In Las Vegas, a few days before leaving for home, during the last visit when I saw my father alive, I sat in his hospital room for many hours, helping feed him his breakfast and then lunch; passing the time waiting for a visit from one of the young physical therapists or from one of the many doctors trying to work out what could be done about some of my 79-year-old father’s health problems, and which are beyond help; and trying to make conversation.
Conversation was the most difficult part of the week. Dad had plenty to say, but in reply I found myself tight-lipped. To his complaints about the food, service, quality of the linens, view, television volume, room temperature, and how long it took anyone in “this damned hotel” to get anything done, I nodded and murmured, “I know,” and patted his knee.
When he seemed to return to himself, and asked lucid questions about my mother or his brother, or whether the landscaper had trimmed the oleander, if the pool man fixed the filter timer – all things that made sense – I still had trouble carrying on my end. You’d think I would have been pleased to be able to respond to these “real” concerns with appropriately congenial retorts and pleasantries.
But I didn’t trust anymore that he could take in and process anything I might answer in return, that I could speak to him as an adult and not an Alzheimer’s-riddled manchild. Before – meaning in the first few days after I had arrived in Las Vegas but before I had reconciled to how near death he may be – I had latched on to every properly spoken, clear-eyed lucid moment. He’d ask a cogent question and I perked up, literally jumped up and more or less assaulted him with a diatribe of responses and inquiries. I suppose I wanted him to know that I was still here, still me, and all was still as he had left it a week ago, a month ago, a lifetime ago. This tactic failed, miserably. My physical movements and maybe my barrage of answers must have had the opposite effect, scaring him or pushing back on him in an almost visceral sense. Instead of being reassuring, I was probably disconcerting in my voluble and vociferous responses. He seemed to recede back into whatever protective, shielding shell his dementia had provided.
By week’s end, I had learned not to overreact to the short returns to reality, which lasted usually only a few minutes or maybe at most an hour. This day, towards the end of my stay, was particularly challenging. My 80-year-old mother was worn out and I had convinced her to stay behind and rest at home, rather than making the trip to the hospital, and my brother was working an extra-long shift in order to have a day off soon. It was a Saturday, so no tests had been scheduled, which left just me, on an August day which measured a dried out 110 degrees outdoors, while inside the air conditioning poured out of vents in frigid waves for which I was both grateful and resentful. For some reason, the chill reminded me of the need to keep dead or dying bodies refrigerated. My father shivered and jerked under his papery blue gown and I kept having to rearrange the four white cotton hospital blankets around his twitching legs.
This was a day of what I had come to call “seesawing” – meaning that my father was dipping in and out of the present day, in between visits to time periods filed in the catalogue of his past. I was trying to figure out how to answer the questions, such as, “Did the shop burn down?” (referring to a fire at his New Jersey polyester finishing factory 40 years before), but by the time I formulated a response which I thought acknowledged the accuracy of his memory but would not foment further distress, he had already moved on. “Did Papa die?” he wanted to know for about the tenth time that week, (referring, I assumed, to his own father’s demise, 25 years before) and then, astonishingly, “How’s your mother’s knee?” (a chronic ailment, for which he ordinarily accompanied her every few months for a cortisone injection).
We were both whipsawed between eras, and I was working furiously, silently in my responses, to avoid making costly verbal errors, which could pitch him into one of his lengthy sad spells, during which he might weep and shiver. I was mentally exhausted by 10:30 in the morning.
To fill some time, I went in search of the strong-looking male aide I’d seen earlier, to help me get my father from his bed into the armchair for a change. By this time, my father, never a bulky man, had further shrunk, and on his five foot, ten inch frame now hung small sacks of flesh where muscles had once been. At around 110 pounds now, he was not heavy, of course, but the arthritis and atrophied limbs – his back and neck so bent he could not even lay down for an MRI or CT scan – had made him so still and stiff, he needed to be carried and moved as an unbending unit. Once he was settled in the chair atop a thrice folded blanket (otherwise, the padded chair cushion would be too hard for his bony buttocks) and with his catheter tube covered, IV pole properly positioned, and two blankets, for warmth, tucked around his torso and legs, I pulled over a chair and took one of his hands into both of mine.
My father had always treated his own hands with care. Even when I was a child and he was still occasionally working in the warehouse of his polyester factory, his nails were never dirty. I have memories of him walking from the dusty warehouse back toward his modest but neat office, a metal nail file flashing. He always washed his hands long and thoroughly, soaping up repeatedly, far up beyond the wrists, and when I got old enough to watch television medical dramas, I noticed that was how doctors washed up pre-surgery. It is not lost on me that his childhood dream had been to become a doctor, not to work alongside his father in a scrap metal business to support seven siblings.
As I took his hand into mine in the hospital, I had a sudden image of his hands from my childhood, often professionally manicured. I noticed that his nails, once always neatly clipped and squared, were now ragged and dirt-flecked, uneven, with rough angles, and longer than I’d ever seen them. I made a mental note to bring in manicure tools the next day (though the next day I forgot to bring them, as I did again on the final day of my visit).
I tried to do what I could with a nearly worn-out emery board from my purse. I wondered if he remembered, in the 1960s and 70s, having manicures at a time when only very rich or fussy men did so. How elegant his hands looked then. Like a stage actor or balladeer mid-song, gesturing ever so subtly, filled with emotion, offering protection. I was momentarily concerned that, if he noticed his hands that day, their current state would make him unhappy, then I chastised myself for thinking he’d be vain enough to be worried over the state of his manicure, when he had other, much more important things to worry about.
After he died, I kept thinking about my father’s hands, and I went looking for them, among the hands which may carry some of the same metatarsal-memory genes. My own fingers are thick too, but more rounded than flat like his, and not expressive. I didn’t get much of a chance to study my brother’s hands, though during the glancing few minutes when he held mine at my father’s memorial service two months later, I recalled they are big but rather stubby for a such a tall man, with a roundness and a ropey physical strength unlike anything I ever felt in my father’s hands. My father’s hands were strong, but in a more gentle way. My sister has piano hands, either perfectly matched to her musical accomplishment on that instrument, or else they developed to accommodate her passion. My elder son, twelve when his PopPop died, has long, slender fingers set on a long slender hand, but who knows what my father’s hands were like as a teenager. Finally, I found what I was searching for – in YouTube videos of Frank Sinatra singing on stage and in clips from his movies – when he’s striking a match, fingering a cigarette, palming the curved back of a starlet. I found them one chill day that next winter, while my sons were at school and I was supposed to be gathering research for a client, and I watched for four hours.
In the hospital, I asked my father if he wanted me to rub on some hand cream. He shrugged, but I did it anyway. I thought, What the heck, it will kill some time. After, he began what had, at least while I’d been here, become his daily litany of why he must be allowed to leave this place:
They can’t keep me here against my will.
I know the law.
If I want to leave, I can you know.
Get them to call me a taxi.
Where’s my suitcase? I want to go.
Get your mother; she’ll know what to do. (This one I could not help laughing at out loud. My father always did everything related to travel, finances, and dealing with management or authorities; and he always reminded everyone that he alone was qualified to do so.)
Take me home.
I want to go home.
Why can’t I go home? (This one I had trouble answering, even glibly, because I wanted to know the same thing. Why couldn’t my mother allow him to come home—to his 5,000 square foot house, the one with extra bedrooms and spare bathrooms and wide doorways, the one built with polyester money—instead of making nursing home arrangements?)
Where is my ticket, my passport, the concierge?
When is that damned bellboy coming back?
They make me wait, for what?
Some of his questions I answered. The rants I either ignored or I nodded my head in agreement, or shook my head slowly in bemused disbelief. After a while, maybe only a half hour of this, he seemed to have had enough. Suddenly, he tossed my hands off of his, disgustedly, and changed his mouth into a deep, disgusted frown. I got ready for a verbal assault, meant I knew by then not really for me, but for the world at large, all the captors and commanders who had co-opted his sense of control those last months. But what I was not prepared for was the look on his face.
When I was a child, my father rarely got involved in the day to day discipline of his children, which was left to my mother, who enforced rules with alternating bouts of screaming and gentle persuasion, slaps and innuendo. When something serious occurred, however, requiring my father to intervene, it was the terrifying look on his face, more than any thundering threats or despotic pronouncements, which made the biggest, most shame-inducing impression. He’d set his mouth in a thin line, let his cigarette burn unsmoked in his hand, and just before he spoke, his brown eyes seemed to turn black, and widen to a size that seemed impossibly big.
When he spat my hands out from around his own that morning in the hospital, adulthood sloughed away and, childlike, I cowered (though of course I didn’t hide behind the curtain as I might have, once), and braced. His eyes got that look, which I had not seen for decades. Owing I suppose to his gauntness and his pasty pallor, the darkness of his eyeballs seemed more ominous, and the dimensions to which he was able to open his eyes, to occupy more square inches on his face than seemed physically possible.
I have, since then, wished often that I could remember precisely what he said after he’d sprung wide his eyes. But the sight of the enlarged, engorged eyes unnerved me enough that my usual ability to file dialogue, failed me. I know it was something about him still being a man, god damn it, and when the hell were the doctors going to do something about this pain, and that he did not want to be treated like a child by the damned nurses, and that he still knew what the hell was going on, god damn it.
My father was still there, somewhere.
I do not recall what I said in return, if I said anything at all.
I do remember that the way his face looked at that moment was both extremely frightening, and yet also somehow comforting. It disturbed me greatly to think that, somewhere in his addled mind he really did know and understand the terrible state he was in, and yet it also warmed me to think that somewhere too was a spark still, of the take-charge, demanding, confident man I had known for 46 years, whose hands once held my life, in whose eyes I once shined.
I said good-bye to my father two days later, knowing that it would likely be the final good-bye, that I likely would not get the chance to make the 2,700 mile trip from my East Coast home in time, next time. The next morning, I had more time than I had anticipated before needing to leaving for the airport, enough time for a quick run to the hospital. I chose not to go.
Lisa Romeo teaches memoir and personal essay at Rutgers University and The Writers Circle. She holds an MFA from Stonecoast and has worked as a public relations specialist, freelance journalist, and real estate agent evaluator. Her memoir manuscript was a finalist in the 2013 SheWrites/Seal Press contest. Lisa is the nonfiction editor for Compose. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons, who don’t talk to her when she’s writing except to offer dark chocolate, a glass of wine, or the use of the shredder.
© 2013, Lisa Romeo