Memories of Brother Dale
When genes were sorted at random my brother Dale got more of mom’s Italian ones. During the gene shuffling I ended up looking more like dad’s brothers who descend from English stock. You could put the Alberti men in a suit and tie, and with their debonair good looks, place them anywhere in the upper echelons of corporate America. I know that some also ended up in the upper echelons of the mafia, and mom was always a little touchy about this and would often say in passing “we were from the northern part of Italy, not Sicily.” Not those swarthy, southern Sicilians she could have added. In her attempt to connect us to the lighter complexioned and blue eyed northern Italians she may have forgotten that none of her children had blue eyes. Mom’s “northern,” Italian ancestors had strong aristocratic features that instilled confidence in their character, and that may have accounted partly for Grandfather Albert Anatole Alberti’s ascension to the vice-presidency of Metropolitan Life Insurance. That aristocratic name couldn’t have hurt either.
Like mom’s brothers, father and grandfather, Dale’s face is broad and smooth; handsome even now in his mid-seventies. The Alberti side had better hair with more texture, without the tendency for bald spots. Dale’s hair is thick with good texture, all of it now gray, but still intact. He said he once grew a handlebar mustache, a feat that would be unworkable for me.
Separated by a decade Dale and I have never had the opportunity to sit down and really get to know each other. While I was hoisting the flag on top of the fort (the abandoned chicken house), and shooting every Indian I encountered with my cap gun, Dale was shooting balls with a cue stick at the pool hall with his friend Wally, and accumulating truancy letters under his mattress from the principal’s office. That ten year difference in age separated us most of the time. He was a good brother though, and took me on bike rides, and took me to Fairyland Park, and let me witness the water- boarding torture of the tomcat. Some of these times had outcomes that may have made Dale cautious about letting me tag along.
Dale can converse on any subject and is a good impartial listener. He loves to entertain new ideas and one of the problems Dale and I share is a tendency for too many ideas that sometimes lead us off course. It’s hard to stay focused when there’s so many things to do and so little time. If reincarnation was ”proven” we could let up a little, knowing there would be another time and another place. It’s a trait similar to the adult attention deficit thing that’s carried on the x chromosome. Our sisters have many interests but are more focused, and have a tendency to actually carry through with their ideas.
Dale and I also share a stubborn streak that plays a minor role in his treatment at the hospital. I know I’ll catch flak for this, but this trait is shared by all the siblings. It’s such a strong characteristic it must be carried on multiple alleles. You can see it in our mother’s square jaw. We prefer to call it determination. It shows up in different ways but once one of our minds is set on something “Katy bar the door”. Just accuse any family member of being stubborn and you’ll see how stubbornly they deny it.
With eyes opened wide in genuine shock, Dale admits in our conversations that he’s a control freak. He says he just recently discovered how much of a control freak he is, and I’m surprised he’s surprised, because I see a lot of it in our gene pool. I’m not pointing fingers; I’ll just let each guilty party confess on their own, in their own good time. I confess; I’m just surprised it took Dale this much good time to find out.
Dale did inherit his interest in furniture from the Sherman side, and passed it along to his boys. There must be a dominant woodworking gene. Grandfather Sherman and all seven of his boys sold, upholstered or repaired furniture at some time in their lives. Our father repaired furniture in the wealthy Plaza district during the depression and was planning to cut down on flying and operate a furniture repair shop behind our house in Fairmount. The plane accident abruptly ended those plans. Dale owned a retail furniture store for several years and all his boys at different times were involved in selling or refinishing furniture.
An unfortunate health crisis brings Dale and me together at the Veteran’s Hospital in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The decade between us is now insignificant. We’re sitting next to a garrulous veteran in the emergency waiting room.
“The Good Lord gets tired a listenin’ to me. Him an me’s been talkin’ since 1996 when they planted a bomb inside me.”
This is the kind of conversation you get in to if you spend much time at a V.A. hospital. The speaker is a small wizened man wearing a red baseball cap backward. His face is cracked and fissured like old parchment paper and he seems to relish his story, which is impossible to follow.
He continues, “two places he shot me, once in the ankle. I got him back---it took two and a half months-----he’s dead now.”
I don’t know if he’s talking about some incident during the war or some backwoods Arkansas feud. Torn flannel shirt, scuffed jeans, old hiking boots; all these items as used up as the unshaven and unkempt man himself. For some reason I’m thinking of the movie “Deliverance.”
“I quit drinkin’ back in 1999-----I just work on one bad habit at time.”
He pulls up his shirt to show us where the morphine pump (bomb) was implanted for his cancer treatment. At least part of his conversation is explained.
The emergency room secretary motions us over and Dale and I sit in front of her desk and begin filling out forms. He doesn’t have a copy of his Navy discharge but she sees how sick he appears and accepts him under a humanitarian policy. She asks us to get a copy of his DD214 (discharge) as soon as possible.
The V.A. Hospital in Fayetteville is situated in what looks like a Civil War setting, with red brick colonial buildings scattered among big oak trees. Instead of Civil War veterans in blue or grey uniforms you have veterans from the Korean, Vietnam and Iraqi Wars wearing anything and everything, from Lynard Skynard t-shirts to hospital issued pajamas.
Bayonets and frontier rifles inflicted devastating damage to flesh and bone during the Civil War. Just imagine what today’s incendiary devices are capable of.
The V.A. hospital is forty minutes from our home and I have a primary care doctor here under contract with the government. She’s a middle aged woman of Indian descent who specializes in gerontology. I’ve had exceptional care, and that, as well as the proximity to our home, is why I’ve brought Dale here.
After admitting him, the next three days are spent on blood work and imaging. The hospital retrieves records from Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis where Dale had gone several times with his symptoms. He was told he had a neoplasm growing around his pancreas that required a biopsy. After testing here in Fayetteville, the doctors agree with that diagnosis. The neoplasm has grown around the pancreas and surrounding organs and closed off the bile duct.
Dr. Maul is the most experienced physician in the area on placing stints in the bile duct, and he attempts to place one, but says of the fifteen hundred or more procedures he has done, Dale’s is the most problematic. He’s unable to place the stint because the growing neoplasm has pushed the bile duct shut in the upper region, and the stint won’t hold. The type of papillary neoplasm Dale has is exceedingly rare.
Dale voices concern over the competence of gastroenterologists in general. Their eventual plan is to do what they call a Whipple procedure, which is removal of much of the pancreas, the entire duodenum, bile duct, gall bladder, and the surrounding lymph nodes. He spends the entire night worrying about the removal of organs and wishes he had access to a computer so he could assess the value of the procedure they are contemplating.
“They have no idea how important those organs are.” He’s referring to the gastroenterologists.
“They don’t know anything about nutrition.”
I‘m concerned he’s planning to resist treatment entirely. The doctors treating him suggest he be sent to the Little Rock V.A. where they have specialists in this rare neoplasm. Because of the distance we spend a day checking out other hospitals in the immediate area that Dale could transfer to and use his Medicare card. None of the hospitals have staff trained for his uncommon problem. A high fever and complications settles our dilemma and leads to a high speed ambulance ride to Little Rock, Arkansas.
This is probably his best option for adequate treatment. The Little Rock V.A. specializes in oncology and has a working relationship with the U. of A. School of Medicine.
Much of the time in Little Rock he will be in an intensive care unit, but Ward 4B is one of the times he’s put in a standard room with other patients. All of the conversations are publicly aired, like it or not.
“When the snow is ass deep you take a shower in a hurry---that old man they beat to death.”
“Roll over that way; I’m going to give you a bath right here.” (Bed 25)
“That old man killed her-------thar wan’t anythin human about him.”
“Where was that hon?”
“The war, during the war.”
Roll over the other way now.”
“If you dropped a bar of soap it was gone-----them people didn’t have nothin.”
“Roll over that way one more time.”
The beds are numbered clockwise. Bed 24 is on your left when you enter, then bed 25. Bed 26 is across the room, coming back to Dale’s bed, bed 27. This is the first time I’ve heard the patient in bed 25 speak. For the last two days his shriveled body has been in a fetal position beneath the sheet, with his face and knees pointed toward the window. I can hear him but can’t see him since the nurse has pulled the curtain around his bed. He mumbles his words. He’s had a stroke or is heavily medicated. They have difficulty making him eat anything at all.
“Hey hon, I wanna talk to you”. This comes from the bed by the door. (Bed 24)
“You’ll have to wait a minute; I’m in the middle of something here.”
“We jus’ let the civilians have him (Bed 25 again). They beat him to death with sticks.”
I imagine many of the veterans in the 133 military facilities across the country have their own personal hell to deal with.
“You feel better?”
“Yeh---but I got a long way to go to feel good.”
“Hey Ma’am--------- Hey Ma’am. I can’t find my cell phone.” (Bed 24)
This patient expects special service.
The nurse sighs as she pulls the curtain back from Bed 25 and responds to the difficult patient in the next bed.
“You know you’re all uncovered here?”
“Yeh, hand me that bag will ya?”
He’s talking about the brown paper sack that has a steak sandwich in it. This patient’s stomach is so huge I’m unable to see his face from where I’m sitting by Dale across the aisle. He has a ‘private pay’ physician prescribe extra food he doesn’t need. Two sacks are delivered each day by a courier who says nothing, anxious to remove himself from the spectacle of this almost always unclad and uncovered man.
A new nurse comes in and goes to bed 24. “You know you’re all uncovered there? We got visitors-----people don’t want to come up and think they’re on a nude beach. Keep it covered now, keep it covered.”
Mr. Anderson, Bed 24, is a Navy veteran and served during the Korean War. By his own account he was decorated for meritorious service. He may not be a reliable source of information since he tells some people he converses with on his cell phone that he is fine. The next caller he may tell the opposite. He is not fine since his heart is so damaged he’s unable to stand up. He’s been lying in the bed now for a month.
“You know you had a little accident there?”
It takes two people to change his sheet because of his size.
“Can he roll?”
“Sure he can roll. Show her what you can do.”
“They need a podiatrist—you know what I mean?”
The nurses are looking at his feet. They are splotchy and bruised even though he is unable to stand on them. They struggle to move him, and get his catheter twisted. The task of changing his sheet with him still in the bed is exhausting.
“Remember what you told us? We can’t have no nude beach----no V.A. nude beach.”
My brother Dale is 75, born in 1933. In the past two years he’s lost seventy pounds. I didn’t recognize him standing in the driveway recently when I went to visit, not until I was right up to him and heard him say in his soft and resonant voice, “Hey Brother Dan, it’s good to see you.”
After a short conversation last week I realized his condition had deteriorated further so I drove back to Wright City and met him again at the end of the drive.
We carefully maneuver through the dog bowls and yard tools to the yard swing and lawn chairs grouped for conversation just outside the back door. They are placed in the center of an unruly but well loved flower garden. You can escape the real world here. The buzz of the insects working the flowers masks the hum of interstate traffic in the distance. There are double hollyhocks, sage bushes, poppies, and cone flowers. Thornless roses climb the trellis. Here dreams were pursued, business plans hatched, and the condition of man and his spiritual nature discussed. Nothing was off limits. Dale and his family’s interests spanned a wide range of topics and many interesting guests were entertained in this back door garden. The family preferred the garden to the house, when weather permitted.
Our mother lived here with Dale and Bess during the last seven years of her life, spending much of it in the garden, content to sit among the fragrant flowers beneath the arbor, stroking an equally contented cat on her lap.
The gardens and the surrounding seven acres, much of it orchard, are the reason Dale held on so tightly for too long to this property.
“I’m ready Dan.”
He pushes himself up from the lawn chair where he’s been sitting and we enter the house. Bessie, his wife these past 51 years, is hurriedly packing necessities. With tears in his eyes Dale stands beside a small end table in the corner of the room looking at a small stack of photos he’s placing in a zip-loc bag. They are pictures of the garden and I realize they are the only things he’s really thinking about taking. His tears I’m sure are for the garden and the unfulfilled dreams left there. We think so much alike on some things there is no need to speak of it.
Most of Dale’s clothes are from a thrift store. He told me this recently with some amount of pride since we share an interest in frugality. There’s always been talk between us of living off the grid and getting away from the daily grind. For much of the past year they’ve lived off credit and his part time jobs. Dale worked for the postal service a short time but arthritis prevented him from standing on his feet for extended periods. He then worked for a real estate developer until the financial collapse in the housing industry. His last and current job was for a’ sheltered workshop, helping mentally handicapped individuals cope with daily tasks. On weekends he worked twelve and sometimes sixteen hour shifts. Yesterday he collapsed at a Special Olympics event where his forty and fifty year old charges (Doug and Mike) were competing.
“I’m ready Dan,” means he’s ready to leave the garden, the house, the orchards, and the dreams pursued in the garden out back. They’ve become a financial and physical burden he’s willing to leave behind permanently.
I drive Dale, Bessie, and her well loved cat” Big Boy” back toward Arkansas. Dale is feverish and jaundiced. His hands shake uncontrollably at times. I’m concerned we’ll have to stop at an emergency room, short of our destination, during the five hour drive.
We leave Bessie and” Big Boy” with my wife Sharon in Bella Vista, and proceed directly to the V.A. hospital in Fayetteville. I’ve already described their diagnosis there and the high fever and sudden trip to Little Rock, where he is now.
“Why do we do this to ourselves?” he asks. The first two weeks in Little Rock (before the morphine) Dale is aware of all the activities going on around him. He seems to hear all the conversations, especially those between the doctors and nurses. He’s directing his general comment to the condition of his room mates and himself.
“I don’t want to live like this.” Dale is looking at his room mates when he says this but I think the comment is also about not wanting to die like this. Our stunt pilot dad died suddenly in a plane crash at less than half the age of Dale, never having to suffer the consequences of deteriorating health associated with aging. His dad (Grandpa Plem) died painting the house at the age of 87. I agree with Dale that prolonged and painful illness is not the preferable way to go.
Bed 24, the big heap of a man, “Hey hon, hey hon----I can’t find my cell phone.” He’s always losing something in the folds of his massive stomach—even his steak sandwich once.
“It’s right here in your lap. Please, Mr. Hamilton, we can’t have you uncovering yourself! You gonna keep it covered?”
“Yeh, sure, okay.”
He removes the sheet as soon as she leaves the room.
After the nurse leaves he spots me across the aisle and it takes several attempts to untangle his slurred words. He wants me to go to town and get him some grapes.
Looking at Mr. Hamilton, Dale’s earlier words resonate. “Why do we do this to ourselves?”
As a group, we Americans overeat, smoke, drink and avoid exercise. Then we die from heart disease, lung cancer, liver disease and diabetes. A disproportionate number of veterans have these health problems. The numbers dwarf the actual war related injuries.
Our health system seems turned upside down with most of the money spent on treating the consequences of our way of living. The lions share is spent in the last stages of life when extra-ordinary and expensive measures are taken. Dale and I calculate that in the short time he’s been in the hospital the cost already exceeds ten times his compensation for the entire four years he served as a sailor in the fifties.
Before ending up in the hospital Dale knew for some time he was ill. He tried self medicating with pancreatin and amino acid supplements as well as other homeopathic medicines. By his measure these worked for a while, but he continued to lose weight and have digestion problems.
“Mom was amazing,” he says, referring to the mustard plasters, epsom salt treatments, and the ancura she used for a variety of illnesses. She cured the psoriasis on the back of her hand with an emery board and Watkins liniment. This is where he gets the inspiration for treating himself.
“I won’t last two days without them,” he says referring to the supplements they took away from him in the emergency room. I find a natural foods store that carries the same brands they took away and also get some flax seed and olive oil. Collectively he calls them his ‘brain food’. I check with a sympathetic nurse to make sure none of the herbals act as a blood thinner. He takes the pills apart and shakes out half the contents of each one on to a creased piece of paper. Then he licks the paper. I’ve mentioned that sometimes we think alike, but this time I have no clue to what he is thinking. He doesn’t ask for any of the supplements again until weeks later. It’s probably just as well since they do an exhaustive readout each day of every component in his blood. The supplements might skewer some of the results.
Dale is rolling his eyes as Mr. Green (Bed 26) shuffles by, holding his red pajama bottoms in a twist behind his back. Dale rolls his eyes because there are a limited number of outcomes to Mr. Green shuffling purposefully towards the bathroom. He will be unsuccessful in finding the bathroom and pee on the floor somewhere short of the toilet, or actually make it to the bathroom and leave such a wretched stench Dale will refuse to enter. Several times he has wandered into the hallway, done his business, and is then returned by an annoyed but resigned orderly.
This time I watch Mr. Green probe the perimeter of the hallway door, even along the top edge, looking for the handle. By the time I press the help button on the monitor he has an accident right there.
Levity is crucial in saving Dale from depression in these conditions. It’s the antidote for despair. He’s always had a good sense of humor, and the antics of his room mates, sad and miserable as they are, provide some black humor. Dale’s “eye rolling” speaks volumes.
We have time to visit and reminisce, and I quiz Dale about things I don’t know. I was there the day of Dad’s accident with an aunt and uncle but I was only three years old. Dale was on the verge of becoming a teenager. The accident is a pivotal event in the life of each of us in the family.
I say I was there the day of the accident but it may be a false memory. My older sisters state emphatically I was left at home, but it’s such a strong false memory I’ve decided to stubbornly keep it. They’ll stubbornly testify under oath I wasn’t there. The memory is so strong I’d probably pass a polygraph test, even though in all probability I may not have been there.
Dale is telling me about the events of that day as he remembers them.
“I’m sorry I keep calling him my dad.” He apologizes, but there’s no need. Dale spent much more time with dad.
“Dad had already performed that weekend--- it was a three day show. Topper was the chief pilot and dad was filling in for him.”
Dale can’t remember why Topper couldn’t fly, but the owner of the airport property, Sam Marcotta, had a grand mal seizure that weekend and maybe Topper had to care for the man.
The Heart of America Airport was a little strip located near 40 Highway and Little Blue River Road, East of Kansas City. Aunt Virginia would drive the family there on weekends. Dale did odd jobs at the airport and would often ride the five miles on his bicycle. After work he’d then ride the five miles back to Fairmount.
Dad worked for the Blue Valley Flying and Repair Service, a business entity operating out of one of the airport buildings. Dale says a one legged mechanic did pretty much everything, including fixing torn fabric that covered the wings of the older models of aircraft. Dale would often accompany dad when he delivered planes, most frequently in the Ozarks, and remembers one day delivering a used Porterfield somewhere close to Springfield.
“The plane was shaking the whole length of the trip.”
After the accident the airport safe was cleaned out and the prime suspect for this alleged skullduggery was Topper. He and dad apparently had joint ownership of the ‘Flying Service’ and any record of that partnership would have been kept in the safe. I could be wrong but Topper ended up with the title to a building lot dad owned. Each of dad’s five brothers owned adjacent lots near their father’s house. Dad’s lot was located across from his brother Willard’s house. It was probably put up as collateral.
Dale remembers being pulled away from the runway by Topper after the plane crash. He returned to the airport several days later. Topper drove him on to the airfield in his cream colored convertible and said “You’re the man of the house now.” Dale was working as a short order cook at the little restaurant there and also drove a small tractor with a rake or sometimes a mower behind it. His job was to smooth the gravel runways and mow the grass between them. He mentions seeing giant alligator snapping turtles near the runways so the airport had to be very close to the river.
Dad had no insurance so they raffled off a 1946 Studebaker Champion and raised around three thousand dollars. Dad had borrowed against the house and against his life insurance policy to buy into the’ Flying Service.’ Dale had worked in the parts department of the Studebaker dealership in Fairmount before the accident, and I wonder if that was the company that donated the new car. I discuss it with Dale and he says “that’s interesting.” You can see him making sense of it in his head. The dealership was located only a few blocks from our house on South Huttig and the owner would have known about the family and the accident. A new Studebaker could be bought in 1946 for a price of just over $1100.00. Donations at the airport and through a fund set up by the newspaper raised an additional eighteen hundred dollars.
Mom used the money to pay off the house loan and change what would have been Dad’s furniture shop behind the house to an apartment.
“I had a premonition that day and started crying before the accident,” Dale says. He says after the accident he didn’t cry until he was fifty three years old. An encounter with a catholic priest near Rolla somehow opened up the flood gates.
Dale says dad may have strapped him that fateful weekend of the accident with a belt for not watering the chickens. There seems to be guilt about things that were said that day and I think the actual facts and timing are confused.
Dale had a long standing aversion for the rooster that was mutual and he would sometimes pretend he was running water in a bucket beside the house so mom would think the chickens had been watered. It was an elaborate and desperate ruse to avoid the rooster that failed as soon as she checked the chicken house.
Dale says mom would make him cut his own switches--- which she flailed him with--- but the girls received only fake spankings with an egg beater. They were instructed to yell as loud as they could. I think he was talking about a whisk, not the egg beater I’m thinking of.
If I’ve somehow blamed Dale for the demise of the chickens and their eggs I have to thank him for making mom realize that switches have no lasting or character altering effects on boys. I only got flailed once, and that was with a hairbrush, and it wasn’t a fake “egg beater” spanking. For maximum effect she pulled down my trousers to ensure the hair bush met its intended target. At first there was not a lot of yelling due to the stubborn gene but later when that trait had been subdued there was quite a bit. Whack! Aayyyiiii! Whack! Aayyiii! There was nothing fake about it.
Ben, Dale’s youngest son, calls to check on his condition. He’s a talented artist, sculptor, and like Dale and the other boys is interested in a variety of things including light energy and alternative healing.
Ben helped design the Circle Garden situated a short distance from the back door garden. It has a four foot diameter brick ring laid around a stump. A large chunk of quartz crystal was set on top of the stump. When they ran out of brick, Dale and Bessie hauled field stone from the stream beds with their garden tractor. “Trip after trip,” Dale says. He names all the flowers planted there, and says they had a ceremony after the garden was completed. Friends from as far away as Canada, Florida, and California attended. There was guitar music, flute playing, and plenty of good conversation.
Ben tells me he’s borrowed a bio-mat to help Dale’s energy field. It’s an expensive canvas mat with quartz crystals and tourmaline embedded in it. It also emits a high energy infra red when plugged in. I doubt they will allow it in I.C.U. since they make me turn off my cell phone when I enter.
Dale talks about a third garden started on the west side of the house toward the front orchard. The plan was to make an English Tea Garden with a rose arbor entrance. Dale planted twenty three tea roses there and a variety of other flowers, picked for their fragrance. Even though the soffits under the eaves were giving way, and numerous other things around and in the house called for attention, the gardens are where they lived. “Thousands and thousands of dollars,” Dale says; not lamenting, but stating the reality of the money it took to plant and tend the gardens. The enjoyment and therapeutic value to the family brought by the gardens would be impossible to quantify.
“We lived in the patio garden,” the one just outside the back door with the Martha Stewart gazebos.
“You know that big moth that looks like a hummingbird? That comes from the tomato hornworm.” Laying there in the bed he is still thinking and talking about the gardens. Subsequent questions he asks over the next several weeks indicate his mind is focused on memories of the gardens. It’s an effective way to relieve the sterile and unnatural atmosphere of his hospital room.
Dale and I discuss our various childhood accidents. One involved the two of us. I was straddling the back fender of his Schwinn bicycle with my legs splayed wide.
“Do you remember where we were going Dale?”
“No, but we were on Ash Street headed toward town.”
When Dale stood on the pedals to gain momentum the bike wobbled and I caught my foot in the spokes.
“Was it twelve spokes you replaced?”
“More---- more like sixteen.”
My foot worked effectively as a brake and threw Dale over the front handlebars. Wearing only sandals I lacerated and broke my foot. It healed miraculously within two weeks.
A few years later we narrowly avoided being involved in a more serious accident together. Testosterone has a tendency to level the population of teenage boys. Dale was drag racing another highly dosed teenager in an older model Oldsmobile. I was six or seven and mom--- poor mom--- would have marched Dale off to the Navy two years early instead of one, if she had known about it. Dale often inserts “poor mom” into the conversation when talking about those teenage years. She never found out about the drag racing, but I was there when she turned over his mattress a year later and found all the letters on truancy sent by the principal’s office at Northeast High School. Dale and Wally were becoming proficient pool sharks. That’s when she hauled him off to the recruiting station and signed him up.
Back to the drag race. Dale’s 32 Ford should have been no match for a hefty eight cylinder Oldsmobile going downhill. We were in the passing lane and I was gauging our gains and losses on the long downhill run by the classic female hood ornament on the Oldsmobile. I willed the other driver to look at the innocent kid with the pathetic frightened look but his determination to kill himself was as keen as Dale’s. He never looked my way. I knew the real problem was the Missouri Bridge at the bottom of the hill and the tractor and fully loaded hay wagon behind it turning toward us in our lane. The half mile between us and the tractor seemed to last an eternity. The difference between a spectacular crash and a miraculous finish was infinitesimal. Sometimes you’re just lucky to be among the living. Dale has voiced repeatedly since being here in the hospital his appreciation for living, even if sixty years ago he regarded it lightly. He moves his head from side to side when he thinks about that day near the Missouri Bridge, remembering just as clearly as me how close a call we had.
I’m not sure mom knew about the tomcat either. She was at work or she would have intervened of course. I know Dale wouldn’t have confessed. The only incriminating evidence would have been the claw marks in the bathroom. I didn’t rat him out. My interest was piqued immediately when I saw Dale and Wally haul the big yellow tomcat through the kitchen in to the bathroom. It took all their attention and coordinated effort not to get mauled by the cat. If I had known they were going to flush the cat down the toilet I would have sold tickets.
They got the howling cat in the toilet and closed the lid. Dale had his right hand on the stool lid and reached the handle on the tank with his left. Our toilet was the Niagara Falls model and authentically thunderous. Kawhooossh!
It was more like a missile launch than a flushing. Dale’s right hand was no match for the muscular tomcat that exploded out of the stool. The toilet lid was snapped back with such force I think it cracked the tank. The soaked tomcat went directly to the ceiling where it knocked some plaster loose and then directly to the small window sill above the tub. It was then I realized a cat could actually fly and the only thing next on the agenda was who had the right of way through the door. Dale gives me that famous look when we discuss the tomcat. It’s the sheepish look that says, “I know----- I know, what was I possibly thinking?” I ask Dale later whose cat it was and he said it was Wally’s.
The different teams of doctors that have consulted together on Dale’s medical condition seem puzzled on the best way to proceed. They’d like to go in and do a massive three to five hour operation that would allow them to see exactly what they are dealing with. Hopefully they would cure the problem at the same time. The trouble is that Dale’s condition is weak. When they placed a stint in his stomach to drain his bile duct he bled profusely and required multiple units of blood.
In his weakened and sedated condition he has what he calls an out of body experience.
“It was very strange”, he says. “It was a group I’ve always wanted to meet. I knocked on the door and they welcomed me in. They were a very creative group of people working on all kinds of projects. They’ve all been through the process.”
I asked him if he could describe what they looked like.
“Not bodies like ours----not real bodies.” He mentions he kept fading out of the dream and found it so pleasant he tried to consciously pull himself back into it. He said it was a very peaceful and almost angelic experience.
“Tell Bessie”, he adds.
When I tell her she says she believes he’s communicating with a higher level of consciousness now that he doesn’t have to worry about day to day problems. She mentions a realization she had from a dream of her own. “I’ll have to let Dale go,” she comments, meaning she will have to let him be comfortable making decisions regarding his own destiny.
The obstreperous patient in Bed 24 is talking loudly on the cell phone.
“Sarah, Sarah------you’re rambling again. Sarah, you’re not listening. You’re lying Sarah! You’re lying! I didn’t do that Sarah!”
Just when he gets to the part he didn’t do the custodian wheels a heavy mop cart along the tile floor. The bad wheel rattles the bucket on the cart and masks his words.
“I’m going to hang up. I’m going to hang up now Sarah.”
During the night they move Mr. Anderson (Bed 24) to the ‘Zoo’ when he becomes disorderly and uncooperative. The ‘Zoo’ is a room infamous for its occupants, and manned by muscular male nurses.
During visiting hours, when nurses aren’t hanging intravenous bags, taking blood, and changing sheets, we talk.
Dale sorts through every neighbor on South Huttig, going both ways. He even remembers Clem, who I had completely forgotten. Clem lived in a small shack at the back of the lot three doors north on our side of the street. Abundant rumors and his unkempt appearance kept the children away from him. I’m surprised Dale’s memory is so clear and that he remembers every neighbor’s name and something about them. I lived on the same street and only remember the ones I interacted with.
I try to find out more of what he and Wally were up to on all those skipped days of school but he wants to skip over those turbulent years. He’s anxious to talk about his Navy adventures. He does say he and Wally were good swimmers and that they belonged to a swimming club that met at Northeast High School on Saturday mornings. There were four schools in the Kansas City District that had swimming pools, including Van Horn, the one I attended. I ask Dale if they wore swimming suits and he says no. There was no co-ed swimming, so the athletic policy was that boys wore nothing at all. We thought nothing of it at the time. How times change. The girls wore what looked like a gunny sack. They were issued by the athletic department and turned back in after each swim to be washed. We sometimes peeked through the swimming pool door, and the gunny sacks did nothing for the girls’ figures. They looked like gunny sacks with attached arms and legs. I wonder now if the girls were peeking at the boys.
Mom had Ruth and me in tow when we bid “bon voyage” to Dale at the Union Station in Kansas City. Dale said Myrna Nickerson was also there to say goodbye. Mom was trying to set Dale up with Myrna, a truly striking red head. I had a crush on her myself, especially after she put together a typewritten notebook for me on different breeds of dogs. Dale says he was never romantically inclined toward her. I remember mom wore one of her church dresses and a chic gray hat with a little feather angled at the front. The station was huge and I remember her short heels echoing in the massive open space. She had to pull me away from gawking at the gigantic clock located at the end of the room. The Station was full of wooden benches and held so many people that at first we had trouble finding Dale. He was distracted since he had been put in charge of eighty recruits for the duration of the three day train trip to San Diego. When we found him there were probably about thirty young men that had reported so far.
After basic training Dale got homesick and hitch hiked all the way back from San Diego. Because of his Navy uniform he had no trouble catching rides and he arrived at the house about two a.m. of the second morning. Mom woke us up and we sat in the back room with the little windows that looked out on the patio. We asked questions about boot camp while she made him tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. He also requested chocolate chip cookies. I remember him drinking a big glass of milk with the cookies. We found out that on one of his week end passes he went to a San Diego theme park and ended up the last lone rider in a roller coaster. Out of orneriness or forgetfulness the operator turned the lights out while the coaster was in the middle of its run. The coaster went out over the dark water in the bay and Dale said he tried to get on the floor of the coaster car he was in.
Dale’s original Navy tests results came in the mail today along with his DD214. His entry tests include everything from literary interpretation to mechanical ability. He passed all the tests handily, but scored highest in areas that would make him a successful radar man. Looking over the grades he made later in his sonar and radar courses he scored 3.7 and 3.8 in a 4.0 grading system.
His first ocean passage after training was a doozy. In a turbulent sea the short range radar disk attached to a gyroscope became wedged and as a radar man Dale was volunteered to free it. The disk was attached at the highest point possible on the mast. There was a narrow ladder that went all the way up. When the ship lurched backwards he clung to the ladder and held on for dear life. He said at that point he felt like he weighed five hundred pounds. When the ship lurched forward he scrambled up the ladder as fast and as far as he could, then held on for dear life when the ship shifted back the other way.
Another storm during the same passage was so violent the entire bow of the ship would go under and then shudder when it came back up. Two bosun mates were trying to untangle a line that had become dislodged from a reel and was trailing the ship. A bosun’s mate (short for boatswain) usually supervises any number of duties required on the deck of a ship. They were afraid the line would catch in the ship’s propeller. When a huge wave washed over the deck they were both knocked off their feet. One mate held on to the railing but the other was swept overboard.
The ship’s piping sounded the Man Overboard alarm and Dale’s job was to calculate where the ship was at the moment of the accident and steer the ship back to that location in rough seas. Large ships have a “dead reckoning tracer” on their hulls that measures the ship’s movement through the water. From that he could calculate how far the ship had moved from the point of the accident. The ship was a tanker nearly seven hundred feet long and it took three nautical miles to turn the ship around, but there was no sign of the sailor, who was not wearing a life vest. From his vantage point in the forecastle, where he was doing his calculations, Dale said it looked like the entire hull of the ship was twisting each time it re-emerged from beneath the water.
Their destination on that first trip was Hawaii where Dale was stationed off and on for several years. Still a teenager, and a handsome one, he became infatuated with a pretty high school senior who was only fifteen. He met LaVerne through the church group on Oahu where her family had a mission in their home and a few mattresses in the back room where sailors were welcome to crash. He befriended her entire family, especially her mother, Mama Directo. At her request he would sit on her bed and visit. She would yell if he happened to sit where her missing leg would have been situated. (I presume the leg was lost to diabetes).
Dale and LaVerne never married although they were very serious, at least from Dale’s perspective. LaVerne’s brother Sonny was an artist and gourmet chef specializing in luaus and their friendship lasted for a life time. After Sonny moved to the states Dale joined the Hawaiian Club and assisted Sonny in hundreds of luaus. I attended one of them in Kansas City for Congressman Randall Jesse. I watched them dig the pit and heat the rocks. They then placed the hot rocks around the pig, even inside the pig’s body cavity. It was surrounded with layers of banana leaves along with sweet potatoes and other vegetables. It was then covered with earth and allowed to cook for the entire day. The result that evening was incredibly tender pork that was a great hit for the fundraiser.
“How ya doin Mr. Sherman?”
The pleasant black nurse who calls herself the vampire comes to take another vial of blood. She flashes a broad toothy smile but I don’t see any fangs.
“Fine, I’m doing okay.” The nurses like Dale because he is always affable and easy to care for. He’ll carry on a conversation that always includes asking them about their lives outside the hospital.
He’s not doing fine though. The endoscope used to clear his bile duct encountered an obstruction that results in internal bleeding and a blood clot. The next four or five days are spent transfusing blood with the doctors debating the least invasive way to proceed in clearing the duct.
“Mr. Green (Bed 26) ----What ya doin?” the nurse asks. “I need you to get in bed before you fall. Where’s your pants-------you lose your pants again?”
I’m not totally shocked when Dale tells me mom always carried a 32 revolver in her purse. I saw her pull the 32 out one time, but I thought she had obtained it for just that special occasion. I didn’t know she was armed continuously.
“You just did in those days,” Dale says. I thought of those days as something out of a Norman Rockwell painting where you could go anywhere and do anything without worrying about being mugged or worse.
In 1953 my older sisters were teenagers and naturally attracting attention, sometimes from young men mom determined too old or not suitable. I don’t think either one of them were on the front porch when mom pulled the 32 out of her purse and brandished it at a man standing in the yard. He was dressed in a blue service station attendant shirt, work pants, and a cap with the stations logo on it. Mom was yelling and waving the gun. I was startled when she said “I’ll kill you!” Shocked, but absolutely sure I’d heard her right, I maneuvered behind her for my own safety; close enough to witness the shooting though. There must have been an “either or” clause added to her threat because no one was killed that day. I think it was either you make yourself disappear permanently or “I’ll kill you!”
Dad had an interest in guns as well as flying, and mom seemed to share his interests. I was surprised when I found out she took flying lessons, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if they did some target shooting together. Dale said dad would stop the car if he saw a crow or even a hawk in a tree and take a pot shot at it.
Dad started Dale out with a rubber band shooter so powerful it got him in considerable trouble with the older Scherer brother three doors south. He later bought Dale a single shot 22, loaded it with buckshot, and he would then station Dale in the front room of Grandpa Plem’s house. Dale’s job was to shoot any mouse that ran along the baseboards.
Dale later acquired Dad’s gun collection, and gave most of it to the Jobst boy with cerebral palsy. I somehow ended up with dad’s old squirrel rifle with the bird’s eye maple stock. Regretfully I sold it during the teacher’s strike in the seventies.
Mom had strong opinions on everything, but there were things we never talked about in our home. I can’t remember discussing politics, gays, evolution, or the stock market. I remember our sister Judy tried to broach the subject of evolution one evening after school, but mom sent her to bed without supper. I felt guilty for not trying to sneak a sandwich to her. She had somehow saved enough money from her baby sitting to buy me a new English bicycle and I consider it one of the minor miracles of my youth.
The off limit conversations seemed to include mom’s own childhood, because we only received snippets of information about it. We know her grandmother on the Alberti side would thump her on the head with a thimble. It was never explained why these thumpings occurred
She never mentioned it but we heard from a reliable source that mom and dad, while dating, were thrown off the trolley in Independence for a public display of affection. That’s about all we get besides a few photos from when she lived by Doubts Lake.
Before we get away from things we didn’t talk about in our family, the issue of death comes up. We didn’t talk about it directly that I can remember. Dale is confronted with the possibility now, and I know he is processing the possibility in his subconscious but he doesn’t want to talk about it specifically.
The social workers have been in at least three times asking if he’s thought about a Living Will. The latest one is Winnie, who has beauty shopped hair, modest gold ear rings, and a low set of heels. She asks him if he would like her to leave the Living Will form.
He avoids answering by saying, “You’ll have to check with Bessie.” Dale and I have a non-verbal agreement that I will not press him about it. I sense that discussing death makes it seem more likely to him. He knows what a Living Will is, but because he’s a “control freak” by his own admission, signing over a durable power of attorney to someone else may be uncomfortable. Winnie hands me an Advance Directive and her card when she leaves. Dale eventually signs one when Bessie requests it.
There’s another incident I should have thought of concerning Dale’s initial reluctance to sign the Advance Directive. Yesterday Dale said when mom was under hospice care her breathing became so labored and difficult he couldn’t endure watching her suffer any longer. He disconnected her oxygen tube but instead of passing peacefully, her will was so strong she started breathing on her own. There were tears when he told me this, as if in trying to help her--- he only made it worse. He may feel uncomfortable placing a “life or death” decision in someone else’s hands.
Weekends at the V.A. hospital are less structured. The seasoned doctors disappear and the interns arrive. They have white coats and stethoscopes but nurses whisper that they are not allowed to prescribe anything stronger than Tylenol. One of the Tylenol doctors is now standing beside Dale’s bed making small talk, practicing his bed side manners. He has a name tag that says Dr. Anderson, and he looks like a taller version of Doogie Howser, M.D., the teenage prodigy doctor in the comedy-drama television series. He shuffles his feet back and forth. You can tell he wants to talk about anything but Dale’s medical condition. The real doctors have probably not even supplied him with the medical records. Dale asks him about his schooling and it turns out he went to the Osteopathic College in Kansas City close by the high school Dale attended--sometimes. Dale has a soft spot for Osteopaths and sends him on his way with some encouraging compliments about his chosen field.
Intensive Care visiting hours are limited to thirty minutes every two hours. They start at 10 a.m. and end at 8 p.m. Some nurses are more lenient than others and will draw the curtain around Dale’s bed so we can visit longer. This half hour he talks about Japan. I think he has forgotten, but he sent me a jacket with dragons embroidered on it. When I remind him of it he says he must have bought it in Hong Kong. I was nine or ten and wore it continuously, even in warm weather, until the silk fabric was frayed and thoroughly ruined.
Dale says their ship docked at the Naval Base in Sasebo on the Island of Kyushi. The island was shaped like a mushroom, including the stem. After looking at the map it looks like Sasebo is so close to Nagasaki that the mushroom cloud may have been visible from their island, ironically shaped like a mushroom. Sasebo was headquarters for the Japanese Imperial Navy before they surrendered. Over sixty thousand Japanese workers were employed on the base and in the dock yards. In the decade following the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima there were numbers of nuclear tests conducted over the water near the Bimini Islands and elsewhere. Dale witnessed two of these from the deck of his ship with other sailors. They were not much more than a mile from the blast. I wonder if the high dose of radiation could have contributed to his present pancreatic problems. Within the last two years he’s had a cancerous skin growth removed from the side of his nose.
On one of his shore leaves Dale rents a bicycle and pedals through the Japanese country side. He said he could sense the hostility as he rode by the rice paper huts with their moveable walls. He saw many Japanese citizens with missing limbs. Most of the major cities in Japan were fire-bombed at one time or another during the war, and Sasebo with its Naval Base, would have been a prime target.
“What were you wearing Dale?”
“I had on my Navy whites.”
Since there were many things we never talked about in our family, it probably never occurred to Dale that the Japanese at that time thought we Americans were inhuman and racist. I also doubt he had paid attention to the American belief, spurred by propaganda, that the Japanese were the ones who were sub-human. Dale was just out on a Sunday ride, enjoying nature, in his Navy Whites. I wonder what we would have thought if the Japanese had won the war, and a Japanese soldier rode his bicycle down South Huttig, in front of our house, in his Japanese uniform just seven years after the War?
Dale mentions several times he was a “loner” when it came to shore leave and that includes the two times he got ‘schnockered’. One of those times was on leave in Hong Kong where he imbibed too much McArthur beer. The beer was infamous for its twelve percent alcohol content and after a few of those he planned to swim back to the ship through shark infested waters. Someone thankfully intervened. When he finally got back on deck he tried to climb one of the ropes attached to the mast and got his foot hung up. He said he ended up swinging upside down and laughing hilariously. No audience, just alone and finding his predicament funny. After getting untangled he said he toyed with the idea of jumping off the side of the ship. The seventy foot drop would have been suicidal.
He mentions the only time he had a genuine suicidal thought was when he was stone sober. He was working for Mayor Weaver in a little office on the 26th floor of an office building in Kansas City.
“There was a little roof top patio outside the door where I was working. I went out to take a break and I walked to the edge and looked down and had a sudden irrational urge to jump. It scared me so bad I sat down and crab walked backward. I never went out to the roof top again.”
The second time Dale drank to excess was when they were sailing away from Japan hauling fuel to the 7th Fleet. He was off duty drinking two bottles of cheap wine in the cabin on the bridge. This is where the Captain sleeps when there are events happening that require him to be above board. Dale said the ship was rolling and because of the wine he became sea sick and threw up all over the Captain’s cabin. The sea must have been pretty rough because the tanker he was on was built on an aircraft carrier hull and unusually stable.
Dale talks more about Hawaii. He names all the members of the Directo family and describes them in detail. He says Mama Directo would comfort him when LaVerne would go off with some of her many friends. She competed in and won a local beauty pageant. She had many admirers which made Dale jealous. One of those admirers was Dale’s good sailor buddy Roy Cauley, who eventually dated our sister Sherry back in the states. After visiting late one night at our home, Roy went to sleep at the wheel of his Oldsmobile and suffered a concussion when he ran off the road. He died two weeks later at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City.
Mama Directo was a mixture of Chinese and Hawaiian, with a little Portuguese Sailor added in. Her husband was mostly Chinese with a little Spanish. He worked in a prison on the island of Oahu until inmates threw a blanket over his head and beat him with pipes. As a result he was institutionalized, but on special occasions they would bring him to the home.
When Dale left Hawaii on the U.S.S. Philemon, its sister ship was a short distance away and the crew had not properly cleaned out the aviation fuel tanks below deck. He said the explosion peeled back the deck of the sister ship like a sardine can. Two welders and three seaman were killed. Dale said it felt like he was lifted three feet off the deck of the Philemon when the explosion occurred.
After Dale was discharged from active duty he first worked in the canneries in Washington State. Many students from Graceland College in Iowa would work there during the summer break. Sherry, our sister, was one of those students and worked in the plants at the same time as Dale.
Dale worked in a freezer plant where they would flash freeze berries and peas. ‘It was a fast repetitive job, and I loved it.”
He said he earned a production bonus almost every night.
At the close of the season Dale enrolled in courses at Skagit Valley Community College. While walking down the street on campus he saw Bessie walking on the opposite side and mentioned to his friend and room mate Ray Meashiro. “Now there’s a gal I’d like to meet.”
He saw her several subsequent times on campus, once in a 1932 Ford Dome back filled with young men he found later were her brothers.
Dale enrolled in a psychology class and found a seat farthest from the front. (I find that Dale and I share some propensities). He said he saw Bessie sitting near the front with an empty seat beside her. He screwed up his courage and took the seat. The teacher gave them an assignment and it was fate that Dale owned a typewriter and Bessie could type. He said they talked until three a.m. in the morning and he kissed her on that first date, but never got close to her again until months later at a New Year Eve’s party. Even then she resisted a kiss because her family disapproved of her dating someone outside their faith. Bess Ida Ronhaar was born in 1938, and her father was a big hearty enterprising Dutchman living on Anacortes Island. He was a mortician, county coroner, peat farmer, and a member of ‘The Friends,’ a conservative Quaker style church.
As fate would have it Dale wore down the family’s resistance and he and Bessie were married three months after the New Year’s Eve Party on March 19th due to an upcoming event. That upcoming event was the eventual birth of Danny, soon to be followed fourteen months later by David.
I am surprised and intrigued when Dale tells me he and Bessie lived in a tree house. Dale was working in a real estate office in Anacortes, Washington, but the Shell and Texaco refineries went on strike, and salmon fishing went bad that year. Unemployment in the town exceeded thirty per cent and Dale ended up in a chipboard and plywood plant working fifty six hour weeks. He ran a fork lift and cleaned out the eighty foot long dry kiln. He was able to buy rejects for cents on the dollar, and thus the tree house was conceived.
They found a one acre tract in a heavily forested area on ‘Happy Valley Road.’ It was close to the town of Anacortes and not far from Fidalgo Bay and its shipping channel. Dale said he found a cluster of six pine trees that approximated a rectangle and he used these to put his floor stringers on. Actually, on one side of the tree house you could walk in at ground level, but the rest was built over a ravine. The house was ten by sixteen feet and had double hung windows with screens. There was no carpet or insulation. They hauled water in 55 gallon drums and lived there for a while after Danny was born. For transportation Dale owned a blue 49 Ford pick-up. He said he was driving it down ‘Main Street’ in Anacortes when the truck started wobbling. All the lug nuts had come loose on the front left wheel. I think I might have suspected sabotage by one of my neighbors, but Dale says their neighbors on ‘Happy Valley Road’ would have been life long friends if they had stayed in touch. Dale talks of this time with nostalgia. He remembers one tree trunk on the property that measured ten feet in diameter. When I bring it up with Bessie, her memories are of the cloth diapers and primitive conditions, and without the longing looks that were in Dale’s eyes as he was telling me about it. When winter approaches they are forced to abandon the project and find a little log house to rent, one with a wood stove.
The cabin is deep in the woods on an old logging road atop Mount Erie, which has spectacular views of Puget Sound and Campbell Lake. From the Mountain you can see the loaf shaped islands spotted throughout the Sound, all covered with forests of green pine and western cedar trees. The Blackball Ferry stops at Anacortes on its daily run between Victoria, British Columbia and the Olympic Peninsula. The area has the largest year round population of Killer Whales in the world and is a popular tourist attraction. Mount Erie is 1200 feet high and despite the unbelievable views in all directions, Dale says it was a scary place. He’s speaking of the remoteness of the area, not the cabin itself, which was a step up from the tree house. The cabin had an over sized wood shed on one side that he used both for stacking wood and parking the truck. The wood stove burned cedar and pine and he got it so hot one time it turned cherry red. He poured buckets of water on it but the water evaporated as steam immediately.
Dale took his deer rifle once----- and while stalking a deer looked down -----amazed that he was standing fifteen feet above the forest floor on a platform of old pine and cedar logs that had crossed over each other as they had fallen.
Though Bessie was pregnant with David she wanted to take a turn with the rifle and shot a red fox. I think it was also Bessie that shot a male pheasant from the window of the cabin.
Sunday, Easter morning, Sharon and I drive to Little Rock to check on Dale. I’ve been home this past week nursing a cold or allergies, or a combination of the two.
The redbuds are no longer in full bloom but the dogwoods are still beautiful. When we turn on to Interstate 40 at Fort Smith, we notice that the Highway Department has seeded the median strip with red clover, poppies, evening primrose and phlox----miles and miles of wildflowers. When we tell Dale about them on Sunday he smiles and has a look of longing on his face. When we leave Monday afternoon he asks,
“Do you have a camera?”
When I answer in the affirmative he asks me to take some pictures of the flowers. I’m reminded once more how much Dale appreciates nature.
The last week hasn’t gone well. He’s unable to tolerate food. He’ll take a few sips of milk or a few bites of cereal but will then shake his head in refusal. I’ve tried persuasion and mild bullying. The nurses and nutritionists have done the same. They tried feeding him through a tube that goes through his nose and down the esophagus into his stomach. He’s now pulled it out a total of five times. I watched as they tried to place the feeding tube in Sunday and it’s not a pleasant procedure, hard even to watch. When the tube was half way down Dale started to vomit. The nurse tried a second time but with no success.
They try again on Tuesday but he pulls it out again. They were planning to place a food tube directly into his stomach, but his bilirubin count is too high and the surgical team refuses to do the procedure because of the risk of infection.
Bess is getting frantic and thinks it might help if he were given natural food like apples or cabbage processed through the blender. It might be worth a try but I have my doubts. I’ve thought several times that Dale might be refusing food because he doesn’t want to be in this critical condition indefinitely and has given up. There might be a little of that attitude but I think, more than that--- it’s just the pain associated with eating. When he was able to eat small amounts of food his bowels were irritable and the food passed through undigested. I think the neoplasm has grown and pushed against the stomach wall so tightly there is no place for the food to go. When he eats he becomes nauseated and his stomach hurts. The doctors say he is their sickest patient. I corner the team on Monday and despite his critical condition they hope to get him well.
Before we leave I shave him and comb his hair. I read several Psalms to him and we talk about old times.
Being in a hospital for a month can disorient you. When the doctor comes in he asks Dale if he knows where he is.
“Riverside Hospital,” he answers. This is the second time I’ve heard him give this answer during his stay. I think when his friend Roy Cauley was in a coma for two weeks back in the fifties he was first taken to Riverside Hospital south of St. Joseph, Missouri. Dale sat with him continuously until he died two weeks later. Dale answers correctly when asked what year it is.
Bessie is finding homes for the animals back in Wright City. Recently they had as many as seven cats and three dogs. Dale and Bessie have always had a soft spot for homeless animals. When the boys were young they took in a skunk. They got permission from the wildlife department and had it de-scented.
“It loved June bugs and grasshoppers,” Dale says. It was hibernating in an appliance box in their basement but the boy’s babysitter was curious and the boys accommodated her and woke him up. He turned mean and they took him to the Swope Park Zoo in Kansas City.
More recently, in Wright City, their big dog Panda took in a half grown orphaned opossum. It slept with him in his doghouse through the winter.
The pets have become a problem though, and expensive. Dale says that Diva, the big calico cat, has gotten on the stove top several times and peed in the stainless steel bowls beneath the burners. He says the stench was horrible when the burner was turned on. Dale has knee and back problems, and recently tripped over their little dog Mattie, when he tried to stop him from barking furiously at the mailman.
When I ask him about the cats he says he was the one who let the first cat in. Bessie has now found a home for Diva, and a ‘no kill animal shelter’ is taking one additional cat each week. She will keep Big Boy, a big black cat that loves to sit on her lap. She also recently placed Mattie in a home.
I visit with Bessie this morning on the telephone. She is calling from Little Rock where her friend Eve has driven her and Danny to see Dale. This is the first time she’s been able to see him since his ambulance ride from Fayetteville. The nurse tells her “he is a very sick man.” We all question whether he is strong enough to endure an extensive operation. She says he’s tethered to this world by his strong love of nature. I agree that he seems to think of flowers and gardens most of the time.
If he is truly at the end of his journey on this earth the ideal place to end it would be in a garden or on a mountain top. The Indians had the right idea when they would find a good spot on a good day to pass on. Bessie talks to the social worker on Monday about an Advance Directive, and gets Dale to sign it. Sometimes hospitals and staff feel obligated to go to extraordinary measures to extend life beyond what would be considered a peaceful and dignified death. Dale has told me he wouldn’t want that, and neither would the family.
I found out in my visits that Dale is very spiritual. Although he and Bessie came from conservative religious backgrounds, and attended church at various times in their life, they are not presently connected to any organized religion. He requested a King James Version of the bible from the visiting chaplains both in Fayetteville and in Little Rock.
“God is love and energy. He’s not a white haired man---------I carried that for years,” he says.
Dale’s demeanor gets animated when he talks about the scriptures.
“I screen everything through the scriptures---these are the things that are precious.”
He talks about the fifth book of Genesis and goes to some length about the fractious nature of Peter that does not allow him to see the other side of the veil. He’s thought about the wealth and power that Moses had as a member of the Pharoahs’ household, yet Moses was always aware that his calling was to serve God, and that what he did was a reflection on God, and he knew that he would be rewarded for that faithfulness in the end.
He’s excited when he talks about the symbolism behind the scripture in Isaiah about Jesse’s Rod.
And there shall come forth a rod out of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out his roots: and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and the fear of God.
Dale says this kind of scripture is what anchors his faith. He attended a Jewish-Christian presentation in St. Louis that discussed the book of Isaiah.
“I went for years in the dark night of the soul, not being able to pray or knowing who to pray to.”
It’s good to know that my brother is tethered not only to the physical world by his love of nature, but to the spiritual world as well, and the promises it reveals to us in the scriptures.