Thursday, August 2, 2007

ABOUT A SWEET LADY

How fortunate I am to be able to dance on the mountain tops with an iron horse, where the road touches the sky and seems to leave the earth. How fortunate indeed!
The model "A" John Deere tractor trundled across the hay field pulling an old hay baler that would push out a rectangular bale of hay every minute. The heavy bale would fall off a chute that protruded out the rear of the baler. Another John Deere tractor slowly made it's way around the hay field pulling a huge wooden wagon. It would slow to a near stop by each fallen bale of hay while a farm hand would grasp the twine that held the bale together and heave it up into the wagon. Another hand working in the wagon would place the bale neatly in the wagon bed to maximise the load. Loaded wagons of hay would be towed to a large red barn and either pushed or backed in by yet another tractor. Inside, two other men would work to unload and stack the bails into a large containment within the barn called a hay mow. It was strenuous, hot work done by hearty people. As my school bus pulled up in front of our farm house, I could see that my mother and aunt had four long picnic tables set up in the front yard with a warehouse of food set upon them to feed all the hungry men who would soon stop their field labors and descend on the prepared feast. It would rain this night and it was imperative that all the hay was bailed and put under roof. I jumped out of the bus and immediately ran to the wagon that was gathering the hay bales. I would do my part. Such as it was on this day in August of 1964. I was seventeen years old and a senior at East Huntingdon High School.
The men in the field were neighboring farmers and the ladies preparing the dinner on the lawn were my mother, aunt and her daughter. The whole affair was a communal thing. People helped each other out without asking. My dad and uncle simply started making hay and the others just appeared to help. My mother and aunt saw the situation and reacted with an all out effort to feed the hungry men.
These routines were reenacted countless times over the years until the farm could no longer prosper. I went off to war and returned to jobs in industry, and even tried a few years at owning a business. Mom and dad both passed on in the eighties leaving only my aunt. Two families were raised in the big farm house. My dad and mom raised me and dad's brother, my uncle, and his wife, Josephine, raised a son and daughter. I view these people as the last of a vanishing breed. Now in 2007, only one remains. My Aunt Josephine Taylor Loucks. She has been a pillar of strength to the family all these years. She shared the farm work load with my mother during those farm years. She nursed her husband through his losing fight with cancer and then again was nurse and keeper to my mother through her battle with lung cancer. When my dad lost both his legs to pernicious anemia she was there again. Lucky Strike; dad thanks you. So does mom. She breathed his second hand smoke. She somehow always managed a smile and her flashing eyes were always bright and saw only the good things in folks. Wash clothes, cook, can vegetables, clean house and nurse sick people is all she has known. In later years she retired to a small house located on a piece of farm property near her daughter. Then moved again a few years ago, due to age issues, into her daughter's home. I had moved to Tennessee in 2004 in search of country living. At least that's the reason I give. Pennsylvania was filling up and home didn't feel like home anymore since the farm was split apart and sold. This was the course of things that lead up to the present time in 2007.
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The big yellow motorcycle crosses the Tennessee/Kentucky line cutting its way up interstate 75 North in a steady rain. I would normally go to Pennsylvania via interstate 81 North to Interstate 79 North and on through West Virginia to Pennsylvania. A check with the weather on Wednesday morning indicated that strong storm fronts were moving up those interstates all the way to Morgantown, West Virginia. I opted to drive an extra one hundred miles on my new route to avoid the agony of driving five hundred miles through interstate rain at seventy miles per hour.
I normally would not start a trip in such obviously foul weather but I received a call from Stella, Aunt Josephine's daughter in Pennsylvania, that things weren't good. When I questioned her more thoroughly she indicated that Aunt Josephine was gravely ill and would not be with us for long. Aunt Josephine is 95 years old and suffering with cancer. She had been placed in a nursing home because her daughter could not offer the care any longer that her mother required. I told her I would be right there. I threw some clothes in the big Harley and left the next morning for Pennsylvania. Six hundred and eighty miles later I arrived at Stella's house in Scottdale, Pennsylvania the same day. I drove without stopping for anything but gasoline. I was tired and worn out. The following morning we drove to the nursing home to visit Aunt Josephine. I didn't drive all this way to watch her die. I drove here to let her see me. I wanted her to know I cared enough to pull all the stops out to get here for "her". She is 95 years old, deaf and almost blind. Last year she was strong as a horse. I couldn't believe she or anyone could deteriorate so quickly.
We entered the nursing home through a service door in the back of the building. Doors were open to patient rooms and we could see into the rooms as we walked down the halls. The sights I saw sickened me. I became instantly depressed and nauseated. As we walked I noticed a lady on a bed in the room to my right lying on her back with a pillow under her shoulders. Her head was tilted back, her mouth open. Her hands were clasped together on her stomach and bound at the wrists with a nylon strap. Her eyes were wide open and staring unmoving at the ceiling. She appeared dead accept for the shallow rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. Her long silver hair was pulled down along the left side of her head and rested on her shoulder. To my left, another room contained an aged occupant on a bed with her left leg protruding out from under the white sheet that covered most of her. Her foot was deformed by arthritis and the slender fingers on her hands were bent in all directions. A surgical mask covered her nose and mouth. With eyes closed she lay as if dead, unmoving. Other rooms contained more aged folks, most women, in a state of what appeared near death. They all were totally helpless, totally unable to do anything without assistance. I was sickened. The reality hit me hard. They were all awaiting death. That is all that remains for these aged folks. This was the last stop before they would be no more. All that was left for them in this life was to die. Each would have to let go of it all in their own way and find relief from the misery of old age and the burdon of uselessness. It became extremely difficult for me to realize that my Aunt Josephine was here. She also was waiting. The strong lady with the laughing eyes and smiling face that I remember was now residing in death's waiting room. We rounded a corner and entered room number 115. The first bed closest to the door contained an aged lady with dishevelled long silver hair. Her eyes closed; she was peacefully sleeping away the day. The next bed held my Aunt. She was sitting up in bed with a pillow behind her back. A sheet covered her legs from her ankles to her waist. She wore pajamas tops. She was very thin. The cancer was working its despicable magic on her body. I approached the bed expecting her to throw her arms out to me as she has always done through the years. Instead she looked at me and said "is the snow laying?" Then "its a nice Christmas Tree isn't it?"; as she pointed toward the wall at the left side of the bed. She could not recognize me. I leaned close to her right ear and said "I'm Gary". "I came to see you." She replied "oh yes, I see." "Is it still snowing?" A tear fell from my eye as I leaned down to her and kissed her forehead. I felt many emotions simultaneously. I felt love for her, anger at the cancer and anger that I wasn't here a day sooner when she was lucid. I was in disbelief that this wonderful farm woman I knew all my life was reduced to this helpless miserable state. Her thin body barely made bumps under the sheet that covered her. She was in a fight for her life and she wanted to lose. An overwhelming feeling of sadness came over me. There was no dignity in dying like this. No dignity what so ever. She looked straight at my face and did not know me. She practically raised me. She would stare at me for ten seconds and look another direction and comment on the recent snow fall. Soon she would look left and right and babble about occurrences from the distant past associated with the farm. This babbling was very coherent. She spoke definitively about things in the past. Nothing of the present. A nurse brought in food which she refused to eat. It has been four days since she has touched food. She was ready for the inevitable. It is plain she will not delay her final sleep by eating. She wants this misery to end. The combination of nutrient deprivation and the advancement of death''s disciple, cancer, will surely end her life soon. I am sickened by this situation. Better to fall asleep and not awaken than to undergo this miserable existence. She babbled on and still did not recognize me. I leaned and kissed her forehead and left the room as quickly as I could. The place reeked of misery and death. I needed out. Now! It was closing in on me. Once outside I would feel better. Those poor people in death's closet! They laughed and cried, they raised families, fought wars, defended their families and worked hard all their lives. They now are reduced to a state of aged, crippled human beings with very limited movement and less than limited thought process totally dependent on the system to keep them in limbo until they expire. It makes me think about and wonder why we humans continually try to find new ways to extend the human life span. Why? There may even be dollars associated with the extension of useless human life. Too political. Not here.
Sunday. I told Stella I would meet her at the nursing home at 1:30PM. I needed to feel the wind on my face and experience the "aloneness" that a motorcycle offers. I headed for Bridgeport Dam. It is a small lake that I used to fish on as a kid growing up. The area has been renovated with the addition of tables and benches all over the lawns. It is a small lake and compared to Tennessee lakes, a pond. The usual piles of trash are strewn about by non caring Saturday night, partying teenagers and visitors. It seems that the nicer these natural spots are made, the more trash and garbage that appears. It must be some internal desire for individual humans to contribute their own personalized efforts to add to the destruction of the planet. On the positive side of it; clean up crews have job security.
This may be my last visit to the nursing home and the last time I see my aunt alive. As I said before; I came here to see her and have her know I made the effort to be with her in her time of need. But she does not recognize me or her own daughter. It seems useless to continually visit that building that houses torment and pain. The atmosphere there is dismal. There are no smiles or laughter. Bells and buzzers cause nurses to jump and run to multiple emergencies that are occurring in the many rooms. Ancient looking women are made to rise from their wheel chairs or beds and forced to cling to walkers. They shuffle along an inch at a time. I'm told this prevents bed sores. Yes, it is a dismal place to visit. I can only imagine how the in- patients feel about it; that is to say the ones who can see and think at all. Yes I am repulsed by what I see. But Aunt Josephine must endure it day and night. How ridiculous and selfish I feel about my petty feelings! I am a visitor and can leave. She is awaiting her final moment - her release - her total freedom. I'm concerned about my personal discomfort. I'm ashamed of my self for it.
I guess I feel this way because I love her. She is the last of her unique kind. She has represented family history all these years. She is the last of the farm people. The old farm never really disappeared from my mind as long as she was here. When she is gone farm memories will truly be just memories and she will be relegated to one of those precious memories. I could be a coward and ride off from all this, but I love my Aunt. I miss this sweetest of ladies even though she doesn't remember me. It is a terrible truth.
Sunday - Something was very different as we entered the room. Aunt Josephine was lying in bed quite still. Normally she is sitting up in bed or in a chair. She is also usually very vocal. Her eyes were closed but would occasionally flutter open and hold a vacant stare at some invisible object, only to close again. The rise and fall of her chest under the sheet seemed normal and steady. At times her face would contort or she would grimace with pain. The cancer was obviously helping her reach her final goal. A nurse was called and a strong narcotic was administered orally through an eye dropper. The small lady on the bed instantly relaxed and turned her head to the side. Her breathing appeared more shallow and she seemed to have found peace from the woes that ravaged her body. I leaned close to her face and laid my hand on her forehead and leaned close to her ear and said "I have loved you as if you were my mother, sweet lady, but never more than this moment". "I hope your journey is swift. Farewell to you". I kissed her cheek.
Tuesday - 7-31-07 - It is time to leave Pennsylvania. There is nothing more I can do here. My Aunt Josephine has not given in to the reaper yet and I must give in to time constraints. I still work to make ends sort of meet. A family relation drove in yesterday from Ohio and will stay with my cousin Stella for awhile. I feel better about that. It will not be long now. Soon, very soon, all will be at peace here. A great lady will pass into family history and become a memory. She lived a gracious, full life and gave and gave to so many. She will be missed by many. I will miss her, my second mother.
As I carry things to the bike in preparation for departure; I turn and look toward the old farm one last time. A vision of them all comes to mind. They are all still there. All I need do is care enough and I can envision them all and hear them speak. "Good by Aunt Josephine". "I gotta catch the bus for school". "OK, get going. Don't forget to take your lunch bag". "It's there on the kitchen table". "Come straight here tonight. Your mother wants you to get a hair cut right after school". "Yep, I will". See ya later Aunt Jo. Yep; later.....
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It's the house I grew up in. The roof is original slate to this day. It is well over a hundred and twenty five years old. Probably more like a hundred and forty. It still has the granite window headers and sills. I see the owners have kept the original wooden sashes. Maybe they had new ones made. When I lived there the window glass was distorted and wavy. That's how they made them in those days. Two families lived here and worked the farm. My dad and mom and his brother (my uncle) and his wife. My folks obviously raised me and my uncle and aunt raised a son and a daughter. It was a wonderful time in life. Just wonderful!
The concrete drive and the metal roof are only a year old. The old home place changed hands and the new owners opted to get rid of the gravel drive and the tar paper roof. Oh well-------
This is the old farm barn. It was a hundred years old when I was in high school. And it's still there. The silo came along in the sixties. The whole thing has been renovated on the inside but the original timbers still are holding it up. The boards on the outside are the same ones my dad and uncle nailed on before I was born in 1946.
This is the place where I wrote the story about my experiences in Pennsylvania on this trip. It is called Bridgeport Lake. A pond by Tennessee standards for sure. But it is quiet and pretty. I could think here.
Can't buy a decent hot dog in Tennessee. Bob and I both love hot dogs. Look what we found while driving through West Virginia. Yum!
A welcome site when one drives up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. No rain today.
At last. We are on the most fantastic road in America. It will take us back to Tennessee.
In the old days this Howard Johnson Restaurant was a booming place. There used to be an enormous hotel behind it that has been torn down. It was a stopping place for us when we would either ride down the Skyline Drive from Front Royal, Virginia or up the Blue Ridge Parkway North from Cherokee, North Carolina. But it's just memories now. Skyline drive ends and Blue Ridge Parkway starts South just up past the Ho Jo's about five hundred more feet.
This is my friend Bob who lives here in Tennessee. He rode the Blue Ridge Parkway back with me on this trip. He had his hands full with me as I was less than a perfect riding companion. I had a lot on my mind. But he's a great guy and the Blue Ridge Parkway is a great place to air out the inner brain cavity. The motorcycle is a 2000 BMW K1200 RS.
On the edge of the world
This is Mabry Mill. It is the most photographed item on the parkway. There are calendars designed in Holland and Germany that have this picture in them
Wow! Check out that view. And they get better and better the farther up you go on the parkway
One can see forever up here on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Tuggles Gap Hotel. I'm working up the nerve to stay there again. Read below.
Tuggles Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The hotel appears to be renovated. A close friend and I stayed here back in 2003 I believe it was. We thought Pumpkin Head haunted it. We tried to stay but left in a rush around 11:00PM. I ran out the door and jumped on the bike and forgot to put my shoes on I was in such a rush. It was a scary place back then.