“There is often a good deal of the child left in people who have had to grow up too soon.” Willa Cather
He’s napping this afternoon. It’s been three and a half weeks since the unexpected, seven-hour quadruple bypass surgery. I had stretched out beside him on the edge of the hospital bed that morning, an hour before he was scheduled to be taken down for prep. He was calm but quiet, just waiting for what was to come. Even with all the antiseptic scrubbing, he still smelled right. I asked him, “You know how hard this is going to be . . . they’ve told you, the doctors. Do you want to do it? Go through all that is ahead . . . for more time with all of us?” He kept his cheek against my forehead and nodded. He’ll be eighty this spring. Then, a soft “Yes.” That’s all. We were alone and the choice was his.
We walk behind his bed as the nurse rolls him down the long halls to surgery. She leaves us with him in a holding area, his two sons, a daughter-in-law, and me. The boys are telling stories, keeping it light. Each one has had a few minutes alone with him back in the room. The anesthesiologist comes by and greets him heartily, full white beard masked. “This is the Big Kahuna, Rex. The biggest surgery you can have. It’s going to be hard, but I’m going to be right there with you and I’ll be the first face you see on the other side.” Rex asks, “Are you any good at this?” “I am. Thirty years.”
Seeing him in Intensive Care eight hours later, reveals just how thin that veil between is. Only the lighted screens prove he has made it through. The nurses ignore us as they perform each critical task for the next hour. He is still intubated when we leave him for the night. But we have seen him.
I think of all that body of his has handled since he was a boy. The oldest of four brothers, he often had the responsibility of caring for and protecting his younger brothers. They were kids on construction jobs, athletes who excelled in football and wrestling to put off going home. He was accepted into college on the recommendation of his high school wrestling coach who said, “He can do it. Give him a chance.” He found a home and family at Milligan College, Tennessee and stayed a fifth year because he didn’t want to leave.
We’d only had two dates when he said, “I’ve prayed for you for two years.” I believed him. And I knew when I looked in his eyes that there were certain things I would never be able to say to this man, even if they were warranted. He was twenty-six, the Head Wrestling Coach at the University of Georgia. I had just turned twenty. It was November. Six months later we married in the Baptist Chapel on campus, wedding cake and pastel mints in the basement. I changed from my ivory satin, Juliette wedding gown into a celery green silk, sixties-short dress and we drove away into the Georgia countryside, cans bouncing noisily behind us. I remember thinking with heart bursting, “I never have to leave this man again.” We stopped at an old country store where a man in a heavy apron cut us a wedge of cheddar and slices of salami from the board on the counter. We were headed to Florida for our five-day honeymoon in Panama City.
We had our babies early. Our firstborn arriving the night before my twenty-second Birthday, a ten-pound, 3-ounce boy. Thirteen months later, his sister. Three years later, a baby brother. From the first to the last, he rose in the night at first snuffle or whimper, changed the diaper and brought him or her swaddled to the bed for nursing, then burped and cooed and tucked them back in the crib. He supervised toddler baths after work while I cooked dinner, styled baby-fine hair with a brush and light hair dryer as they sat on the counter. They were and are the joy of his heart. The beautiful thing is that he gave them everything he never had.
He’s a kidder, a sarcastic tells-the-truth-but-they-think-he-must-be-kidding kind of entertainer. He loves people. I don’t think we’ve ever visited Costco without him loading a woman’s groceries into her car, volunteering to take a cart back, or giving unsolicited advice on the quality of various products. His work is his play. One summer during a family reunion here at the lake a grown nephew was chuckling after following his uncle around as he worked and entertained him, and he said to me, “I don’t know what it is, but you always feel better about yourself after talking to Uncle Rex.”
We’ve spent more than fifty years together, working, building, experiencing losses, rebuilding, serving, loving . . . with no regrets. He would make the same choices and sacrifices for the same reasons if he could do it all again. And no, he’s not perfect, but I have honored those first truths I “knew” in my heart all those years ago . . . even in moments of frustration or hurt. To be fair, I have said, a time or two, “You’re just lucky you still smell right.” I’ve told my children in hard moments in their lives, “Love always wins.” And yes, I believe that is true. Love redeems, holds, heals, reshapes, and creates something new and strong . . . but it doesn’t take away the scars. After all these years of loving with my whole heart, after all of his accomplishments, the respect and love of his children and grandchildren, family and friends, there is still deep down the mark of the wounded little boy. Somehow that is a profound truth to me, one that carries an imperative with it.
These recovery days are hard and slow when you’re used to being active. When the physical therapist asks him what his goals are, he says, “I want to get back outside, chop wood, move rocks . . .” No doubt that will happen, but as she reminds him, it will take time. He walks his circles through the cabin. I put a roast in the oven for dinner. The snow slides from the roof. The fogs settles over the frozen bay . . . and evening comes.
I feel the touch of hands so kind and tender They're leading me in paths that I must trod I'll have no fear 'cause Jesus walks beside me For I'm sheltered in the arms of God. So let the storms rage high The dark clouds rise They won't worry me For I'm sheltered safe within the arms of God He walks with me And naught of earth shall harm me For I'm sheltered in the arms of God. Sheltered in the Arms of God, Dottie Rambo
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, "He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust." Psalm 91:1-2