeless shelters much of his life. But a nursing home is another thing altogether, a place people go towards the end of their lives when they can no longer function on their own.

Truth be told, I don’t know with certainty how incapacitated my brother is right now. I hope his stay at a nursing home is driven more by the lack of a space in another sort of facility than a testament to how desperate his situation has become. Still, I couldn’t (and still can’t) stop thinking about how my brother got to this point, about all of the years during which–bit by bit–Joe found himself less capable of pulling himself back up when he hit the pavement.

On my way to my car on Monday, I found myself standing next to a homeless man at a stoplight. He asked me how I was, and while I typically would have offered a brief response and forged on, I turned towards him and locked eyes with the man. He looked to be somewhere in his 50s, and his blonde hair had grown into a long tangle that escaped the sides of his worn baseball cap. His cheeks were red and he carried a strong scent of whiskey on his breath.

He and I walked side-by-side for a couple of blocks until I turned off to find my car. And we chatted, about the weather–“still warm in Birmingham”–the day we’d had and where we were heading to next. The man told me that he had a long walk ahead, since he was “going up to Vulcan, up on top of the mountain,” an uphill climb from where the university sits in the valley.

“Have a good one,” I told him.

“You too, Mam,” He replied.

I climbed into my car, thinking about my brother’s fate and how much the man I’d just met reminded me of a gentler Joe, still wandering to an identifiable destination.