It’s weeks like this when I wish my dad was just a phone call away. He was everyone’s mechanic. I used to be able to call him up and tell him what noise or weird thing was happening with my car and he would ask a few follow up questions and be able to diagnosis the problem in a few short minutes. And if he was nearby, he’d take a look at it for me. Even the month leading up to his death, he was still trying to get under the hoods of cars and fix them, though with obvious limitations.
Four years will have gone by this month since my dad died. I have to resort to hopping from one mechanic shop to the next till they figure it out and take all my money. But what am I really missing? My dad was more than a mechanic. He was a person that devoted his entire life to loving God and loving people. The thing that I miss the most is his absence from our lives. My kids were just 7, 6, and 4 years old when he died. They barely remember him. It seems like they just know the stories about him, you know the ones that get told year after year. And perhaps those stories can still make a difference in their lives, albeit, not like he would have if he were still here, like he did for so many people. It was him who planted a love for story telling in me.
Which brings me to this month’s short story. Some of you may already have read it but I hope you might read it again. Too Soon was an assignment for a creative writing class. The prompt was “Seven days ago . . . Now nobody will talk to me.” I struggled with this prompt. Up to that point in my writing, I don’t think I ever wrote something in the first person (journaling doesn’t count). Beyond that, every idea I had about what could happen in order to make no one talk to me just seemed out of my reach or not realistic enough. When I finally thought of my dad, I knew this was the story I had to tell. I changed the names in the story because although it is based on real events in my dad’s life, some of it is just a story. And of course people still talked to him, just not everyone.
by J. L. Guyer
Seven days ago, I lost my strength to walk. Now nobody will talk to me. At least nobody that isn’t related to me or a friend from my past. I wanted to come to church this morning, so my wonderful wife put the ergo chair in the car and wheeled me out. Even though she is a foot shorter than me, she was able to help me get from the wheelchair to the car. And then from the car back to the wheelchair.
“Good morning, Sheryl. How are you today?” the woman standing next to us in the pew shook Sheryl’s hand.
“Good Morning,” Sheryl graciously replied. “I’m glad my husband, John, was feeling well enough to come this morning.”
And so the conversations went. The people greeted my wife again and again but no one said hello to me. Except Sheryl. She bent down to my level and said, “I am so glad you are here today, John.”
It is hard for me to respond. But I make an effort, “Thank . . . you. . . It is . . .good. . .to be here.” My voice came out barely audible, but enough for her to hear. Even smiling takes a lot of concentration now. I do not blame them for avoiding me. Most just do not know what to say. Even my kids have a hard time knowing what to say although they do make an effort. I can see it in their eyes. They want to talk to me about my impending death, but I don’t want to talk about it. I find something else to talk about and they don’t fight me.
It started on a crisp October morning when I tried to lift my coffee cup up to the microwave but I couldn’t do it, that was when I realized something was terribly wrong. At least, when I couldn’t ignore the changes happening to me. How come I didn’t have the strength? I knew it was getting harder for me to go on hikes with my wife but I attributed it to just being out of shape or not being used to the high elevation, having moved to Flagstaff five months prior. Often I would just sit at home and take naps. Having the grand-kids over wore me out. Sheryl kept asking me, “When would be a good time for the kids to come over?” or “Do you want to go for a hike?” I just couldn’t handle it. So, I scheduled an appointment with the VA doctor in town. Boy was that a lot of work. Being new to town made it ten times harder to get an appointment. I had to transfer my VA membership to the new state. I don’t know how many phone calls I had to make. How many times I had to fight for the tests the doctor wanted me to have and then only to find them all negative. The only thing left was to schedule an appointment with the neurologist and he didn’t have an opening till February, four months away.
When Christmas came, I wanted Sheryl to be able to enjoy playing her favorite hymns whenever she wanted. I found a keyboard online and went to pick it up. Joe lifted one side and I got the other. As I backed down the stairs, I tripped and fell. I got back up and finished the job. How my back hurt! I don’t believe in masking the pain with pain medicine. So, I gritted my teeth and bore through it. Finally, by day three, I was still in so much pain that I went to the ER. That was probably the best thing that happened to me even though it confirmed I broke my back. It was the doctor there who was able to pull the right strings. He got approval from the VA and scheduled an appointment for the next week at the Mayo Clinic.
From that moment on, if I wasn’t at the doctor’s office, taking tests, or on the phone with the VA waiting for everything to be approved, I was resting at home and trying to see friends and family whenever I had the strength. It seemed like I was losing strength somewhere new every day. One day it would be in my left arm. The next it would be in my ankle. It seemed as if I needed more help every day. By the time the VA approved and ordered my ankle brace, I needed a wheelchair. My wheelchair arrived seven days ago. People look at me different now or avoid looking at me entirely. It’s as if I don’t exist anymore.
I miss talking with people, and hanging out. They used to come to me for advise. Now, at a new church, it has been really hard to be involved in people’s lives. You’d think after a year of attending this church we’d have developed friendships with more than just two people. But it takes time for new friendships to develop and I have been too tired and just as busy as the others to really make headway. Oh, they’ve been friendly, that is until my diagnosis came through. Then they showed sympathy and then I was confined to a wheelchair and I’m just another piece of furniture.
It was halfway through March when we finally received our diagnosis. We drove down to Phoenix for the latest test results. We zoomed out of the pine trees, and entered the juniper bushes which continued to decrease in size the further we went. I dozed. When I woke, we were passing saguaro cacti on either side. More and more cars surrounded us as we drove to the Mayo Clinic. Sheryl parked the car and got out my wheelchair. We ambled up the ramp and into the pristine waiting room.
“John Weaver,” the nurse called my name. Sheryl pushed me over and we followed her down the hallway. She held the door open for us and we entered. Shortly after that, 5 doctors all with specialty areas came into the room to talk.
“John, Sheryl, it looks like John has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. The good news is the VA will cover everything you need from here on out. The worst case scenario is that you will have 2 or 3 months left. There is no cure, although we do have some experiments, for those who qualify, to try if you like.”
The next day Sheryl quit her job to stay home with me. I did my best to not be a burden. But no matter how hard I tried, she still had to help me go to the bathroom and take a shower. I stay in bed or in my chair for hours just so I don’t have to ask Sheryl for help. I worry about her. How will she get on without me? I want to make it as easy as possible for her now that I know I don’t have much time left.
I feel weaker every day. The more I try to do, the less I am able to do. The treatments the doctors gave me made me feel worse. All my food tastes metallic and rotten. It takes all my strength to eat what a baby would eat. I can feel the weight leaving my body. I know my time is near the end. Sheryl is in denial. She keeps planning things for a month from now. I know I’ll never make it that long. It’s my own fault I didn’t talk about the possibility of dying sooner. Maybe tomorrow we’ll talk again like we used to.
My dad was diagnosed mid-march and died one month later. I’m glad it wasn’t drawn out like ALS is prone to be. I’m glad he was able to talk on his last day, that his tongue muscle was still working and that his mind was unaffected by the disease. I’m glad for the birthday party we shared with him on his last day with us. Though, he died too soon (for who can say that any death isn’t too soon), I am glad he is no longer in pain, that he is in heaven with his Lord Jesus Christ.
If you would like to see a slide show of his life, click here: Too Soon. The hymn is one he requested to have at his funeral.