Category Archives: Stories

The Aftermath of Dad’s Accident

What a strange summer it’s been. With the virus still looming, we had the first wedding in our family, I turned 30, I worked (and am still working) through the last stages of getting my book published, and my dad had a terrible accident that changed everything.

The first week post-accident, I drove to the hospital over and over again, hauling people, supplies, or emotional support. I made the trip in the cool of the morning, before the dew dried on the grass and I had to go to work. I made the trip in the evening, when Simone, my boss’s wife, took my place on the combine so I could get off early and spend some time with my family, perhaps spread out on the hospital lawn, sorting through the mountains of paperwork and decisions that faced us.

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I  never went inside the hospital, except once, when I had to use the bathroom. Hospital rules said only one visitor every 24-hour period. Amy took a shift, Ben took a shift over the weekend, and Mom took the rest of the shifts.

People on Facebook told us we ought to be thankful that someone could be with him in Covid times. But though I had been perfectly willing to quarantine, social distance, and wear a mask to stop the spread of Covid, I found myself burdened and upset by this limitation. I wished I could go inside with my mom and provide emotional support, as Dad lay there at his worst, with the brain trauma, pain meds, and surgery anesthesia making him not quite himself.

They told us that Dad needed to go to a skilled nursing facility for two weeks. Amy called around to various places, but they all said the same thing. “No visitors. He can talk to you through a window.”

Of all the things I’d heard so far, this terrified me the most. More than the bleeds on the brain, or the pinched spinal cord, or the broken back, or the shattered wrists. The idea of Dad, at his lowest, being alone like that, chilled me to the bone. “Surely we can just bring him home?” I asked. “There are eight of us. Surely between the eight of us, we can take care of him?”

Indeed, there were eight of us. Imagine that. We’re never all in Oregon at the same time, but right now, we are. Amy hasn’t moved back to Thailand yet. I’ve come home from my coast-to-coast wandering. Ben’s still in Corvallis, 30 minutes away, with a year left to go before he graduates with his PHD. Steven’s living at home again, briefly, while he completes his Paramedic internship. He’s planning to move in with Ben soon. And Jenny, of course, still lives at home too.

Matt and Phoebe had planned to move to Houston a couple weeks after their wedding, but they were already considering delaying that, and staying in Oregon longer. Both their families are here in Oregon. The weather is so much nicer this time of year. And Covid is exploding in Houston, while Oregon has done relatively well.

When Dad had his accident, then, they delayed their move to Houston indefinitely. For a while they lived with Phoebe’s parents, but then they bought their first home, an Airstream trailer, and just last night they moved into our side yard.

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So there are eight of us: Dad’s wife, six children, and one daughter-in-law. Surely we can figure this out? The hospital people were dubious, but they were impressed with Mom’s care taking and Dad’s progress, and decided maybe we could handle it after all.

Monday was a frantic scramble to get all the equipment he needed. I was on the combine, utterly useless at the moment, but watching the drama via our family WhatsApp group.

There was a list of items we needed, most importantly a hospital bed. Amy called Love Inc. in Eugene, and they said they had everything we needed except for the shower chair. Okay, perfect. The shower chair wasn’t urgent.

Then, at 3:30 Matt sent an urgent message. We’d run into a hiccup. Love Inc. had said they’d call Amy back when they had the items ready for her, but they never called. They close at 1:00. She tried calling the Corvallis branch, but no one was answering.

This was a problem, because Dad was supposed to come home the next morning.

A flurry of messages ensued. Mom sent Matt some more numbers to call. Matt called, and then told us different prices for different types of hospital beds. But none of them would be delivered in time. Oh dear. Well, finally we found one that would only be several hours late. Surely Dad could survive on the couch or something for a couple hours. Or, could he just get discharged from the hospital a couple hours later?

Matt said he’d call and reserve the hospital bed that could arrive the soonest, when suddenly a message came in from Amy. “No no we got everything!!”

What!?

Turns out, there’s been a miscommunication. When Love Inc. hadn’t called back, Amy and Steven had decided to just drive in and see if the stuff was available, even though they were technically closed, and it was! They even had a shower chair after all, that had just arrived. And it was all free.

Apparently Amy had her data turned off, so she didn’t see the other messages until we’d almost ended up with two hospital beds. But thankfully, she managed to stop Matt in time.

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Amy and Ben setting up the hospital bed

We brought Dad home on Tuesday, July 14, a week after his accident. (Also, interestingly enough, it was Matt and Phoebe’s one-month wedding anniversary.)  Everyone except Steven got off work long enough to see Dad come home. But Steven’s job, as a non-emergency medical transport driver, allowed him to be the one to drive Dad home! So we were all there when Dad arrived.

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Dad, just after he came home.

Dad was having trouble sleeping through the night. When things got dark, it did strange things to his brain, causing him to have agitated obsessive thought spirals about bins at the warehouse, and what should be moved where. So we left the kitchen light on, and made a schedule of who would get up to check on him when.

But what if he needed someone in the middle of the night?

Mom thought maybe she should sleep on the couch, but she couldn’t sleep with the light on. Could we go buy a doorbell somewhere? We concluded that it was too late.

“Is there any way we could put his bed next to the piano, and he could bang on it?” I asked.

We experimented with this. At the time Dad had very little use of his arms and hands, so we swiveled the bed to where he could bang on the piano with his feet. It worked very well, under the circumstances, although he didn’t end up needing to use it. Just as well, as it probably would have woken the whole house. And the next day we bought a doorbell, which we’ve been using as a call button ever since.

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Dad was pretty much bedridden at first. He could sit up in a wheelchair for a little bit. And we bought extensions for a walker that he could lay his arms in, since his wrists are shattered. But he mostly lay in bed, and visitors conversed with him through the window.

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Dad’s first visitors were Kevin Baker, who is his fellow pastor, and Kevin’s son Chavon. Chavon does odd jobs for Dad, and was the first person to find Dad after his accident. According to Chavon, Dad’s face had been so coated with blood that Chavon didn’t recognize him at first, but eventually he identified Dad by the shape of his nose.

As time has gone by, Dad has been spending more and more time in his wheelchair. He likes to wheel onto the porch to chat with people, unless it’s really hot, in which case he sits in his wheelchair and talks through the screened patio door. Already, talking through the window is a thing of the past.

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The boys have been building a wheelchair ramp, which is almost completed now.

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This morning, Mom realized that Dad’s head stitches have been in too long. Skin was beginning to grow over them. So, after getting permission from the home care nurse, Mom decided to take them out herself! It was very fascinating to watch.

Today, Dad has been home for a week and a half. Already, he’s made amazing progress. He can mostly feed himself now. He’s just so much better at adjusting himself to make himself comfortable. He’s sleeping well, with no more agitated thought spirals. He can tap at his phone with his good hand well enough to make phone calls, and he loves to wheel around the house with his phone on speakerphone, merrily chatting with whoever.

It’s really nice to watch him doing this. It makes him seem like my dad again, moving around, making decisions, and entertaining himself, instead of lying there helplessly.

This whole journey has been emotionally taxing for me, but seeing Dad’s rapid improvement makes it much easier. Also, receiving so much support from our community has been so helpful. And I finished up my combining job last Monday, which has made things so much easier for me. I don’t have the energy for a real job + a care-giving role.

Of course we have a long road ahead. Although Dad’s legs and feet are in great condition, allowing him to walk with a walker, and his right wrist is healing well, allowing him to feed himself and make phone calls, his left arm is still limp. Dad is unable to move himself between the bed, the wheelchair, and the walker, because he can’t lift his arm. We have to help him.

In fact, with all his injuries, from his wrists to his neck to his skull to his back, I’m sure we’ll have to help him for quite some time.

But that’s okay, because we have plenty of help.

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Endnote: I’ve been posting a number of updates on my Instagram stories (https://www.instagram.com/emilytheduchess/). You can view everything I’ve posted so far under the “Dad’s Accident” story highlight.

The Story of Dad’s Accident

It was a damp chilly morning, the day after my birthday, and I couldn’t help but think about what a nice birthday it had been.

I’d been afraid that my 30th would pass with little fanfare, since we’re still rather in Covid times. But it had been so lovely. Many people had reached out to wish me many happy returns. On Sunday I’d had friends over for an outdoor tea party. On Monday, the actual day of my birth, I’d arrived at work to find a light-up “Happy Birthday” sign in the combine. And this morning, my whole family had gathered for breakfast, both to celebrate my birthday and to have one last get-together before Matt and Phoebe left for Houston.

“What time are you going to work today?” I asked Jenny.

“1 pm. You?”

“I’m not sure yet. I’m waiting for a call from Darrell.”

Jenny and I both work as combine drivers, me for our neighbor, and Jenny for a farmer north of here. On these cloudier mornings, it takes a while for the grass to dry out enough to harvest. So after the rest of our siblings went to work, Jenny and I hung out in my room.

At 11:57 am I got the call, not from Darrell, but from his wife Simone. I thought it was strange that she was calling, but whatever. “Hello?” I said.

“Hi Emily. I just want to let you know that if you don’t want to come into work today because of your Dad’s accident, that’s fine.”

“Wait…what? Dad was in an accident?” I exchanged a horrified look with Jenny, who was close enough to also hear Simone’s words.

“Yes, he fell off a forklift at the warehouse. He has a gash in his head and his arm hurts. They’re about to take him away in an ambulance. Your Mom and Amy are here right now. So if you don’t want to come in to work today, that’s fine. We’ll figure something out.”

At that point I was too shocked and confused to make a decision about coming in to work.

It took a while for us to figure out exactly what happened to Dad, and even now there are a lot of things we don’t know. Only Dad was there when it happened. But here’s what we do know:

In one building of the warehouse, there was an auger high up on the wall. Dad had raised a pile of pallets on a forklift, set up a ladder, and climbed onto the pallets to fix the auger.

And then he fell.

He doesn’t remember falling. He remembers coming down the ladder with his hands full of tools, so for a while we were saying that he fell off the ladder. But the ladder itself never fell over, and his tools were still up on the forklift pallets. So did he actually fall off the forklift or the ladder?

We’re not sure.

There is a large pool of blood on the floor, where Amy later found his glasses and hearing aid. It seems he lay there unconscious for a while until his head wound clotted up. Then he got up, and called Mom at 11:15 am. How he called Mom when both his wrists were shattered and flopping unnaturally is beyond me. “It was hard,” he remembers.

Mom was taking a nap and didn’t hear her phone. Dad left a voicemail, but he didn’t manage to actually talk. So it’s a voicemail of eerie silence.

It was Chavon Baker, a 14 (I think?) year old boy who does odd jobs around the warehouse, who found him. And from what they say, Dad was a horrific sight, with blood all over his face, even in his teeth and eyeballs, and his bloodstained beard sticking out in all directions.

Chavon ran and got Kevin Birky, my cousin who runs the warehouse. Kevin called 911, and then called Mom. For some reason, Mom heard her phone this time, and she ran out the door without telling Jenny or I what was going on.

The warehouse is surrounded by the farm where I work, since it was all the same property back when my great-grandpa owned it. So Simone was driving through, saw what was going on, and ran to get Amy, who is also working for them this summer. Only Amy does housework, so she goes to work at a set, non-weather-dependent time.

In this way, both Amy and Mom were there to see Dad as he was splinted and bandaged and shuttled away in the ambulance. Then they came home, and we were all confused and agitated, trying to figure out what to do. Jenny had to leave for work, but I decided not to go to work, and to drive Mom to the hospital. Amy opted to stay home and make sure things ran smoothly on that end.

I’m not sure what I thought would happen. I did have a vague idea that I probably wouldn’t be able to go in and see Dad because of Covid, but I still wanted to be close by as moral support for Mom. So she went in, and I parked, and started wandering around the beautiful woods next to the hospital.

All alone.

The next two hours were achingly lonely. Mom sent a couple meager updates to the family WhattsApp group telling us that they were doing a CAT scan. Then, there was no info for over an hour.

I’ve been spotty with responding to texts these last several days, but there at the hospital I eagerly and instantly responded to everything that came in. I was starving for connection.

The grounds were lovely, though.

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Finally the CAT scan results came back.

“Talked to Dr,” Mom wrote. “Brace yourselves: Both wrists shattered. Skull fracture above left eye. A few bleeds on brain. Back broken in 3 places.”

Prior to this, all we knew was that there was a gash in his head and he had one sore arm. We had no idea it was this bad. Later, we learned that there were a few breaks in his neck as well, but nothing that was in danger of paralyzing him, thank God.

Finally, Mom had a chance to call me. Basically, Dad was going to be in there for a long time. He needed surgery. I might as well go home.

So I did, and there was something about sitting on the porch steps with Amy, talking about everything, that was so wonderful after being so alone. But it made me really worried for Mom, by herself at the hospital, with no support. I know we were lucky that there were no Covid patients at the hospital, and that Dad didn’t have to be there alone, but still, I knew that this must be so isolating and stressful for Mom.

Steven works an early shift so he came home in the afternoon, and Ben was unable to concentrate on his work so he came home too.

Oh yes, there was one added layer of weirdness to this whole day. The electricity was out! They were working on the power lines. So I was trying to make myself a late lunch on a propane camp stove, since I didn’t have anything to eat while I was at the hospital, and then just as I was finished it came back on. Ha.

Jenny called us frequently, and she was in a weird head space too. But when she told her boss what was going on, he told her to go home and be with her family. So she came home, and Matt and Phoebe came over, and all of us siblings were together.

Matt and Phoebe decided to delay their move to Houston. Matt is still able to work remotely, due to Covid. It’s so strange, how Covid is separating us in some ways yet bringing us together in others.

We all called Mom that evening, and she put us on speakerphone so we could talk to Dad. It was bizarre…he sounded completely normal and sane, but then the sentences that left his mouth didn’t quite logically connect to each other.

The hospital rule is, only one person per 24-hour period. So none of us could give Mom a 4-hour break to get some rest, and none of us could be in there with Mom. Dad hardly slept those first two nights because he was in such terrible pain. (Oddly, it’s mostly his wrists that hurt, not his head.)

Dad had surgery on his wrists on Wednesday. So far, the plan is to heal his back and neck by using a brace. We’ll see how that goes.

Thursday morning, Amy went in to take Mom’s place. Jenny and I went back to work, although I asked to get off early. And then it rained, so I got off extra early. That was nice…it meant I was home when Mom woke up, and was able to debrief with her.

Then, this morning I took Mom back to the hospital to switch with Amy again. It’s a little cloudy still, so I don’t need to go to work until 1:00 pm. So now I have time to write this blog post, I guess.

I guess the real question is, “how is Dad doing?”

This is a hard question to answer. In some ways, he’s very lucky he didn’t end up killed or paralyzed. He has a healthy body that should recover well, and he really is quite “with it” considering how hard he whacked his head open.

The two things, right now, that feel the most heartbreaking are his confusion and his pain.

He can’t seem to get on top of the pain in his wrists, and it’s making it really hard for him to sleep.

As for his confusion, he’s in that terrible place, almost normal brain function, but not quite. I sent a video clip to my friend Esta because I didn’t know how to explain what he was like, she she said, “it’s like he has a clear coherent thought, and then halfway through saying it he forgets it.”

Yes. That’s exactly what it’s like. And how awful that must feel! It seems like it might be more of a mercy if he were completely out of it.

Dad is a problem solver by nature, and he seems to be in constant state of wanting to fix things. The “things to fix” are mostly his pain, and warehouse problems. This is the beginning of harvest, and while Dad had trained Kevin to run the warehouse, there are still a lot of things Dad takes care of by himself. So he keeps remembering things he needs to do about the warehouse, but then not quite connecting all the dots, and not quite being able to communicate.

In his worst moments, right after surgery, he kept getting mixed up about the wedding as well. Once he said that if people want to know what’s going on with warehouse stuff, they should ask Phoebe.

Still, I think a lot of this confusion is due to the surgery anesthesia, not the head injury. Amy had a moment with Dad where he was back to his old self mentally, although it didn’t last. But hopefully these moments will happen with more frequency as the anesthesia wears off.

Anyway, that’s where we’re at now. It’s hard to keep people updated because we keep learning of new random problems. According to Mom, the nurse just told her, “This is what happens with trauma patients. New stuff shows up every day.”

I might write more when I know more, and I might not. Right now, we’re looking at a long and difficult recovery.

Matt and Phoebe’s Wedding, Part 2: The Drive-In Ceremony

(For Part 1: Preparation, click here)

The day of the wedding dawned, not bright and clear, but not stormy and rainy either. A sort-of in-between, with gray, shifting clouds, and patches of sun. The wedding was scheduled for 11:00 am, but Amy, Jenny and I arrived at 9:30 for family pictures.

Matt and Phoebe had chosen not to see each other before the ceremony, so there was a limit to the pictures we could get. We took some sibling pictures, some family photos without Phoebe, and a picture with Matt and his sisters.

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Mom took this photo of the photographer taking our photo

After that, we did the last-minute preparations. You know, removing the plastic bags from the parking markers, putting tablecloths on the welcome tables, etc.

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About 45 minutes before the ceremony was supposed to start, we realized that some guests were arriving, and we fell into formation. Jenny and I handed out programs and water and took gifts. The parking attendants directed them to their parking spot. Amy took pictures of them.

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I stole this photo of the program from my Dad’s cousin Trish.

It was very strange, because I was seeing all these people I’ve known my whole life. And it took me a bit to understand why that felt so strange. Oh, yeah. It’s been Corona times for three months. I haven’t seen these people for three months. It is weird.

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This picture cracks me up. Way to almost-but-not-quite knock over the stake.

Essentially, there were 25-ish people who were out of their cars doing all the work, and everyone else was supposed to stay in their cars. I think technically Oregon is now at a phase where more people out of their cars would have been okay, but they’d planned the whole thing at a time when restrictions were tougher, and they were trying very hard to create a healthy and safe environment.

Those of us who were allowed out of our cars parked in a different place, along the edge of the field, and sat in folding chairs during the ceremony. The chairs were arranged in family groupings so that we could still properly social distance. There were also extra chairs, so that the members of the bridal party could use them as a place to eat after the ceremony.

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Everything was going without a hitch. The musicians were in their musician’s tent, playing soft prelude music, as people one by one got ushered to their places. I was pleasantly surprised by how smooth that process was. We could have used one more parking attendant, but my cousin Randy ran back and forth between the welcome tents, and we made it work. I was afraid everyone would show up at once and it would be a tedious process with lots of waiting, but no. People for the most part showed up early and it all went super smoothly.

By 10:55 or so, most of the cars seemed to have arrived. Randy told us that he could give water and programs to any last minute guests, so Jenny and I headed up front. Jenny went onto the platform with her ukulele and played a short song she’d written called “Love in the Time of Corona.” (If you want to hear the song, you can find it on my Instagram under my story highlights.)

Then the musicians took to their instruments again, and all the proper wedding stuff started. Matt ushered Mom in, and then Dad and the groomsmen entered as well, and stood up front in their proper, socially distant, groomsman formation.

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That’s when the first hitch in the plan occurred. We all craned our necks to see the bridesmaids, and the bride behind them, but they weren’t there. They were nowhere to be seen.

Huh?

The musicians kept playing pretty music. The groomsmen just stood there. We waited and waited and waited.

Eventually, one of the bridesmaids stuck her head out the back door and told the musicians what was going on. The musicians then announced to the rest of us that the wedding was slightly delayed because of technical difficulties. Since many people still were unable to come to the wedding because of Corona, it was important to have the service live-streamed. But the live-stream was just not working.

So we just sat there. And Matt and the groomsmen stood there. And we waited.

The musicians were just playing music to pass the time. They started on “Oh Danny Boy.”

Jenny turned to me. “That’s such a sad song!” she said. Then she paused. “That’s what they should play if Phoebe really does leave Matt at the alter.”

We laughed and laughed. It was weird…with everything outdoors, socially distant, in cars, etc, it felt like you could talk and laugh out loud in a way you just don’t at most weddings.

Finally, Phoebe’s brother-in-law came along with a cell phone and started live-streaming on Phoebe’s Facebook page. You can watch the whole thing here, but I’ll warn you, it unfortunately got switched sideways in the process.

Anyway, the live-stream started at 11:13 am, so I guess that’s when things properly got underway. We saw a car drive from the house around to the back of the field. The wedding coordinator waved her arms to signal the musicians, and the song changed. The bridesmaids walked up the aisle, one by one.

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The next hitch was so small that I wonder if anyone, besides those of us on the chairs, even noticed.

Usually in weddings, when the bride walks down the aisle, the congregation stands for her. Then the preacher prays, and then instructs everyone to be seated.

Of course most people were in their cars and didn’t stand, but those of us in chairs did. Only, I don’t know if Dad didn’t get the memo, or if he didn’t think of it since he was mostly talking to cars, or what. But he never told us to sit down. So we were all just standing there awkwardly, waiting, and finally some of us just sat down, and then others did, and finally everyone did because no one wants to stand for an entire ceremony. Unless you’re in the bridal party, I guess.

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You know how in weddings and movies, the preacher always says “Should anyone present know of any reason that this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace”? And it creates this dramatic moment for someone to leap out and say, “I object?”

Well, I’ve attended a lot of weddings in my life, but I’ve never been to one where the preacher actually said that. But at Matt and Phoebe’s wedding, Dad said, “Should anyone present know of any reason that this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, honk your horn three times.”

Ha. Such a Matt joke. Later, I heard several relatives talking about it. “Ha ha, I was just about to honk my horn twice.

“Well I almost honked my horn four times.”

But no horns actually honked, and the ceremony continued.

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One guest snapped this picture of another guest watching with binoculars! I loved it.

I thought Dad’s sermon was extremely good. One of the best wedding sermons I’ve ever heard. (I feel like I could do a whole blog post on cringy wedding sermons sometime.) He framed the sermon by telling Matt and Phoebe’s love story, which was so special. I love hearing people’s love stories. (If you’re unfamiliar with their story, and you don’t feel like watching the whole wedding ceremony video, Mom blogged about it here.)

Then came the fun stuff. The vows. The “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” The kiss. The “Mr and Mrs Matthew Smucker.”

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I was hoping so badly that people would honk their horns, and they did! First at the kiss, and then when they walked back up the aisle.

The bridesmaids and groomsmen then filed out, and went back to the food tent, which was right next to the welcome tent. The caterers had arrived, and were pulling out containers of pulled pork and beef stew.

Everyone who RSVP’d to the wedding had to note their food preferences. Phoebe and her friends had taken a stack of paper bags and marked each one with the parking number, the family name, and the food preferences of each car that was coming. So now, the bridesmaids, groomsman, and the others who were seated in chairs instead of cars took charge of handing out food. They would take a bag, put in “two pulled porks and one beef stew” or whatever it said, and deliver it to the correct car.

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While they started this process, Dad got up and explained what the food situation would look like. (In the live-stream, you can hear him in the background.) Then he explained that Matt and Phoebe would go around greeting guests, and my parents and Phoebe’s parents would go around greeting guests and handing out cookies. Jenny and I were laughing because he was asking people to know ahead of time what kind of cookies they wanted so that the whole thing could go smoothly and efficiently. Dad is obsessed with efficiency at weddings. Literally after every wedding we go to, Dad rates its efficiency. Mostly in relation to the food lines. When you give people choices, Dad says, it takes forever for everyone to get through the line.

My siblings and I were slated to help hand out food, but we were also going to do some entertainment while people ate. Ben, Amy, and Jenny were singing, and I was giving a toast. A few days before the wedding, Phoebe decided that we should do these things directly after the ceremony, so that it would be in the live-stream. But I guess the memo never got to the brother-in-law, because he didn’t live-stream that part, haha.

So anyway. After Dad discussed the efficiency, my siblings sang several songs, and then I gave my toast:

Hello everyone. I’m Emily Smucker, Matt’s sister. He is the oldest in my family, and I’m the 3’d oldest. He is four years older than me.

Matt is a goofy guy, extremely creative, and willing to try anything. I can’t count how many times in my life I’ve said, “Matt, I can’t wait for the open mic at your wedding.” 

But now that Matt’s wedding is here, and I’m reflecting on what it was like to be Matt’s sister, I’m realizing that behind Matt’s goofy demeanor he is an unbelievably kind person. Of course he teased me a lot growing up, and tried to catch me in elaborate booby traps inspired by Calvin and Hobbes comics. But I don’t remember him ever saying anything mean-spirited or unkind to me. 

Big brothers have a lot of power to shape how their younger sisters feel about themselves. But Matt never made me feel stupid, never made me feel ugly, and never made me feel like my opinions didn’t matter. 

Four years is a large age gap when you’re young, but as Matt and I grew older, we became genuine friends. I began to wish that Matt would find a good wife, but I didn’t know how he would ever find the right person in the big city of Washington DC. But God knew what he was doing, and brought Phoebe into Matt’s life.

Like Matt, Phoebe is kindhearted, generous, and smart. She appreciates Matt’s goofy sense of humor, and is rather goofy at times herself. She enters happily into Matt’s strange fun world, buying him his favorite snack of mealworms, and acquiring her own hoverboard to match his. But Phoebe is also sensitive and kind. She understand people’s feelings, and she balances out Matt’s logical nature.

Matt and Phoebe, I love you both, and I am so grateful to God that you are part of my family.

After giving my toast, I reminded everyone that they could go watch the slideshow on their phones while they waited for their food. Although Matt had emailed it to all the guests, no one had mentioned it at the wedding, and I didn’t want my hard work to go to waste, haha.

By the time I walked back to the food tents, most of the food had been handed out already. It was an extremely efficient process. Dad was proud, I’m sure. I helped with the last of it, and then I just kind-of hung out, eating my food, being goofy with my siblings, and chatting with various guests.

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Wed 1

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Somehow, Jenny managed to be part of the cool crowd that decorated the getaway car. Not sure how she snagged that gig. I didn’t even know it was happening.

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It’s so funny to me that they used our old family Kia as the getaway car. We’ve had that thing for ages. But Matt’s car is back in Houston, where his job/apartment are, and he’s been using the Kia since he’s been in Oregon.

This whole time, of course, Matt and Phoebe were greeting all the cars.

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But then, suddenly we realized that we’d never gotten the rest of the family pictures and such. So we hastily assembled. The photographer snapped away, and I grabbed a few photos on my own camera.

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Once people had eaten, watched the slideshow, greeted the bride, groom, and parents, and chatted with each other through open windows and such, they began to leave.

It had been an extremely successful wedding, all in all. Matt had put tons of engineering work into that parking diagram, arranging things so that everyone would be able to see. And he’d hooked up some sort of radio transmitter so that everyone could hear the ceremony through their car radio. Everyone I talked to seemed to have been able to see and hear quite well.

I helped with the cleanup some, but again, there wasn’t a lot to do. Comparing this wedding to other weddings I’ve helped with, I’ll say that by not having a traditional reception, with all those tables, chairs, and decorations, they saved themselves a LOT of work.

I really just wanted to go home, because I was exhausted to my bones. I was kind-of embarrassed by how tired and spacey I was, so I explained to people that I’d been up really late making the slideshow. Only I repeated that story multiple times, so that was even more embarrassing.

Looking back, though, I don’t think it was the loss of a couple hours of sleep that made me so tired. I think it was being thrust into so much activity and socializing after three months of Covid lockdown.

I went home and rested for several hours, but I was too tired to really even sleep. Finally I got enough of a second wind to go back outside, where a number of my relatives were socializing in our yard, roasting hot dogs for supper.

Thank God, we had nice-ish weather that day at least. Once I’d felt a slight sprinkle of rain, but most of the time it was nice enough that I was comfortable in short sleeves. And Jenny got sunburned. The slight coolness and periods of cloudiness were nice for those in their cars, who would have been quite warm if the sun had shone with its usual summer brightness.

And it was nice to be able to have an after-party of sorts, outside, where it’s much safer to be during Covid times.

My Smucker relatives were there, as well as the five Yoder relatives who’d managed to come. The two families know each other, although my Aunt Rosie (Smucker side) saw one of my Yoder-side uncles in the dark and called him by the wrong name, which she was embarrassed about.

“Isn’t it funny?” Amy said to me. “Some day, Matt and Phoebe’s children will be getting married, and we’ll come to their house and hang out with the Penix family. And we’ll see one of the brothers-in-law in the dark, and accidentally call him by the wrong name.”

It was so odd to think about.

But at last, the air took on a proper frigid chill, and the relatives one-by-one betook themselves back to their homes or motel rooms.

But it was the end of this wedding day. The day Matt and Phoebe got married. The very first ever wedding in my family.

Matt and Phoebe’s Wedding, Part 1: Preparation

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If you know anything about my family, you’ll know how long we’ve waited for this. There are six of us siblings, ranging in age from 21-34, and last Sunday was the first-ever wedding in our family.

We used to muse about which of us siblings would manage to get married first, and we all had different ideas. As time went on, we began to feel like it literally could be any of us. Jenny, the youngest, was technically old enough to get married before Matt even met Phoebe. But in the end it was still Matt, the oldest, who married first.

Matt and Phoebe had a unique love story (which Mom wrote about on her blog). And they are both unique people. So perhaps it’s fitting that they had a unique wedding as well. When COVID hit, they had no idea what things would look like in June. How many people would they even be allowed to invite? How would they decide which aunts and uncles could come, and which to leave out?

So instead of a traditional wedding, they decided to plan a drive-in wedding. The parents of one of Phoebe’s bridesmaids had a small field behind their house that they weren’t using, and they were able to construct a small platform for them to get married on so that everyone in their cars could see them properly.

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Matt made this parking diagram and emailed it to everyone who was coming to the wedding, along with a parking number.

Although we’d discuss wedding logistics every time Matt and Phoebe came over, and although we had a lot of cleaning and yard work projects around the house to do in preparation, the whole thing felt pretty low-key to me, and not super stressful. With Covid and such, there were a lot of us around to get stuff done.

Mom sewed new dresses for herself and Jenny, Amy re-purposed a nice dress she’d worn to a different wedding, and I pulled out a vintage dress I’d gotten for $3 at a thrift store. I had to modify it to make it fit me properly, and sew a lining for it, and of course sew a coordinating mask. But in the end we all had nice wedding clothes that coordinated with the wedding colors even though we weren’t in the bridal party. Our brothers were, and we wanted to coordinate for family pictures.

The first major hurdle in the wedding preparation was the weather. Oregon weather is a whole thing. We have these dry, sunny summers that are perfect for weddings, but June is still an iffy month. Sometimes it rains in June, and when we get rainy weather in Oregon, it’s not like, an hour of rainy weather, it’s a week of rainy weather.

And we hit a spell of cold, rainy weather over the time of the wedding.

In non-Covid times it wouldn’t have been such a big deal, but we were trying very hard to still keep things safe and healthy. We’ve had a rule for the past few months that we don’t allow anyone who doesn’t live in the house to enter our house, except to use the bathroom. Even for our Sunday dinners, Matt, Phoebe, and Ben always stayed outside.

But we had family coming from out of state, and we wanted to hang out with them. In the end, since not nearly everyone who wanted to come was able to, we decided to relax that rule. Our relatives all got their own hotels, but since there were only five of them, we let them in the house during the day.

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Aunt Anna

My Uncle Marcus and Aunt Anna arrived Saturday morning, but we barely got to spend time with them before we had to rush off to the rehearsal. We arrived and got briefed on our duties: Amy would take pictures of everyone in their cars in lieu of a guest book, and Jenny and I would be at the welcome tent, handing out water and programs, and taking gifts.

Rehersal 1

I should note that Amy was using my camera (which I bought to film YouTube videos), and I asked her to snap some pictures for my blog. So most of the pictures in this post were taken by her.

This was the first time we’d seen the venue, so we wandered around looking at the setup.

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The parking spaces were marked with stakes and numbered cardboard hearts, covered in plastic to protect them from the drizzle.

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The aisle was also marked with stakes, and there were kombucha-bottle vases glued to them.

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Again, everything felt so low-key and relaxed to me. There just wasn’t much to help with. It was too early to do the flowers. Finally Elaine, Phoebe’s mom, told us we could attach garlands to the platform to make it look pretty.

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rehersal 5

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After that we went home, ate lunch, rested a bit, and then prepared for the rehearsal dinner. That was a challenge. We’d planned to just have it in our yard, but it was much too cold and wet for that. So Dad cleared out a space in one of his three-sided storage buildings over at the warehouse, and we rented outdoor space heaters, and made it work.

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My Uncle Rod, Aunt Rebecca, and cousin Jason arrived from out of state, just in time for dinner.

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Catching up with our uncle and aunt.

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Jenny chatting with cousin Jason.

Matt and Phoebe didn’t want to have an open mic at their wedding. Matt’s best man, Justin Doutrich, and I were each going to give a toast, but that was it. So we had an open mic time at the rehearsal dinner instead.

Phoebe’s sisters and other bridesmaids kept talking about the early days of Matt and Phoebe’s relationship, and what it was like from their angle. All the lengthy letters and phone calls from Phoebe, detailing her dates with Matt, before they were officially boyfriend and girlfriend. Down to the tiniest detail, like his crusts.

“His crusts?” Someone asked. “What was with his crusts?”

Apparently Matt had, on one of the first dates, cut the crusts off of his bread and not eaten them. And Phoebe didn’t know what to make of a man in his 30s who didn’t eat his crusts.

I was so jealous of Phoebe’s friends. Here they knew all the tiniest details of those early dates, down to Matt’s bread crusts, and we on Matt’s side of the family knew nothing. They’d gone out, we knew, and they were going out again. We were on pins and needles for details. What had Matt thought of her? What was she like? What was he thinking?

We couldn’t seem to get any info from Matt. Finally he told us that they’d spent three hours together at the Air and Space Museum, and we latched onto that and discussed it for ages around the kitchen table, clutching our cups of rooibos tea. Any girl who could spend three hours at the Air and Space Museum with Matt had to be a keeper, right? That had to mean something, right?

It was so funny to remember that era, two years ago, and how desperately we wanted a Happily Ever After for Matt. And now, here we were.

Daylight began to fade, and it grew colder. We began to pack everything back up and go home. I was completely exhausted, and thought I might go to bed early. It was so bizarre, being with people and doing things again after three months of isolation.

But then I went downstairs for a snack, and saw Matt in the living room at his computer. “How are you feeling?” I asked him.

Turns out he was frustrated and stressed. This process, which had seemed low-key from my angle, was not low-key from his. There were so many random last minute details he had to fix. The detailed parking diagram had taken up so much of his time, and now he couldn’t seem to get it printed to hand to the parking attendants. He’d had to go rushing back to the venue, because the tents had blown over. And he’d had no end of trouble scanning pictures for the slideshow.

“Wait, you didn’t make the slideshow yet?” I asked him.

“No, I’ll try to figure it out tonight if I have time.”

So of course I volunteered to make the slideshow for him. It actually took a while. Matt had no idea what music he wanted, and the only music I could find on my computer was some random country stuff from the ’00s that I’d copied from Matt’s computer over a decade ago. I finally found a halfway decent song, but then the video editing software I had on my computer was not designed for slideshows. It made me miss Windows Movie Maker.

I finally finished, uploaded it to YouTube, and went to bed around 12:45 am. Here it is, if you feel like seeing a load of cute pictures.

I felt like I barely got any sleep before I had to be up, washing my hair, and ironing my dress for the big day. But it really wasn’t so bad, when compared to Matt. He got only an hour or so, tossing and turning as parking diagrams spun round and round in his head.

Read Part 2: The Drive-in Ceremony.

P.S. I changed my comment settings, so now all comments must be approved by me before they’ll show up. So if your comments don’t show up right away after you post them, that’s why! Just wait a bit and it should get approved shortly.

The Man Behind the Desktop

If you take your laptop into a coffee shop to get some work done, you’ll quickly notice that you’re not the only one. Lots of people do this: telecommuters, freelance writers, wannabe novelists, students…it’s not strange.

What is strange is this:

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Yes indeed, in this blurry photo you can behold what I beheld in my favorite ocean view coffee shop at Nye Beach. A man in a hat hunches behind a desktop computer setup. Monitor, computer, keyboard, and mouse, all dragged to a coffee shop and set up at a table. I could see his screen in the large mirror behind him. He was a writer.

Of course I didn’t want to be caught staring, so after snapping that creeper photo I went back to my own business. I ordered peppermint tea and set up my laptop at my own table.

Then I just sat there for a minute.

What should I work on? I felt completely at loose ends. After almost two months of obsessively completing the second draft of my memoir, it was in the hands of my editor. So, now what?

I toyed with the idea of writing a blog post, but nothing interesting had happened to me lately. Here I was, though, at the ocean, where interesting people tend to mill around. Should I find a stranger to talk to?

The barista set my tea on the counter, and I slipped off my chair and walked over to pick it up. I’d already paid for the drink, so I might as well stay in the coffee shop for now and get some writing done. I could find a stranger to talk to later. So setting my tea down beside my computer, I opened a new Google doc and typed out the first words of a brand new book.

A novel, this time.

An upper-middle-aged woman with stickers all over her laptop walked into the shop and sat at the table next to me. The man in the hat emerged from behind his electronic fortress and began talking to her.

Maybe they ran in the same circles. Writers of Newport. I was intrigued by the concept, and plagued by the question of what kind of person would bring a desktop computer into a coffee shop? So I listened to their conversation, in a very obvious way, hoping to find an opportunity to join in. But it was not as interesting as I’d hoped. The man in the hat was waxing poetical about philosophy, and saying very little that made sense to me.

I went back to my novel.

“What are you working on?” The man in the hat was right behind me.

“Um…I’m working on a novel actually,” I said. “I just started today.”

Now, I realize those words did kind-of make me sound like an amateur. But he hadn’t asked me about my writing career in general, he’d asked what I was working on. Which was a novel. That I’d literally just started.

“Well here’s my advice,” he said. “Never rush your key scenes.”

Already he sounded a bit condescending, but I’d wanted to have a conversation with a stranger, hadn’t I? And maybe he’d have some good advice to offer. I pulled out a notebook and started taking notes.

He told me to never write more than 2,000 words a day. He told me that I can always change things later, so I should keep my flow. He said that I should write a full 1’st draft before I begin correcting it.

This advice session was peppered with references to his own, apparently extensive, body of work. “So how many novels have you written?” I asked.

“That depends on if you count the historical stuff or not,” he said with a little smile. “In some ways those books were like novels, but in other ways they were more like philosophy.”

Then he started giving me publishing advice. “Find an Indie publisher instead of going with CreateSpace,” he said. “Everyone knows that CreateSpace books are…well, that anyone can make a CreateSpace book. But even if you do get into bookstores, your book won’t stay there for long. Bookstores keep track of how many books are selling each month, so when they see that no one’s buying your book, they send them all back to you. Basically, you can expect a small run of books, and then no one will care about it anymore.”

Then he talked about writing for the love of writing instead of for the money. I can’t adequately re-create the way he spoke, because I wasn’t jotting down quotes. But there was something almost pompous about it. He reminded me of the kids at college that tried so hard to sound smart by using words like “ontological.”

“Of course,” he said at the end of his speech, “you may be the one rare genius who can actually make it.” There was only a hint of sarcasm in his voice, but it still grated.

“What’s your name?” I asked. “I’d like to look up your books.”

“I only have one series of books on Amazon,” he said. “Amazon is kind-of the enemy, you know?” But he told me the title, and watched over my shoulder as I typed it into the search bar.

Of course I misspelled it, which he pointed out with the same little condescending smile. But I think I must misspell things in a very common way, because Google always understands me, and I found his book with no problem. But he was still there, behind me, and he told me to click the “look inside” button, and click through all the pages until I got to his writing. Okay. We’re doing this thing.

And, not gonna lie, his book didn’t give the best first impression. He’d started by copying in parts of a classic novel that were public domain, and the formatting was atrocious. When I finally got to the parts that he had written, I saw a block of text with big words and no paragraph breaks. My eyes swam over it, trying to skim but struggling. Now what? Am I supposed to read it right here, right now? 

There was an awkward pause. Then, “Just read it sometime and tell me what you think,” said the man. He sat down in the other seat at my table. “So, what are you writing?”

Finally! After basically being told I could never hope to be a successful writer, I had a chance to defend myself. But I didn’t know how to make my novel sound promising. I struggle with plots, so I’d chosen a very simple romantic comedy plot line, and made all the characters Mennonite.

I decided to gain credibility by playing the Mennonite card. “There aren’t really novels written about people like me,” I said. “The closest things we have are Amish novels written by people who have little-to-no Amish background. So my idea is to write a novel that’s purely a lighthearted, fun romance, to give Mennonites something enjoyable to read that’s about us and our culture.”

I guess the Mennonite card worked, because instead of the usual condescending smile, he gave a short philosophical monologue about Mennonites. Then he went back to his desktop computer to write more philosophy, and I returned to my novel, watching the waves lap the shore outside my window.

I spent maybe half an hour in this way, leisurely typing. And then…

“Can I read some of what you’ve written?”

It was the desktop computer guy again.

What do I say? I don’t usually let anyone read my first draft. “I don’t know, it’s pretty rough,” I said. “I mean, I just started typing. Very much a first draft.”

The little smile was back. “It’s okay if you don’t have much of a voice yet,” he said. “It takes a while to develop a strong voice. Maybe I could give you some pointers.”

“Okay, sure,” I said, opening up the Google doc. Because people can only make hurtful comments if you take them seriously. And I was beyond the point of taking him seriously.

He read the first page of my document, softly, out-loud, like I do when people show me memes on their phones. And since there’s little-to-no chance that the first half of the first page will actually end up in the novel, I’m going to copy it here for context:

At some point in life, we all eventually come to the conclusion that what we thought was normal was not, in fact, what everybody else did. At this juncture, you have two options: you can choose to believe that you are weird, or conversely, you can choose to believe that everyone else on the planet is weird, and you, you are still the normal one.

It’s alarming how many people choose the latter.

The odd thing is, I didn’t even know how many people out there operated this way until I came to Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute for fourth term. I didn’t realize how many people think that being Mennonite is normal, and not being Mennonite is weird. That just never crossed my mind.

Maybe it’s inevitable when you grow up in Oregon. You will always be a minority, and if you’re a minority, you just have to deal. It’s really hard to pretend you’re not. It’s really hard to pretend that you’re the normal one.

“But you don’t understand,” Kate told me. “A lot of these kids come from Lancaster County. If you live in Lancaster County and you don’t want to ever talk to people who aren’t Mennonite, you don’t have to. We’ve got Mennonite grocery stores…Mennonite gas stations….”

“Hold up,” I said. “Mennonite gas stations? Really?”

That’s how I happened to began it–with a partially formed idea that didn’t fully make sense. I mean, not everyone in Lancaster thinks it’s “normal” to be Mennonite. Probably not even most people.

But ironically, it was that very thing that made desktop-computer-guy take me seriously. Or at least, semi-seriously. He still had that little smile as he said, “you know, I’ve been exploring that very thought in my philosophy writing today.” But he didn’t make any more snide comments about my voice.

Instead, he philosophized again.

He loved that point I made at the beginning. It’s so true, he thought. People’s religion is all they have sometimes. He told me about Mormons, and how we can’t tell them that Joseph Smith was a sketchy crook, because their religion is all they have. Oh, those poor delicate souls that would be crushed if someone as smart and enlightened as desktop-computer-man came and told them the truth!

Yep. I’m for-sure deleting those paragraphs now.

He spoke on the matter for a very long time. I tried my best to remain engaged, because I had, after all, wished to converse with a stranger. “See, that was the problem with colonialist missionaries in Africa,” he said. “They thought that their ideas were the only truth, and they didn’t think that the natives had any knowledge to contribute.”

He said this unironically, while confidently believing that his own ideas were all that needed to be said on the matter. It didn’t seem to occur to him that I might have some knowledge to contribute.

The philosophical ramblings on religion ended only because it was 5 pm and I had a 2-hour drive to my small group at 7 pm. But I did manage a word in edgewise enough to ask him about his computer. “Do you always take a full desktop computer into coffee shops?” I asked.

“Oh, yes! My friend set that computer up for me, so that’s just what I use.”

“Do you have, like, some sort of dolly to carry it on? Or do you just carry it in your arms?”

“I just carry it in my arms.”

There was nothing left to say on the matter. Was it strange? Sure. But even after the condescending nature of our conversation, I still found the strangeness charming.

Still, I decided something, right there in the coffee shop. When someone tells me that they’re interested in writing, never, ever again will I assume that they’re not good at it.

Until I’m proven wrong, I’m going to assume that they have a beautiful career ahead of them.

Blogmas 2019 Day 7: Childhood Christmas Memories

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Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Today I’m googling “Blogmas post ideas,” because I spent all my blogging energy editing a video for tomorrow’s post.

Hmm…”Childhood Christmas memories” looks like a semi-promising idea. Let me recall a few Childhood Christmas memories.

Memory 1: The China Tea Set

When I was a kid I absolutely adored the book A Bargain for Francis. In it, Francis longs for “a china tea set with pictures all in blue.” And of course I longed for one too, after reading of her adventures.

One Christmas I opened my presents, and behold! There it was. A china tea set with pictures all in…well…blue and pink. But close enough.

I mean, it was a very cheap tea set, but I thought it was the best thing ever. I started having tea parties with my sister Amy. Mom would give us grape soda to put in the teapot, and I called it “purple mint tea.”

I think of myself as immune to product placement from internet influencers, but I’m totally susceptible to product placement in books. I wonder if that will become a thing. Or if it’s already a thing and I just don’t know about it.

Memory 2: The Christmas Play

When I was still young and cute, I was in the Christmas play at school. I don’t remember what it was about. I just recall that my character’s name was “Jessica,” and I had funny lines that made everyone laugh. “Clothespins anyone?” was one of them. Another was “is it raining?”

Then I grew into an awkward age where I was too young for the serious parts and too old for the cute parts. But I still wanted to be the star of the show. We were doing “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and I was the first to volunteer to play Alice Wendleken, so I should have gotten the part. But instead, the person in charge (I don’t even remember who it was) gave the part to my cousin Jessi.

Instead, I was given this dumb role that had, like, two short lines or something. My character’s name was Maxine.

Well, I decided that I was going to rise above my circumstances. I was going to play Maxine to the best of my ability. Since she seemingly had no personality, I was going to create a personality for her.

I decided that Maxine would be a shy character, and I tried to say my lines in a shy way. Unfortunately, this also made me hard to hear. “Talk louder, Emily!” Sigh. How frustrating. They didn’t understand my true acting abilities. They didn’t understand that Maxine was supposed to be quiet and shy.

In adulthood, I’ve tried to milk a moral out of this story, but I can’t figure out how to do it. When I direct a drama, I want the actors to be content to make the most out of small roles. But I also want them to speak loudly.

Memory 3: My adorable brother

As a child I thought my brother Ben, who was three years younger than me, was the most adorable, hilarious human.

One December I saw him with a pair of my purple craft scissors, trying to wrap them up. He was giving them to me for Christmas, even though they already were mine. I thought it was the cutest funniest thing ever.

Another Christmas we got a box of gifts from Grandma, and one gift had developed a small hole in the wrapping. We all noticed the hole, and we all saw what appeared to be socks inside, but we were all too polite to mention it.

Then Ben said, “I know what this present is! It’s SOCKS!!!” And I thought it was the best “Emperor’s new clothes” moment ever.

Memory 4: Forcing Myself to Like Gifts

As a kid, I made up some weird Christmas rules for myself. Like, the worst thing ever, in my mind, would be to know what your present was before you unwrapped it. I did everything in my power to not know what I was getting until I pulled off the wrapping paper, and if I did find out earlier, I felt cheated. (That was part of the reason I refused to acknowledge that there were socks in the package in the previous story.)

Another Christmas rule was that I had to like my presents. No matter what I got, I forced myself to like it. If nothing else worked, I pretended that it was magic.

One year my brother Matt got me plastic African animal for Christmas. Little cheap ones. Normally, I was much more into girly presents like china tea sets. But I was determined to like this gift. I forced myself to play with those plastic animals all the time. I made them all into characters, and acted out stories with them. I told myself that African animals were much cooler to like than china tea sets. Because even though I liked girly things, all the characters in my favorite books were tomboys, so I wanted to be a tomboy too.

And what do you know, I liked that Christmas present after all.

This has been Day 7 of Blogmas. If you’re interested in reading a (fictional) Christmas story I wrote, click here. And come back tomorrow evening for what will be (in my opinion) the crowning jewel of this entire Blogmas series. That is, a fun video I did with my little sister Jenny.

 

The Engagement

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My brother Matt and his girlfriend Phoebe are both originally from Oregon, though they currently both live in Washington DC. But Phoebe’s grandpa was turning 100, and Matt needed a vacation, so they both came to Oregon for a week and a half.

Hmmm.

“Have you bought a ring yet?” I asked Matt.

He winked at me. Then dug in his backpack and pulled out a small wooden box. Inside was a glistening diamond ring, custom made to be tiny enough to fit Phoebe’s finger. “I helped design it,” Matt said.

“You did?” I was impressed. My brother Matt, designing diamond rings!

“Yes. See, normally the diamond is held by these four prongs, but those can loosen over time. So I had the jeweler add these extra…well…I call them ‘support brackets.'”

I laughed and laughed. Of course Matt would make sure Phoebe’s ring had proper support brackets.

Thursday they went to the coast for the day. How suspicious. I was up in my room when they came home, and I heard muffled voices downstairs. No screams, but…I had to make sure. So I went downstairs, and there were Matt and Phoebe, looking as casual as can be. Maybe too casual.

“Hey Emily,” said Phoebe.

I looked at her hand. There it was. The glistening ring.

I’m gonna have another sister! I haven’t been this excited since Mom was pregnant with Jenny. Or maybe when we decided to adopt Steven. But there’s something about a sister.

Matt went upstairs to get Amy and Jenny, and there was laughter and hugs and screams all around. Mom was weeping.

It’s been a long time, folks. I’ve been dreaming about my siblings getting married ever since Matt went to Bible College…what was it…fourteen years ago? And yet here we are, unmarried. All of us.

“Is the curse broken now?” Jenny whispered to me, and we giggled.

Mom said, “did someone sacrifice a goat in the backyard?”

I laughed, but I wasn’t quite sure what the joke was. “Wait, what do you mean?”

“Wasn’t there something with the Red Sox being cursed, and a goat?”

That made me giggle for real. “Well, um, first of all it was the Cubs. And killing the goat would have probably made things worse. But sure.”

As much as it felt like a “curse” that no one in my family had any romantic luck until now, the truth is, Phoebe was well worth the wait.

When Phoebe and Matt first started seeing each other, one of Phoebe’s friends was aghast. “But is he a Calvinist?!?” she wanted to know. We laughed and laughed about that one. “But it’s even funnier now,” Matt says, “because our whole relationship seems predestined.”

The truth is, if Matt had married the girls he crushed on in his early 20s, he…well, perhaps it’s too drastic to say he’d be miserable. I’ve seen people enter unwise relationships before they were ready and, by the grace of God, live to tell the tale and still love each other in the end.

But the way it ended up worked out so perfectly. He’s done with grad school, and well established in a successful career. She is also done with college and financially stable. We all love her to pieces. And her family loves Matt. They both love DC, but go “home” to the Willamette Valley on holidays.

Suddenly the narrative in my head has shifted. From “we’re that loser family that can’t make our relationships work” to “we’re taking our time and doing it right.”

“What if we all just get married when we’re 33 or so?” I asked Mom.

“Then,” said Mom, “I would say that I probably should have adjusted my expectations from the beginning.”

I felt that. Because if we’re gonna be honest, most of my family members would probably be happier marrying at 33 rather than 23. The wait, then, is not hard because we are so miserable, it’s hard because we start to wonder if God has forgotten us.

But perhaps we should have adjusted our expectations from the beginning.

The End of the Road

There were eight of us: Four siblings, two spouses, and me, the lone granddaughter. All gathered at the bedside of Amos Yoder, a 102-year-old man who was bedridden following a stroke.

We thought he was dying, and then he started to improve. We thought we should put him in a nursing home, and then he seemed to deteriorate again. We prayed that God would take him Sunday night, before we had to make the Nursing Home Decision. But the next morning there he was, chest still rising and falling, pulse still beating steadily.

We decided not to put Grandpa in a nursing home after all.

We decided not to buy a ticket home, yet.

“I live here now,” I thought.

On Wednesday, a week and three days after I’d first arrived in Minnesota, I finally got a chance to borrow a vehicle and go all-by-myself to Caribou Coffee and get some work done. This was magnificent. I settled down in a quiet corner by the fireplace, opened my laptop, and prepared to float away into a new brain space for hours and hours.

But first, I checked my phone. Oh! A missed call from Mom. And a text.

Gpa just passed away

What! Grandpa passed away? It felt unreal in my brain.

Silly. Of course he was going to pass away. He was 102. He’d had a terrible stroke 12 days ago. He was miserable. He hadn’t had any food or water since Monday morning.

And yet…

This had become routine. Getting up at 1 am for my shift. Meeting Mom at the foot of the basement stairs, and knocking on Uncle Fred’s door as we walked past. Peeling the blankets back, and checking Grandpa’s diaper. Carefully rolling him, cleaning him, re-positioning him, apologizing as he winced in pain from his sore arm. Taking the used diaper out to the incinerator.

And the days. Sitting with Grandpa. Asking if he wanted water. Hearing Uncle Fred tell the magnificent stories he collects from people. Eating the massive meals prepared by mysterious fairies and delivered to our doorstep. Reading through Middlemarch. Hitching rides to nearby small towns from whoever happened to be going.

Trying to find places and spaces to get some work done.

Escaping to the canning closet when I needed to be alone.

Or taking long walks down the country roads.

This is my routine now. This is what we do. But I drove back to Marcus and Anna’s house, and as soon as I walked in the door, It was obvious that the routine was no more.

“Did you let so-and-so know?”

“No, I thought so-and-so would.”

Mom, on the phone: “Paul, I don’t know when the funeral will be. We haven’t discussed it yet.”

“Shall I tell the funeral home people to come get him?”

“No, I’m not ready yet. Maybe in a few hours?”

I stood by Grandpa’s bedside, and it was the strangest thing. Almost seeing his chest rise in another breath, like it had so many times before, when he’d stop breathing for 20 seconds or so before starting up again, more laborious than ever.

But laborious breathing was forever in Grandpa’s past, now.

I thought back to Ian’s funeral, last winter. I remembered the way his mother would reach into the casket, smooth his hair, rub his chest. Loving, motherly touches. It had never occurred to me to touch a dead body.
To me, a dead body seemed rather a frightening thing. The gap between the living and the dead seemed vast, and long.

But in this space, having watched Grandpa hover between death and life for so long, the gap didn’t seem so enormous. “Can I touch him?” I asked Aunt Rebecca. “Is that weird? Can I hold his hand?”

“That’s not weird,” she said, pulling back the blanket for me. “Now is a good time, when he’s still warm.”

I grabbed Grandpa’s hand. She was right. It wasn’t weird. And it was warm. Again, the disbelief that this man was actually gone.

“But look,” said Aunt Rebecca. “Look at how his hands are yellowing, already.”

Yes, he was gone. Gone forever from the terrible pain in his arm, the struggle to drink and eat, the annoyance of flies landing on his face, or his pajamas bunching up behind him. I felt a deep relief, but also a melancholy sense of finality.

Now, the family begins to trickle in. Cousin Jason came yesterday. Dad and Amy arrived early this morning, cousin Keith came at noon, and Matt and Phoebe are booking it from the East with cousin Annette and her husband and children. We gather here, here in Minnesota, like we have for so many Christmases and assorted family gatherings.

It’s sad to know that this is The End of the Road. Not only with Grandpa’s life, but also with having a sense of connection to Minnesota as the gathering-place for assorted Yoders. The only relative left here is Uncle Marcus, and his wife Anna. None of my other Aunts and Uncles stayed. None of Marcus’s children stayed.

If my relatives seem to wander the earth, it’s in our blood. Grandpa and Grandma came here from Ohio, and before that, Iowa, even though Grandpa was born in Oklahoma and Grandma in a different part of Ohio.

I don’t have Yoder roots in any particular place, anymore.

But here we are now. In Minnesota together, one last time. Mourning the death of this man who was unlike anyone else we’ve ever met. This man who has shaped our lives in so many ways. This man who wanted to know everything, discover everything, see everything. That’s the legacy he left for all of us.
It must be said that our relationships with him were complicated.
But we loved him.
And we miss him.

There’s No Map for This Journey

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You know that week between Christmas and New Years, when everyone is off work but all the Christmas parties are over, and you just kind-of sit around and feel disoriented and pig out on leftovers and forget what day of the week it is?

That’s what this week in Minnesota has been like.

Well, not exactly. I can’t think of anything that describes what it’s been like exactly. Maybe if New Years were a sad holiday instead of a happy one, and maybe if you didn’t quite know when New Years would come, but no one could go home or go back to work until after New Years had happened.

Yeah, okay, that analogy doesn’t quite hold up.

In any case, it has been a strange week. I came here feeling sad that Grandpa was dying, but I’ve come to regard death as a beautiful, blessed mercy.

If only Grandpa would die, he could go to heaven and hang out with Grandma, and Lenny, and his parents and siblings. He wouldn’t have to endure the terrible pain he feels in his right arm. He wouldn’t have to feel the shame of his children and granddaughter changing his diaper. No longer would he feel the awfulness of having thoughts but being unable to communicate them.

Please, God. Please just take him.

What do we do? What do we do with our lives back home? We can’t just leave Marcus and Anna to care for him alone. Do we put him in a nursing home? Are there even openings in nearby nursing homes? But poor Grandpa, in a nursing home!

“We were not given a map for this journey,” Mom said on Facebook.

So true. So true.

How long will we remain in Minnesota?

Honestly, I have no clue.

But I should say, before I go, that I’ve been incredibly blessed by the amazing comments on my blog, and on Facebook. And by my friends who have reached out, asking how I am, and saying they’ll pray for me. I know I haven’t responded to nearly everyone, and I’m sorry. I keep forgetting that the Internet exists, and that online communication exists, which is weird since it’s not like I’m doing much here in Minnesota.

Dad called the other day and said, “Did hurricane Dorian hit you?”

“No,” I said. I thought that was a weird thing to say. I didn’t realize he was making a joke.

“Next thing you know, Trump will be saying that the hurricane is going to hit Minnesota,” Dad chuckled.

“Huh?” I was quite confused.

“You didn’t hear about Trump saying the hurricane would hit Alabama?” Dad asked.

“No, sorry. I guess I haven’t really kept up with the news and stuff since I’ve been here.”

“You didn’t miss much,” said Dad.

We’ve also been tremendously blessed by the people at Grandpa’s church that keep bringing us food. We’ve started calling them “the magic fairies.”

“Who re-stocked the fridge with eggs? And where did all this banana bread come from?”

“I guess the magic fairies brought them.”

My Aunt Anna is responsible for some of these blessings, but when we thank her, she deflects and says that it’s church people giving us these things. She just places them downstairs for us.

“If there were magic fairies like that at my church, I think I’d leave my car doors unlocked all the time,” Uncle Rod said.

“Well you still have to lock your doors in late summer, or else your car will fill up with zucchini squash,” said Anna.

We all laughed.

It is good to be with family, it really is.

But it’s a hard journey, and we have no map.

Oh, Grandpa!

Mom and I got to Minnesota on Sunday evening. We were picked up by my Uncle Rod and Aunt Rebecca, and taken to my Uncle Marcus and Aunt Anna’s house. Marcus is Mom’s brother, and Grandpa lives in his basement. Rebecca, Mom’s sister who lives in Chicago, is the next-closest, location wise, so she and Rod drove over on Friday as soon as they heard about Grandpa’s stroke.

That first day-and-a-half was extremely meaningful.

Grandpa was sleeping when we arrived, but he woke up, and seemed to recognize us. He could move the right half of his body somewhat, but not the left. Every once in a while he’d manage to say a word, but he couldn’t really talk.

When he saw me, he said “Jenny!” which I thought was kind of funny. “No, I’m Emily! Jenny’s sister!” I yelled into his good ear. But I think he actually knew it was me, just the wrong name had popped out. That happens to a lot of people.

He held my hand very tightly and cried and cried.

Grandpa wasn’t eating, but he could drink water from this nifty little sponge on the end of a stick.

(I’m planning to buy some of these, when I get home, and use them to clean out window tracks.)

I gave Grandpa some water, on Monday, and he said, “Emily!” That was special.

He was still peeing, so his kidneys hadn’t shut down yet, but his pee was a bit more reddish, and Aunt Rebecca thought this meant he was nearing the end.

Fred arrived late Monday afternoon. He’d thought Grandpa was beyond the point of recognizing him, but when he learned that Grandpa could still recognize people, he got in his car and drove north. When he walked in, Grandpa said, “Fred!”

Mom, Aunt Rebecca, and I were taking a walk when Fred came. We could feel that the wind was shifting. A midwest thunderstorm was coming! That evening, I could hear low, soft rumblings of thunder.

I stepped outside and stared at the sky in awe. The whole thing, flickering on and off with such brilliance, like God was a small child playing with a light switch. I ran inside. “Mom! You have to come look at the sky!”

We ran out, together. “Don’t go out in the middle of the lawn!” said Mom. “If you go into an open area, you might get hit!”

“Can’t we go over by the barn and get a better view?”

So we dashed over to the barn, and watched the purple and flickering sky, and then the giant drops of rain started hitting us. I had a blanket over my head, so I didn’t feel the wetness, but they were so large I felt the impact as they hit me.

Giggling, we dashed back inside.

Still breathless and giggly, I walked into Grandpa’s room and saw everyone sitting soberly around his bedside. Aunt Rebecca, close to his ear. “It’s okay to go, Pop.”

Hail rattled against the windows. Grandpa seemed to be seeing something beyond this world. “My parents,” he said in Pennsylvania Dutch. “My sister!”

His breathing had changed. There was an odd sound when he drew in breath, like a distant gunshot. Then his breathing would pause for a bit before he’d breath again. Was it my imagination, or did the pauses get a bit longer each time?

So we sat there, in silence, as he raised his good hand and gestured at the air in front of him, at something we couldn’t see.

And we all thought, this is it. He could go any second now.

The moment was oddly suspenseful, like when you’re watching a movie, and someone is walking down some abandoned corridor, and you’re sure something will jump out at them.

And then, everything went black.

The electricity was out!

Uncle Rod and I went rummaging through the kitchen, looking for candles and matches. Meanwhile, in the darkness of Grandpa’s bedroom, Aunt Rebecca asked Mom to pray. So they bowed their heads, and just as Mom was praying, people’s phones began to blare. “Tornado warning!”

Well, we were already in the basement. What can you do?

Uncle Marcus looked out the window, and saw a funnel cloud come down from the clouds, but it didn’t touch the earth. The danger passed. But in the meantime we’d lit a lot of candles, and I couldn’t help but think, what if the house catches on fire and we have to drag poor dying Grandpa out of here in the middle of the night???

Thankfully that didn’t happen. Instead, we all calmly gathered around Grandpa again, and he continued to gesture at the sky. His breathing continued to pause.

This is it. He could go any second.

But then, it grew later and later, and Grandpa didn’t go. I was so tired. Can I go to bed? What if I missed Grandpa’s death?

This situation, I realized, had grown truly bizarre. Here we were, all sitting around waiting for Grandpa to die.

Earlier I’d felt this deep, transcendent thankfulness that I could be here for Grandpa’s final days. It seemed like the most special thing ever. And now, here I was, wondering when Grandpa would die so I could go to bed.

I mean, it sounds so bizarre to say I wanted Grandpa to just die. But he was bedridden, could barely communicate, and couldn’t move one half of his body. But his mind was still there…I mean…he knew that we were changing his diaper. How embarrassing must that be for him? If only he could just slip off peacefully to heaven, to be with Grandma and Lenny.

But he didn’t.

I finally dragged myself to bed. My alarm woke me at 3:30, and Mom and I got up and changed his diaper. I sat in the chair by his bed for the next two hours, awake enough to hear that he was still breathing.

And he was still breathing. In fact, the next morning the long pauses in his breath were gone. He was breathing normally again.

Wait wait wait. Is Grandpa dying or isn’t he?

And then, there was today. “Are you hungry?” Aunt Rebecca asked Grandpa.

He nodded.

“Do you want some oatmeal?”

He nodded again.

So we fed him oatmeal, and he was able to eat it! The first thing he’s eaten since his stroke on Friday.

Suddenly, we’re all confused. Might he live for a while yet? What do we do?

Part of me feels like I should be thankful to have my grandpa around for longer. But it’s like I said before…he’s lived a good life for 102 years. It seems to be his time. And yet he could be with us for a while yet.

But death, as we know, does not run on anyone’s schedule.