I walked the hill in my parents’ backyard, picking up sticks and limbs that a recent thunderstorm brought to the ground. Mom had been mowing the grass earlier. Taking a break, she came into the house where I sat with my father. She said there were lots of sticks out back and would go back out and finish after a break. She sat in the recliner drinking a beverage, then lifted the foot of the recliner and said, with her eyes closed, “I guess I shouldn’t have sat down.” So, I went out to pick up sticks.
I walked the grassy knoll. And it really is a grassy knoll. Not everyone can say they had a grassy knoll to play on as a child, but I did. I walked the grassy knoll and started picking up sticks and small limbs and carrying them over to a large pile of other sticks and small limbs that have been collecting over the past year or two. They lie in a spot where my father used to burn such items. But no burning has happened recently. The pile grows higher and has likely become a welcome home for some backyard critters. Perhaps a snake has taken up residence. That’s where I’d want to live if I were a snake. Or maybe some small rodent has moved his family in there, cozy and warm in the winter snow and shaded from the summer heat. I would hope someone would check for such inhabitants before setting the pile ablaze again. Dad would want that, I think.
As I walked, feeling the familiar earth under my feet, I felt my father walking with me. He would have loved walking that grassy knoll with me, picking up sticks. Or planting. Or mowing. Or fixing a fence. Or pulling weeds. Or repairing the toolshed. Or picking apples. Or playing with his grandson. Or just taking a walk on his well-tended land.
But he can’t.
Life has turned on him. All that it ever gave him, it is now slowly taking away. While I pick up sticks, he sits in his recliner. Something he would never have spent any time doing a few, short years ago. He has always been a doer. He always had a project or two going. Never an idle moment. Of course, he would stop to eat a meal or watch a Tennessee football game on TV. But then he would go right back to some productive activity. Tending, fixing, learning, cultivating, creating, practicing, reading, or walking.
Walking. That was his favorite. He walked everywhere. The post office. The barber shop. Anywhere that he could reasonably argue against using a car. Sometimes, he would just walk aimlessly, wandering down some street or path he had not traversed before, just to see what was there. The road less traveled. Some of my fondest memories are of taking walks in the soft, spring rain with Dad. Perhaps that’s why the rain feeds my soul. Now, I take walks with him from the den to the bathroom, and it is a long, arduous task that requires the assistance of a third person. Crossing the threshold of a doorway might as well be crossing a busy street, blindfolded. Every step is uncertain. Gravity is the enemy.
His eyesight, hearing, and cognition all conspire against him in fully engaging the world around him, and yet the past can be shockingly clear at times. The other day, apropos to nothing in my own awareness, he stated that Gunga Din contained one of the best lines from literature. He worked it over in his mind, uttering a few of the words as he struggled to remember their order. Then, he quoted,
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
The human brain is a truly remarkable and puzzling thing. Much of what Dad had said earlier in the day had not made much sense. Then, out of nowhere, he quotes poetry … perfectly.
I knew nothing about Gunga Din, so I looked it up. Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem in 1892. It is written in the voice of an English soldier about an Indian water-bearer who saves the soldier’s life but is ultimately shot and killed, making the soldier lament the way he had treated his savior. Dad commented on Gunga Din being of a low caste, a remarkable detail to remember. I think Dad has always championed the underdog. I found a copy of the poem online and read it to Dad. “Yep, that’s it,” he said. I also discovered that Jim Croce, one of Dad’s favorite singer-songwriters, wrote a song based on the poem. I found a recording of it on YouTube, which I played for Dad, providing him a few minutes of nostalgic enjoyment, I think. I hope.
“You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!” A lot of men would probably say that to my father. I’m pretty sure a few have. “You’re a better man than I am, Bill!” He has given of himself to others in a lot of ways over the years, modeling kindness and humility along the way. He has to do a lot of receiving now. It is an excruciating process for a giver to become a receiver.
Dad has lived life exceedingly well, filling it with all the things he loves – family, travel, gardening, art – and doing what he could for others. If he could, he would keep living his life that way. If I thought it would work, I would pray for a miracle. I would pray that Dad would be healed and able to do all the things he used to do. But I just don’t think that’s how it works.
I have been asked if I am angry with God. I am not. I harbor no ill will toward God because I don’t think God is taking my father away. I don’t think that’s how it works. God does not take. God gives, and God receives. I feel God with us every day, holding us up as we move through this hellish, unfair, cruel period of Dad’s life. And God will receive Dad when life finally lets him go.
I am angry at times, though.
Sometimes, the frustration comes from having no one to beat up. There is no one to blame. No target for my anger. There is just some ethereal bull’s eye that my angry arrow cannot find in the thick, soupy cloud of chaos and grief.
Dad is so ready for life to release him, but life keeps holding on. He doesn’t understand why life just keeps going and going, holding him hostage, and we have no answers for him. Just the reassurance that we will be with him through every damn minute of it. And we will.