softball lost in leaves

Lost … and found

The October picnic ended with a backyard softball competition between the relatives and in-laws. Outfield was the row of dense hemlocks along the lane, and late into the eighth inning, Junior hit one straight into this thicket.

Billy dove into the crisp accumulation of oak and maple leaves. He failed to notice the ball had bounced off one trunk and lodged into a depression next to another. The family rummaged through the leaves and twigs for the new softball, but dusk concealed it well. After five minutes of looking and wanting to just get the game over and the kids home and cleaned up for school, they gave up.

I found it last week, right where it was lost.

Since moving into our house in Bruceton Mills, W.Va., in November 2020, we’ve found a lot of things that were lost, and now found.

There was a plastic bubble pipe and gold dentures under the bathroom cabinet we ripped out during remodeling.

A broken mirror was found under an accumulation of leaves in the side yard, along with a collapsible shovel, two automobile rotors, a brake line, bags of trash, kitchen knife, golf ball and green water holding tank that could pass for a bomb if not for the galvanized pipe protruding from it.

A dismembered baby doll head found in the mud and leaves at our property.

I even found the plastic head of a dismembered baby doll whose face was encrusted with mud and moss. Creepy.

All were lost, now found.

I have no idea if the softball, remarkedly well preserved, was lost in the manner described. The nature of lost things is they do not come with an explanation of their lostness. The stray dog that shows up at our doorstep without a collar arrives without a story attached, yet there is an explanation. Nothing simply goes lost. We forget where we put it. It falls out of our pocket while hiking. We loan it to a relative and it grows legs.

Sometimes, we purposely lose things out of convenience or sheer laziness. We leave that bag of trash in the leaves, we treat an overgrown area on our property as a landfill. We tell the stuff to “get lost,” actually believing “out of sight, out of mind.”

Lost stuff eventually gets found. That’s one of the adventures that comes with buying a property that was the stage for raising children, fixing cars, family gatherings and life. Stuff gets misplaced, left behind in the excitement or pressures of the moment. We forget to go back for it, or something better replaces it. We don’t bother to scour the nooks and crannies when we move. “I’ve lived this long without it, I’m not going to look for it any further. We got enough stuff to move.”

The next person will find it. And we do. Finders keepers, worthless car parts and gold, plastic dentures alike. The stories are left to our imaginations; one is as good as another.

As we move from property to property, from life stage to life stage, we lose things for others to find and find things that were never ours to lose. We do the same with relationships; we struggle to recall the name of that best friend in high school or that best man in our brother’s wedding. We work beside a person 10 hours a day for 10 years and hug and cry when she moves on to a better job. A couple of years later, reminiscing with old co-workers around coffee, we recall her only by her quirks and sloppy work habits. We say we “lost track” of her, but the losing is more a matter of discard than misplacement.

People get lost, they drop through the cracks of our lives and memories like the tarnished religious “good luck” token I found under the old flooring we tore up. Someone once held it closely in his pocket, but then it became lost through carelessness or its relative worthlessness. That which is held loosely is lost easily.

Being lost is as much an emotion as a state of being. It’s a yucky feeling, unsettling, even scary. Being found, whether by the previous owner or someone who cherishes us even more, is bliss. The reunion of a lost dog with his distraught owner is a sweet sight.

Good preachers are like those folks who find a lost dog and then use every means possible to find its owner. They recognize that dogs and people alike get lost chasing cars and skunks. Yes, even good Christian folks get lost—they drop through the cracks, they get tangled up with deceivers and soon become forgotten by the brothers and sisters they once broke bread with and served alongside in God’s work. Once held closely, soon forgotten because of sin or indifference, they are lost. I’ve seen it many times, good church folks focusing on the stories of lostness rather the effort of finding and restoration.

All of the Christian churches I’ve attended talk about “the lost” as a category of people stumbling through life like sheep without a shepherd.  “I once was lost, but now I am found,” is a familiar line from “Amazing Grace,” the hymn that speaks to the wonder of found-ness, being “saved.”

Most folks don’t know they are lost until an evangelist explains it to them in a fiery sermon or they are left behind when the party relocates. They realize their value was so small it was not worth their friends’ and lovers’ trouble to include them in the move. I have known that kind of lostness. Five years ago, I felt like that dismembered doll with tears of mud and the moss of lostness spreading its filaments around my head. I have been discarded and forgotten, and, regrettably, I, too, have discarded and tried to forget.

Like it or not, we all get lost, tossed aside. We are made to be mirrors, reflecting the light of our Creator, but we get cracked or tarnished through sin or deception; the blows of life break off little pieces of us until we no longer fit properly in society’s frames. We are discarded, lost and buried under mud, dead leaves and moss, waiting to be found by the next occupant of this land; to be claimed, cleaned and polished.

That’s God’s work, the story of redemption. Lost and found.

We are all broken mirrors, awaiting God to find us so we can reflect his love and light.
Broken heart candies

Guard Your Heart

Part 5 of a memoir of heart failure, open-heart surgery and complications

One does not come so close to death as I did without learning many lessons along the way. As I continue to recover from heart failure, open heart surgery and its myriad complications, I am given the gift of time to reflect upon and dissect the events in search of wisdom for living the balance of my days. I share them here.

Please don’t see me as the preacher. In all these experiences, I speak as one has failed, one who has come through the fire and sincerely desire that all others would avoid these flames.

Lesson number one: Guard your heart.

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
Proverbs 4:23

I once thought the heart muscle and emotional/spiritual hearts were distinct entities. My experience taught me they are one and the same. Just as alternating current passing through a coil induces current in a neighboring coil, the suffering of the spiritual/emotional heart induces pain and destruction in the physical heart. Emotional and spiritual disease induce a destructive current in the physical heart.

In the past 10 years I went through a divorce that was entirely my fault. I walked away from a darling house that I and my first wife had worked so very hard to own and remodel. During this same period, I left a 25-year career in journalism and sold off my part-time business to meet the requirements of taking a job in county government.

I purchased a foreclosed home that had to be completely rehabbed. The copper water lines had been stripped from the house. There was a huge hole in the roof and black mold was throughout. I had to move in, nevertheless. The first night, I slept on the floor next to a spot where an animal had died and rotted on the carpet. Every spare minute and dime went into the house for two years, during which time it became apparent I was in a marriage built upon lies. I suffered a second emotional “heart attack” as I went through the discard and divorce.

I was working 18 hours a day between the job, house and writing a book. On good nights, I got three hours of sleep. Some days, I got halfway to work before I realized that the sun was setting rather than rising; the nap I took had been mistaken for a night’s rest. I persevered, but I knew something was very wrong inside me.

God graciously sent me a loving, caring wife. It looked as if my life had turned the corner; then my mother broke her hip on the eve our wedding and died six weeks later.

Despite assurances that the funding source for my county government job “had my back” in the event the job didn’t work out, I was laid off due to funding being withdrawn and the all-Republican board replacing me with a political friend and younger worker.
I could not find a job, any job, and was forced to go on Social Security three years short of full-retirement age. That will cost me $260 a month for the rest of my life.

On December 19, 2019, the two dogs who had seen me through many dark nights had to be put down due to terminal health issues. Digging the graves for those two pups was one the most difficult things I’ve had to do in my life. My emotional heart was broken, but I pushed forward, trusting God in every vicissitude and challenge. Then Covid-19 came along, and Ruth was laid off.

With my income reduced, I could not could not afford Ohio’s city, school, county and state taxes. Ruth found a job in West Virginia. For the fourth time in seven years, I was packing and moving.

A part of my heart remains in the stone walls of that house, just as a part of my heart remains in that house my first wife and I remodeled. I remember reading a book in which the author stated that a piece of your soul dies each time you divorce. The author had it right, except it is the heart that dies. Once dead, it cannot be recovered, only bypassed or replaced with a foreign part.

There were times during the move from Ohio to West Virginia I felt as though my heart was going to explode as I struggled to carry and load the heavy boxes. The thought of living in West Virginia, a place I had only dreamed of living, pushed me onward. I was certain once we got there, all would be well. But the house we bought had serious issues that went undisclosed by the uninsured home inspector. We nearly lost the place to fire as a result of these issues. We faced tens of thousands of unanticipated expenses. The stress was incredible.

I gave little thought to what all of this was doing to my physical heart. It just kept beating, and I just chalked up the shortness of breath, sleeplessness and tiredness to abundance of stress. Further, after I lost my job with county government, I had no health insurance. Whether I went with an Obamacare policy or was added to my wife’s employer-provided insurance, it was going to cost us more per month than what I was receiving in unemployment benefits. Further, those benefits were reduced by whatever income I had from writing. So, I went without; I didn’t go to the doctor when I should have.

After I reached the magic age of 65 and was eligible for Medicare, my cursory checkups failed to reveal any issues with the heart. Indeed, just three months before being diagnosed with congestive heart failure, my family doctor examined in me and failed to detect any signs of heart weakening. A week before I showed up at the emergency room, another doctor had listened to my heart and prescribed vitamins, a steroid and antibiotic.

My surgeries, hospitalizations and affiliated costs exceeded $1.6 million. I will be on blood thinners the rest of my life. Healing a heart is expensive, whether the damage is physical or emotional. Prevention and early intervention are always less expensive than repairing a broken heart.

It took months of therapy to get me through the divorces and abusive relationship. Only by the grace of God was I able to trust another person again. During that time I clung tightly to something Jesus said in Luke 11:11: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?” I trusted God to give me a fish, and he did, the loving, dedicated wife I have in Ruth. It was a miracle.

And I trusted him again as I went through the rigors of surgery, complications and recovery. And he was, once again, faithful. During that time, I realized that the health and capabilities of all my being depends upon the strength and health of the heart. I was in a constant mental fog, I lacked the strength to lift more than a pound and could not take so much as one step until my heart healed. All things truly flow from the heart on a physical level.

The same is true of emotional and spiritual heart. Our overall health depends upon the spiritual heart’s condition. People die of broken hearts. Had I paid more attention to an area of emotional and spiritual weakness, I would have reinforced my defenses in that region and thus avoided further damage to my emotions’ “big muscle.”

There is wisdom in Proverbs 4:23, regardless of how you read it. You can be an atheist and still benefit from this wisdom.

Take care of your physical heart; eat well, exercise and get regular checkups by responsible practitioners. Take symptoms seriously. Trust me, you don’t want to have to go through open-heart surgery and its minefield of complications if you can at all avoid it.

The extensive testing performed prior to my surgery revealed a weak aortic valve that could not keep up with the accumulation of fluid around the heart. The extensive emotional and spiritual testing that I went through with my marriage revealed an inadequate defense against weaknesses in my character, spiritual life, thoughts and emotions.

Our spiritual enemy knows us better than we do and has an army poised to strike at those weaknesses. A lack of boundaries in my life and the steady erosion of my defenses through the trials of life made those weaknesses an easy target.

Sadly, when the Christian comes under attack and suffers “spiritual heart failure,” the tendency among brothers and sisters in Christ is to puff up and revel in their own righteousness, to quote condemning scripture and ostracize according Jesus’ teachings on the matter in Matthew 18. Keep this in mind: Someone having heart failure needs intensive care, not intensive criticism. The way many evangelicals treat brothers and sisters “in sin” is akin to an EMS crew lecturing a heart-failure victim on the evils of a sedentary lifestyle and diet high in saturated fats rather than compassionately administering life-saving measures. Even Paul recognized that a spirit of “gentleness” is required when dealing with the heart. Having an attitude “it could never happen to me” is an open invitation for invasion by the enemy.

The consequence of ignoring the health of your heart is eventually having to be jolted back into reality. Lies whispered to us through lips controlled by the enemy target our hearts, just as the propaganda being spun by Russian media belie the obvious. The war for our hearts is as real as Putin’s War in Ukraine. It is the heart level at which psychopaths and narcissists operate. Be alert!

All life stems from the heart, and the health of both the spiritual and physical heart determine the quality of life we will enjoy. This I have learned in so many difficult trials and attacks.

Guard your hearts, my friend. Your life depends upon it.

My times, His hands

Part 4 of a memoir of heart failure, open-heart surgery and complications

One of the things that sustains me during my weeks of hospitalization and recovery from open heart surgery is the hope of seeing and cuddling with my mixed-breed dog, Edison.

We adopted him in January 2020, and he quickly became a member of the family. We called him HSS Edison—handsome, sweet and smart. Edison and I are a bonded pair, but on February 5, 2021, that bond is severed by my cardiac incident. Ruth has her hands full driving to Pittsburgh and back, and my father, who is living with us at the time, has medical appointments in Ohio that prevent him from being at home with Edison during Ruth’s long days.
It is decided that Edison’s interests are best served if he goes back to Ohio with Dad. Thus, when I come home from the rehab hospital in early May, Edison is still in Ohio. It is just as well; I am too weak to withstand so much as a gentle nudge from him and having a dog underfoot while I am learning to stand to walk is unwise, if not downright dangerous.
Just nine days after coming home from the rehab hospital, I have sufficient mobility with my wheelchair and walker that the family felt Edison can come home, although by then, my father is very attached to him. But he also recognizes that having Edison in our home is essential to my healing.
Seeing him hop out of my father’s Jeep is one of the most joyful moments of my life. Edison looks toward the door and recognizes me, sitting in the wheelchair, then rushes in to greet me.

Edison. Handsome, sweet, smart. We are best friends.

More prayers of thanksgiving.
That weekend also marks the beginning of my return to “work.” My office is on the second floor of the house, and there is no way I can climb the steps to access my computer. My son, grandson and his wife move the computer and related paraphernalia to the room where my air mattress bed is located. I spend the next eight weeks or so editing and filing years of photos and other files, catching up on emails and addressing long-overdue tax returns.
My son also brings downstairs my camera bag, which weights 18 pounds. I am astounded by the weight of the thing and cannot comprehend how I was once able to hike through the woods with it on my back. I remove the Nikon D810 body from the bag; it is all I can do to lift it. Mounted on it is the beautiful, vintage Nikkor 28 mm f/2 lens I had purchased a few weeks before the heart attack. The thought of owning that lens and using it during my hikes in Old Hemlock Nature Preserve sustained me during those long days in the acute care facility. I try to lift it to my eye, but the weight is just too great. I place the combination on my makeshift desk, a motivational tool for me to follow through on the weight-lifting exercises that the occupational therapist assigns. Lacking a three-pound hand barbell, I use a 180-mm lens as a substitute.

Summer pastime. Watching the clouds roll across the hills.

Ditching the walking aids
Ruth returns to work in Morgantown two weeks after I come home. Although I am alone and we live in a rural area, several neighbors up the lane assure her that they will come running if I call. And there are visits from home-health professionals through the daily. The nurse assures me that I will be back to “normal” by August. Sitting in a wheelchair, unable to walk so much as two steps without a walker, too weak to pick up my camera, weighing less than 110 pounds and hauling around a huge battery pack attached to a vest that could shock me back to life in a lost heartbeat, I cannot fathom that I will ever be back to normal.
Then again, I probably should not even be alive. Doctors, nurses, therapists tell me I am a miracle. And little by little, my health improves, my abilities return.
My physical therapist, Jason, is amazing. Patient, encouraging and strong, he comes alongside me and literally walks with me through my recovery and progression from wheelchair to walker, from cane to walking stick, from being terrified of the stairs to climbing them on my own and, on June 1, spending the first night in our upstairs bedroom with my wife after months of being apart.
By mid-June, I walk the steps to my office for the first time. Entering that room after an absence of nearly five months is like walking into another’ person’s life and trying to assume it as my own. I wonder what happened to that man who had such high hopes for this space and the creating that would be done here? What became of him, and what am I to do with all this? Nothing in the room matches the alternate reality of it that I experienced in my coma. It is all so alien to me.
Many boxes remain unpacked from the move, and papers are everywhere. There are tax returns to be completed and filed, get-well cards to acknowledge and long-neglected projects to tackle. What I want to do most on this first day back in office is locate my LPs of the Westminster recordings of Bach’s Orchestral Suites. I play one side of an album and my mind flashes back to one of the ongoing alternate-reality scenarios in which I left my vintage receiver and turntable running the entire time I was hospitalized. I am relieved that I have not destroyed the cartridge and overheated the receiver by failing to lift the tone arm off the turntable before I died. Perhaps that is just one more way my mind tried to help me make sense of what I was experiencing.
I sleep 12 to 16 hours a day; therapy exhausts me. I have a morning nap, after-lunch nap and evening nap. I sleep more soundly and effectively than I have in decades. Sleep has never felt as good to me as it does now.
Food still tastes horrible, and I struggle with swallowing many of the things that are staples for a vegetarian diet, especially salad and fresh vegetables. My physical therapist encourages me to eat ice cream several times a day, for both the calories and fact it is palatable to me. My downward spiral of weight loss stops, and by mid-June I begin am gaining weight. After my son installs the water purifier on our refrigerator, I finally can stand to drink water in quantities necessary for good health. For the first time in months, I enjoy a hot mug of coffee.

Ruth walking Edison “on up the lane.” I have gone far enough.

The new life

I establish a habit of sitting on the front porch in the sun after lunch, with Edison by my side, watching the beautiful world pass before us. I eat walnuts and pistachios, supposedly good for the heart, photograph the gathering storm clouds with my Fuji ES2 and wave to and talk to the neighbors who drive down the lane to get their mail.
Ruth takes Edison for a walk along Seaford Lane each evening, and I begin to walk with them using a cane or walking stick for stability on the uneven surfaces. I gradually push myself to walk a little farther each evening, to eventually attack the slope that leads to Dave’s house, then on up the lane to Don’s and Raymond’s. My legs ache and feet wobble. If Edison jerks on the leash at the sight of a feral cat, I can lose my balance. And he does. I tumble backwards and hit my head on a rock. I am knocked unconscious. When I wake up, he’s licking my face and blood is oozing from the back of my head. I make my way home, trembling, afraid of another tour of the hospital, of excessive bleeding from the blood thinners.
Nothing much comes it of it; I am more careful the next time, and the time after that.
These little journeys define my new life, a life for which I am incredibly grateful.
In late June I undergo surgery for the false aneurysm on my arm. I am filled with fear. Will the anesthesia thrust me into the alternate reality I entered following the open-heart surgery and subsequent surgical procedures? Would complications develop that would require another extended hospitalization?
They did. During the surgery, an “unusual” heartbeat is observed on the monitor, and my status changes from outpatient to inpatient. A specialist is called in and decides it is best to monitor my heart with a wearable device.
So, now I have the life vest with its huge battery and a heart monitor. The weather is hot, and the vest, which is uncomfortable on its own, makes it all the more miserable. Sleep is encumbered by these devices, which ensure there is no position in which to orient my body so that wires and devices are not pressing into my skin.
Because our house is distant from cellphone towers, we must drive about the countryside once a day in search of a cellular signal by which we can upload date from the heart monitor.
About halfway through my month on the heart monitor, I get good news: The last echocardiogram shows 40 percent heart function; I can ditch the life vest!
A week later, I officially begin my “cardiac rehab.” Rather than drive an hour each day to spend as much time on a treadmill, I opt for blending my cardiac and home rehab into one—starting with sanding 600 board feet of rough-sawn lumber that will become trim and wall siding for a bathroom remodel.

My father, Carl J., assists me with the project of sanding and finishing hardwood lumber for our home remodeling work, August 2021.

The house that contributed to my heart attack thus becomes part of the rehabilitation from that event. Over the next four months, I push myself to build walls, rewire rooms, install a ceiling and perform myriad other home improvement chores before winter sets in. Each day I grow a little stronger as I awaken and use muscles that were dormant and wasting away for months. My body, and my legs especially, ache constantly; each day is a new adventure in a new kind/place of pain. I forge on.
In early August I fulfill a promise I had made to my friend John Bowers, co-founder of Pickin’ in Parsons. I “return to work” on August 3 by driving the 50 miles to Parsons and spending the day interviewing and photographing Pickin’ for a Goldenseal article. I return for two more grueling days of walking, talking and observing. The week exhausts me, but I prove to myself that, while my brain is still foggy at times, I still can do the work for which I believe I was saved to do.
Since then, I have completed more than a half-dozen similar assignments, driven to Union County by myself for two stories and returned to my work transferring film. I have been hiking with my camera, although not the entire pack because of tripping concerns in the woods. I can lift and carry 40-pound bags of birdseed, use the snowblower, carry in firewood and shovel snow from the walkway. I still nap as needed and get a full eight hours of sleep each night. Food tastes good again, perhaps too good, as I am over 130 pounds and some of the clothes I wore a year ago are getting a bit snug.

Making sense of reality

I write none of this out of vanity or as a testimony to my perseverance. It has all been by God and through his son Jesus that I have come to this point. The suffering was very real, as was the excursion into the alternate reality. I continue to struggle with differentiating reality from what my mind experienced. This life and person still feel unfamiliar, a feeling heightened by the fact that three months prior to the start of my hospitalization I was living in a state, where my life was surrounded by friends, family and the physical environment I’d known since childhood. Further, I had a part-time job that gave an element of structure to one or two days of the week. I am just now starting to feel as if that which I had dreamed of finally doing for most of my adult life is actually coming true, although certainly not in the way I had planned.
There are times I wonder if what I am living is actually an alternate reality and that I am dead and just dreaming that I’m still alive. A couple of days ago, a cut down a tree in our sideyard, and the darn thing just stood there, resting on and binding the chain saw’s bar after I had cut through to the wedge cut. A large, dead branch acted as a prop that kept the tree from falling. There was no telling which way it would drop when it finally let go. All I could do was walk away and pray that God would send a wind to bring it down, hopefully not on my new saw as it was spun free from the bind.
A few minutes later, I returned to the area where the tree was standing and began cleaning up around it. Then I heard the ominous crack. The tree was falling, directly in my path.
I jumped aside as the tree and the large, dead branch that had been propping it up crashed beside me. The saw bounced off, landed in leaves unharmed. I could have been killed. But I was not, again. Why?
The lack of oxygen to my brain and vital organs from heart failure on February 21, 2021, could have left me in a coma for the rest of my life. But it did not. The blood chemistry is “perfect,” better than my physician’s numbers, he says. He looks at the tests and shakes his head. So do I, and my wife.
I am alive, and you, as well, because God wills us to be alive. That is sobering stuff. We stumble our way through this world and life always in danger of injury and death. We take our precautions, we swallow our vitamins and suffer through those “mininally invasive procedures” in hope of getting a clean bill of health. We fasten the seat belt and look both ways twice before pulling into traffic. But it is God who gives us each breath.

My times are in your hands;
deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me.
Psalms 31: 15

In light of the alternate reality that I experienced, horror after horror of being pursued by enemies who wanted to see me dead, this verse brings me comfort. My experiences confirm it; my times are in God’s hands, and it is not my job to worry about when or how this life will end. My job is to do his will. Frankly, there are days I really wonder what that is. What books ought I write, which ones do I prioritize? What home improvement projects are most important to have completed in case another heart attack claims me and Ruth has to sell this place? What Goldenseal articles ought I pursue? When have enough words been written, enough images captured, enough stories told?
What is God’s will for the additional times he’s given me?
If I had to sum it up in one word, it is to love. To love my wife and son, grandson and daughter-in-law, father and aunts and uncles, friends and dog and cat. To love and love the unlovely. To find wonder in it all and feel peace in his arms in all circumstances.
We wander through life chasing “his will,” ignoring the things he wants most from us, love and worship. Just love those around us and stand in awe of the Creator and Redeemer. Is that too much to ask? Evidently. We waste so much of the life and time that the Father gives us on things that don’t last and don’t matter. We chase sunsets when we ought to be chasing love, catching and holding tightly to it.

Several months after I came home, I asked my wife to take me to the bakery and church I’d seen in the alternate reality, where the pastor told me I would be dead in 24 hours as I stared at what was to be my last sunset.
The place looked nothing like what I had experienced in that other world. It was not Amish, there was no church at the corner and the setting was hardly bucolic. There was no sunset, only the blue haze of an August day in Appalachia.
I have chased sunsets all my life, and of late, I have abandoned that pursuit in favor of chasing life itself. In the weeks ahead I will try to humbly share what I am learning in this dash from heart failure to restoration.

Blazing sunset over mountains
In my alternate reality, I was given hours to live by a preacher who came along beside me as I watched the sunset. But a voice from the sky disputed his prophecy …

Vine climbing building

Waiting for the big muscle to heal

Part 3 of a memoir of heart failure, open-heart surgery and complications

At some point in my recovery at the acute-care facility, a cardiologist tells me that the muscles in my body will not recover any faster than the big muscle, my heart, recovers.
I do not understand those words at the time, but as the days of immobility wear on, I realize that the body heals lockstep with the heart; my overall recovery hinges upon my heart’s recovery, and it is very weak—my heart function was at 10 percent or less when I entered Allegheny General’s heart failure unit in February 2021.
My first big step toward mobility, taken in early April while a patient in a Morgantown, W.Va., acute-care hospital, ended with another “cardiac event.” I fear triggering another incident by attempting to walk. I am still hooked to a feeding tube, a catheter and IV lines, so there are practical obstacles, as well. I am so tired of using the bed pan, actually just a plastic tray that cuts into my skin, and the embarrassment of that arrangement. I want to walk to the bathroom, close the door and take care of business in privacy. And I want to eat.
Being cleared for eating involves working with an ENT specialist, who must convince the rest of the medical team that I am capable of swallowing. A camera is inserted through my nose and into the labyrinth so my swallowing action can be observed on a screen. I am presented with increasingly challenging items to swallow. At the end of the session, I am cleared to start eating solid food, although the tube must remain in my stomach in the event I do not receive sufficient nutrition through eating. It is a miserable procedure, but I am motivated to get it done so I can eat. I choose oatmeal and grape juice for the meal.
It is the most disappointing meal I have ever tried to force myself to eat. The juice tastes like a cocktail prepared in a college chemistry lab; the oatmeal might as well be a sauce of plaster and kerosene.
Anesthesia, antibiotics and other drugs have altered my sense of taste; I am extremely sensitive to any trace of chemicals. Even plain water, the kind the hospitals serve up in those quart-sized jugs with the flexible plastic straw, tastes like a pesticide factory’s discharge. Although I am supposed to drink eight glasses of this stuff a day, I struggle to choke down eight ounces. The IV tubes replenish my fluids.
Three times a day, a staff member from the dietary department comes in with the menu, and three times a day I push away the trays after taking one bite from each offering. Nothing except apple sauce resonates with my palate. All the foods I once loved are repulsive. Worst is anything with a tomato base—pasta and tomato soup go from being staples to taste-bud enemies. Ice cream, pudding are tolerated, but I consume such small quantities, the treats have little impact on my nutrition. I remain on the feeding tube. My weight falls below 110 pounds.
Days are torturous and boring. The television in my room has only a handful of channels that run shopping shows and repeat the same programming day after day. I watch every episode of the few Heavy Rescue and American Pickers programs that repeat daily. Worse, there is no wireless connectivity; then again, I am too weak to hold and use a laptop. What little bit of communicating I do is done through brief text messages on my cell phone. Reading is out of the question because, I am so weak I cannot hold a book. Mostly, I sleep in a drug-induced haze. Nights are restless and insanely long, and no matter how late I stay up hoping to become sleep, it never occurs. Sleep comes shortly before 4 a.m., when the first round of oral medication and the phlebotomist arrive. From then on it is chest x-rays, respiratory therapists sucking out the gunk, doctors and interns, more blood draws and more tests and bags of drugs.
Perhaps the most encouraging event to occur during those early days in acute care is an Easter weekend visit from my son and grandson, who bring me a fleece throw with a paw-print pattern and a stuffed animal that looks like my dog, Edison. Those items bring me much comfort in the days to come, silly as it seems for a 66-year-old man to be sleeping with a stuffed animal. But that gives me hope that I will one day be strong enough to walk in the woods with him again and cuddle up with him on the couch. And it opens many discussions with the nurses, technicians and doctors who share my love for dogs.

A 66-year-old man with a stuffed animal. Ridiculous, but it gave me comfort. Acute care facility, April 2021. All photos by Ruth Feather.

Scars, seromas and Rich

The tracheotomy tube is removed April 15. The hole begins to heal over, although infection around the spot where the pipe rubbed against my skin still oozes from the wound. I am down to one bed sore, which is irritated by the metal bar between the mattress sections on the bed.
A false aneurysm pops up on my right arm at some point between the heart surgery and my return to Morgantown. None seems to know what it is, what caused it or what to do about it, despite doctors and interns alike stopping in to see “it.” All they can suggest is that an artery was blown out during a procedure. I name it “Rich,” in honor of the respiratory therapist who becomes my best caregiver and advocate for getting me out of acute care.
Scar tissue forms where the lines for the ECMO and surgical paraphernalia were inserted. My body looks as if the undertaker in my alternate reality had indeed applied his assortment of needles to it. Today, when I look at photos of myself hooked up to all those lines and machines, I do not recognize this very ill man; I feel intense sympathy for him and wonder how he could possibly be alive in that condition. Today, I need only touch my abdomen to confirm I am he; the seroma is his, as are the zipper scar and swollen lip, the white patches on my legs from the tape that held the multitude of lines in place for weeks and removed the top layer of skin when they were ripped off.

Tubes and IVs left many scars on my body. Allegheny General’s heart failure unit. My hands were constrained in mittens to keep me from pulling out the tubes and needles.

As my 40-day Medicare limit approaches, doctors talk about moving me to a rehab hospital that can provide the physical and occupational therapy I need for independent living. The roadblock is that no place will accept me unless I can walk for a few steps, from the bed to a wheelchair. A physical therapist visiting from another hospital and named Tim assures me that I can do it and that the trepidation that I am experiencing is normal. He gives me exercises to do, works with my atrophied legs and shows a kindness and compassion I’d not received from the acute-care physical therapist. With his strong arms to lean upon, I pull myself up and take the first steps. I get dizzy and beg to return to bed. We try it again. My legs ache. It feels as if I am trying to walk on a thousand beach balls floating in a pool. Perhaps my subconscious reverts back to some 66 years earlier, when I was first learning to walk. Back then, it was a short fall to the floor and the floor was grass or carpet; my mother was there to catch me. Here, it is a sterile, hard surface that offers only injury and even more surgery and hospitalization if I collapse.
During one such attempts, a doctor takes note of my progress as I take three or four steps. While the other physicians feel I am not ready to move on, he becomes my advocate for release to a rehab facility. And after being rejected by a couple of facilities near the hospital, I am accepted at a nursing home/rehab center in late April.
Because I had heart failure when they attempted to walk me, I must wear a “life vest” that will sense if my heart stops beating and deliver a shock to restart it. The vest is attached to a huge battery pack that I wear around my neck or off the shoulder and makes any attempt at walking all the more difficult because it throws me off balance. It adds to the discomfort of being “skin and bones,” but it is a condition of my release.

10 worst days

On April 27 I leave the acute care facility for the rehab hospital, also in Morgantown. The 10 days in that facility, aside from my alternate reality experiences, are the worst of the entire ordeal. Perhaps it is because I am much more cognizant of my surroundings than I was when drugs dulled the pain and reality, but even a drugged person would recognize this as a nursing home posing as a rehab hospital.
My first night there, I am left alone in an otherwise vacant wing sealed off from the rest of the facility. My attempt to summon a caregiver is ignored. The phone in in the hall rings and rings, but no one is there to answer it or my call button. It is as if no one knows there is a patient in that wing. Indeed, my wife finally has to call the office and tell them that I am in the wing. Five hours pass before I am even acknowledged or assessed by staff.
The facility is severely understaffed; one nurse is responsible for an entire wing. One day I witness her work three shifts straight. Because of Covid-19, I am isolated, and Ruth is not permitted to visit me in my room. An outdoor meeting is arranged behind a Plexiglass divider outside the facility; the aide who comes to take me outdoors in a wheelchair doesn’t take the time to put my feet on the footrests and they drag on the concrete. I repeatedly ask her to stop, but she tells me to lift up my feet and keeps moving. But my legs are so weak they cannot lift the feet that once carried me on great adventures and helped me earn a living. They drag and bump along the pavement as the wheelchair is pushed around the building’s perimeter in search of my wife’s car.
The best thing to come out of those 10 days is that a physical therapist gets me to the point where I can walk down the hall with a walker. But there is no occupational therapy, to speak of, aside from making sure I know how to write a check (seriously). Because there are no showers in the facility, I am limited to the sponge baths that I detest; learning how to shower and shave myself again will have to be done on my own, at home.

For three days in a row, I walk the entire length of the hall, as far as I’m allowed to go due to Covid restrictions. I even work on climbing a single step. I tell the staff and my wife that I am going home; I am checking myself out.

Ruth tells me I’ll have to come home in an ambulance, she can’t handle me in the car, and there are two stone steps leading to our front door, steps I cannot navigate. Further, there is no hand railing to assist my climb. My options are stay in the rehab hospital until I, hopefully, gain the strength to walk up steps and get in a car, or go home in the ambulance.
The morning I am released, I fall while trying to get myself into the wheelchair after using the restroom. The racket attracts more staff than I’ve seen the entire time I’ve been in the place. The nurse attending me is certain that I’ll be back. I need more time there, more therapy, they tell me as the ambulance arrives to haul me home.

Coming home, May 7, 2021
Coming home to 6 Seaford, May 7, 2021

Going home

The ambulance ride is frightening. My mind struggles to separate the new reality from the alternate in which my mind has been living. I fully expect the ambulance driver to disregard the home address and deliver me to an abandoned building in Sheffield Township, Ohio, where burly men strangle me with wire, drain a gallon of blood through this hole in my neck and laugh at my misery. I have known fear before, but never like the fear born of those hallucinations. I fully expect to wake up from this “reality” and find myself back in that dungeon.
I count off the minutes on Interstate 68 once I feel the acceleration of the ambulance tell me we are on the four-lane. From the gurney, I can see nothing. There is relief when the ambulance slows after 15 minutes and makes a left turn onto what I hope is Route 26. Further relief when I feel the ambulance rock to the right a minute or two later. We are on the Brandonville Pike, and I am going home.

It has been 94 days since I’ve been there. My vision of it comes not from the three months we lived there, but the nights I were chained in its nursing-home basement to an iron bed. I expect to see a security fence around it and extensive remodeling.

Instead, it looks just like I left it.

I am carried into our house on a gurney and assisted onto the air mattress bed that my wife prepared for me downstairs. It is the evening of Friday, May 7, and I am finally home.
The bed feels amazing. Although my body aches, I have no appetite, my digestion is seriously messed up and I look horrible, I am so grateful to be home.
I sleep better that first night at home than I had in years. Prior to the heart surgery, I woke up dozens of times each night. In the hospitals, it was impossible to sleep with all the intrusions and noise. This night, however, I sleep and sleep. I wake up before my wife and study the ugly peach-colored ceiling and tan walls that remind me of those in the hospital rooms. For a minute, I find myself believing I am back in acute care. My eyes scan the printer’s box on the wall and all the mementos of my life stashed in their cubicles. My cat jumps on the bed and curls up next to me. The log trucks roll down the pike in front of our house, I hear Ruth stirring upstairs. It all seems so strange to me, yet vaguely familiar. I could get used to this.

I thank God that I am alive, home and in the loving care of my wife. I thank God for all he has brought me through. The doctors can’t explain it, and the only way I and Ruth can is prayer, lots and lots of prayer.
As the drugs flush out of my body, I improve my intake of fluids and food and learn to do everything all over again. One of the great moments of those early days is when I garner enough strength to push myself up from the edge of the bed and get into the wheelchair without a “boost” from my wife. But the day she helps me get out of the wheelchair and onto a seat in the bathtub is the greatest. Feeling the warm water on my head and back is both physically and emotionally refreshing. It takes 30 minutes to get me in there, showered, dried off and dressed, then another 30 minutes for me to shave myself while sitting at the kitchen table. A few days into my return home, Ruth gives me a haircut, the first since January.
Life is far from perfect, but it is good. I am grateful for each little comfort of home, act of self-care and the loving attention of my wife. Only one thing is missing: Edison.

Continued February 25

old-time music string players

And the jam goes on

Nearly four years ago, Ruth and I attended the old-time music jam at the Morgantown Brewery on a Wednesday evening in October. It was 2018 and the world was a wonderful place. People didn’t wear masks unless they had a medical condition, gasoline was affordable, and a trip to the grocery store didn’t involve a second mortgage.

The jam had been going on for nearly 20 years when I visited it for a Goldenseal story. But the story didn’t make it into the magazine before Covid-19 struck. During the pandemic, the brewery changed owners, and the jam moved up the hill to 268 High Street and the Art Bar.

Owners Stephen Wilson and Robert Abel welcomed the musicians to their new venue, which opened in September 2021. With Goldenseal planning a music-focus for its Summer 2022 issue, I was asked to update my original story with the jam’s new location, which is just down the interstate from our home in Bruceton Mills.

The Art Bar is a brilliant concept, although “bar” is a bit misleading at this point because alcohol options are limited to wine and hard cider (adding beer is in the process). Food is available throughout the day and evening, and there are options for adults and children, alike.

The owners recognize the value of art in everyday experiences, and to that end provide white sheets of paper on each table for doodling and coloring. Markers and crayons are available, as are coloring books for any age. For a few dollars, you can add a craft project to your burger and tots. The walls are adorned with the work of regional artists, and the bar offers workshops for adults and children in a variety of media. It’s refreshing to see this kind of creative thinking and re-defining of what a restaurant or bar should be. The owners clearly understand that not all bar visitors want to be bombarded with sports and FOX news blaring on 16 monitors.

The old-time music jam is held Wednesday evenings. Not every Wednesday evening, but many of them. Check the Art Bar’s Facebook Page to get the dates.

Playing begins between 6:30 and 7 p.m. and has been known to go until 10 p.m. The emphasis is on string instruments and old-time music. Guitars, fiddles, banjos, mandolins and a bass the mainstays of this gathering. The evening I attended, a harmonica player from Pittsburgh, Chris Hollingshead, joined the group, as well.

Jim Wilson, a bass player, told me, “If you come next week, it may not be the same. It is always changing.”

The entertainment is free, as is participation in the group, which includes many seasoned players eager to perpetuate the old-time music. They do this by recruiting whoever shows up with a stringed instrument. Lily Farabaugh, a WVU senior, came to a jam with friends back in December 2021. She had her guitar with her, and noticing her clapping and instrument, banjo player Sue Gimbal invited her to play. Two days later, Lily bought a mandolin and has been sitting in the players’ circle ever since.

Players in the old-time jam at the Art Bar sit or stand in a circle on the bar’s front-window stage. From left are Larry Spisak, Jeanne Sutton, Gabriel Bass, Lily Farabaugh and Scott Radabaugh (foreground). Bar guests can listen to the music while they enjoy their food and beverage at the bar or tables. There is no admission fee for the players or audience.

If you enjoy being around a group of friendly people who are passionate about keeping old-time music alive, this jam is for you. Bring your instrument and join them. If you are musical klutz like me, come out for the experience, food an Appalachian-made hard cider and camaraderie.

Just remember to wear a mask.

Morgantown Art Bar is located on 268 High Street, Morgantown. There is plenty of parking on the street but bring a pocket full of quarters. You don’t get a lot of meter time for a buck, and the meters are checked “after hours.”

West Virginia Backroads videos added

During the past six months of recovery from open heart surgery, I have had the downtime necessary to put together several videos of my interviews for Goldenseal magazine. These videos are packaged as “West Virginia Backroads” and are available on YouTube.

Most of these videos deal with upcoming stories for Goldenseal. However, one of them is a strictly creative effort that celebrates winter in our neighboring nature preserve, Old Hemlock; a second celebrates autumn in scenes from throughout the state.

Other topics include:

Pickin’ in Parsons, the annual bluegrass festival in the county seat of Tucker County.

Reed’s Mill, a tour of a 1791 mill that still grinds Bloody Butcher and other heirloom grains in Monroe County.

Tom and John Rowan, Morgantown wood turners who produce museum-quality bowls with an artistic flair.

headless man in ice

The sawblade embedded in my neck

Part 2 of a memoir of heart failure, open-heart surgery and complications

The journey home is one of 10,000 steps, and the first one is always the most difficult.

On March 23, 2021, I am released from Allegheny’s heart failure unit to an acuity unit in Morgantown. I recall nothing of the ambulance ride or the first days in acuity care.
At the urging of my wife, the ventilator has been replaced with a tracheotomy tube while I am still in Pittsburgh, and that was the reality into which I awoke.

A monstrous piece of machinery is attached to my throat; I visualize a handsaw blade protruding from my neck. The opening hurts. My upper lip, swollen and cut from being trapped between the ventilator tube and my teeth for week, is painful. Then again, my entire body aches. “This is not my body,” I think.

I am encouraged to cough up the accumulation of mucus and blood in my lungs, and I go through box after box of tissues. The coughing and purging continue day and night. the respiratory therapists tell me it is the path to healing, to eventually dispensing of this tube, the periodic suctioning and inability to speak. This whole thing can be described in one word: gross.

My mouth is beyond parched, but the only moisture they offer is a damp sponge on a stick. I beg for American Concord grape juice served over crushed ice, and in my alternate reality this wine is used more powerfully than Eve’s fruit to entice me into torturous situations.

It is so wrong for them to deny you grape juice,” an attractive woman from my past life tells me as I am confined to a bed in our home, now a nursing facility. I am kept locked up there in a basement room and confined to an iron bed. “Let me help you. I am going to give you the key to the cabinet above the bed; in the cabinet, you will find grape juice, as well as all the crushed ice you want. Just wait until they are all in bed, then use the key and help yourself.”
When the house is still and I am certain I won’t be detected, I reach for the cabinet. But I lack the strength to pull myself up in bed far enough to grasp the door handle, let alone maneuver a key into the lock, retrieve the beverage and pour it over ice. The key slips from my hand, and the woman appears, mocking me for my pathetic condition and inability to fulfill the simplest of my desires.
The burley men return with the ambulance to take me back to the hospital. In my preceding experiences with them, they tried to kill me by slowly draining the blood from my neck into a discarded gallon milk jug. The procedure lasts throughout the night and is performed in an abandoned house in Sheffield Township, the site of 1971 murder. One of the men keeps watch over the operation, explaining it is retaliation for a newspaper article I had written about that murder while I was employed as a reporter.
the man removes the spiral wire from my reporter’s notebook, straightens it out and proceeds to thread it in and out of my abdomen—not once, but twice. Electrodes are then hooked to the wire and electricity applied to the captors’ pleasure.

These men work on an ambulance squad, and at any point where I need to return to the hospital, I must endure the ride and their sadistic pleasures in the back of the ambulance. They are in no hurry to get me to the hospital.
I am bound to a post outside a barn and my car started a few feet away from me. I could escape, if I could walk, but I am crippled and forced to watch my only opportunity to flee from this hell consume the gasoline that would fuel that escape. The car sputters, and as that hope fades another horror befalls. Teenagers, in their rebellion against high taxes and student loan debt, hold dozens of children hostage in the barn. My grandson is among the hostages. Their parents surround the barn; a lost love appears on a wire stretched from the barn to a tree and declares herself fairy goddess of the teens. Inside the barn, the youngsters are stuffed into luggage and gun shots randomly fired into the trunks. The riddled luggage is carried out to the awaiting parents; I see my son and his wife open their trunk; I see the lifeless body of my grandson.
This journey from hell passes through many horrors.

April 6, 2021
My wife works near the acuity hospital and comes to visit on her lunch hour and after work. One day she asks a nurse about one of the medications I receive. The nurse replies, “It’s for his Parkinson’s.”
My wife informs her that I do not have Parkinson’s. It was never part of the diagnosis. So why am I receiving this medication?
The medication is withdrawn from my diet of pills, as is an anti-anxiety drug that has made me groggy.
Shortly thereafter, I recall it as a Tuesday, my mind transitions from the alternate reality in which I’ve been living. It is like walking from a dark room to one filled with fog.

Breathing tube.

In this new reality, I am waking up from the open-heart surgery of Feb. 12. I only can groan displeasure for “no” and use my hands to resist interventions that I do not understand or that play into the horrors of my alternate reality. I rip out the tracheotomy tube, set off alarms and thus summon angry therapists to my bedside throughout the night. The incisions from the original surgery and subsequent procedures ache. My backside burns with the pain of bedsores that are periodically scraped with scalpels; I dread the sight of the nurse who specializes in wound care.
I lack the strength to so much as pull myself up in bed, let alone get out of it and walk to the bathroom. The weeks of intravenous antibiotics destroyed the intestinal flora, and I suffer horrible diarrhea with extreme constipation. I feel shame, despair and anxiety. Simultaneously, I am filled with great gratitude, for I am alive, and that is no small thing.
Each April day brings a new goal, a new hurdle, that must be cleared before I can dispose of the tracheotomy tube, drink liquids, eat, start physical therapy and rid myself of the feeding tube and other medical intrusions. When I am given the ability to speak through a speaking valve placed in the tracheotomy tube, I use my voice to praise God for sparing my life. This becomes my mantra whenever doctors, nurses, technicians and visitors stop in my room to examine what is becoming an inexplicable miracle of survival.
As I slowly adjust to my new reality and regain the ability to speak, I ask my wife the hard questions: When was my grandson’s funeral? How are the other children who were kidnapped? What about my father? Were we able to bury him? What about my dog, which I had witnessed being killed in a storm? What about the pets we had to leave behind during our visit to Canada? Were we able to rescue them? How is her business doing? Why is there a nursing home in our house?

She knows nothing of this reality and patiently helps me unravel these stands of falsehood from my cord of experience.

The burly men out for revenge still pursue me at night. A high fence surrounds our house, but the men manage to breach the protections while my wife is away. They take me to a meeting of volunteer EMTs, who place me in an iron bed within sight of food and challenge me to get out and walk to the table. I am starving. The meeting is closed, the building locked, and I remain in the iron bed, immobile.
I keep a vigil by father’s body as we hide out in a veteran’s hospital.
I am constantly retrieving my wife from a tangle of wires in a projection booth.
I am driven to a deserted building on the perimeter of a cemetery and left there to die, my legs unable to support my weight as I tumble out of the car.
I am a patient in a hospital in a communist nation. My doctors are more interested in torturing than healing. One of them is an American, serving out a sentence and about to be released. But the negotiated deal sets me free rather than the doctor, who takes revenge on my body.
I notice he is carrying a white notebook, and convince my mind this is a dream, a hallucination. My mind retreats from the hospital, but I am thrust back into that circuit where I am an electron. I have hallucinations within hallucinations; the journey from hell takes me through purgatory once again.

Code blue, again

I feel an intern touching my swollen ankles, assessing the atrophied muscles in my leg.
“What a waste” as he mumbles and leaves the room. He looks like the doctor who I left behind in that communist-nation hospital. I struggle to distinguish reality from where my mind has been for the past two months.
The physical therapist says it is time to get me on my feet and attempt to walk; I resist, but she insists. My legs, on which I have not stood for more than two months, are swung over the bedside and I am assisted into a sitting position, then lifted up to stand. My legs struggle to withstand the weight, then collapse. Suddenly, everything is dark, and I tumble back upon the bed. Alarms go off; my heart has stopped beating.
A dozen doctors and nurses descend upon my room and spill into the hallway. I wake up to an audience. I am given a few minutes to stabilize, then, inexplicably, the therapist insists upon repeating the scenario. Once again, I lose consciousness.
Is this reality, or just another alternate scenario? No, this is for real, my wife assures me.
I come to dread the physical therapist’s visits. I want to walk, but nobody seems to understand just how weak I am. I am still on a feeding tube and cannot so much as take a sip of water. I first need to learn how to simply stand, and it is my respiratory therapist and a physical therapist from Mon Health who patiently move me toward this first step to self-reliance. On a Sunday afternoon, the respiratory therapist and my wife help me into a wheelchair, and I am taken for a short ride to the atrium. I look out over the greening landscape through blurry eyes. From my window of my hospital room, I had seen only gigantic exhaust pipes and other hospital external infrastructure. The sight of trees in bloom, grass still spotted with snow and healthy people walking across the parking lot overwhelms me.
The brief journey exhausts me, as well. I realize how many steps I must take before I can go home and care for myself. I am so ashamed of my appearance. I weigh 30 pounds less than I did before the surgery; the skin hangs from my arms, legs and face. I have not shaved in weeks, and my hair is long and curly. I cannot imagine any person loving me, yet here is this beautiful woman who comes to visit me daily. The staff speak highly of her and her devotion. And, after the incident with the Parkinson’s medication, she asks even more questions about my treatment and care.
She is my best friend and guardian; she is my wife.
Continued February 19.

Blazing sunset over mountains

Are you ready to die, Carl Feather?

A memoir of heart failure, open-heart surgery and complications

I have chased sunsets most of my life, although of late I’ve not had no passion for such pursuits. Nevertheless, on that evening in February 2021 was before me the most stunning example of a fading Helios I’d ever witnessed.

The afterglow across the Amish hamlet in North Central West Virginia has more orange than a pumpkin field and red than a blood bank. It glows brighter than a searchlight. Bare, blacker-than-eternity hardwood forms stand gaunt against this sunset of sunsets.
I stand in the side yard of a brick church and gulp the blazingly cold air into my lungs; my body shudders and begs for more air as my legs tremble.
The day star and I are one in this moment, both fading, both dying.

A preacher comes alongside me. “Are you ready to die, Carl Feather? Before this day is over, you will be dead.

February 5, 2021

For weeks I have been working 16 hours a day on the house at 6 Seaford Lane, Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, into which my wife Ruth, my father Carl J. and I moved into in mid-November 2020. The joy of buying a retirement home and relocating to our favorite state has quickly turned into a nightmare of undisclosed, serious issues with the house requiring far more energy and money that remained after remodeling and selling our home in Ohio, then making the move of 240 miles.
I am exhausted. For days, I have been unable to work on the house. My nights are sleepless with worry and coughing; day and night I struggle to draw in enough air to gasp for the next breath. I and my wife suspect Covid, but I won’t know for four days if the test that I took the day before is positive. I need air!

Shortly after noon that Friday, I struggle to the front door, throw it open and stick my head into the frigid mountain air. I inhale like a diver who has just broke the surface after having his oxygen tank spring a leak. But I get no relief; dizzy and weak, I struggle back to the sofa and resume staring at the disaster.
“Dad, I have to go to the emergency room.”

The ER physician at the Mon Health System hospital in Kingwood listens to my heart and orders blood work. The extremely elevated level of the enzyme troponin indicates that I am either in the midst of a cardiac event or coming out of one. I have congestive heart failure, as well.
Within two hours of my wife delivering me to emergency room and convincing the intake person that it was indeed an emergency and my Covid test results were not available, I am in the back of a KAMP ambulance, prostate and under the care of a muscular, middle-aged male EMT who makes small talk about his open-heart surgery. As the ambulance traces the winding concrete ribbon of Route 7 from Kingwood to Morgantown, he assures it will all turn out well. He pulls open his shirt to reveal the zipper scar on his chest as proof, but he warns me not to have it done locally.
“Go to the Cleveland Clinic, that’s who did mine,” he says.
“Great,” I think. “I lived 50 miles from Cleveland for 66 years and never once required medical care from the facilities there. I move away and three months later, I have to go back for open heart surgery.”
That unpleasant prospect aside, as the ambulance snakes its way through the Appalachian night my thoughts are not so much on myself or the likely surgery and painful recovery as they are on my third great-grandfather Jacob Vatter. He and his wife Mary settled in Preston County circa 1810 and lived out their lives on a farm in Crab Orchard, five miles from our new residence. I thought of how frightful the event I was undergoing would have been for him and his family, living without benefit of blood tests, a physician, ambulance service or choice of cardiology departments, let alone a hospital 275 miles to the north.

Among the reasons for wanting to live out my years in West Virginia was to experience firsthand the land of my fathers and eventually be buried among them in that soil.

It appeared the second part of that objective was about to be fulfilled much earlier than I had anticipated.

February 7, 2021

The EKG, echocardiogram and heart catheterization confirm what the ER physician had suspected. My aortic valve is failing, and my heart drowning in fluid. There was no going home to get stronger or anticipate the surgery; the event is scheduled for February 12, a Friday.
The surgeon is optimistic that the valve and single bypass will take care of the issues. I should be fit to go home a week or so after the surgery.
This is one of those events that I expect to happen to others but omitted from my map. My journey thus halted, the washed-out bridge before me, I have but one option: jump into the raging river and trust the surgeon to have a good lifesaver and rescue team waiting for me downstream.
I put it all into God’s hands as they wheel me into the operating room that morning. I expect the worst, hope for the best. My mind races with all the unfinished projects at the house, unfinished manuscripts and unaccomplished dreams. They will have to await the outcome of the surgery. My heart has run out of time, this is my only shot at life.
As the drugs are injected and the bright lights over my eyes grow dim, I determine that if I meet God along this journey, there is one question I want to ask him.

What is truth?

I am an electron. In the alternate reality of anesthesia and whatever drugs are pumped into the body of a man whose chest has been opened and heart repaired, and while he recovers in intensive care, I am reduced to an electron trying to escape the maze of logic gates in a computing device.
For the next several days, I travel this circuit in a Fed Ex box destined for a boutique in Pittsburgh. In this reality, Fed Ex has developed smart shipping boxes with circuitry between the layers of cardboard. At my departure point in Japan, I am injected into this maze of diodes and logic gates, resistors and a trillion possible paths.
It is maddening, and I just want to escape the circuit, take on the body of a human and go home. And it continues for days: it is the only reality my mind knows during and after the surgery.

The early morning of February 21, my wife receives a text message from the hospital. During the night, I suffer another cardiac event. My heart fails while undergoing another catherization. I am placed on an external pump; my only hope for survival is an advanced heart failure unit. The nearest such facility is at Allegheny in Pittsburgh.
I recall nothing of this, not even the $32,000 helicopter ride. In my alternate reality, I gyrate between imprisonment in an electronic maze and hospice care at home.

Visitors over my body as I lie on a table in my office. I speak faintly to the former neighbors, coworkers, pastors and friends who travel from Ohio to say their goodbyes and extract mementos.
The pastor who told me I was going to die talks to me about Jesus and the afterlife. He did not hear my mother’s voice and is certain of my fate.
At some point, I get to pose my question, although I cannot say to who
. The answer is simple and complex.

“Truth is in the moment.”

I repeat it over and over. I don’t want to forget it, in the event I emerge from this alternate reality and have the opportunity to finish the unfinished life.

I wander into that brick Brethren church on a Sunday night and assist a young woman and her band with the engineering of a recording of her lovely Christian song. It is the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. She snaps a picture of me with my dog for the CD jacket and delivers copies of the recording to our home. Indeed, I discover she is our neighbor and lives across the deep gully where the old Kingwood Railroad tunnel was built. Carved into the rock of the tunnel’s entrance is an elephant; the carving is being extricated by the young woman for $100, and she is incorporating it into the mantle of the massive fireplace being built in our living room.

Specialists in Pittsburgh offer Ruth little hope for my survival without a transplant. In the interim, an extra-corporeal life support (ECMO), takes over my heart function and a ventilator performs my lungs’ work. Counselors prepare her for the inevitability of being married to an invalid whose very existence will depend upon this machinery.
Daily she drives from our home in the mountains to Pittsburgh’s nest of interstates and side streets to be by my side and make crucial decisions about my care and our future. She takes off time from her job, which she started just two months earlier, to attend to these tasks. My father holds down the homestead and takes care of the pets in her absence. My son drives from Ohio to visit and help out in myriad practical ways; my step-daughter-in-law, Kristine Evans, comes from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to encourage and support Ruth.
My father, Ruth and our friends from Ohio turn to God and call upon believers in their circles to do the same. Entire church congregations pray for me.
Each day brings a new complication and, oftentimes, a new procedure that involves going under anesthesia again, blood transfusions, more tubes and more equipment. I am told that at one point during my stay in Pittsburgh, four stands were required to hold the 16 bags of drugs, blood and fluids trickling into my body.
I kick off whatever coverings they place over my body and grab at the mass of tubes and needles penetrating and protruding from skin. I am restrained; my hands are placed inside boxing-glove-like mittens that leave my fingers numb. My upper lip is pressed between my teeth and the ventilator tube, resulting in a deep, painful cut.

Concurrently, my mind is dealing with its own reality.

I am back in Ohio with my father. The nation is in turmoil as youth have risen up against our generation, demanding relief from the onerous burden of student debt and increased taxes required to keep the older generation alive. Hunting down and killing the elderly has become a sanctioned pastime in my alternate reality, the only one my mind knows.
I witness the shooting of my father and desecration of his body. The undertaker publishes a full-page ad in the newspaper announcing that I will give the eulogy for my father. I am wheeled before hundreds of people at an outdoor gathering, but I cannot speak. For six hours, I sit before this restless crowd, speechless, motionless.
Punishment ensues. I and my wife are arrested for allegedly stealing the metal frame for an underground structure we are building onto our house to accommodate the nursing home and restaurant businesses that Ruth had to start in order to pay for my care. She develops a fashion line and makes commercials on the beach in California, propping me up in the background as a pathetic onlooker. She goes to work each day in a helicopter.
As we are booked on the theft charges, our accusers take turns abusing me. A malfunctioning CT scanner is used for my mug shot, and the sheriff repeatedly passes me back and forth through the radiation field, assuring me that the dose will be sufficient to induce brain tumors. A government official comes to my side and tells me his hobby is playing with needles. Dressed in a 19th-century undertaker’s outfit, he pulls out his collection and samples each artifact’s effectiveness and range of penetration on my body.
It is during this procedure that I notice my accusers are caring white notebooks. Someone whispers to me that if they have white notebooks, it is just a nightmare. I am given the mental tool by which to escape the nightmare, only to return to the alternate reality of an electron seeking an outle

Nightmares are nested within hallucinations.

I remain in the heart failure unit throughout the remainder of February and most of March, using up the 30-day Medicare limit. Each day brings a new challenge. As I gradually defy the odds, there is one fewer tube, one fewer IV bag. I recall nothing of it. My body is there, but my mind is trapped in these alternate realities. If I display any awareness of my surroundings and the gravity of the situation, I beg to go home.
It is out of the question.

My wife thought I was sleeping during most of my days in Allegheny’s heart failure unit. Rather, my mind was experiencing hallucination after hallucination, horror after horro.

Continued February 12, 2022

Decoration Day

It is Memorial Day weekend in the United States, but in Appalachia, particularly West Virginia, it is more commonly referred to as “Decoration Day.”

My parents, Carl J. and Cossette (Watring) Feather, seemed to have a standing engagement in West Virginia each May, for the sole purpose of decorating the graves of parents, siblings and grandparents. They traveled to the Rose Hill Cemetery in Thomas, where Mom’s parents and grandparents are buried, and to the Gnegy Church Cemetery at Horse Shoe Run, where Dad’s parents rest, along with his grandparents, sister and brother.

My father, Carl J. Feather, visits the grave of his paternal grandparents and uncle near Eglon, WVa., during “a trip home to do the graves.”

Plastic flower arrangements along with bags of mulch, grass clippers, weed eaters, hoes and rakes were packed in the back of my father’s Jeep, leaving only enough room for a change of clothing and their beloved dog, Lucy Mae, as they made the trip and executed their duties in the course of two or three days. Each time they returned home, my mother declared she would not make that trip again, it was just too exhausting. And come the next Decoration Day, they made it.

They did so much more than simply fill the urn on the Watring grave with a bouquet or push the flimsy metal stakes of an artificial arrangement into the Preston County clay. Weeds and grass that grew around the stones were cut away with a string trimmer; stubborn weeds were dug out with trowels. Mulch was applied around the perimeters, then the stones cleaned of stains. It was time consuming and at times hard work for folks in their 80s, but it is what we do here on Decoration Day.

My heart attack earlier this year is limiting my mobility and travel, so I won’t be able to carry on my parents’ Decoration Day efforts until later. I suspect my father will make it a point to travel from Ohio to Preston and Tucker counties to “take care of the graves.”

My cousin fourth-removed, Kelvin Feather, brushes away an accumulation of leaves from an old gravestone in Crab Orchard, where our ancestors lived.

Graves. What is worse than the grave?

Being forgotten.

Within the tight clan structure of traditional Appalachian families, ancestors are remembered and honored. Their stories and accomplishments live on through generations of family that remembers and honors them on Decoration Day, as well as around the campfire and hearth the rest of the year. These stories turn tombs into tomes, graves into gateways to gaining a better understanding ourselves.

My ancestors Jacob and Mary Feather are buried five miles south of my home in the Lenox Memorial Cemetery. Jacob was 16 years old when his family immigrated to the colonies in 1775. He sailed into Philadelphia and a war for independence. Within a couple of years, he was fighting in that war, as well.

The graves of my great, great, great, great grandparents.

By virtue of that service, Jacob and Mary are honored with bronze plaques, in addition to their damaged gravestones. I first visited these graves in July 2019, after beginning research for a book about the family and its attraction to the mountains. As I talk to my father about his dad and granddad, my own persona comes into focus. I understand what drives me, for it largely the same things that drove my ancestors: working hard, living in the mountains (as Jacob’s family did in Rhineland), a deep love for animals, frugality and faith in God. I am proud to be a Feather, Watring, Harsh, Fike, Judy, Sypolt, Broomhall, Moats, Lipscomb, Arnold and Weimer.

My search for their stories has taken me from Bedford and Somerset counties in Pennsylvania to the Crab Orchard of Preston County, where my cousin, Kelvin Feather, and I uncovered an old family cemetery of the Rodenheavers, who do not appear to be in my line. The Feather children and grandchildren would have know the Rodenheavers as neighbors, and I wonder if their association with this “colored boy” inspired my great great grandfather, Adam, to enlist in the Union Army along with his cousin. Both were wounded in battle, captured and did time in Confederate prisons, where Adam’s cousin died.

Nature decorates the grave of Charles, who lived with the Rodeheaver family at Crab Orchard. German immigrants like my ancestors, the Rodeheavers lived near the Feather farms.

I have discovered that I and Barack Obama share a fourth great-grandmother, and one of my ancestors on the Arnold line was the first to preach the gospel in Eglon, where my father grew up. An Anabaptist ancestor went on to establish the Amish community in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. I have learned of the amazing physical strength and stamina of the Harsh men, of which I, unfortunately, inherited not a lick, although both my father and son possess it, and the spiritual fervor of my father’s cousin, who was martyred while he and his wife were doing missionary work with the Church of the Brethren in China. And my great-grandfather’s reputation as a hometown, self-educated veterinarian who loved animals explains my deep compassion for those lesser among us.

My unique mix of passions, frustrations, quirkiness and deepest aspirations come into focus when I view them through this telescope of genealogy. One ought to climb a family tree if for no other reason to find oneself among the leaves and twigs. The more we learn about our ancestors, the more we understand what motivates us. For that reason, I believe that genealogy ought to be a required subject in our educational system; it could spare us much of the angst of “finding one’s self” as a teenager.

Perhaps if we all understood our ancestors better, there would not be one undecorated grave in the cemetery on Decoration Day.

Mountaineer aviator

Most of us will have one memorial, our gravestone.

According to writer Derek Coleman, an England native living in West Virginia, Louis Bennett Jr. has at least 12, all funded by his late mother, Sallie Maxwell Bennett of Weston, Lewis County.

The memorials range from a stained-glass window in Westminster Abbey, London, England, to a bronze statue on the campus of Linsly, a private boarding school (grades 5 through 12), in Wheeling, W.Va.

Established in 1814, Linsly features a beautiful campus overseen by the bronze statuary, dubbed “The Aviator.” The sculptor was Augustus Lukeman, an artist of international fame. The face of “The Aviator” is that of Louis Bennett Jr.

The Aviator is 7-1/2-feet tall and made of bronze. It is atop a granite base at the Linsly school campus, 60 Knox Lane, Wheeling. It was formerly known as Linsly Military School.

Born in Weston, W.Va., Louis Bennett Jr. was one of the three children of Louis and Sallie Maxwell Bennett. Sallie came from a wealthy family and Louis Bennett was a well-connected politician and ran for governor of West Virginia in 1908. The family had the means to send their son to schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Louis Jr. studied at Yale and was nearing graduation when the war in Europe distracted him to loftier goals.

While at Yale, Bennett joined the Aero Club of America and learned to fly. He foresaw the potential of aircraft in military applications, which led to him volunteering his services to the United States Army. He established in 1917 his West Virginia Flying Corps at Beech Bottom, near Wheeling. State funds and donations were used to train the American volunteer pilots who hoped to serve the US Army efforts. But Bennett’s offer to attach the flying corps to operations in Europe was rejected by the United States. Frustrated and full of youthful determination and bravery, Bennett volunteered for the British Royal Flying Corps in Canada. He was sent to London and assigned to home defense of which he soon became bored. Bennett wanted to see more action than chasing down the occasional Zeppelin or Gotha bomber that came across the channel.

Assignment to the No. 40 Squadron in France on July 21, 1918, gave Louis Bennett Jr. his opportunity to demonstrate his bravery and skill. The Germans made extensive use of manned balloons that rose several hundred yards over the battlefields and worked with ground artillery to more accurately direct their fire. The balloons became an important target for the fighter planes of the flying corps.

After he and his West Virginia Air Corps were rejected for service in the US Army, Louis Bennett Jr. headed to Canada and joined the Royal Air Corps. Photo from the National Museum of American History.

Bennett was credited with shooting down nine of these German observation balloons. The Linsey website states that he also took out three enemy planes between Aug. 15 and 24. The latter was the day ground fire hit Bennett’s aircraft as he moved in on a balloon target. The plane caught on fire and Bennett was trapped inside. He was badly burned, both legs were broken and a bullet had pierced his head.

Barely alive, Bennett was taken to a German hospital, where he died within a few hours. He was buried in grave number 590 in Wavrin, northern France. 

Back home, his mother was grieving the loss her husband, who died while in Atlantic City three weeks prior to her son’s demise. During the agonizing two months following the incident, Sallie received a series of conflicting reports about her son’s status. As if her losses and struggles with settling her husband’s estate were not enough, Sallie contracted the Spanish flu during this time.

The Red Cross officially confirmed her son’s death in late October 1918. She began using her contacts and influence to do what she must: Travel to Europe, locate her son’s grave and have his remains returned to Lewis County for burial. She arrived in France in March 1919 to discover that the church at the cemetery had been destroyed during the war. Thus was established the first memorial to her son; Sallie Bennett paid to have the church at Wavrin rebuilt. Her generosity was an act of gratitude for the assistance she received from the citizens of Wavrin in finding her son’s grave, and perhaps more importantly, smuggle his remains out of France and back to West Virginia, illegal act under French law. He is buried in the Machpelah Cemetery, West.

Neither the United States or British governments recognized her son for his bravery, loss of life and contributions to the use of airpower in war. For the rest of her life, his mother did all she could to make sure her son would not be forgotten by spending the family fortune on memorials.

A stained glass window in Westminster Abbey is dedicated to Louis and his Royal Flying Corps aviators who lost their lives in the Great War. It over looks the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and features Archangel Michael looking down at Louis, depicted as an angel. The memorial was established in 1922.

That same year she donated to Lewis County the mansion that had been the family home since 1875. The family’s extensive collection of books were also donated in memory of her son and husband, and The Louis Bennett Public Library was thus established the following year. The four-story mansion continues to meet the library needs of Lewis County.

In 1922, she donated to St. Thomas’s Church in NYC a 16th-century Flemish tapestry. Louis Jr. was confirmed there as a boy. Back in the Mountain State, she worked to rename the local airfield in his honor and establish a group to continue his memory.

It was Armistice Day 1925 when The Aviator sculpture was unveiled. Standing on a granite pedestal, the 7-1/2-foot-tall sculpture depicts her son with angel wings. The inscription at the base states “And thus this man died, leaving his spirit as an example of able courage, not only unto young men, but unto all the nation.”

The Aviator bronze sculpture is on the campus of Linsly in Wheeling, W.Va. It honors the sacrifice and courage of Weston native Louis Bennett Jr., a World War I aviator and West Virginia’s only World War I ace. Col. Charles Lindbergh placed a wreath at the base of this sculpture in memory of all World War I aviators. The base inscription is “Ready to serve.”

His courage, while not officially recognized by the governments he served, was ironically acknowledge by a German officer who was in the observation balloon that came under fire. Four years after her son’s death, Sallie Maxwell Bennett received a letter from Emil Merkelbach, who identified himself as that German officer. Of the events of Aug. 24, 1918, he wrote:

[I] had an opportunity to admire the keenness and bravery of your son; for this reason I should like to give you the following short description [of Louis’s final battle]. . . . I had been up several hours observing, and was at a height of 1000 meters. Over the enemy’s front circled continuously two hostile airplanes. . . . I immediately gave the command to my men below to haul in my balloon. . . . When still about 300 meters high, I saw [another] German balloon . . . plunge to earth burning. At the same moment I saw the hostile flyer (Louis) come toward my balloon at terrific speed, and immediately the defensive fire of my heavy machine rifles below and of the anti-aircraft guns began; but the hostile aviator did not concern himself about that. . . . [He] opened fire on me. . . . I saw the gleaming fire of the missiles flying toward me, but fortunately was not hit. The hostile machine was shot into flames by the fire of my machine guns. The enemy aviator tried to spring from the aeroplane before the latter plunged to the ground and burned completely.

Letter from German officer Emil merkelbach to louis bennett jr.s’ mother
letter in the National Museum of American History

Thus, the enemy placed one more memorial to this West Virginian aviator whose short life touched two continents and many cities where he is still honored and memorialized. On this Memorial Day, my first as a West Virginia resident, my thoughts echo those of the enemy rather than the government for which he fought. Merkelbach concluded his letter by stating, “I hope that the foregoing lines, a memorial to your son, will be received by you living—he was my bravest enemy. Honor to his memory.”

Sources/further reading

O’Gran, Patri. ” A mother’s solace: A letter from a World War I enemy | National Museum of American History (

Lewis Bennett Library | West Virginia Mountain Mama

Louis Bennett Public Library

West Virginia Veterans Memorial – Louis Bennett Jr. (

Coleman, Derek. W. Va. native started the West Virginia Flying Corps, sacrificed life in WWI | Putnam News |