When my dad sees me, he gives me a big smile through chocolate-stained dentures. He’s just finishing a cookie. There are crumbs on his lap and on the floor surrounding his wheelchair. His fingers are speckled with chocolate. He is thoroughly enjoying that cookie, and the mess doesn’t bother him. I wipe his hands gently on his bib when he’s done, and glance up at the clock convincing myself I will stay an hour.
The sun is shining through the windows of this beautifully decorated nursing home. A thin woman with cropped gray hair and a blank stare sits in her high-backed chair, alone as usual. She never makes a sound, but her legs are constantly kicking. Another woman doesn’t stop moving around, back and forth from the front desk, down the hall, back into the common room. Another woman is being fed by an attendant, and yet another is stuffing oatmeal cookies in plastic packages into her pocket when she thinks no one is looking.
“That woman who moves around a lot? She’s crackers” my dad says, and he’s right. I try to visit my dad at the nursing home every day. Most days I find it difficult, if not torturous. Other than the occasional witty remark that seems to come from some deep recesses of his brain, the man who lit up my childhood with humor can no longer hold a conversation. Sometimes the ravages of his Parkinson’s makes him mumble and talk so softly I have to ask him to repeat himself four or five times, and I just pretend to understand. Sometimes I think I understand him, but he’s simply not making any sense.
While my dad tries to pick non-existent crumbs off the table, I watch in amazement, and then take his hand in mine and tell him what my adult children are doing. He smiles when I tell my stories, and I get an occasional chuckle out of the man who used to have the best belly laugh in Brookline. Often I tell the same story twice just to keep talking.
I yearn for another adult to join us, and am relieved when the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) brings over his pills in applesauce. “That Looks terrific, Dad,” I say, and I get a smile. I talk with the CNA, and am relieved that my dad can be the silent second partner in the conversation. When we are alone again, my dad asks about my husband.
“Michael’s at work, Daddy. It’s Tuesday.”
“He’s got to make a living.”
The US Open is playing on the TV. A year ago my dad watched the matches from the blue chair in his den. Two years ago he could tell you who was playing. Five years ago he might remember who won.
Thirty-five years ago he was playing doubles with my mom. Today, no one in the room but the CNAs seem to know there’s a tennis match going on.
“Mother is taking me home tonight,” he says, breaking my heart.
“No, Daddy, you’re not going home.”
“Mom can’t take care of you anymore. She’s too sick.”
“Oh, I thought I was going home.”
My dad’s eyes start to close as the players are heading into a tie breaker. His leg stops shaking at two points each, and then he is quietly asleep. His eyes open again just as there is a winner.
“Pretty good tie breaker, huh?” I ask him, and he smiles. He still enjoys the sarcastic comment.
“I’ve got to go, Daddy,” I say.
“OK. Play nice. Don’t fight,” he says, exactly as he did when I was a kid, and I smile back at him. The elevator comes quickly, but it feels like it takes a full minute for the doors to close. All the while he looks confused and full of longing. I fill the seconds with “Goodbye, Daddy,” and “I love you.”
In actuality, the doors close in six Mississippi. I’ve counted every last second.