I last talked to my father-in-law on Sunday. Friends had bought a swing set and playscape that had for years sat in his Gilmer backyard. Our daughter Abbie had long outgrown its use. I was meeting them there to help load it.
“How are you doing, Mr. Teel,” I asked. I have always called him that, out of respect for the patriarch of this clan.
“Fine as froghair,” he said, as always.
Two days later, he was in Good Shepherd Medical Center’s operating room, the victim of a random stabbing attack in a waiting room at the hospital’s day-surgery center. He was there waiting to take his son home after a procedure.
You can read about what happened that awful morning elsewhere. It has been reported in detail. Instead, I want to tell you about Harris K. Teel, who still fights hard for his life on this Thanksgiving morning as I write this — 48 hours after he was stabbed in the heart.
Papa Teel — as most his family calls him and I do as well, just not to his face — is rarely seen without a toothpick in his mouth or a worn ballcap on his head. He wears overalls every day unless his children order him to dress up for a special occasion. Then he changes into a fresh pair of denims. Papa Teel doesn’t say much but loves to listen to family members tell stories. Occasionally he can be persuaded to chime in with details. Some involve wrestling a 60-pound Opelousa catfish into a flat-bottom boat while running trotlines on Wright Patman Lake near Texarkana. At 82 he still runs those lines.
One time a few years back his brother Brad fell off the roof while helping Papa Teel fix the roof of his trailer up at the farm, taking the ladder with him. Harris kept yelling down at Brad, “Hey, Brad, you all right?” over and over. After about five minutes — which Papa Teel said felt like a week — Brad stirred and sat up. Harris commenced to yelling at him to put the damn ladder back up so he could get off the roof — and to be quick about it.
Brad died early last year at 86, ending a unique and often fractious relationship. We called them the East Texas version of the Secondhand Lions. Together the two raised the most luscious vegetables one could find — tomatoes, cantaloupe, peppers, corn, and purple hull peas. A pot of those peas are simmering on the stove now for our come-and-go from the hospital vigil Thanksgiving dinner repast later. Papa Teel quit gardening after that. He lost his taste for it without his brother Brad.
Papa Teel grew up in Atlanta (the East Texas version) and was a star high school football athlete for the Jackrabbits. Story goes, he received a scholarship to play football for LSU and took the train down to Baton Rouge, walked around campus, got back on the train and came back. That place was just too big for him, he later said.
You can set a clock by when that man is going to take his meals. Breakfast comes early, soon as he awakes. Lunch is at 10 a.m. usually and dinner is at 4 in the afternoon. He is an excellent cook of the simple Southern cuisine. The best fried chicken I have ever put in my mouth came out of his skillet. He taught me how to deep-fry the filleted catfish in which he keeps the entire clan stocked.
There is nothing Papa Teel enjoys more than being with his family, but when he is ready to head home there is no stopping him. Like most people up in their years, he has a routine. We all have come to understand that. But there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for any of his family. That is why he was in that waiting room, after all, helping out.
We have been overwhelmed by the prayers of friends, strangers, the staff at Good Shepherd — everyone. The medical care he has received — from the moment after the attack, into the ER where an extraordinary surgeon repaired his heart, and now in intensive care — has been superlative.
For that we all give thanks today as Papa Teel fights to come back from this grievous injury. His outcome is still uncertain. We can only leave this in God’s hands and in the hands of those who now care for him in ICU.
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