The sound of rain rushing through the gutters jolts me from my sleep. I peer at my alarm clock; five minutes before the day begins. Remember Marina’s cupcakes in the garage fridge; remind Kellen to pack his basketball shoes; John needs me to swing by the bank before I pick up the kids. An ordinary day filled with dozens of activities performed by an ordinary Mom.
Then, it hits me. It’s Thursday, the day I see Dad. How can I characterize the physical sensation that starts in the center of my chest and explodes outward, surging through each vein and artery? It’s something akin to the wave of nausea coupled with hopeless dread you experience when you’ve hit the brakes too late…you’re going to crash.
The “ordinariness” of the day is lost. I search through the closet for something other than jeans and a comfy Target T-shirt. I’m still trying to look as though I have it all together, even when a chunk of my life is falling apart. Do I really think the nurses and aides pay attention to what I wear? They barely make eye contact. I settle on some of my former professional wear: black polyester blend slacks, fitted black shirt, and black flats. If Freud could analyze my clothing, he’d certainly tap into my death fixation.
I set the coffee to brew, pop the waffles in the toaster, turn the flat iron on high, and kiss the kids good-morning. “Fifteen minutes and we’re out the door!” I call out as a rush down the hallway. Sixteen minutes later, I’ve run back inside for the forgotten cupcakes and swallowed two Advil’s.
We back out of the driveway. The day is moving forward.
“Crap,” Kellen says.
“Now what?” I spin around to see my son’s eyes lower.
“I forgot my basketball shoes in the garage.”
I hit the garage door opener. “Well, hurry up!” I snap.
“Hey,” Kellen begins in his Jack Black, Nacho Libre voice, “Take it easy.”
Normally this evokes a smile, laughter, and brings us all back to center. Not today. Today, all I can muster is a scowl.
We arrive at school seconds before a tardy slip is needed. We exchange kisses good-bye and I offer a weak apology of, “Sorry, you know I’m going to see Grandpa today.”
They nod. They know. They tell me, ‘Sorry, Mom.’ They say they understand. They don’t. It’s not possible.
For the next forty-five minutes, I let the ritual of listening only to the Comedy Channel on XM radio soothe me like a lullaby. If I can just laugh all the way down the hill to our visit, certainly I’ll boost some positive neurotransmitters and get the endorphins going. It’s not working. My neck feels like a clamp is around it. I shut off the radio.
I wind through a neighborhood filled with aging rental houses and lawns littered with spider-webbed covered trucks. When I arrive, every visitor parking spot is taken, so I pull around to the back where a handful of CNA’s are having a cigarette under an awning to avoid the rain. They nod and smile as I approach the back door. I’m not sure if they know me, but already I feel their judgment.
The smells of urine and turkey-gravy mixed with disinfectant assaults me as I walk inside. The familiar moan of Evelyn pours out of room 207. Teresa sits in her wheelchair, eyes unfocused, as she screams for help. I bend down, make eye contact, and her wrinkles relax and a smile spreads. “Hello, honey. What’s your name?”
It doesn’t matter that we do this every visit; I always stop. Always. Do you know what a nurse told me the first time I did? She said, “Don’t mind her. She’s crazy. She’s always hollerin’ about somethin’.” Slack-jawed, I had blinked back tears and said, “I think she hears just fine.”
After a minute with Teresa, who is now calm and quiet, I see him in front of his nurse’s station. He sits in his walker that is armed with a built-in chair. If I turn around right now, I can be home in forty-five minutes and work on my novel. A quick prayer for patience and I touch him on the shoulder. “Hi, Daddy.”
It’s what I’ve always called him. During heart-stopping rounds of Ker plunk, or evenings laughing through the Odd Couple, warmly squished together in his easy-chair, or after he’d come back from jail for assaulting my mother…again.
“What do I tell my friends, Mommy? They saw him get arrested.”
“Tell them, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. Nothing happened.’”
Right away, something is different. His marine, blue eyes don’t light up as I kiss his stale-smelling cheek. He murmurs something about it being too cold to go out. Maybe I should get him his trench coat. “Is it still raining?” He’s all business.
“It’s raining a bit. I’ll go get your coat.”
I sort through his two-foot wide closet that is filled with food stained clothes and pockets full of bingo-money and Sweet-N-Lows. After searching through the pockets, I grab a handful of his garments, dash around the corner, and shove them into the “to launder” bin. I toss the Sweet-N-Lows in the garbage and put his change in the top drawer with the ten pairs of socks I bought two years ago, socks that he never wears–they’re cotton, not black nylon. When I return to the closet, I can’t find the trench coat, so I settle upon a thick, blue jacket made in 1970 that still smells of his pipe tobacco.
He stands as I approach and a deep line grows in between his brows. He rolls his eyes and an audible sigh of exasperation pours through his lips. “That’s not the right one.”
Something about the combination of his sigh, the angry look in his eyes, and the memory of him holding this posture around my mother when I was small sends me back to being five-years-old all over again. I shudder. “I know. I’m sorry. I couldn’t find it.”
Another sigh of disappointment. He walks to his room like a cowboy ready for a gunfight. “I should have come with you.”
I trail behind, dragging my blankie, sucking my thumb.
He flings open his closet and withdraws the coat; it was nestled between two pairs of pajamas. “See,” he says, inches from my face.
“I didn’t see it.” I help him on with his jacket and pat him on the back. “Okay, let’s go get a bite to eat,” I say, slipping into good-daughter mode. Everybody be happy. It’s all going to be okay. Come on, now.
I put on the Sinatra station in the car and he melts into another reality. He knows every lyric and sings along. His voice could be recorded. My shoulders drop just a bit. “How are the kids?” he asks.
This is always his first question. I’m not even sure he remembers them outside of the pictures that I’ve tacked to the cork board above his bed. Nonetheless, I proceed to tell him, with great enthusiasm, about my son’s basketball season, star player, he’d be so proud and how Marina is playing the drums–the drums, like me, remember? Only, I don’t say the last part. Never ask someone with dementia, “Remember?”
He’s gone again, like a veil has clouded his vision. The singing stops and he’s focused on something out in front of him: a memory, a yearning, a disappointment? Just as we are about to pull into the cafe for coffee and a sweet role, he begins to tap his index finger against his chin. “I…I think that my daughter, Susan, is coming to see me tomorrow.”
It’s like a shot to the chest. I actually hit the brakes a little bit, I’m so startled. All of the anger, resentment, and thirty-year-old fear drains from me. I’m a grown up and I’m sitting next to this very lonely, fragile, confused old man. My hand rests on his knee and I give it a squeeze. My father looks at me with a giant question mark lingering in his eyes.
“I’m your daughter, Daddy,” I say.
He cocks his head and shakes it as he studies my face. An uncomfortable chuckle escapes his parched mouth. The veil is pulled back, his eyes brighten. “Of course. I don’t know what I was talking about. Stupid.”
“It’s okay,” I reassure him. “It’s okay.”
Inside the cafe, I pour sugar and cream in his coffee and cut his sweet role into manageable bites. Every mouthful he takes is followed by a sigh of delight. My tears sneak out. When we’re done, I hold him close, my right arm through his left, and steady him back to the car. He hums along to “It Was a Very Good Year,” and is gone once again to a place I cannot go. Our hands are clutched all the way back to the care facility. They are the same hands that held my face with a good-night kiss and waved good-bye as he got in his car to stay with his brother, “Just until things blow over.” I have no energy left to be angry today.
I promise a visit next month. By dinner time, he’ll forget that I was even here. We kiss good-bye, and I walk down the hall, bid good-bye to familiar staff, and slip outside. I suck in a deep breath and take in the sky that now swirls with white clouds and pockets of blue. The radio off and the windows down, I begin the trek back home. Basketball practice, homework, laundry, dinner, hugs good-night. With each mile that I climb toward home, my tears whisper the words, “It’s a good life, I have. It’s a good life.”