Celebrate 88

“This is such a great idea,” any number of people said the other day when we hosted a birthday party for my father at the Otesaga.

Not to be morbid, but the idea came from receiving lines at funerals. When my oldest brother died four years ago, I stood in a funeral receiving line for the first time. It felt like everyone had a story to tell about Stewart. I wished he could have heard them. He would have felt so loved.

When my mother died, the same thing happened. Person after person held my hand and told me a story about my mother and how much she meant to them. It gave me comfort to hear, but I wished my mother could have heard the stories too.

When Mr. Hanson, my 7th grade math teacher, died, his funeral was packed. The receiving line stretched out the door of the Vet’s Club and down the street. I wished I could have grasped his hand one last time, looked him in the face, and told him how much I appreciated him.

That’s why I started thinking about a party for my father.

I bounced the idea off my siblings. Before long, I was on the phone with the Otesaga. It had to be a strange call for their event planner.

Me: I’d like to have a birthday party for my father.

Planner: How many people do you expect?

Me: I have no idea.

Planner: I really need a number.

Me: I have no idea.

She worked with me.

I am so thankful for Brooke. She listened and guided and suggested.

For instance, she suggested that we use several adjoining rooms so it never felt crowded. She suggested we set up one room with comfortable seating, so my father could sit on a couch instead of a dining chair. She and her staff put out the decorations we had brought — books and photographs. She was wonderful.

The real quandary was how to get the word out. Friends of Bassett helped SO much. They blasted the invitation to retired physicians, current physicians, administration, and I forget who else. The local churches also helped to spread the word. As I ran into people at the grocery store or the gym or the post office, I invited them. It’s hard to corral a lifetime of people.

Among the first to arrive were two nurses from Dermatology, his last hold-out in his long and varied medical practice. He was delighted when he saw them.

Dermatology represents

From the home health aide who takes care of him,

Doreen and family

To a former CEO of the hospital,

Dr. and Mrs. Streck

To one of his secretaries,

To a little leaguer he had coached,
To family,


More family,

His sister surprised him

And a slew of friends and colleagues, his life was well-represented.

The next day, as he started working his way through all the cards, he asked, “How did all those people know it was my birthday?”

I just smiled.



Subscriber of the Day

My youngest brother composed this song when he was a wee lad.

The daily newspaper that my parents read was called the Oneonta Star and one day my little brother burst into this song. It’s much better than my first song which was called “Freckle Face.” Lyrically, my song was more interesting (although a little disturbing), but overall, his was better.

Oneonta — pronounced Oh-nee-on-ta, not, as tourists occasionally say, “Won-on-ta” — is the small city to the south of Cooperstown. 2014 population = 13, 838.

Some of you may be shaking your head saying, “That’s not a city. That’s a town.”

Well, when Cooperstown’s population is only 1,812, Oneonta sure looks like a city.

The Oneonta Star eventually changed into the Daily Star. Old timers still call it the Oneonta Star, just as they still refer to the Price Chopper as the Great American, our local grocery store which changed hands close to 20 years ago.

Old habits die hard.

My middle brother delivers newspapers for the Daily Star. He started when one of my older sons had a paper route and occasionally needed a back-up. My brother enjoyed getting up early and running the paper route. As he told me once, “It’s like getting paid to exercise.” It doesn’t pay terribly well otherwise.

But the people on his route love him. He gives them each a crystal for Christmas and then does little things throughout the year, like occasionally putting stickers on the papers to brighten their days — black cats and pumpkins for Halloween, hearts for Valentine’s Day, fireworks stickers for the 4th of July — you get the idea.

Last year, on my birthday, he put a Happy Birthday sticker on the front page. My father looked at it and said, “I wonder what the devil this is about. It isn’t my birthday.”

“It’s mine,” I told him.

“Oh,” he said.

This year my brother added a bunch of stickers, to make the occasion unmistakable.

But my father didn’t say a word.

Every day, the Daily Star announces the “Subscriber of the Day.” My father comments on it frequently.

“I wonder what you have to do to get that honor,” he asks when he reads it.

The person is usually unknown to us because the Daily Star covers quite a large rural chunk of upstate New York. A few weeks ago one of his friends was named.

“Look,” he said. “John Davis is famous.”

Subscriber-of-the-Day famous.

It’s a strange honor that seems so important to him. He always checks that name above the fold, and then scans the obituary names below the fold — “Just in case my name shows up,” he says, with a morbid humor that I appreciate less and less.

Today’s paper had many celebratory stickers. I wondered at the occasion — until I saw what my brother had surrounded with his stickers — the Subscriber of the Day, my father.

“Did you notice all those stickers?” I asked my father when he sat down to breakfast.

“Peter likes putting stickers on,” he replied.

“These ones are pretty special,” I said. “Look.”

He peered at the newspaper, and peered some more. Suddenly a wide grin spread across his face.

“I’m the subscriber of the day!” he said, fist-pumping the air. “Hallelujah!”

Hallelujah indeed.

I almost burst out singing — “O-ne-on-ta Sta-aa-ar!”


I need to apologize to Osyth. A few weeks ago in her blog, Half-Baked in Paradise, she wrote about moving. Something about her words broke my heart. Maybe it was this:

My heart felt the leaden weight of sorrow because my safe-place, my home, my warm hug, my protective cloak, call it what you will has gone.

When she posted again, I didn’t even go read it. I couldn’t — I was still grieving over her move. Then she posted again, and I read it. In fact, she started re-blogging a series about her home, and the renovations there, and I binged. She’s posting day by day. Like a glutton, I looked the whole series up and read it, laughing — actually revelling with her — at the great adventure she has been on for some time. (Start here: Coup de Coeur: Part One)

Sorry, Osyth, for not waiting for you to repost them all. I’m just the kind of person who likes to read the end of the book before I read the middle.

Home is something so dear to me. One of my many started-and-discarded blogs had the tagline, “I love where I live.”  And I do. I love upstate New York.  I love Cooperstown. I love the four seasons, the Susquehanna River, Otsego Lake, the trees, the village streets, the country roads, the people, the cows, even the tourists. This is my home — and the thought of living elsewhere is almost unthinkable.

My father keeps asking me what brought me to Cooperstown.

“What do you mean?” I ask him.

“What made you come here?” he’ll say, as if that clarifies anything.

“Are you asking about why I first moved to Cooperstown?”

“Yes,” he replies.

“We moved here as a family in 1967,” I say. “You took a job at Bassett Hospital as the head of their General Services department.”

“Yes, that’s right,” he replies, every time, remembering, or acknowledging the plausibility of this story.

“I was a child,” I remind him, “your child. I didn’t have a choice.”

“Where did Bud come from?” my father asks, trying to piece together my family.

We’ve gone through this many times now. I know the questions that are coming, but it’s sad because he has lost a large chunk of my life.

“I took a year off from college and met Bud while I was working at Bassett,” I say.

He nods, but I’m not sure he remembers anything about this.

Long pauses punctuate our conversation.

“Where did you come from?” This question often comes next. It’s another one that needs clarification. I’m sure he’s not asking about the birds and the bees, so I name the army base where I was born.

“How long did you live there?”

My mom and the children she moved with all by herself

“Six weeks,” I tell him. “When I was a baby, Mom loaded me, Stewart, Donabeth, and Peter into a station wagon to join you in Fort Riley.”

Yes, I was 6 weeks old. My oldest brother was 5 years old, my sister not quite 4, and my middle brother only 21 months old. Whenever I asked my mother about my birth and first year of life, all she would say to me was, “That was a hard time.” I’ll bet it was. The legend of a super mom.

“I don’t remember any of that,” my father says, and, of course, he wouldn’t because he was busy working at his fledgling career as an army doctor.

Another long pause. I begin to focus on whatever it was I had been doing before this conversation began.

“So what made you come here?” my father will ask, and we’ll start the whole thing again.

“You did, Dad,” I tell him. “You did.”



My father was reading Time magazine the other day.

“Can you read the date of this?” he asked me when I came in the room.

I squinted and read, “July 17, 2000.”

“So it’s current,” he said.

“No, Dad,” I told him. “This is 2017.”

“Well, it’s pretty current,” he said, “you know — it’s in our lifetime.”

I shook my head, not sure how to respond to that. The world has changed so much.

When that issue of Time came out, airplanes hadn’t flown into buildings. Airport security wasn’t a thing. Donald Trump wouldn’t be firing would-be apprentices for 3 1/2 more years and I doubt anyone would have imagined him becoming our 45th president. The first iPhone wouldn’t be released for 7 more years.

2000 was a lifetime ago. We had just gotten over the worries of Y2K. Mary was baby and Laurel not even imagined.

“So it’s current,” he said again.

“It’s in our lifetime,” I conceded, and went back to what I had been doing.

Later, he found me in the kitchen where I was prepping dinner. He was still holding that old issue of Time magazine.

“This is fascinating,” he said. “I’m reading an article about Alzheimer’s.”

It was, in fact, the cover story for the issue.

“I think I may have Alzheimer’s,” he said. He looked at me and paused before asking, “Do you think I have it?”

I stopped shredding cheese and turned to face him. “Well,” I said slowly, “you do have trouble remembering things.”

“That’s right,” he said. “I feel like my brain is squashed.”

That’s a description he has used a number of times. Rotten fruit and roadkill always come to mind when he says it – not a pleasant picture.

I looked at the cover of the magazine which compared the brain of an Alzheimer’s sufferer with a normal brain. His description may be more right than he knows.

I didn’t know what to say to him. Silence settled over us as we both stood in the kitchen.

He leaned on his walker, and finally said, “It was interesting to read.”

Interesting. Not sad. Not heart-wrenching. Not hand-wringing. Just interesting.

A dispassionate diagnosis.

And life goes on.

Every night I hear him whistling as he gets ready for bed. Sometimes he even sings.

O Danny boy —
The pipes, the pipes are calling.
From glen to glen and down the mountain side.
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.

It’s such a sad song. My heart aches a little.

But he seems so happy. I can’t ask for more.




Laurel said the other day, “We should all learn another language. As a family, you know?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, then if we’re someplace all together and we want to say to something to someone in the family but we don’t really want everyone else to know, we can just say it in that other language,” she said.

I think she was thinking along the lines of a let’s-get-out-of-here signal.

“Like Swedish,” she said. “We could all learn Swedish and nobody would know what we’re saying.”

“Ummm… you’d be surprised,” I told her. “I’m pretty sure Amy knows Swedish.”

Amy — former pastor, dear friend.

“Oh, well…” Laurel said. “You know what I mean.”

Personally, I think we should all learn sign language. Not as a secret language — because there are a lot of people in the world who know sign — but as a quieter way of communicating.

I can always tell when my father’s hearing aids aren’t working.

“What?” he’ll ask.


“I’m having trouble hearing you,” he’ll say.

I’ll check to see if his hearing aids are in, and, if they are, if he has turned them on. Often these days he forgets the latter.

The other day Mary had a dentist appointment. As she and I headed out the door, I stopped to check my father’s hearing aids — and turned them both on. He was on his way to sit in the living room with the Daily Jumble.

An hour later when we got home, he was standing at the kitchen table.

“What’s going on, Dad?” I asked.

“I need to put this in my…” and his voice trailed off as he searched for the word. He was holding a hearing battery in his hand.

“You need to put a new battery in your hearing aid?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, and he pointed to his right ear — where there was no hearing aid.

“Okay, I can help with that,”I said. “Where’s the hearing aid?”

“That’s the problem,” he said.

“Did you set it on the table here?” I asked, and began moving papers and looking.

“I don’t know,” he replied — and that became his reply to every question.

“Where were you when you took it out?”

“I don’t know.”

“Were you sitting in your chair in the living room?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you go in your bedroom?”

“I don’t know.”

I began looking everywhere — the bedroom, the bathroom, the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the sun porch. I crawled around on the floor, looking under furniture, putting my cheek to the floor because that made it easier to see the incongruity of the hearing aid.

“Is it in your pocket?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” he replied, but he dutifully emptied his pockets for me.

All this conversation was taking place at a high volume — because of the missing hearing aid. That, alone, is exhausting.

Twenty minutes into the search and I was ready to give it a rest. My neck hurt from sleeping in a bad position the night before and this cheek-to-the-floor business wasn’t helping. I sat down.

“We’ve got to find it!” my father said when he saw me sitting. He was looking through some papers that hadn’t been moved in a year. The hearing aid would surely not be among them.

“Criminy,” I muttered under my breath. My neck ache was quickly becoming a headache.

“Keep looking,” he said urgently. “We can’t stop looking!”

I got back to my feet and went back over the same places I had been looking. Finally, in his bedroom, I spotted it poking out from the back edge of a chair cushion.

I could see the relief on his face when I brought it to him.

“Where did you find it?” he asked.

“On the chair in your room,” I replied, while trying to put the new battery in.

“Where?” he asked again.

“On the chair in your room,” I replied, while trying to put the hearing aid in his ear.

“That’s better,” he said, once it was in place. “Where did you find it?”

Something in me snapped. “ON THE CHAIR IN YOUR ROOM,” I shouted — not in a nice way.

I left in search of Advil.

Frederick Buechner, in his new book The Remarkable Ordinary, talks about his mother’s hearing loss and the difficulty of shouting conversations.

from “The Remarkable Ordinary” by Frederick Buechner

I thought about my deaf friends who read lips so well — and appreciated that I don’t have to shout at all with them.

When Laurel said she wanted to learn Swedish, all I could think is that I’d rather learn sign language.

That way maybe I could communicate better with my friends who use it.

And when I’m old and hard-of-hearing, my family can converse with me without shouting.



“Quite frankly, God,” I said, “I’m getting a little tired of working on this patience thing. Could we move on to something else?”

Yesterday morning, I had been awakened by my father’s whistling. It’s happy whistling — “O Danny Boy” — evidence of his penchant for Irish music, that tells me he’s up and getting ready for the day.

Most days I listen for it. “Time to get to work,” I say to my girls as I get off the couch and head for the kitchen to fix his breakfast.

But yesterday, I heard it on the monitor in my room. It woke me up.

“O Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling…”

Sometimes he sings it. His singing reminds me of Lee Marvin in “Paint Your Wagon.”

I rolled over and looked at the time. 2:45 AM. Ugh.

When I went down to his room, he was laying out his clothes.

“What are you doing, Dad?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said, turning to look at me.

“It’s not even 3 o’clock in the morning,” I told him.

“I know that,” he said — but I don’t think he did.

“Don’t you think you should be sleeping?” I asked.

“That sounds like a good idea,” he replied.

After helping him get back to bed, I went upstairs to my own. Laying there, looking at the ceiling, listening to the monitor, I could hear him rustling around for a few minutes, then quiet, then the heavy breathing of sleep.

I wished I could do that, but sleep never returned for me.

Some time after 4, I came downstairs again and made my coffee. My ever-growing pile of books that I’m working through beckoned me. In addition to daily Bible reading and time with Lancelot Andrewes,  my current morning reading consists of

  • Charles Williams’ The New Christian Year — a devotion a day.
  • Pascal’s Pensées — a pensée or two a day
  • Documents of the Christian Church (selected and edited by Henry Bettenson) — a document a day
  • Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance — a section a day
  • St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life — a chapter a day

St. Francis irked me yesterday. He said,

Among the virtues we should prefer that which is most conformable to our duty, and not that which is most conformable to our inclination…

My inclination is not towards patience. Mercy, maybe, but not patience. I’d like to swoop in, do some little nice thing for someone who’s hurting, and leave.

This long haul of caregiving is the opposite.

And my patience is in short supply these days.

“Lord, can we move on?” I prayed — but I knew the answer.

I began a good work in you. I’m going to complete it, He replied.

So, when I heard “O Danny Boy” for the second time that morning, I made his breakfast, took his blood pressure, gave him his meds, found the puzzles in the newspaper for him, and tackled another day.



I’m beginning to anticipate
What his response might be —
My mother blamed “the others”
For things we didn’t see,
But my father’s not a blamer
So, when he can’t explain
“It fell down from the sky,” he says,
Like some mysterious rain.

I crawled around the other day
With flashlight in my hand.
Half his hearing aid was missing
And I tried to understand
How these darn things fall apart so much
Half in one room, half another
I would have blamed “the others”
Had I been my mother.

Then Laurel called me from the kitchen
“Wha-T?” I said, but I
Emphasized the “T” too much —
And I can tell you why —
I was getting irritated
At the time that it had cost
Looking for a hearing aid
Half of which was lost.

“Grampa wants you,” she said timidly
And so I went to see
What it was he wanted now
From irritated me
“I found it!” he was saying.
I was surprised at what I saw
The missing piece of hearing aid
Resting in his paw.

“Where’d you find it?” I demanded.
I knew I should happy
But, you know, I wanted answers
And he’d better make them snappy.
“Can you fix it?” he was asking —
Not answering my question
It’s a skill he has in conversation –
Changing the direction

But I was dogged — “Where’d you find it?”
“It fell out of the sky,”
He said, as if that answer
Would satisfy my cry.
He told me again yesterday
When I asked about a pin
He had fastened to his sweatshirt
And I asked where it had been —

Apparently the sky inside
Varies precipitation.
Outside I see it raining rain
Inside, to my frustration,
It yields an odd assortment
Of hearing aids and stuff
That I couldn’t have imagined.
I should be thankful; it’s enough —

The lost hearing aid was found
I’m not still crawling on the ground


For Peter:

Perhaps another explanation is that a wolverine
Creeps into the house at night, stealthily, unseen
And hides my father’s hearing aids
Tapes them to the ceiling
Whence they fall on Dad, while I am searching, kneeling.