I arrive at Timberwood Court carrying our wedding album. It’s our twenty-fifth anniversary. I sign in, punch the code, and walk into the activities area. Fred is sitting on a sofa in the front row of the residents listening to an accordion player and a guitarist. He’s leaning forward, neck muscles straining as he sings along, making sounds that aren’t exactly words but close.
He looks at me, then looks away. An aide brings a chair and I sit next to him, but he doesn’t acknowledge my presence, even though I smile, say hello, and kiss his bristly cheek. He continues to focus on the music, occasionally glancing at me with a look that seems to say, “Who are you and why are you sitting so close to me?”
My husband lives in a memory care facility in Albany, Oregon, seventy-two miles inland from where I live on the coast in the house we bought together twelve years ago. He has Alzheimer’s disease. We’d been getting along at home with occasional twenty-dollar-an-hour aides until he fell and hurt his back. Suddenly he couldn’t stand up on his own, and all the doctors said I could no longer take care of him. He dominoed from one institution to another until he landed at Timberwood Court. He can walk now, but he shuffles and stumbles. His cognitive functions have deteriorated to the point where even if he could run, he could not live with me.
He doesn’t know my name anymore. For a while, I wore a nametag. But it was just a collection of letters. It didn’t really matter as long as he still knew we loved each other.
The first time he didn’t recognize me happened a few months ago. He looked at me with the eyes of a stranger. I bit my lip and pretended to be cheerful, struggling to find funny stories to tell him about the dog or something that I saw on the road. He thanked me for coming as if I were someone he had just met. I held my tears until I got to the parking lot.
The following week, he knew me again, but I can’t count on it anymore.
Now the activities director hands me a card that Fred’s son sent to him. I show it to Fred. He traces the words with his stubby index finger. They have no meaning for him. I explain that it’s our wedding anniversary. He seems confused.
“Yes. To me.”
It doesn’t register. He goes back to singing while I fight to hold back my tears.
The music seems to go on forever. When my thigh touches Fred’s, he moves away. I stare at his left hand on the arm of the sofa, the ring that matches mine shining gold in the soft light.
“Hang down your head, Tom Dooley…”
Pauline, who spends all day wandering like a ghost, brushes past me and walks straight toward the musicians, easing between them like ectoplasm. Sometimes she’ll lift a foot in a quick dance step as she goes by, but most days she’s like a windup toy that goes until it hits something, then turns and goes again.
“I been workin’ on the railroad…”
Usually I sing along, providing harmony to the guest musicians and to Fred’s rich bass voice. Today I can’t move any sound past the lump in my throat.
“Roll out the barrels…”
Finally they finish. Fred applauds while I nod at the musicians and watch them fold up their music stands. Now what should I do?
I tell Fred I have something to show him, and we go to his room. Sitting in his mother’s old mauve easy chairs, I open the photo album and start going slowly through the pages, explaining everything.
“This is our wedding day. Remember, we set up canopies in the back yard? See, here’s your folks.”
He nods, yeah.
“Look, here we are.”
He points to me in my white dress, a crown of white flowers around my curly hair. “She’s pretty.”
“That’s me,” I whisper. He looks at me, disbelief in his eyes.
I keep turning the pages. He puts a finger on my mother’s picture. “How is she?” he asks.
I swallow. “Honey, she passed away.” Eight years ago. He was there.
The hours here are dog hours. I thought about bringing a cake, creating a party for everyone, but now I’m glad I didn’t. When an aide brings us plastic bowls of vanilla ice cream, I’m grateful for the distraction. Snack time. Halfway to dinner and my escape.
Fred glances at the anniversary card I picked out for him but shows no interest. How different from those years when we would exchange cards, softly kiss and promise another year together, when we would dress up and go to a fancy restaurant, feeding each other bites of lobster and chocolate cake, so in love it was disgusting. One anniversary he picked me up at work and took me to a posh hotel where he’d filled our room with roses and photographs. We made love… Oh God, I can’t think about that now.
I just want to go somewhere private and cry. I’m about to leave when the woman who runs the facility hands me a form to fill out. POLST: Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. In English, it’s the form that asks what we want done in case of a medical crisis: CPR? Transport to the hospital? Tube feeding? Life support? Of all days to make me answer these questions. Struggling to control my hand, I try to remember what Fred wanted when we filled these out before, right after his diagnosis. He was only sixty-five. I had just turned fifty.
I leave the form at the desk and hurry out the door. Usually I make it to the car but not this time. Sobbing in the car, I startle as the director knocks on my window. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” she says. I missed a question. I don’t care what I write. Pull the plug. Kill me, too.
I cry so hard on the way home I’m afraid I’m going to crash the car. I feel as if my chest is going to crack from neck to crotch, as if I could not possibly survive this, as if I ought to park and call 911. But I can’t stop on this mountain road. It’s getting dark.
Returning a week later, I see Fred long before he sees me. I see his balding head, his white goatee, his neck stretched awkwardly forward as he sits on the couch watching a black and white TV show from the ’50s. Beside him, Jean is slumped over sideways, sleeping. On the next sofa, Rachel babbles to herself, shaking her massive bony hands at me. From one of the bedrooms, a woman cries, “Help me! Somebody help me!”
I ease into the empty space beside Fred, saying, “Hi.”
He looks up, blinks for a moment. I hold my breath, praying he will recognize me today. He smiles and begins to laugh. He holds out his hands like a child wanting to be picked up. I lean into him, kissing his soft cheeks, putting my arms around him. Heat comes at me from the thin undershirt he wears. I can feel bumps on his back. He smells of sweat, urine, and decay. But for this moment, I sigh and let myself fall back into being Fred’s wife.
He introduces me to his new friend Beverly. “This is my wife, Ann.”
That’s not my name, but I guess it doesn’t matter.
SUE FAGALDE LICK is a writer, musician, and dog-mom living on the Oregon Coast. Her books include Childless by Marriage and Unleashed in Oregon. A former newspaper reporter and MFA graduate from Antioch University, Los Angeles, she is working on a memoir about her journey with Fred through Alzheimer’s. Fred passed away a few months after she wrote this essay.
Rowing: using oars to propel a boat. When you row, everything is backwards. You face away from your destination. Your right oar is to port, the boat’s left side. Your left oar is to starboard, the boat’s right side.
Maneuvering feels strange at first, but with practice, your brain adjusts. As it does to so many things.
It’s mid-August, and I’m visiting my parents, retired professors, at our family property on Lake Superior. We’re at the larger of our two camps (what are called “cottages” outside of Northwestern Ontario), washing the supper dishes, when my mother starts in, her voice anxious.
“Oh-oh, it’s getting late. It’s ten, twenty past … past two.” She compares her watch to the clock on the mantel.
My father sighs audibly.
I resist shooting him a look. He’s been with her all day, I remind myself. Meanwhile, I had precious alone time all afternoon, before coming over to fix supper. I say, “Mom, it’s still early. Just twenty past seven, that’s all.”
Her voice is doubtful. “Now, my watch says, twenty, nearly half-past seven.”
I muster bright energy. “Yes, and look how much of the evening is left! Let’s sit by this nice fire you’ve got going.”
They don’t need the fire—the late-summer sun still warms the room—but tending it gives Mom something to do, and its crackle adds cheer.
“Well….” Mom’s dubious.
I hand her the knitting needles holding the half-finished square she’s been working on. “Here— you can do this while Dad reads a chapter from our book.”
Mollified but still suspicious, she plops down in her rocking chair.
“I suppose I could do a few more on this guy.” She adds under her breath, “Let’s see, one, two, three, then one, two,” as she counts different-coloured rows. I try not to remember how intricate patterns once delighted her mathematical mind.
As Dad reads, I relax a little.
My father’s voice always lulled me to sleep at camp. My childhood dreams were full of stories from the Old Testament, Narnia, and Middle Earth.
When we kids—my four siblings and I—grew up, we stopped reading aloud, in part because my brothers, as adults, brought their own family traditions. And although I don’t have other family demands, my vacation always feels too short. I’d rather spend the evenings rowing or otherwise near the water at the smaller camp at the point, not cooped up with my parents in the larger camp around the bay.
This summer has been different, for many reasons. Mom’s increased forgetfulness this spring, fifteen months after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, meant I had extra tasks, all done long-distance, to get her here. Her neurologist didn’t understand why I felt so strongly about her visit. I’ve wondered about it myself—first as I nixed my father’s blithe plan to “drive up as usual” over three days from their home in Oklahoma. Instead, they flew—still a long day’s travel for a couple in their early eighties—and rented a car for their stay. I wondered again as I flew to Canada from my Colorado home to open the place and fill the freezer. And I wondered yet again as I used vacation time and money I didn’t have for this second trip up to support my father.
The hardest task of all has been pushing past my fears: What if everything goes up in flames? What if a bear gets Mom and Dad? What if something else terrible happens? I’ve tried to rein in my imagination to foresee and prevent actual problems.
So far, I’m glad I persevered. Mom enjoys being here, where she’s spent at least part of almost every summer since her childhood.
And I’m glad to be with them, most of the time. It’s hard to handle the fearful, fretful woman who replaced my brilliant, dynamic mother. My father, a short-tempered devotee of routine and predictability, has welcomed my presence, even as he’s successfully adjusted to her needs in ways I couldn’t have predicted. Like reading aloud in the evenings again—this year, a murder mystery by one of Mom’s favorite writers.
Earlier this summer, I’d noticed that Mom didn’t read for pleasure anymore. I wonder if she consciously decided to stop, frustrated by her inability to understand or remember what she read. I hope not; I hope she just put down her book one day and never thought to pick it up again.
That evening in front of the fire, I peek at Mom. She seems to feel my eyes and looks up from her work to smile. I smile back but look away quickly, so she’s not tempted to interrupt. Soon I’m drawn into the story, its plot a puzzle that can be solved.
Dad looks up at the clock without losing his place, and then flicks a glance at my mother. She’s quiet, so he moves smoothly into the next chapter.
I look toward Mom, too. From his angle, Dad can’t see her trying to catch my eye. She shakes her head at me, lips drawn together. I quickly turn back to Dad. I see from the corner of my eye that Mom’s knitting sits idly in her lap, and the fingers of her left hand pull at her lower lip, a sure sign of her worry. She sighs and gets up. I tense, but she only adds a log to the fire, then sits back down and picks up her knitting again.
Dad reads a little longer, then looks at the clock. It’s been an hour, the upper limit of Mom’s attention span. At the next stopping place, he puts in the bookmark.
“Could the daughter have done it?” I ask.
Dad thinks for a minute. “Not from what we know so far.”
Mom breaks in. “We have a one here,” she points to the long cot in the corner strewn with knitted squares and yarn, “and more upstairs.” She continues knitting, watching me.
I smile but raise a finger to say, “Just a sec while I finish this thought with Dad.”
As I chat more with Dad, I watch Mom try to wait. She finishes out the row of knitting and then leans forward in her chair. At the next break in our conversation, she says, “Because of course we have that one,” and points to the cot, “and at least one other one.”
My smile is polite, if a bit tight. “Yes, thank you.”
She heads to the bathroom. As she comes back into the living room, she fiddles with her watch. She waits for one of us to take a breath and points at the cot. “So, would you rather this one, or I suppose you could use that one…”
I take a deep breath and say, “Thanks, Mom, but I’m not staying here tonight. I’m staying at the little camp, over at the point.”
She looks at me in dismay, her black eyebrows drawn together. “Oh, no, surely not.”
“Of course.” I try to keep the irritation out of my voice. This is the fourth night in a row we’ve had this conversation, and I can answer her objections before she voices them. “It’s perfectly safe. I know where everything is.”
“But I just … wouldn’t you rather stay here? We have a place here, and another upstairs.”
“Thanks, Mom, but no. Look, it’s early yet. Wouldn’t you like to sit down and talk with us?”
“Well, yes,” she says, not moving. “I’d like it if you stayed here. Are you sure you want to go?”
“Yes, Mom. I love sleeping over there. I get to see you during the day.”
She sighs. “Well, I suppose….” She wanders near the window before planting herself behind my chair.
I try to pick up the conversation with Dad. Mom breaks in to say, “You know, we have one here…”
I talk over her—rudely, firmly. “Mom. I’m staying at the other place.”
She says, “But I worry about you there.”
I attempt reassurance. “I’ve stayed over there by myself a lot. Look, it’s still very light. I’ll be fine. I promise.”
“Well, if you really want to, I suppose he and I could take you over, in the, the…” she points outside.
“I have my own car. See the blue one? I’ll drive myself when it’s time.” I try to tease. “You know, I’m starting to think you want to get rid of me.”
She doesn’t see the joke. “No, I’m not. I want you to stay here.” She checks her watch, then sighs again. She takes a couple of steps toward the cot. As her eyes fall on it, she says, “You know, we have this one….”
Dad closes his eyes and inhales deeply, then exhales.
I give up. “I guess it’s time to go.” I pick up my purse. Mom watches unhappily, pulling at her lower lip. I give Dad a brief hug and then go to hug her.
She reaches up to put her hands on my shoulders, and says, “Why, you’re awfully tall! When did you get so tall?”
I laugh. “Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager.” I kiss her cheek.
She puts her arms around me, saying, “I just worry about you so.”
I hug her and say it yet again. “I know, Mom, but I’ll be fine.”
I try not to shout. “Yes. Good night!”
Once down the steps, I turn to wave. They wave back, Dad’s arm around Mom, comforting her. I hurry to the car. Maybe she’ll stop worrying when I’m out of sight.
But I’m annoyed. Worse, her worries have stirred up the voices I’ve been working to keep at bay: You’re not doing it right. You’re not competent. You’re failing.
Rowing: A sport, with defined rules and roles. A culture.
When Mom was a child and the small camp at the point was the only one, her family always had a motorboat—a wooden hull powered by a tiny engine my grandfather assembled from spare parts. He’d taught my mother to treat the lake with respect, and she repeated his lesson to us often: “Storms can blow up giant waves out of nowhere.”
When my parents were first married, my grandparents built the second camp about a kilometer away. Every summer, Mom and Dad brought their growing family to play at the little camp. When I was very young, my grandparents died. Without my grandfather, no one had the skill to keep a motorboat, so my parents didn’t replace it. We had a flat-bottomed wooden rowboat for a few years, but by the time I was ten, it leaked too much to caulk, and Mom decreed its day over. After that, we had a small canoe, and although my mother allowed my then-teenaged brothers to take all-day excursions, she watched the water with what she called “a weather eye” until they were safely back home.
When I was in my mid-twenties, my parents began thinking of retirement. Mom bought a twelve-foot aluminum rowboat and fitted it with the oarlocks and oars her father had made. In the prow, she added a long heavy chain and a keyed padlock.
For this rowboat, she dictated strict rules. Unless we were out on the water, we must wrap the chain around a tree and lock the padlock. If we weren’t on the beach watching, the boat must be pulled completely off the beach to keep it safe from sudden storms. The oars were to be stowed in the camp’s breezeway to make it even harder for someone to steal it.
Although my siblings and I were in our twenties and thirties by this time, we rolled our eyes like teenagers, flouting some rules and obeying others only when she was around to inspect.
In spite of our behaviour, we had learned the lesson. On vacation, my sister and I often stayed out in the rowboat for hours, circling islands and exploring reefs—but always keeping an eye on waves and weather.
That night after supper, back at the smaller camp, I turn on the gas light and lay a fire in the fireplace. Then I walk the few yards to the beach. The water is too choppy to take the rowboat out, so I just swat mosquitoes and watch darkness settle over the water.
When it’s time for bed, I first light the fire for my own portion of cheer. As I settle into my sleeping bag, I listen to the fire crackle, its whispers as comforting as my father’s voice.
The next night after supper, Mom frowns intently at her knitting while Dad reads aloud. That afternoon she’d dropped a stitch, and fixing it has required her full concentration. She’s been focused and absorbed all evening.
At the end of the chapter, I say to Dad, “Well, now it sounds like the son did it.”
Dad shakes his head. “He couldn’t have been the mugger, and that’s what led to the murder.”
“Hmm, you’re right.” I glance at Mom. “How’s the knitting coming?”
“Oh, fine,” she says. She holds it up to show me, pointing to an uneven spot. “This doesn’t look too good, but I guess it will do.”
I lean forward to pick up the end. “You did a good job of fixing it. If you don’t say anything, nobody will notice.”
“Well, it’s not too, too much or anything, but I enjoy it. Say, it’s nearly, nine. Nine o’clock? Can that be right?”
I look up. “Yes, it is. I’d better get home.”
“You’re going home?” Mom is surprised.
“Well, to the other place, at the point. I’m staying there this week.”
“Oh, you are.” Her busy fingers finish her row. “And you’re not scared to stay alone?”
I smile. “Not at all. I know where everything is there, and I feel very safe.”
She sighs. “Well, if you’re sure….”
“I am, Mom.” I gather my purse and jacket.
Mom puts down her knitting and gets up to say goodnight. As I hug her, she says, “Would you like us…we could go in the….”
She seems so tiny. “Thanks, Mom, but I have my own car. See you tomorrow!”
I hug and kiss Dad. As I drive off, they wave from the window. I say aloud, “So much more pleasant! See how unnecessary all that worry is?”
But back at the point, I’m restless and discontented. I rinse my coffee mug and take out the garbage. I pick up my book and put it down. Finally, I head outdoors to collect sticks for the fireplace. The sunset behind the camp trails reddish-orange fire across the water to an island in the bay.
In just a few minutes, I’m rowing through the majestic evening, following the sunset’s path. Automatically adjusting my stroke for the greater strength in my right arm, I skim across the water, trying to outdistance my agitation and unhappiness.
The big lake is nearly calm. Even when the sun itself disappears beyond the trees, the evening sky dazzles my eyes and turns the water around me an opaque platinum. A breeze ruffles the water’s surface, shooting lilac and iridescent highlights along the tops of the ripples. With each stroke, my dripping oars create new patterns of pink-rimmed circles that grow, overlap, and fade.
Time slows. So does my pace. So does my anxious heart.
Finally, I rest my oars and sit quietly. A slight swell moves the water beneath me. I inhale and exhale, matching the lake’s breath.
Rowing: A pastime. An activity. A way to get from here to there. Except you can’t see where you’re going. Only where you’ve been.
When my parents finally retired completely, they stayed at the bigger place my grandparents had built around the curve of the bay, out of sight of the small camp. Mom’s disease has transformed her respect for the lake into fear. Earlier this summer, I took her out for a row once or twice, but she fretted and complained. Another loss, like her lost pleasure in mathematical patterns and in reading, but somehow deeper and more painful for the rest of us.
Ripples murmur against the rowboat’s hull as the lake and I breathe together. The sky darkens. I look over my shoulder at the island’s black silhouette. It’s time to turn around. As I row in, I watch new stars pierce the indigo sky.
I’m no longer restless, but discontent still lies along my shoulders, feather-light but impossible to ignore.
Back at the beach, I pull the boat up, far beyond the recent high-water mark, though not as far as Mom would demand. I wrap the boat’s chain around a tree, ignoring the padlock. She’d be furious if she knew I haven’t used the lock in several years. I lean the oars against the house, feeling momentary guilt at not bringing them into the breezeway.
Indoors, I light the usual fire and zip myself into my sleeping bag, but I’m not sleepy. Instead, I watch the sky through the bank of windows and wait for the moon to rise. I can still feel the movement of the boat in my bones.
The thought surfaces: She sure worries about that boat. And then it clicks.
She wasn’t as worried about me tonight. That’s what felt wrong—backwards, opposite, contrary. When she worries about me, I feel insulted. But when she doesn’t, it feels as if she doesn’t care.
As the fire chatters away, I mull over Mom’s illness, our worries, our desire to keep each other safe. As always, I wish I could heal her. But maybe navigating these waters with her is enough. In any case, it’s all I know to do.
MARION AGNEW’s fiction and creative nonfiction have received support from the Ontario Arts Council. Her work has appeared in journals in the U.S. and Canada and online, including The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Room, Compose, and Gravel, as well as anthologies such as Best Canadian Essays (2012 and 2014). Her office, in a house that sits between the two camps described in this essay, looks out over Lake Superior, and on calm evenings, she takes her late mother’s boat out for a row. More about her is at www.marionagnew.ca.
When I call, her voice sounds like a bird’s. She chirps “yes” to every question. I say, “Are you cold?” or “Did you eat lunch?” or “Are they nice to you there?” And she says, “Where’s there?”
Then I try something else. I say, “Are you wearing your night gown?” and she says, “Yes,” in that child/bird voice that trembles out the syllables.
When my daughter speaks to her, my mother thinks it’s me, but me when I was young. So we have these conversations, when we can, when she’s more lucid and can hear me, and she speaks to the adult me—the one who’s worried about her and doesn’t know what to do—and then to the young me who was brave and reckless and didn’t think about her, at least not very much.
There is where you are, but not me. There is what I say when I mean where you are. My there is your here. Get it? No, I can’t say that. It doesn’t even make sense to me. I have to pose questions that are simple to get answers that may or may not be true. “Are you wearing a bathrobe?” My mother answers yes, but later says she isn’t. “What color is it?” I ask. “Blue,” she replies. I am not trying to trick her. I don’t think she’s lying. I know she’s not. The world swims before her like a blurry movie screen and she’s confused and it comes through in her voice.
In the South they speak in slow rhythms, let the syllables fall over on each other like old friends, intertwined, a filigreed pronunciation. But my mother is not from the South. She’s asking a question in every answer. “Yes” turns into three syllables because she is asking, “Is yes what I’m supposed to say?” She is not who she used to be. Or if she is, she is just hanging on to herself by one little filigreed thread.
When I visit, she is in the hospital-like wing of her fancy, assisted-care “home.” She’s propped up with pillows, tilted slightly to one side, but she won’t last long. Soon she’s going to fall over and bang her head on the hard shiny rail of the hospital bed. As I get closer, I can tell that she can’t see me, and when I say hello she casts her eyes about, scanning the room.
“Oh, hi,” she says finally, but she’s faking it. She can’t see and doesn’t know who it is. I tell her it’s me and take her dry little hand. She looks in my direction and grips my hand like she’s afraid I’ll go away.
“I’m here, Mom. I’m going to stay with you a while.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Not for a while. I’m here now.”
“Good,” she says and clucks her tongue like a hen and looks around. When her eyes fall back on me, she sticks out her head. Now she’s like a turtle. I hold her hand with both of my hands.
I say, “Let’s have coffee. Want coffee?”
“Sure. I’ll have some.”
I pry her hands off mine.
“I’m getting coffee. Be right back.”
“When are you coming back?”
“In just a minute. Don’t worry. I’m getting coffee. We’ll drink coffee, okay?”
I run out of the room—she can’t see me running—but it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t know what odd behavior is anymore. I ask one of the nurses where I can get coffee and she points to a buffet-like area in the back of the ornate lobby.
My mother’s “home” has an entrance like the Waldorf Astoria’s, but it’s all downhill from there. Each guest room contains a lost soul, cast out from their own life, adrift on an ice floe, though not dressed for the weather. And me? I’m standing on the shore, waving a white handkerchief. “Good-bye!” I say, over and over again. “Farewell!” I yell. “’Til we meet again!”
On a black marble counter, pitchers of juice and ice water drip with condensation. Next to them is a pyramid of cold muffins. Why is everything so scrupulously cold? Two thermoses, one for coffee and one for tea, sit on a silver tray surrounded by the sad pink remains of Sweet’N Low packets. Could anyone here be on a diet? My mother weighs ninety-five pounds. There’s a stack of extra-large Styrofoam cups, the size teenage boys drink Slurpees from. Everything is too cold, or too hot, or too large, and I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of dislocation. There’s an aura of impersonality, as though someone not quite human is in charge of this place. I splash coffee into the cups and run back to the room.
When I sit, my mother looks over with her blind eyes and I can see that the whites have disappeared— it’s all iris now. Did her eyes shrink? It doesn’t make sense.
“Here, I’ll hold it,” I say, steadying her cup.
We sip coffee and talk about the funny things I did when I was young. Her favorite story, the one she tells her friends over and over again, is about me. It is a fusion of fantasy and reality and, maybe, wishful thinking. My grandparents had a farm and four dairy cows, and I used to ride the cows. Well, not really. I used to sit on them when they lay down in the field, as cows do, and they never seemed to mind. Over the years, my mother embellished this event and I never corrected her. It made me seem like a daredevil, instead of a three-year-old looking for a comfortable spot to sit.
“Remember when I used to ride Grandpa’s cows?” I say, and we both laugh.
Later, I leave to get muffins and almost knock over an elderly man wearing a pink chenille bathrobe. Is he wearing his wife’s robe, I wonder? He’s as thin and fragile as a praying mantis, and I watch him struggle with the walker, hands shaking, as he attempts to regain his balance after our near collision. But I don’t stop. I run backwards, saying “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Then I turn the corner and sprint down another long hall—away from him, away from her. And, when I ask myself why I’m running, I don’t have time to answer. I’m in that much of a hurry.
My mother is different though she must still be in there somewhere. Are you in there, Mom? Age and Alzheimers have worked their deadly magic and transformed her. But I’m different too. I’m always in a rush when I’m around her and I don’t know why. It’s like I’m a contestant on that old game show, Beat The Clock.
The night before my mother dies, I sit with her and play music on my laptop. My mother doesn’t have much time left, so everything I do feels contrived and weighted with import. I had turned off the lights, but the heart monitor glowed, the oxygen monitor beeped, and my computer cast a eerie halo of green light. It’s cozy, just my mother and me and these contraptions. But the vast universe is pressing in. The unknowable is just outside the room.
We’re listening to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” when the nurse barges in. She flips on the light, then pokes around the room. She fiddles with the IV, then glares at me because it’s after visiting hours and I’d turned off the lights. She knows my mother will die tonight or tomorrow, and she knows she should not ask me to leave. But she wants me gone and I imagine why. The nurses will play poker after nine p.m. or they’ll have a dance party. I can picture them limboing and mamboing down the halls, snapping their fingers and swaying their hips, swigging champagne and trumpeting, trumpeting with life.
“If looks could kill,” I whisper, and the nurse finally leaves.
My hand is drawn to the oxygen tube that snakes into my mother’s nostril, then to the IV that runs antibiotics and fluids into her stick-like arm. I play Louis Armstrong’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” then Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But my mother stares at the ceiling, never toward me.
“Hurry up, hurry up” she says, again and again. And I think, is she talking to The Angel of Death? But I don’t believe it. I only know that she is not talking to me.
I find the crabby nurse. “We need more morphine,” I tell her.
My brother and I have been trading off, not wanting our mother to be alone. We worry that in the time it takes to shower, or eat a pork chop, or park the car, that she will sneak away. I leave at eleven o’clock and then my brother spends the night sleeping beside her in a cold leather chair. In the morning, he drives her car, this big Buick, back to his house to change his shirt and to get me. We’re going to have breakfast and spend the day with her. But she dies minutes after my brother leaves, sneaks out the moment his back is turned, just as we feared. There had been a plan and now it is all goofed up.
Someone calls from the “home.”
“Your mother passed this morning,” says this person I’ve never met.
Passed is the P.C. term, but I don’t like it. It reminds me of passing gas, pass the potatoes, pass the buck. Why be coy? She died. She’s dead. There will be “arrangements”: cold storage, caskets, morticians, cemeteries, body bags with heavy zippers.
When my brother walks in, I hand him a mug of coffee. “Sit down and drink this,” I say, before I tell him.
I remember my parakeet and the three childhood dogs I loved and lost. I buried my dead pets in the backyard, marked their graves with crosses made from Popsicle sticks. For the parakeet’s casket, I used an old metal lunchbox, filling it first with thick rolls of cotton, and sprinkling the tiny weightless body with pink and yellow rose petals and red cinnamon Valentine’s hearts. For the dogs, I used cardboard boxes covered with Christmas wrap, even a bow if I could find one. A shiny, boxed gift for God! Each pet wept and prayed over on one knee. I was only devout in my faith at times of death. For my dog Pearl’s funeral, I shot an air rifle into the sky—a 1-Gun salute—and wore a black armband for weeks. But my mother’s funeral will be modest by comparison, lacking the high dramatic flair of my youth. She will be buried in a strange place by strange people. I will not dress or touch the body. I will not shovel the earth, say the prayers, or fire the gun. I will stand squarely in the dirt, like a lump of stone, a tombstone myself.
I call Diego and Sons Mortuary. I need to find out what my mother had pre-arranged for her funeral. She’d told me she had already done it—long ago when death seemed far away and talking about it was a silly thing to do. A man with just the whiff of an accent answers. His voice is silken, almost romantic.
I say, “Can you help me?”
“I hope so,” he replies.
I explain that my mother has died and that she had already arranged for the funeral, or at least I think she did. He asks her name and when I tell him, he repeats it.
“Dorothy,” he says, as though he knew her and misses her already.
He is so nice that I wish I could meet him, see him, but I know he is trained to be nice, like realtors, but not my mother’s nurses. Still, I wish I could talk to him forever, this exotic sounding man, this under…taker. Will he be the one to drive the hearse? Collect her from her “home?” Zip the bag?
I ask, “So it was pre-paid?”
“Let’s see,” he says in that beautiful, seductive voice. A pause. “Yes, she put it on her Visa card.”
I laugh. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. He laughs, too. We laugh together. I never want to hang up.
Later, I attempt to write my mother’s obituary. “You’re the writer,” my brother says, delegating the enormous task to me. So, I try to produce something heartfelt, but my sentences are bad and sound phony. She lived here. She lived there. It’s too short. I freeze as if it is an extra-credit question on an exam that I’m ill prepared for. All I can think of are weird moments from my childhood, odd behaviour, hers and mine, and fights we had.
My brother and I sit on the sofa and look through the family albums. There’s a childhood photo of my mother with her six siblings taken in front of their gigantic house. Even as a child, my mother had a wary expression as if she knew what was in store for her. We stare at our parents’ wedding photo. They look so young and skinny. We keep looking, hoping to find a suitable photograph to run with the obituary I have yet to write.
Then, for some reason, I remember one of the last times my mother and I did something together, before she had Alzheimer’s, before she was in her new “home”— when she was still here. I’m in the car and my mother is driving that stupid Buick of hers down the Bayshore Freeway, going 30 m.p.h. though the speed limit is 65. People honk, one guy gives us the finger. The car is so old and decrepit that it won’t go any faster and the turn signal broke off, so my mother had made a new one with a popsicle stick and some duct tape. We’re a family of oddballs, cow riders, and duct tape mechanics. The obituary should reflect this somehow, shouldn’t it?
My brother and I can’t find a photo we like, and again I try to write the obituary. But, it’s all a big jumble. I can’t do it. I appeal to my brother to write it.
“You’re the writer,” he says again, managing to make the word writer sound both truthful and accusatory.
Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I sum up my mother’s life in a few simple paragraphs? I realize now, too late, that I should have asked her to write the obituary herself, when she was still lucid, and before the Alzheimer’s kicked in. “How would you like to be remembered?” I’d ask. But no one is that organized, are they? Must I have the final word?
Once upon a time my mother was young and hopeful, but then things happened. Her first born child died when he was a month old, and her marriage turned so bitter it was like a cancer spread through our home. But in an obituary, you’re only supposed to write about the wonderful things. I’m having trouble thinking of any right now. The recent past is so filled with tragic events, it blocks out all earlier years. At the end, my parents’ lives were, well, pretty bad. My father had a heart attack and later a stroke. My mother got Alzheimer’s, then broke her hip, and, over time, became so fuddled up that she had to live in that fancy assisted-living “home.”
Still looking for a photo to include with my mother’s obituary, I come across an album I’ve never seen before. Old and dust-covered, clearly it has not been touched in decades. The first pages contain my oldest brother’s birth certificate and many cards of congratulations—happy cards with bunnies and kittens and colored balloons—then his death certificate. I turn this page. More than fifty cards of condolence have been carefully pasted into the album by my mother’s own hand. With shock, I realize that this forgotten tome had started as my brother’s baby book. It was meant to be filled with celebrations, birthdays, Christmasses, graduations, and the progress of his life.
Two years ago, when my mother and I sat down to write my father’s obituary, she scratched out the sentence I’d written about their “three” children and wrote in the word “two.” She was already editing, rewriting her life, improving it, leaving out the bad parts. I guess I will do that too. Why not? My own life, if I look at it objectively, has nothing as tragic as the loss of a child, but there are moments of failure I’d rather not think about. Suddenly, I understand the form and its purpose—to call into high relief the events that can be celebrated. And those high points will, we hope, cast a shadow over the things we must forget.
For inspiration, I look in the local newspaper, and read the obituaries. I need a template. I see that a friend’s mother has also died. What luck! My friend’s mother and my mother are almost the same. They’re the same age, both mothers and wives. My friend’s mother even looks like mine in the youthful photograph they supplied—same blond pin-curled hair and pretty lip-sticked mouth. The obituary is beautifully written. Our beloved mother, etc. I have to change a few facts but not that many. I copy the words and the sentiment I don’t feel and pawn it off as my own. I don’t know how I feel. I’m not there yet.
JEANNE SHOEMAKER graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2010. Her work has appeared in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, the Iowa Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
When I was a teenager, my mother and I were like sisters. If my date arrived more than fifteen minutes late, she would hide me upstairs and tell them I’d already left with someone else. Then we’d eat popcorn and watch movies.
I got married to my law school sweetheart in 1984. I’ll never forget waving good-bye to my family in Virginia and heading for Detroit to start my new life. I was a grown twenty-four-year-old, but I couldn’t imagine life without my mom nearby. I cried for the entire twelve-hour trip.
Over the years, we learned how to stay close despite the miles between us. We yakked on the phone constantly, me updating my mom on my life and the kids, my mom filling me in on her garden and the latest episode of Oprah (which she watched every day at four p.m.). We got together on holidays and family reunions. And, in the days before digital images, I sent her stacks and stacks of actual pictures to thumb through when she felt lonely. Nothing could keep us apart.
When she got the diagnosis in 2006 at the age of seventy-three, I was devastated. Immediately, I felt like I was railing against time. While tomorrow is promised to no one, it’s different when you know the days you have to love someone—and be loved in return—are numbered. We were both powerless in the face of this disease, but I had to do something—anything—to mark the time we had left.
And then it came to me. We’d make a memory that would be so profound, it would be permanently stamped into her DNA! It would be a memory that would even triumph over Alzheimer’s!
I would take my mother to The Oprah Show!
One problem: I had no idea how to get on the show. I started emailing and calling the producers, telling them about my beloved mother, her disease, and her abiding love for Oprah. But I never heard anything back.
I thought about WWOD? (What Would Oprah Do?) and started manifesting my intention. Everywhere. I told everyone I knew that I was going to take my mom to see Oprah, somehow, some way. This went on for months, until one day, a woman in my circle of associates said, “I can make it happen.”
I was ecstatic, but I didn’t tell my mom right away; I wanted everything to be certain first. Then on a Friday in February 2008, I got a call from my friend. “Can you and your mom get to Chicago on Wednesday?”
“YES!” I screamed into the phone. “Absolutely!”
And then I hung up the phone and wondered how the hell I was going to get my mother to The Oprah Show in four days. At the time, I was commuting from Detroit to work in St. Paul, Minnesota. My mother was living in Virginia. The family rallied and we got concurrent (expensive) flights to Detroit, and then a flight together to Chicago. When we sprung the news on my mom, she was shocked. Then came the uncertainty, “I don’t want to fly alone,” she said. “It’s too expensive.” But I wouldn’t take no for an answer. We were going, and that’s all there was to it.
My plane landed in Detroit an hour before Mom’s. That’s when I finally started to let myself get excited. I posed at the end of the jet way with my camera ready to capture the first glimpse of my euphoric mother running into my arms.
But instead of dashing forward, weeping at the prospect of meeting her lifelong idol, Mom rushed up to me and said, “Des! I want you to meet Maria!” She put her arms around a Philippina who had evidently been her seatmate on the plane. “She’s going on vacation now, but when she comes back, she and I are going to play bingo. Can you take our picture?”
That’s the cruelty of Alzheimer’s. If it were just about memory loss, that would be one thing. But before the memory goes, there’s a slow substitution of one person for another. Instead of being excited about the trip to see Oprah (or even just the tiniest bit excited about being with me), she was oddly focused on the stranger who’d been kind to her on the plane. Maybe she’d been afraid during the flight and mistook the woman’s kindness for friendship. Mom’s focus on the bigger picture was all but lost.
I was crestfallen, but I tried to be patient. I understood that this wasn’t my normal mother. I awkwardly took their purses and bags and snapped photos of mom and her baffled new friend.
My ego significantly bruised, I took a deep breath and schlepped us to our gate. I was annoyed that Mom had dragged along a carry-on; it was enough work to just keep track of her, much less her bags. We arrived at the gate early and were munching on sandwiches when announcement came. Our flight had been cancelled. Fog.
We waited anxiously as flight after flight was canceled. Finally, after about three hours of waiting, we were booked for a flight the next morning. The schedule would be tight, but I was sure that we were going to make it, come hell or high water.
We used a voucher to stay at the airport hotel. By then, I was totally frazzled, consumed with the fear that my plan had been too ambitious. Now that we’d been derailed, my mother began to lose focus again. “Why don’t we just go to your house so that I can see the grandkids?” she kept asking. I ignored her. She could see the kids anytime. This was our once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Oprah.
For moral support, I called the friend who’d gotten us into the show. And just like the voice of Oprah herself, she said, “Oh, no. You will be on that morning flight. It’s already done. It’s in God’s hands. You just show up for it.”
My resolve was bolstered, but it was no match for my mom’s grating mantra: “Let’s just go see the kids.” I was losing it, so I curled on my bed and pretended to sleep. Resisting the urge to smother myself with the pillow, I listened to my mother fumble around the room, zipping and unzipping her carry-on.
All of a sudden, I felt something cover me. I looked up and Mom was holding a pair of Valentine pajamas.
“Here, baby, I brought these for you.”
She even had bought a pair for herself. We put them on, and I curled up in the bed beside her, my arm around her waist. After a long time of listening to her breathe, I fell asleep.
The next morning, the weather was all clear. We were booked for the nine a.m. flight, but my mom was completely off kilter, confused by waking up in a strange place. She needed constant reminding that we were on an adventure. She couldn’t seem to get organized. I helped her, careful not to seem impatient.
When we arrived at security, the line was shambling and tedious. I began to wonder if we were going to miss our plane while standing in the airport. Mom started to complain about everything—the line, the expense of the trip, the temperature. At one point she said, “September 11 screwed up this country. That’s why I don’t like to fly anymore.”
I’d had it. I turned to her and yelled, “You’ve got to stop it! If you keep complaining, I’m going to lose my mind. We’re going to see Oprah, and we’re going to have a good time. You have to be positive from here on out.”
People in the line gawked in horror as the crazy daughter berated her dear, frail mother. But at that point, I didn’t care. After that, my mother, sufficiently cowed, withdrew into silence and followed my every command.
Once we got on the plane, our moods lifted. This was it! We were on our way to The Oprah Show!
We landed in Chicago with just enough time to make it to the taping. As we hopped into a cab, we should have been giving each other high fives. Instead, I pouted while my mom engaged with the Jamaican cab driver in an annoyingly detailed conversation about how he got his cabbie license.
When we arrived at the studio, it was a bland warehouse in an unimpressive part of town—not the Emerald City that both of us had expected. We queued up with about a hundred other members of the studio audience, and the staff stripped us of all cameras, cell phones, even paper and pens. We were not allowed to document The Oprah Show in any way.
The staff sat us thigh-to-thigh in rows of chairs like patients in a crowded doctor’s office and handed out boxed lunches—a sandwich, pasta salad, a cookie, and a soft drink. Then we were herded into the studio where I couldn’t believe our luck. My mom and I were seated right behind Oprah’s chair!
As we waited for the taping to begin, we eyed the studio and the set in front of us. In that moment I realized that perhaps I had ruined the illusion by bringing my mom to the show. The studio was smaller than it appeared on TV. The stage props seemed to be slap dash and temporary, mainly because they were. The pitch black walls made it feel like we were in a coffin. As the audience coordinator came on stage and congratulated us on wearing the requisite “Skittles” colors, I worried that perhaps mom would never love Oprah the same way again.
Then, She came out! Oprah was wearing a flowing top and slimming pants, and, to spare her notoriously bad feet, bedroom slippers. As she made her way through the audience to toward the stage, she stopped only once and that was to turn to my mother in a moment of strange recognition. A genuine smile broke across Oprah’s face. For a second, I thought she was going to speak my mother’s name. Instead, she took my mother’s hand and gave her a warm, “Hello.”
I couldn’t believe it. Out of all the people in the audience, only my mother got to shake Oprah’s hand!
We were still agog as Oprah bent to plop down in her seat. And that’s when we were graced with a peek at the royal plumber’s crack. That was followed by an upfront view of Oprah’s bunions as her staff came to shoehorn her feet into gorgeous pumps.
The next two hours are a blur. As we watched the show from the inside out, it was hard to digest that this was really happening. The show was called “The Secret Behind The Secret,” about the power of positive thinking. How what you intend will manifest. How every day, you create the world you want to live in. If you see life as a battle, then prepare for war. I sank into a contemplative silence; it seemed that the message had been tailor made for me. Maybe I wasn’t at war with time, or with my mother’s disease. Maybe it was time for me to settle down and accept the gift of the time we had left.
After the show, we had no time to process what we’d just witnessed. As a cab zipped us back to the airport, we held hands in tender silence. Aside from platitudes like “It was beautiful,” and “I’m glad I went,” and “Thank you, baby,” I didn’t hear my mother speak about the trip again.
A year later, I was visiting my parents and some friends came over for dinner. We were chatting when my mom piped in: “Did I ever tell you about the time my daughter took me to The Oprah Show?”
The room went silent. I looked at mom expectantly, wondering what she would remember from our great adventure to Chicago. But she only smiled and said, “My daughter is so sweet. She’s my best friend.”
A 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, DESIREE COOPER is the author of Know the Mother, a collection of flash fiction that dives into the intersection of racism and sexism to reveal what it means to be human. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, Best African American Fiction 2010 and Tidal Basin Review, among other online and print publications. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio Fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers. She lives in metro Detroit.
My gym bag’s zipper is broken. The crinkled fabric’s worn through at the bottom and it’s time to throw it in the trash, but I can’t. Not yet.
My boyfriend finds me in a daze on our bedroom floor, my hands on the empty bag in my lap like I’m clinging to a dead pet.
“You don’t have to throw it away,” he says, crouching down to look at me. He knows what it means, why I hold the receptacle for my sweaty socks in such high regard.
My mother died four years ago, but I’d cleaned out her apartment a few years before that when it became dangerous for her to keep living alone—she was one more forgotten stovetop fire away from harming herself and the other tenants in her building. I’d held on to the bag, among other things, ever since.
The bag is bright fire-engine red, not auburn red like the hair I was born with and the hair my mother dyed to match mine. Mom bought it at New York & Company, that bastion of career separates, as uncool as (or marginally cooler than) Ann Taylor. The zipper pulls resemble MTA subway tokens with an identical “NYC” cutout logo and the words “The NYC Style Authority” wrapping around the circle. I wonder if these details are why she wanted the bag. Maybe the faux tokens reminded her of riding the IRT by her childhood home in the Bronx, or commuting to her nursing job at Columbia Presbyterian before she gave birth to me and we moved to the suburbs that made her so restless.
The New York City subway stopped accepting tokens in 2003. My mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis came into full, horrific bloom that same year. I quit my job to become her part-time caregiver, using subway tokens to ride from Brooklyn to Grand Central. Three times a week I’d take a commuter train to Yonkers so I could take her on walks, clean up all of the nonsensical piles and mysterious stains she’d made around the apartment, and cook us steaks on her George Foreman grill. The oven was now officially off limits, and it was important to stay on-message: Never ever turn it on.
In 2003 my mother, an artist for most of her life, cried because she could no longer sketch or paint realistic likenesses. She forgot to love some of her favorite things (Pet Shop Boys lyrics, romance novels, tweezing her immaculate eyebrows), but I liked how she also forgot to refuse things that she’d previously sworn off (cream soda, sushi, a ludicrous soap opera called Passions). I was twenty-four and envious of the career pursuits my friends described over syrupy-sweet cocktails at happy hour. I drank more than I needed. I drank quickly, too, to forget how exhausting it all was but also to make sure I was having the fun I thought I so richly deserved. In those days my mother would call me constantly to ask when I’d be back, sometimes just hours after I’d been there. Her thoughts were getting foggier by the day, and she hated being alone with them. She still remembered who I was.
By 2004, subway tokens were out of circulation, and I used a Metrocard to get to Grand Central. Mom didn’t want to move into a nursing home, but at twenty-five I had burned through my savings and needed to find a job. Worry, about my future and hers, stole hours of sleep from me at night. My mother needed full-time supervision—in addition to the stove fires and sink floods, she had started wandering the streets alone, forgetting where she lived. So I returned to Yonkers to sort my mother’s things into three piles: Discard, donate, or keep. I kept the red bag because I wanted something she’d used in her normal, pre-illness life. It served me well for a very long time, but now the bag’s demise feels like another ending.
I know I’m not alone. A colleague who lost his father two years ago recently told me that he rummages through his parents’ drawers just to touch his dad’s folded clothes. “I like, lay on his side of the bed and try to smell the pillow and shit, even though I know it’s been washed.”
We’ve talked about that connection we all yearn for, between a lost one’s tangible things and their memory. We need the artifacts. No, I don’t want my small New York apartment to be a Dead Mom Museum. But should I let go of something if it feels like a fresh burial?
I’m still not sure. So the bright red bag remains on the floor, unused and un-useful, while I figure out what feels right. I may turn one of the subway-token zipper pulls into a keychain, as a functional monument to a time that fundamentally shaped me as a person.
There are two zipper pulls, actually, and I’m keeping them both: One for me and one for the woman I remember.
SAMANTHA VINCENTY is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Hairpin, Fuse.tv and BUST, and she is currently at work on a memoir. She tweets about music, pop culture, and weird stuff she finds on the street as @shermanther.
Nine years ago, I am 27, and I am home in New Albany, Indiana visiting with my family. There is a birthday party for one of my seven siblings, and there are the usual hot dogs, and paper plates, and perspiring cans of soda. My mother has brought in a big bunch of brightly colored helium balloons as decoration.
The morning after the party, I am up in my childhood bedroom, and when I look out the window, I see my Dad standing in the front yard, alone in the quiet of a spring morning. The dewy grass is giving a sheen to his leather shoes, and he is holding the big bunch of balloons in his large hands. I watch as he struggles to carefully separate the strings, then he releases the balloons to the sky one at a time. He stares at each one as it drifts up and away, until it becomes just a tiny pinprick of color.
It is a rather odd sight—this 6”5, grandfatherly figure, clad in impeccable dress slacks and a sport coat, playing with a handful of children’s balloons. Watching him, I feel something inside me twist tightly. I slip on some shoes and go outside to join him. When he sees me, he smiles a distracted smile.
“I like watching these balloons float away, Josey.”
We stand together, and he releases the string on the last balloon. It drifts skyward, joining the other tiny dots of color in the sky. We watch silently as it sails up into the clouds, fading into the blue. It is a rare, quiet bit of togetherness for us, and should be a sweet moment. But watching those balloons drift away fills me with a strange, anxious kind of melancholy. I don’t like watching them go.
When I am 35, my Dad is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis isn’t a surprise. He is 77, and I have seen the shift in him—his confusion with numbers and dates…the way he repeats stories within minutes of each other, sometimes transposing the names of people and places. And yet, when my oldest brother calls me with the news, it still feels improbable. As if my commanding, in charge father never would allow such a thing to happen to his solid, intelligent mind.
For a while, medication seems to slow things down, but then a full year later, it’s undeniable that my Dad is slowly coming uncoiled. It becomes the norm for him to appear wearing a shirt inside out, or sporting two pairs of pajama pants beneath his dress slacks, even in the heat of August. I buy him a beeping gadget to help him locate his constantly misplaced glasses and keys. He loses the gadget.
At 36, I am pregnant with my first child. When I talk on the phone to my Dad, I can feel my baby rolling back and forth in my belly, his strong kicks and punches occasionally making the fabric of my dress hitch and jerk. I listen to my father struggle through the conversation, and I try to float, relaxed and easy, through his tide of tangled words. I rub at the patch of flesh over my flailing baby, and I try to imagine my Dad holding my son as he did his other grandchildren—bouncing him gently on his knee, letting him teethe on his heavy silver wristwatch.
As I watch my Dad slowly lose bits and pieces of himself, I think about those long ago released balloons. I know the bright shades of my father are fading with each passing day. They are drifting further and further away from me. And I can feel myself scrabble to contain them…trying to grip the tangled strings of them tightly in my fists…struggling to somehow make them stay.
He spent his life as a successful insurance salesman. This makes him sound staid and dull, but in reality, he is a big, playful personality. His large blue eyes perch above a smirking mouth, and as a younger man, he bears a striking resemblance to Chevy Chase. As he grows older, his features crack and curl, and he suddenly begins to look and sound like Gene Hackman—the same knowing, smiling eyes—the same gruff voice. Once while watching a movie, I hear Gene Hackman tell someone to “shag ass”, and it’s as though my Dad has been transported to the big screen. Shag ass means “to hurry,” and the only other person I’ve ever heard say this is my father.
He has large, mitt-like hands, and their Shrek-like size renders certain tasks comical, such as when he struggles to use scissors, or when he reaches to pet his tiny terrier that he calls “Princess.” He has a tiny bit of shrapnel from the Korean War imbedded into the thumb of his right hand, and as children we probe this tiny black pellet with wide-eyed fascination.
He is, as my mother says, “full of foolishness.” In one of my favorite photos of him, he is in a Freddy Krueger hat and sweater, brandishing a pair of rubber knives, and giving a hilariously hideous snarl to the camera. As kids, he often tells us about pranks he pulled as a child. When he was a young boy, he and a friend took Limburger cheese (a product whose smell can only be described as fecal) and hid slices in their palms. They went up and down the stairs of their Catholic grade school, quietly greasing the banisters with the stink. When people came down the stairs, they walked away sniffing their hands with disgust. As a little girl, I am enthralled by this prank, and my friends and I reenact it on our last day of school. The cheese is gooey and the smell makes me gag, but I love feeling mischievous like my father.
He likes teasing us—his children—most of all. One warm May night we are all gathered watching “The Incredible Hulk”, and my Dad comes into the living room and looks at us with a grave, stricken face. He tells us that he’s just seen a special news report, and he has some terrible news. President Reagan has decided children simply aren’t learning enough, and he is cancelling summer vacation all across the United States. At first we just roll our eyes at him, but he keeps his face so stone cold serious, we become panicked. We begin pacing the house and shouting. One of us anxiously flips through channels trying to find the “special report.” We groan on like this for almost half an hour, until some of us begin crying and shouting our hatred for stupid President Reagan. My Dad finally breaks down, and admits that he’s only joking. We pile on top of him—half furious, half laughing—and try to punch him with our tiny fists.
When we are young, he is gone a lot. He goes on business trips and golf trips, which are often one in the same. He leaves the house in a dark suit, toting a scuffed leather duffle and a rattling bag of clubs. When I kiss his cheek goodbye, my lips come away lightly greased with his aftershave.
When he is home for long stretches, it is an event, and the house buzzes nervously with his presence. At dinner, my six brothers and my sister and I sit around our large kitchen table passing plates of Shake and Bake pork chops and spilling milk. My Dad shouts out “reports!” Which means we are to share any interesting events from the day. My mind always goes blank at this, and I feel as if I never have anything worthy of reporting.
After dinner he helps my mother bathe us. We call bath time “souping”, because my Dad adores the nonsense words and nicknames that come out of our mouths as toddlers. When a little one refers to bathing as “souping”, he makes it part of our permanent lexicon. The same for “goosing”, which means teeth brushing. He is forever asking us if we have “goosed our teeth.”
The best part of souping is when my Dad comes in, a giant bath towel in hand, and slings one of us inside the towel, then carries us on his back like a hobo sack. He hauls us to our respective rooms and deposits us on the bed with a bounce. We call this “geeking”, and we all beg to be “geeked.” When it is my turn, he drapes the rough towel beneath my underarms, then throws me over his broad shoulder. I travel down the long hallway bumping damply against his broad back, slick as a seal tucked into a papoose.
After our baths, he comes into my brothers’ bedroom and stretches his long frame out on the carpet. We excitedly cluster around him in footed pajamas, shouting for a story. He tells us made up, ghostly tales that are always designed to teach us a moral. There is the smug “Simon Cigarette”, who chokes to death on cigarette smoke. Or “Reginald Reservoir”, the bratty boy who ignores his parents’ pleas to never go near the deep reservoir, and of course meets a terrible fate. And then, the favorite, “Little Sally Go To Church”, about a little girl who doesn’t want to go to church, and instead wants to stay at home and eat junk food. Sally’s lack of piety is always punished by a visit from the Sunday Monster—a giant beast who jumps out of nowhere with a horrific roar. My Dad roars in his deep baritone, and we all scream with terrified delight, beg him to stop, then quickly beg him to do it again.
When I am small, he calls me “Josey Lamb”, because when I’m around the rowdy swirl of my siblings I appear shy and quiet: gentle as a lamb. He continues to call me this even after I am fully-grown, and have become loud and opinionated, and decidedly less lamb-like. But he does so ironically, with a glint in his eye.
He tears up easily. Which seems funny for a man with such a large, commanding presence. But certain songs and movies leave his eyes pink-rimmed and glistening, and when I am growing up, I actually see him cry more times than my mother. On my wedding day I select “Someone to Watch Over Me” for our father-daughter dance, because it’s a song I know he likes. But he refuses to slow dance, and just keeps shimmying around the floor, making goofy faces. A few bars in I ask him what exactly is wrong and he says, “Josey! This music is too sad!” Flustered, I go up to the DJ and request that she instead put on Supertramp’s “The Logical Song”, another favorite of my father’s. He is thrilled, and in my wedding photos we are both spinning and laughing, giving high, jubilant kicks.
When I am in my 20s, I chafe at his politics, and what I consider his small-town small-mindedness. He is a staunch republican and extremely conservative, whereas I consider myself very liberal. We have heated arguments at the dinner table that leave us both red-faced and shouting, and make my mother flutter nervously around the kitchen. My other siblings never engage with my father in this way, and they find it hilarious the way we shout at each other about Clinton, and both Bushes.
Sometimes, to gall me, he tapes conservative news articles to the lamp hanging above my place at the table. I come down for breakfast and find Karl Rove’s smiling face torn from the paper, dangling in front of me from a piece of Scotch Tape. I sleepily look to my father, and he smirks at me over his bowl of Raisin Bran.
With the Alzheimer’s, the days of political debates and discussions come to an end. There is no longer any real, lasting talk of the present. My father’s mind becomes stuck in the past, like a wheel that can’t quite push over, and he speaks to me about long ago events, as though he is plucking dusty photos from an album in his mind, and holding them up to me, saying, “Here. See?”
He tells me several times about how his father once gifted him a new baseball glove. He says he loved the glove so much he oiled it every single night.
Or he recounts the time he found a dead body on the golf course. He describes how he and a friend were playing on New Year’s Day, and were the only ones stomping their spiked shoes though the frosted grass, knocking around balls. When my Dad rounded a sand trap, he spied the man—gray-faced and frozen, a bottle of whiskey at his side.
He talks about his time in the Korean War. About how frightened he was lying on the floor of a cargo plane, traveling further from his Indiana home than he’d ever been in his life. One night in camp he polished his army boots white, as a sort of goofy mini-protest, and he was soundly punished for it by the Colonel.
And he talks about Lynne Anne, the oldest child and sister I never knew. She died when she was five of meningitis. He fingers the tattered prayer card that he still, 38 years later, carries in his wallet, and he tells me in a low, quiet voice how delicate and beautiful her hands were. He talks about her golden hair.
I listen to him talk, and feel overwhelmed by how much there is about him that I don’t know, or can’t really fathom. His life stretches behind him full of heartbreaks and triumphs and mysteries that I will never really grasp. And through him, I learn that understanding people, and loving them, sometimes has very little to do with one another.
Now, when I am home visiting, he really likes to give me things. He has always delighted in giving gifts, but now, each time I am there, he gives me funny things—strange bits of odds and ends. He has taken to handing me the smallest of trinkets, the kinds of treasures a small child might hide away in a cigar box.
“Here Josey,” he says. “You can take that home with you.”
And he hands me an old golf tee, or a tiny, pretty seedpod that he’s spied on the ground. A St. Anthony prayer card. Old fishing hooks. A tattered National Geographic. I save all of it. I bring it back to New York with me, and I tuck it into jewelry boxes and special drawers, hidden away like clues.
Losing someone in this way—this subtle losing, piece by piece—is its own unique kind of sadness. It’s a mean, cruel kind of grief that I feel could drag me under if I let it. And so I try to focus on the fact that my father is still here with me. He still makes me laugh. He still loves to tell stories. And he still loves to tease. Even now, he still calls me up and holds the phone up to the radio, so that when I get back to my apartment I have a voicemail that is nothing but Rush Limbaugh ranting away. I play back these voicemails, and I picture my Dad huddling in the background, struggling to hold in his laughter. Just like the trinkets, I save these garbled voicemails. And I try to focus on the father I still have…on the bright shades of him that remain.
I can’t ever bring myself to think of when that final dot of color finally fades from sight, completely out of my view. Until then, I steadily train my eye on what I can still see. I take in every last glimpse.
JOHANNA GOHMANN has written for Salon, The Morning News, xoJane, Scratch, Babble, and Curve, among others. She is a regular contributor to Bust magazine. Her essays have been anthologized in A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the World, Joan Didion Crosses the Street, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, The Best Sex Writing 2010, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2015. www.JohannaGohmann.com
Republished with permission. Johanna Gohmann’s “Balloons” is one of 25 personal essays by women writers writing about their fathers in Every Father’s Daughter, a new anthology edited by Margaret McMullan, including an introduction by Phillip Lopate. Contributors include Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Jayne Anne Phillips, Alexandra Styron, Ann Hood, Bobbie Ann Mason, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others.