June 26, 2019
The light of a newly risen sun trickles over the eastern ridge behind my parents’ trailer and in through the living room window. It slowly covers the brown carpet with a thin, golden blanket.
My father stands vigil over my grandfather, a man quite literally on his death bed. They are untouched by the fresh glow of morning.
Dad grips the safety rail of the hospital bed and purses his lips, reaching to adjust the pillows behind Grandpa’s head before gently brushing wisps of hair and whispering, “Good job, ol’ fella.”
Grandpa’s eyes remain closed as his mouth hangs open. The slightest twitch of an eyebrow says, “Thanks. I’m doing my best here. You know I hate to be a burden.”
The hardest work of the day is done. Grandpa’s cleaned up from the mess made in his sleep. An assemblage of family – my parents, sister, brother-in-law, an uncle, me – laid Grandpa bare 20 minutes earlier, carefully rolling him to one side and then the other, cleaning and changing him, gingerly readjusting him on the bed, dressing him in a fresh hospital johnnie.
The act reminds us that end-of-life care is not so different from that provided at birth.
Behind Dad, a century of raising families and running farms is displayed in plastic picture frames bought at Ames in Morrisville, Woolworth’s in St. Albans, and Zayre in South Burlington. The stores, along with many of the relatives in the photos, are gone. Nevertheless, loved ones remain frozen in time, captured moments mingling with our ongoing struggle of love, worry, and exhaustion.
The slowly arcing sun continues its journey, light spreading across the road and onto the hilly meadow that has framed each moment seen from the trailer’s front door. Grass grows long and untouched, making it hard to see the Lamoille River that divides the Hogback Road from Route 15.
It makes us uneasy.
“I wish someone would mow it,” we’ve all said over the past few days.
The thick growth isn’t supposed to be there. This far into June, it should be chewed down by the hundred or so holstein milkers passing through to the barn for milking and back out again. But just as the grass that doesn’t belong is there, the cows that should be present aren’t.
The barn they wandered in and out of – a three-minute walk from the trailer – has stood empty for the past few years. No cows, no corn silage, no barn smell. More importantly, no Grandpa and Dad making the whole operation run as close to flawless as possible.
Retirement is a time of resting easy. Or it should be. But after a lifetime of standing on the concrete milking parlor floor, climbing in and out of tractors, and tossing bales of hay, taking it easy means the knees, hips, and shoulders seize up.
The wear and tear of seven-days-a-week, rain-ice-snow-sunshine, morning-noon-night made Grandpa barely mobile until a bad fall finished the job a few weeks back. And Dad, before rising from his chair, rocks his torso back and forth , building momentum to push through resistance from bad knees to stand.
“Breakfast is ready, hon,” Ma says, and Dad walks into the kitchen.
I sit and watch Grandpa breathe slowly. Relieved at my decision to leave the farm when I did. Heartbroken that I left them to bear it all without me.
June 27, 2019
Dad’s trying his darndest to get Grandpa to eat something. Anything. Just a little Johnny cake and milk. Please. But Grandpa’s not having it.
The hospice volunteers and home health nurses said to expect this as time passes. His body won’t have the capacity to digest the food. So he won’t have the appetite or desire to eat.
But Dad tries. He has to, even though he knows better. It’s a father/son thing. I’d do the same, I’m sure.
He pulls a blue bandana handkerchief from his pocket – the same kind he’d use on hot days in the hay barn – and wipes sweat from his brow. It’s the first actual warm spell of summer. Not a heat wave, but hot enough to make the tiny air conditioner less than adequate.
The sun hangs high in the sky, shining through the plexiglass windows of the old front door. Grandpa is covered in just his flimsy hospital gown and an even thinner – but much warmer – golden blanket of sunlight.
“Come have some lunch, hon,” Ma says.
I tell Dad to go ahead, and I take over feeding duties. I know Grandpa won’t eat, but I keep him company and give Dad some quiet time with Ma.
After a couple feeble attempts at spoon-feeding, I put the bowl aside and lay a hand over one of his. Grandpa slowly slides his hand out and gently places it over mine. The effort makes him sigh and groan.
He has farmer’s hands: calloused, bent out of shape, massive. My own is eclipsed by his, and I recall a thought from childhood.
Maybe someday my hands will be big and strong like his.
But I’m 44 now. Any growing my hands had in them is done.
I hear a tractor engine and the familiar whir of a power-take-off shaft throwing heavy machinery into action. I turn and see the overgrown field is being mowed. The former cow pasture is now leased and harvested by a farm in Enosburgh, some 25 miles away.
Three or so decades ago, I’d be out there with the old Ford Workmaster tractor and a tiny sickle-bar mower, knocking down the overgrown bull thistles the cows ate around. A whole afternoon of driving in an ever-tightening loop as Grandpa and Ma did the second milking of the day and Dad mowed grass across the river for chopping the next day.
Today the pasture takes about five minutes to take down with a mechanical behemoth that, in one pass, mows six times the width of what I used to manage. By early evening, the adjoining meadows will be mowed, too, and chopping will be well underway.
More work done in less time. I wonder what we would have done with all that extra time. Or would the farm have found a way to swallow it up?
June 28, 2019
The sun set about two-and-a-half hours ago, warming Grandpa one last time before descending behind the western hills of Lamoille County. There was rain in the forecast for tonight, but as the evening wore on, the chance for precipitation decreased.
At a little after 10, Dad made the phone calls to his brothers.
“It’s time. He doesn’t have much longer.”
About an hour later, much of Grandpa’s family – the product of 67 years of dedicated marriage and purposeful love – is gathered around, collectively fumbling through the earliest sensations of mourning.
The man – husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, old-fashioned Vermont farmer – has moved on to whatever is next. His vessel remains, and we do our level best to make peace with it all.
Folks from the funeral home are on their way to collect Grandpa’s body, and uncomfortable grief turns to slightly-less-uncomfortable small talk as we wait.
“Looks like they finally got around to mowing,” someone says of the fields across the road.
“Yeah,” Dad says. “It looks a hell of a lot better. Just wish they’d mowed down closer to the road. No need to let it all stand.”
“Why didn’t they finish chopping the other meadows?”
“Chopper broke down. Probably didn’t have the part handy to fix it.”
“That’s farming,” I say. “Hurry up and wait.”
“Come get some snacks, everybody,” Ma says from the kitchen.
The funeral home people arrive, and we go about the business of death. Paperwork is dealt with, details are discussed , and preliminary plans are put together for cremation.
Grandpa’s body is prepared for leaving the house. We swaddle him in the sheet from his hospital bed and prepare to lift him onto the stretcher. As we pick him up, a gust of wind blows the curtains straight out, bringing with it the sweet aroma of the recently-cut fields.
A parade of family follows the stretcher from the trailer I grew up in – now the trailer Grandpa died in – and across the lawn. We walk through memories of barbecues, birthday parties, and other celebrations staged here over the years. All events suitable for framing.
Grandpa is carefully slid into the back of the hearse.
Someone – my sister, I think – asks if the funeral home attendants would drive Grandpa over to the barn for one last pass by before heading back to their destination. They agree.
A light mist falls as we gather on the front lawn and watch Grandpa’s body visit the barn one last time. The only time for him that didn’t involve work of some sort.
The hearse passes back by slowly, allowing us to say goodbye once more, its headlights covering us all in the thinnest of golden blankets.