For the first time in about four months, I have four days off in a row.
I’m flying to Birmingham tomorrow to meet Ginger and hang out with my in-laws and go to a family reunion (well, at least part of the family – Ginger’s cousins are all over that country); I come back on Sunday in time to be back at work on Monday. I’m glad to be getting away. I hope it gives me a chance to find some perspective on the disappointment of the week. I walked up to the bakery this evening – it closed as of this morning – to find everyone just walked out. They didn’t clean up or put up or do anything. There was still pancake batter, eggs, and fruit in the refrigerator and cookies and pastries in the display cases. It looks like it should be filled with the sounds of people sharing meals and the aroma of breads and cookies coming from the kitchen.
Instead, it stands hollow, more than empty.
The main reason I’m working so hard to get to Birmingham is to see my mother-in-law and my father-in-law. She had triple coronary bypass surgery in September and is doing wonderfully. I haven’t seen her since the surgery. He is dealing with the early stages of Alzheimer’s and is fading incrementally. I want to be with him as much as I can. I thought of him as I stood in the bakery this evening, a room that looked like it should be inhabited but was not. He is the man I have come to love dearly over the years and he’s not the same: he is not completely inhabited anymore. He is fading away and I don’t want him to go. He’s one of the good guys.
He is a man who has always put his arms around the world. He never met a stranger, he is always ready to have a conversation, and he always feels “fine, wonderful, magnificent.” One of my favorite stories about him happened a few Thanksgivings ago. My in-laws were here for the holiday, as were a few friends who have become intentional family. One of them is gay. We have a sectional couch and between Thanksgiving and New Year’s we put a futon mattress down to make a big palette in front of the TV. My father-in-law and our friend were lying on the mattress together watching a football game. I, the straight son-in-law, was in the kitchen making Thanksgiving dinner. Ginger walked through and said, “Hey Dad, did you ever think you’d be lying on the couch with a gay guy watching football while your straight son-in-law was cooking in the kitchen?”
He said, “No, but he’s a pretty good guy,” and then let out a belly laugh. For our friend, whose father won’t let him come home until he’s willing to be straight, the moment was grace incarnate.
Northern Alabama is filled with people who have been touched by his love and hopefulness. There are folks in our church here in Marshfield who love him deeply, even though he only gets to come up once or twice a year. He is a man of open heart and gentle spirit, one of the finest people I know.
John Prine has a song called “Hello in There.” The chorus says,
old trees just grow stronger
and old rivers grow wilder everyday
old people just grow lonesome
waiting for someone to say
hello in there
The thought of him fading into loneliness breaks my heart. Hopefully, the medicine he is taking will keep him from fading quickly and give us all some good years together. As deeply as so many names are etched upon his heart, it’s going to take a lot to make him forget.