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Some of Herb’s carved animals

Chapter 29: Herb

Herb and Mary Ellen decided they were too old to manage their dream house, so they sold it and moved to an apartment in a gated community. It enclosed a park, a stream, and a pond that attracted migrating ducks, geese, and other birds. The management provided a regatta of swans. Mary Ellen turned the strip of land around the patio of her apartment into a garden of miniature roses.

Herb bought wood-carving tools and began carving animals, mainly those he’d read about in the Thornton Burgess stories that were serialized in the newspapers he’d fetched for his grandfather some seventy years earlier. But he added some new animals that he’d met on his travels—Pete Pelican and Walter Whale, for instance.

Mary Ellen disapproved of the sex organs he carved on his stags and bulls. He did this partly to tease her, but he was always more of a realist than she was. His simplified animals are graceful. He could feel his way into their shapes. Only once did he try to carve a human figure. It is a nude standing woman. She is off balance, out of proportion, and has a face like an Iroquois mask—or one of Picasso’s Demoiselles. I’m sure it has some psychological significance, but less of that than I first thought. Neither the wood nor the tools Herb was using were what he needed for this particular challenge.

Mary Ellen, too, found the human body intimidating. When I was ten, I found a book in the attic: The Art of Drawing the Nude. I knew better than to ask questions about it. I’d never see it again if I did. I decided that since my mother drew pictures, she had bought the book to learn to draw the human figure. But she never did. She drew faces. Sometimes she ventured as far down as the shoulders. That was it.

One Sunday Herb fainted in church. He recovered right away. But he never went back to church. He wasn’t going to make a spectacle of himself. Nobody was going to have a chance to pity him. Dylan Thomas, in an unfinished elegy, wrote that his father was: “A cold kind man brave in his narrow pride.” So was mine.

In their mideighties, Herb and Mary Ellen moved into a former convention hotel that had been converted to an assisted-living facility. But Mary Ellen insisted on having an apartment on the ground floor so that she could have her little rose garden outside the windows. While she puttered with her roses, Herb lay on the couch in his den and watched the animal shows on PBS.

He and Mary Ellen grew feebler every year, but continued to assert their self-reliance. This did not make sense to their children. But it did not “make sense” to them to continue living if they were “useless”—i.e., no longer self-reliant—and since they were in no hurry to die, they continued to insist on their self-reliance.

This was folly, but sometimes folly can be mysteriously admirable. Shortly after Herb turned 90, he got up one night to go to the bathroom and fell beside his bed. Unable to get up, he called for Mary Ellen. She got up to help him and fell on top of him. Then they discovered neither one of them could get up.

“Mother,” I asked, “what did you do?”

“Oh, we’d go to sleep. Then we’d wake up and try again and laugh some more.”

“But why didn’t you crawl over to the wall and pull the emergency cord so somebody could come help you? That’s why you live in a place like this.”

“Oh, we didn’t want to bother anyone.”

And they didn’t want anyone bothering them—especially their children, and especially about money or the past.

One night I was sitting with Herb while he watched television. I was reading. I heard him blurt, “Well if that’s child abuse, I guess I was abused.”

Since I hadn’t been paying attention to the program, I didn’t know what triggered that remark. I asked. But he wouldn’t answer.

The second floor of their high-rise retirement community was set aside for the infirm elderly. When a husband or a wife needed the help of practical nurses, the couple could give up their apartment and move to rooms on the second floor to get the assistance they needed. That way they could stay together instead of one of them having to go off to a nursing home. But when Herb needed that kind of help, Mary Ellen panicked. She didn’t want to give up her small rose garden, so she sent him “upstairs” alone. This put them at the expense of two apartments.

She visited him every day but left it to the practical nurses to look after him, and she refused to think about his deteriorating condition. When he needed more care than the practical nurses could provide, she didn’t know what to do. It was clear he would have to be moved to a nursing home, but she was apprehensive about the cost. We suggested she could move to a one-bedroom apartment. Then she would be able to spend more money on Herb. She agreed but could never bring herself to move. The nursing home she finally chose for him was too far away for her to visit easily and less pleasant than she would have wanted for herself. But she assured me, “It don’t matter. He can’t tell the difference.”

When my brother and his family went to see him, they found he had a one-legged roommate with Tourette’s syndrome. The man’s curses frightened my brother’s wife and daughter right out of the room. My brother asked Dad if he would like a room by himself. He said, no, that he was “glad for the company.”

The last time I saw him we didn’t talk much. He was worried about missing lunch. But before I left, he leaned towards me in his wheelchair and said weakly, “You just can’t figure it.” Maybe he meant that a person can’t “figure” how long he will live, but at the time I took it for a comment about life in general.

When Herb was moved to a hospital, my sister was in Kansas City visiting her daughter. With her father dying. and her mother having reached the age of 92, she thought she could finally be useful. But Mother wouldn’t talk to her about “it.” Nor would she go to the hospital with her. It was too cold. Too windy. Or her angina was acting up. My sister tried to talk her into moving into a smaller apartment. Mother wouldn’t consider it. Said it didn’t make sense to move while Herb was “unsettled.” Translation: “If he dies, I won’t have to move.”

My sister phoned me and my brother to tell us Herb was in a coma. The doctors wanted to know if they should start feeding him with a feeding tube. Herb had given us a document saying he didn’t want heroic measures taken to prolong his life. Was feeding him a heroic measure? My sister said the doctors told her that if we directed them to start feeding him, we couldn’t change our minds later.

I wished I knew those doctors, wished I could talk to them and size them up. I wished that Herb hadn’t had to spend his last days in a nursing home and now in a hospital, being cared for by people who had no idea who he was or what he’d accomplished. I wished there was someone to blame—for something.

We decided not to have him fed—to let him die, in other words. My sister said he looked comfortable but wasn’t conscious. The nurses moistened his lips and kept him clean. They told her we had made the right decision. I hope so. He took longer to die than I expected.

After Herb’s funeral, a young friend of mine told me it was too bad that my father couldn’t die “with dignity.” He said that when he was old he was going to “take care of himself.” If I’d been up to it, I’d have asked him if he thought his own parents ought to “take care of themselves” so he wouldn’t have to “take care of them.” But I was too tired to be sarcastic.