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51 Birch Street

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"A lively, controversial but finally deeply compassionate portrait of an ordinary extraordinary woman"

– Ann Hornaday, WASHINGTON POST

Cheri Pugh (age 44)

Doug I’ve missed your film so far and I’m looking forward to seeing it from all I’ve heard about it. These are universal issues, the different ways we understand (or misunderstand) our parents over time, so it is not surprising it is touching many people.

I also have to thank you for asking me to write something which made me sit down last night and try to write it and I guess I got on a roll.  I might even develop this first draft further somehow. But it became a bigger story than I thought I should put here. So I cut it down at least somewhat - - but just as I was about to send it, my computer crashed so that I doubt it got submitted. I was glad I had written it in a different program. The trouble is I lost the cut down version and I don’t have time to do the editing over again right now so I’m going to have to paste the terribly long one in here.  Apologies in advance for length. if it is really excessively long or sickeningly “poetic” leave it out. or just put the first sentence.
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The summer two years after my mom died of lymphoma, my father became ill and I went home to help him with a small herd of cattle; spending more time back home than I had since I’d escaped at age seventeen, fairly chomping at the bit to get thousands of miles away as fast as I could.

My father resided in a small town, but still owned the farm on which he had been born, and he had been raising some beef cattle. Daddy is about the hardest-working man I know, and at age 73 he had been doing a lot of physical work every day of that hot summer. He’d sometimes mentioned over the last few months not feeling well, blaming it on something he ate, or having worked too long in the heat, or a virus going around...but I was getting kinda concerned.  Having just ended a long job and received two nice grants for a film, I went to see him. He’d lost a lot of weight in a short time and these recurring gastrointestinal problems were not getting any better, but I just could not convince him to go for a check-up. Although his formidable temper had mellowed with age, he was still not only the hardest-working but also the stubbornest man I knew. To get him to the doctor, I would have had to knock him out and carry him there. But there was no question in my mind that I would stay to try to look after him and help with chores.

Each late afternoon of those long summer days we would pack a cooler with cold pop and frozen water bottles. We’d climb into an old vibrating, loose-steering Ford pick-up containing the usual jumble of rural accoutrements, several garbage cans and a big water tank; and we would drive to the farm, about a 40 min. trip. After you turn off the highway you wind around on unpaved roads through all sorts of twists and turns and ups and downs and forks and corners-- it is hard to give a stranger directions, though I could drive there in my sleep. It is the place I love most in the world.

This was not a high tech operation --aside from having a truck (1980s), a tractor (1950s) and a motorized corn grinder (even older), we were doing everything by hand --pumping water, and filling lots of buckets of ground corn from an old wooden wagon in the dark barn and carrying them to toss in the feeders as the cattle jostled each other for position. Then loading a bunch more grain into the garbage cans and onto the truck. After finishing any other chores around “the Home Place” we would drive over to a separate parcel of land (known in family parlance as “the other Place") to feed and water another group of steers. They would sometimes come gallumping alongside the truck as it bounced across the bumpy ground to their feeders. We’d talk and joke laughed about their different personalities and quirks.  One of them always tossed his head up when he ate with great gusto and sent grain flying all over his companions. But one big rangy Charolais was always standing off by himself in a corner of the pasture when we would arrive and I felt sorry for him. I thought he looked so forlorn so I called him Forlorny.

By the time we finished choring and, covered with dust-coated sweat, retraced our route over the roads, the sun would be sending out a last ray over the darkening fields where a million locusts and crickets sang in what seems a constant crescendo; sometimes through the cacophany a mourning dove or bobwhite call could be heard, or frogs in a pond. The smell of earth and animals and growing things. Reflected in the sky an evolving masterpiece of color, orange and pink and purple going up, up into a cool deepening blue. 

Sometimes we would just sit in the silent knowledge that we both loved this world. Sometimes we would talk. About cattle, crops, wildlife, baseball. Daddy has never been one to bare his soul in long self-analyzing paragraphs. But I heard sentences. About poverty and shame. About his bitterness that no matter how much Mom suffered through all those different treatments, no matter what mighty shrines of medicine he took her to, nothing helped. About how he missed her. [In between the words, his own dread of hearing that diagnosis.] Things long misunderstood. It wasn’t until then I realised how much he loved my mother, despite all their fighting. Maybe it wasn’t til then that he realised how much I loved him. Despite everything.

When we got back to town, sometimes we would stop at the Double R Dairy Bar before the stoplight and get milkshakes.

But the sweetness was pierced by his worsening illness. As the weeks went on, my dad began doing less and less of the work--and for him to let anyone else work harder than he did, I knew he had to be feeling bad. Then he would just maybe pick some vegetables while I shoveled grain. After a while he was just riding along and staying sitting in the truck, gaunt-looking and pale under his tan skin. He would have to get out and vomit. Finally he was not even riding along.

Even though he still did not want doctors, he was not kidding himself that this was something minor. It was more like he felt they could not do any good. He had in his own mind made the diagnosis, the word we did not want to speak. One night I heard him up and opening drawers and things in the middle of the night. I asked, “Daddy, what are you doing? Are you OK?” He came in to my bedroom with a notepad showed me a list he had written of names of men from First Baptist. “I’ve made out a list of pallbearers.” Other times he would suddenly come in in the night and tell me about his insurance policy, or when taxes on the farm are due, or when the conservation program on some of the acres would expire.

Then I had to leave for only a day or two. My dad sat there in the recliner, in pain, and said he’d hire his neighbor Ron to do the chores those days. If I’da had a lick of sense I’da called Ron myself, because--typically--Daddy decided to do the work himself and he had a heart attack. After lying on the ground in a cold sweat for he didn’t know how long, he crawled to the truck, pulled himself up into the cab, somehow drove to Ron’s. They rushed him to town to the hospital. So he finally ended up being knocked out and carried to the doctor after all. Just as he had feared, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was taken that night by ambulance to a hospital in the nearest city, and of course I rushed back there when Ron called me. Within a week he had open heart surgery, colon surgery and then a stroke. He was not paralyzed but it affected his mind. Every day they asked him his name. One morning he answered, “Holocaust” which really gave the nurses a shock. (I told them I supposed my documentary was somewhere in his mind. It was still in mine too and in the hospital waiting room I was trying to stop crying and concentrate to write an ITVS 3rd round funding application-- fortunately with a wonderful coproducer.).

I sold off the cattle. Ron and four or five other neighbors donated their work and wouldn’t take a dime, they rounded them up and trucked them to the sale barn, and one guy handled the sale and collected the money. They brought a pretty fair price. I felt kind of bad not to have been able to even say goodbye to them. 

The whole time in the hospital I don’t think anyone expected Daddy to live.  I put a photo on the wall in his room of how he looked before months of sickness and wasting, so the doctors and nurses could realize his great vitality. I could not really seem to pray since my mom’s death. But I desperately hoped.  I hoped the genes of his mother, who lived to age 99, and her father who lived to 92, would help him fight to survive. 
I was not at all reconciled to him dying, I was devastated. I wanted to scream, He can’t die NOW when I’ve just realized how I love him. But when is it ever enough time? And what a treasure were the memories of the time we spent those months, that has become symbolized in my mind like some bottled essence by drives at dusk through rolling hills in warm summer nights. The conversations and the companionable silences.
*****************************************
The update is, that winter he went through rehab and therapy, had the planned colostomy reversal surgery. Then in the spring the cancer started up again, now spread to the liver. Very scary. I read about the survival rate which was just insanely low, like 5% survive for a year--or was it even for 6 months? I didn’t tell Daddy. He agreed to have chemo, which he had refused to have after his surgery. Then, miraculously he responded to it so well that he did not have to take the whole course. I know that at any time the cancer can start up again, but now he is going on three years since then. He recovered almost entirely from the thought and language effects of the stroke, gradually regained strength and now at age 77 he is out building fences and chopping down brush. Like my cousin said, “He’s a tough ol’ bird.”

Comments

This touched me, all my years i have wanted loved, now at 80 i wish i knew love as i once did many years ago.maybe i should not go back in thoughts, because when we do go back and remember we are being cruel to ourselves.


By: chris, on Dec 14, 2006

What a wonderful experience to read your story- I love them all. People’s lives are endlessly interesting to me. Thank you for sharing yours. And to Chris who commented- at 70 I understand so profoundly your comment-Somewhere under the skin we all seem so similar.


By: Raine, on Dec 24, 2006

My Dad had his stroke first. Now, tomorrow, he has a doctor’s appointment to confirm whether or not he has lymphoma. I trust in my gut that he’s okay, this time. But, his first reaction when he thought he had it was, “Nobody lives forever.” No treatment plan and no willingness to explore them. Like yours, my dad is the athletic type—mine is past 80.

But here’s what I’ve experienced: Now, especially since the stroke, he has this quality of a 12-year-old, that budding pre-adolescent time of worms and slingshots and still liking your mom but not yet noticing girls. On the one hand, he can be incredibly mature (acknowledging that I—his 50+ year old daughter—has to be the one to climb up on the roof, not him, because we both know he stumbles when he’s just walking across the yard, he says, “Oh well, it just goes with the territory...” of suffering a severe stroke). But on the other hand, there are moments when I am what gives him a feeling of security. He needs me to be powerful, and to be a woman, and to nurture him if he falters. He slithers so fluidly between these roles of being my father and wanting to shelter me from any unpalatable truths and being like my little boy, who appreciates me standing between him and any danger.

We are forging a kind of closeness that is new for us, and very very precious.


By: A Daughter, on Jan 09, 2007

Cherushka, I’ve been looking for you, old friend, for a few years now. After a brief google I found this and the image of your family’s farm and the up and down road that I remember from so long ago came rushing back.
Please email me if you get a chance

Mooshka


By: Michele Ulinski, on Jun 18, 2008

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