But I Repeat Myself

The passing of John Lewis and a recent tweet once again brought to mind The Highlander Folk School which began in Grundy County, midway between Monteagle and Tracy City. I’ve written before how it struck me as unlikely epicenter of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. I’ve not always been what you call a student of history and I’m not sure I’d qualify as one now, but you wouldn’t think that a requirement to know that less that a mile from where you lived there was a place that helped instruct the likes of Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the ways of non-violent protest. I had no idea until I read Parting The Waters.

John Lewis had this to say about Highlander:

“I was a young adult, but I had never eaten a meal in the company of Black and white diners,” the congressman wrote. “Highlander was the place,” he continued, “that Rosa Parks witnessed a demonstration of equality that helped inspire her to keep her seat on a Montgomery bus, just a few weeks after her first visit. She saw Septima Clark, a legendary black educator, teaching side-by-side with (Highlander founder Myles) Horton. For her it was revolutionary. She had never seen an integrated team of equals working together, and it inspired her.”

But what happened to Highlander? Well from the Tennessee Encyclopedia:

As Highlander became more prominent in the struggle for racial justice, outraged southern white segregationists launched a sustained assault against what they described as a “Communist training school.” … Following a headline-grabbing investigation by state legislators, a police raid, and two dramatic trials, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander’s charter and confiscated its property in 1962.

It had been awhile since McCarthy was smacked down after being asked “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” but the Red Scare was still alive and an easy enough dog whistle to blow to help bring down a place on such a radical mission as advocating for equal rights.

They say that history doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes. Today the bogeyman isn’t communism but radical socialism. Whatever that is. I’m sure most that toss that label around pay little attention to what it really means. Doesn’t really matter. It’s just a thing that you can say like you don’t want a socialist hellscape do you!? And people are like oh God no not that! Never mind the fact that Social Security and Medicare are socialist programs that seem to be quite popular (if you are adamantly opposed to Social Security by all means send your checks to me). Then, especially here locally, we have the Tennessee Valley Authority which electrified rural areas, provided flood control, oh and created a lot of jobs. And the interstate highway system championed by that well known commie Dwight D. Eisenhower. I could go on, but the point is we’re already quite socialist.

Despite this, those trying to bend the long arc of the moral universe towards justice are labeled as “radical socialists” or enemies of “law and order”. Those that see clearly know what’s these labels really mean just as they did years ago when Highlander was labeled a communist training ground. I keep hoping another Joseph Welch will appear to snap people out of this trance. In the meantime I have to be content in the belief that history will eventually look back favorably on those more interested in advancing humanity than whatever this is masquerading as law and order.

What I Know

I don’t get it. There are some things that I’ve wracked my brain trying to understand and I’m just unable to see. Like, how is it that there are people that believe the come to believe that the Earth is flat? Or that we never landed on the Moon? Why are people so willing to believe junk science on YouTube about vaccines or anything for that matter? And at the same time dismiss actual peer reviewed science? How do people fall for cults like Scientology, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, and The People’s Temple? That last one especially, how do you get to a place where one man has such complete control over your mind that you willingly poison your children and watch them die before taking your own life? And how does Donald Trump, or any politician of all things, engender such slavish and complete devotion bordering on the verge of outright worship? On the outside looking in on all of these things it’s just… bewildering. Unfathomable. Beyond my ken.

Here’s what I do know.

I’ve not always had a great relationship with my dad. Especially when I was younger. We’ve had some titanic disagreements over the years. During my childhood those “disagreements” often landed me in hot water and my dad could be quite strict when it came to discipline. Not like beatings or anything (though there were many times I’m sure I deserved them), but if you would grounded for a week it was precisely one week. He was quite good at finding pressure points and using them. In one instance the power cord to my old Atari 400 was taken from me for 2 weeks. This was quite possibly the most devastating punishment he could dole out at the time.

My dad values discipline and that goes for his own actions. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in the 60s. He rose to the rank of Sergeant and served in the Vietnam War. I believe the Marines reinforced his sense of duty, honor, regimen, integrity. But he doesn’t often call attention to his service. It’s sometimes easy to forget that is part of his past, though he does recognize the USMC birthday each year and give an Oorah from time to time. After serving, my dad and Uncle formed a successful small business which they operated for over 40 years. Literally started in a garage back in 1969. And though not overtly religious, he took care to make sure we went to church regularly and that I was Confirmed by the Lutheran church (at the same time my mother made sure I was instructed in the ways of Southern Baptists after their divorce in the early 70s). Although he never attended university he never missed a chance to stress the importance of education to his children and continues to try and better himself to this day. He’s always reading something but I don’t think I’ve known him to read a work of fiction. He had a notion to read a biography of every U.S. President for Pete’s sake.

I could go on. Certainly he has his faults as any human being does. But all this is to say that may dad is a thoughtful and honorable man. Not only focused on making the correct decision, but the right decision, as in the right thing to do. Unfortunately for me, growing up and on into adulthood we didn’t always see eye to eye. At every major crossroads, whether I asked for it or not, his advice turned out to be correct, despite repeated efforts by me to prove him wrong. This happened over and over. It was quite annoying really. The old man was right. Again. Slowly but surely I learned to disregard his opinion at my own peril. Now when there are hard decisions to be made I go out of my way to make sure I get his take.

So, sitting here in deep red Tennessee as I skim through my social media and see so many friends, family, former classmates, etc., taken in by conspiracy theories and the cult of Trump it can be hard to give voice to opinions that would seem to be in the minority. But then I remember on these issues my dad and I are agreement. Ideologically he’s actually fairly conservative but he’s not blinded by it. Character. Integrity. Truth. These are things that are more important to him than any ideological purity test and traits that the current administration is seemingly devoid of. And in this we are in agreement. Were we not, he would most certainly let me know. I’ve heard “That’s dumb” from him more often than I care to admit. We spend probably too much time during our regular phone calls wondering how it can be that there are some that can not or will not see what is so plainly obvious. Our calls are like a little oasis in a desert of what passes for public discourse these days. Given my dad’s history as a wise councilor over the years these discussions bolster my confidence that I’m on the right path, though perhaps not the easiest one. Actually if something were easy it would probably raise a red flag for him. “If you’re going to do something, do it right”, “no pain, no gain”, “work hard, play hard”, are all expressions I’ve heard more than once.

This is a bit more than I set out to write (as usual). Basically, I have come to think the world of my dad and give more weight to his opinion than any other source. As the years have rolled on and I have, at last, gained enough wisdom to see his more clearly. I know if I come to the same conclusion as my dad, I can rest easy knowing, odds are, it’s right.

A House Divided

Couldn’t really sleep tonight. I woke up and then my brain decided to kick around a what-if scenario. Specifically if the people of the U.S. today were magically swapped with the people of the early 1940s how would they fare? Would we still be on the winning side of World War II? That kept bouncing around in my brain and eventually decided that it’s hard to see how we would have.

Today half the country is having a fit at being asked to simply place a cloth over their face in an effort to help us win a war against a common enemy. For a variety of “reasons” I guess. Freedom. Or it turns you communist, or it kills you or… something. People who’ve worked job requiring a mask all day for years are probably surprised to learn that they should all be dead by now. Whatever, I really don’t understand and have given up trying. But I can’t help but wonder what their reaction would be to being told that, say, you’re no longer allowed to buy sugar… or coffee. The government will be in charge of distributing that and deciding how much each person gets. Not only that but they’ll decide how much gas you can put in your car and it’s likely going to be no more than a few gallons a week. Oh and while we’re at it the national speed limit is now 35 MPH. Can you even begin to imagine the reaction of Americans today if asked to make those sort of sacrifices? Or, my god, what the media and commentators would make of that sort of communist thinking?! Are you kidding me? We would crumble. There’s no way we could handle it. But our grandparents and great-grandparents did. They didn’t shriek about losing their freedoms. Didn’t say well, you know, only a certain age group and mostly men are dying so it doesn’t affect me or, you know, not all of those deaths are from combat but they are including them in the totals (291,557 died in combat, 113,842 were “Other”) so it’s not as bad as they’re saying. And back then we didn’t cut funding for science, we poured billions into it which gave us a solution that may not have won the war but it sure as shit ended it.

On December 7, 1941 we were attacked. Not Republicans. Not Democrats. Not white people or black people. Not Christian, Jews, Atheists. Americans. On December 8, 1941, exactly 1 day later, the House of Representatives voted 388 to 1 in favor of a declaration of war (88-0 in the Senate). I can’t conceive of any issue today on which Congress would agree so completely. I can imagine the amplification of conspiracy theories that the Republicans were secretly working with Japanese to make FDR look bad or something. I don’t know. Conspiracy theorists are a creative bunch I’ll give them that. Injecting tracking chips with their 5Gs and what not. I wouldn’t have thought of that one and if I had I would never have imagined people would fall for it.

When the pandemic started I was actually, I don’t know if optimistic is the right word, but when it hit here I was like just wait, we may have our differences but watch how we set those aside and come together to kick this thing’s ass. We will pour everything we have into defeating this just like we did during World War II. A new Manhattan Project except this time we’ll save lives. Hell we’ll save the world. Stand back world we are about to show y’all what America is all about! Heh, yes we’ve showed the world what we are about all right.

United States of America. United. United in what exactly? Our distrust? Our hatred towards one another?

Don’t get me wrong, I love my country. I feel blessed to have been born here and thankful for the opportunities I’ve had. But it’s a love similar to that a parent feels towards a child I guess? I take pride in their accomplishments and sympathy when they fail. If they hurt I hurt. If they go astray doesn’t mean I stop loving them. I hope they find their way back, though it is a bit of a helpless feeling waiting and hoping for that to happen as I’m sure my parents could attest. I guess that’s where I’m at. Just waiting and hoping that we find our way back.

A Rougher Patch

My mom passed away early last Thursday morning. March 19th 2020.

If you read my last post you know that it’s been a difficult time and since then things have only gotten worse. Although, for a time, things were getting better. Susie, the best wife a man could ask for, had given up her job and dedicated herself to taking care of my mother full time. And slowly mom seemed to be improving. She was never really able to get to the point where her eyes wouldn’t close involuntarily, but her speech had improved to the point that she no longer needed to use her letter board or the app I wrote for her to be able to communicate. In the meantime I had returned to work with only slightly reduced hours. My son, Aaron, and I spent a few nights each week in La Vergne as he returned to school and I tried to get that home ready to sell so we could all be in Smithville full time after the semester wrapped up. Things had started to settle into something of a routine.

In early March my sister, Roxanne, came out from New Mexico for a week long visit and I was just beginning to become concerned about the virus after reading reports out of Italy. On that day they had a total of 3,089 cases while here we had 153. I mentioned to her and Roxanne that I would be curious to know what steps hospice would be taking now to insure that it didn’t spread to those vulnerable patients that they care for. During the nurse’s visit the following day I was surprised to hear her say that they are taking extra precautions but it’s basically like the flu. The nurse was concerned, but not alarmed by mom’s health. She seemed to not be doing quite as well as the week before though her blood pressure had improved and her heart rate was steady and strong. But the pain in her legs and her anxiety had been increasing. Italy ended that day with 4,636 cases and 278 in the US. The first case in Tennessee was reported the day before.

The following day Susie took her first real break from taking care of mom since her stay with us began back in December. Friends of ours had planned a day for us to get away and try to leave our cares behind for a bit. It was hard to do with the thoughts of the virus in the back of my mind and seeing firsthand some of the destruction of the tornadoes from earlier that week. It’s amazing as I look back on the last few weeks that those tornadoes which brought so much death and destructions are almost an afterthought.

On Sunday we returned to Smithville to find that mom’s pain had not improved and now she was beginning to have trouble drinking on her own. The next day was, I believe, the first where she started saying things that didn’t make much sense like “I want to go home to Tennessee”. On Tuesday her nurse visited again. Her vitals improved again from the last visit. She experienced first hand some of the strange things mom had started saying and suggested that dementia might be settling in, perhaps in part due to the changes in routine and that maybe as things got settled it would get better. There was also a noticeable change in how much more careful the nurse was with sanitization. By the end of the day, as my sister and I drove back to La Vergne so she could catch an early flight home the next morning, Italy had 10,149 cases. The US had 959 with 7 in Tennessee.

I started talking to Susie about the need to stock up on groceries so we could cut down on the number of trips we had been making to the store. I didn’t want to risk us bringing anything back home and infecting mom with her health as precarious as it was. On Thursday Susie went shopping and tried to get two weeks worth of groceries. The pain in mom’s legs and her confusion continued to worsen but we believe that it’s still a problem that we can solve with help from hospice. By Saturday mom has lost the ability to communicate except to answer “uh huh” and “uh uh”. She does manage a couple of times to say “help me” while rubbing her legs. Hospice says this can happen where they have several bad days of pain then it eases up. We’re starting to become alarmed.

Sunday morning comes and mom is very groggy and not very responsive. Susie and I wonder if perhaps a shower could help. As I’m getting her out of her wheelchair for the shower I hug her and tell her I love her. She says “I love…”. I didn’t realize at the time that would be the last thing she would say to me.

The shower doesn’t really help. Mom no longer opens her eyes. We open them for her and ask her to look at each of us in turn. She is able to do that somewhat. We call hospice and ask that they please send someone to look at her. The on call nurse comes and tells us he believes that she is now actively dying and it could be hours or weeks.

Over the following days she is visited by her other children. My sister and brother who live in Chattanooga. Roxanne is back in New Mexico trying to decide what to do. By the end of the day on Monday there are 27,980 COVID-19 cases in Italy, 4,632 in the US and 52 in Tennessee. I still hold on to a sliver of hope that she might recover and ask if everyone could stay away. I relay messages to mom from friends and family but I’m not sure if she hears me. I try and keep her hydrated by wetting a sponge and placing it in her mouth. At first she would suck water from the sponge but gradually her ability to do that lessens. Each night I roll the trundle bed next to hers and sleep. I listen to her breathing which is sometimes interrupted by a long deep breath followed by a long pause before she begins breathing regularly again.

Wednesday evening I wake up around 11:30PM and go to the bathroom. Mom is still here. Her breathing is more shallow. I wet her mouth again, hold her hand and drift back to sleep. I wake again around 1:00AM and listen for her breathing but it’s silent.

I wait a few moments before I wake Susie and let her know. She calls hospice and they call the funeral home. Both are a long way away. The nurse arrives around three. The people from the funeral home, from mom’s hometown of Dunlap, have a hard time finding the place. They arrive an hour or so later to take her away.

On Friday we drive to Dunlap to make arrangements. It’s the first time I’ve been away from the house in over a week and it’s a bit unnerving. As we talk with the funeral director I can see that she is preparing to explain to us the restrictions that they have in place regarding visitation and services, but I’ve already decided that I’m reluctant to gather a large group of people together at this time and she is relieved that she doesn’t have to convince me to take precautions. The funeral will be private with only immediate family for the visitation and a short graveside service. As we are making arrangements mom’s pastor calls the funeral home to let them know the church is shutting everything down and they will no longer allow funeral services to be held there. 47,021 cases in Italy now. 19,101 / 233 in the US / Tennessee.

After a long struggle my sister in New Mexico finally decides that she and her family will not make the trip back here for the funeral. I am 100% supportive of this decision and tell her that mom would be proud of her and understand. We talk about plans to have a big memorial of some kind for mom after the threat of the virus subsides. We also talk about how we can convince my dad, who lives in Michigan, to stay home. There are 788 cases in Michigan on that day.

It’s been raining hard again and as we drive to Dunlap on Monday morning. The owner of the funeral home calls to let us know that the grave site is too muddy to get the vault in place. He tells us that he’d like to use a steel vault instead which is lighter but costs more. Before I can agree he explains that the funeral home wil absorb the extra cost. They’ve already gone above in beyond in reducing costs explaining that we’ve all got to pull together while this is going on.

Mom’s visitation begins with just a handful of people. The funeral home says we can combine visitation and the service in the chapel since it is such a small group and they will take her to the cemetery, which is very muddy, afterwards if we would like. By the time the service starts there are a total of 15 people including the two from mom’s church. I have mixed emotions about the turnout. Relieved that people agreed with my request to not gather but at the same time thinking that mom deserved, and would have had, so many more had these been better times. As the service is about to start I hear someone from the funeral home saying something about “short and sweet”. Later I find out that some funeral directors association has called just before we began telling them to shut everything down but they allowed us to proceed. My understanding is that mom was last person to be able to use the chapel and perhaps have visitation there.

As the service ended my brother and sister decided they wanted to go to the cemetery for mom’s burial and I stayed behind to talk with my step-brother and his family. Afterwards I decided to head down to the cemetery and see if I could catch up with them. My siblings were gone by the time I arrive but they had not yet laid her to rest. As I talked with the gentlemen from the funeral home they explained that they decided to call the sheriff’s department for help. They soon arrived and members of the Sequatchie County Sheriff’s department served as mom’s pall bearers. As this was going on a couple of mom’s cousins from the valley arrived and we spoke with them for a bit before eventually making our way back home. The day ends with 63,927, 43,667, and 614 cases in Italy, the US, and Tennessee.

On Wednesday tried to turn my attention back to the things I need to do as the pandemic rages on and returned to work. I’ve been thinking about writing this post for awhile but everything’s been too raw. On Thursday a reporter emailed me asking if I would talk to him about, as near as I could gather, our experience with all of this. I was very tired Thursday and emailed him back yesterday to let him know I was ready but, as of this morning, haven’t heard back. As I thought about that I decided that I would go ahead and put my thoughts down here. The whole thing has been surreal. It doesn’t seem possible how drastically my life has changed over the last few months. I really hope there is good news on the horizon soon.

A Rough Patch

In mid December, which seems like a lifetime ago, we had to say goodbye to our dog Jojo. He was a good boy for over 16 years. Initially I was not what you’d call a “dog person” but that changed over the years. While he was much closer to my wife than me, following her around the house wherever she went, he was a part of the whole family. It was especially hard on my youngest who hasn’t known a time without Jojo around. We’d known for some time that it was time. For the last few months he couldn’t walk very well. He’d fall down and couldn’t get back up especially on non-carpeted floors. He couldn’t see very well. He had a lot of accidents and you could tell he was ashamed. We knew it was time but it took us longer than it probably should have to let him go.

Though we agreed as a family that we’d make the right decision it was still hard during the first holiday season without him. We’d scheduled two weeks during the holidays to get away from everything and try to just be. It started well enough. We went to visit my mom and stepdad (Johnny) in Chattanooga that Sunday before Christmas. My mom is in poor health and he had been working hard at his job and taking care of her, but he still made sure to make us his famous “green chili” for our visit. Our visit lasted a few hours as we gobbled down that chili and watched them open our Christmas presents then he packed me up some leftover chili and we headed home.

Christmas was a low key affair. Just me, Susie, and the kids with the oldest coming in from Knoxville the evening before. It was a peaceful day spend opening presents and watching A Christmas Story on repeat all day long. The oldest returned to Knoxville that evening a we settled in to enjoy the remaining week and a half reprieve before returning to the daily grind.

On Friday, the 27th we got the news that Johnny had been admitted to the hospital after having suffered a cardiac arrest. The news hit us like a thunderbolt. My stepdad has been part of my life for nearly 40 years and though I’ve always called him “stepdad” he was very much like a second father to me. The details of what exactly happened were unclear except we knew that his heart had stopped for a period of time and he would likely have some sort of brain damage. They were unable to determine the extent since he had a pacemaker and they were unable to determine if it was safe to perform an MRI. Initially it seemed like perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. On Saturday I talked to my brother, who lives with my mom and stepdad, and the diagnosis was still unclear. We decided to wait until Sunday to visit in hopes that we would have a better understanding of expectations. Late that evening we found out that the outlook was grim and we needed to meet as a family the following day to determine whether or not to keep him on a respirator. We were told that if he survived the removal of the respirator he would likely be in a vegetative state indefinitely.

On Sunday, the 29th, we went and got mom and took her to the hospital. It was so hard to see Johnny in the state he was in. Later than afternoon, after consultation with the physician, we all agreed that it would be best to remove the respirator. I guess at this point I should mention that my mom has a form of Parkinson’s which makes it difficult for her to communicate more than a few words. She’s also wheelchair bound and needs help with all but the most basic tasks. She did give her consent by nodding. After the respirator was removed, we took her home that evening and left her in the care of my brother and his fiancé though we had started to wonder what would be best in the long term at this point. My brother has a good heart and he and his fiancé and her kids have helped take care of mom over the years but you could say he has also relied on their help almost as much as they have relied on him.

The next day I talked to my sister and she thought it might be good for us to take mom home with us that evening and Susie and I agreed. We met my mom and sister at the hospital that afternoon and were there as they moved Johnny from the ICU to a regular room to be made comfortable. Afterwards we returned to Smithville with mom. Susie made dinner and just after we started to eat we got the word that my stepdad had passed. It was Monday, December 30th.

That evening my mom determined that it would okay for Johnny to be an organ donor so we would unable to make arrangements for the funeral until New Year’s Day. Mom continued to stay with us and I knocked together an iPad app which would help her communicate with us. On the first day of 2020 arrangements were made for visitation Sunday with the funeral on Monday the 6th…

I’m probably going into more detail than I should, and there is much more to the situation than I’m willing to put down here. Not to mention that this post would end up being the length of a small novel if I went into detail about all that has happened over the last couple weeks. But the big thing is that it was eventually agreed upon by all the siblings that it would be best for mom to live with Susie and I indefinitely. Somewhere during all of this we came to realize that Johnny had recently arranged hospice care for mom and we had to get all of that transferred over. The people there have been so helpful for her and us in getting her comfortable in her new home.

In the meantime Susie and I are trying to get a handle on what our lives will look like going forward. We’ve both taken a leave of absence from work and our employers have also been so understanding of our situation and helping us work through it. Fortunately we have the resources to allow us to not have to worry about finances right away. But it’s difficult to say how long that will last. There are so many question marks at this point. It’s hard to know what the next week will bring much less what things will look like months down the road.

It’s a rainy morning as I sit here and type this and reflect on everything that’s happened and everything we need to take care of going forward. It’s hard to stay positive sometimes. But right now mom laying in her bed watching the Game Show network, enjoying a nutritious chocolate donut breakfast while waiting for a visit from her nurse. Right this minute everything is basically okay, so that’s good.