By Joyce Tomlinson
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.