Archive for December, 2009

“NOT normal.”

My brother Joel eased himself down on the couch beside Daddy. He’s the tallest one in the family and he looks even taller next to our father. I guess people really do kind of shrink as they get older, and also Dad seems to have lost a little weight over the course of the surgery and radiation. The TV was on, probably CNN, and we had all just finished eating so Mom and I were kind of milling around in and out of the kitchen. Daddy reached over and took Joel’s hand in his and sat there silently holding it, his eyes on the television. They stayed that way for a long time: very still, side by side, not talking, just the sound of  the newscaster droning on and on. Joel said later that was the first time he ever remembers anything like that happening. Daddy is affectionate, but his physical demonstrations (especially with his sons) tend to be more of the hug-and-release or pat-pat-patting of the arm variety. Sitting on a couch holding hands with a grown man is a little out of character for guys of his generation. The intimacy of the gesture surprised and moved Joel, and after a while he slightly shifted his position, leaned his head on the back of the couch and turned to Daddy. Gently, hesitantly, he started asking him questions. “Dad, we’ve been talking a little about how it sometimes seems like it’s hard for you to… process things. Mentally, I mean. You know, after all the medical stuff you’ve gone through.” He waited. Dad nodded. Joel said, “What does that feel like?” Daddy just shook his head, sadly. Joel said, “When we’re all together and talking, it seems as if you are following everything that’s going on. You laugh at all the jokes, and you look like you’re taking it all in. Is that pretty accurate?” “Yes,” Dad said. Joel carefully pressed on. “But sometimes when we ask you a direct question it seems like it’s hard for you to get the thoughts in your head to come out in words.” Dad nodded again.

I walked by just then and overheard what they were saying. I slid out of the room and stood around the corner, out of sight and unabashedly eavesdropping. These were the very questions I had been dying to ask, but had repeatedly chickened out from doing so. Daddy’s increasing ‘fogginess’ has been the subject of lots of emails and phone calls among the siblings, and we have worried, whispered and discussed it thoroughly among ourselves; but what I really wondered about was what it felt like to Daddy. How aware was he that his thinking processes were cloudy? Did he know what was happening to him? But I couldn’t bring myself to ask. I was afraid I’d put him on the spot, or embarrass him, or worse– that he wouldn’t be able to formulate an answer for me at all, and I’d feel horrible.  I’m kind of a coward that way.

The thing is, there are any number of valid reasons that could explain his obvious struggle with cognizant reasoning– the guy is 93 years old with a heart rate that routinely dips down to 48, for crying out loud. Add to that his history of two, possibly three heart attacks and the onset of a rare, very aggressive cancer and his subsequent surgery including skin grafts for that cancer and the 30 radiation treatments all aimed at the scalp area that also happens to cover his frontal lobes and there’s always dementia and the possibility that he may have suffered some small silent strokes… I mean seriously, pick one. We may never know exactly what’s causing it, and despite my Mom’s most fervent hopes– she can only bring herself to call it “Don’s memory problem”–  the situation may not be reversible. (I have now typed the last part of that sentence three times. I have changed it from “may not be reversible” to “is probably not reversible” and back to “may not…” again. Apparently Mom is not the only one fervently hoping.) But even if a cause is determined and some kind of therapy is recommended, my real concern is how it is affecting Daddy inside. It’s funny, throughout all of his medical problems the first questions almost all of us have asked when notified of the latest development are, “Is he scared? Is he sad?” It’s like we can all stand anything but that. The thought of Daddy being lost and frightened inside a mind or body that’s not working properly just undoes me. I have watched him tolerate the physical pain and indignities that come with all of  his medical procedures with such grace, faith and good humor. But seeing the look on his face when he struggles to complete a thought, or grasps for words that don’t come, or has to be told three times where the coat closet is– that’s a gut shot.

So when I heard my courageous brother, bless him, lovingly and sensitively giving Daddy a chance to express his feelings about what is happening to him, it stopped me in my tracks. From my hiding place around the corner I listened to Dad haltingly try to explain what it was like to know that your brain isn’t working right, but not be able to correct it. Yes, he understood what was being said to him and around him, apparently even to the point of anticipating the punch line to a joke or grasping the nuances of our family’s insulting kind of humor– not that there are any nuances to be found there, really. But when his brain needed to sort information in order to make a choice between two things, or turn the answer in his head into a verbal response, he couldn’t seem to connect those dots.  (Daddy didn’t articulate all of these things, but he was able to answer yes or no to Joel’s carefully worded questions– this is my best recollection of how the conversation went.) Joel asked him if it was frustrating, and he emphatically said, “Yes! I just can’t…. It doesn’t…” Daddy’s voice trailed off. Joel said, “Are you OK with it? Do you just kind of accept that this is the way it is, and try to make the best of it?” Pause. “Yes.” Of COURSE  he would say that! That’s what my “Greatest Generation”/child of the Depression/stoic Midwesterner father has always done. Then came the hardest part.  Joel gently asked, “Dad, is it scary?” He was quiet for a minute then Daddy said softly, “I don’t know.” And my heart broke a little.

The next morning the girls, Joel, Kri and I were already sitting down at the breakfast table when Daddy joined us. He smiled and greeted us and then glanced over at the TV and remarked on something the newscaster said. He leaned down and ruffled his beloved Pandy’s fur and said, “Hello there, Pandy girl– do you need to go out?” His eyes were clear, and though his words were few he spoke them naturally and effortlessly. Joel and I exchanged slightly startled glances. He seemed so much sharper, so much more like the ‘old Daddy’ that it was kind of disorienting for a minute. These days he usually doesn’t initiate a lot of talking, though he answers when he is spoken to– there’s usually just a lot of sitting quietly and staring going on, so this was definitely different behavior. Mom brought him a plate of pancakes and he slowly but enthusiastically started eating them, glancing at the paper as he drank his coffee. I walked in and out of the room, gathering up odds and ends we had strewn about as I started packing up for our trip home. Within the hour I could tell that Daddy seemed to be tiring a little, and by the time we were almost ready to go he had moved over to the couch and was silently watching television again. Joel turned in his chair to face Daddy and said with a smile, “Dad, today you seemed kind of different when you came in, more like your old self. Were you aware of that?” “Well,” he said. Then he smiled, and looked a little uncomfortable–  the way he looks when he’s having trouble formulating an answer. He shrugged, still smiling. Joel said, “Do you feel any different, do you feel more… normal?” Dad’s smile faded. “No,” he said, sadly and firmly. “NOT normal.”

As we walked out to the car to leave, I heard Mom say, “Don, they’re leaving, we need to go say goodbye.” Dad started to reach for the edge of the sofa to help him stand and I hurriedly said, “No, you don’t need to come outside Daddy, we can say our goodbyes in here.” But he and Mom wouldn’t hear of it. Slowly, carefully the two of them made their way to the front door, Mom guiding him with her arm when she needed to, standing back and letting him go it alone when he could. It took a while, but they got there. After we had all hugged everyone and piled the girls and the dogs into the car, I slid into the passenger seat as Russ started to pull out of the driveway. And then I looked up and there it was, that picture I’ve seen so many other times before, two small white-haired figures freeze-framed in front of their house waving goodbye. Against all odds we’ve managed to have another Thanksgiving with both of them, here in their own home surrounded by all six of their children, assorted grands and great-grands. It’s more than anyone has any right to expect, and I’m incredibly grateful. It should be enough, but if I’m honest? It’s not. I want Christmas, too. And if they have to go– and yes, I know they do– I also want some kind of written guarantee from God that death will come gently and peacefully in the middle of a deep sleep as they lay side by side holding hands.

Because Mom told me that’s how they fall asleep every night.

And I really wish she hadn’t, because just like the driveway snapshot, that image is now in my mind forever and the exquisitely painful sweetness of it is damn near unbearable.


I wrote this for all of you kind friends who have been asking me how Daddy is doing. There’s not an easy answer, really. Please keep them both in your prayers.



(How do you guys like that all-caps title? Looks important, no?)

Ok, here’s the deal. I’ve got a post percolating in me re: being with my dad and family over Thanksgiving, but apparently I’m still processing it all– just isn’t ready to come out yet, I guess. So I decided to do a quickie review of some of the more noteworthy moments of the past week and invite you to do the same, because you guys know I’m like a big ol’ voyeur, right? Other people’s lives are endlessly fascinating to me, which is either the true hallmark of a writer OR a character defect, you decide.

At any rate, here’s a round-up of  highlights from Chez Taff this week:

***** We stayed over an extra day in Arkansas to be with Daddy and my family, coming home on Monday instead of Sunday. I love having all of my siblings together at the same time so very much. We are a smart-mouthed bunch, and I literally laugh until I cry at least once a day. My favorite moment this holiday had to be when my brother Joel (remember those pictures last year of the brother that lugged his own fancy coffee bean roaster AND his own fancy selection of coffee beans from some remote mountain village in Guatemala/some remote women’s cooperative coffee farm in Africa all the way from LA? Yeah, that guy.) accidently ate an entire mouthful of dry dog food that *I* lugged all the way from Nashville! OK, granted it was late at night, and it was kinda dark in the kitchen… {I swear, I almost wet my pants just now reliving that loud crunching sound followed by Joel’s voice quietly saying, “Did. I. Just. Eat.  DOGFOOD??” BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!} The best comment came from my brother Matt the next day when he casually asked Joel, “So, at exactly what point did your famous gourmet palate recognize the fact that what you were eating was indeed, NOT pistachio nuts…?”

***** Picking Madi up from school and having her tell me once again how very much she loves her new-this-year school. Thank God. Parents never get tired of hearing that kind of stuff.

***** Meeting Pastor David and Nicole Crank, from St. Louis was definitely a high point this week. Russ hosted a TBN Christmas music show that taped Tuesday, and he invited David to be one of his guests (also had Mike English and Wes Hampton– think it airs Dec. 11.) Several months ago Nicole had Russ flown in to surprise David at his 40th birthday party, and apparently it was a giant lovefest at first sight which is not really all that surprising since David and Nicole are also good friends with our friends-and-pastors Danny and Jillian Chambers. Anyway, David, Nicole and I all been following each other on Twitter ever since, and we planned on having dinner together Wednesday night because David was preaching at our church later that evening. Due to a navigational glitch that David blamed entirely on his GPS, Russ and I ate alone until the dessert course, but David graciously and unexpectedly insisted on picking up the tab anyway, which you gotta love in a preacher, right? We did manage enough time together for me to totally develop a crush on both of them, and David’s sermon at Oasis was great fun– should be showing up on Oasis podcast schedule soon, watch for it. And yes, the irony of the fact that many of the favorite people in my life these days also happen to be PREACHERS is not lost on me, either.

***** Delivered a gorgeous live wreath next door to say ‘thank you’ to my sweet neighbor Joyce, who not only came over every day and loved up on two of our dogs while we were out of town (we took Pip to Arkansas with us for Thanksgiving, but left Phoebe and Thea here– those girls can get kinda rowdy and I was a little concerned about the fact that with a houseful of people to fire them up they might  make Daddy trip) but also showed up early on the morning we left in her fuzzy pink bathrobe bearing a hot pan of homemade cornbread dressing AND another one full of fragrant, savory whole caramelized onions AND a gorgeous holiday candle– all for me to take home to Mom and Dad. Seriously, how nice is that?

***** Every time I pull into my driveway and look up and see this:

new roof


This is a big hairy deal because the old one was reeeeeeally looking ratty– kind of dalmation-ish, because it kept losing shingles and then we would have it patched and then we would have a storm and it would lose some more shingles, blah blah blah. FYI, here’s an interesting bit of trivia: roofs are expensive, ya’ll! But the enterprising guys at Fessler Home Improvements not only left their card in my mailbox (as did about 30 other companies) BUT followed through with dealing with our insurance company and helping us wade through the paperwork until voila! New roof, that cost us nothing but the deductible. I fully expect to start receiving anonymous thank-you notes from every person who had to drive past our house this last year. We are now no longer the White Trash Neighbors, at least as far as roofs are concerned. (And yes, I do realize our gutters need painting. Baby-steps, people.)

***** The Gaither Homecoming Christmas concert was in Nashville last night at the Sommet Center and I had about as much fun as the law allows. The girls and I went over early to have dinner with everybody backstage, and over the course of the evening I saw about a frillion people I have not seen in decades– specifically fellow artists who live in town but we never cross paths with anymore, and people who worked at Word during the decades that Russ was signed with them, which was wonderful. I also got to hug and kiss a bunch of  Homecoming artists’ kids and family members that I don’t see often enough and admire the latest crop of babies– dang, they are a fertile bunch (yes, I’m looking at YOU, Wes and Andrea Hampton.) And to top it off, Danny and Jillian were able to be there for the second half of the concert and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to flaunt the fact that we did indeed know people who were not afraid to be called our pastors in public. I also repeatedly acknowledged that yes, shepherding the Taff family obviously requires a pastoral tag-team– because if I didn’t point that out, doubtlessly someone else would have. Anyway, the whole thing was fabulous, even if we did manage to somehow misplace Charlotte when it was all over and we were about to leave. After a frantic fifteen minutes during which I became hyper-aware of just how many arena dock workers look disturbingly like carny-folk, and just how many dark corners and corridors there are deep in the bowels of the Sommet, we located her right before poor Russ completely freaked out and issued an Amber Alert. She was safely waaaaaaay upstairs at Lynda Randle’s booth hanging out with Joy. Thank God for security people with walkie-talkies. Charlotte was horrified that she had scared us so, and apologized all the way home, bless her. The girls and I finally fell into bed around midnight, and Russ and the gang headed off to Indiana. Catch a concert if you can, you will definitely walk out feeling Christmas-y.

OK, that’s the Week in Review at the ‘bloomr! So… tell me the highlights of yours!

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