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Strong to the finish

Strong to the finish

It was one of those incredible fall days that stays with you long after all the colors are gone. The crunch of the leaves, a craving for apples and Carmex lip balm are my cues that a change of seasons has arrived. The trees reflected the color of the sun and everything seemed to have a golden hue cast over it. It was Indian Summer.

I had gone to church alone that Sunday because Dad was still under the weather. I stopped to get his favorite salad after church and took it to him. I made him a tray and we talked for a bit but he needed rest. I gave him a kiss on his warm forehead and said I would check back later that day. I don’t deal with my concern very well—it’s aggravating to the one I’m concerned about. I often leave my dad’s feeling like I’ve said too much, fussed about things I didn’t need to and have worn him out instead of cheered him up.

I made a third stop that Sunday at one of my favorite stores—Beans and Barley. I was parking the car just as a beautiful choir started to sing on the radio. The sun was hovering over my sunroof, looking majestic against the blue background of the sky. Then all of a sudden I thought I heard Mom’s voice above the singers. I didn’t move. There it was—a single high voice that carried over and above the others. I couldn’t believe my ears—she was singing as clear as a bell— it sounded just like her. I shook my head not understanding why in this particular choral arrangement there would be one voice standing out above the others. Everyone knows that it’s a choir member’s job to blend in. How many times had that been Mom’s instruction to the choirs she conducted over the years? I sat mesmerized and then before I knew it, began to cry. How Mom had struggled with her voice in the later years of her life. Joanie had told her in her final days. “Just think Mom, how you’ll be able to sing in Heaven. No more clearing your throat!”

As oddly as this may sound, I sat there listening to what sounded like my mom singing to me and suddenly felt no separation between earth and heaven. It was like Heaven’s door had opened. I looked up into the sun’s brilliance and smiled my thanks. The song ended with the voice high and strong above the others. “Mom…” I said and smiled. Is she with me as I care for Dad, I wondered as I walked into the store.

I picked out my purchases for lunch and was standing in the checkout line. There was a conversation going on in front of me.

“No, he’s not here. I can’t take you home. There’s no one here who can give you a ride right now.”

There was more chatter as the customer in front of me named off more employees’ names.

“No, they aren’t here today either.”

“I’m dying!” These are pretty dramatic words to ignore and I snapped to attention. “I’ve been to the hospital eight times in the last month.” The man had a distinct voice. “They say they’re worried I’m going to commit suicide! Why would I commit suicide when I’m 90 years old, for crying out loud?!”

I knew the voice. I recognized the man—it  was Popeye. He sounds just like the cartoon character with the big biceps some of us grew up with. When my son worked at CVS on Downer Avenue, Popeye was often there talking to all the cashiers. He would tell them that young people today have gone to pot.

“I’ll take him home,” I spoke up. I wasn’t certain if the CVS guys called him Popeye behind his back and I didn’t want to offend him, so I was glad for an introduction. The cashier looked at me and smiled, “This is Warren.”

Anybody that has been up and down Downer Avenue on Milwaukee’s east side knows Warren. He’s a fixture who wears a tweed jacket with a tan sweater underneath. He’s always dressed up. You’ll never see him in blue jeans. He’s usually carrying a bag or two, looking like he’s been shopping. He’ll start talking to you before you realize it and you’ll soon be drawn into conversation—mostly his—whether you like it or not.

“Hi, Warren—I’m Debbie. I’d be happy to give you a ride.”

“Call me Popeye!” he announced as if to an audience then started to sway backwards like he was going down. I grabbed his arm and the thought crossed my mind that Popeye really could die.

“Is he okay?” I mouthed to the cashier, remembering the CVS guys saying Popeye was prone to exaggerations.

“He’s fine,” she mouthed back, only slightly reassuring me.

I paid for my groceries while Popeye continued on with his story.

“I was in WWII. I watched all my men die. I can’t eat anymore—I have to drink my food,” he was holding a can of Spirulina—his single purchase. “I have pain in my stomach. It’s a mess.”

I listened and believed everything he said as I gathered up my bag in one arm and took his arm in the other. We walked together to the parking lot east of the store but not before he took one more big sway backwards, almost pulling me down on top of him. We caught our balance just in time and continued to the car. “Lord help me,” I prayed to myself, and then pointed out my car to him.

“That’s a Mini Cooper!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, do you like it?”

“Why, that’s a beautiful car!  Who makes it?”

“”BMW owns the company.” I answered.

“”Germans! Those Germans know how to make a car!”

“I’m German,” I said with pride.

“I’m German too!” Popeye piped back.

I helped him into the seat and was a little leery. It was only a week ago my dad’s fever had done him in on our way home from the doctor’s office. He couldn’t gather the strength to get out of my car. I tried to lift him but he hit his back on the top of the doorframe and he let me know it. I thought he was buckling over, fainting, “It’s my back,” he said then. “I hit my back.” We were soon in a bit of a gridlock.

“Stay right here, Dad.” What a stupid thing to say—where was he going to go? It was an attempt at normalcy in the state of panic. “I’m moving the car over to the shade. I’ll call Todd and we’ll get your desk chair and wheel you inside.” We knew the drill—we had done this before when he got Pneumonia on the Island. Todd drove up within minutes and I tore into the condo to get the chair and wheeled it out to the car.

“Why did you bring it here?” he asked. “Drive me into the garage and I can get out by the elevator.

Right. This is an example of our relationship these days. One minute I feel like a mother, the next like a 12 year old.

As I turned the car around inside the garage, I noticed a wheel chair. We decided to use it, replacing it with the desk chair so the owner would know we were only borrowing it.Todd got him safely into it and we made our way into the condo and got him onto his bed.

“Dehydrated!” He said. “I just need to rehydrate.” He convinced us not to go to the hospital and after several glasses of water with electrolytes he was able to get up and walk. “Wow, that came on fast,” he said. “I’m doing much better now. See?” He sort of strutted back and forth in front of his bed. I drove home, packed a bag and stayed with him for several days.

Now back to Sunday with Popeye. He got into my car pretty well and pointed me in the direction of his home. He repeated the words, “I’m dying,” several more times, so I asked him if he believed in Heaven.

“Why, you have to have faith to believe that.”

“You don’t have faith?” I asked.

“I have a rational mind.”

“You sound like my husband.”

I told him I believed in Heaven, that it seems so close to me sometimes I can almost touch it. I told him I thought the best was yet to come, as I pulled up in front of his house and parked. There was a big red chair sitting on his porch. He got out just fine and we walked up the steps slowly together and he told me to knock loudly on the window of the door. “If no one comes, I have to walk around to the back.” I knocked.

“That’s not loud enough,” he snarled.

I pounded, hoping the glass wouldn’t break. No one came. We made our way back down the porch steps and as I prepared myself to say goodbye I asked if I could give him a kiss on his cheek. He nodded and smiled—the first I’d seen from him. As I told him goodbye I said, “I love you Popeye.” Really, I don’t know where that comes from sometimes—the words just fly out of my mouth. But I mean them when I say them.

I watched him walk down the sidewalk to the backdoor, cane in hand, feet turned out slightly, taking his carefully, calculated steps—his bald head gleaming in the sun.

So, this is Warren, who I came to find out just two weeks later had been sleeping somewhere by the bike trail until it got too cold outside. Last Sunday’s paper had a story about it. There was a picture of the house he lives in—I recognized the red chair. The woman who rents it has been known to take people in—“everyone deserves to have a roof over their head,” she said in the article and she provides a roof for Popeye.

I haven’t seen Popeye these last weeks and asked around about him, but no word.

I dropped off some groceries and a canister of protein powder at the back door of the house with the red chair. I thought how Heaven’s door really had opened up to me that day. I had practically stepped right inside it. You see, Popeye’s house is called the Blessing House.

Who would have thought it would be a cranky, old man without faith that would walk me right up to the front door of Heaven…

God Bless you Popeye.

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