Life and Death

Earlier this month I wrote:

Humans – that is, the “being” part of the human – may arise out of the individual patterning of his or her biology and neurology. The “being’s” task is to remain aloft above the sum of his or her own parts, and not, through physical or neurological dysfunction or deficit sink back in to the morass of autonomic functioning unaware of anything beyond the instant.

I think that our lives – that is, whether we have life or are dead – don’t have much to do with our health.  They’re related but separate categories, if categories is the word I want.  People in terrible health seem to linger for months and, short of euthanasia or suicide, it doesn’t seem to matter much how how they feel about it.

For two weeks I’ve been thinking about human mortality and how to write about it.  My wife’s grandfather is in hospital and for several weeks has been expected to live no more than a few more days.  His brother died a few months ago, picking tomatoes.  My wife’s mother has spent almost every night in his hospital room with him because she does not want him to die alone.  Certainly he will never return to the home where he and his now three or so years deceased wife have lived since the 1940s.  For the first time this year as we drove by the old white farmhouse we didn’t honk the horn in greeting because there was no one in residence to hear it.

Old-White-Farmhouse

The man who married my late maternal grandmother in 1973 (I think it was that year), now 96, has seemed to be growing weaker over the past several months to a year.  About four, five weeks ago now, he fell for the second time, and because he was living independently and apparently lost consciousness, lay there for several hours until he was able to muster the strength to get to the telephone and call somebody, probably my mother, to help him.  Not long after that he agreed to daily help at home, and shortly after that determined it was time to hang up his car-keys.  Within a week or so afterward, he made some alteration to his medical regime without medical advice that seems to have altered his consciousness to such a degree he cannot remain at home at all.  Little likelihood remains that he will ever return to the home he built all those years ago for my grandmother.

A few days ago a man of my acquaintance died.  When we last spoke, he talked about how he wanted to reconnect with his son who’d been living homeless in a southwestern state suffering from pancreatitis attributable to chronic, long-term alcohol abuse.  He himself suffered from emphysema, but thought he had two or three years left to live.  A former high wage earner, this man had been reduced to a meager and fixed income.  He continued to find meaning in writing, recording, and performing music.  He said his father used to tell him, “You’ll never amount to anything.” 

After our parents die, the only people who have any idea who we are on the basis of who we were are our siblings, if we have any.  My son has no siblings, and as I think about my elders as they make their way through their final days, I think of my little boy as he wades into the first of his.  By the time my wife and I turn our toes skyward I hope our son will be happily established raising a family of his own.  Possibly these dolorous preoccupations are entirely my own and occur to no one else.

On the other hand, all this thought and feeling, much of it probably rooted in the experience and observations of fatherhood, motivates me to greater social interest and compassion for those who do not inhabit that little circle of caring made of wife, son, and a few others who comprise the people who matter most to me.

Father’s Day

Today is the second Father’s Day in as many years that I will be spending the morning at a worship service, then afternoon with extended family. Previously, I’d taken the day off for the annual Childless Man’s Paddlefest – an event observed, now not at all, but then only by myself. However, today, as at about this time last year, I am a father.

Bad Monday

Monday late afternoon or evening, for about a minute, I knew my son had died and held him in my arms helpless to save him. Out of desperation, I placed him on the living room floor and began artificial respiration. His 24 pound body was still HOT from the fever he’d been running, but his skin had turned a blue gray color and his eyes stared fixedly in the direction determined not by his mind, but by the position in which his head lay. His lips were blue. His body was neither rigid nor floppy.

Clear airway, tilt head, cover mouth and nose with my own mouth. Three breaths, instead of the prescribed two. Some chest compressions. Noise as the air passed out of his lungs, over his vocal chords, and out his mouth. My wife had already called 911.

Somewhere in all activity, I prayed while I worked, but not coherently. God doesn’t require my direction to work.

My son’s arms moved a little, but I thought that was just dead nerves twitching as the biomechanical mass shut down in no real order. Then he made a sound unrelated to CPR, and I listened for a heartbeat. It was rapid-fire. I listened for breath, and picked him up. He clung limply now to my neck and I took the phone from my wife. I don’t remember what the 911 operator said after I gave him details about our son’s condition and exactly where to find our house. The guy hung up or the connection was lost.

I could hear a siren, so carried my still breathing boy outside so the driver could easily see which house was ours. My wife rode with him in the ambulance and I followed in her car, which has the child carseat. At the hospital his temp was unreal high, but his other vital signs in the ambulance and in the ER were more reasonable. I still think the hospital should have kept him overnight and monitored him, but they concluded “Febrile Seizure” and with the okay of the on-call pediatrician, discharged him late that night.

By Wednesday, the fever’d gone and it has had no recurrence. He broke out with pink spots Thursday which seems to indicate he’d had roseola. Friday and Saturday, he was his usual happy, inquisitive, toddler-self. He still knows all the words, songs, and activities he knew before his fever and seizure. He seems a little more open-hearted, happy, loving since he got sick, and a little less arrogant. That made me worry about whether he might have lost a few IQ points due to sickness, but our pediatrician laughed at that, said there was no reason to think the fever or seizure had affected his mental processes. Maybe he’s more open because he knows we really will take care of him?

That’s the story of how I am still a father.

Paddling

Quiver Sail on deck at left saw some use yesterday 6/20/09

Quiver Sail on deck at left saw some use yesterday 6/20/09

I woke up early Saturday, and got ready to paddle. Tsunami Chuck sold me a hand-held Quiver Sail that arrived by Fed-Ex on Thursday or Friday. Because I’m a miser, I’d agonized over the past year or so about replacing my Round-Up golf that had umbrella inverted and snapped in heavy wind by the small island on Tims Ford Lake sailing up into Lost Creek Branch. Should I buy a good golf umbrella, or ask for one out of somebody’s garage for free? So, when Chuck posted a classified about the Quiver Sail asking only $35.00 for it, I bought it.

Although the National Weather Service predicted temps in the upper nineties, it also predicted 10 – 15 mile per hour winds. A good day, I thought, to try out the new sail. I loaded gear and boat yesterday morning (because we looked at houses Friday afternoon/evening). I had trouble getting the boat on the roof racks – the front-door prop method failed spectacularly and cussed Godward like a heathen. Finally succeed using angry brute force in racking the 75# kayak, and drove out to the Woods Reservoir public access ramp off Old Brick Church Road in Coffee County.

I explained to God that the reason I was cursing was because of a circumstance so manifestly out of order that in my anger I was inviting him to observe and get angry about it with me. I said I would probably always thus bring wrong to his attention in the hope that he will take corrective action. I told God I would prefer not to feel the need to use profanity, but unless he altered my consciousness somehow, I would probably continue to express the things he’s used to hearing me express. Not defiant or disrespectful; transparent and real.

The ramp was not crowded and the put in was easy. Immediately, my injured shoulder communicated its distress to me, and I worked on paddling technique. That helped some. I was paddling in to maybe a nine mile per hour wind. When I got out by Elder Island, I turned the boat around and deployed the sail. Not much joy there in terms of forward momentum.

I paddled over to Morris Ferry Landing to see what the Arnold Engineering and Development Center’s base commandant has done in terms of public access. I found, to my surprise, a number of vacation trailers still in place and in use up in the trees above the lakefront. Many of the rickety, tin-sided dock structures have been removed. The covered dock by the cafe/store building has been removed.

The public does have access to the site in terms of boat-ramp use, bank-fishing, and swimming. The formerly public toilets have been padlocked, and I saw no trash cans. Simple steps that tend to limit the amount of time members of the general public will remain on site during normal hours of use.

I saw a couple bank-fishing, both of whom I tested when they were high school students, along with their year-old baby boy. An alert-looking blond-headed little boy sitting quietly under the shade of a tree in his stroller observing everything. I congratulated them on their little one, and the fact that they appeared to be catching a lot of fish.

Paddling back under the causeway to the AEDC side of the lake, I found the wind had picked up, but wasn’t blowing in the direction I wanted to go. I paddled back past the smaller Island of the Birds, and again deployed the sail. Worked better in a stronger breeze, but still slower than paddling. I sailed for awhile, then paddled back to the ramp.

Sons and Fathers

At the boatramp, I observed an ancient pontoon boat having engine trouble – whining at high pitch, emitting clouds of white smoke, then stalling out. Two or three men on the deckboat in early middle age. Parked by the ramp was a black Pontiac Firebird, like the one driven by Dwight Schrute (only Dwight’s is some kind of reddish color). Standing at the shore was a young man with long hair. He belonged to the car.

“Engine trouble?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “My dad can’t get it working.”

“You never know how your boat’s going to do until you get it to the water.”

Listening to the young man talk with his dad, it was obvious he wanted to salvage the situation for his father. He asked whether he should see about getting the father’s bassboat, and then called a couple of people to arrange its transport. It was important to this kid that things work out for his dad.

I recall when I was young and out for the day with my father sometimes things wouldn’t go as planned, and I always wanted to be able to alleviate his frustration by making things work out well for him. My dad’s tolerance for unexpected and confounding exigencies of circumstance was a lot lower than mine seems to be.

Now that I’m the dad, will my son be burdened with the sense that he’s got to make sure things turn out okay for me? I hope not.

Listening

My wife got from somewhere, maybe as a shower gift, a music CD entitled Nature’s Lullabies. She plays it a low volume at night when she puts our son to bed in his bassinet. A woman sings a capella songs in the public domain. I can only hear odd phrases.

At first I felt an unexpected, unwelcome sorrow or grief upon hearing the line, “God hears all the little voices.” I suppose it is because I have heard the little voices of animals, birds, insects, and children – the song is about and for children – and have mostly ignored them. Sometimes I hear the sounds my infant son makes – his cries and growls, and am annoyed by them.

The song reminded me that my religion teaches God does attend to the minutest squalls, sounds, and doings of his smallest image bearers. It reminded me that God likewise heard my protests, squalls, “infant songs.” Perhaps he is still listening. I’m trying to listen more attentively to my little one.

I googled the line to see if I could find the song’s complete lyrics. The search returned three Google books scanned with three similar versions of the song, the oldest of which appears to be dated 1864. According to the Google bookscan of, I think the 1907 version, The American Normal Reader, the following was translated from the German:

Can you count the stars?

Can you count the stars that brightly
Twinkle in the midnight sky?
Can you count the clouds so lightly
O’er the meadows floating by?
God the Lord doth mark their number
With His eyes that never slumber;
He hath made them, every one.

Do you know how many children
Rise each morning blithe and gay?
Can you count the little voices
Singing sweetly day by day?
God hears all the little voices-
In their infant songs rejoices;
He doth love them, ev’ry one.

Good Monday on Estill Springs Slough

After a brief rest and stretch, back into the stream of things

I’ve taken some family leave to spend time with my lovely wife and squally infant son this week. It’s also allowing me to make up some time paddling.

Most mornings, I arise about 5:15 – 5:30 a.m. I make a pot of coffee. For the past several weeks, I’ve been eating oatmeal (I ran out of yogurt one morning, and thought, “what the hell? I’ll try oatmeal”), so I put the kettle on to boil. Enter to win a boat at www.paddling.net. Check email. Look at the Internet news.

Babies grunt in their sleep, make odd, unhealthy sounding noises breathing; they smile in their sleep, open and roll their eyes, fuss and then quiet themselves. This morning, my wife brought the baby out for me to feed so she could sleep another hour. Fed him, then held him until he slept, and put him in his bassinet. I love being a father.

Later, once the little guy was sleeping soundly, I got dressed for paddling then remembered I’ve been wanting to order some flotation bags for the E-68. I telephoned Folbot and ordered the oversized Cooper bags. I apologized to Wanda for associating her name with the bags in this thread. The Swift Canoe bags I bought in 2005 from NRS were never entirely satisfactory, and now lose most of their air, one of them after an hour, and the other after two or three hours. For Christmas I got a bag that also provides dry storage, but still doesn’t fill up all the space in the E-68’s stern section.

Estill Springs City Park - a good place to put-in

Saturday afternoon I tried car-topping the E-68 to make sure it was a workable kayak transport solution. This morning I set out for Estill Springs City Park, or, if the water level was too low for that dirt ramp, the parking lot at Estill Springs Church of the Nazarene.

Volvo Meets Poucher-Boote

I haven’t paddled that part Tims Ford/Elk River since last June, with my wife in the RZ 96. At that time, the water was so low we were able to paddle only as far upstream as the farm houses on your left before you reach the bridge at Spring Creek Road.

All that was left of the house that is gone

Today, the water was up to its customary level for this time of year. I was able to paddle past Spring Creek Road, past the ruined footbridge, around the bend, and almost to within sight of the last bridge before the dam at Woods Reservoir. On my way upstream, I passed by the place where there’d been a tumbledown house inhabited by poor white people the last two or three times I’d been past, but this morning I heard the sound of a bulldozer where the house had stood. All I saw of it was a rusty piece of lawn furniture set upon the high bank.

The river’s current became discernible above Spring Creek Road Bridge, and was certainly in evidence at the footbridge piers. Before I got to within sight of the final bridge, however, I found the current too swift, and the rocky bottom too near the kayak’s keel. Turning the rockerless 16.5′ Campsis Radicans in midstream felt like one of those flying loops performed by an antique biplane looks.

A place to stretch where stream once flowed

I paddled back to where a very small creek flows in to the Elk, got out, stretched. To my right a spring gushed forth a small waterfall, and to my left the place where a small stream no longer flows.

On my way back downstream, I explored the sloughs now flooded, which were completely dry last June. I’d paddled them before, but now they are full of the weeds that grew up when the waters receded. I ate my lunch at the “steps” across from Estill Springs City Park. Dunno, but I think the structure is part of the foundation of a former railroad bridge. The Union army probably blew it up during the War Between the States. I can’t find it on any maps. Rain fell, and of course the wind blew against me, as I paddled across the bowl-like portion of river/lake toward the rail and auto bridges that cross the water at the Nazarene church.

The Best Farmhouse

Then I paddled into Tims Ford Lake proper, past the Nazarene church, Taylor Creek branch, and Rock Creek Branch. Found a shiny “Happy Birthday” balloon, popped it, and stashed it with my lunch trash to take home and throw out. On my way back passed the best farmhouse I’ve ever seen – just a plain 1950s brick house beautifully situated. Passed a shack that’s only a year or two old that’s probably worth more than the house I live in.

I’ve uploaded a gallery of photos from today’s paddle. They are in chronological order, and can be found here.  Contrast Good Monday with Rotten Friday

Fatherhood

So I had a job interview today for a position as an instructor for one of the state’s departments. Got home early, ate a 12 point lunch, changed into slacks, white shirt, tie, steel-toe bomber boots, and drove to the interview site about four minutes from my house. The interview went really well, however, since 22 people signed up to interview, the interviewers can only choose from among the top three in terms of overall central-office scored apps, I probably won’t make the cut. Maybe next time.

Back home again the phone rang, and I had to run a related errand. When I finally changed out of dress clothes I can wear again thanks to a net loss of about 16.5# (I gained a pound to get back up to 170), Caution-Lady wanted me to look after the baby while she went to the store.

Coming late in life to fatherhood, I had a goal, and it was never to change a diaper.

Shortly after she left I heard El Ninito sqaulling. He stank. I couldn’t leave him in that. No diaper-roulette this time. I knew what it contained. Without vomiting I got through the ordeal, and so did my son, all clean and still screaming. My younger brother and family bought me two harmonicas and one shaker-egg for Christmas. I’ve found the shaker-egg amuses and interests the baby when he’s protesting a change of diapers. Holding the egg in his hands and shaking it, or against the bottoms of his feet while shaking it seems to produce a sensation he finds distracting and interesting. But not today.

Then, I put him in his cradle and rocked it while reading to him from a children’s book entitled Just in Case You Ever Wonder, getting choked up a bit at the last couple of pages. May have shed a manly tear, but the baby wouldn’t have noticed, as much as he cries.

Getting choked up is the damnedest thing. Emotions have no real value, their expression fails to verify depth or sincerity. Although mine are subject to the observation and analysis of my intellect, they continue to coexist with the great and arrogant brain.

Be grateful there’s no picture today.