It’s Sunday morning, early. I drove in the dark in a light chilly rain to come to the hospital today, a little earlier than I have been arriving. I promised to be home soon enough for the boys to do some duck hunting this afternoon. Greg and the kids had been hanging out together over the long weekend a lot, and I think the little ones are missing me and getting a little restless.
Papa Bill is pretty quiet this morning. He is not as alert as he was yesterday during my visit, and for the first time during this process I am not absolutely certain he knows I am here.
Yesterday (Saturday) was a pretty phenomenal day here at the hospital. Phenomenal might seem to be a strange word, considering the circumstances, but I mean it in the purest and most respectful way. When I arrived yesterday at about 9:00 a.m. Papa Bill had clearly been awake for a while, and he was agitated. Though he doesn’t open his eyes, his face and breathing made it evident that he was alert, and his limbs moved restlessly on the bed. He had kicked his covers completely off, and they were balled in a soft white tangle beside his knees. I spoke to him and put the covers back on, then I sat down next to him and took his hand. He quieted somewhat.
Then he started talking. This was a surprise, as he had not spoken to us since his stroke, and I think the doctor, as well as the family thought he would not be capable of speaking again. His words were somewhat garbled, and I struggled to understand him.
It sounded to me like he was speaking names.
This was not unfamiliar to me, nor unexpected. When my grandfather passed, also in a hospital, he spoke to family members long gone, and reached his hand out toward them. He appeared to answer questions, yes and no, when nobody in the earthly room was talking.
Papa Bill’s behavior was so similar. He was reaching out his hand toward the end of the bed, and though his eyes were closed it was evident he was reaching for something. I asked him if there were people there and he said “uh huh.”
My mother-in-law arrived not long after I had gotten Papa Bill settled, and we talked to him a little more. He said several more words that we couldn’t understand, and said a clear “No” when asked if he had any pain.
I believe that there were others in the room with us; people that we couldn’t see but that Papa Bill could sense. I am convinced that near the end of life our family members come for us, they come to escort us home. It would not be a stretch to say that in fact I think they are often near us, but our everyday level of consciousness doesn’t allow us to perceive them.
Papa Bill is more deeply asleep today, and he is not talking or gesturing. As I’ve sat with him over the past few days, I have thought a lot about him as a person, the man behind the stern façade that not everyone saw through. I thought of the many stories I have heard about him from family members over the years.
I also remembered a few more things myself.
When I was injured in a horseback riding accident in 2005, I ended up in the hospital for more than a week. Papa Bill was one of the first to visit me when I got home. He had made a trip to Costco with my mother-in-law, and brought all sorts of goodies. I remember they hauled bags of stuff into the house, but the two things I remember most were a giant glass jar of three-bean salad, which both Papa Bill and I loved. Secondly, he had baked me a pie. A cherry pie, frozen from the grocery section. He was so proud of that pie, and insisted on getting me a piece of it right away.
Papa Bill came to our house two years ago for Thanksgiving when Winston was just a tiny puppy, barely six weeks old. We had only had the pup for a day, and Papa Bill sat and held that dog for his entire visit, with the exception for a few minutes out to eat. It was an unlikely pairing, but they seemed to really connect.
Papa Bill has a dog too. She is a border collie mix named Sadie. Sadie moved to live with my brother-in-law Mike when Papa Bill moved into his apartment. Mike would bring Sadie over to the apartment to visit on occasion, and Bill always had dog treats in a bag on top of his small fridge for her. In addition to that, he saved half of every sandwich he ordered for lunch in the cafeteria, placing it in a styrofoam container in his freezer. He called those containers “Barf Bags.” The barf bags were saved for Sadie, and periodically Mike would pick them all up and take them home to thaw individually as a treat for the dog. Papa Bill always said he suspected that Mike kept the best sandwiches for himself, and he might have been right.
When he still lived in his house, after his wife Sugarfoot died, Papa Bill would make a trip to Costco once a week. There he would purchase a large beef roast, and on Sunday afternoon he would cook that roast in the crock pot. He would season it with just a smidge of onion soup mix, and when it was done that roast would be not only Sunday dinner for Papa Bill and Sadie, but what they ate all week long until it was Sunday again and time to cook another. He called it the “Dog Roast.”
If the phone rang at Papa Bill’s when you were there, and you were unprepared, it could be quite a shock. I remember the first time I was there visiting, sitting in the comfortable, antique-filled living room and hearing the quiet jangle of the phone. This, of course, was before the days of our pervasive cell service, when people communicated mostly by land line. I barely had time to recognize the ringing as a phone when Papa Bill, who was sitting directly to my left, shouted out in an ear-splitting voice “TELEPHONE!! TELEPHONE”!!!” I nearly jumped out of my seat, it was so loud and unexpected. This was not a new trick for the family, however, and they either rolled their eyes or walked away or looked kind of perturbed. For some reason though, I found it kind of funny, and I laughed out loud. I never heard a phone ring in the presence of Papa Bill that he didn’t announce it loudly to the world, and I laughed every time.
A child of the Great Depression, Papa Bill was frugal to a fault. He wore his clothes until they were absolutely ready for the rag-bag, drove cars until they were more than fully depreciated, and never cared about he looked or how people perceived him.
There was one thing Papa Bill would spend money on, though, gladly, and that was his family. My mother-in-law, Becki, tells many a tale of Bill’s generosity when she was a young wife with little children and little money. She told me of driving to Northern Idaho with her husband Phil, DH’s dad, and their young children, for a visit with Bill and Sugarfoot. For some reason they drove their old International pickup truck, and the tires on the truck were absolutely bald. Papa Bill took one look at the state of the rubber on their wheels and told Phil to take that truck downtown and get some new tires. Charge it to him. He was not going to allow the young family to drive back home over Whitebird Pass with those old tires.
Papa Bill placed a high value on education, and he believed that it changed people’s lives. Becki decided to go back to school when her children were little to get her cosmetology license, giving her a career she could pursue at home while she looked after her young kids. Papa Bill supported her through that endeavor, paying for her parking and uniforms, babysitters and whatever else it took to get her through the program. A few years ago my sister-in-law was interested in going back to school to obtain her masters degree in teaching. Becki describes a lunch she and Shelley had with Papa Bill where Shelley was talking about the research she had done on her graduate program, and though she was excited about the career benefits afforded by the advanced degree she was also trying to figure out how she would afford the cost.
Papa Bill asked how much the program tuition was, then took his wallet out and wrote a check to Shelley for the entire amount on the spot.
That was Papa Bill.
Bill had a serious job, spending the last twenty years of his life as a Magistrate Judge in Idaho, but he still brought some humor to a pretty humorless profession. Greg says he can remember going to visit Papa Bill and Sugarfoot in the summertime and sitting in the courtroom watching the proceedings. His favorite phrase from Bill to his clientele was “Well, son, I hope you brought your toothbrush with you today, because you are going to need it.”
Despite his stern demeanor, Papa Bill had a strong sense of play, and Becki told tales of expensive gifts for the children, things that were far beyond the budget of a young couple with three small kids, but toys that Papa Bill wanted to enjoy with the children. Remote control cars and trucks, and grand battery-operated airplanes were the norm. All of the gifts were given gladly, and enjoyed by the children alongside their grandfather, who would play with them for hours, teaching them how to operate the toys and then delighting in them as much as the youngsters did.
When Sugarfoot was alive and the grandkids were small, she and Papa Bill would orchestrate elaborate Easter egg hunts every year. Together, they created dozens of plastic eggs stuffed with tiny papers, each listing a different prize that was to be retrieved in the dining room after the hunt was over. The eggs were carefully hidden around the large back yard of their south Boise home, and the kids would leave with a huge load of money and toys and candy.
Papa Bill wasn’t above a little horseplay either. Becki tells of formal meals at the dining room table where each roll requested by children was delivered in an overhand throw by Papa Bill. She said the adults would just cringe, but the children loved it. Papa Bill’s mother said he got that habit from his time in the army.
And speaking of food, Papa Bill lived for dessert. It was his favorite part of any meal, and he wasn’t afraid to let you know it. He loved pie, especially Marie Calendar’s Chocolate Satin Pie, and ice cream. Really, he ate anything sweet. He was often heard to say “Let’s get this food out of the way so we can have dessert!” before a meal even started.
Papa Bill loved nicknaming people. After my last blog post I got a message from Bill’s niece Deb (another “by marriage” family member like me) who talked about the nicknames. She said she never got a nickname (I didn’t either) and she never knew if that meant Bill didn’t like her enough or that he liked her too much! He had some creative ones though, and one I am glad I never got was what he sometimes affectionately called his wife. FOG. For Fat Old Girl. Yeah, Deb, maybe we didn’t miss out by not getting nicknames!
Although I have known him only a relatively short time, it is obvious how important Bill has been to this family over the years. His generosity has opened doors in education and careers that might have never been possible without his help, and he has expanded the horizons of every youngster he came into contact with.
What makes this even more notable is the fact that Bill, like me and Deb, is a transplant into this family. He married Greg’s maternal grandmother when they were both forty years old and Greg’s mom and sister were teenagers. From an outsider looking in I have to say that you would never guess that from his actions. He has cared for this family the same as if they had been born to him, and I admire that.
As I finish this blog on Monday morning, Bill is still with us here on earth, but probably for only a short time now. His stroke was one week ago today, and with his usual tenacity he is doing this his own way. Godspeed, Papa Bill.