As the center spotlight dims and speech becomes measured and slow, the main characters in a production may pause on the side before leaving the scene entirely. The audience strains to attend to those last motions and words, because they can illumine in the fading light all that has happened.
That’s how I think of our parents’ final years. As strength and health declined, persistence and courage gained greater focus.
Arthur had walked with crutches for almost 50 years. Now his remaining muscle function began to weaken. We read alarmingly about postpolio syndrome of rapidly progressive weakness afflicting polio patients decades after the initial paralysis. But his case didn’t match that description. Instead it appeared to derive from the natural decline of strength with age.
After a fall, Arthur took to walking outside for exercise, because the ground was softer than the thin composite tiles on the concrete floor inside the big house.
Especially troubling was his increasing difficulty in rising from a sitting to a standing position, or even to transfer to and from a wheelchair. Many years ago his greatest challenge had been how to take a bath. When he had first moved from Warm Springs with Ruth and 2 little boys into the small house in Oxford, Mississippi, he found that getting in and out of a bathtub was physically impossible. He solved that problem by making a motorized hoist with a powerful reversing electric drill ordered from the W.W. Grainger catalog.
Soon thereafter, Arthur had installed a showerhead, and then he always took showers. The electric motor sat on a high shelf in his machine shop at home. He had predicted he might need it again, and now it could help him just to get up from bed or transfer to a wheelchair. He blew the dust away. Did it still work? Fortunately, yes. He mounted it with 2-by-4’s and a steel track for lateral movement on the bedroom ceiling. Here you can see the hoist including hooks of bent steel rods, covered by rubber tubing, which held him by the shoulders as the 50-year-old motor lifted or lowered his body. The picture below shows detail of the motor and the gear assembly.
Ruth’s health problems were not as visible, but equally serious. She had to treat a lung problem called bronchiectasis with antibiotics and by lying down with feet above her head on a 20 degree tilted bed for 30 minutes daily – a maneuver that drained the phlegm, led to coughing fits. She called it her daily torture. Her kidneys were attacked by an autoimmune disorder called polyarteritis, which also made her feet numb, requiring steroids.
With the children gone, she had more time to tend to the flowers and shrubs around the house, a lifelong joy and relaxation for her. The clay soil just as stubbornly as ever seemed to prefer weeds to intentional plantings, but that didn’t matter. Perhaps to relieve her numb, tingling feet, she stopped wearing shoes as she gardened.
Ruth developed low grade fever and found lumps in her thighs. An expert at the Medical Center eventually diagnosed the problem as mycobacteria from the soil that can penetrate through minor cuts and cause infection only in people whose resistance has been weakened by steroids. She required 3 antibiotics taken together for years.
After our family moved into the big concrete house in Jackson, Arthur had built the swimming pool mainly for the children. For decades he rarely went swimming himself, but now he needed the exercise. A major challenge was how to get in and out of the pool.
In junior high science class, you learn that a ramp is a simple machine for moving a heavy object up or down. Arthur attached a ramp to a metal chair on wooden risers, leading to the edge of the pool. He would transfer from wheelchair to that chair, then descend the ramp inch by inch. The concrete blocks, which you can see in the photo, were placed in the pool as steps to help him move back up.
As Arthur’s workday decreased to only a few hours, he found time to get into the swimming pool almost every day. He swam long, slow laps. In the shallow end of the pool he could walk without crutches. In this way he could exercise to maximize his remaining muscle strength. It was like returning to Warm Springs after 5 decades.
Arthur blanked out while driving one day. He and Ruth swerved off the road into a field. She had already noticed absence spells, during which he became unresponsive. He denied them at first. Now she insisted, and several children intervened along with her. He gave up driving; Ruth would provide his transportation henceforth.
Arthur needed multiple urologic treatments for a bothersome bladder condition. One day he was standing in the waiting room, because he could not sit in a chair and get up again without help. This time, whether from weakness or falling asleep or experiencing some type of seizure, he fell and fractured his skull. Later another fall and again a skull fracture, signaled by blood behind the eardrum. The diagnosis became partial complex seizures. Then he fell and fractured his hip, requiring surgical hip replacement.
The outcome was clear. He had to give up walking. His seizures were merely absence spells which ordinarily would have passed without loss of postural control. But polio had compromised his ability to stand and walk. The spells he experienced in the wheelchair were benign, but those experienced while standing with crutches threatened his life.
Had polio finally won? Of course not. He had achieved in his life and work far more than he ever could have anticipated. He had crossed the goal line not once, but repeatedly. But what was left?
Arthur continued to take responsibility for home maintenance. He found a handyman and friend in Roland, a black man who lived a few miles away and came reliably to 234 Meadow Road once a week. Roland had mechanical skills. With Arthur’s help he could fix almost anything in the house, including the homemade furnace. He mowed the grass, cleared away dead branches, and generally kept the surrounding meadow and woods from recapturing the yard. What’s more, Roland had an abundance of kindness. He learned our parents’ needs, and he responded by giving them help, conversation, and reassurance through difficult times.
As transfers from chair or bed to wheelchair became more difficult for Arthur, he ordered new motors from W.W. Grainger, and he worked with Roland and once with son Steve to build more hoists. Finally he had a hoist above the side of his bed, one in the bathroom to help him step over the bathtub edge to shower standing up, one above a recliner in the den where he watched television, and one in the carport to lift him from the wheelchair into the right front seat of the minivan. He would not submit to immobilization.
A new theory in medical science states that chronic inflammation anywhere in the body may slowly damage the arteries and perhaps also the brain. Ruth certainly had chronic inflammation from bronchiectasis, polyarteritis, and mycobacteria. Her arteries stayed healthy, but her memory began to falter.
Daughter Jean helped Ruth and Arthur with their finances. They already had an adviser helping them put money into trusts for children and grandchildren, especially the royalties from the physiology textbook. She helped them put it all together, while setting enough aside for them to eat and to pay the utilities and medical bills.
One expense Jean could not control was charitable giving. Ruth kept a lively two-way postal correspondence going with perhaps 30 to 50 foundations. Some of them sent requests for donations every week or two, always including a postage-paid return envelope. She would write a check for $25, enclose it, lick the envelope, and put it in the outgoing mail. On a visit to Jackson I found a stack of requests on Mama’s desk awaiting her attention. There were several duplications; one organization’s identical plea appeared 3 times in the stack. Even when we pointed out the exploitation, Mama resisted any attempt at oversight. She would not stop giving.
Ruth and Arthur followed a constant, familiar routine on weekdays. She drove him to the Medical Center about 10 o’clock in the morning. Often a kind security guard would help her pull the heavy wheelchair from the back of the minivan, help him drop into it, and take him into the building. Sometimes she had to contend with the wheelchair by herself and help him transfer into it. Then she drove home. He used his one good leg and one good arm to trundle himself to the front of the hospital. There he would simply wait. He could not open the heavy glass door, but relied on the kindness of the next good samaritan to help.
Once inside, he managed the hallways and the elevators just fine. He came to his office, where he read and answered his correspondence, sometimes discussed a problem with a student or postdoc, made new revisions on the textbook, and generally worked to keep up with the ongoing research of his protégé John Hall’s department.
He stayed only 3 hours or so. Ruth drove back to pick him up and take him for an afternoon drive, repeated countless times. Almost always they turned west on County Line Road, then north on U.S. Highway 49 often all the way to Pocahontas. Sometimes they stopped at a roadside restaurant there for an early fried catfish dinner. The way home led through rural neighborhoods, past ponds and woods and no more than two stoplights. The countryside had always been their home as much as the house where they slept.
It would be foolish to pretend that these were our parents’ best years. However, as strength and mental capacity diminished, the outline of their will became ever more recognizable. The obstacles they overcame during these years were no less, while their resources were far less, than those at earlier times of life. In difficult times character and will become most visible.
I described the concept of ringbearers in the previous blog. Ringbearers are people who are afflicted, yet who through will and effort strive to gain a normal life. They affirm the value of human life far more powerfully than those who win competitions and attract the spotlight. Frodo the hobbit bore the ring of power which tortured him, sapped his strength, and shortened his life. Even among those who knew him, very few understood the burden he carried. In the end he saved his world of Middle Earth. The concept of ringbearers also includes those who support the afflicted, whether spouses, parents, children, or friends. They are like Frodo’s friend Sam, who once bore the ring himself and near the end carried Frodo, ring and all, up the slope of Mount Doom.
The description fits Ruth and Arthur in their latter years. Once they had been flagbearers leading the parade. Now they became ringbearers quietly carrying on. The reflection of their accomplishments began to fade in the twilight. But the luminescence of their spirit glowed more clearly at that time than ever.
In 2002 Susan and I visited them in Jackson around Christmastime. On weekends they enjoyed getting out to a natural setting, driving northeast along the Natchez Trace Parkway beside the reservoir and the Pearl River. Stocked with their favorite junior bacon cheeseburgers from Burger King, the four of us climbed into the minivan and went for a tour of the Trace. We stopped at the River Bend overlook to eat lunch. They assured us that they were well, but they did so enjoy our company. And how were we doing? What was all the news?
A Japanese physiologist, student of Kiichi Sagawa, while planning a trip to the United States had heard mistakenly that Arthur had died. After reaching Wisconsin and learning of the error, he resolved to try to come to Jackson to meet the great scientist. Would Arthur be willing to meet with him? Of course, the answer was yes. He arrived the day after Christmas. “Johnny, we need to show him a good time,” Daddy told me. He came by taxi to our house. I drove them both on a tour of Jackson – the Medical Center, the Governor’s Mansion, the Old Capitol, the fairgrounds, and the New Capitol. Somehow we ended up on Farrish Street. Our favorite electronics store, Ellington’s, had done a good trade on that street, but Farrish Street in the 1960s and 1970s became famous as a gathering place for the civil rights struggle. I tried to explain to our Japanese guest some of the things that had happened in that part of town. I think it got lost in translation.
We dropped our Japanese visitor off and started for home. Daddy told me he had one more thing to do. He had forgotten to give Roland a Christmas bonus, and he thought it would not be too late. He knew where Roland lived, a cluster of houses in the woods a few miles north of Jackson. Fortunately Roland was home, the gift was delivered, and the two friends had a chance to catch up through the car window about events over the holidays and life in general.
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