Why is it just when you think have a good plan something will come along and prove to you that man can plan but it is God who directs what really happens?
Life settled into a routine with Daddy at least appearing to be doing significantly better in his mental capacity. The smokehouse was a project that Mark got Daddy involved in – as foreman while he and Micah played mules – since it was something that he’d always wanted to do. It seemed to chirk Daddy up to no end though he was always tired at the end of the day. He even had a few good things to say about Mark in contrast to how he had been acting. It was finished just in time for the fruits of the culling that we all helped to do.
The Indian Summer kept up so I kept foraging. On two of those outings I found dead bodies … or what remained of them after animal deprivation had occurred. Mark and Calvin backtracked and found that someone had built a makeshift bridge across one of the gullies to replace the railroad tracks that had been pulled down. This time Mark did the extra work and brought the frame and side rails down.
That night at dinner he was explaining to Daddy, “I didn’t want to go that far. We might need to rebuild it one of these days but if people are coming up here … saw some sign over at the old WPA camps … I don’t want to have to worry all the time about our back door. Rudy has more people than we do to run patrols and he still runs into trouble now and again.”
“Trouble? More of it?” I asked.
“Mostly just refugee people looking for a hand out. Rudy has John trying to figure out how to build a drawbridge of all things over the gully so that he’ll have a way out without having to worry about a big party of people or vehicles coming in. Of course if they come in from the other direction … which they sometimes do if they are to be believed … a drawbridge won’t help, but at least it will cut some of the traffic down.”
“Has he heard any more from the town council?” I asked.
This time it was Micah who answered. “Sam says his dad keeps expecting to, or at least some kind of delegation from town but so far nothing.”
We discussed the terracing idea that I’d had and while Daddy hemmed and hawed Mark said if I really had my heart set on trying he’d see if John had any thoughts on how it could be done. For the first time in a while Daddy started getting out of sorts and I saw what Rudy and Micah had meant about him acting strange.
Dinner ended on a sour note after that but after I finally convinced Daddy to take a pain pill and go to bed and get some rest I came out to find Micah looking upset.
“Is this the way he was before?” I asked him.
“Yeah, maybe not quite so open about it but … but yeah, like this,” he said with an awful frown on his face.
“He’s going to have his good days and his bad, Micah.”
“I know that I … look Mark,” he said as he turned to where Mark was bathing Jessie near the still warm stove. “I’m sorry man. I … I don’t know how I missed it before. Now that someone pointed out I can see it … I …”
“Hey,” Mark said with an understanding look on his face. “If it had been my dad somebody would have probably had to use a 2x4 on me. We see what we want to see, and you wanted to believe your dad was still … still himself. I don’t hold it against you. Just now that we all know … I’m not really sure what to do about it without making things worse.”
I told them both, “We’ll just have to take it as it comes. Hopefully he’ll sleep it off and things will be better tomorrow. He might have just become overtired by trying to participate so much with the smokehouse.”
We all had work to finish and first Micah and then Mark drifted off to their beds. I stayed up a few more hours work on the inventories and trying to work out what I had seeds for and what I didn’t but wanted. I fell into a mental math exercise trying to add up all of the produce from the farm, the cabin, and who much forage I would have to come up with to help us all stay fed in the coming year. I finally gave up as I was making myself sick and getting a headache too.
I put away my account books and wandered down the hall and tried to let things go for what little bit of time there was left of the night.
Micah screamed from across the hall and I shot out of the bed I had just climbed into.
I could hear the sob in my brother’s voice and literally ran into Mark as we both tried to get through Daddy’s door at the same time. The sigh that met our eyes too time to sort out but we both waded in to try and deal with it.
When it was over my poor little brother was nearly as catatonic as my father was. It had taken all three of us to keep Daddy from hurting himself. The only thing I could figure after discussing it with them … and Rudy the next day … is that Daddy had some kind of flashback to his military days. I knew there were things he didn’t talk about, some because he wasn’t supposed to, but I had obviously underestimated what those things were. I was horrified by the pictures I put together from the words that seemed to pour from Daddy’s mouth as he mimicked action he once must have been forced to take.
We had done our best not to hurt Daddy but it hadn’t been easy, especially as he seemed just as intent to do us real harm, not recognizing us at all no matter how we called and cajoled him to him to come back to his right mind. For such a sick man he was incredibly strong be he finally just gave out.
I made Micah sleep in my room while I sat with our father. It was going on three days before he recognized any of us but he was never quite the same afterwards. He seemed to have a weakness on one side that hadn’t been there before and I worried, as the weakness continued to increase as the weeks went by, that he was having mini-strokes. I had to take care of all of my father’s needs and I don’t know who that hurt more, him or me.
Mark offered to help with that but I couldn’t let him do it on top of everything he was taking on. Micah helped but oddly enough Daddy hated that even more than my help. Rudy came and sat with him every other day or so when he could get away from the farm but as the days passed it became apparent that the physical weakness he was suffering wasn’t the only thing getting worse. Daddy’s cognitive skills were getting worse as well.
In a way that was a blessing. Sometimes I even prayed for it. When he was all there he was in so much pain it felt like I was the one that was going to die from it. He also knew, or at least suspected, that he was having episodes of dementia though we did our best to brush it off or pretend it hadn’t happened for his sake. He knew he was slipping mentally and it was a struggle for him to come to terms with. I tried very hard not to be hurt by the way he sometimes acted and by the things he sometimes said but if it hadn’t been for Mark – and to a lesser extent Micah and Rudy – I truly don’t know how I would have held it together enough to do what had to be done. Cheryl and Aunt Lilah also tried to help but Daddy wouldn’t cooperate for them at all and it became to difficult to try and work that kind of arrangement out.
There were also times he mistook me for my mother. Those times, even more than when he raged, nearly broke me. It was too intense … sometimes painfully embarrassing … and when he was like that Mark couldn’t come around at all as Daddy’s sense of reality was almost nonexistent and he said things a lesser man would have held against him if not outright used against him. Mark didn’t. What he did do for me on those really bad days was to keep Micah busy and occupied. I couldn’t have handled Daddy and Micah’s needs at the same time.
Daddy began to sleep a lot. He couldn’t eat much and what he did eat wouldn’t always stay down. His guts were pretty bad and it took all my herbal knowledge and that of Aunt Lilah as well to keep him comfortable. I spent hours on end dropping water into his sleeping mouth with an eye dropper. Too quickly and he would choke but most of the time his autonomic reflex to swallow took over and allowed me to keep him modestly hydrated.
Mark and Micah eventually took on all of the house work in addition to their regular chores to free me up to be a fully time nurse. Daddy fretted when I was too far away and the running back and forth was exhausting me to the point of my own illness. Micah helped nurse Daddy too but he was just too strung out to be as effective as I needed him to be. I didn’t hold it against him, or Mark, for the load I bore. How could I when I could see how hard they were both trying? Mark begged me to sleep but I couldn’t seem to get more than a few minutes at a time.
And as my father deteriorated so did the country. The bombs that were exploded seemed to be the last hurrah of whatever force – still unacknowledged – that had come against us. But they didn’t need to do more, they’d done enough.
The infrastructure was gone. Medical care for the masses was gone. Our fuel refining capacity was gone. That in addition to the change in seasons shut down the farms. And with the little death of winter came millions of death by disease, exposure, and starvation. Those people who remained were surviving but that was about it. They were holding on by their fingernails, praying spring would bring new life and renewed hope.
A Russian-Sino War had engaged most of the rest of the world. Even South America and Africa had been pulled into it as both large countries sought to make resource grabs to hold them over until rebuilding could take place. The only thing that kept the US and Canada from being pulled in was our nuclear capacity that still existed even though the larger infrastructure of our country was in tatters. We may have been limping along but no one dared to call us “Gimpy” to our face. There were attempts at incursions but conventional weapons held the invaders at bay and because of the training our troops had we had to use fewer weapons to get the same affect as many other countries whose military had less training and less technological know-how.
Eventually the war began to fracture and lose its cohesion as the countries fighting it began to run out of fuel and bombs to throw at each other. Russia in desperation formed a coalition with its allies. Bioterrorism and small nuclear devices were let loose all over China. China for its part got in a few last licks. A few bombs were even aimed at North America but only a few made landfall; two in California, one on Mexico City, and the worst one was Vancouver in British Columbia where the loss of life rivaled even the first bomb that had taken out Tehran so many months ago.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year came and went. I asked Mark to take Micah and Jessie to the farm for what celebrations there were but I couldn’t … wouldn’t … go. I knew they talked about me, trying to figure what to do. They whispered of Caregiver Burnout, that if I wasn’t careful I’d follow Daddy to the grave. Aunt Lilah was the only one that completely understood. She’d been where I was too often. I know they only talked because they loved me but I had a hard time caring. My father was dying.
The snow melted and buds appeared on the trees once again, making promises of rebirth but I barely acknowledged it. I was too tired. And I resented the hope that spring promised. Any hope that Daddy would get better had died long ago. The redbuds were beginning to open the night that Daddy slipped into a coma. Everyone in the family had said their goodbyes long ago while he was still mentally able to acknowledge the respect he was being paid. He lingered nearly a week before God finally released him to go be with Momma.
It happened in the darkest part of the night but I didn’t wake anyone. Instead I did the last thing I could do for my father. I washed him and dressed him in his dress military uniform, the one he’d asked to be buried in when he was still sound enough of mind to ask. I washed and trimmed his hair into the near crew cut he had preferred for as long as he had been in my life.
The hair was thin and pale and the body wasted beneath the uniform that I hastily basted into a better fit but I imagined he looked better than he had for a long, long time.
“Del?” Mark asked me quietly when he entered the room shortly before dawn to find me sewing a shroud. He stilled my hands with his own and then gently wrapped me in his arms. It was Mark that woke Micah and told him, I just couldn’t. Admitting it to Micah would have been the last step in admitting it to myself.
The remainder of that day and the next two were a blur. Rudy and John came and helped take my father’s body down to the farm. People tried to comfort Micah and I and while I appreciated it in a distant way I didn’t truly feet it. I was in a haze of grief and having a hard time dealing with my sense of guilt that I was also relieved that it was finally over.
I only made one demand. “I want Daddy buried where he asked to be; beside Momma.”
Rudy said, “Del … I’d do nearly anything …”
Mark broke in, “We’ll do it Del. Cal, Same … you two come with me. The ground’s thawed and …”
“Now just a minute here,” Rudy interrupted.
“Rudy, I respect you and all you’ve been doing but Del needs this. Micah needs this. I’ll do what needs doing, just let Cal go at least to cover my back in case of trouble.”
A deep sigh seemed to come from the depth of Rudy’s soul. “Mark … son …,” he said like he wanted to object. Then he shook his head. “You don’t do it alone. Let me go to the Bait & Tackle. We’ll … we’ll get this done somehow.”
Both men were true to their word. They even managed to find a lay preacher to perform a grave side service. If I had been able to I would have noticed that a large number of people came to the funeral. It wasn’t just my family; Big John and his sister and any number of people that had known Daddy through the years and some who hadn’t came to pay their respects. Later Cheryl told me that it was like my Daddy’s funeral was a funeral for lots of people, some that had been buried and many that had simply disappeared in the troubles.
I tried, I believe I really did, but no matter the condolences and kindness I just couldn’t what they were offering or looking for in return. Micah could and I was glad of it because it meant people had someone to focus on besides me, not to mention I couldn’t muster up enough of whatever it was I needed to even help him.
Aunt Lilah watched me but never said a word. She came and patted my arm and then passed on but somehow that pat reached me more than all the words of all the other people.
Mark was as close as a shadow through everything and when the sky clouded and the wind turned chilly he wrapped a coat around me and asked Micah to sit with me and Jessie in the truck so he could do what needed doing. As we walked away the sound of clods of dirt falling on the simple pine box that held my father’s remains echoed in my mind and heart.
Mark drove us back to the farm. Rudy told Mark that Micah had asked to stay at the farm with Sam. I was momentarily hurt but it didn’t last long as the chill that had set in at the cemetery seemed to suck me back under. Truth was I understood. Micah had been working on the farm a few hours every day, mostly under John’s tutelage and Rudy’s supervision. It had been his time away from the cabin that helped him to be able to handle his time there.
I later found out Mark asked Rudy if he thought one of the girls should come to the cabin. Basically Rudy told him that I’d be better off with just him and Jessie and to heck with what anyone said about it.
I remember walking into the cabin and realizing that it wasn’t as over as I had thought; I still had to do something about Daddy’s room and all of his personal stuff so I headed that direction after changing out of the first “dress up” clothes I had worn in months.
“Del ...,” he called. I didn’t answer.
“Del …,” I hear him call again, now with a tone of concern in his voice. I knew I should answer him but all I could do was start at all of the empty spaces in my life my father used to fill.
I jumped when I felt his hands on my shoulders. Then he was turning me, g”uiding me to the living room. “There’ll be time enough for that later Sugar. Aunt Lilah sent some soup and cornbread and told me you needed to eat.
“I’m not hungry.” Even to me my voice sounded dead, like I’d buried part of myself with my father.
“Then we’ll just sit here. Jessie will be asleep fairly soon I expect then everything will be quiet for you,” he said soothingly.
“Let him make all the noise he wants for as long as he wants. It stops me from thinking.”
Mark turned his head then said, “Too late. He’s asleep in the playpen already. Stay put. I’m going to go put him in his bed.”
I hardly noticed when Mark came back; I was trying so hard not to think.
“Del?” It felt like I was operating in slow motion. I blinked then slowly turned my head to look at him. What I saw there was finally my undoing. I’m not sure exactly what it was but the walls holding back the dam finally cracked. At first my eyes only watered, then the tears ran down my face. It didn’t take long however for me to be a sobbing ball of misery he was holding in his lap. I don’t know how long I cried, I don’t even remember going to bed, I sure as heck don’t remember going to bed in Mark’s bed. The next thing I remember is Calvin saying, “Didn’t take you long to make your move Mark. Dang, not even I am that hard up.”