The Reverend Carl Wrenn Haley Nov 27 1912/Sept 30/2008

Posted by on Sep 7, 2008 in Father in law | 0 comments

This morning I turn through the pages of the two books my father in law presented to us for Christmas 1997, his labor of love for his children and grandchildren. They are bound, but printed on one side only, stuffed with afterthoughts of memorabilia and pictures of varying qualities, some blurs of what must be people, others brilliant and vivid. The endearing, frustrating, overriding impression of the book is the mish mash of truth and fiction, history written from an egocentric and narrow point of view. It is however the unwavering vision of a man of God, one whose faith sustained him through many dark times. As far as I know, none of his flesh and blood have given more than a cursory look at the volumes, but my curiosity drove me directly to read non stop for many days.

I try to reconcile the man who lives on these pages with the frail shell I saw when we entered his room yesterday at the Methodist home in Roanoke. His appearance is shocking, mouth agape and gasping for air, eyes open, unblinking, but seeing nothing as far as I could tell. Margaret, his wife of 45 years, snores in the chair beside him. I step out to the nurse’s station through the line up of wheelchairs. I speak my hellos to the occupants but they all stare west to end of the hall like they are awaiting the second coming. I introduce myself to a cheerful woman and ask her if Mr. Haley is awake. She walks back with us, perhaps thinking him already dead, and seems relieved to assure me that all is well. Every instinct tells me that the man has fled but is hovering nearby; waiting for us to come so he can move on. I arrange chairs close to his bedside and encourage my reluctant husband to sit. Margaret is having trouble with her hearing aide, so we screech a conversation across the room as loud and as accurate as cannon ball shots, rarely connecting with a target, and often wounding innocent bystanders

Realizing my husband’s discomfort I suggest he go to the car and get the memory chip he has brought to fix Margaret’s computer. He comes back shortly smelling of cigarette smoke and takes her down the hall to her room. I turn to the faded remembrance of a man and start to talk to him. I try to hold his hand but he is posturing, lifting his arms suddenly into the air and dropping them, looking for all intents like he is emphasizing a point in a sermon. I start to sing his favorite hymn. “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where you ought to be, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, it will be in the valley of love and delight.” I stumble over the words of the refrain but get the part where “turn, turn, will be our delight, til by turning, turning, we come out right.” It’s a sweet tune, one of the few where I like the music more than the words. Finished, I start on one we both know, Amazing Grace.

It is an easy song for every voice, the octave range narrow. It sounds sweet in the room and his breathing calms a little. I adjust his pillow and find he is damp with sweat. Lifting his head eases his breathing, but he pushes back against my hand as if he were uncomfortable. I go back to singing. “Will the circle be unbroken”, “I’ll fly away”, “A child of the king”, “Just as I am”; I dig deep back into my Baptist roots for all the words. “I come to the garden alone”, “the Old Rugged Cross”, “My eternal home”; I sing for over an hour and between times I talk to him. I tell him I love him. I kiss the baldhead, the stubbly cheek. I tell him it’s okay to go now, that his struggle is over, that we will watch over Margaret. Facing death I become a believer, or rather I suspend my disbelief and I ask him to say hello to my mother, my father. I remind him of the glorious reunion he will have soon with his beloved Eva, the mother of his children, and with Russell, the son who died in 1967, his father and mother, the three brothers and one sister that went before him. I want it to be true.

His minister comes by and finds me dry eyed and singing. He speaks a few words and tears start trailing down my cheek. I tell him about the letter Pop wrote me when my mother died and how it touched my heart. It was not written by the minister but by the real human being that lived inside my father in law. With that letter I realized for the first time I loved him and that he loved me. The kind pastor leaves me and I go back to singing, digging around in my brain I come up with “Circuit Rider”, the song about a minister at the turn of the century riding his horse through the night, bringing the church to the people in the hills, just as Pop’s own father did in the early days of his ministry. Old gospel hymns long forgotten spring to my lips, “I am weary, let me rest”, “Carry me off on your snow white wings”, “Life is like a Mountain Railroad”, “Far side banks of Jordon”, I don’t know all the titles, just the words learned in revival meetings in my childhood.

My husband and Margaret come back into the room and he smiles and kisses me and tells me he heard me singing when he was coming down the hall. Margaret’s dinner is here and she sits and eats. Neither Wrenn nor I have had anything substantial since breakfast so I decide to go pick up something. The phone call comes while I’m in line at Kroger. “He’s left.” No drama, just one breath he was here and then he stopped. My husband says Margaret talked through it and he had to yell the news across the room. When I come back my eyes go first to the body , skin as yellow as a spring jonquil, mouth still open, but no struggle, only stillness. Margaret is still eating dinner. I hug my husband and kiss Pop a last goodbye. We chat for a while and I go over to sit on the bed beside Margaret. Her face is flushed and she cries as she eats the chocolate cookie from her tray. I put my arm around her and tell her she is not alone. I tell her I love her. In that moment I’m not lying. She is as frail as mortals come, argumentative and always contentious, but I am mortal too and have no stones left to throw.

After an hour the nurse arrives to pronounce him, kisses us all, and tells him to rest in peace. Then the funeral home comes with a red velour covered gurney and the kind man in a suit puts a pillow under Pop’s head after he moves him, a sweet touch my husband appreciates. Then, there in the empty room surrounded by the stench of death, Margaret tests my resolve to be kind by deciding everything must be moved out this evening to prevent people from stealing. I puzzle over who would want his underwear and socks, his old man sweaters, his jaunty hats, the last of a tube of toothpaste, the stacks of adult diapers sorted in plastic bags and labeled with a jagged cursive “size medium”, “extra absorbent”, “too small”, but I pack them uncomplaining. She tells me I walk too fast as we go down the hall at a snails pace. I slow down to accommodate her walker.

At 8:30 when we stop at Sheets for food and gas Pop has been dead two hours and forty minutes. All the relatives have been called by myself or my husband, the obit written 20 years ago by Pop has been located on the computer, and Margaret sits alone in a 12 by 12 room surrounded by boxes and bags and a lifetime of memories. It is midnight when we arrive home, and worn from the day I have the blessed relief of sleep. I hear the insomniacs, my husband and my daughter, talking loudly and laughing in the kitchen around 4 am. It is their time like the morning is mine, and tomorrow will be here soon enough, so peacefully, I go back to sleep.

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