My father’s room is dark on a sunny day. I’m confused, he says, meaning he is not listening. I can’t hear you, he says, meaning the shades are drawn, the blinds closed. Since he has kept more furniture than the scaled down apartment will hold and has added a walker and then a wheelchair, I bruise my shin going from his file cabinet to the table and bruise the other going back again. He hasn’t paid his taxes, his credit card bills.
Why not, Uncle Joe asks me, and I’ve come to find out, but I seem to be the only one who is concerned.
“Why is your check balance so low?” I flip through the registry as my father flips through channels without focus, until he hears the familiar Come on Down! Now his gaze is riveted on contestants as they fly to the front of the “Price is Right” set and cast their bids on avocado appliances.
“Higher! Higher!” My father shouts at the TV.
“Dad? The checkbook?”
To my second inquiry about his banking he says only, I’m confused. The Greek chorus in the closet of my heart leers at me and dares me to keep light in my tone.
My heart is a tight space.
“Fuck!” I say as my shin hits the table leg. When my father’s brother calls and calls again, we let the machine take messages.
“Call your brother,” I tell my father. “He’s worried.”
“I know,” he says.
Not yet October and already the garden goes fallow. The rain falls in biblical sheets. On the radio, a reporter’s voice is even as he tells of a woman swept by a current under the wheels of a truck. She was crossing a city street. Rush hour in a crowded city. A woman with a briefcase, her umbrella blown inside out, useless.
Despite efforts of passersby the woman died, the reporter intones. His voice holds no tension. My jaw works closed.
“Why don’t you call your brother back,” I ask my father, “if you know he’s worried?” The credit card company called Uncle Joe when they couldn’t reach me.
“You do it,” my father says, looking only at the fuzzy screen straight ahead of him. Bob Barker’s handing the keys to a new Chevy to a large man in polyester.
The last time someone used the term power of attorney around my father, he walked away and wouldn’t take our calls for a week but that was — what? — six months ago? Closer to a year?
“Dad?” I say.
“I’m confused,” my father says and my heart snaps shut.
I tell myself I am not swept away by a random rainstorm, that all life is precious, but the door to the apartment could be the bars of a cell and the windows looking out on the expanse of Heritage Acres might as well be glued to their own sills.
How can we all be slaves? the one elderly man in the bible class I’ve joined asks, looking for answers. I, too, want answers. How can we all be slaves in Egypt, when here in America we have so much? and the rabbi says What if Mitzraim is not just a Hebrew word for Egypt? He says, What if it’s a metaphor?
We sit in a circle, the ark open, our bibles open in our blue-jeaned laps, a collection of unreconstructed nay-sayers wanting to come to terms with faith on a gray Saturday afternoon.
Metaphor for what? One of us wonders aloud. We all wait.
What if Mitzraim is that place we are each slave to? the rabbi asks. What if Mitzraim is any tight place we can’t squeeze out of?
The apartment smells like the rug in a kindergarten room, not the all-out smell of urine like in a nursing home hallway, not the antiseptic chill of a hospital room, but that faint waft of something unwashed, of something closed in too long.
“I brought your shampoo,” I yell, as I poke my father awake from his afternoon nap. He lies on the hospital bed we have purchased to replace the queen-sized bed he shlepped from the house in Jersey to the condo in South Philly and then from the walk-up condo to the one-floor apartment. Even after my mother is dead three years, he insists on taking their bed with him to the next, smaller apartment, but with this last relocation, there is simply no room for the expanse of platform bed. When the movers haul it away, he won’t watch. At eighty years old he was still moving furniture himself, but this last decade, he has been an icicle under a heat lamp, the melting away of him so steady and constant I almost don’t notice the loss most days.
“He’ll scream at me,” my sister-in-law says, when I ask her to be the one to bring him the hospital bed. It’s less than half the width of the bed he loves, aluminum bars poised to lift and hold him in when he gets too unsteady to rise by himself in the night. “I can’t do it. He’ll scream.” So I am the one to present the new bed. When I do, I await the outburst, the knife edges of hate he could toss in a single sentence two apartments ago, maybe even one. But it’s all worse than I imagine; he is docile.
“We had to get you a new bed, Dad. A single.” I remember now how it was the day I told him.
I want to say he sighed. Did he sigh? Maybe not.
“I have your shampoo, Dad!” I yell now over the partially inclined bed. Even with the mattress angled, his breath trudges rather than slides to his lungs. He opens his eyes, the left one milky.
“Thanks,” he says, and his smile is instant. “How should I pay you for that?”
“Try it,” I tell him. “If you don’t like it, give it back to me. It’s the same kind Ben uses, or I’ll use it on one of the kids. Eli maybe.”
“Okay,” he says. Another warming smile. “Okay. And who are you?”
“You look frantic,” the physical therapist says. She finds me on my father’s floor surrounded by his mail, his unpaid bills, his unopened get well cards, all the charities thanking him for his many donations. “You look frantic,” says Jen, twenty-something, pregnant. “You okay?”
“It’s so fucked up,” I say, gesturing to the piles of mail. “He gave all kinds of money to charities, but he doesn’t pay his bills.”
“I like his priorities,” Jen laughs and my father is suddenly, for a moment, someone who is not my father, and his rooms grow larger, admits light.
The sea parted, you see. We were all slaves, but the sea parted and some of us got across to the other side. We shook the fat drops of salty water off our hair and let the cold slide down our spines and looked up and found the sun close to the earth suddenly, and warming.
This is what I flash on when Jen laughs: I am a five-year-old, tossed in the diaphanous shafts of light cutting through the agitated waters of the Atlantic after a July storm, a wave tossing me under, around, over and over.
“You looked like a sock all alone in a high water load in the washer. You were sure on the spin cycle down there,” my father is saying as he reaches just one of his large, strong hands into the surf and pulls me up into air.
“I was scared,” I said every time, every time the small pink balloons of my lungs were unable to catch and hold enough air for that first moment out from under. Every time, he just laughed.
“Don’t be. I was right here,” he’d say.
“What do you mean, who are you? I’m Anne. Your daughter.”
He used to be so predictably mean at times; threat of belt, voice of the whip in the hand of an overzealous overseer. We were fed at the kitchen table early enough to be unseen and not heard each week night when he always got home promptly at six, after a ten-hour day on his feet. My brothers and I were happy to shut ourselves in our bedrooms as soon as the knob turned on the heavy front door, happy not to reappear downstairs until morning.
Then he got older and got predictably sweet, went to the grocery store and made macaroni and cheese for my mother all through the brief, long months of her chemo treatments, because macaroni and cheese was the one thing she could hold down.
“I’m your daughter, Anne,” I say now, loud, my face right in front of his so that he can read my lips if the hearing aid batteries are low again. “I’m Anne,” I say, “Your one and only daughter,” wishing now to be seen, to be claimed and duly noted.
“Okay,” he says, as if to say, if you say so. And then he is asleep again.
I want to close my eyes and wake up in Oz. I want my father to close his eyes and wake up in a gone decade. Plant tomatoes in his garden, argue politics with my dead mother over dinner right after the MacNeil-Lehrer report, both of them annoying and loud and pink-skinned and sitting upright. I want to shake my head over the way they are always on the same side and still manage to raise their voices late into nights when I choose to sleep over, knowing I can get into my car and drive home too fast on a fat highway come the morning after a cup of coffee and two quick hugs.
My mother’s coffee is dark and rich. Good coffee. Why didn’t I ever notice the good coffee or the way they argued so openly or the pleasure of being there knowing I could leave there?
When my father’s phone rings, I pray it won’t be Uncle Joe, and then think twice, and pray it will be Uncle Joe and not MBNA America. Then Uncle Joe is so mad, I’m thinking maybe better to deal with the bank.
“Who’s been spending my big brother’s money like water, I want to know,” Uncle Joe asks me. “That nephew of mine got a new car not that long ago. You talked to him lately?”
“Frankie’s not to blame, Uncle Joe.”
Useless to remind him Frankie’s car is three years old already. When you are in your eighties, I guess time compresses like a grilled cheese sandwich squashed down by a spatula while it’s on the hot griddle. I picture Uncle Joe’s memory like a frying Velveeta sandwich, all the logic oozing out from the sides as soon as the cook bears down on the top slice of buttery white bread.
“I think Dad’s been spending it himself, Uncle Joe,” I start to say and I’m keeping my voice gentle, but he’s not having any of it.
“Bullshit!” he says, just like my father used to say when I asked for help with math homework and proffered the wrong answer or spoke too tentatively when quizzed. Now my father mostly sleeps, and when he wakes, his eyes drift, dreamily and his voice is hoarse.
“You find out who’s spending your father’s money, young lady,” Uncle Joe says, “And I expect a report.”
On the white Formica table, the thank-you notices make a tall wobbling pile: The American Cancer Society, the Christopher Reeve Foundation, a dozen agencies that claim to support the state of Israel, some touting politics my father would have abhorred when he was still reading the solicitations and still following the news.
Now the shrubs outside my father’s tiny, unused kitchen are ornamented by fat wrens. They bend the slim branches with their slight weight. If they were red and green and gold they could be Christmas balls, fat and frivolous and sweet on an anger-hangover morning. They lift and fly and I fly with them.
I pry my heart open slowly as slowly my father opens his eyes from his nap. “We need to get a few checks written, Dad,” I say and he says, “You take care of it,” meaning, you take care of me. The whole apartment exhales and refuses to draw a replacement breath.
When I was a child, three or four, my mother would take me to the library once a week and once a week I would pick out a book. Most weeks I picked the same book, “Peter Rabbit” tales in the smallest editions, scaled down books I could hold in my three-year-old hands. The library building was an old house with small, irregularly shaped rooms, the children’s room tucked at the top of steep stairs, under eaves. This was when tight spaces smelled of cinnamon and safety and what you could grasp with one hand was most desirable.
You take care of it, my father says before his eyes shut.
Now spring is a long time coming, the feast of Passover late this year, April before we will read of the parting of the sea and experience the liberation of our people as the waters made walls that held back disaster. Outside, a few flower pots still hold a fat dollop of snow and each dollop could be sweet whipped cream but it isn’t. It’s cold. On the table, a pile of “thank you for your donation” notes teeters tall as the pile of bills.
You take care of it, he says.
Outside his kitchen window, the wrens lift off.