When I brought my father to the hospital –whether for a scheduled visit to his primary care physician or an unscheduled one to the emergency room, the doctor would usually ask a few mental orientation questions. Do you know where you are? Do you know what day or month or year it is? Do you know who our president is?
From 2017 on, my father gave the same response to that last question — “I refuse to say that horrible man’s name.” It made me laugh every time.
I always wondered what box they checked when he said that. In their opinion, did he know, or did he not know?
The day he couldn’t draw a clock face (another cognitive screening test) was a sad one.
But the day(s) he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) identify our president still make me smile.
Why am I telling you this story today? I don’t know. In thinking about my self-imposed assignment to write a post every day, my thoughts wandered down this rabbit trail.
In the midst of all that’s going on in our country, I still find humor in one old man’s refusal to even speak the name of our 45th president.
The other morning, when I was praying for my sister during my quiet time, I thought about the text she had recently sent.
“Heat index of 113. No wonder I’m dripping.”
She lives in Florida. Heat index must be like the wind chill — one of those weather statistics you look at and groan. I have no idea of what the heat index has ever been in Cooperstown.
Anyway, I was praying for my sister, and the heat in Florida, and thought, The good thing is that she doesn’t have to go outside and she has air conditioning.
I stopped myself. She DOES have to go outside. She recently got a dog, and a young active dog at that.
Oh, the things we do when we are responsible for another living being! Dog owners must take their dogs out in all kinds of weather. Cat owners scoop kitty litter. New parents get up in the middle of the night. Parents of older kids make that awful trip to the Emergency Room for one reason or another.
I remember the first time the parent-child paradigm shifted with my father. I was staying with my parents off and on over the summer probably 10 or 11 years ago because some of my kids had jobs in Cooperstown. In the middle of one night, I heard my father heading down the hall to use the bathroom. I was only half-awake until I heard the thud of his body hitting the floor. I ran to find him collapsed in the hallway and unresponsive.
One of my kids called 9-1-1 for me and watched for the ambulance to arrive, while I tended to my father. As he came around, I told him to lie still and that we had called the ambulance. He was distressed, though, not because he had passed out but because he had wet himself.
“I need you to get me some dry clothes,” he said.
I ran down the hall to his room where my mother slept through this whole thing, grabbed some clean clothes, and ran back to him lying on the hall floor. While children slept in nearby rooms and another child waited at the front door for the EMTs, I helped him slide off the wet articles of clothing. I cleaned him with a washcloth, and then helped slide the clean clothes on. The whole time, he kept saying, “I’m so sorry. This is terrible. You shouldn’t have to do this. I’m so sorry.”
His dignity was important to him so I made sure he arrived at the Emergency Room clean. I never said a word about it to him, or anyone else for that matter.
Andrew Peterson, in his book Adorning the Dark, tells the story of a woman asking him to write a bit of song-writing advice for her when he was signing a CD. “Don’t write bad songs,” he wrote. She then took the CD to one of the other musicians who performed on it and asked him to write his advice. He saw what Andrew had written and wrote, “Write the bad ones, too.”
I was thinking about that the other day when I shared one of my hair-brained ideas with some friends. They gently pointed out the flaw in the idea, and I felt bad, but only for a moment. Because my heart was saying, “Don’t share dumb ideas” but God was whispering, “Share the dumb ones, too.”
It’s so easy to be crippled by the bad, whatever shape that may take — a bad song, a bad idea, a bad moment in time.
With that bad moment, it’s important to remember them. Not to dwell on them, but to remember.
Remember the time you walked the dog in 103 degree weather.
Remember the trip to the ER.
Remember sharing bad advice or a dumb idea.
Some day, you’ll be able to use that precise moment to encourage someone else.
Some day, you’ll remember how much you loved that somebody and doing that thing wasn’t a chore but an expression of love.
This morning I received a notification — “You have a new memory.” I laugh at those notifications. They seem so silly.
New memories — pshaw. Memories are, by their very nature, sort of oldish.
This morning, though, I paused to look at my “new” memory.
Two years ago today, I was in Normandy.
Two years ago today, I first heard the story of British gliders landing in Normandy to take the Pegasus Bridge — gliders whose pilots used stopwatches and compasses to navigate, some landing a mere 47 yards from their objective. I’m still amazed at that feat.
Two years ago today, I stood in the Canadian cemetery in Normandy, France, and grieved for those young men whose names were carved in the stones there. So brave. So young. But such a beautiful place.
Five years ago today, I was watching Karl play tennis. He and his partner, Michael, were killing it.
Five years ago today, at about the same time, 1400 miles away, my first grandson was born.
I didn’t need a photo app on my phone or Facebook to remind me of that memory. I woke up thinking of him. (HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HENRY!!)
On the other hand, my father needed the memory prompts.
“Remember our trip to Normandy,” I asked him.
“When was that?” he replied.
“Two years ago today we went on our first tour.”
I handed him the photo book and memorabilia I had put together from that trip.
His eyes grew misty as he leafed through it all. He carefully unfolded the maps of the cemeteries and of Paris, studied them, and then folded and placed them back in the pocket of the book. I couldn’t tell if he remembered or not.
“That was a good trip,” he said.
It was a good trip.
As we travel down this other road of forgetting who, what, and how, I often think, We’ll always have Normandy (and Paris, I suppose).
We are so obsessed with doing
that we have no time
and no imagination left
As a result,
men are valued
not for what they are
but for what they do
or what they have –
for their usefulness.
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
Although sometimes what a man has
— homemade shortbread sent for a birthday —
is because of who he is
and not because of what he has done.
While he has done a lot in his life,
more importantly he has been
Recently I found this photograph from 1982 of three of my sisters-in-law standing in front of my parents’ house.
Judging by their attire, the girls must have stopped by the house after a soccer game. Bud and I were in Syracuse, so they stopped by to see my family. My family and the Zaengle family are intertwined in so many ways.
A few years later, Mary, the one in the middle, lived with my parents for a while. I can remember my father telling me how much he liked to see the wild outfits that Mary wore. She was (and is) much more fashion-forward than I will ever be.
I asked Mary if she had any stories to tell about my father from when she lived there. She said,
The picture of a gentleman. Steady and calm.
I always appreciated being able to live with your family. I loved that DP was always still awake when I got home from work, even if I worked later than normal. He said that he liked to see what crazy outfit I was wearing but it felt to me like he wanted to be sure I was safe and sound. I never felt like an inconvenience but more an instant part of the family.
Whenever we were just talking, about nothing in particular, he was always attentive. He had time to talk and never made you feel like he had to get going. Little things like that stuck out to me.
Classy, cool dude.
My parents were role-models for hospitality. They welcomed so many people into their home.
Monti, my brother Peter’s friend, also stayed with my parents for a few years. He sent this to us before my father’s birthday party.
When I was attending graduate school at SUNY Oneonta, Don and Elinor invited me to live at their home. They provided me with a welcoming home, and a second family while I went to school. I feel like I became their fourth son. I attended family events, church, art show openings, Hall of Fame dinners, ran in two triathlons, and paddled the General Clinton canoe regatta with Jimmy. I took Natalie (the sheep dog) for walks, and watched her chase chickens and steal corn off our roadside stand. …
Monti’s wife Jennie added this:
I remember how much I loved coming to visit, and how welcome Dr. and Mrs. P always made me feel. There were so many fun things to do, like taking Natalie for walks, helping in the kitchen, listening to the Kingston Trio on the reel-to-reel, and double dating with Dr. & Mrs. P to get ice cream at the brand-new Stewart’s…
When we had our first baby, we stopped to visit on the way home from the hospital, so they were the first to see Alyson. Monti and Alyson stayed with Dr. and Mrs. P when Justin was born, as well.
As I’ve worked this month to write stories about my father, I’ve been struck again and again by how very blessed I’ve been by my parents. My father was a mentor to many, generous with his time, kind, and compassionate. He served his country and his community well.
In March 2011, I wrote the following post. It’s a sweet story — and a reminder. I took it out of storage and dusted it off for today.
A number of years ago, I was able to accompany my father on his trip to his hometown. He was meeting with his siblings and their spouses to inter my grandparents’ remains. My mother was planning to go with him, but got sick just before they were supposed to leave. I filled in for her.
I had no idea what a special trip that would turn out to be. We went to the cemetery and sat on a little knoll while my father and his brother and sister reminisced about their parents. They each shared memories of how their parents had made their house a home. They talked about my grandmother making elaborate Halloween costumes for them, her competitive side coming out, so that they could win the town’s contest. They talked about their cousins and their pets and their school and their growing up years. Then my uncle said something which I will never forget.
He said, “They were young once. They fell in love. They had dreams and passions just like we do.”
I don’t know why that was so profound, but it hit me squarely in the heart.
My grandparents were old the whole time I knew them. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s. She smoked and drank martinis. I have seen her wedding picture and she was once beautiful.
My grandfather had Guillain-Barre syndrome in the late 70’s or early 80’s, I think. (Perhaps one of my siblings has a better memory for these details.) It transformed him from the robust, fun Grampa that I loved to go see, to a weak man confined to a wheelchair. I have wonderful earlier memories of him throwing the Hollywood brick (it was made of foam) at us, and tricking us every time with it. In fact, I think we all (the grandchildren) wanted that brick when they were emptying out the apartment, but no one seems to know where it went.
Unfortunately, my mind doesn’t always go back to happy memories. I remember my grandfather weeping in a wheelchair when I came to visit when I was pregnant with Philip. I remember my grandmother smoking and sniping.
“They were young once. They fell in love…” I chose, then and there, to replace my memories with happier ones.
Yesterday, I caught a little glimpse of that with my mother. We were sitting at the table, with a full plate of marmalade sandwiches. She had made ten or so before I got there — for the others. She looked up at a window ledge, and asked my father, “What’s in that vase?”
Now, you need to know that my mother has always a way with plants. Her home was filled with them. She had the most beautiful Christmas cactus I have ever seen. She would take little pieces of the Christmas cactus, stick them in a cup of water, wait for them to send out little roots and then move them to pots. She started so many plants that way. And the house is still littered with pieces of Christmas cactus stuck in water. That’s what was in the vase.
My father looked up at the milk-glass vase with the sad little piece of Christmas cactus drooping over the edge. “Well, that’s a genie in a bottle,” he said. “If you rub it, he’ll come out and grant your wish.”
My mother giggled like a schoolgirl. She looked at him and smiled.
When he left the room, she said, “I’m so lucky I found him.”
Oh, Mom, you have no idea.
“They were young once. They fell in love…” She was back to that point in her life. I want to remember her that way.
I always blamed my mother for the abundance of paper in our house.
She saved articles from the newspaper, newsletters, and magazines that interested her. Booklets, pamphlets, stapled-together packets of paper from church meetings, Cooperative Extension, the Red Cross and various volunteer activities filled her desk.
She saved recipes by the hundreds. Six boxes of recipes on index cards sit on the bottom shelf of her recipe cupboard.The two upper shelves overflow with cookbooks and recipes pulled from magazines.
The other day, I found a booklet from 1983 called “When Parents Grow Old: A Training Design for use with Adult Children Caring for Aging Parents” by John I. Rhea. My mother had neatly written her name across the top, and saved it — for me. Little did she know.
I’m beginning to realize that my father probably saved just as many papers. He catalogued his and filed them neatly in folders. Or put them in scrapbooks.
My mother’s storage method was more like a silo — just shovel everything in, using paper clips, staples, and tape liberally.
My father is most definitely a filing cabinet man.
I take after my mother.
A few years ago we cleaned out his home office to make space for a full bathroom downstairs. I found a 2 inch 3-ring binder full of “fwd: fwd: fwd:” email messages that he had printed out.
Here’s my way of dealing with those types of emails:
This little email went fwd:
This little email went fwd: fwd:
And this little email went re: re: re: re:
All the way to the trash.
I looked at the jam-packed binder full of warm-fuzzy stories and mildly off-color jokes, and shook my head. He didn’t understand about saving them electronically. He printed them all out. And punched holes in them. And stuck them in a binder.
I confess – I threw them all away. More than one fwd: earns that fate.
My intention for this post was to give you a brief history of modern-ish duplication processes — like carbon paper, mimeos, dittos, and xeroxes (a.k.a. photocopies). I’m sure I have examples of each in the massive volumes of papers in this house. But I have no energy for that today, and I’m already a day behind.
The truth is, in the early days, my father wrote things out long-hand, and then typed them. So early papers of his that I have in duplicate, like his college application essay, are done using this method.
However, many of his mechanically copied papers, even from the 1940s, fall into that fwd-fwd-fwd realm like this one, from “Moving Up Day” in high school:
“Compulsive” — That’s the word my father used to describe himself when I asked him about the detailed lists he kept of his expenses and his earnings.
“My parents didn’t have much money, you know, but it was important to them that I go to college. I wanted them to be proud of me. I wanted them to know that they weren’t wasting their money,” he told me.
I see proof that he worked very hard, even from a young age.
One year for his birthday, my sister gave him this framed picture:
My father and his brother had both worked at the Brookside Store — which was also a gas station — and was also the post office. And may still be a post office.
When my father went to college, he carefully calculated out all his finances.
He also, week by week, noted all his expenses and all his earnings. Here’s one page from that packet:
I asked my father about the names in the right-hand column. Many he didn’t remember, but Mr. Johnston’s name elicited a very warm response — “Oh, I remember Mr. Johnston! He was such a gentleman. He was always very kind to me.”
“When you wrote ‘working for Mr. Johnston’ or ‘working for Mr. Bennett,’ what did you do?” I asked him.
“Yard work or whatever they needed help with,” he replied.
“And ‘waiting at fraternity,'” I asked, “is that waiting table?”
“Yes, I did a lot of that,” he said.
The detailed pages bore witness to it.
“I was so compulsive about keeping track,” he said again, laughing.
Last night at dinner I asked my father to tell me the turtle story again. I had been a little surprised that my sister had never heard the story and wanted to make sure that I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.
“Do you remember the story of the turtle eggs when you were a little boy?” I asked.
“What? Oh… I think my father told me to go check the bag in the pantry and there were turtles in it,” he said. Ah — the detail of the pantry. I had forgotten that.
“But,” I persisted, “didn’t some bigger boys give nuts to you and tell you they were turtle eggs?”
“Maybe,” he said vaguely.
“But when we came down that winding road to the Red Sea, I can still see the man’s face,” he said, as if this was a continuation of the turtle story. “You know that road had so many switchbacks — back and forth,” and he drew a zig-zag in the air to show me, “and when we got there, the man had this big smile on face because he was so happy I had arrived and he could go home.”
This memory crops up quite frequently these days. He remembers vividly the expression on one man’s face at a very specific point in time.
“Where is Mom buried?” he asked, as if something about that memory had reminded him of her. It was the first time he has ever asked me that.
“At the columbarium at the church,” I replied.
Last year for Mother’s Day, I had tried to interest him in bringing flowers to the columbarium. I bought a plant and had Bud drop us off at the cemetery before church so we could pause for a moment with Mom. My father, however, didn’t pause. He just hurried toward the church. I placed the pansies there by myself, feeling a double sadness, and hurried after him.
“I met Elinor when I had that job picking up IV bottles from the nurses’ stations. We got to talking and hit it right off,” he said, continuing last night’s dinner conversation.
I started to ask him to elaborate on it. I wanted to know if he remembered what they talked about (which was hiking).
“But you should have seen that guy’s face,” my father said, changing gears again without notice. “He had the biggest smile because I was there and he could go home.”
I’m never quite sure what I should take from the story.
Is it the switchbacks? My father certainly incorporates switchbacks into many conversation now — not necessarily the story of the switchbacks, but actually switchbacks, where he changes direction so often and so quickly that I can’t always follow.
Or, is it the arrival at a new place and the beginning of a great new adventure?
Or, is it the idea of going home and the great joy that brings?
I found this picture yesterday and showed it to my father.
“Do you remember this man?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied.
“On the back it says, ‘Successful defibrillation and external massage’ — Does that help?” I asked.
He studied the photograph for a few more minutes. “No, I don’t remember any of that,” he finally said.
I imagine that in the life of a physician there are thousands of untold stories. Lives, limbs, trajectories changed in the course of a single decision or moment.
In January 1964, Everett Barrett didn’t die from a heart attack in Ethiopia. CPR and defibrillation saved him. I think my father had something to do with it.
Everett Barrett died two years later stateside. But during 1964-65, he worked for the fire department at the army base in Ethiopia. I can’t help but wonder if he saved any lives, too, during those years.
You know — lives saved because his life was saved.
The gift of life bestowed is a like a pebble thrown in a pond, sometimes with far-reaching ripples.
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