• Visit to God’s Waiting Room

    December 26, 2020

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    Posted in: Other Ideas

    I just finished my last visit with my father. Hard words to write after sixty years of my life with him being around.

    I wanted it to go like this: We sat together, maybe for the last time, in the driveway where I went from diapers to parking the car returning from Iraq, sand from there caught in my boot treads mingling with the soil I near-literally sprung from. We talked about baseball, how cigars used to taste before Mom made him quit, “my old man” stuff.

    His memory was sharp in places, lost forever in others, so a lot of what was communicated crossed via some other wires we’d created over the decades playing catch, winking across the table at my wedding, arguing together with some car salesman to save a hundred bucks. He’s old school enough not to have cried at the goodbye forced on us. Bye, dad.

    None of that actually happened. It was what I wanted so badly. Instead it went like this.

    How the hell did my parents end up here, some “assisted living facility” in some god-awful part of Central Florida removed from planet earth if not time itself. God’s Waiting Room, the locals only half joke. The place was a swamp drained nine months ago and I got lost looking for my parents’ “home” because all the damn identical streets were named after trees that never grew here. Mom and dad had ignored long ago some good advice and made some bad financial choices and moved around; last I checked Zillow it seems my childhood home was going on its fourth owner since I packed out.

    My father was dying of dementia, which isn’t really death as much as erasure while you wait around for the Pneumonia Fairy to come as she finally did. It’s not the funny kind of memory loss where he thinks I’m someone else (“It’s me, Dad!”) Instead, the memory loss strips out the mental filters that let us all live together, and old folks like dad blurt out things. You tell yourself he doesn’t mean it and really doesn’t even know he’s doing it, but you also so badly want his last words to you not to be a slurred “I make poopy.” It’s a mean disease.

    Like any good writer I looked around at what other people wrote in these circumstances. It seems most stories take the high road, a man with flaws, sure, but one who, fill in the blank, served his country, worked two jobs to raise two kids, was quiet but fair, something like that. The writer reviews lessons learned, picks out some vignette from childhood to illustrate wisdom or some salt of the earth stuff. If the writer is going full drama, he builds it all around some talisman, a gold watch passed down, a family mystery revealed when dad finally explains the origin of that old pocket knife he always carried. It’s yours now, son, take care of it.

    Or the essay becomes the place to once and for all get it out. Bruce Springsteen build an entire career on this, rapping about how dad was not really a nice guy and he grew up to be better in spite of him. Dad drank, or whacked mom, or gambled, and life was about getting out. Optional: you made up in the end.

    But I sat in that awful small room angry as hell over mediocrity. Even the smell, that hospital cleaning fluid smell that never quite overcomes the old people odor, pissed me off. I never had enough to love or hate. My father was cold enough, uninterested in my sister and I enough, but that was kind of the extent of it. He never beat us, never squandered the family Christmas money.

    Instead, he was home almost every night frozen in his chair watching television. This was before cable¬† and he’d watch hours of whatever was on those handful of channels. Because this was also before remote controls and he didn’t want to get up to change the channel, he’d just watch whatever CBS had on Tuesdays from after dinner until when he fell asleep. There wasn’t so much to love and admire, and there wasn’t enough to hate and inspire. He was edgeless and his seeming goal was to pass that one on by example.

    I was determined to be the nerdy kid until I finally realized it was a terrible way to meet girls and a good way to get beat up. But in elementary and some of junior high I so wanted to be what I imagined was “educated.” I was the one who went to the public library after school and had a nodding relationship with the workers there, my semi-imaginary friends who feigned a little interest in how I was doing like paid escorts are so good at. I’d take out the classics, famous volumes I’d learned about in the World Book encyclopedia, and spend days turning the pages. I couldn’t understand what the hell they were saying, and why it took these old writers so long to say anything I did figure out.

    So I moved on to plod through 10,000 pages of Ayn Rand because some stoner kid said the band RUSH got all their ideas from her. I so wanted my dad to tell me about things, to argue with me about whatever existentialism was (it seemed to be what RUSH was singing about) but nah, TV time. As I got older and our interactions switched to long distance phone calls, the equivalent was me saying something about my week and dad replying “OK, here’s your mom.”

    His one interest was a basic understanding of the American Civil War. I couldn’t follow the complex back-and-forth on the maps at an early point, but I found some dramatically illustrated picture books that were my first taste of what porn does to your brain. Dad planned a family trip to Gettysburg nearly every summer I can remember as a child but we never went. There was never any real reason, like money or work, we just never went and at some point he just stopped wanting to go. I had no idea if dad’s last wish was to see the place or he’d dropped the idea himself in 1972 and just not mentioned it.

    A very few times (OK, that once) when we talked about “fatherhood” with me as an adult raising two kids of my own he laid out his theory of it all: the dad earns money. That’s kinda it. In return everyone should basically leave him alone. It seemed at one glance practical, maybe stoic and even noble. Dad missed the school play every year (I did drama club, too, jeez I really had a need for approval and attention now that I think of it) because food isn’t free. And we always had enough, a decent life with the essentials for sure.

    But as I grew older and faced the challenges of raising kids myself I realized that was the easy part. Going to work was not so hard. Trying to find the right thing to say to an eight year old who just got teased at school is hard. You wanna leave a mark on a kid? Sigh and get out of the chair to go out back and watch her try to go around more than twice with the Hula Hoop.

    But time did pass. I remember how near the end he got to climbing out of the car like it was a space capsule, his biggest part of the day sorting out his pills for the week. It was those memories that made me angry sitting in Central Florida. What a terrible place to end any life. Assisted living and its ilk are just stopping off points for Americans to go and die. I don’t know if there is such a vast industry of such commercial places in any other country but they are everywhere in Central Florida, in every price range (the industry itself is worth $420 billion nationwide.)

    A couple of years ago I looked at a few and they are all the same. The more expensive ones emphasize the food they serve but I didn’t know until recently many dementia patients basically starve to death. They forget they are hungry, they forget how to chew, and at some point they forget how to swallow. They spit their food out, perhaps trying to communicate it is too hot and not knowing the words, or they are just not sure what to do with the stuff. It is really, really hard to force an adult to open his mouth, chew, and swallow and get anywhere near enough nutrition in him. It is not a thing you want to do for a long time and it is hard to find people to do it for money even once in awhile. The docs can offer various vitamins and supplements but in the end nature always wins and the people just get weak and die. I think most of them, if they could articulate it, are happier to close their eyes at some point.

    About the last thing you can do with dementia folks is talk subtly about childhood and disappointments and anger. Dad seemed to slip and slide mentally around the room. He’d actually retained a handful of generic phrases to interject in pauses of conversation, things like “Interesting” that at first made it seem like he was engaged. It did not take too long to realize he was understanding less than my dog, who has taught herself to cock her head to one side when she sees me talking earnestly at her.

    You realize you’re actually talking to no one, and that makes you wonder why you are talking at all. What is the point now, decades after I’ve left home and become whoever I am at my own hand, of telling dad I’m pissed off we never did stuff together? I feel ungrateful, then angry again, then try and explain some of it to him, and he cocks his head and says “Interesting.”

    I’m not sure what I expected. Was I looking for an apology, “sorry I ran off with the circus, son?” Was I looking for benediction, a blessing, “looks like you pulled it off with your kids where I stumbled.” Am I eight years old again with a book in my hand knocking on the door one more time hoping he’ll tell me about Pickett’s Charge? I don’t know why I’m there so I just settle on being angry about it all. Central Florida is a terrible place to wrap up a life no matter how poorly lived.

    Then I left. Unlike in movies, nothing changed. People expect some sort of conclusion, a zingy line, a “wrapper,” a proper ending, not just running out of time years ago. You realize any of that had to have happened years ago and you realize that was as impossible as the man getting up out of bed now to do it. Instead you walk outside and everything is just going on as it does.

    Mom made me go through his clothes and things, saying maybe there was something I could use and I followed her request out of habit more than respect. I thought hard thoughts that day, and I failed to distract myself by watching the dust in the sun beam. I handled his things too roughly, angry he never was the man I wanted him to be, but worried at the same time that as much as I cursed the image in the old glossy photos I was afraid of what I saw in the reflection.

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  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...

      1

      Some understanding of what your dad’s life meant will come eventually. That’s a lie. His life’s arc will baffle you until you check out and then it will be your children’s impossible task to try to figure out what your life was all about.

      12/26/20 4:41 PM | Comment Link

    • Kfish said...

      2

      I’m sorry, Peter. That sounds really hard. I hope that you and he don’t suffer any more than you have to over this.

      12/29/20 7:14 AM | Comment Link

    • Norman said...

      3

      Thank you

      12/30/20 9:00 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      4

      I’m mailing in the SF180 form to try and understand my father’s strange career arc. He seems to have botched two huge opportunities (he knew the MacDonald Bros when they were first starting out and he also worked at Joe Columbe’s first Pronto Market). He made master sergeant it appears in under two years. The SF180 request will at least tell me when he went in, came out and under what circumstances. No one is alive who can give me that information except the Army. I think he resented my birth since rumor was that my mother insisted he return home from occupied Japan for his son’s sake (1944). He may have wanted to make the military a career but she was not going to be an NCO’s wife.

      12/31/20 10:41 AM | Comment Link

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