Jim was the kind of person who was always dealing with an ailment of some sort. If it wasn’t his knees or his back it was allergies or sinus infections. His gastrointestinal system never gave him a moment’s rest: hiatal hernia, h. pylori, diverticulitis, regular old heartburn. And then there were the injuries–the time he caught his thumb in a table saw, the broken ankle, countless dings and bruises while working on stuff. Heart surgeries, rotten teeth, arthritis: He never suffered quietly, but he rarely let his chronic maladies stand in his way, either. In his seventies now, Jim was still shoving heavy equipment around, crawling under cars, climbing onto roofs.
The aftermath of his recent car accident was different. He still talked about the projects he wanted to work on, but those conversations happened from a bed in his daughter’s house or from a nearby chair. Even a walk to the kitchen was more than he was willing to take on, never mind physical therapy. He was in pain and always nauseous–of course he didn’t want to move. Unfortunately for Jim his daughter was a nurse, and she had no intention of watching him waste away from lack of effort.
She got him up, got him moving. You want a glass of tea? Shuffle your butt to the kitchen and help yourself. Little by little he improved, and eventually he made his way back to the house in the woods he once shared with Bonnie. She was still there in ways both physical and emotional. Four years gone, but her clothes still lined her side of the closet, the guest room filled with her doll collection. A large blue urn decorated with butterflies rested on a shelf behind the couch, half-filled with all that remained of the best friend he ever knew.
There he sat, on the same end of the couch where he’d rested for the last 30 years, watching television and petting his cats. In the evenings he’d make his way to the kitchen and microwave a frozen meal and at the end of the night there was the long walk down the hall to his bedroom, but that was about it for movement. His muscles atrophied, as did his will to do anything about it.
A trip to the doctor’s office led to a hospital visit after he passed out in the lobby, and then a couple of weeks later his daughter and granddaughter found him unconscious in front of his open refrigerator. They sat him up, and he pointed to the kitchen island to his immediate left. “Don’t open that,” he said. “There’s a carbon generator in there, and if you open it the whole world will be destroyed.” Given his fierce intelligence and his prowess with tools they couldn’t immediately rule out the possibility, though pots and pans seemed a more likely candidate.
Back to the hospital he went. I called to check on him. “What happened, Dad?”
“I had another heart attack.”
“Oh no, are you okay?”
“Yeah, just sore.”
“Did they have to open you back up?”
“Yeah, they opened me back up.”
“So your rib cage is all wired together again? No wonder you’re sore.”
I received a text from my sister while our father told me about his latest open heart surgery: “No heart attack, just dehydrated and confused.”
After a few days in the hospital he was offered the opportunity to spend some time in a rehabilitation facility. Well, “offered” probably isn’t quite right:”Persuaded” is a bit closer to the truth. Since leaving my sister’s house he had grown so sedentary that even a walk to the bathroom left him winded. He could barely get up the two steps leading from his garage to his kitchen. “Get some help getting your strength back or die” was the diagnosis, so he chose rehab.
Almost as soon as he was in he was out. “Dad checked himself out of the rehab facility,” my sister texted me. I called him. “Hey, Pop, what happened?”
“What do you mean?” He sounded twenty years older, his voice weak and wavering.
“I heard you checked yourself out and went home.”
“Oh, yeah. The people there were really nice and I know they were trying to help me but I kept telling them how I take my medication and they kept insisting that I had to do it their way so I told them I wanted to go home.”
“Well, are you going to keep up with your exercises? You have to get your strength back.”
“Oh yeah, I was riding my exercise bike just before you called. Hey, did you catch that John Garfield movie last week, the one set on the B-17?”
“Air Force? Yeah that’s a good one,” I said, and we were back to airplanes, cars, and reminiscing for the rest of the call.
“Well, Pop, I better go let the hound dogs out before I have a mess to clean up,” I eventually said. This was my standard signal that it was time to wrap it up, and his standard reply was always, “Okay, thanks for calling. I always enjoy talking to you, love ya lots.” But for some reason on that afternoon he said, “Okay. I love you, son.” Being called “son” was rare, as was his sincerity. I wasn’t sure what to do with either, so I said, “We’ll talk more next Friday” and hung up the telephone.
The following Tuesday he called me while I was on another line. He never called just to chat, so I returned his call as soon as I could. “Hey, Pop, how’s it going?”
“Fine,” he said.
“Did you need something?”
“Well, I saw that you called so I thought I’d call you back.”
“Okay. Well, I guess I’ll talk to you on Friday then.”
“Okay,” he said.
Five minutes later he called again. “Hey, Pop.”
“Did you remember what you needed?”
“No you don’t need anything?”
“No, everything’s fine.”
“Why’d you call?”
“I didn’t call.”
“Okay, we’ll talk on Friday.”
Five minutes later another call, and then a text from my sister: “He’s trying to change the channels with his telephone.”
“You mean he installed a remote control app on his phone?”
“No, he’s confused and thinks the phone is the remote.”
“Might be time for another hospital visit,” I typed.
“Maybe so,” she replied.
She called the paramedics when it became evident that his fog wasn’t clearing, and they had a hard time convincing him to take a ride in the ambulance. “Go get my daughter, she’ll straighten this out,” he demanded.
“I’m standing right in front of you, Dad,” she said.
“No, my other daughter. The one that’s a nurse,” he said. “She lives in New Mexico.”
“I’m your daughter the nurse, and I’m standing right here,” she replied.
The hospital ran a battery of tests and ruled out the possibility of a stroke. He was dehydrated again, and his kidneys were failing. I asked whether I should fly down, but my sister suggested that we wait to see how he responded to the antibiotics.
While she sat bedside my sister asked our father various questions to test his faculties: Do you have any kids? “Yes.” How many? “Three.” Are you married? “I was.” What’s your wife’s name? “She had a strange name.” Who are you? “I’m upper left center.”
The fluids and the antibiotics helped. Upper Left Center remembered that his name was Jim Stafford. Over the next few days he seemed to be getting better, and then on Saturday morning when she came into his hospital room he hushed her, and pointed. “Watch the monitor,” he said, but it wasn’t a monitor: It was a televised women’s soccer game. Not too long after that his empty hands were busily fixing a television he couldn’t reach.
That evening she sent me a message: “You should get down here. It’s not looking good.” I scrambled to find a flight, the combination of COVID-19 and the fact that only one carrier flies into his little town making such a simple undertaking more challenging than it seemed. The earliest (and only time) that I could leave California was 6 a.m. the next morning, arriving in Alabama around 7:30 p.m.
As I made my way from airport to airport I received text updates on his progress. I had the easy job, sitting around in airplanes and airports all day. Meanwhile, both my sister and my niece sat at my father’s bedside comforting him as death grew closer. The doctor asked whether he had any end of life instructions, and my sister confirmed that he had a DNR, or do not resuscitate order. His eyes popped open widely. “Mom, I think you better ask him again,” my niece said.
“If your heart stops again do you want them to try to bring you back?” his daughter asked him. He nodded affirmatively best that he could through the tubes and the monitors and the machines that go “bing,” and the die was cast.
While they dealt with the biggest of decisions in an Alabama hospital, in the Atlanta airport I alternated between anxiously doing push-ups in a dark corner and pretending to read in a slightly better lit one. I was less than an hour away from boarding the commuter jet that would fly me to Alabama, and then thanks to a time zone quirk I would land ten minutes before my plane left the airport. Push-ups, pretend to read, check the departure board, repeat. My last flight was delayed five minutes, then ten, then twenty. “My father is dying, what the hell is wrong with you people?” I wanted to shout at someone, but whom? How was a ticket agent or a gate attendant going to fix the problem? More push-ups, more page flipping….
Eventually I boarded the little jet. Maybe ten minutes later the door closed and the plane pushed away from the gate. My telephone rang. It was my niece. “He’s gone,” she said. They worked on him for 45 minutes, trying to keep him alive long enough for me to get there.
My sister and I spent the next couple of weeks doing the things that survivors do. We visited the funeral home and arranged his cremation. We met with his attorney to discuss his estate. We dropped by the bank to figure out what we needed to do there, and then drove over to his house to look for a safe deposit box key. Unopened packages crowded the entryway, the kitchen, the spare bedrooms–parts for the many cars he planned on restoring. A half-finished auto upholstery job sprawled all over the dining room.
We started cleaning, just trying to bring some order to it all. I spotted what looked like a small picture frame wedged between a tall dresser and my mother’s sewing machine. I managed to tease it out of its hiding place and dusted it off. Staring back at me were 20 or so smiling children and one adult woman, a class photo. The kids looked to be maybe five or six years old, faces full of hope, joy, and happiness. And there in the back row, upper left center, stood little Jim Stafford, his cowboy outfit waiting for him at home along with his parents, Mable and Otis.
In terms of sheer mental acuity I’m not sure that anyone who knew Jim Stafford will ever meet his superior. His ability not only to retain information but also to reassemble it in unique ways rendered him a problem solver without peer. He could visualize processes from beginning to end, and as a result he could spot where they broke down. It didn’t matter whether the problem was mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, architectural, or even metaphysical. “I don’t believe in Heaven,” he’d say, “but I just can’t imagine that there isn’t something else.”
So maybe that’s where his Something Else lies: Upper Left Center, where he can always pluck a tomato from Mable’s vines and then visit his friend the junk dealer for another broken motor to play with. But probably not. His Something Else might look like Burlington, Iowa circa 1950 and Mable might be there with him, tending her tomatoes, but a Something Else that didn’t include Bonnie? Even as powerful as Jim Stafford’s rather unusual mind was he could never imagine such a thing.