Categories
Journal Memories

Potato Gun

A couple weeks back I found a mysterious device while cleaning out the basement: A black pistol grip with a red plastic barrel fused to a full-hand trigger.

I found it on Rich’s workbench, amid a pile of electric drills, flashlights, and hammers. It immediately jogged my memory, but I couldn’t quite remember why. Being there in a mess of tools, my mind went to grease gun… low temperature hot glue gun… maybe a broken soldering gun?

I set it aside and forgot about it.

Until yesterday morning, when I went down into the basement to get a screwdriver and saw the mysterious tool again. It sat alone on the workbench, which Barb and Alli had cleared to make room for the plumbers to work… and this time it clicked.

It is a potato gun.

I haven’t thought of potato guns in at least twenty years. I had one when I was Walker’s age and remember blasting through dozens of potatoes as I ran through the Maine woods with my dog.

When I finished laughing at myself for being struck so suddenly by memories, I went to find a potato… it was time to tell everyone in the house what I had found. Or rather, it was time to show them. It didn’t take long for Barb to start laughing as I shot Alli in the chest and she responded by putting a bit of potato between my eyes.

Eventually, Walker got his hands on the potato gun and spent a good while blasting potato bits into the bay… until he heard that his Daddy was coming to visit. Then Walker found a spot behind a bush and proceeded to sit more still than I have ever seen him, waiting patiently to shoot a wad of potato at his father’s knees.

Categories
Journal Maryland

Settling In

It’s been a helluva month.

We’ve spent the last few weeks closing up business in Virginia. Packing, cleaning, doing what we could to see friends and family, within reason given the ongoing pandemic and a few spats which emerged when I announced that I was heading north. The whole process was complicated by my car accident, which has left the truck sitting in a repair lot for a month

We’re trying hard to help the kids feel settled, even as we try to find our pace with the new normal. They’re registered for Scouts and have already gone camping once. They have a lair in the basement where they can play video games and watch TV without drawing agro from adults for giggling with their friends on voice chat or watching the same talking dog movies again and again and again and again. We’re currently debating whether Girlchild gets to live in the basement, a fate which literally gives her grandmother shivers at the thought of waking up with a spider cricket on her head, or has to share space with her brother. If Boychild could choose, he would sleep on the daybed in his grandmother’s room, but we aren’t giving him the choice.

I’m settling in, slowly.

Moving has been on my wishlist for years. I love my friends in Tidewater, but the utterly flat suburban sprawl drained a little bit more of my soul with each indistinct Virginia Beach Norfolk Chesapeake Portsmouth intersection. My favorite place in all of Tidewater was Pipsico Scout Reservation, a Scout camp perched on the southern cliffs of the James River. With paths that meandered from the heights of the cliffs down to the tangled cypress swamps, it was a dynamic landscape filled with good memories.

Now I’m in a new landscape, one that is a good bit more varied. We are still living in a swamp, but it’s one which is stable enough for houses to have basements and where we can reach rolling, rocky foothills within twenty minutes.

Girlchild has already declared that she wants to volunteer at the local nature center. Boychild is beginning to make friends at Scouts. We’re still finding our footing up here, and likely will be until James finishes his latest round of business travel and we settle into a rhythm of visiting one another, but things are finally beginning to look up and slow down after nearly two years of life moving too fast.

I’m looking forward to watching the ospreys hatch their eggs off the dock, repairing the roof of The Mothership, and taking the family for weekend camping trips in the mountains.

It’s time to breathe again.

Categories
Journal

Breath

We all breathe.

From our first incoherent cry to our last rasping breath, we breathe over twenty thousand times each day.

We breathe so often that we take it for granted, until the moments when our breath is taken away.

I thought I knew what it was to have my breath taken away. By love. By art. By exercise. But everything changed this year.

In June of 2020, Allison and I were visiting a friend on the Pennsylvania border when her mother invited her to a surprise lunch. I spent that day helping to homeschool two kids and occasionally losing my breath as I chased them repeatedly around the farmhouse, up the hill to the barn, and around through the winding paths of the nine acres up beyond the chicken yard.

I lost my breath again that afternoon when Allison got James and me onto a conference call to tell us that her father, who had been growing mysteriously weaker for a few months, had been diagnosed with ALS.

“We are moving to Maryland. I need to help take care of him. I want the kids to have memories of him,” she said. No, she insisted. Even as the numbers didn’t line up, jobs interfered, and COVID overshadowed everything, Allison remained steadfast that she needed to be with her parents and the kids needed time with her grandfather, so James and I did what we could to make it happen.

Which is how we came to live part time in The Mothership.

As the weather grew colder and Rich’s health declined, we found ourselves moving from the role of frequently visiting family members to full time caretakers. Allison, especially, did everything she could to lift the load from her mother, who was struggling under the dual roles of nurse and grieving wife. As time went on, I began to take on some of the care as well.

Feeding times. Medications. Breathing machines.

It was the breathing that was the hardest.

ALS destroys muscles and one of the most important muscles in the human body is the diaphragm. Twenty thousand plus times day this muscle pulls and pushes the lungs, forcing air in and out. For Rich, the diaphragm began to weaken within a few months of his diagnosis. Chest muscles. Diaphragm. Throat, tongue, and lips… all began to deteriorate.

When you can’t work your throat or push your lungs to cough, phlegm begins to build up. It burbles in the throat, oozes down into the lungs, and becomes lodged. We’ve all seen the labels on the side of five gallon buckets, warning that infants can drown in a couple inches of water. For the last few months, Rich fought a daily struggle against the tablespoons of mucous which threatened to drown him.

He needed to breathe.

We would try to help using a cough assist machine. If you’ve never seen a cough assist, simply imagine a little white box with a few buttons on the front and a face mask coming to the side on a long hose, not unlike a vacuum cleaner. Twiddle a few settings, press a button, and this hellish Dust Buster forces air down the trachea at sixty miles an hour, forcibly inflating the lungs for about five seconds before slamming into reverse. Then the cough assist literally sucks the air from the patient’s lungs, often pulling with it a wad of thick yellow mucous.

Suction.

Rinse.

Repeat until they can’t take it anymore or you’ve done twenty breaths, whichever comes first.

Repeat again a few minutes or hours later, depending on how much drawing a breath feels like gargling.

By the end, Rich was using a BiPAP machine for much of the day, essentially treating it as an at-home ventilator. The machine whirred and clicked and hissed all day and night, breathing for him. It made him hard to understand, as every weakened syllable had to be forced from his lips through the storm of air which sustained him.

Eventually only Allison and I could make out what he meant most of the time, and that was just because she has experience talking with elderly folks who struggle to be heard and I have spent years trying to understand the discoherent rambles of adolescents. Still, he often used his few spare breaths to crack jokes. The last one I heard came a few days before the end, when he spent nearly ten minutes blinking and nodding and repeating short phrases as if conveying a terribly important message about his health, until it became clear that he was joking that, yes, he should sleep in his mobility chair so that his wife didn’t smother him with a hug in the middle of the night.

We all laughed, him included… but the thought that sleeping with one’s partner could turn from a joy to a danger was more than a joke.

He used every breath he had.

He fought for each and every one.

Until there was no more breathing to be done.

Categories
Journal

sleep inside

It’s been a few months since we used The Mothership because it’s so darn cold up in Maryland, but with the cold beginning to break and Richard’s condition worsening, we decided to do a quarantine and bring the kids up for a visit before things get too bad.

This morning I was laying in back of the camper, cocooned in my sleeping bag and debating whether was worth going into the house to pee and have coffee and write a little before everyone woke up, or if I should just burrow back into my bag and sleep more.

Then the camper shook and Walker wandered back to my room, blinking. “Oh… you actually slept out here?” he said, because apparently me saying goodnight to him the last two nights wasn’t clue enough that was actually sleeping ten feet from him.

I moved my glasses from the mattress beside me, saying, “Mmhmm. Mom and I told you I would. We didn’t want you to get lonely at night.”

He flopped on the bed and began to fold himself into a series of improbable shapes while saying, “But I have my sister here.”

“Ah. So you don’t need a parent nearby when you sleep anymore?”

He sat up and screwed his face into a variety of shapes, then made that odd I’m-about-to-tell-a-joke-but-I’m-eleven-and-emotions-are-hard-to-process croak he does sometimes. Then he shrugged and said, “You can sleep in the house. I’ll allow it.”

He immediately rolled off the bed, stumbled into the living room, and crawled back under his blanket. He was snoring again before I stopped giggling.

Categories
Journal

Heart Full of Sky

Tonight we stood at the bank of Kerr Reservoir and watched in silence the glimmer of the stars reflecting on the water. Dozens of points of light, only occasionally twinkling at the passing of a ripple caused by a fish striking at a water bug.

We looked up, and Alli laughed.

“Go tell Walker he was right,” she whispered.

I stood there a moment longer, captivated by the expanse of stars. It has been a very, very long time since I saw so many stars. Possibly as long as twenty years. When I worked at Scout camp we saw a lot of stars, but with Williamsburg right across the river, much of the brilliance was lost in a pall of city lights rising up to make the horizon glow white. A couple of times I packed blankets into the back of my Honda and tried to take my first wife stargazing, but inevitably my efforts were hampered by cold weather and the even brighter glow of Norfolk, which was visibly anywhere we went within an hour of our house.

For twenty years I haven’t been able to see this many stars.

Eventually, I retrieved Walker from a the Mothership. Together, we stood beside his mother as she pointed upward.

“You were right,” I said.

Walker gasped as he saw, for the second time that night, the faint wash of the Milky Way churning across the night sky. He had claimed to have seen it earlier, but when we walked out to the field at the center of the campground, the western horizon was still faintly awash with the last glow of sunset and, to our aging eyes, the Milky Way was nothing more than a whips of cloud still catching the reflected sun.

But now we couldn’t deny it.

Arching away above our heads and drawing repeated gasps of “wow” from the boy child, we could see stars by the thousands. He sat at our feet for at least a quarter of an hour, searching the sky for constellations, asking his mother questions about mythology, and repeatedly craning his neck back so far that he nearly toppled over in his effort to see more of the Milky Way. I pulled up an astronomy app on my phone and we took turns searching for satellites and planets until the battery ran low.

Life has taken some strange turns in the last couple years, and just when I thought it was settling down 2020 threw a handful of bolts into the gears, but I have never been happier. Standing with my best friend as we look at the stars with her son, I know that I am finally on my way to where I belong.