The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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After all this time, my father’s routine has become ritual. At 4:30 sharp, he switches off a rerun of All in the Family, lurches forward to bring the dusty-rose recliner into an upright position, tosses the remote onto the empty recliner next to his, and says cheerfully, “Got a hot date.” (Indeed, the whole performance is carried out in a cheerful spirit. “If you’re going to do something, do it right” is one of his mottoes.) He goes to the bathroom mirror, picks up a brush, and poufs his white hair in the spots where it’s thinning a bit. He’s a storybook-looking old man — weathered but not stooped, still tall and handsome, like Cary Grant in his eighties. He does the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises every other day and is able to muster what he calls “pep” when it’s called for. Sometimes he sizes up his reflection in the mirror and turns philosophical, saying, “At this point in life, it’s all about maintenance,” or, “That’s the best I can do.” Then he takes the green bottle of Polo from the cabinet and douses himself with it.
He is particular about what he wears — off-white turtleneck with matching cardigan, black slacks, well-polished black loafers — but he never dresses for the weather. In the winter, I must argue to get him to wear gloves. A hat is out of the question. If there’s snow on the ground or it’s raining, he leaves early. If I cause his departure time to be delayed a few minutes, he is mad. He must be there at 4:45. “She’s waiting,” he says.
The Manor is less than a mile away. We drive through Boston’s Oak Square and up Bigelow Street, lined on both sides with eighty-year-old houses, the property lines demarcated by chain-link fences. We take a left at the top of the hill, at the house Joe Kennedy II and his wife bought after Joe was elected to Congress in 1986.
My father was delighted when the Kennedys moved into the neighborhood; the Kennedy family was the equivalent of royalty to him, an Irish Catholic born in 1917, just two months after JFK. My father and JFK served in the same war and got married in the same year, both bachelors until the age of thirty-six. The similarities end there, though. Dad worked the night shift at the post office to support his six children, and I’m pretty sure he never even seriously flirted with other women. My mother would not have been as tolerant as Jackie apparently was. My mother would have said, “So help me, I’ll pull your ear the length of my arm if you ever do that again. God forgive me.”
For the first few months after the Kennedys moved in, Dad often said, “They haven’t done a blessed thing to that house since they bought it.” I think he expected a major overhaul. Then, in July, he said grudgingly, “Well, at least they stuck a flag out front.” After the first year, Dad said, “They have a chow dog now. That thing must eat a lot.” Once, at Christmas, when the Kennedys had electric candles lit in every window, he said, “Why do they need such a big house? All those rooms. It must get lonesome.” I made a mental note to alert my sisters and brothers that Dad was feeling lonesome. My father would sooner put on a dress and parade up and down Bigelow than say, “I’m lonesome.” He speaks in code, though we children cracked it long ago. “The dog wants a treat” means Dad wants a dish of ice cream. “It’s no bother” means it is, but he wasn’t brought up to complain.
We take a left at the Kennedys’ house and ride the brakes down the steep driveway of the Manor. This is the back entrance, marked by three overflowing dumpsters and a white vinyl banner reading, leaders in quality care. The front entrance is fancier. There’s a wooden sign and, in the summer, some annuals in pots, though the flowers never last very long. To enter the back way, we must go through a glass door, then press a red button high on the wall that buzzes us through a second set of doors.
I think of the back door as the “stage entrance,” because from the second my father’s hand hits that button, he is on.
It’s supper time, and the residents who are able to sit up are out in the hall waiting for their trays to be delivered. There are three old ladies lined up in our path. My father bends over in a courtly fashion and shakes hands with each of them, saying, “How are you tonight, dear?” or, “You look beautiful this evening. Pink is your color.”
“Where’s my breakfast?” the third one demands of him.
“I’m going to make it for you right now, sweetheart,” my father answers.
“No jello!” she hollers in a raspy voice.
“Hold the jello!” Dad yells toward the kitchen.
As we walk away, he says to me, “It’s like running a gauntlet.” We keep each other going with jokes. Banter is our defense.
It’s a busy time for the aides, but still they pause to say hello when they see my father. They’re mostly Haitian, with a few Jamaicans in the senior positions. They have many pet names for him: Big Daddy, Mr. B. “Oh, here come my Sweet Man,” announces Bianca, whose hair is arranged differently every time we see her. This evening, it reminds me of a fountain in the Boston Public Garden.
“Bianca,” my father says, “where have you been all my life?”
She hugs him. Then, hands on hips, head tilted to one side, she says, “When are you gonna bring me another present?” My father frequently brings boxes of chocolates for the aides.
“I’m watching your weight for you, Bianca,” he answers.
I roll my eyes and say, “Dad!”
But Bianca doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she points to me and says, “You have a good daddy,” as if I’ve been disrespectful.
We reach the room my mother has occupied for five of her seven years at the Manor. “She has seniority,” my father jokes. Her bed is by the window, but I have never seen her look out. The view is obscured by light-blocking vertical blinds and heavy pink curtains. Often, in the summer, I shut off the worn-out air conditioner and open the window for some fresh air. Once, in February, when Dad was home with the flu, I opened the window wide, whispered to my mother, “Let go,” and tiptoed out of the room. I was hoping she would catch pneumonia and die. I cannot say to my father that I want her to die. What one must wish is that God’s will be done.
Mom’s current roommate is disconcertingly youngish, with long steel gray hair. “She crazy,” says the aide who calls my father Big Daddy. Still, everyone must be greeted, and Dad insists on singing out, “Good evening, Margaret,” to the roommate every night when he arrives. Tonight Margaret spits into a plastic cup and shuffles out of the room.
As he walks toward my mother, Dad speaks in his radio-announcer voice: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and all the ships at sea. We have a lovely show for you tonight, broadcasting live from the Rainbow Room high atop Rockefeller Center.”
I resist the temptation to say something deflating like “She’s confused enough without you telling her she’s in the Rainbow Room.”
My mother used to be pretty, with honey-colored hair and a saucy walk. My father makes a lot of the fact that her hair is still its original color, gray only at the temples. “How are you keeping it brown?” he asks her sometimes, as if she’s in control of her hair color. As if she’s in control of anything.
She’s usually dressed in someone else’s nightgown. Despite our determined efforts — my sister Rita labeled all my mother’s apparel in indelible black marker when she was admitted — the anarchists in the laundry room refuse to separate clothes by owner. When we buy her something new on Mother’s Day, or her birthday, or Christmas, it soon disappears into the vast communal closet of the nursing home. Still, we persist. Tonight her top is twisted, and I can read the name “D. Rufo” on the back. I picture some other daughter labeling her mother’s clothes the way we do.
“She’s wearing some Eye-talian woman’s clothes tonight,” my father mutters, product of a Boston neighborhood where families were either Irish or Italian. To him, all Italians are the Other — not disliked, necessarily, but different. Then he says, “Hi, honey. How are you tonight? I’ve brought Ro with me. You’re so lucky to be inside. It’s bitter — and I mean bitter — cold out.” Today, as during every other visit, he takes hold of her chin and tries to make her look at him. It’s comical, almost, the way she moves her eyes away from wherever he wants them to be. “Just like trying to get a kid to smile for a Christmas photo,” my father says. Occasionally she looks right at him and gives him a radiant, surprised smile. Once, she said, “You,” when she saw him.
When he is finished saying hello, he expects me to say, “Hi, Mom!” and bend over and kiss her. I try, but I can’t muster enough enthusiasm to satisfy him. In my head, I can hear him coaxing, “More feeling!” as he did when he coached me for a sixth-grade speech contest.
He sings, “Night and day / you are the one,” and turns the crank that elevates the head of the bed. Then he lowers the bedside rail, props up the stuffed bear with the green velvet vest — which he is convinced comforts her — and says, “There you go, Mama.”
Dad keeps a stash of flexible straws on a small table in the corner. The nursing home provides only straight straws, though bent straws at least offer a fighting chance to someone who can’t move her head. Tonight one of the aides has used up the bent straws and neglected to tell Dad.
“Damn it,” he says. “They’ve been at the straws again. If they’d just tell me, I’d know to buy more!”
“Was that the last straw?” I ask, and wait for his comeback. I knead my mother’s shoulder because I’ve read that Alzheimer’s patients respond to touch. She stares straight ahead. I hope she can’t make sense of the image reflected in the mirror across from her bed. There’s really not much here for death to take away: she sits all day unmoving, unable to so much as shift her weight. More than a decade ago, when the doctors were still telling us she was experiencing the change or empty-nest syndrome, it was my mother’s stillness that filled me with a sick certainty that something was seriously wrong with her. When she was healthy, my mother had been a dervish. After her illness began, she would sit quietly and stare off into space, not doing anything, not noticing the room getting darker, not remembering even to switch on a lamp.
Dad doesn’t respond to my joke about the straw. He’s dusting off her TV with his handkerchief. The TV hasn’t worked in years, but it adds to the illusion that there is a functioning person in this space. A person who could watch television.
“How about I run up to Star Market right now and get some straws?” I ask. Am I a peacemaker, I wonder, or am I just trying to get out of here?
“No, I’ll go tomorrow,” he says, sliding the empty box into his jacket pocket so he won’t forget.
Ten years older than my mother, my father retired soon after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in her midfifties. Despite cautions from doctors that it would be taxing, Dad kept her at home for twelve years. Before that, he had never entered the kitchen except to grab his lunchbox off the counter on his way to work. Now the sight of him in the kitchen is commonplace, though he occasionally shows me something he has found in the back of a drawer — a whisk or a garlic press — and says, “Honey, what the hell am I supposed to do with this?”
Maneuvering his wife into a shower or out of a car became second nature for him. He had a firm opinion on which brand of adult diaper was best and figured out how to get my mother to take her Metamucil. (Mix it with applesauce.) He learned the kinds of tricks that parents of young children employ. When my mother was still living at home, there was a TV nun, Mother Angelica, who looked freakishly like my long-dead maternal grandmother. Each time the nun’s face appeared on-screen, my mother would lean forward in her recliner. Such was the effect of Mother Angelica that my mother would submit to having her hair styled, something that normally upset her, so long as Mother Angelica was on. Long after my mother lost her ability to speak, her hair remained flawless. My father believes that appearances must be kept up, no matter what catastrophe befalls you.
Now he finishes tucking a towel under her chin and finds the radio station that plays Sinatra every night from five to six. The part of the brain that remembers music is among the last to stop functioning: I learned that at a support-group meeting. Dad hated the meetings and went only once. “I refuse to sit in a church basement and listen to a bunch of bellyaching strangers,” he’d say, and raise the newspaper in front of his face. “But you have to share your feelings,” my sisters and I would plead with him. Our worries about our parents took the obnoxious form of a zealous determination to help Dad — to make Dad — cope. We backed off only after a social worker suggested that if Dad ever did get in touch with his feelings, he might not stop crying for a long time.
One of the quieter aides brings in dinner and says, “Oh, you’ve got your daughter with you tonight. Good for you.” I smile and nod at her, trying to look like the source of comfort I used to be. For several years, I was intimately involved in caring for my mother. Then some impulse toward self-preservation prompted me to live overseas for two years, and to undergo therapy for two years after that. I finally reached the point of believing — or half believing — that the drama of my mother’s illness should not be the centerpiece of my life. I still feel like a deserter whenever I’m home in Boston.
My father lifts the domed plastic lid off the main course, and together we study the puréed mess on the plate.
“Beef?” I venture.
My father tastes it, shrugs, and says, “You’ve got me.”
Now his real work begins. If he coaxes her into eating most of what’s on her plate, he can go home, watch the six o’clock news, microwave some popcorn, and be at peace. Because she’s been in the hospital a couple of times already for dehydration, he begins with the juice. That usually goes pretty quickly. I prefer to stand at the end of the bed and disassociate myself from what comes next. He takes the glass of milk, drinks about half of it, then adds several heaping teaspoons of the purée, stirs, and says, “We have a lovely cocktail for you tonight, Mrs. Berkeley. It’s one of the specialties here at our bar. You’re going to love it.” Then he lowers his voice and says, “Come on, Mama, drink.”
When she complies, I wonder if it’s in response to the hint of desperation in his voice. (If she refuses food, they’ll insert a feeding tube.) I wonder, too, when my father began referring to his own wife as “Mama.” On the phone, he’ll say to me, “Mama was out of sorts yesterday.” Even in meetings with her doctor, he’ll say, “Mama is holding her own, don’t you think?” Ironically, my siblings and I have stopped calling our mother “Mom.” We now refer to her by her nickname: “Franny looks good.” Or sometimes by just a pronoun: “Why doesn’t she let go?”
The woman across the hall, the one my father calls Cat Lady because of the peculiar wailing sound she emits, is acting up, calling for her son, who never visits.
“Pat, Pat,” Cat Lady yells, “where are you?”
“Come on, Mama, just a little bit more.”
“Pat, can you hear me?” Her volume is impressive.
“Ro came all the way up from Florida to see you, Mama,” he says, deftly whipping a spoonful of mush into her mouth.
“Pat, why don’t you answer me?” Cat Lady wails.
“Ro is making me a nice chicken dinner tonight,” he adds.
Cat Lady marshals all her strength and screeches, “Pat, where are you?”
My father straightens and calls out, “I’m under the bed!”
Cat Lady is silent.
My mother lifts her eyebrows, which excites us both. I squeeze her hand, and she squeezes back, faintly, but undeniably.
“Hi, Franny,” I say.
He has missed only a few nights in the last seven years, always because of the flu or some family obligation. He used to let me come in his place when I was in town — it didn’t count as missing a night if I was there. I would go three, four, five times a week, insisting that he needed a break. I’d arrive a few minutes after the food trays were distributed and make my way briskly down the hall, calling out a greeting to the aides but making no attempt to engage them. I would breeze silently by Margaret, give my mother the juice, offer food but not press her, pat her arm, say, “Love you,” and be gone in under fifteen minutes.
I often fed her that way, with the efficiency and detachment of someone cleaning a fish tank for the fiftieth time. Sometimes, though, everything in me fell apart at the sight of her in that stupid bed, and she became my mother again. I’d stand a few feet away, wondering if she knew I was there, wiping my eyes on my sleeves and asking, “Why in hell did this have to happen to you?”
One night, as I drove up Bigelow, I began to dread seeing my mother. When I got to the Kennedys’, I couldn’t take the left. I drove around town for twenty minutes, looking at my old school and the supermarket where I’d cashiered in college. An image of Mom’s dinner tray sitting on the bedside table flashed into my mind. “I just can’t do it, OK?” I said aloud, banging the steering wheel.
If you’d asked me whom I was talking to, I would have guessed it was the God my father believes in, the one who always pisses me off.
I left town the next day. When my father got to the nursing home that night, one of the aides asked, “Where were you yesterday?” and he said, “I sent my daughter!” and she said, “No, sir. I fed that lady myself.”
He told all three of my sisters that it was the worst thing I’d ever done to him.
After the meal comes the grand finale. In the bedside table, my father keeps a Tupperware container full of the kind of candy no one under the age of sixty would buy: after-dinner mints resembling tiny pastel pillows, green sugar-coated jellies shaped like leaves, spicy gumdrops. He selects three pieces and lines them up on my mother’s shoulder. Then he takes a Tums from a bottle in the bedside table. “Now it’s time for a little treat, Mama,” he says, sticking the first candy in her mouth.
I have argued against this procedure many times. She doesn’t seem to want the candy; he has to press it into her mouth. She is on a puréed diet, so presumably there is some danger of her choking on a sugar-encrusted green leaf. Is she aware enough to chew? So far, yes. She chews and chews, holding up our departure. The second piece goes in. She chews thoughtfully, as if she’s trying to place the flavor. I go to the window and open the blinds and stare out. Now the third piece. I can see my parents reflected in the dark glass. He strokes her cheek and says, “You look like a little squirrel.” She’s too engrossed in the act of chewing to look at him. Finally, he holds the Tums above her like the Communion host and says, “Very good, Mama. One more,” and she obediently opens her mouth a bit.
After the Tums has been administered, he lowers the bed and tucks the teddy bear under her arm. He pulls the bedside rail up and puts the plastic dome over the tray. “Go to sleep now, Mama,” he says. “See you tomorrow night.”
I say, “See you, Franny. Love you,” and precede him out the door.
He looks back at her and calls out, “This is Ben Bernie and all the lads, saying au revoir, pleasant dreams, think of us when requesting your themes.”
“What’s that from?” I ask as we make our way down the hall.
He waves at an ancient woman whose wiry hair is done up in lopsided pigtails and says, “Ben Bernie was a bandleader at the Totem Pole.”
“The Totem Pole?”
“A place on the Charles River with big bands and dancing. It was nice. Small tables with a lamp on each one.” He pauses, then adds, “I took Frances there once.”
The sound of my mother’s full name, a name none of us uses anymore, grips me for a second like a whiff of perfume that I haven’t worn in a long time. Frances: A woman in a pretty dress smiling in the lamplight. A vision from a past I can only imagine, back when it was just the two of them. A vision strong enough, sweet enough, and enduring enough to keep him going now — to keep them going.
“There’s something between those two,” the night nurse once told one of my sisters. “She won’t go until he’s ready.”
He calls good night to a couple of people. When we get to the food cart, he slides her tray, which he has brought with him, back into place.
“Thank you, Sweet Man,” Bianca says, hurrying by with trays in both hands.
Almost to the door, we pass the three old ladies, who are now wearing their dinners.
“Goodnight, ladies,” my father sings out to them, then bends to pick up a napkin from the floor.
A flash of anger makes me want to kick the exit doors open. I hiss at him, “That’s enough,” which is something my mother used to say to us when we were pushing her too hard: “That’s enough.” Enough what? I wonder, even as I say it.
I bang the red button and say, “I’ll drive.” My father doesn’t answer. We both take a deep breath of outside air. I’m trying to calm down, but I have the car started and my foot poised over the gas pedal before he’s even settled into the passenger seat. I tear up the hill and out of the parking lot and hang a right at Joe Kennedy’s, past his flag, his chow dog, his too-big lonely house. I can see my father’s foot pressing the brake pedal that isn’t there.
I say, “Sometimes it’s all just too much, you know?”
“You sound just like your mother.”
“Good,” I say, and I exhale hard. We are quiet for a moment, driving under the black sky. Then I add, “Mom would say it’s too much.”
Claiming my mother as an ally is a ruse. Back when she was healthy, we disagreed on everything — birth control and skirt length, the kind of guy I should date and the way I wore my hair. I picture her at her sarcastic best, hands on hips, telling me to kiss her royal Irish ass, laughing at the idea that I know what’s best — for myself, for her, for anyone.
I admit that I don’t know what’s best, but I am clear about what I wish for as we head home to the dusty-rose recliners and Tom Brokaw. My wish is for my father, who looks drained and grayish in the dashboard light. I wish that, when this is over, he’ll be left with the memory of love’s blessings, and not its exacting toll.