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A winter night at Baptist

It has been more than a quarter of a century since my paternal grandfather died. This much I remember — I was working at Arkadelphia radio stations KVRC-KDEL when I got the news, and it was snowing and sleeting outside.

Later that week, with snow and ice still covering the ground, I held my grandmother’s arm tightly to make sure she didn’t slip as we walked gingerly through a cemetery in Benton for the graveside service. I always loved my grandfather’s name — Ernest Ezra Nelson. You no longer hear names like that. When he was born late in the 19th century, it wasn’t an uncommon name, I suppose.

Less than a decade later, my first son was born. Again, it was snowing and sleeting. I was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at the time, and things could not have been busier that day. It was Feb. 24, 1993. As political editor, I supervised both the newspaper’s Washington bureau and its state Capitol bureau in Little Rock.

In Washington, Bill Clinton had been in office for exactly five weeks. There seemingly was a fresh controversy/crisis every day during those early weeks of the Clinton administration, and we had three aggressive reporters (Randy Lilleston, Jane Fullerton and Terry Lemons) turning out hundreds of inches of copy each afternoon that I had to edit.

In Little Rock, meanwhile, the Arkansas Legislature was in session, Jim Guy Tucker was still new in the governor’s office and there were at least five of our reporters at the Capitol sending me additional stories to edit. I had planned to work until at least 9 p.m. that day.

At 6:40 p.m., Melissa called from our home in west Little Rock. She was scared. Our son was not scheduled to arrive for another month. But her water had broken while she was exercising, and her doctor had advised her to head to the hospital. So much for our well-laid plans of spending the next month getting ready for the baby.

I told my supervisor, Ray Hobbs, that he would have to edit the remaining stories. I threw on my coat and headed downstairs. As I made the journey west from the newspaper offices downtown to Chenal Parkway, traffic was barely moving on Interstate 630 due to the winter weather. On the exit leading up to Baptist Health Medical Center, there were wrecks. I was nervous, and I was frustrated that it was taking me so long to get home.

I finally made it. Melissa was waiting at the door with a bag in her hand. Our departure was delayed for several minutes when the neighbor’s dachshund charged through the open door into our house. We headed to Baptist after removing the dog, and fortunately the wrecks had been cleared along the way.

Austin Nelson arrived at 2:48 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 25, 1993. Eddie Phillips, the doctor who delivered him, had driven on the slick streets and made it on time. During the wait for Austin to arrive, I remember staring out at the window to watch what weathermen here like to refer to as a “winter weather event.”

Yesterday, I sat in a fifth-floor room at that same Little Rock hospital on another cold February night. I looked out across the beautiful snow-covered hills of west Little Rock and reflected back on that other wintry day 17 years earlier. The task was different this time. Rather than waiting on a new life to enter the world, I was keeping watch over my 85-year-old father, who had been admitted to the hospital that morning with a serious infection and perhaps pneumonia.

My father’s name is Robert. Austin’s middle name is Robert. As I listened to my father’s labored breathing and thought about my son doing homework a few miles away at home, the winter night in 1993 and this winter night in 2010 seemed tied together in a strange way. Then, my thoughts went back do the winter day I heard my grandfather had died.

As had my grandfather in the years before his death, my father suffers from dementia. I wonder on this long night at the hospital if that will be my fate. And I wonder if when I am old and sick and in the hospital, one of my two sons will be sitting there — reading, watching, looking out the window, thinking of those who came before them.

My dad turned 65 on the day Melissa and I were married. He was healthy back then — still working, quail hunting, bass fishing, cooking for us on his grill. We surprised him with a birthday cake at the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding, and everyone sang to him.

Two decades take their toll.

So as I wait for the Thursday night snow that will never arrive (which is fine; Monday’s seven inches were quite enough), I think of those rare days when there is snow on the ground in Arkansas — the day my grandfather was buried, the night my first son was born and this night of helping care for my father.

It’s the middle of February, it’s dark and I’m thinking about four generations of Nelson males — Ernest, Robert, Rex and Austin — as the various medical devices grind and click in the background. Suddenly, I’m very cold. I reach for a blanket and attempt to grab a few minutes of sleep.

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