I think of my father every time I put on the grey moccasin slippers that I wear around the house, cushioning my arthritic, bunion-blessed feet with the high arches and cracking ankles. Nudging them out from under the bed or whatever chair has them half concealed, my toes enter the mouth of the shoe and press into the vanilla-colored Sherpa lining. I see myself squatting before him as I did countless times during the last three years of his life which were spent in a nursing home. He sits drowsily with his legs dangling off the side of the bed. There’s the stench of diluted bleach water that a housekeeper just splashed and dragged around the room with a mop.
His pewter-colored suede house shoes were ragged, and the stitches frayed, giving them the appearance of crying for permission to give up, to unravel and disintegrate. The rubber soles had many cracks and they peeled away from the fabric. The tops were caked with remnants of meals that dropped from his hand when he was hardly awake enough to feed himself.
His belly bumped the table in the dining hall as the aide engaged the brakes of the wheelchair and hurried across the room to retrieve a bib from the linen cart to snap around his neck. Judging from the ever-present stains on his shirts, rare efforts were made to ensure that the maroon towel was pushed below the table’s edge to properly cover his chest and lap to catch the spoons full of gravy that he dropped and smeared. When he stood, what was left on his bib would fall onto his slippers. None of the staff bothered to wipe them clean.
My hands guided his stiff, blind feet that were squeezed into socks that punished his swollen ankles and left impressions on his calves and sores between his toes. He shuffled as he stepped, grasping the metal walker—which he always pushed too far ahead of himself causing him to lean and reach—stressing the front end of the shoes until they gaped at the back and slipped off his heel, creating a tripping hazard. They were filthy, old, and decomposing, and stinking of urine from his unsteady hands after he was left in the bathroom alone, shaky with a recently broken hip and a toxin-ravaged brain.
That’s what she left with him at the nursing home—dirty, shitty slippers, a few T-shirts, and a couple pairs of blankety fleece sweatpants that, if he wore to sit outdoors in the upcoming Ozarks summer, he would broil.
She refused to bring his hearing aids. He lived in a building with a hundred other people, but between his deafness and what the arsenic did to his brain, he was in virtual isolation.
I think of him when I press toothpaste onto my toothbrush. A few months and two court filings into his stay, the nursing staff accepted that Lora and I were not the ones responsible for nor to blame for the abuse—at the least, neglect—that brought him here. From then on, our every visit involved helping him pick and brush his teeth which were so crusted over with tartar that it was difficult to discern one tooth from the next. The front of his lower teeth at the gumline could have been chiseled, the build-up was so deep. They clearly hadn’t been scraped by a hygienist in years.
“Dad, when did you last see a dentist?” I asked him, recalling that months before—the last time that he called me—it was because he was home by himself. He could safely squeeze in some calls to his daughters and friends without interruption or retaliation. She was away from the house—at a dental appointment.
His forehead tensed as he used all his effort to search his mind, and with closed eyes and after a couple of labored breaths he managed to answer, “Oh…I don’t know.”
When he was moved to a different home, Christina, my favorite nurse’s aide, taught me how to brush his teeth. With his head lolling forward, she gently worked through his mouth with a child’s portion of toothpaste. In her other hand, between his chin and lower lip, she held an emesis basin and dry washcloth. Rinsing the toothbrush with clean water and using it to wipe his teeth and gums, she brushed the foam forward to dribble into the basin, repeating the step until the water ran clear so that he didn’t swallow a mouthful of Colgate.
I think of him when I open the refrigerator to get the turkey and mayo to make a sandwich.
“He’ll never eat a sandwich again,” the thought slams into my mind and the bottom falls out of my chest, pulling my heart down with it. He’ll never again enjoy that first bite into a sandwich that has been made just the way he wants it or taste sweet ketchup as it mixes with the burger grease and drips from the layers of bread, meat, and pickles. He declined rapidly, and his food had to be pureed. I remember how he grimaced at the flavors whose textures were unnatural and not meant to be served from a blender. He can’t chew and swallow solid food now, and he never will again. A sandwich. A simple damn sandwich did me in today.
I had given him a cell phone with the numbers of just a few family members and a couple of his closest friends programmed into it, the ones he wanted. In the past, she had systematically severed his access to all of his closest relationships with stall tactics, such as, she needed to “replace his phone” or she “was setting up a new one” for him. With him under someone else’s supervision, she couldn’t quite repeat that behavior, at least not undetected.
He became quite proficient on the device once he learned that the photos on the screen only had to be tapped to dial the individual’s number. The only problem was that a short nap left him thinking he had slept through a night, resulting in many days that he called more than twenty times, just a few minutes apart.
As I competed with her for connection to his disappearing cognition, I never turned my ringer off. Even when desperate for sleep after flying through the night to the other side of the world, I answered his every call, attempting to sound undisturbed, as if I were just down the street.
One day last week I discovered that my voicemail box was full, requiring some messages to be deleted so that new ones could be recorded. The cache held twenty. The five most recent were irrelevant robocalls or friends whom I had contacted since their messages were left. But to get to the ones to be deleted, I had to go through the fifteen that were queued before prior—which were all Dad, calls I missed while in the shower, or flying, or on a noisy London street.
I saved them as he left them so that I could always have a way to hear his voice, regardless of how faint and weak he sounded. He always asked me, “Where in the world are you at?” He loved to introduce me to his caregivers as his ‘world-traveling daughter’. We shared the same wanderlust, always wanting to see what was farther down the road, resolute that a change of scenery was the most reliable remedy for melancholy.
I purposefully avoided painful reminders of the stressors of the last 4 years that began with his disappearance when she moved him to a town two hours away. The bigger picture was that for twenty years, Dad was in the clutches of a narcissistic, sadistic sociopath masquerading as a meek Christian spouse.
And then one day, grief lured me out of elusion and into saturation as if immersing oneself into the experience would effectively dull matter. After listening to his voice on the phone, I scoured the Sirius channels for bluegrass music. Dad could play “The Wabash Cannonball” on the banjo as well as or better than anyone in the Grand Old Opry, and he played it over and over and over again.
“Ivan! Don’t you know any other songs?” Mom once suggested with unbridled annoyance.
But it never got old to me. The song had a jovial range and with his fingertips and pick, he hit every bouncing note that danced between the chords, the harmony, and the melody.
I think of him when we build a fire in our woodburning fireplace. It is well used, unlike the one in the house where I grew up, because a real fire set off everyone’s allergies and sneezing fits, except me. I was the only one of the four of us who was unafflicted with the annoyance and not hostage to bottles of nose spray that were never farther from their persons than in a pocket or under the pillow.
Now, wood crackles and flames whip, rising in gradual stretches, determined to grow tall enough to touch the whipping eastern Pennsylvania winds that lash the chimney on the west side of the house. Seasoned, bone-dry cuttings bark and spit out lit embers from the grate, and my husband leaps to keep them from scarring the floor. He then sits down on the granite hearth and twists around to watch the fire as it changes.
I see myself as a four-year-old in my childhood living room on the forest green carpet with swirled texture. I’m wearing a ruffly poly-blend nightgown the color of the sky—a Christmas gift from Granny—that my unevenly chewed fingernails catch on and which is stricken with static electricity every time that it passes over my head. It shocks and zaps until it consents to being worn, and leaves my hair standing on end like a startled blonde dandelion. Mom is on the tweed coffee-colored divan polishing her gloriously unchewed nails. Lora is in her bedroom with the ruby crushed velvet bedspread (that I fiercely coveted) with her face in a book, as always—even in the car and at the dinner table. Dad is on the floor near the fireplace, seated in a half turn with one leg extended and the other bent at the knee, his elbow resting on it.
“I think that apple wood burns better,” he observes, and I wonder how apples can be used to flavor wood…
Categories: Rest in Peace