Gero-Punk Tribute: Fred’s Figs, Part Three (of three parts)

There are strange new sounds coming from Fred’s garden.

I was accustomed to hearing hummingbird. He would perch in the old apple tree on the west side of Fred’s garden and whistle. Sometimes when hummingbird would see me come outside to check on my garden he would zip in his crazy half-invisible way across the street and perch on the telephone lines up above me.

I was accustomed to hearing the modest chattering of bush tits or papa jay squawking at squirrel. If I really listened closely I might also hear the sound of snake sneaking along in the undergrowth or the big bees sipping blossoms.

But once the construction kicked in this past January and there were cars and trucks and heavy equipment every where (and after the trees were removed from the garden) the birds took off.  

It seemed like the construction of the huge new house would never be finished. It seemed like I’d never again hear any sounds from across the street except loud radio music played by various day laborers, or male voices shouting instructions about what’s what, or the sound of a truck engine kept running for half an hour while the foreman talked on his cell phone.

Then — it felt sudden– about a week ago, all of the cars, trucks and heavy equipment finally left.

 And then I began to hear strange new sounds coming from Fred’s garden.

Two mornings ago I heard the baby girl crying inconsolably. It was the day after her family moved into the new huge house that sits atop Fred’s garden. I imagine that she was exhausted from the move, confused about where the hell she was and why her schedule was thrown off, that she was suffering from time/place/space disorientation.

Yesterday morning, I heard one of the little twins repeat over and over from his third floor fortress: “Get out of my room!” At first, it sounded like he was playing but after ten minutes I was pretty certain he meant business.  Understand that he’s never had his own bedroom before now, and he’d only had his own bedroom for two days and nights! I imagine that he (and his twin) must be confused about where the hell they are and why things are different and whether or not they should enjoy the newness. I think he is suffering from time/place/space disorientation, too.

I am suffering from time/place/space distortion as well. But I realized this morning when I looked out my front window at their huge new house that as much as I miss Fred, Fred’s garden and the creatures who dwelled there I am actually quite happy about the new creatures living across the street atop Fred’s garden.

In celebration of the beautiful things that well-loved gardens grown, please accept the last installment of Fred’s Figs: A Legacy Tale.

Fred’s Figs: A Legacy Tale, Part Three (of three parts)

Fred’s car is still in his driveway and seeing it there still catches me by surprise.  As I am coasting down the street, heading home at the end of the day, or when I am backing out of my own driveway on my way out some where, I see his little car – old maroon Honda Civic – and my heart leaps and I think, “Oh, great! Fred’s home!”  In the next moment, I remember that Fred is no longer here in his previous form, that his house, which he lived happily in for decades, is unoccupied, that his car sits unused in the driveway, that weeds are starting to grow up around it through the cracks in the pavement. 

Some times it also happens that very early in the morning, when it is still quite dark, as I’m heading out with Happy-the-dog for a trip to our park for some exercise, I look across the street to see if the light is on in Fred’s kitchen, if he is at the window washing dishes, preparing veggies for soup, or looking out to see if I am up yet. Early in the morning, often before sunrise, I always felt like the two of us, Fred and me, and Happy the dog – and the water fowl at our park – were the only creatures awake in the neighborhood.

Fred’s final decline began during the late fall and intensified in the early winter.  He had experienced months of unexplained recurrent anemia, fatigue and vertigo.  For a few months it was feared that the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma he’d had previously was back for another round.  But Fred’s team of doctors ruled that out, other cancers, too, and made sure that his diabetes was under control, gave him periodic blood transfusions, and kept a close eye on him. His daughter Joanne or son Peter took turns taking him to various medical appointments throughout the autumn months and into the winter.  The dizziness from the vertigo drove Fred crazy, especially because it prevented him from taking walks through our neighborhood, puttering in his garage or the dormant garden, or jumping into his car in order to visit Peter at his shop or attend mass at Saint Agatha’s. Fred was homebound. If the lights in Fred’s kitchen were on later than I thought was usual, or weren’t on in the early morning when I woke up, I would be worried.

As often as I was able, in those darkening days of 2009, I’d pay an evening visit to Fred, dropping by for a chat, sometimes with some homemade soup to offer him (“Could you use some lentil soup, Fred?” borrowing his favorite phrase of generosity.).  Because of his diabetes and my chronic intestinal condition we ate virtually the same plant-based, whole-foods diet, so we took pleasure in giving each other homemade treats, especially if the ingredients came from Fred’s garden. During these visits, or on the phone when I was unable to stop in, he’d tell me about his day, how he was feeling, the results of a medical appointment, reminiscences about the old country, or last summer’s tomatoes, or what not.  And he’d ask me about my day, or he’d wonder after Isobel, so I’d tell him highlights, mostly having to do with what was happening at the park, or on the political scene, or I’d describe in great detail some fantastic recipe Izzy and I made or planned to make soon.

Fred was fortunate that he had a couple of short periods where he felt stable enough – not too wobbly and weak – and so was able to leave his home not just for medical appointments or a transfusion, but for Sunday dinner with his family, or for a short cane-assisted walk around the block. But the overall trajectory for his embodiment was downward, back toward the earth.

I still have Fred’s phone number in my cell phone contact list – and, along with his, under his entry, I have his son Peter’s and daughter Joanne’s numbers as well, leftovers from the time when Fred was in his physical decline, contact numbers “In case of an emergency.” But now Joanne and Peter have their own entries in my contact list.  Peter and I occasionally text-message to check in about coordinating our time and tasks in the garden.  Joanne calls to let me know what’s growing at her farm or to find out if I could use some fresh eggs or green garlic.  On Fred’s birthday, September 1st, that first year after his death the three of us exchanged messages to affirm our devotion to Fred and to each other.  I realize how fortunate I am – and how it is far from inevitable, it didn’t have to happen this way – that in addition to knowing Fred, I have the opportunity to know his adult children as well, to work with them to carry forward Fred’s legacy. To know them is to continue to know Fred.

My relationship with Fred is undoubtedly based in part on memories of our past experiences, the things we did for or with each other.  But there’s something even more significant going on: Fred was – is – one of the best and truest friends I’ve ever had, and so I continue to have a great deal of space in my mind for remembering him, and obviously I feel moved to tell and write stories of him, as a way to keep him alive. But – and this is so important and yet I’m struggling to match my experiences with words and thus communicate with others about my experience  — my relationship with Fred exists in the present, in the unfolding of my daily life, and I feel quite certain that we are still cultivating our relationship, though we exist on two different layers of reality. That he is still alive for me, still a central part of my daily life, that I actually have an active relationship with him is a beautiful, perplexing phenomenon.






About Jenny Sasser, Ph.D.

I am a freelance educational gerontologist, writer, community activist and facilitator. I am former Chair of the Department of Human Sciences and Director of Gerontology at Marylhurst University. I joined the faculty as an adjunct member of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program in 1997 and since that time, I've been involved in designing many on-campus and web-based courses and programs for adult learners, including in Gerontology. As an undergraduate I attended Willamette University, graduating Cum Laude in Psychology and Music; my interdisciplinary graduate studies at University of Oregon and Oregon State University focused on the Human Sciences, with specialization areas in adult development and aging, women’s studies, and critical social theory and alternative research methodologies. My dissertation became part of a book published in 1996 and co-authored with Dr. Janet Lee--Blood Stories: Menarche and the Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary US Society. Over the past twenty (or more!) years I have been involved in inquiry in the areas of creativity in later life; older women's embodiment; sexuality and aging; critical Gerontological theory; transformational adult learning practices; and inter-generational friendships and cross-generational collaborative inquiry. I am co-author, with Dr. Harry R. Moody of Aging: Concepts and Controversies (now in its 10th edition!) and first author, also with Moody, of the recently published Gerontology: The Basics, as well as author/co-author of several book chapters, articles and essays. I am on the Portland Community College Gerontology Program faculty.
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