End of life decisions

So today I watched my father sign the paperwork that places my mother’s quality of life in the hands of Hospice workers.

It was meeting I never wanted to have. No child wants that, no spouse wants that.

Yet, no spouse or child wants to see their loved one cry in pain and beg for relief.

My mother, 85, has known so much pain in her life. I’ve seen her suffer through eye ulcers, bursitis, a knee replacement, colon cancer/surgery, gall bladder attacks/surgery, a torturous foot condition that required surgery, bowel-obstruction surgery, baker’s cyst, broken hip/surgery, arthritis, infections and many of the prosaic pains that come with living in a fallen world. And I am certain there have been others that have gone unnoticed by a son often too occupied with living.

And then there was the pain of bringing me into the world. Whether we like it or not, we all have a hand in the pain and suffering of others, even those closest to us, people we dearly love.

I want her pain to end. I want her to never have another day of pain in her life. Don’t we all want that for those we love? And so we make hard decisions. We watch our father cry. We cry. We sign.

And we think about our own mortality. We think about the day we may have to do the same thing for our spouse. Or when the spouse does that for us.

These events spark conversation, the kind that occurs at the end of the waking day, when the lights are off and you hold each other tight and thank God for giving you each other and for being pain free at the moment, at least free of physical pain. You talk in whispers and with damp eyes, with hugs and snuggles. The comfort of knowing that this person next to you is in it for life, in it for the long haul. The sweetness of knowing that no matter what, there is someone there who understands you and is your champion and your friend, who won’t sell you out for a career or promotion, for membership in a big-fish/small-pond good-old-boys and girls club. Someone who understands the sacredness of the marriage vow.

That’s what I’ve seen my parents model for 65 years. They’ve had incredibly tough times in their lives. This is one of them. But they are still holding hands. The metal bar of the hospital bed may separate their bodies, but their souls, nothing is going to separate them.

It’s all on the line for each other. Always has been. And today, Dad signed on the lines. Form by form, he did, we did, what we thought best for “Tick.”

I find myself living day by day these days. We celebrate when Mom does not have pain, when she sips water, when she is able to look at pictures of the wedding or just out the window at the snow. I wait for the report every morning from her bedside, as my father reports on her night and condition upon arriving at the nursing home, then her afternoon later in the day. We live day by day, and some days hour by hour.

She begs to go home. I can’t blame her. Other than “wife” and “husband,” I don’t think there’s a sweeter word in the language than “home.”

At the end of the day, we all want to go home. We all want to know there is a place where love, the familiar and rest await us. To be surrounded by our stuff, the things that remind us of our story or are stories themselves. The familiar sounds, smells and patterns of light that play across the hardwood floor in ways unique to our home and setting. There is only one place like home, and on our sick bed or death bed, it is the place we long to be.

All of this is a shadow, I remind myself. For those who follow Christ, our real home can never be here, and our longing not for this world but the eternity where he is found. Sick or healthy, living or dying, our deepest longing is to be with him and in the place he prepared for us,  beyond the shadows.

The movement of our pen across the paper casts a double shadow, resignation on the one side, compassion on the other. We sign the papers knowing this is best for our loved one, that the pain of loss in this world will be forgotten in the next. Tears will be dried. Love perfected. Painkillers and the paperwork required to get them will be unnecessary.

Death is but a shadow of the journey.




A covered bridge date

My third “date” with Ruth was a long one; four days back in October 2017.

We started planning it as soon as it was evident that we had a lot in common and needed some extended together. As it turned out, by the time we actually were able to make the trip, we were already engaged, although we had kept it a secret. Aiding in that effort was the fact that the ring I bought her was too big and had to go back to the artisan not once, but twice. And so we say we were engaged three times before we got married.

The McGee’s Mill Covered Bridge in Clearfield County, Pa., where I presented Ruth with “the ring.”

I proposed to Ruth, the first time, at a covered bridge near Clearfield, Pa., during our second date. Yikes! I know that sounds that like rushing things, but we’d talked two to three a hours a night, plus had sent something like 600 emails to each other by that point. We got to know ourselves and each other during those long conversations and emails, and it just felt so comfortable.

Still, actually being with another person for an entire day is a lot different from being able to say “goodbye,” put the cell phone back in the bag and get on with life alone. So we planned an all-day adventure in Columbia County, Pa., exploring the covered bridges of a county that boasts Pennsylvania’s third largest concentration of 20 legacy wooden bridges.

Ruth was well organized with a picnic that included our favorite meal, cheese and crackers, plus enough beverages and ice to sustain us for several days in the field. In fact, I got so involved in loading her car with the bags of food and plastic silverware, I forgot the tripod from my own vehicle.

And so I had to wing it and hold all the shots of the bridges we visited. For architectural and landscape subjects, I use my Nikon D800E and Zeiss optics. Both the 35 f/2 and 50mm/f2 Makro were all I needed.

We couldn’t visit all 20 covered bridge in one day, so I picked those of greatest interest and within the same vicinity. At the top of the list were the East and West Paden bridges (38-19-12 and 38-19-11, respectively), the only “twin” covered bridges remaining in the country. At one time, Ashtabula County had twin covered bridges at Farnham, south of Conneaut. One was over a mill race, the other over the creek. They were on a dangerous curve and by the mid 1920s had been eliminated. The old mill that stood there is, likewise, long one.

Back in the days, the 1920s, Conneaut, Ohio, had twin covered bridges at Farnham, the site of a mill.

Twin is a bit of a misnomer, for the bridges are of different design, despite being built by the same builder and in the same year. W.C. Pennington charged $720 for the two bridges, named for John Paden, who operated a sawmill nearby.

While the East bridge is original, the West structure is a “reconstruction,” the original bridge having been washed away by a flood in June 2006.

These are not working bridges; they were bypassed in 1963 and repurposed as the centerpiece of Twin Bridges County Park. Picnic tables benefit from their coverings. We crossed the bridges and strolled down the lane to the driveway of a beautiful farmhouse, a photo of which now hangs in our living room, a sliver of a memory from that date.

A stone wall along the driveway and lovely lighting drew me to this private residence near the East and West Paden covered bridges in Columbia County, Pa.

The bridges we visited were all painted red, which turned out to be the most colorful subject matter on this October journey. The fall of 2017 will be remembered by landscape photographers in the East as one of the dullest and most uneventful in recent memory. That said, we did come across some acceptable foliage change along Huntington Creek, Fishing Creek Township. The Josiah Hess bridge awaited us here.

This delightful Burr arch bridge is 110 feet long and was built in 1875. It has a very pronounced camber, or slight arch, to the deck. Ruth soaked up the scenery while I went to work photographing the bridge under less-than-idea light. At least it wasn’t raining.

By the time we reached the Patterson Bridge, the sun had busted through the clouds and the light had become too contrasty for my tastes. This little bridge spans Green Creek and was built in 1875. It has windows on one side, and slanting roofs extend from the bridge to prevent water from entering from the windows—after all, the whole purpose of covering the bridge trusses was to keep water and weather off them. I’d never seen this treatment before on a covered bridge.

Our travels also took us to the Fowlersville and Kramer covered bridges before we decided it was time to get ice cream. We found some at a huge crafts fair near Bloomsburg, then headed toward a spot Ruth recalled from her childhood, one that promised a vista of the Susquehanna River and sunset. It sounded perfect to me; the engagement ring was in my pocket, and I figured a sunset would be a great setting. But we never found the place and ended up watching the sun’s departure over a pasture as we searched maps and the GPS screen in the car for the wrong turn we’d taken.

So on the way back to my motel room, I asked her to pull off in a park and take a walk. Turns out the park was in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, not the most romantic spot in the world. We started walking toward the river, but the mosquitoes were bad, so I just stopped and gave her the ring, which was too big.

We laughed and hugged and promised we’d get engaged a third time. And we did, without benefit of covered bridges, in Clearfield, on the fourth date.

The gallery located on the home page exhibits a selection of images from our outing, one of what we hope will be many, many more in the back roads of the Eastern United States.



The Story Quilter’s Threads

I love a good barn.
My paternal grandfather had a lovely one, perched on a hillside of the farming village of Eglon, W.Va.
I recall him telling me that he and his wife, Maud, built the barn in the 1930s, when they married, moved to the land, built their home and started farming and raising a family.
Traveling to the farm as a child, I always went to the barn with my grandfather, where he kept a few beef cattle and an assortment of barn cats. The cats often got a few dinner-table scraps, which I’d enjoy placing in a bowl and then wait for them to come out of hiding for the food.

My grandfather, Russel Feather, farmed this hillside for decades. His barn is at the far right of the photo, taken in 2004. The farm has been trashed and it makes me sad to go by there and see the disrespect that the new owners have shown to the place, once my grandfather’s pride and joy.

The barn was a bank barn, with access to the pasture off the back, facing Route 24, which ran along the ridge behind the barn. The first floor, below bank grade, was block foundation and provided stalls for the cattle. The second floor and haymow were timber construction and provided storage for the revered tractor. Theframed part was sided with vertical wormy chestnut boards.
Aside from the smell of dusty hay and petroleum products, the most vivid memory of that barn was watching the way the sun played through the cracks in the siding. I played “peek-a-boo” with the sun as it traced its morning course across the barn siding, peaking in and out of the cracks and casting slits of yellow, dusty light onto the hay and cats.

Thus it was that I choose to open my feature documentary about barn quilts, The Story Quilter’s Threads, with a time lapse of a sunrise through barn siding. The barn is a circa-1900 German-built dairy barn owned by Dale and Margaret Toukonen. The segment was filmed on a Sunday morning in September. While the camera shot a frame every second for an hour, I worked outside capturing the stirrings of the horses and solitary sheep on this equestrian retirement resort, “Wind Horse Farm.” Aside from the horses owned by the Toukonens, the elderly horses on this farm were working horses, in a circus or on a race track, for examples, and are living out their days in the comfort and care of this Williamsfield Township former dairy farm.
I got know the owners through the Ashtabula County Barn Quilt Trail, the steering committee of which I am a member. The Toukonen barn was one of the first to receive an 8-by-8 barn quilt. Barn quilts are quilt patterns painted onto high-quality sign board. They usually tell a story, and in this case the story is that of the farm’s name and its branding symbol, enclosed by a quilt pattern.
The Toukonen farms’ story is one of several selected for The Story Quilter’s Threads, which focuses on southern Ashtabula County barn quilts. The barn quilt trail steering committee did not design it this way, but most of the barn quilts that are actually on barns and have a story connected to them, are in the southwestern section of the county.
From March to November of 2017, I interviewed barn quilt owners about their choice of pattern, quilting heritage and the story of the barn itself. They are stories from a bygone era, a time when a family could still make a living from the family farm, and when a man’s word meant something. Several of the stories are about loss and commemorating the life that was snuffed out by age or farm injury.
The landscape in Williamsfield Township, where much of this film takes place, is gently rolling and well watered, thanks to being near Pymatuning Reservoir and the swamps that feed it. Footage from the first aerial photography attempt for the film had to be set aside because the fields were soggy and crops struggling in July. A second attempt in early October was much more satisfying, with the sunrise over Pymatuning Reservoir and patchy fog providing a delightful greeting as we circled the Housel barn on Simons South Road.
The film received its premiere at The Lodge and Conference Center at Geneva on the Lake, Nov. 20, 2017. I offer it for sale on DVD at this website as a fundraiser for the Barn Quilt Trail.
Samples of The Story Quilter’s Threads can be found at The Feather Cottage You Tube Channel, along with the time lapse from the Toukonen barn.
What I didn’t plan on as I was setting up for the shot was the number of barn cats that would wander in and out of the scene over the course of filming it. They confirm the suspicion that much life occurs outside of our awareness because we simply don’t take the time to observe it. Our movement about the sun creates the arc, but we are so accustomed to taking still photographs using a 1/250th second slice of sunlight that we think of it as a static phenomenon.
The moving image, on the other hand, falsely reveals an organic being, the sun, arcing across our sky, when it is actually our spaceship that is making the elliptical journey. Both the arc and the compression of time are thus illustrations of something larger, the spinning of dusty arcs into days and threads into stories, The Story Quilter’s Threads.

A side note on Williamsfield Township. This area was hit by a tornado in November 2017 and three years earlier took a hit worldwide when it was declared “the most stressful neighborhood in America.” My experience here was completely opposite. It is a peaceful, lovely corner of Ashtabula County where Amish and Yankee farmers work side-by-side, barns are preserved and the farming heritage treasured. I hope the video captures a piece of that.