Father’s Day(s)

Today is Father’s Day, and my dad is back in the hospital. I brought him to the ER yesterday morning when his ankles began swelling beyond recognition and his mind became more confused. At the moment, he’s sitting in a hospital bed on the sixth floor, Cardiology, undergoing an infusion that will be repeated every 4-5 days for as long as there’s some benefit, however minute.

I’m crazy about Dad, always have been. He’s got grit. As I’ve written before, Dad knows what he believes in and stands by it. He is a good man, a hardworking farmer, a devout Catholic. He has always acted on his convictions and refused to “go along with the crowd” if their mindset doesn’t gel with those convictions. I have nothing but respect for Dad.

During the past eight weeks, Dad has faced a new challenge: Congestive Heart Failure. His time on earth, and in my life, is coming to a close. I have spent every day with Dad these 55 days, sharing meals, watching Westerns on television, enjoying long chats about his past and the future without him here to counsel me on caring for Mom and managing the farm.

On this Father’s Day, I am reminded that I am extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to call this man my dad. I wish we had many, many more Father’s Days ahead of us.



Stolen Beauty

One of the highlights of my time in the Netherlands was the magnificent artwork. On our free days, the students who participated in the Study Away Program taking some time to explore the country on their own, my colleague from UAB and I often traveled to one or another art gallery. We saw mesmerizing works including “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in The Hague and “Starry Night” in Amsterdam. The Netherlands is home to many, many famous artists–Rembrandt, Vermeer, van Gogh, and Brugghen among them.

A story in today’s New York Times explores a very dark moment in Holland’s history generally and in the art world specifically. During World War II, numerous paintings by the Dutch Masters were stolen by the Nazis and, as the article posted here reports, are being returned by Holland’s authorities to their rightful owners in an untimely manner:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/12/arts/design/are-the-dutch-lagging-in-efforts-to-return-art-looted-by-the-nazis.html?_r=0

I hope that I will be able to return someday to the Netherlands to revisit the great works of art I saw on my visit in 2015. Perhaps some memorable pieces will have been relocated.

On a related note, a film called Woman in Gold featuring Helen Mirren as a Jewish Holocaust survivor seeking her family’s art that had been taken by the Nazis is supposedly a compelling portrayal of the beauty and riches stolen from Jews during the war. I’ve not seen it yet but just might after reading the story in the NYT.


Memories of a different life

A report issued in the European press in March finally made its way to my parents’ local newspaper:  A retirement home called Alexa Seniors’ Residence in Dresden, East Germany is assisting elderly Alzheimer’s patients by taking them back to another time.

By recreating the Communist era, filling the residence with decor from before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, offering residents clothing from the time, and even providing a shop filled with the kinds of products that residents would have once seen for sale in their local neighborhoods, patients with dementia return to a familiar scene. And to a moment when they were confident in what they knew and what they could do.

One of the early news stories–with lots of photos of the retro environment created at Alexa–can be found here:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4276120/Home-helps-Alzheimer-s-patients-recreating-East-Germany.html

While it’s hard to imagine how returning to an era of control could be a good thing, sometimes the kind of memories are less important than simply the possibility of remembering. As I’ve observed my mom’s painful decline into dementia, I’ve noticed that many of the moments she recalls most vividly are also the most painful–the events and people from her past with which she has experienced the least amount of closure.


The real problem behind food stamps

Too often in society, we point a finger at solutions that just don’t work rather than examining more closely the underlying problems that led us there in the first place.

In an editorial in today’s New York Times, readers are encouraged to stop fixating on the weaknesses of the current food stamp system–a program devised of good intentions and legitimate need. Rather, we might take to task those employers who fail to pay workers a sufficient wage leading many of these employees in search of a way to afford food for their families: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/26/opinion/trump-budget-food-stamps-wages.html?emc=edit_th_20170527&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

One of the components of critical thinking that I emphasize in my courses is problem-solving, specifically the process of “unpacking” a situation until it can’t be unpacked further. The goal of this exercise is to encourage students to keep digging until they discover the root problem that underlies a host of solutions (some promising and others not so much). I ask them to define the problem and its scope, the constituencies affected by the problem, potential benefits and drawbacks of addressing the problem from certain angles, the criteria by which a solution should be measured.

“If you expend all of your energy on a ‘problem’ that is borne of other, more central problems,” I tell my students, “you’ll often discover you’ve wasted a good amount of time without making any headway.”


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.