Monday, May 23, 2011

Remembering blackberry winters past...

For the rest of my life, when I see blooms on the blackberries, I'll think of my Dad, who loved these hills more deeply than most of the people he knew could fathom. He grew up in eastern Kentucky and raised his family here as well. And, two years ago tomorrow, he died here. He would have been 90 years old this past February.

I spent a lot of time with my Dad, growing up. I was the last-born, late-born child, the tag-along. He was an outdoors-man who hobbied with training and hunting with rabbit hounds (Beagles, of which he sometimes raised a litter to sell) and a small lake, fly-fishing. Being a veteran of World War II, he had a different take on some things, like passion for living life, for his right to self-defense and defense of those he loved. With a little luck, those things will stay in his family. I hope.

Dad almost haunted the woods. He was one of the youngest in a family of 12 children. His mother harvested the woods and fields as well has raising a large garden utilizing the labor of her own family. Dad would rise up on a whispered call from his mother to go take a .22 rifle and shoot a chicken or two for Sunday breakfast, when he was a but a youngster, leaving other siblings sleeping in the loft room filled with beds heaped with quilts (which often got a dusting of snow atop them where it blew in among the eaves of the house in winter).  In season, he helped his mother by picking up hickory nuts, black walnuts, and by picking berries of various kinds.

When the Veteran's Hospital doctors callously explained to him that they could do no more for him, that they were sending him either home or to the Veteran's nursing home to die, he said he wanted to go home. First he turned his head to the wall and mourned, with a face twisted in grief, silent tears on his face. "I won't see the blackberries this year. I won't pick any." Trying to comfort this man who so rarely cried, I said, "You may not see the blackberries ripen, but you will certainly see them bloom!"

I wish, in a way, I hadn't said that. It turned out to be prophetic. The doctors said six weeks or six months, they didn't know. Dad said, "One month." It was a month and a day when we called the Hospice nurses to come declare him dead, when we called the funeral home to come pick up his empty body.  Just a few days before, one of the little ones, a great-grandchild, brought Dad some 'flowers', having braved the sharp thorns to give "Papaw" the gift. It was a sprig of white ... blackberry blossoms. Dad took the precious gift from the child, and then immediately looked up, directly at me. The silent tears ran. On both of our faces.

It had come to the point that no matter what we prepared for Dad to eat, his blood sugar levels fluctuated wildly. A doctor set us up with several kinds of insulin and we learned to use it to keep him on a fairly even level. And yet, what he wanted to eat, we did our best to prepare -- anything and everything. Someone (one of his sisters and her family) brought him some home-frozen peaches. I did peach dumplings once, and blackberry dumplings (from frozen wild berries in the freezer). He wanted a turkey sandwich with mayo and hot sauce once, and I made him one. A fresh cup of coffee? Coming right up. Soup? Homemade! He loved it, and told us we treated him like a king.

And when he died, everyone was asleep but me. I fed him breakfast and made coffee in preparation of the rest of the household waking up soon. He was nodding off at the table, and I suggested that he lie down and take a nap. He agreed that he needed to rest. He'd been talking for days of how he desperately needed to get out and do something! It was time to start the garden, to prune some flowers back, to get some things in the yard divided and moved around. He had sat in the doorway on a porch, wrapped in a blanket with oxygen on him from a nearby tank, and watched us do what we could to sooth his urge to get things done. And yet, this last morning, he spoke of needing to move on, saying yet again that he needed to be doing things he couldn't do here. Those were his words. When he said he'd like to rest a while, I set out to get him into bed.

He climbed into the hospital bed placed in the living room under his own steam. All on his own. He asked for some things and I helped him get settled in to suit him. Then I started to put his oxygen on him. He said, "I don't think I need that."

I hesitated. "Are you sure, Dad? You might rest better with it on." His body was filling up with fluid from heart and kidney problems, leaving him often gasping for breath.

He looked at me with this gentle acceptance on his face. "OK, maybe so."

I hooked the tubing over his ears and started to place the canulas in his nostrils when he breathed out suddenly. His eyes protruded slightly. I knew, through sudden tears, that he was gone. I woke Ronnie, then went for my brother in his room, and Mom in the master bedroom, so they could say their goodbyes too. It was me who called Hospice. The nurse gasped, "What? What? Are you sure? Oh, bless your heart, honey!" Within less than a half hour, she came and declared him gone.

His body was bathed and respectful hands lifted him onto a gurney and took him to the funeral home in town. Friends and family brought food -- some had been kind enough to do the same while yet he lived -- and helped get the place in order. Mom chose clothing and various arrangements went into place.

When it was all said and done, the funeral home folks said that Dad had the most individualized funeral they'd ever had the honor to host. A friend and co-worker from the company Dad had retired from preached the funeral. Seats for friends and family became blurred as everyone fell into telling stories and sharing information about the prodigious slide show on the screens in the main viewing gallery. A troop of my brother's friends, a mostly all former-military personnel biker gang of charitable bent served as pall bearers, and one of their associated people came 500 miles on his own money to play Amazing Grace on the bagpipes in the cemetery. The honorable 21-gun salute took "Sarge" into the land of memories.

Dad died two years ago, tomorrow. And the blackberries are blooming yet again.