“On Courage” Third Place Winner: Vickie Carden Posey

Vickie Carden Posey grew up in Northwest Georgia, just east of the Alabama line, lived in Tennessee for a while, and wound up in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and two children, where she taught English for over twenty years. Recently, her work has appeared in The New Southerner. Vickie has a BFA from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and an MA from North Carolina State University.

Her nonfiction story “On Growing Old” was awarded third place in our “On Courage” contest.

I write because: honestly, I can’t seem to stop. I’m always writing something down – what I hear or see or experience. When I was in art school and was supposed to keep a sketchbook, I found myself writing snippets, quotes, and ideas for writing—instead of drawings. I kept a diary when I was very young—sporadic and brief entries—but as I grew, so did the consistency and length of my writing. Most of my adult life, I’ve kept a journal, and I find that when I don’t write, I feel like something is out of kilter.

Something surprising I have learned about courage over the years is: that it’s all around us. There are huge acts of courage, like a soldier risking his life to save his buddy, but there are small acts of courage too, ones that sometimes we may not think of as courageous—like applying for a job, speaking to a stranger, and just getting up to face each new day. I’ve learned that we all have fears and that courage is not the absence of fear, but it is facing that fear head on.

I feel most courageous when: I see other human beings being courageous. Characters in movies and books inspire me, but also people around me. Seeing my parents age has taught me a lot about courage because they’ve done it with such grace, dignity, and courage. Each day brings challenges, and I always hope that I can meet these with the same courage that I’ve seen in others.

 Some Things You Might Find Interesting About Me 

1. I’ve always loved music and wanted to sing and play. I learned some piano and guitar early on, and most recently, I’ve learned the ukulele. I can sing and play a little, and think of that as a blessing, but I’m truly in awe of folks who are true musical talents.

2. I drive a 1987 yellow Volvo station wagon with a manual transmission, one I’ve had for so long that it’s become a part of me. It’s great for hauling stuff and is the most comfortable car I’ve ever driven, so even though the odometer stopped around 180,000 miles, the gear shift knob sometimes comes off in hot weather, the radio won’t work if the driver’s side window is down too far, and there’s only a K-mart cup holder, I still love it. I probably need a newer car, but I can’t seem to part with my Volvo.

3. I have a thing for tree houses, especially being up above everything and close to the sky. Someday I would love to live in a tree house.

4. I’ve been married for almost 50 years – to my high school sweetheart.

5. I’m a coffee addict – have loved the stuff since I was a child and drink at least 3-4 cups each day.

 About “On Growing Old” 

My little essay, “On Growing Old” was inspired by my parents, Johnnie and Adell Carden. When I thought of courage and what that means, my mind immediately went to the idea of growing old and how it takes courage to continue each day in the face of pain, suffering, loss of independence, and loss of loved ones. My father fell and broke his hip when he was 89 and then became more and more fragile. My essay recounts the day we finally had to take him to a nursing home – something we had hoped, prayed, and thought would never happen. This man – so big, strong, and independent in his prime – had become too weak and sick to take care of himself, even with the help of family. When my father passed away, November 18, 2014 at the age of 91, my mother had to be the courageous one – to let go and then go on living. So this essay is in memory of my father and in honor of my mother, who will be 90 this year.

 “On Growing Old” 

On Tuesday, July 23, 2013, we take Daddy to the nursing home in Cedartown, Georgia, about twenty miles away. He is 89, soon to be 90, but still we hope that this stay will be temporary, another period of rehab. On June 27th of this year, Daddy fell and broke his hip, ironically, on his wedding anniversary, after he and Mama had been out to eat at Sweet Tomatoes in Carrollton. Daddy was using a cane then, when he should have been using a walker, but he wanted to walk independently as long as he could. Plus, Mama hated the idea of Daddy using anything to help him walk. She said that once you start depending on it, you never go back. But the truth is that Daddy had needed more than a cane for some time.

On this day, we have a wheelchair, with my younger sister, Patsy, at the helm. She’s trained as a nurse and is administrator of the nursing home where Daddy is going. What a blessing. Our older sister, Barbara, is at home in Florida, after frequent trips here during the summer. Patsy does the wheeling, and we finally get this hunk of a man in her SUV. Mama and I follow, driving Mama’s car, so we’ll have a way back since Patsy will stay at work. It’s raining as we pull out of the driveway, from the house Mama and Daddy built together, where they’ve lived for over forty years. The drizzle continues all the way to Cedartown. It’s a dark and depressing day if there ever was one.

A few days earlier, on Saturday, Daddy had finally come home from the hospital, after over a month, recovering from the surgery and then in rehab. Everyone had rallied to help get the house ready, hoping Daddy could stay home. The church folks had put up rails inside the house and built a wheelchair ramp. My sisters and I had moved furniture from the hall and made adjustments to one of the showers. But after a few days, we find that everything we’ve done is just not enough. By Monday, we are all frustrated, exhausted, and sad because we know in our hearts that things are not working out.

Early Monday morning, Daddy tries to get out of bed to go to the bathroom, but he cannot do it on his own. This bear of a man, always known for his strength, can no longer lift his own body to a sitting position. We have been learning this lesson – that it can be extremely difficult to live a long life. It’s what we hope and pray for, but living into old age is not for the faint of heart. I once heard someone say that a person isn’t brave if he or she chooses to do something. It’s when you’re thrown into something that you really have to summon your courage. It’s complicated to think of this idea with Daddy. He certainly did not choose to have the injuries and illnesses that have come with old age, but I think he still loves life, chooses life. Daddy tells us that he feels like a big hunk of meat and is no use to anyone. Mama and I feel like crying.

Then he says what I thought I’d never hear him say – that he needs to go to a nursing home. At this point, he’s lying flat on his back, needing to pee, and asks Mama for a urinal. But Mama is hard of hearing and doesn’t respond. Then I tell Mama what Daddy said, but she says that he needs to sit up. The thing is that it’s not that simple anymore. She wants him to swing his feet around off the bed. Finally, I say, “Mama,” and she gives him the urinal. By this time, he’s already wet his pants.

Patsy comes by on her way to work and helps. It takes every bit of strength that he and the three of us have to finally get him to the sitting position. Soon, I tell Patsy what Daddy has said about the nursing home. She seems shocked, but the more we all talk, the more we realize that it’s what we need to do. Finally, we start the process.

Soon Mama is crying, saying she fears that if Daddy goes in the nursing home that he’ll never come home again. Earlier, when the physical therapist came over the weekend, Mama told her that the girls, meaning me and my sisters, think she’s too old to take care of Daddy. But that’s not it. In reality, it would be almost impossible for anyone – even a young, strong, skilled medical worker – to take care of Daddy at home. We know that Mama wants to take care of him. She’s been taking care of him for a very long time. We are just now realizing how much she’s had to do in these last few years. Though he’d always been strong, known for his muscular body, for some time, he’s been too weak to do much for himself. Still he is big, well over 250 pounds, which makes it even harder for Mama to maneuver him. Plus, Mama has shrunk in recent years, shorter now and much thinner than in her prime. She is tiny compared to him, and though three years younger, no longer has enough strength to help him.

The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, says that being born is an act of courage on each individual hero’s journey, but I would argue that facing old age takes true courage. It’s when you lose the independence that you’ve treasured and fought fiercely to keep. It’s when you have to face reality and keep going. When we get to the nursing home, everyone tells Daddy that they’ve been waiting for him, that they’re glad he’s there. Mama is teary but doesn’t say much. Daddy is assigned a room with a man in his nineties, someone who hardly ever says a word. The only thing I hear him say is after one of the nursing home ladies comes in and tells Daddy welcome and gives him a kiss on the cheek. Then Daddy’s roommate says softly to her, “You got any more of that sugar?”

Before we leave, I call Barbara. She cries, and then I start too. Finally Daddy has settled in, and we leave. It’s hard, but we are comforted that Patsy is there and everyone has been kind to Daddy. Earlier, Mama had said goodbye and gone out to the car. She said it was to get warm, because the air conditioning was too cold for her and that the rain made it seem colder. But I think she just wanted to be by herself, maybe have a cry. I go back in and tell Daddy goodbye one more time. He is in the bed, dozing by then, but rallies a little to tell me and Patsy not to get upset with Mama, that he’s known her a long time and that she’s a good woman. We promise, and then Mama and I leave. We go by a family restaurant in Buchanan to have some southern cooking, but neither of us is very hungry.

When we get to Mama’s house, some friends are picking blueberries. During blueberry season, some folks have a standing invitation to pick whenever they want. Mama talks for a while, mostly about Daddy, and then Patsy arrives, saying that Daddy seemed fine when she left. He ate lunch, did therapy, and even got a haircut and shave. I am sad, but also relieved. I think about the last few days, when he couldn’t do for himself, when we had such a hard time helping him, how he must have felt.

That night, Mama cooks – fried green tomatoes, steamed cabbage, and cornbread – with peach cobbler for dessert. Afterwards, Mama gathers things for Daddy – a CD player/radio, coins for the vending machines, some CDs. She wants to fix him a photo album but can’t find the ones she bought. I pray that Daddy has a peaceful night and isn’t afraid. I hope that Mama can finally get a little rest. Before we go to bed, Patsy calls the nursing home to check on Daddy. They tell her that he’s fine, that he went to the dining hall for dinner and now he’s resting.

It’s been a long day for everyone, especially for Mama and Daddy. During the night, I peak in at Mama, so tiny now, in their bed, and think of days to come. Patsy and I are with her now, but soon we’ll have to go to our own homes. What will get Mama and Daddy through tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that? Support, faith, hope, love – yes. But surely courage will play a part.

 A Few Words About “On Growing Old”  

Vickie Posey’s thoughtful and perceptive story, “On Growing Old,” left those of us who read it with a tremendous sense of gratitude for the people who have loved us, who have raised us, and who every day, as they age, face silent or subtle battles that we may not see, or take the time to notice or inquire about.

For us, the theme of “courage” was woven throughout this story—in the surprising acknowledgement by Vickie’s father, in the tearful acceptance of Vickie’s mother, in the peach cobbler baking and the coin gathering, and in the quiet act of going to bed one evening, knowing that one’s life will never be quite the same again—not the next morning, and not any morning after that. We are reminded of a quote by Mary Anne Radmacher: “Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’”

We found “On Growing Old” to be an honest and emotional look at the dreaded process of letting go, and of letting go on many levels. Vickie’s and her siblings’ care and concern for their parents on what was undoubtedly one of the most difficult days of their lives impressed us and melted our hearts. We feel certain that their love and support made “trying again tomorrow” a little bit easier for their “Mama” and “Daddy” and that Vickie’s story will touch many others who are facing similar struggles while demonstrating quiet courage every day.

Vickie’s essay, “This Gray Spirit,” was published in the New Southerner Literary Edition 2015. To read the essay, please click here.