He thought he had fleas.

But he didn’t have fleas, and he knew he didn’t.

“Do you see the cat scratching?”


“Has she been outside?”


“Do you see fleas jumping onto you?”


“I don’t think you have fleas.”

“That’s what the vet said, too.”

“Then you don’t have fleas.” That would put an end to the discussion, for most people. But Dad was getting itchy welts on his face and neck.

“Maybe I have bedbugs.”

“Do you have little red bites all over your body?”


“Is there a rotten banana smell? They always say bedbugs have a rotten banana smell.”


“I don’t think you have bedbugs.”

“Well, dammit, there’s SOMETHING biting me.”

“Silverfish? Your house has a lot of silverfish.”

“I don’t think they bite. I’ve never seen one in my bed.”


“I haven’t seen any spiders.”

I call him every night. So every night we were having basically that conversation. He sprayed Raid underneath and all around his bed. He had a bug guy come spray for fleas in the house (“But you don’t have fleas. Right?” “I’ll feel better.” “But you could save the money.” “It’s worth it to me.”)

So this obsession with bugs is why he thought he’d gotten an enormous bug bite on his forehead.

“I think I got bit by a bug, and it’s swelling. It’s all red, on my forehead, and it’s getting bigger,” he told my mom on the phone—for her own sanity she’s left Dad and moved to South Carolina to live as cheaply as possible with her nearly nonagenarian brother in his double-wide trailer. Mom called to alert my sister. My sister drove out to the farmhouse and immediately recognized that Dad had fallen and conked his head.

“I don’t remember falling,” he said.

I visited him in the emergency room where my sister had taken him.

“Dad, those are mosquito bites, those big red bites on your face and neck. Were you outside where mosquitos would bite you?”

“Yes. They’re bad this year.”

“So it’s not fleas.”

“I suppose.”

“And that big one is not a bug bite. It’s a big knot where you hit your head. You don’t remember falling?”

“They say I fell. I don’t know if I did or not.”

“You did.”

“That’s what they say.”

I guess when your Dad is mobile but 86 and living alone, none of this is that surprising. Although—except for the not-remembering part—it could be happening in the 1970s exactly the same way: the argumentativeness, the skepticism, the obsessive behavior, panic over nature invading his quarters. It’s not just because he’s old and alone.

Being old and alone doesn’t help, though.

Since the day of the amnesiac fall, he’s developed a list of symptoms to treat, requiring catheters and nebulizers and thick nectar meals to prevent aspiration. Undetected infections have led to demented raving at the rehab place—outrageous behavior that’s apparently typical of elderly people with infections. His conduct got him deported for “stabilization” to a glaringly fluorescent miniature jail, an all-visitors-must-empty-pockets, three-locked-wards, an-unqualified-male-nurse-botched-the-catheterization kind of place.

Can anybody think of a rhyme for “catheter?”

Could you fit its trochaic emphasis into a single beat—a first syllable then a super-fast percussive ending?

Not that songwriters in Nashville talk about trochaic emphasis. They’re more interested in story and unusual takes on old themes.

Catheter, path to here, math of fear, bathysphere.

It’s not inconceivable that a song on Nashville radio might deal with all this. Brad Paisley added to the tradition of country songs about country songs by singing, “You’re not supposed to say the word ‘cancer’ in a song… But this is country music, and we do…”

Still, before we can sing about Dad’s catheter and other problems, we have to find the hope. A song like this won’t go anywhere without a little hope.

So far we’re still looking for that.

Last summer my wife and I loaded the family in the minivan and did the Yellowstone/Rushmore trip. It was great, and we were gone a couple of weeks. I still called Dad every day.

He was doing fine: livin’ independently, like the cowboys on the range, or the surly-looking motorcycle dudes in Sturgis, South Dakota.

Still, he made it clear he was worried about us every time I got him on the phone. He frets, even as he’s arguing and bickering and hectoring and lecturing. Travel’s potential for calamity exhausts him.

He regularly panics about stuff that never happens.

Although I admit, sometimes stuff does happen.

For example, in my day I’ve had a few car radios stolen. Thieves always bust a window. So I leave my car unlocked, hoping the thief will try the door handle, drop his brick, leave the window unbusted and quietly make off with the radio.

Sure enough, this summer, after we packed the van with a few mix CDs labeled “Westward Ho!” and took off, as we were driving the Needles Highway, or impatiently waiting for Grand Geyser to blow, or shaking our head at the hubris of Mt. Rushmore—the National Monument equivalent of a jingoistic Nashville song—some jerk got in my Jeep and took the radio. They didn’t bust the window, though.

Sort of yay!

Now I drive around in silence.

With my thoughts.

Turning them over.


No new Nashville songs coming into my head.

No new Nashville songs coming out of my head, either, because it’s all so bleak.

“All he wants to talk about is his catheter bag / And how long it’s been since he pooped.” Memorable first line, no? Take that, Brad Paisley cancer song.

But I know it’s not a song yet.

There has to be hope for the song to work.

My brother-in-law and I were at the jail-hospital during visiting hours trying to tell Dad that his raving scared the patients at the other facility and also the staff. Now he was being rude to these people. Our advice was he should control himself.

“What was it the poet said about ‘going out kicking and screaming?’” Dad said defiantly.

“‘Do not go gentle into that good night?’” I said, irritated. “Dylan Thomas?”

“That’s it. Go out kicking and screaming, isn’t that what he said?”

“That guy died of alcohol poisoning in Greenwich Village when he was young! Dad! It’s not… that wasn’t… I don’t think he meant you were supposed to scare the nurses.” Or maybe he did. Damn it, Dylan Thomas.

“They weren’t taking care of me! Shakespeare! Shakespeare said, ‘The smallest worm, when trodden on, WILL TURN.’ I’m the worm!”

“They’re not trodding on you, Dad. They’re just showing up to work in a rehab facility and they’re trying to keep a good attitude with a hard job they probably don’t make any money at. They’re doing their best.”

“They’re not! They weren’t taking care of me. What would you do?”

It’s kind of pointless to make him talk about it. The more he quotes Dylan Thomas and Shakespeare, the more he gets dug into a position I don’t want him to defend.

That rebel stance is attractive, though, isn’t it? To some. Personally I think it’s selfish and unfriendly. I rank friendliness very high. But Nashville does celebrate a rebel. Nashville and drunk Dylan Thomas. Thanks, guys.

“Rage! Rage against the dying of the day!” [cue twangy solo]

Eventually the jail-like hospital called to say that they didn’t like his vitals and wanted to send him to a real hospital.

That was good. He needed to get out of there.

That place was going to be his good night.

In the new hospital one night he saw a wolf in his room.

The wolf growled and threatened him, then left. He followed it down the halls of the hospital.

Doctors assured him that a wolf could not make it through the hospital and take the elevator to the fifth floor and skulk past the nurses’ station and get into his room. Dad understands now he was hallucinating, probably a drug reaction.

My wife shares my dad updates with her sister, who is quick to google, so I got this email entitled “Wolves” (my sister-in-law’s name is Margaret): “Margaret says they symbolize appetite for freedom, expression of strong instincts, feeling threatened, lack of trust in someone or yourself. Sounds about right.”

Sounds about like half the songs on Nashville radio stations, too. At least that’s what I remember. I don’t have a radio, so who knows.

Right now he’s at arguably the city’s best hospital. He’s still not satisfied with the care.

“I’m dying of uremic poisoning. You can read about it in my obituary. You can talk about it at the funeral. All my friends’ fathers in the thirties died of uremic poisoning.” Every phone call he says he’s dying. “I’ll go into hospice. I really think I’m dying.” The doctors say he’s doing okay—just working through challenges. But in every phone call he says he’s dying.

Crying wolf, I think that’s called.

Medicare is running out.

We have to decide how to fund all this.

My valedictorian sister has outdone herself. Surrounded the problem with energy and focus. We’ve talked about selling his farm, but for now we’ll try to forestall that.

It’s a fantasy I’ve had for a long time: his coming to terms with years passing and calmly taking the reins, making decisions, simplifying and enjoying the equity he’s built—freeing up a little cash for him to visit Yellowstone, maybe, or handsomely tip a bunch of Cracker Barrel waitresses.

But his train has blown past that station without stopping. He’s way down the line, stopped at the station where wolves prowl the platform and he threatens nurse’s aides with freshman lit quotes.

If only he could’ve handled some of his complicated asset management bullshit himself. Awhile back I even wrote a song about that fantasy, which at this point is also a fantasy for him:

He can’t handle the place on his own anymore
Just keeping it mowed is too big of a chore
He’s renting out the fields, the barn, and the stalls
He can’t mend any fence on his own
Mom doesn’t want him walking the line alone
He shouldn’t go up to the hayloft in case he falls
And I don’t know what’s gonna happen
He’s never had a tan up his whole arm
Can’t imagine the farm without Dad
Or Dad without the farm

Mom and Dad, my wife, and me were talking it through
Maybe we could take over, raise a pony or two
I’d have to keep working my day job, though—that’d get hard
Now we agree on an auction instead
We’ve cleared out the attic, emptied the shed

And Saturday fifty-six years will be spread on the yard
We’re hoping for a pretty good turnout
It’s supposed to be sunny and warm
Can’t imagine the farm without Dad
Or Dad without the farm

Saturday morning he’ll come down the stairs
In the old overalls that he usually wears
And joke with the folks as they’re carting away his stuff
Under his hat and his sunglasses clip
He might fight back tears but he won’t let them slip
Or at least we’ll pretend not to notice, so he can act tough

We got Mom and him set up in a house in town
A two-bedroom ranch with no stairs to fall down
He can sit and swat flies with the paper on the little carport
It’s got a garage with an old workbench
He can tinker around or hang out with old friends
Make coffee, talk about the weather report
I don’t know how long he’ll last there
But letting him putter doesn’t do any harm
Still, it kills me to think of the farm without Dad
Or Dad without the farm

When I play that for publishers, they never think it will sell.

“That’s a good song to play for somebody you want to co-write with,” one publisher said. “Shows what you can do. But that’s about it.”

I admit, it is in the “A A B A” format—less desirable than the mighty verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus.

Another publisher said, “It needs something where we understand what this farm means to him, where it’s a really personal thing for him to have to leave.” That’s the sort of comment that drives songwriters nuts—I think that idea is “in there” and doesn’t need to be beat like the pony in the second verse.

Still, after years of clients commenting on my copywriting, I know to stay—yes—friendly, and not unfurl my rebel flag. So I tried it:

He can’t handle the place on his own anymore
Just keeping it mowed is too big of a chore
He’s renting out the fields, the barn, and the stalls
The little church where him and mom tied the knot
Is off to the east looking out the hayloft
But he’s not supposed to go up there, in case he falls. . .

One evening at songwriting mentor Barbara Cloyd’s house, I brought it up. She said, “Move on, Charlie. Leave it alone and write another. You don’t have to do what the publisher says.” I recited the patched first verse for her anyway. She nodded, “Okay, yeah. I like that, too. Up to you.”

I think I should leave it the way it was. Not out of indignant rebellion but because it’s more true. You can’t see the church where they were married from the hayloft, but Mom truly didn’t want him walking the fenceline by himself because if he keeled over she’d have to go find him. And how the hell was she supposed to get him back to the house? Drag him?

Everything in the song is either true or just short of it.

Or would have been. Or could have been.

Except now he can’t tinker around with the workbench in a little house in town. He sped past that station.

All he’s got left is his rebel stance. Acting tough. Kicking and screaming.

(turns up imaginary radio in the Jeep)

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
(workmanlike neo-Nashville guitar solo until fade out)

On second thought, Dad, don’t rage. Try gentle-going. Please. Be nice to the nurses. Quit messing around with your catheter, too. Just—hands off. You’re going to—quit moving it around, it’s going to block your opening again. Remember, it blocked the opening and your bladder filled up? It’s going to happen agai—stop moving it around. It’s okay. I know it’s—you’ve got to stop touching it. Leave it be.

Right now we just need you to stabilize, and the doctors will keep the real wolf away for awhile.

That’s our hope.