The only time his sister Lorie called, it was because their brother was in jail or their father wasn’t doing well. It was 7 a.m. so it was more likely the latter. The old man was in hospice, slowly starving to death.

“Have you even seen someone die?” she asked him.

On the way back home, he thought about what he might say for the eulogy. He was the eldest son; he figured he would have to say something. Jeff’s younger brother didn’t have a car and was hard to get in touch with.

The old man had a wild streak and was irascible, a pre-boomer, last of the wild breed that grew up without electricity and every family on the island had a menagerie of farm animals. At a young age, he trapped nutria and muskrat and would trap so many the boat would nearly capsize. Dad and his brother skinned the animals and tossed the carcasses overboard to lighten the load and slaughter a whole new batch. You could sell the fur for $5 a skin, but back then, that was real money, before we all wore gender-neutral petrochemical U.N. uniforms.

The highlight of the old man’s life was Germany, where he was stationed at the same time as Elvis Presley. Jeff Thomas had picked up the pictures of Elvis in the uniform side by side with his Dad’s pictures, even though Elvis was in Friedberg and Dad was in Stuttgart. Jeff’s dad, Paul Thomas, had only been to the eighth grade, but he did learn to become a tank mechanic. After he came back, the old man got a C-class driver’s license and drove a truck, Paul loved to recall the time he drove a truck loaded with dynamite across the state. The old man loved shooting guns and breaking in wild horses.

In catechism class, Jeff learned the parable of the crosses, that for all our complaints, if we went into a store that sold crosses of all different sizes, the one commensurate to our suffering in the modern world would be the smallest one in the shop. Well, the cross Paul had to bear was a blood clot about 5.7 mm in diameter lodged into his left internal carotid artery of his brain at the age of 40. He was at the prime of his life, too, with a full-time job, a head of cattle, and a bulldozer he would work on weekends for extra dough.

It took three months of speech therapy for Dad to say more than “Shit!” He did get a good bit of his speech back eventually; it was always highly emotionally charged and he could no longer calmly explain how to change a serpentine belt. The old man learned to write left-handed and walked with a considerable limp. He limped along a divorced bachelor for nearly 30 years before the first batch of phone calls. Jeff and Lorie were both out of town when the neighbors noticed old Paul hadn’t left the house all weekend.

Frantic flight back home to find Dad slipped and fell in the bathtub and was covered in shit and piss. Dad used his left hand to turn on the faucet for water and, with his same left hand, cup enough water to drink so he wouldn’t dehydrate. After that, Jeff and Lorie got Dad a button, the kind you press for friends and family to get you up off the floor.

About once a month for seven years, Dad would fall, but he kept changing the names on the call list. His godson, cousins, guys at the bar, all had made the trip to pick up Dad so Jeff and Lorie wouldn’t put him in the nursing home. He’d ask these extended family and strangers not to tell Jeff, but news like that always percolated in this community.

After another particularly bad fall, Jeff had to pick his dad up and clean the shit off the floor, all while his dad was yelling “Shit!” and crying, they had to bite the bullet and put dad in assisted living. He had one of those power scooters, but he kept bumping the walls as he wasn’t naturally left-handed to begin with. The place was nice, actually; they went out of their way to make large-handled utensils Jeff’s dad could grip. About once a month, Jeff would visit and help feed the old man; one of the ladies personally thanked Jeff for looking after his father. It must be something pretty rare. He would fall once a month, then once a week, and then finally wheelchair-only. Paul fought like hell, but that 5.7 mm clot got the best of him.

At the funeral, Jeff got to meet all the people who filled in to pick up Dad when he fell. The old grizzled vets and cousins, they never admitted it, but the somber admissions like “I know it was hard for you to do but it was the right thing to send Paul to Oak Acres” gave Jeff a clue they knew what old Paul was going through.

After the rosary, Jeff stood up to give a eulogy. He really didn’t have a planned speech in mind, but he surveyed the sad and wizened faces. When he went to church, the priest would always begin the homily with a joke, and so Jeff, channeling old Paul in his younger days, thought, why not.

“Now, I’m no theologian, but when Dad gets up to the pearly gates, I suspect when and if he meets Jesus, that Jesus would say, ‘Welcome, my Son.’”

And then old Paul would look him right in the eye and say, ‘So, you only fell three times, that’s all?’”