My dad thought my nose was a baby. He said there was a baby on my face, where my nose should be; a full body and a head. He found it funny. He wanted to take a picture so I could see what he saw.
My mom thought my dad was hiding millions of dollars from her, from us. She thought he was part of an international money-laundering scheme.
My dad called as I drove to pick him up to take him to the dentist. “I can’t make it to the appointment,” he said. When I asked him why, he said, “I’m in Bosnia.” Apparently he had been in Bosnia for the last five days. He told me he had received a voice mail message from himself saying he was lost in Bosnia, but he wasn’t afraid. When I got to his room at the assisted living place, he wanted me to listen to his voice mail so I could hear the message. Even though I doubted the message would be there, part of me wondered if he did somehow call himself, if I could hear what he had heard. But no, when I pressed Play, all I heard was myself, a message I had left a couple of days ago, the little-girlishness of my voice making me cringe. Later, he shook his head and laughed a bit, saying “Bosnia”, stunned by his own brain. When I brought up the story a few weeks down the road, he said earnestly, “It wasn’t Bosnia. I was in the Bosphorus.”
My mom thought white vans were chasing her. She thought people were spraying her with poison from their cellphones.
My dad thought President Obama had called upon him to be the new leader of the civil rights movement. He thought the FBI had transported his whole apartment to Washington, DC. “I’m going to be a hometown hero,” he told me excitedly.
My dad’s death certificate reads
(a) Cardiopulmonary Failure
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(b) Debility and Decline
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(c) Senile Degeneration Of The Brain
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(d) Dementia, Vascular”
My mom’s reads “HANGING BY ELECTRIC CORD FROM PIPE.” (clearly there are no capitalization standards from coroner’s office to coroner’s office.) It doesn’t say “DUE TO OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF Paranoid Delusion” but the subtext is written all over the page.
Watching both parents lose their minds doesn’t give me a lot of faith in the future of my brain. My mind already feels slower than it once did, less electric. I find my memory fading, too; sometimes it feels as if the grooves in my brain are smoothing over, erasing stories trapped in each cleft, a sort of reverse evolution, turning my cerebellum from prune to plum, something firm and blank and tart.
This terrifies me—if I lose my memories, my stories, who am I? I feel panicky when I think of my childhood, my children’s childhoods, being lost to me forever. But maybe a sense of peace comes over people who lose all their memories. If we forget everything, every moment would be brand new. We could just be, like an animal or a plant.
I can remember lying in bed shortly after my mom hanged herself, nursing my baby, who was born one week before her death. I remember thinking I should be doing something more, something active, writing or researching or doing one of the many practical post-death tasks that needed doing, but then I thought about sows, about how a mama pig just lies on her side nursing her piglets, how that’s all she needs to do, that’s her task, she gives herself to it fully, and I let myself drop into that surrender, let myself just be a mother animal nursing her young, mind blank, and I found there was something comforting, liberating, in that. Maybe that’s what it feels like to have your memory erased—you can just be a mammal in your body, living from moment to moment.
In her memoir Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso writes “My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death.” But I have to remember that’s just memory loss. Delusion is a whole other story. Dementia is a whole other story. And after watching my parents, I know I can’t take my lucidity for granted.
My mom, in her delusion, thought everyone was against her. My dad had his own moments of paranoia and disorientation, but his delusions were more often of the absurd, even sweet, variety. I know I have no control over the matter—over that tender, amazing, convoluted gray matter—but if I have to lose my mind, may it be in the way of my dad. May I say things that make my family laugh and shake their heads instead of traumatize them. May I travel to surprising places without leaving the room, see whimsical things, imagine myself a hero—which sounds quite a bit like the writing life, come to think of it, just without the mediation of the page. Maybe it would help to think of it that way, to think of delusion and dementia as a new way of living inside a story, entering non-linear, unpredictable narrative. A way of life in which we let go of chronology, let go of traditional plot and sentence structure. That makes it sound less scary to me, makes it feel more like art than ruin. But I also know how scary it can be to get trapped inside a story—I saw that in my mom, how terrified and alone she felt in her delusion, especially at the end. Story can save us but it can also imprison us. My mom may have killed herself to kill the story that had taken over her life.
My mind wants to create a happier narrative for itself—one in which it can avoid my parents’ fate, one in which it can hold on as long as my body does, one in which my body and mind stay vitally, inextricably linked, until they both give up the ghost—but at the same time, my mind knows it may not be the final author of my life. None of us know who will have the last word. For now, I’m grateful to be able to string words together, grateful to preserve some sharpness, some clarity, before the light ultimately goes out.
GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press) and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Books). Her other books include Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. She currently teaches at Sierra Nevada College and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Buy her books here.
“It looks like you’ve got a horn growing on your face.”
That’s what the dermatologist says—literally says—to my father. A horn. I hadn’t thought of the growth as a horn until this moment, and now I wish I had looked at it more closely, even though it’s the kind of thing I don’t generally like to get too close to. I thought it was a big wart or a skin tag, or maybe a weird looking skin cancer, but I hadn’t considered that it might be a horn. I won’t get another chance to look at it, because the dermatologist cuts it off with no ceremony or drama—just a quick shot of Novocain and he starts digging it out. He’s done in five minutes. A horn on someone’s face is not a big deal to dermatologists. They’ve seen worse.
I should have said, actually, that I don’t get another chance to look at it attached to my father’s face, because the doctor shows it to me in a little vial, suspended in pinkish liquid.
He’s sending it off to the lab. Right now, the horn could be skin cancer or not.
Either way, the dermatologist isn’t concerned. He says, “There’s nothing to worry about. If it’s skin cancer we’ll take care of that, too.”
Maybe cancers that take the form of horns are easy to treat. Or maybe dermatologists just don’t get that worked up about eighty-four-year-olds who may or may not have skin cancer.
When I get home I google “people with horns growing on their faces” and it’s an eye-opener. You can’t mistake them for anything else because they are clearly horn-shaped. They’re hard, like dark, super-charged fingernails, and they’re huge. There are all kinds of horns, each resembling the horn of a different animal. Elk, moose, goats. Some curl up in a spiral, like they were designed by Dr. Seuss. Just when you think you have a handle on all of the ways human bodies can go wrong, you learn something new.
By taking my dad to the dermatologist while his horn was so little I saved him from possibly ending up with a giant horn, which would have been (presumably) more difficult to remove. Nobody gives you a medal for that though.
I send my dad the link to the page of pictures of people with horns. I tell him, “If I didn’t take you to get your horn removed, it might have ended up like one of these.”
He correctly points out, “We’ll never know how my horn would have turned out because we cut it off.”
Right now, his horn is in a vial being looked at to see if it’s cancer or not. It might be cancer and it might not be. It’s one or the other, but at this very moment it could be either. We have to consider both possibilities.
It’s like Schrödinger’s Cat. A couple of smart people have explained this to me and I still don’t understand it, because a cat is alive or dead, not both, no matter if we know it or not. But the relevant point here is that since we don’t know, we need to treat it as if it’s both alive and dead. You need to cover all the bases.
In the days leading up to this dermatologist appointment, my father, who has early Alzheimer’s, took it upon himself to make a dentist appointment the same day. His dentist is in the same medical park as the dermatologist and, coincidentally, has the same last name too.
“They must be brothers,” my father tells me every time he calls me about the appointment, which is more times than you might imagine.
“They might not be,” I say, because that’s the truth.
But they are. We learn that because when we get to the dermatologist’s office, the dentist’s office is right across the hall and my dad says to the dermatologist’s receptionist, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
Three minutes later as I’m filling out his medical history form, he goes up to the receptionist and says, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
A minute later, before I finish the form, he goes up to the receptionist and says, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
This time she gives me a long look and when I quietly ask her if she could call me instead of my dad with the results, she quickly agrees.
Because he made the appointment with the dentist for the same day as this appointment, but four hours later, and because I don’t have time to stick around all day, my dad has formulated a plan. He will walk across a busy road with no crosswalks and have lunch at a shopping center, and then will walk back afterwards, find the dentist again in this medical park, which is the most complicated medical park in the world.
I have told him several times that this was not a safe plan, but he assured me that he did this kind of thing all the time, and had been an officer in the U.S. Air Force and flew several kinds of complicated airplanes and he could certainly manage crossing the street. I had put off the argument for later because I was so tired of talking about it.
He mentions this plan to the nurse once we’re in the doctor’s office, and she says, “No, you won’t. You’ll get killed, and even if you don’t, you’ll never find your way back here.”
He replies, “Oh!” and looks truly surprised.
“No, I’ll drive you to lunch and then I’ll drive you back here,” I say, even though I really don’t have time. I agree with the nurse. It was a crazy plan. But, also, I’m aware that I would seem neglectful if I let him do it, and I’m sensitive about looking neglectful.
My choices are to piss him off or to look neglectful to everyone else in the world.
It seems like there’s only one right answer. I have to keep him safe. But it’s so much more complicated. It’s difficult to know at any given moment if he should no longer be doing something he used to be able to handle. I have power of attorney, and, sure, I can play it safe, err on the side of caution, but every little freedom that he loses diminishes him a little more.
He’s stopped driving. Although he’s in “independent living” at his senior living home, someone comes to his apartment twice a day to make sure he takes his pills. I started handling his banking after he made a few concerning mistakes with his money. He’s unhappy with all of these changes.
When an older person wanders off and gets lost, it ends up in the news, and the reaction in the comment section is predictable. “Someone should have been watching him!” Just like when a kid is allowed to walk home from school by herself (imagine!) and something bad happens. “I’d never let my kid walk around without supervision! Bad parents!” The online judgment comes fast and hard.
The problem is, until the older person goes missing or something happens to the kid, you don’t know for sure that it’s not safe to let them do this thing that they want to do. Maybe the kid is ready. Maybe the elderly parent is still able to take an unsupervised walk. How do you know? Maybe this will be the last time he can do it.
With Schrödinger’s Cat, the way it works is this: the cat is in a steel box. Also in the box are a radioactive substance, a vial of poison, a Geiger counter, and a hammer. When the radioactive substance decays, the Geiger counter detects that and makes a hammer smash the vial, releasing the poison, killing the cat. But the thing is, you have no idea when the radioactive substance will decay. So at any given time you don’t know if the cat is alive or dead.
It’s the same thing with elderly parents with dementia. Until something goes wrong—they mess up the bank account, they forget to take their pills, they get lost—you don’t know that the decay has gotten to that point. If you wait too long to start giving them that extra supervision, there can be a disaster. If you jump the gun, you’re taking away some of their quality of life before you need to.
After the appointment I drive him to the shopping center and we have lunch. Then I drive him to the dentist. It will be two and a half hours until his appointment. I can’t stay. The home where he lives provides rides to and from doctor’s appointments, so I have him call and request a ride, but he can’t get anyone on the phone.
“Try again,” I say, because I don’t want to leave him without a ride.
“It’ll work out,” he says. It’s one of his favorite things to say and it drives me insane. It happens all the time. He tells me about a problem and asks for help. Something with his computer, or his phone or TV, or something more important. Maybe his knee is bothering him. I start looking into it, but before I can do anything he says, “It’ll work out.”
It works out because I make it work out, not because it magically works out.
He assures me, though, that he will just call again after the appointment and get the ride. I tell him to let me know if he can’t get through. Then I leave and drive the forty minutes to get home.
That night he calls me and says that he never got through so he walked across a major road, this one with a crosswalk, at least, to catch a bus back home. He got on the right bus, had cash for the fare, got off at the right stop, and crossed the road again to get home.
“It all worked out,” he says.
Three days after the appointment we get an answer about the horn. The dermatologist says it’s benign.
JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
Last Thanksgiving, my husband and I hopped in a rental car with our three-year-old and drove fourteen hours from Brooklyn to Indiana. We wanted to celebrate the holiday with my parents, my seven siblings, and the chaotic swarm of children that makes up my many nieces and nephews.
We set off around four in the morning, and our son had a diaper explosion just before dawn at a rest stop somewhere in Pennsylvania. It was a mess of such magnitude, I stood paralyzed for several moments under the florescent lighting, debating if the best strategy was simply to burn the structure down and flee. I didn’t know it then, but I should have taken my son’s booming bowels as a warning shot: a foreshadowing of the weekend to come.
When we finally pulled up to my parents’ house, we were greeted by black skies and the ominous wail of a tornado siren, which for southern Indiana, isn’t exactly a seasonal sound in late November. My mother hugged us in welcome and croaked into my ear that she had awoken that morning with the flu. But not to worry—she was still making the entire meal.
Which she did, despite protestations and offers of help. The next day she waved us all away, hobbling around the kitchen high on Tylenol Cold, basting the bird in its juices and what we hoped wasn’t the Norovirus.
My brothers and their families trickled in with their children, and the clouds outside hung heavy and low, still teasing the idea of a storm. Adding to the odd energy in the air was the fact that it was my parents’ forty-ninth wedding anniversary. While under normal circumstances this would be a very happy occasion, my father is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. He’s in a wheelchair and can no longer really speak. My mother has insisted on keeping him at home with her throughout his illness while a rotating cast of caretakers comes in to assist her with his needs. There have been various pushes over the years to consider placing him in a nursing home, but my mother was as receptive to this idea as she was to someone offering to cook her Thanksgiving turkey: thanks but no thanks, now please get out of her kitchen.
Growing up in my large, Catholic family, holiday meals are some of my most vivid memories. We used to squeeze into our tiny dining room, my father pressed so tightly against a bay window it’s a wonder he didn’t shatter through to the backyard. We wore our “church” clothes, which for me meant a dress and thick tights that made my legs feel like they were in plaster casts. Gravy was served in a gravy boat shaped like a turkey, and when you tipped it, gravy poured from the bird’s mouth as though it was vomiting beige mucus onto your meal. We used to fight over whose turn it was to use it.
Our local priest would join us for dinner, my parents perhaps hoping that having a man of God at the table might keep us from reenacting scenes from Alien with the turkey carcass. They were wrong of course. Father Jerry or no—someone was still likely to hide a bit of potato in Teddy’s milk, so that he’d take a swig and send his partially digested green bean casserole back up onto the table, barfing in unison with the gravy boat.
When he was well, my dad was what people called “a real character.” And his blue eyes especially blazed to life at these dinners. He’d repeatedly clink his glass, offering various odd toasts and teasing decrees. One year he ordered there to be an election to select one of the family dogs “President.” We each cast ballots, and when his beloved yorkie “Holy” (so named for her tendency to lie motionless upon her back as though deep in devout prayer) lost out to the labrador “Brown” (much more lazily named for the color of his coat) my dad feigned outrage for hours, snorting with laughter as he shouted for a recount.
For years, at the end of each Thanksgiving meal, he’d wink at us kids and flash a thin box of mini Swisher Sweet cigars. Neither of my parents were smokers, and this was the one special occasion where this rule was broken. We’d follow my Dad to a secret location, where he’d allow us to join him in a puff of a post-meal stogie. Unfortunately for my mother, this “secret” hideaway generally turned out to be her walk-in closet, and she’d spend the next two weeks attending church in dresses that smelled like she’d just rolled in from an all night poker tournament.
But those days were now long gone, now. Father Jerry now lived in Indianapolis and, due to health reasons, was unable to travel. Trying to fit everyone into the dining room would be akin to a clown car routine, so now we dined in the living room, at long cafeteria tables borrowed from the elementary school.
As my family wandered through the house last Thanksgiving, I was reminded of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, where the illuminated ghosts swirl through the rooms. My parents’ house now felt more crowded with the past than it did people. To sit as an adult in a nest of childhood memories, before the same vomiting gravy boat, created in me a kind of emotional vertigo. Like one of those disorienting dreams where it’s your house, but also not your house. It’s you—but also not you.
It was clear none of us really had the words for the transformations within our family. No one knew how to talk about the force that was my father and how it was now gone. Yes, he was still at the table with the same bright blue eyes, but there would be no call for a canine electoral college. No brandishing of mini-cigars post meal. The truth was, he would never really speak to us again.
It seemed we were all coping with this in our own way. Offering and re-offering Stove Top stuffing to our children. Repeatedly complimenting my mother on the dumplings. But the air above the table felt as leaden and dense as the air outside.
One of my brothers—who is normally the calm, steady voice of reason—decided the best way to ease the tension was to drink a quarter bottle of whiskey and become as loud as was humanly possible. He tied a dishrag around his face and chased the grandchildren, making them scream with laughter. He pushed aside pie plates and challenged other brothers to arm wrestle. It was practically a one-man show of distraction and diversion, one that culminated in him slamming out to the front porch, shouting, “Watch this!” and proceeding to decimate some wind chimes with a broom.
Around the time the wind chimes clanged to the ground, I realized my mother had left the festivities. I wandered through the house and found her sitting in the library, where my father now slept. The room was dark, except for the flicker of the television. She sat perched beside my dad’s hospital-grade bed, holding his hand. I heard shrieks from the TV, and realized they were watching No Country For Old Men.
“Would you like me to put on something a little lighter?” I asked. “Maybe something with Meg Ryan?”
“No, no,” she said. “We like this movie.”
Forty-nine years ago on that night they’d been cutting the cake at their reception, my dad clutching a black top hat in his big hand. Now my mother sat at the edge of his adjustable bed, holding that same hand, while a veritable tribe of their creation stomped around on the other side of the door. They’d had ten children together. They’d lost two of those children. They’d watched each other’s parents die. Watched the leaves outside the window bud green, turn crimson, and drift to the ground, over and over and over again. They’d raked those leaves together. One holding open the Hefty bag, while the other stuffed it full of fall.
There were words I wanted to say. Words that swarmed through my head and chest. But I didn’t know how to form them or how to corral them into sentences. So instead I simply sat on the floor at their feet. Together we watched Javier Bardem murder people with a cattle gun, while the muffled shouts of my siblings drifted in from other rooms.
The next day most of the family returned to their own nearby homes, and the only ones who stayed on with my parents were my husband and I and our son, and my youngest brother and his girlfriend. While the house was much quieter, it wasn’t much calmer, as my three-year-old seemed to be coming down from the previous day’s mania. He streaked through the house like a toddler on a cocaine bender, eschewing all offers of toys in favor of banging open the china cabinet door and attempting to rake my mother’s Franklin Mint bell collection to the floor. Meanwhile, my mom was still wandering the house in a fever haze and was once again insisting on fixing an elaborate dinner, this time coughing her way through bacon-wrapped steaks.
By the time evening rolled around all I wanted was to put my child to bed, sit down with a fishbowl of wine, and stare off into the middle distance. I finally got him to sleep and collapsed on the couch. We were once again eating in the living room so that my Dad could eat with us because his wheelchair didn’t fit at the kitchen table. Together we sat before the Empire Strikes Back, our plates balanced on our laps. Exhausted, I stared blankly at C3PO and shoveled meat into my mouth on autopilot.
At one point, as I chomped down, I felt something sharp. Oh, well. I thought. Probably just a bone. Which perfectly captures my frazzled mental state. For 1.) I thought steaks should have tiny sharp bones and 2.) That it was perfectly fine to swallow them whole. Only after I cleared my plate, did I glance down and see the broken half of a large wooden toothpick and realize what I had done.
I quietly carried my plate to the kitchen then Googled on my phone: “Swallowing a toothpick dangerous?”
As someone with hypochondriac tendencies, I was all too familiar with turning to Google with strange medical concerns. My search history over the years was a treasure trove of “Mole shaped like a hat deadly?” and “Pain in which arm means heart attack?”
So I wasn’t surprised when my toothpick query sent back the WebMD equivalent of a breathless, wide-eyed woman screaming into my face: “Death comes for us all!”
Heaving a heavy sigh, I walked back into the living room and announced that I had swallowed half of a toothpick and, according to the Internet, it could puncture my internal organs, and so would someone kindly take me to the ER?
Everyone paused. My mother’s glass of white zinfandel hung in the air. Darth Vader breathed heavily from the TV. Everyone’s face did a slow motion dance between laughter and concern, ultimately forcing their features to settle into concern. My youngest brother leapt up and offered to drive me, so that my husband could stay home with our son. My brother’s twenty-four-year-old girlfriend began tugging on her stiletto boots, insisting on coming along.
The ER the night after Thanksgiving was a crowded place. I stood at the window and explained to the nurse that I had swallowed a toothpick.
“Yikes. That’s not good.”
I could see she very much wanted to ask—as any sane human does—how did I swallow a toothpick? Was I, an adult human, unfamiliar with the process of chewing and swallowing food? But she controlled herself, and simply ushered me back to a room, my brother and his girlfriend trailing behind.
A weary nurse came by and explained that because the toothpick was wooden, there was no way to do an X-ray.
“So instead, we’d like you to eat this turkey sandwich.”
I stared in confusion. Was it an electromagnetic turkey sandwich that was somehow capable of detecting wood?
“Look,” she sighed. “It’s to make sure the toothpick isn’t blocking anything. That you can get food down, okay?” She dropped the sandwich in my lap and left.
“It’s going to be okay, Miss Jo. I know it is!” My brother’s girlfriend smiled at me encouragingly. She always called me “Miss Jo,” like I was an old tap dance teacher from her childhood. She placed a hand on the back of my hospital gown, closed her eyes, and began to mumble under her breath something about Jesus taking the toothpick from my person.
I chewed the dry turkey and willed myself not to scream. All I’d wanted to do that night was relax for one goddamn minute. And now I was eating a hospital cafeteria sandwich at midnight while my brother’s wide-eyed girlfriend prayed over me. Not that I wasn’t touched by her kindness and concern in that moment: I very much was. I just didn’t want to be having that moment, period.
The sandwich went down, which seemed promising. Finally, a doctor rushed in clutching a clipboard.
“Ok, so uh…uh…I think…well I think…uh.” He had a nervous, halting way of speaking. Which is precisely the last thing one wants in an ER doctor. We all stared at him in anticipation.
“I think you’re going to…uh…uh…”
YES? Die? Live? Self immolate?
“I think you’re going to be…uh…okay.”
There was a collective sigh of relief.
He informed me that, while, yes, there was a chance it could puncture my liver leading to my untimely death, most likely I would just “pass it.”
“So you can just…uh…go home. But if you don’t feel…you know…okay…then…then…come back. Okay?” He had me sign his clipboard and left.
“Well that sounds…good? Right?” my brother asked, pulling on his coat.
I nodded, though my heart was pounding. That doctor had just doled out the absolute worst possible scenario ever for a hypochondriac: You might be okay, but if you think you’re dying of sepsis, give us a ring.
Did he not realize he was dealing with someone who was pretty much always sure she was dying of sepsis? Someone who had once gotten a CAT scan because she left Crest WhiteStrips on too long and it made her head feel funny?
I tried to take deep breaths while my brother and his girlfriend went to get the car. As I was signing my discharge papers, the nurse looked up at me.
“Oh and listen, if you do, uh, you know, pass it, you probably won’t know. So you shouldn’t. You know… Go looking for it.”
I nodded, imagining myself kneeling in the bathroom at my parents’ house, desperately pounding at my own excrement with a hammer.
“Good to know.”
Back in my childhood home, all was quiet. My mother and husband, upon hearing my stomach hadn’t in fact exploded, had gone to bed. I eased myself into my parents’ old bedroom, where my husband and son lay in the darkness, lightly snoring.
I wearily pulled on pajamas, jamming my mouthguard into my mouth. I lay down between my husband and son and stared into the darkness. This was the same room I used to pad into as a child when I was frightened or had had a nightmare. It still had the same wallpaper that used to creep me out because the shape of the design reminded me of ET when he was dying. But even with the unsettling wallpaper, coming into this room used to be like stepping into a warm cell of safety. I would climb up between my parents, and the warmth of their bodies would fill me with a certainty that everything was going to be okay.
Now, my mother slept in my old bedroom across the hall, where she’d been staying ever since my dad got sick. Dad was in his bed in the library. And my own son was now stretched out beside me, breathing softly. I was now the parent. I was meant to be the certainty.
The weight of this knowledge fell over me, and suddenly the stress, and sadness, and anxiety of the whole weekend began to whirl in my stomach, along with the dreaded toothpick. I could feel myself start to come undone. My eyes welled with tears, and my chest constricted.
And then suddenly, in the shadows, my son sat up. He turned to me, reached out his tiny hand, and patted my arm. Then he said something he’d never said to me before in his life: “It’s okay, Mama.”
He immediately lay back down, drifting back to sleep. And I stared at him, dumbfounded, wondering if I’d just imagined the whole thing. He had missed the events of the night—had slept through the whole “Mommy swallowing a foreign object” portion of the evening. But he had clearly, in that moment, intuited my distress. And something about hearing his soft little voice, hearing him try to comfort me, it was like a switch flipped, and a wave of calm flooded through me. My eyes went dry. My breathing slowed. And I began to pull myself back together. Because I had to. Because that’s what we do for our kids. For our spouses. For the people we love.
I thought of my parents sitting side by side, holding hands. If their forty-nine years together—a whole lifetime of immense joys and devastating heartbreaks and weird movies in the dark—if it had a lesson to offer, it was that when things get scary, you stay brave for the people who need you. You wade through the muck of worry. You continue to seek happiness, even when overwhelmed by ghosts and sorrow. You do whatever it takes. And sometimes that might mean not spiraling into anxiety. Sometimes it might mean being the strong one. And sometimes, it might even mean pushing out a toothpick.
JOHANNA GOHMANN has written for New York Magazine, Salon, and BUST. Her essays have been anthologized in The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 10, A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Encounters Around the World, and Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers. www.JohannaGohmann.com
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.
My only job for the next few hours is to stay in this small home in the outskirts of Seattle with my ninety-one-year-old father and make sure he doesn’t start a fire in the kitchen or wander away from the house he built himself, but now doesn’t always recognize. Every other Thursday, I show up here to give my stepmother a break. Dad seems more confused every time, but his wife, Donna, says that he has good days and bad. I like to take him out to lunch or for a drive, but today Dad is tired and wants to stay home. He’s asleep now, his recliner tipped back and a quilt covers his long legs, even with the thermostat set at eighty-five degrees. A scrawny slippered foot dangles out from under the blanket; a gnarled hand grasps the quilt’s edge. From the sofa across the living room, I look up from my book every few minutes to watch his chest to make sure there is still movement. I’m petrified that he’ll die on my watch.
Behind Dad’s chair is a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking North Seattle’s Thornton Creek, and a forest of alder trees. My father designed this A-frame house for Donna soon after they were married in 1965. The small rooms are uncluttered: my stepmother’s piano against one wall, a few stacks of books. A seashell collection is arranged next to pictures of their thirty-eight-foot sailboat on the coffee table. Although for years a visitor would find no evidence of my father’s children here, these days, there are also photographs of my sister Linda and me on the kitchen counter labeled with our names, so that Dad will be able to place us in case we stop by.
Dad’s normally thin frame has become skin and bones, his slacks cinched in at the top with a belt on the last hole. When he goes outside, he uses a cane, or sometimes a walker, but in the house he hangs on to the wall or the back of the couch, lurching from one stationary object to the next across the room. Around noon, when he rouses for lunch, I’ll watch each precarious, rickety step he takes from his chair to the kitchen table, and whisper under my breath, don’t fall, don’t fall.
Dad can still recite stories from his distant past; snatches of childhood are sometimes clear in his mind. More recent information becomes confused, bits of one event merging with another. Faces become indistinguishable. One day he might see his deceased brother in the room, or I might register in his brain as his mother or his wife.
I wait for the moments when I’m me. Over the years, I’ve longed for time alone with my father. I’ve called him on the phone once or twice a month for decades, but Donna invariably picks up the extension to join the conversation. Back before his mind went, he and I occasionally arranged to meet for lunch at a coffee shop. She came along. Now, when I finally have my father to myself for a few hours, he will no doubt wake up from this nap today, look at me quizzically and ask, “Who are you?”
Before my parents divorced in 1961, my family lived in this same neighborhood, the one where my dad and Donna live. On the way here this morning, I took a detour and stopped in front of my childhood home. Dad built that house, too, overlooking the same creek and woods. For years I’ve avoided driving by the old place; too many memories. But on this day I felt compelled to see the home where our family started out.
Back in the 1950s when we moved into our house in the suburbs, this was a new development teeming with young families. I ran with a pack of kids around my age, splashing in the creek and racing on our bikes. Our dads, mostly salesmen and small business owners, barbecued out on the carport, while our housewife moms sipped cocktails on the patio.
I remember my mother in an apron, singing as she cleaned the house. Showing me how she walked the runway as a part-time model for the Ship ‘N’ Shore Blouse Company. My dad, the jokester, hung our clothes in the branches of a tree outside our house if my sister and I left them on the floor. He owned a construction company, and between jobs he took on the task of packing our sack lunches and getting us to school. On those days I peered into my brown bag with apprehension, expecting to find a raw potato or a lemon, waxed paper between the bread of my sandwich. He didn’t like to discipline; instead, he commiserated with us behind our mother’s back after we’d been scolded. He was stingy with that part of himself, and with his time, away for long stretches working in other cities or out on his boat alone.
If I turned left and headed west down a short hill, I’d end up where my mother’s lover Bruce once lived with his wife and their three children. Back when I was seven, when I was eight and nine, I was oblivious to any friction between my parents, though plenty existed. My mother’s infidelity might have triggered their split, but based on the rigor with which she clung to her bitterness toward my dad, I believe she had her reasons for being unfaithful. All her days, she held fast to anger, the only emotion between my parents for a good forty years.
My sister Linda severed her relationship with our mother ten years before Mom died in 2001, and, in the last few years, has done the same with our dad. Maybe Linda can’t face our parents’ aging. Or she may have decided peace of mind is possible for her only if she’s shed of her family. She’s lumped me in with our parents and refuses to speak to me about it, so I have lost my sister, too, at least for now.
On this day, as I drove to my father’s house to face the deterioration of his brain, his slow fade from life, I asked myself why I still try to connect with him. Do I think caring for him will fill a hole in me, created when I was ten, twelve, fifteen, and he repeatedly left me behind? Am I bound to him by blood, no matter what has happened in the past? Why can’t I turn away like my sister has and wash my hands of the whole sad and messy process of death? Am I still the child who wants the thing she can never have, or is what I feel simply a daughter’s love? The only way I know to find the answers is to look hard at my memories of the fifty years since my parents’ bitter divorce.
I drove on then, east toward my father’s place, past houses where my playmates once lived. There are no signs of children in the old neighborhood now, no bikes in the yards, or basketball hoops mounted above garage doors. I should have expected these changes, after so many years. But I was surprised to see those barren streets, the graveyard of my childhood. I stepped on the gas, and looked at the road ahead.
When my father wakes, I watch him try to figure out where he is. His eyes scan the room, and he blinks and shakes his head slightly before he asks the inevitable question, “Who are you?” Once I say my name, he smiles at me, relieved. In ten minutes he might decide that I’m Donna or his mother. He’ll need to be told many times why I’m here, that his wife is out shopping.
I take the sandwich out of the refrigerator that Donna prepared for him before she left—she knows better how to make it the way he likes—and warm up some canned soup. He ambles over to the kitchen table and lowers himself into his chair. I put his lunch in front of him and kiss the freckled top of his bald head. He smells of Old Spice, same as always. He thanks me, calls me “honey” so he won’t have to conjure my name.
While he eats his lunch, I show him pictures of my children’s families—his great-grandchildren—and try not to be hurt when he recognizes no one. He points a crooked finger toward a hummingbird hovering at the feeder outside the kitchen window. Along the windowsill are cards that he and Donna have saved, with pictures of boats on the fronts, or special notes inside, mostly from relatives. All but one or two of his friends have passed on.
I ask him about building this house all those years ago on what the city considered an impossible lot; the place sits on a steep hillside and is supported by wooden braces. He’s pricked by memory and recalls details that surprise me. He tells me that he built two houses in this neighborhood but lost the other one in his divorce. “I guess she sold it,” he says, forgetting that “she” was my mother, that our family lived in that house together.
I mention nothing about the past; instead, I pull my chair around to sit next to him. I lay my head on his shoulder and take his hand. We sit for a time. The only sound is the creek rushing past, the occasional birdsong from the woods. I point in silence to a fat squirrel, and we watch him scramble up the side of an alder and fling himself like an acrobat at a neighboring tree.
Then Dad clears his throat and says, “You know, honey, your ma and I didn’t plan for things to turn out the way they did.”
Startled, I lift my head and look into his momentarily lucid eyes. I find myself willing him back into his fog; the memories he might dig up are painful, and in that moment I want him spared. Or is it me I want to shield?
“I know, Dad,” I tell him before he forgets again. “I know.”
JOYCE TOMLINSON is the mother of four and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband of forty-three years. She received her MFA in Creative Writing for Pacific University, and her work has appeared in The Gold Man Review and in We Came to Say, a collection of essays. She is working on a full-length memoir about learning to accept human flaws and frailties, including her own.
You are always searching for something that is somewhere in your small house: your keys, your cell phone, the other shoe, the cap to the marker, the library book, the salt. You spend so much time guiding your children—to wipe their mouths with napkins and not sleeves, to not write on their foreheads with Sharpies, to wear underwear (We always wear our underwear, you hear yourself saying singsongily)—that you are feeling a bit lost yourself. It is a rare day when you don’t wonder if it was dumb to quit your job.
It turns out, you are not so great at householding. The dust, the cobwebs, the splatters, a losing battle. The canning of summer’s bounty, time consuming and scary. The sewing of buttons and minor repairs to clothes? You are ill-equipped for this, let alone for teaching these skills to your daughters. Wouldn’t you rather read the New Yorker with a late-afternoon glass of wine while they build a fort out of toilet paper?
You have the garden, but more and more it seems a weedy embarrassment. With help from friends and cheered on by Michael Pollan, you and your husband tore up the tiny front yard and put in raised beds. It looked like you knew what you were doing, but you hadn’t much practice, hadn’t grown up the way some people do, these people who seem to have it in their DNA when to prune the blueberries and what to add to the soil to make it less cloddy. That first year, the garden was a beauty. It must have been all that fresh compost, all that weedcloth under the pea gravel surrounding the raised beds; it was all so tidy. The kale grew waist-high and stayed on through the winter. The basil—you couldn’t give enough away. Every year since then, you’ve had diminishing returns. Year five brought tomato plants with fungus, lettuce and kale and chard starts mowed down by snails at every turn. The kale that did grow was gray with aphids. Weeds busted through the weedcloth, more plentiful than anything, so many you could mow them. And it’s all on display, right there in the front yard!
You find a blob of peanut butter on your watchband. You have memorized the bulk food code for lentils at your grocery store. In other situations, words waver on the tip of your tongue. The name of one of your favorite actors? Gone the other day in an ordinary conversation. Later you Google the names of his films to get it back.
The newly scuffed-up back-to-school shoe. The My Little Pony you actually threw in the garbage because you were tired of stepping over it on the front porch. The crescent of blood on your husband’s nose from where he picked at a piece of peeling skin. In the morning rush, you forgot to tell him it was there. The autumn light is so perfect, it puts a little catch in your throat. Your fortieth trip around the sun.
You are a consumer of something that you like to call magic but is really just the suspension of effort. These small, unexpected moments. The conversation with a stranger in the produce department. The cigarette shared with a friend while your children sleep in your minivan at the trailhead to a hike you will not take. Riding your bike across the Ferry Street bridge on the Fourth of July, the warm night air on your bare arms while fireworks crackle in the distance. That was years ago. The magic, it’s getting rarer and rarer, you think. Your therapist says that you are getting in the way. It’s probably true.
Thus is your mood when your mother-in-law comes for a visit during the last week before school starts. Your mother-in-law is a cheerful and sprightly eighty-three, a member of the Tea Party, an attendee of the same Methodist church as Dick Cheney’s sister. She’s an expert knitter and is knitting a prayer scarf to donate to a hospital. Dick Cheney’s sister taught her the technique.
Your mother-in-law’s visits always remind you of how bad you are at talking—small talk or big talk. You are more a listener and a nodder, more of a spend-time-in-your-head-so-you-can-think-about-the-thing-you-said-yesterday kind of person. You are in awe of people who can talk at length about anything. The other day you heard someone give specific directions to a complicated destination, and it actually gave you a shiver.
Your mother-in-law is losing her short-term memory. Your husband’s brother has phoned ahead to let you know. In the first two hours of her visit, you talk about the weather six times. Yes, it’s usually this hot at the end of August in Eugene, you hear yourself saying again and again in the same voice you use with your children. You are exhausted already. And sad.
The plan is that your mother-in-law will move from her home in Boise into an assisted living facility that’s across the street from her church. She seems to be on board with this, and you talk about it many times during your visit. A part of you thinks that it’s heartbreaking to spend the last years of your life with strangers and that it would be much better to have her move in with your family, but another part of you knows that this would be difficult for you. You know you’re going to feel bad either way.
You’re meeting a friend for a coffee date while your kids are at a morning camp. You feel reluctant to leave your mother-in-law alone, but you need time with your friend. As you leave, you tell her that you’ll see her in a few hours and then you have a worry in the back of your head the whole time that she has slipped on a colored pencil and broken her hip. You hurry back home and it’s like you’ve been gone five minutes. How was the drop-off? she asks. It’s so hot outside, she says. Is it always so hot here?
Your daughter has been promised a kitten for her eighth birthday. And so on a Saturday during your mother-in-law’s visit, you all go to the local humane society to pick out the pet. The cat room manager takes one look at you all—ages five, eight, thirty-nine, forty-nine, and eighty-three—and directs you toward a room of energetic but tolerant kittens. Your daughter picks out a black and white four-month-old named Tia, and you receive the half-off senior discount because of your mother-in-law. She keeps referring to the cat as a dog, probably because your family has always had dogs for pets.
You decide to throw a small potluck for a few neighbors for Labor Day. It is something that your mother-in-law will enjoy. News of the potluck spreads and it becomes six-family affair. Your husband moves the grill and the picnic table into the front yard and your next-door neighbor does the same. You put out all of your silverware, all of your plates. You bring out the old crank ice cream maker and then make the same joke to different groups of neighbors: We’ve got a kitten and home-made ice cream; we’re running for the neighborhood association!
The neighbor children parade in the house to meet the kitten, who has already worn a dress, already been given a bath. She lets them cart her around like a baby. She lets them hold her up so she can walk on two legs. Sometimes she lets out a mew, but she never scratches.
There is watermelon and Caprese salad and Caesar salad and artichoke dip and lots of beer and wine. The grills are cranking out sausage and veggies. Everyone is talking happily in the front yard, drinking beer and wine from plastic cups. Your mother-in-law is re-meeting everyone she has already met, asking them where they’re from and where they live and what they do. She looks happy and you bring her a glass of the rosé she likes.
Into the chaos, your daughters appear on the front porch wearing the new roller blades that their aunt bought them recently. They’ve not yet mastered the roller blades, and for a moment you shake your head, No. But something, maybe the wine, lets you let them. Their dad helps them down the porch stairs and they make their way through the crowd to the sidewalk, your five-year-old in a kind of crawl-walk. Everyone is cracking up and saying thank goodness for the kneepads and watch out for the grill. Your next-door neighbor, who’s in law enforcement and is an overcautious dad, is cringing; he actually can’t look at them. His wife jokes that we should give them hot sharp sticks, or maybe the kitten. And you let go and laugh harder than you have in a while.
In the middle of the party, you notice that the doors to the room where you have been keeping the kitten are wide open. The kitten is … gone. You alert your husband and he searches the house, confirms that, yes, the kitten is gone. One by one, the kids find out. Two of them are in tears. The adults start searching, drinks in hand. Your party has turned into a search party, and the neighbors are parting through the weeds in the garden and are inside on their hands and knees shining tiny flashlights into the very dusty areas under the couches and beds. Here, kitty, kitty. Your mother-in-law is wondering if we might hear her bark.
Two neighbors have made their way to the kitchen, where the sink is piled with dishes, the counters cluttered with bottles and miscellaneous bags, caps, and lids. They are doing the dishes and you are grateful. You must continue the search, but you’ve run out of places to look. You walk around with your flashlight and a worried look on your face. She’ll turn up, the neighbors say as they leave in small groups. She’s probably curled up in a ball asleep somewhere. You agree, but you also wonder how you could have allowed this to happen. Maybe not such a great idea to have a party the day after you got a new kitten.
Everyone is gone by ten and the kitten is still not found. Your husband puts the reluctant girls to bed. You remember that the kitten is wearing a bell around its neck. In the quiet, maybe you will be able to hear it tinkle. You sit cross-legged in a patch of weeds in the garden. It’s the most still you have been while awake for as long as you can remember. You hear the snails munching, the crickets chirping, the pea gravel shifting under your weight. Every few minutes, a car roars by on the street and you worry again about the kitten. But you look up at the stars and feel lucky that this is your task tonight.
After ten minutes of your quiet vigil, you start calling again for the kitten. You hear a vague tinkling from the backyard and tiptoe around to the side gate. Kitty? The bell again, in the makeshift wood pile. You shine your flashlight back there behind it and see a flash of green eyes. She tries to squirm away, but you’re able to grab her. At first she wants to get back to the woodpile, get on with her outdoor adventure, but then maybe she realizes you are not one of the mauling children and she stops squirming away. She nestles into you. The two of you sit in the moonlight on the back porch. Her purring is the only sound you hear.
JAMIE PASSARO’s articles, interviews and essays have been published in The Sun, Utne Magazine, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Oregon Quarterly, Forest Magazine, Culinate.com, and NWBookLovers.org, among other places. She’s at work on a collection of essays.