The day after Christmas, spent quietly, for the most part, in my Dad’s world. How can I describe this place? Pieces of Bill, yet there, surrounded by fibrous webbing of garbledygook, intoned as if with complete clarity, so one is forced to nod in agreement even though one is not quite certain what one is agreeing to. He was on today. Because I was the last one left in the room, I became the one who was responsible to make sure he didn’t harm himself. He is like an overgrown toddler with a thousand years of life experience. It is disconcerting and yet under it all, there is a hint of jocularity. He likes to have fun and be silly, especially when I, the caretaker of convenience, take my job too seriously.
I had a win. Judy mentioned she had to get his fingernails cut, and I remembered a time when my sister-in-law managed to get her father’s nails cut by giving him a “manicure.” So I spent some time massaging my Dad’s hands until he was nearly catatonic, nearly snoring, and then gently snipped nine of the ten fingers, being careful to avoid the sensitive half of a finger on the tenth. This took an hour, and the success gave me confidence and my Mom felt I was safe enough to leave him with me so she snuck off with a book. I sat and he stuck to me like glue the rest of the day. This is different from the last time I visited in April. Then, I had my friend Megan with me and he was anxious any time Judy left the room. This time, he was only anxious if I got up to do anything. He had basically fixated on me and I could not so much as put my hair in a ponytail without freaking him out.
We read a little book, “Advice from a Tree” he had been carrying around with him all morning. He’s a tree guy, always has been, and I thought this was nice that he liked this little book. I would read a little and he would read a little, and it didn’t always come out right when he read his bits, but when it did, it was in a voice of authority and control, and my head would snap around to attention, the daughter obeying the father.
When I came in from my run in the morning, he looked at my shoes and said, “yeah yeah, I used to go with the fellas” and I wondered whether he was connecting the shoes to running or connecting the shoes (blue with gold laces) with the navy.
And we drew. Inspired by LMB, who spends hours sitting by the window drawing drawing drawing Bill carries a pen around and occasionally marks a stray envelope, recipe card, the newspaper, objects left lying on the table. He likes to carefully encircle existing shapes. He has an artist’s diligent hand. For a full ten minutes I had his attention as I drew waves, a ship, some jumping fish. When I handed him the pen, he looked at me rather sternly, and then proceeded to snap the pen in half. He is strong. You might see an old, feeble man walking, holding someone’s elbow, but give him a pen and tell him it’s his turn to draw, and he can take a pen apart with vicious intensity. It was stunning and frankly, freaked me out thank you very much.
He loves dancing with his daughters and granddaughters. Tonight, Katharine and Paul made dinner at their place, and we all turned up in the cute, kudzu encircled house and sat listening to Bueno Vista Social club and suddenly we were all dancing. He’s a card and a flirt and no longer has any timing or rhythm but shuffled across the floor with an appropriate, somber look on his face. For a moment there was no Alzheimer’s, only Bill, but it was only a moment. Watch out when he yanks his hand back as if burned when you grab it for a spin. But then he will come up and kiss you on the forehead. How utterly confusing this can be.
My niece’s boyfriend, Jake, takes Bill’s arm at the end of the evening to help with the stairs outside. We take it slowly. I am behind them and behind me, my niece, six months pregnant and cute as a button in a white woolen hat, chats with LMB. Judy goes to start her car. Jake is a natural and Bill likes him. He has been here two days and Bill gravitates to his voice and seems to like when he is in the room. I mention to my mother that she should try to convince Lily and Jake to move here, because Jake should be Bill’s caretaker. She nods, agreeing. She is so tired, but so happy to have so much of her family here for Christmas. I wish I was here longer, but I know I could not do this every day. I am not even sure I could do this for more than one day. I know it is harder for her, losing her best friend, piece by piece, day by day.
When I lean in toward my Dad’s freshly washed hair, thanks to the difficult struggle Debbie, the nurse, had with him this morning in the shower, I smell shampoo and shaving cream and a little sweat he generates from constantly moving. The caretaker of convenience cannot sit with a book or expect to catch up on e-mail. She must be attentive and move like a shadow in the erratic, concentric patterns of gray matter gone scritchy-scratchy, of lost connections and missed synapses, of robust physical health (for eighty-one!) cursed with shortness of breath, the result of frustration and every-other-moments of panic. Like a baby’s, his facial expressions can change in an instant – storm clouds and then – AHA! – the kidding, muppet-like gaping guffaw. In my stages of grief over losing him these past five years, this is perhaps the most tragic and the least emotional for me. Gone is the weepy, sorry-for-myself stage. Gone is the anger and helplessness. Now it is like being a miner – constantly chipping and looking – what is left? What is there? Is that gold or is it a reflection? Trying to savor the gold.
At every coming and going I hug with feeling my sisters, and even my brothers-in-law to say thank you I’m sorry I love you please forgive me don’t go. I don’t realize I am doing it until I feel the bit of resistance telling me I’ve hung on a little too long. It’s just like, like, the little hunky dory kid needs a little reassurance that we are family, I got all my sisters (and brothers) and me. I wish my two brothers and my other sister could be here. As we sit at the table feasting it could almost be normal. It could almost be a scene from when Bill was still okay, but then nobody is really fighting anymore so we definitely are not normal, anymore. We are all good to one another, now. Or we try.
The kids, who are not kids, are not like we were, and do not stay up much past nine, don’t sit at the kitchen table drinking red wine and eating the rest of the chocolate mousse. How different they are from what we were. How different we are.
Someday, I tell LMB, this could be me.
She blinks twice and goes back to her drawing. Next to me on the couch, Bill says, “yes, yes I know.”