One Chance to Tell You

March 16, 2012 at 3:22 pm 3 comments

If I only have this one chance to tell you, then I’ll send you to the living room couch to find him. He’s sitting on the end closest to the lamp so he can read the morning paper. On the overflowing bookshelf near his right elbow there’s a chipped Bayfield, WI coffee mug. The cooling coffee – brown not black, plenty of real cream, not milk, with a little sugar too – has already been refilled two times.

His brown and graying hair is still wet from his morning shower. He raises his arms in tandem, as if he’s stretching, and uses the fingers of his two hands to comb the soft, thin waves away from his face. There’s a small piece of toilet paper dotted red, clinging to the spot he nicked while shaving. He’s wearing tan pants and his favorite red and white Crazy Legs t-shirt. Beneath his white tennis shoes his feet rest on a small round braided rug. Grandma makes him sit there, with the rug beneath his feet, since he refuses to take his shoes off when he comes in from the garden. “Aahh”, he always tells her, “I wiped them.”

He’s listing to one side. The paper has fallen to his lap. His nose points ceiling-ward, his mouth is open and he is snoring. The big rimmed glasses resting on his nose are crooked because his head has fallen against the cushion at an odd angle. Grandma’s complaining. “If he didn’t get up and run 10 miles every morning maybe he wouldn’t need to nap when the rest of us are ready to get out and do something!” Maybe it’s her impatience that wakes him with a start, maybe it’s his giggling grandchildren jumping on the cushions. He bounces up from the couch, takes a last swig of coffee, and grabs the car keys from the hook near the phone. “Are we ready? Let’s go!”

If I only have this one chance to tell you, then I’ll send you to the church basement to find him. He’s in the kitchen, in front of the black 8 burner stove, a flowery apron tied around his waist to protect his church shirt and pants. The sleeves on his white shirt are rolled up to his elbows and his tie is tucked inside of the front, between the middle buttons, so it doesn’t get dirty.  He’s fried the bacon, drained the grease in the Folgers coffee can, and the scent fills the room. In one arm he cradles a huge silver bowl resting against his hip. In the other hand he holds a wooden spoon, scrambling the eggs. His eyes watch: the clock as it moves toward 8, the other men on his Easter Breakfast committee. He surveys the preparations, encourages the joyful chaos, and issues orders too. “Are the cinnamon rolls set out yet? How’s the coffee coming? They’ll be here soon; let’s get these eggs cooking!” Using the hem of his apron, he adjusts the handle of the hot frying pan and pours the frothy egg batter. One hand reaches into a drawer so he can set out the missing serving spoons, the other stirs, and he notices the first of the Easter Sunday breakfast eaters to arrive.  “Ah, you made it! Sit over there and I’ll bring you something to drink.” Handing off the stirring spoon to someone nearby, he puts a dish towel over his forearm and grabs the carafe. There’s a spring to his step on this new spring morning as he hurries to meet us at one of the long tables crowded into the small and musty basement. Holding the carafe high and away so it doesn’t spill on us, he pulls out Grandma’s brown and battered metal folding chair so she can sit first. He hustles to do the same for his three grandchildren – the ones who moments ago were complaining in the car. “Why do we have to get up so early on Easter morning? Can’t Grandpa just make eggs at home?”  The paper tablecloth has been pulled askew and he straightens it with a flourish. Then with a small bow he smiles and cries, “Happy Easter! Who wants juice?” Before we can answer our glasses are filled and he is turning to the door to welcome the newest arrivals. “Happy Easter!” his voice booms across the room again. Trays overflowing with rolls and bacon and eggs – one in each hand – begin appearing on the tables. Wiping spills and setting up more chairs, he swoops in and grabs the nearly empty trays and brings them back filled again – serving food, serving joy, serving. The people and their laughter, the hellos and sunrise greetings fill the room and swirl around him.

If I only have this one chance to tell you, then I’ll send you to the kitchen to find him. He’s sitting in his favorite chair at the head of the table. He’s leaning back, both hands behind his head, fingers clasped there, as he and ‘the boys’ talk about all of the important news – the Badgers, the Packers, the Brewers. Merrilee’s setting the table with the ‘good’ silverware. Laurel and Barbara plop dollops of cool whip on the jello, a leaf of lettuce under each jello square to make it a fancy salad. Grandchildren bring matchbox cars and my little ponies to their places at the table. He’s already mashed the potatoes for Grandma, the gravy bowl is full, and now Grandma’s pulling the pot roast from the oven and sets it in front of him, ready to be carved.  “Let’s pray.” he says as everyone finally sits down. Then he holds out his hands, one on each side, and takes the hand of the ones sitting closest to him. The circle forms, each one touching two. His barrel chest is pushed outward and he turns his head from one to the other, taking them all in – to the room, to the table, to his heart. He inhales deeply, lowers his chin, and sings loudly in his tenor voice. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  His eyes smile and tear just a little as they take in his family. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  He sings again.

If I only have this one chance to tell you, then I’ll send you to the hospice room to find him. “St. Peter’s coming,” he told us in a phone call. “I’m not sure exactly when, but he’s coming …for me.” He is propped up against pillows, dry chapped lips sipping slowly through a straw. It’s harder to swallow now and he chokes on the water. His son returns the glass to the tray and gently wipes his lips. He struggles to lift his bone-thin arms to push back the white hair at his temples but they are too weak, so his daughters do it for him – one on each side, whispering, soothing. The wedding ring on his finger is in danger of falling off, of getting lost because he’s lost so much weight but he did not take the ring off six years earlier when it was her time to go, and he will not take it off now.

The nurses helped him dress in his favorite red and white Crazy Legs t-shirt before we arrived. Now his son is hanging a Wisconsin Badgers flag to remind him the Rose Bowl is coming and he won’t want to miss it. His chin quivers when we tell him again how much we love him and he struggles to smile, then wink, instead.

When we were alone with him earlier – when he asked us, “Have I taken care of everything?”, when we told him everything was done, when we told him he could rest well – he told my husband, “It’s up to you now, Johnny.” We try hard not to cry but it’s impossible; and we realize he doesn’t see our tears anyway because his eyes have closed again.

It is Christmas Eve. His head rolls toward the door as his family begins to arrive. As he has filled our lives to overflowing for 90 years, so too do we fill his room. Thirty two children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have traveled from Texas and Wisconsin, New York, West Virginia, Illinois, and Georgia and are now crowded around his bed. Tears fill his eyes and he lets them fall as his wrinkled cheeks receive kisses and “Merry Christmas, Grandpa”.

We begin to sing – all of his favorite carols and hymns and the University of Wisconsin’s Varsity. Other patients on the floor push their wheelchairs past his room and stop and listen. He lifts his head from the pillow and the gray hair at the back sticks out in spiky angles. His daughters adjust the pillows so he can sit up straight. His mouth opens, then closes. He tries again. He inhales deeply; his lungs fill with air and he finally joins the family chorus, his tenor voice blending with ours, his chest rising and falling beneath the thin white sheet. “Joy to the world!” we sing. And he sings too. “Joy to the world.”

If I only have this one chance to tell you, then I’ll send you to heaven to find him. If you should get there before me, look for him outside in the garden. He’ll be with Virginia and Merrilee, Ruby, John and Howard, Nettie and Warren. Tell him that I miss him …. my father in law – John M. Black.

 

This was written for a writing class I took. The assignment was to develop a character — ‘show’ him or her, don’t tell ‘about’. How’d I do? I hope you feel like you know him now.

 

 

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Entry filed under: Living Out Loud, Noodling Around -- New Stories, Steering the Craft_Writing Exercises. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

5th Grade Civil War Project meet Inorri O’Neal, illustrator

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike Speller  |  March 18, 2012 at 8:55 am

    This is personal, multi-sensory, and rich in feeling & images. Thanks for sharing a wonderful life story! *I trust this class (and teacher) appreciated it too?

    Reply
  • 2. Ann Dettwiler  |  April 13, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Perfectly done! And I know him, the wonderful man! Beautifully written! Thank you, Sue.

    Reply
  • 3. Carol Kerman  |  May 30, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    Beautifully written Sue. I love the refrain “If I only have one chance to tell you.” I felt your deep love for him and his love for his family.
    Thanks Sue

    Reply

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