Dad and I have been going up together a couple of days a week to work on the apartment in my brother's rental unit. It's just the two of us, as the work has now moved far beyond the physical capacities of my mother.
It's about an hour drive each way, so combined with the actual workday (anywhere from three to six hours, depending on our respective schedules back here), it makes for a lot of time together.
Dad and I still haven't made it down to Kentucky to walk the family cemeteries. October would be a wonderful month just for the sheer beauty of rural Kentucky, but my brother's broken leg and the need to get this apartment back together have trumped any day trips.
So all this time with dad is time to talk, time to share, time to store up moments for the days when one of us won't be there anymore.
Some of my friends are politely baffled that I am spending so much time on this project. You can see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. Their "That's really nice of you…" sentences trail off to the unspoken "but…" and hang unfinished in the air. I can finish the sentences. "Isn't that a lot of work for you?" "Can't someone else help your dad?" "Can't your dad do this on his own?"
No, he can't do it on his own.
If dad were in his 50s, he'd probably be doing it on his own, after he finished working his own job. Probably he could do it if he were in his 60s. But dad just turned 77 this summer and his age is starting to show on him. Always a tall man, he has been slowly, quietly shrinking down closer to my height. Always a strong man - a man who was a blue collar worker all of his adult life - he is slower to heft a full bucket than he would have been a decade ago. Dad does not complain, but he does admit to being tired now or to some task being physically difficult. Add to his age that he has had diabetes for almost 25 years now. Dad has been scrupulous about maintaining his health, and so has held this disease to a slow, but inexorable progression. It takes its share of his energy and capacity too.
So no, he can't do it all on his own.
Because of the physical limitations I live with from my myeloma, we make a good team. We both have about the same amount of time in which to work hard before our energy goes for the day. Dad will notice the fatigue on my face and say something; I will notice it on his and ask him if he's okay.
And throughout the day we talk.
On the job, we talk about job-related topics as we work our way through the problems of the apartment. Over lunch or on our drives to and from, I get to listen to my dad's stories and thoughts. I've heard stories about my grandfather - his dad - as a young man that I have never heard before. We talk about the repair jobs dad handled during the decades he was a machinist at a GE big machinery repair shop. We talk about his triumphs of "field engineering" - working on the guts and heart of a power plant and bringing it back online by going with 40 years of machining know-how rather than the suggestion of the plant engineer "who'd never seen one of those turbines taken apart, who had no clue what he was talking about!" (Dad has had a lot of such triumphs in his life.)
We talk about politics and the nation a lot - my dad being a senior convert to a more encompassing and surprisingly liberal and social minded point of view. (When it comes to personal and political growth, I am proudest of my father. The man who supported and probably voted for George Wallace in 1968 when he ran as a white supremacist third-party candidate, wholeheartedly supported and voted for Barack Obama 40 years later.) My dad despairs of the rising tide of poverty that is ravaging this country, of the destruction of the blue collar middle class, of the polarization of this country into the increasingly small group of "haves" and the vast pool of "have nots." It's interesting talk.
And we talk about farming.
It is harvest time in Ohio and we drive past miles of fields each day. Yesterday, with the bright sun and the cool air, the combines were out in full force. Fields that had been full on our way up were now cut clean. My dad always slows up a bit when we pass someone in the fields, commenting on the crop, on the equipment, on grain prices. He will reminisce about his own days farming as a youth and a young man, about the equipment they used a half century or more ago, about the yields they got back then. (For those of you familiar only with the large equipment today, we are talking about a three row operator-driven combine with an open cab, versus the behemoths of today.) He has not farmed in over 40 years, but the love of it still runs deep in his blood.
In my storehouse of childhood memories is one of seeing farmers combining at night throughout the county. My dad farmed with his dad and would work the fields in the evening and on the weekends after coming home from work. This time of year, he might go straight to the farm, grab supper with his parents, and start combining. Sometimes he would help his friend Denny, who also farmed after a day job.
When dad was helping Denny and they were combining late into the night, mom would load us all in the car and head out to spend the evening with Marlene, Denny's wife and a friend of hers from childhood. Driving to their house, past the fields dad and Denny were working in, we'd see a lone beam of light, glowing from all the chaff in the air, methodically crawling over the fields in the pitch dark. All the way home, we'd see similar points of light stabbing the darkness as farmers raced the calendar to get the crop in before the first snow of the year.
I loved seeing those lone beams, sometimes just little dots in the distance, little points of light in the blackness.
I tell Warren that working alongside dad these recent weeks has really driven home to me just how old he is and how finite our remaining time together. With the myeloma always nestling in my bone marrow, I am well aware that my own hourglass runs a little faster than those of most of my peers. My dad's is running even faster and our working together has written that message on my heart.
Dad and I are racing to get the harvest in before the snow and the dead of winter. We are each on a small combine, the small beams stabbing the growing dark, combing the fields and wanting so much for one more season together.
"Night Combine" photo taken by Jennifer Dukes Lee and is from her blog, "Getting Down With Jesus."