“Setting Off for the Gulf of Mexico on a Bike in the Dead of Winter” by Doug Keil

Setting Off for the Gulf of Mexico on a Bike in the Dead of Winter

By Doug Keil
 

In the winter of 1992, Doug Keil decided to ride a bike to the Gulf of Mexico. He planned to take two months to arrive and one month to get back to Northern Iowa. He slept on the ground seventy-five to eighty nights and slept in motels for another ten to fifteen nights. He burned forty-six and one half candles on the road for heat that winter, January-March. Looking back, he stated that this trek gave him a much deeper knowledge of our culture and the people that inhabit this North American Continent. What follows is an excerpt from the longer story. Copyright 2005.

 

Late in December I left, starting late in the day. I had all in order. Slowly, the bloated overloaded bike coasted down the farm place hill, south. Temps between 20’s and 30’s, calm winds, roads totally ice covered. Could barely ride at all, heavy folds of fabric strapped on my back, cardboard tube across my upper shoulders, coils of knotted nylon rope crisscrossing my chest over the duck feather coat. Heavy insulated boots sluggishly turning silver cranks. Large amber-colored mittens clutched the handlebars that held a rather ominous looking two-foot-long bolted stick wrapped with leather lace so as to secure a razor-edged machete. How slowly those boots, legs, and cranks turned—the pistons and rods of this strange looking beast.

I must have looked a sight, an animal, a soldier off to war. I was leaping into a cold, dark abyss alone. I was hungry for the gem, the shining virgin jewel of the mystical snowy northlands. In preparation I had conditioned myself to accept the cold, wet and dark. At one point I had even stripped down naked at night with temps in the upper forties, poured cold water on my clothes, wrung them out, put them back on, crawled into a blanket and tried to sleep. I figured I had best learn to face this now, cause later I would surely meet such hellish conditions on the road with no warm place to run to. I wanted deeper knowledge of nature, life or something. It was there, I thought, finally within reach.

Dusk a mere two-miles down the road found me by a corn bin and a slough. A mittened hand quickly yanked out the wooden peg of my winter travel kit. Out of the red bag came the blue tarp and blanket spread on cold ice-capped snow cover, with my large tent flung nearby, unassembled on snow. Sitting there cross-legged, the cornstalks mere skeletons poking through the snow, I could sense the frozen dirt underneath it all. Being dark at five o’clock, the thought of sleeping about fifteen long hours scared me. What if the wind came up with the temps falling to zero degrees? Could I really make it? It dawned on me, the life of summer is truly gone. All living things are either dead, gone, or they have crawled inside of themselves, leaving mere phantoms floating around. Inside I panicked. I gave up, just stashed the stuff in an old shed, and quickly pedaled home in utter defeat.

It wasn’t until late morning, New Year’s Day that I tried again. Somehow from the confines of a warm, friendly building, talking to a friend, I finally found the courage to do it! I just blacked out my mind and turned off my feelings. Leaving Thompson, I silently slithered off on this brave or stupid thing. Calm winds, temps between 20-30 degrees, about a foot of snow cover capped with ice. With all my clothes, I felt a bloated soldier. Progress was so very, very slow on these ice-covered roads. Two miles from home I passed the spot where earlier I had failed, only now I was unthinking, unfeeling, a mere mass of flesh.

I had to pay a price for this wild winter trek, alienating family and a community of 600 people. One family member had even threatened to have the law stop me, but, this was my thing. Being in the 30’s, I had the freedom of a single person. That bike, I was married to it. How I loved that tiny machine. We had been from Jersey to California as one, in a perfect union. Now it was simply time for a higher step. Time for something at a deeper level.

Meeting people on the road, it just didn’t register. Surely they were thinking, Why would anyone be riding a bicycle in the dead of winter? But I was thinking, Surely they were trapped in their warm, metal, cocoons. It’s what the prison of winter does to individuals. Cut them off from everything.

Four-thirty afternoon early dusk found me merely fifteen miles from home, south of Garner, Iowa. Got permission from a farmer to camp in his field. He gave me food, one of the few really good meetings in this frozen snowscape. Don’t forget I was this scary-looking animal, probably a convict escaping from something. I quickly assembled my tarp and crammed the blanket and two black bags inside. Got candles burning in the stick-holder as I sat cross-legged under the blanket, turned into an igloo. Those two tiny candles flames at my feet got me warm, warm do you hear? Warm and relaxed without working at it or shivering. I was an eskimo! Such a powerful feeling traveling this simple way in the frozen land.

The second night I camped concealed from the road by piles of crushed rock near naked tree stems. Very pretty that blue tarp, as it glowed from flickering candlelight against a backdrop of white snow, timeless, wild.

Years ago, working at a factory, living in a house, my winter bike ride to work had revealed the snow as pretty beautiful. After a blizzard, it was eye-popping virgin splendor. The colors of a rainbow revealed by prismatic ice crystals, snowflakes whipped up and sculpted by Artic winds into bizarre forms to rival, even outdo, human architecture. It was beautiful here too, but when I woke in the early morning with the ever-present cold dampness underneath me, I wondered what I had gotten myself into, the snow simple becoming a shitty, white, cold, wet crud.

With daylight one more cloudy, dreary day, I sat up cross-legged, pulled the blanket over me, got two flames burning, and just sucked up all the heat I could for half an hour, trying to get the courage to roll up and tie gear on the bike at the worst time of day, exposing myself, losing much body heat. Easily I could see why deer simply wait out storms, holed up to conserve precious calories, which in turn is heat. Leaving the spot, I could see two small melted depressions from body heat in the snow. There were candle wax bits, match sticks and a yellow stain from urine, too. It stirred me deeply—that not many even try to live like this. Not until one hour’s ride had passed did I feel warm or “normal” again.

And so it went on for a full two weeks, just for me to cover the first hundred miles to Ames, Iowa. That heavy duty tent on my back, I decided I didn’t need. I just wanted the extra security. I would start breaking wheel spokes, I realized. I was too overloaded, so I stashed the thing at a friend’s house and rode on.

I never got tired of breathing cold, crisp, clean air, so pure it was stimulating as a drug. Sitting in the blue tarp at night, I was cramped, only had three workable positions to spend fifteen hours in, damp conditions, yet I was warm. I was as a king, do you see it? To the outside world, I was a homeless bum, but I was surviving the awesome dark season with little or nothing. No permanent dwelling with foundation, furnace, no camper or car even. For each cultural thing shed, I was freed at another level. I was as in the tranquil eye of a tornado, watching people around me fight the dark winds of the season. So free, simple and easy this was.

Here in this open prairie, everything was held in the iron jaws of cold, nothing was exempt. All things had crawled inside themselves, even the cries of birds were muffled. The crippling silence made people seem more spirit than flesh. They were as spirits of the mystic north. Things had a hollow ominous sound, the buzz of a chainsaw, the lonely sound of a metal ring banging the top of a flagpole in the frigid air. Even the turning of those cranks, and the tiny “tinkle, tinkle” of little metallic bells on my gray coat, banging on the frame of the bike in time with pumping legs. Winter as a prison, no one exempt. But I was traveling through it all—a timeless human being inching his way through it all. I was a king!

“Fountain of Youth” by Tim Bascom

Fountain of Youth

By Tim Bascom
 

For my father, who remains remarkably young

 

To reach it, they had to hike twenty minutes along a wooded creek near the big river. During summer, their clothes clung with sweat as they sidestepped spider webs and eased through nettles. They arrived hot and dusty, itchy with mosquito bites. Then the two sons dashed ahead, browning trousers as they slid down the muddy bank and jostled for a first turn under the tree-root overhang.

Just to stoop into that damp, mushroomy shade was a relief, but the place felt almost enchanted at times because of a cool breeze exhaled from the ground, emerging along with a burbling spring. The chill air wafted out of a deep hole, feeling like something straight from the fridge. It drifted into the muggy vapor of the ravine, changing the whole mood of the day.

To avoid swallowing mud, their father scooped a bowl and let it clarify. Like a rippling lens, the water magnified everything—so that pebbles bulged twice as large. Even the little trail of sand under the pool seemed to pulse with secret life.

To drink they had to go down onto their hands and knees. They took long turns bowing into the grotto, but their father stayed longest, holding a half push-up with his face nearly submerged. When he backed out, he uttered a big “aaah” as if some much-delayed need had been satisfied.

“Years younger,” he said, incantation-like, suggesting that he was going to transform before their eyes. And perhaps the water did make him younger because he turned playful. When the boys asked him, on a whim, if he would help dig a cave, he surprised them by not hesitating: “Sure, let’s dig a cave.”

Back at the campsite, he helped to pick a rounded knoll and gather the necessary tools: a shovel, a hatchet, plus a few large serving spoons that might double as hand spades. He cut a circle into the slope, forming a barrel-like entrance. He got right down on his knees, taking turns with them as they reached into the hole and scraped.

The deepening entrance was hardly wider than the father’s torso, so that when he dug, he had to shove dirt between his knees. However, he kept at it, face to the hillside, slowly disappearing, until eventually he had emptied a ball-like interior where his sons could join him. Inside, their sweaty shirts went cool on their backs. The dark hollow seemed to exhale the same mysterious mineral breath as the spring—to whisper a hint of some subterranean elixir.

They opened the space a bit further and carved earthen benches. Then they sat and looked at the entrance. In the glimmering light, the father’s face was reduced to essentials: a high smudged forehead, a shock of black hair, a well-defined nose. He smiled softly. For a moment, all three were silent, savoring their shared secret.

In that cool shadowy remove, the two boys became caught up in their own dream-like thoughts, whispering what it might have been like to come from some past era when people lived in the ground—an ancient clan with an ancient way to stay young. Their father seemed a large child himself, stooped into their small world. If they dug deeper, the youngest boy asked, could they reach the source of the spring? Would it be a lake? A cold, black lake rippling endlessly?

Finally, they crawled back out into the brilliant sun patches. They blinked and grinned at each other, hearing the jackhammer noises of a woodpecker, the crinkling of leaves under their knees. Emerging felt like being born into a new world. It felt like starting all over again.

“Dear Dennis” by Molly Maschka

Dear Dennis

By Molly Maschka
 

Dear Dennis,

I remember the first we met, back when the both of us were only six years old. It was the first day of kindergarten; we were seated right next to each other in our little seats. Both of us were shy youngsters, neither saying a word. I was a tiny bit shocked by how you looked differently from me- flat facial profile, upward slanted eyes, small ears, and most of all you were small in height. Only later would I find out you were born with Down syndrome, a chromosome disorder that caused those physical features, along with speech impairment. After a while just sitting in our seats, you was the one who finally broke the silence between us and said hi. Even though your speech was not up to par, I could clearly understand you. I said hi back to you and asked if you wanted to play. You had shaken your head yes, and this was the start of our friendship that will always be cherished.

After that first day in kindergarten, we were basically attached at the hip. We played together, ate lunch together, basically did everything together. One memory of us is play dates, you and I had many adventures, most of them were cowboys or Power Rangers. I remembered you always had to be the red Power Ranger, a character most known for being the warrior, leader. I did not really care what Ranger I was, I went from the blue to green, even to the pink warrior; I mainly followed you with our adventures, because as the leader, you always knew how to save the world from evil.

Dennis, even though we believed we were heroes, you and I were troublemakers, always causing commotion. I remembered one time you and I were playing Power Rangers when we decided to search your older brother Jimmy’s room as one of the bad guys’ “secret lair.” We looked around the room, beholding for any evidence. You had picked up a picture of Jimmy with one of his friends when Jimmy came into the room and started to yell at us. You shoved the picture at me, telling me to run. Jimmy started to come after me first, but you decided to jump on Jimmy, wrestling him. I climbed over the bed and ran out the door into another room. Jimmy shut the door, clearly holding you at ransom. I walked back to Jimmy’s room, pounding on door, yelling at Jimmy to give you back. Jimmy yelled back only if I would return the picture would you be set free. I crumpled the picture with madness. I opened the door, threw the picture at Jimmy and grabbed you out of his hands. We ran and hid underneath Dennis’s bed, hearing Jimmy telling your mom Karen, what we did. You and I hid for the longest time, hoping your mom would never find us, but unfortunately she did. She told us if we ever pulled a stunt like we did again, I would be sent home. We promised her we would never do it again and apologized to Jimmy. After that play date, you and I decided to stay outside with our adventures, keeping us less out of trouble.

As you and I grew older, reality of school kept us . In school, I attended regular classes while you need special education classes for your Down syndrome. On top of school, we both had activities- I was involved in swimming and softball while you participated in wrestling, but we would always try to find a spare moment to see each other. The only time we hung was in the morning before classes started for the day. We would usually just sit at our lockers and talk about anything. You would tell me how wrestling was going or what you had learned in his classes. Sometimes when we saw each other during the day, you would always run up and give me the greatest of hugs. One particular time in school, I was having a bad day. All I wanted to do is go somewhere and cry, until I saw you in the hallway during classes. You usually knew when I was not in a great mood. When you saw me, you ran up to me, gave me the greatest of hugs, and said “Relax Molly, everything will be alright.” Just being around you Dennis, you always made my days brighter, making me realized never to take life for granted.

Then, the summer before our senior year, God decided to take you home. I remembered as if it was yesterday when I heard you had passed away. You were involved in an ATV accident. You had hit a tree and sustained serious injuries. The doctors tried to save you but there was nothing they could do, and went home to heaven. Hearing about your death Dennis devastated me. I did not know how I would handle life without you. You would never be at homecoming, prom, or graduation. I thought my life would never be the same without you until you came to see me, in a form of a blue butterfly. It was a few days after your death, at a softball game. You flew into the dugout and landed right by my feet. I looked down and you opened your wings. I knew it was a sign from God that you were safe in heaven. You stayed through the whole game making sure I would be alright.

I am writing this letter to you to let you know thank you for always my best friend, my buddy. Thank you for teaching me how to be compassionate towards others, to never give up on my goals in life, but most of all, to “relax.” I am writing this letter to you to let you know that I will be alright, that I am not giving up on my dreams. I am at college fulfilling my dreams as a writer and as a softball player. Do not worry about me buddy; I know I will always have you as my guardian angel by my side.

 

Love you always and forever,

Molly

“In My Genes and on My Jeans” by Colin Morgan

In My Genes and on My Jeans

By Colin Morgan
 
 

As I pulled onto our gravel road I could see the outline of our ranch-style house and the bins and sheds standing out against the vivid blue sky. Our road was filled with deep tracks from the semis that constantly run up and down our road and cut scars into the gravel anytime there has been a rain. When the roads are wet you have to be careful to not get too close to the edge because your vehicle will slide right off the edge of the road when the gravel crumbles under the weight. And there it was, the black plume of smoke coming out from down by our creek. I chuckled to myself, trying to imagine what dad was doing down there that he would somehow try and convince me was necessary work. I pulled into and down our drive and parked my car, running into the house telling my mom and sister hi, while trying to keep my excited dog out of the house; mom doesn’t appreciate him coming into the house and dropping dead animals onto her kitchen floor. I told my mom and sister that I was going to run down to the creek and see dad.

I ran out of the house and down our deck. Which I was glad to see was recently stained and waterproofed, because I normally got stuck with all of those shitty jobs when I came back from school. Although with the pool that was connected to the deck it was hard to complain too much about having to take care of the deck. I hopped on my four-wheeler and burned out spraying gravel into our lawn, the best manicured lawn that will never be seen by anyone else because my dad is a psycho about his lawn even though we live 10 miles from the nearest town. I sped off towards the creek feeling the warm air run through my hair and the sting of a lady bug hitting my cheek at fifty miles an hour. I reached the drive and slid through it doing my best Dukes of Hazard impression and hammered the accelerator with my feet shifting as fast as they could. I reached my dad and jumped off the four wheeler leaving it in neutral and it rolled another 30 feet from where I jumped off, nearly hitting our skid loader broadside.

“Are you blind?” my dad asks me in his slow, low, and deliberate voice. He never went past high school because my grandpa was in an accident and my dad had to take over the farm when he was 17. He is not well versed in all of the theories of farming that they teach in colleges now, but try telling him that he needs to know all of those. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken, and it has been working for him for five decades.

“Yeah, that was close I know, relax.” I take a look over at what my dad was doing, and apparently today he felt like he needed to make the creek deeper than it was, and in the process he broke a tile line that ran underneath the creek. Our creek is one of those little lazy moving creeks that look like there is only about a foot of water in it. It seems to wind and curve without a worry in the world. A leaf on the surface of it seems to move about as quickly as a snail in quicksand. However, it actually has a very fast undercurrent and is deceptively deep. In the spring the water often rises out of its steep banks and creeps into our field and up towards our house.

“That was a smooth move, huh?” I ask him, sarcasm evident in my voice.

“Shut up and get over here and help me.” I walk over next to him and see what he is trying to do. His hair is grayer than I remember and his eyes even more sunk in than before, although they still have the twinkle of a ten year old. He is wearing one of his 10,000 John Deere shirts that he has turned into a cut off and a pair of Carhart shorts, because according to him “if you’re gonna buy something, you might as well buy something worth a damn, and Carhart and John Deere are the only brands worth a damn.” His arms are already a deep bronze from being out in the sun all day and his face is so dirty it’s hard to tell if he hasn’t shaved in a couple days or is just covered in mud.

We work for a little while and then we decide that we should go and get some food before we finish. I’m standing down in the creek and can’t get up and over the creek bed without and hand up. I reach up for my dad to help me. His massive hands close around mine and I feel the calluses as he pulls me up onto my feet. My hands feel as though sandpaper has just been drug across them. I look down and see that some grease has been transferred onto my hands from his. I think exactly why I can never be around you whenever I have nice clothes on, as I wipe my hands onto my jeans to get the grease off. I hop on the four wheeler and speed back to the house, trying to avoid the Grand Canyon side tracks that are in the road thanks to the semis. Although not quite as fast as before because I know that dad is behind me and I don’t wanna piss him off the hour I get back home.

We get back and start to walk out of the machine shed, it is easy to see where I get my height from while standing next to him, although he has about 100 pounds on me, and not fat, muscle, which he likes to remind me at every chance. He puts his arm around my shoulder as we walk into the house and I am hit with a strong smell of grease, sweat, and hard work; the smell that I have grown to know as my dad.

“It’s been different not having you around here kid,” he says as he pulls his arm off of my shoulder, aware that this was something that he didn’t normally do, and I could tell that it made him feel uncomfortable.

We walk into our house, where my dad has lived in his whole life. It isn’t the biggest farm house around, or the nicest. but my parents take extreme pride in it. The landscaping is always kept in tip-top shape and the counters cleared in the kitchen. We have redone almost everything in the house since I have been alive, in order to make it look the way and have the feel that my parents want it to have. Stone floors in the kitchen give the rustic feel of an old farmhouse mixed with the modern look and feel of stainless steel appliances. The walls are mostly neutral colors but they have more vivid colors sponged onto them, giving both a dull natural feeling but also a more exciting and inviting feeling without being too overwhelming. Family pictures cover up much of the walls, make it apparent what matters to my mom and dad; family above all else. The stairs that lead downstairs have been covered in pictures on both sides of the stairwell. The left side is covered in my senior pictures and the right side the same with my sister. And then right at the bottom of the stairs, the only thing that my dad has ever put up as decoration, a massive picture of my mom and dad on their wedding day sitting next to a lake at sunset. My dad isn’t big into gifts or flowers, I could count on one hand, actually about one finger, how many times I have seen him give my mom a present, but yet there is this picture that he picked out himself, framed and put up one day for no reason. The focal point of the stairs, it just seems fitting for my dad, no reason to do it, no big deal made about it, just one day it shows up and is there.

We start talking about how the baseball year ended up at NIACC. I start talking to him and I can tell that his hearing had gotten even worse since the year before. A lifetime of not using ear protection was finally starting to catch up with him, and he just shook his head to pretend like he was hearing what we were saying rather than hurt his pride and ask us to repeat it.        Dad sits down in his chair and realizes that he wants a glass of water, he goes to stand up and it is clear to see that his age is starting to catch up with him. Five decades of working the land day in and day out have taken a toll on his rugged and scarred body. I turn away and look out the window, not wanting to see my childhood hero struggle a little to get out of his chair. As I look out of the window I look over our farm, all of the barns, machine sheds, bins, and various other small buildings and equipment. This was all mine for the taking, if I so wanted. But instead I went to college, to live my dream of playing college baseball, leaving three generations of farmers hanging in the balance. The question of who is going to take over the farm looms over my dad and I whenever we are together, time is ticking, yet nobody wants to discuss it yet. My dad because he doesn’t want to believe that he won’t be able to farm forever, and myself, because I honestly don’t know what I would say, or should do…

Dad goes out to heat up the grill to start grilling the pork chops that he smokes out back in his hickory smoker. He opens up the smoker and the smell hits me in the face like an Ali punch. Dad throws them onto the grill and cooks them until they are juicy and smelling amazing. Dad brings in the pork chop and sets them on the table next to all the other things mom has set out. We dig into the feast and with the first bite of the pork chop my brain screams dad, it is just one of those tastes that as soon as it hits your mouth you instantly think of someone, kind of like grandmas homemade apple pie. This is where I am supposed to be I think to myself, at home with my family, and most importantly, back with my best friend, my dad.

“Facing the Music” by Barbara Lange

2013 Salveson Prize in Prose

 

“A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.” – Don McLean

 

American Pie

I am six years old, riding in my parents car. “American Pie” comes on the radio and I belt it out. It is 1976, the bicentennial, a very important year in my estimation. In my memory, it is always a bright, sunny day. The light coming through the windows of the car makes the black vinyl upholstery hot on my legs and I am filled with joy.

Almost forty years later, I still know all the words and when I sing along, I am still filled with joy every time.

McLean released 24 albums but this is his best known song. It is believed that the song is in reference to the death of Buddy Holly whose plane crashed on a winter night, in a cornfield north of my hometown.

 

“Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.”

 

Larry

My father-in-law passed away much too soon. I believe he was ready but the family was not. He was 56 and his death was the result of complications following what was supposed to have been a simple angioplasty. He went to the hospital for his surgery one week after my youngest daughter was born and six weeks later he was gone. I miss him terribly.

My husband did not take his father’s death well. As a child he had been closer to his mother and it was only in his twenties that he and his dad began to connect. Seeing his son as a husband and a father allowed Larry to relate to Bert in a way they never had before. When Larry died so suddenly, Bert felt robbed. He was in terrible pain and there was nothing I could do to lessen it. It was years before he could talk about his dad without being overcome with emotion. Even now, seventeen years later, he cannot or will not say dead. He will say “Dad is gone,” or “Dad is passed,” but he never says dead. He is still working through the five stages, no one moves through them the same way.

 

“I went down to the sacred store where I’d heard the music years before but the man there said the music wouldn’t play.”

 

Liz

The dining room of the nursing home where I work is bustling with the usual chaos of the lunchtime routine. I am one of eight Certified Nursing Assistants rushing around, helping the residents to their tables for lunch: steering wheelchairs and pushing chairs to tables, assisting old women and men who walk unsteadily on legs that are tired and weak. The residents take their seats at their tables, greeting their friends and making conversation while the three nurses on duty pass out lunchtime medications and the kitchen staff prepares plates and pours drinks. Liz is seated at her usual table at the edge of the dining room near the entry.

At eighty-nine, Liz has lived in this nursing home for nearly eight years. She has children, but I have never seen them. There are pictures of grandchildren on a bulletin board in her room but Liz never talks about her children or her grandchildren, in fact, she rarely talks at all. Sometimes I wonder if she even knows where she is, or who. She spends most of her time sitting in a chair looking out the window and, as far as I can tell, she seems content to do so. Because she has been here for such a long time and because she is quiet and rarely any trouble, all of the staff are quite fond of her.

 

“So bye-bye Miss American Pie drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry. Them good ole boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye singin’ this’ll be the day that I die.”

 

Mom

My mother is horrified at the prospect of people gawking at her body after she dies. I have been instructed that a visitation with an open casket should not be a part of her funeral. Once, during a disagreement, I told her that I was going to donate her to the Body Works exhibit. Recently, I discovered that it is possible to have a person’s ashes made into a diamond. Perhaps that’s what I’ll do with my mom. Instead of people staring at her dead body, they can ooh and ahh about what a pretty diamond she is.

 

“…and while the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown.”

 

Money

My dog, Money, is not well. She has not been well for a while. The vet believes she has had another stroke. She cannot walk, she can barely stand on her own, can no longer control her bladder. I have to accept that she will likely not recover from this one the way she did the last and it is breaking my heart. She is seventeen years old and she has been mine for almost all of those years. She was a skittish little dog when we adopted her from the Humane Society. They estimated her age at 6 months and they suspected that she had been abused. She made the trip home curled up on my lap. We lived on the verge of broke at that time and naming her Money was our little joke.

It has always been her habit to follow me from room to room; now she lies on her blanket in the living room and I can hear her whine as I leave the room. She can no longer get up and follow me. I hate to leave her lying there but I need to shut myself in the bathroom to cry. I know I am going to have to put her to sleep…

 

“… something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.”

 

Pilot Error

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP Richardson died when their a plane crashed in a field north of Clear Lake, Iowa on the morning of February 3, 1959 shortly after 1:00 am. Their pilot, Roger Peterson was 21 years old. It is believed that he became disoriented in the blizzard that was blowing that night and lost track of where the horizon was. Instead of flying up, he flew the plane into the ground at an approximate speed of 170 miles an hour. It is said that Buddy Holly’s mother heard about his death on the radio. I imagine her crumbling to the floor under the weight of disbelief and grief. It was after this incident that authorities began withholding names until family could be informed.

 

“…not a word was spoken, the church bells all were broken.”

 

Holding Hands

It is March 13, two days after my thirtieth birthday. Today seems to be another routine lunch service for Liz and her fellow residents as the nurse presses the collection of pills past Liz’s lips and holds the water to her mouth so she can take a drink and swallow them. She swallows and the nurse turns back to her medication cart to mark the chart and move on to the next person when a strange noise comes from Liz’s throat. The nurse turns back to Liz to see her beginning to shake slightly. After checking Liz’s mouth to make sure it is clear she calls across the dining room to another nurse, then, because I am the nursing assistant closest to the table, she turns to me and instructs, “Help me move her into the hall so this doesn’t scare the other residents” The nurse and I each grab an arm of the chair and drag. The gurgling clicking noise coming from Liz’s throat grows louder and she continues to shake.

Now in the hallway, three nurses, the director of nursing, and the facility administrator have gathered around the shaking, gurgling woman. They discuss possibilities and take turns checking her vitals. The clicking gurgling sound continues from somewhere in her throat. The nurse who had just given the pills believes Liz is choking on them but they cannot be found lodged in her throat. I stand helplessly by while the experts stand over the old woman discussing her situation. They are all talking about her, but no one is talking to her.

While they continue their discussion, I kneel down next to the chair and take her hand, her skin is cool and dry and papery. Liz turns to look me and I begin to talk to her, “It’s ok Liz, we’re here. Don’t be afraid.” I don’t know what else to do. Though I have worked here for a few years now, I have not been in a situation like this before. Now, as we hold hands and hold each other’s gaze I continue to speak, “You’re safe. The nurses know what to do. You’re going to be alright.” I think she hears me, she keeps looking at me but, as I continue to speak, her eyes change, their gaze becomes vacant, her hand goes limp. Liz is gone.

 

“Do you recall what was revealed, the day the music died?”

 

Laughter

My father-in-law liked to laugh. I miss his laugh, it was as gruff and as genuine as he was. It was a laugh from deep inside and he only used it if something was truly funny.

I miss the times he laughed at me. He laughed because I didn’t know the difference between a tractor and a combine. The day I tried to help load pigs for market he snuck up behind me and yelled, “Careful! Don’t let them bite you!” That time he laughed so hard he almost fell over. He laughed at me a lot; this city girl his son had brought home to the farm, so curious about things that, to him, were mundane. His laughter was never derisive and that’s why I miss it. But more than his laughter, I miss our long talks over popcorn at his kitchen table.

He liked John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies and, having spent many hours watching reruns of the many movies with my own dad, so did I. He liked bad jokes (I wish I could remember even one). He was tough to a fault. He had fallen off his tractor one spring at the beginning of planting. He knew he was really hurt but he didn’t tell anyone. As a diabetic he had spent a lifetime learning to dislike doctors. Planting needed to be finished and he figured that if he went to a doctor he would be told not to work, or worse, hospitalized, so he climbed back up on his tractor and finished his work. “Didn’t it hurt?” I asked. “Hurt like a sonofabitch getting on and off the tractor but once I was there I was fine.” He went to the doctor after planting was finished, his pelvis was fractured and he was put on six weeks of restricted activity.

 

“…when the Jester sang for the King and Queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean.”

 

Family Meeting

My parents, on the verge of their seventies, took advantage of an opportunity when my three siblings and I were all together to have a family meeting and discuss details of their final arrangements. Designating their executor was an easy decision, my brother has a degree in finance so he seemed the obvious choice. Then my parents raised the topic of medical power of attorney. My siblings stiffened at the thought of making medical decisions for one of our parents if the other parent weren’t there to do the job. As I looked around the table where we all sat, I saw the fear on my siblings’ faces. Their eyes were huge, their lips pressed tightly together none of them seemed to be breathing.   There was a collective sigh of relief from the three of them when Mom said they were thinking I should have this designation since I live the closest to them and am therefore the most readily available in an emergency. It is fortunate that I am also the one who is willing to deal with those decisions. I held my dog at the end of her life. In the nursing home where I once worked I held the hands of the dying. Death is an unavoidable and while I don’t rejoice in it I do embrace it as part of the journey.

 

“Now do you believe in rock-n-roll? Can music save your mortal soul?”

 

Songs at a Funeral

My husband wants to have Garth Brooks’ song “The Dance” played at his funeral. It is a fine song but I always tell him that “The River” would be a better choice. I think it has a nicer message than “The Dance” which is much too sappy for me. This is one of our topics we debate for fun from time to time. Some of our other topics are: Pearl Jam and Nirvana – genius or crap; and Tim Tebow – good enough for the pros? These debates usually end with one of us saying, “Well you’re an idiot.”   Then we laugh and change the subject. If he dies first, I will play the song he wants at his funeral. I just hope he realizes that no matter how often he insists that he’s a Buddhist, he’s getting a Methodist funeral.

 

“I know that you’re in love with him, cause I saw you dancing in the gym”

 

Bad Day

When I took Money to the veterinarian to be put to sleep my fourteen year old daughter insisted on going with me. I would never have asked her to do this, but Money had been part of our family for Courtney’s whole life. So she rode in the car with our faltering dog on her lap, stroking her fur and speaking softly, telling her everything was going to be ok. At the vet’s office, she decided that she couldn’t go in the exam room so she waited outside the door while I took the dog in. I would have preferred to be outside the room too, but I couldn’t bear the thought of my loyal little dog dying alone. I felt like I owed it to her to be with her at the end. No one should die alone. As we left the vet’s office, Daniel Powter’s song “Bad Day” was playing on the radio when I started the car. It seemed to be playing just for us so we sat in the parking lot and sang along and cried and hugged for a while. Then we went home to listen to our cat search for her dog.

 

“…and we sang dirges in the dark”

 

Last Request

The day Larry went to the hospital for his surgery he was not optimistic. The hospital was not a happy place for him. Before they took him for surgery he said something to my mother-in-law. He said, “If I don’t make it, I want Joleen to sing at my funeral, but only if it’s ok with Barb.” I learned about this when, before Larry’s funeral, my mother-in-law came to me to ask my permission. This was no small thing. Joleen was my husband’s ex-girlfriend. They had been quite serious and his family had been very fond of her. She and I had been in the college choir together, although her talent was so far beyond mine that there was no comparison.

The gravity of this request was almost too much for me, that Larry would think of my feelings in making his request, that Betty would think of my feelings in acting on his request when she didn’t have to. It was her decision, she could have just asked Joleen and said nothing to me about it. I had the right to say no, they gave that to me, and that gift proved to me that they thought of me as a member of their family.

At Larry’s funeral, Joleen sang In the Garden and her voice was just as gorgeous as I remembered.

 

“…and the three men I admired most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died.”