The sandhills in winter are shades of brown. Tawny tufts of dry grass studded with spikes of rust surround a grassy path wandering through this pasture. One side follows a barbed wire fence with a hayfield stretching beyond. In the other direction the prairie spreads wild and free. Shrubs are stark sticks devoid of leaves. Further down the trail tall trees bravely lift their bare branches toward a sky of brilliant blue. For a late December day the temperature is chilly but not bitter. Beautiful? Perhaps you wouldn’t think so. But this is the land that my father loves. He grew up on this land, working cattle and baling hay and when his parents grew old and moved to town he returned and worked cattle and baled hay. He has grown old but he has not moved to town. We are walking, my father and I, down this path that he has walked a thousand times.
My father has not been himself lately. He is just a few days out of a hospital stay where he received IVs and was not a particularly good patient. This morning I took him to the clinic for a follow-up appointment and labs. He is not eating or drinking well. At lunch I scooped up a few bites of cottage cheese into a spoon and fed him. My slight father is now gaunt and thin. Here on this path walking he is more himself. His walk is steady and firm. We talk little. “I don’t want to go to the nursing home,” he says. I know. But I can’t promise. Our path winds around a tall cottonwood tree with a rugged trunk. Nearby a fallen limb melds into the soil. We have entered a hidden meadow surrounded by trees.There are remnants here of happy times, of picnics and bonfires. At the far end of the clearing we come to the spot where we often turn around. Surely he is tired. We are a long way from the house. My father acts as if he is going to continue on. But when I ask him he turns and returns to the house with me.
At the house the light on the answering machine is blinking. Just as I am trying to listen, the phone rings. It is the clinic. Lab tests showed that he needs another IV but they are closing soon. Can we come right away? We hustle to the car and return to the clinic. Lying on the bed receiving the IV he seems so small and weak. His PA, a pleasant, compassionate young woman comes by to check on him. “He’s always been so strong,” I murmur. She pauses and her voice catches a bit, “Ninety sucks.”
There’s an errand I need to do before we go home. We stop at the store and Dad stays in the car. At the checkout I notice some grape pop in the cooler. The bottle looks frosty and cold. Good. So I grab a couple of bottles and purchase them. My father is a child of the Depression. He is not given to self-indulgence. Ever. His current condition has highlighted this propensity with cloudy thinking. Just today as we were preparing for our walk he said, “We mustn't waste our coats.” So when I show him the pop, he shakes his head. But I remove the lid and place the bottle in his hand.
Driving home I watch him out of the corner of my eye. He shifts the bottle in his hands. Then lifts it to his mouth. “Um, tangy,” he says. He takes another sip. By the time we return home almost half is gone. A bit of encouragement.
On that day, my father had less than a month to live. We had always told each other that our healthy, active father would live to be a hundred. I was only beginning to understand and I was certainly not ready to accept that he would not recover.