My father turns 67 today.
Guiding my three-year-old, who is clutching a crayoned picture, I walk through the sliding glass doors and breathe in deeply, preparing myself for a visit that I’ve been dreading since the last one.
“Is Pop-Pop here?” my daughter asks, making sure not to wrinkle her picture: a birthday cake with her name scrawled in messy letters at the bottom. I added a quick happy birthday note for good measure, one I knew he wouldn’t read, punctuated with an exclamation mark. It was a waste of time, but I did it all the same, because not doing it didn’t seem like an option.
“Yeah, he’s here,” I answer, smiling at the white-haired woman behind the reception desk and tugging my daughter down the hall.
One year ago, after his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, I planned his funeral.
“Your dad, he’s retired air force, right? Military men, like myself, they don’t like a big show,” the funeral director offered, the only statement I recall from our hour spent together.
The choices were overwhelming, a profusion of casket colors and lining styles. At 27, I felt more like a child than I had since the third grade, sucked into an unfamiliar world that left me shaken, wondering whether Dad would prefer gunmetal gray or a simple earthy brown. But my parents had been divorced for nearly 15 years, and my brothers lived hours away, so this duty fell to me. In the end, I walked away after arranging a quick service, realizing that in the more than 20 years I’d known my father, I had never taken the time to learn his favorite color.
“Good morning,” I say to a man in a wheelchair smiling at me from the other side of the lobby. He’s in better shape than my father and probably a good ten years his senior. Frowning, I keep walking, holding my daughter’s hand a little tighter as we make our way to the commons area at the center of the hall.
Parkinson’s is a relentless disease. It’s unforgiving in the worst possible way, gripping an otherwise healthy body, eroding its muscle capacity, rendering it useless, leaving nothing behind but the shell of a person. Watching the progression from the outside is like observing a slow motion car accident from the breakdown lane of the interstate. You know what’s happening, you know how it’s going to end, but there isn’t a damn thing you can do to stop it.
In Dad’s case, dementia set in right away, a blessing more than a curse, since he was blissfully ignorant that his body had betrayed him. My face, and the faces of my brothers, slowly faded from his memory. Within months, I became no more to him than the young woman with the pigtailed daughter who popped in from time to time to say hello. Our presence elicited a simple vacant look, letting me know that I would to have to tell him my name again, just as I did every time we visited.
On this particular Thursday, I find him in a prized position, parked in his wheelchair at the nurse’s station, staring at a child’s stack of blocks that he no longer possesses the motor skills to stack.
“Leo, your girls are here to see you for your birthday,” the nurse remarks. I stiffen at her use of the short form of my father’s name, one I hate and that he does as well. She wheels him out to me, leaving him parked in the hallway, where he looks just as withdrawn as he had on the other side of the desk. “You can take him back to his room if you’d like,” she says. “He’s all yours.”
Gripping the wheelchair handles, I begin the trek down the long hall to his room, second from the end. My daughter follows behind, her small presence drawing yearning looks from every grandmother we pass, each happy to glimpse a little one, even if only for a moment. My daughter doesn’t know what a nursing home is, or what this disease has done to her grandfather. She has only known him as he is now, wasted. Only I remember the brawny man he once was. As we reach his room, I glance at the red no-resuscitation sticker beside his nameplate, then park him beside the bed.
Hesitantly, my daughter extends the handmade drawing to him, watching his movements with wary eyes. Though his name appears each night in her prayers, always thrown in just before her dog and dance teacher, she’s frightened of him and I understand why. With luck, she won’t remember my father, and for her sake, I’m glad. I don’t want these memories of him to linger in her mind as an adult.
“Happy birthday, Pop-Pop,” she says, her voice a tiny sound over the whir of the air conditioner.
I have to place the drawing between his two fingers, the only two that are still useful. The hands that once gripped a dozen motorcycle gears now stay folded in his lap, unable to clench anything heavier than this sheet of printer paper or the edge of his frayed blanket. He can’t look at the drawing; the stiff muscles in his neck won’t allow it, but the sensation of paper between his fingers seems to draw his attention. He grunts, muttering something I can’t understand as the paper begins to slip from his grasp. Because it will make my daughter happy, I prop the drawing on his nightstand. He will probably never notice it after we leave.
I’m no good at being a daughter to him now, and as my father’s disease progresses, it’s becoming painfully apparent. Aware that they probably track the infrequency of my visits, it’s getting harder for me to meet the eyes of the nurses. Avoidance has become the easiest route for me, preferable to the reality of meeting my father face-to-face. When I do visit, hugging is no longer tolerated by either of us, so today I pull a cold metal folding chair from the corner and take a seat across the room.
He doesn’t speak now, and he doesn’t smile. He can’t, despite how much I might want him to. He can only look me in the eye with a cold stare, offering up random mumbles that I like to think are his way of saying hello.
“So, you’re 67 today, huh,” I say, struggling to find words, any words.
He doesn’t respond, but I knew he wouldn’t. Conversation never happens in this room, but we were never much good at that anyway.
“Do you still have that old copy of Fahrenheit 451?” I remember asking one random Sunday afternoon before his diagnosis. Books were one of the few things we could talk about, in addition to classical music and the occasional scary movie.
“It’s in the closet. Take it with you if you want,” he offered, turning a page in the newspaper he made a marathon of pouring through every Sunday. “Did you ever read Asimov?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Seems too heavy for me.”
The conversation ended there, a quick exchange, as ours always were. Most of our time together was plagued with disagreement, if we emerged from our shells to talk at all. So we tended to stay quiet, the easiest way to endure one another’s presence. It’s one of our growing similarities, the ones I’m noticing more and more as I advance into adulthood. We’re two introverts who prefer the sound of silence to our own voices. Lately, that’s a good thing.
He blinks, his eyes drooping as he drifts off into a sudden sleep. Most days, that’s all he does, and I’m left with no option but to watch him doze, wondering what his dreams are like. If they’re good ones, he’ll be himself again, young and walking on his own two feet, maybe tinkering with a bike, my brothers and I nearby, probably driving him crazy, the way we always did before he forgot our names. For my own peace of mind, I like to think that his dreams are exactly like this, maybe even better. If I’m right, then I understand why he sleeps so much, and I can’t blame him.
“Mommy?” my daughter whispers, motioning for me to lean down to where she sits on the floor, tinkering with a toy phone and her small purse. “Is Pop-Pop sleeping?”
I nod, putting one finger to my lips. “Yeah, so let’s be really quiet, okay?”
She nods with a solemn child’s understanding and goes back to her phone.
I’m still watching him, fiddling with my own phone to pass the time. When I look at his sunken cheeks and sallow skin, I sometimes wonder if this is really my father, the man slumped in the wheelchair or lying curled like a fetus in bed. This isn’t the veteran with an engineer’s mind, the man who gave me hour-long lectures on the importance of checking my engine oil, before accepting my mechanical limitations and doing it himself. This man is a stranger to me, just as I am to him.
A drop of saliva escapes from the corner of his mouth and I leave it there, incapable of removing it for him. The nurses do that, along with feeding him pureed meals, one bite and sip at a time. I fight back the pangs of guilt that plague me in his presence. I’m terrified of him, though I can’t say why. I’m afraid to come too close, even to touch his arm. Instead I hang back, choosing to keep my distance from the man I used to hug goodbye every Sunday afternoon.
A few minutes pass and his eyes flutter open. Wild-eyed, he stares at me.
“Still just me, Dad,” I say with a small wave, offering up a forced smile that’s getting harder and harder to bring forth. He blinks at me a few times, looks down at his granddaughter and then back to me, the wild look slowly dissipating.
Sometimes he gets angry, fighting the nurses with what little muscle he has left. Only in those moments am I reminded that this man is, in fact, my father, the man who used a string of obscenities when he taught me to drive a manual transmission, before finally forcing me to give up the driver’s seat in a gas station parking lot. Part of me needs to see this high-tempered side of him again. Another part of me needs to see him laugh. It was never a frequent occurrence, but when, rarely, a joke struck him as funny, his cheeks turned pink and he would smile, an apprehensive, uncontrolled sort of smile that I know I will never see again.
His eyes close again now, and I snap a photo of him with my phone, adding to a growing collection that I’ve been taking every time I come to visit. I’m recording his decline in pictures, documenting it for family members who can’t see it for themselves. My daughter taps me on the leg again, motioning me back down to her level.
“Mommy, Pop-Pop’s tired.” She says it with a determined nod, pointing to him with a short, skinny finger. She’s behaving well on this visit, giving me a few minutes of blessed quiet as I watch him sleep.
“I know,” I assure her again, checking the time for the tenth time in five minutes.
My visit to the funeral home took place over a year ago and here he is, outliving expectations day by day. For me, it’s no surprise. He was always stubborn, and that trait persists, despite his decline. Deep down, I know that each day only prolongs the inevitable. His voice lingers in the back of my mind, remarking on his fear of one day becoming a burden.
“If I ever end up like that,” he once said, nodding towards an elderly man sucking from a tank of oxygen, “just shoot me and get it over with.”
I was a teenager then, and Parkinson’s wasn’t on his horizon yet, the diagnosis still a few years in the making. Even then, the signs were there, evident in the stiffening hands that he blamed on arthritis. Now, as he lives out his final days here, his fears have become a reality, and I’m reminded again that his dementia is in many ways a blessing. My father will never know where this disease has taken him.
When his eyes open again, I can’t bear his presence any longer. I tell him a lie, one he probably doesn’t hear and won’t remember, anyway. “Peanut has to go pee, Dad. We’re going to have to go. I’ll see you later though, okay? Go back to sleep.”
My daughter is the only one to say goodbye when we leave. I won’t say it and he can’t. Not saying goodbye makes it easier to go, as if our visit is not cut short but suspended, hanging on the edge of a cliff.
I’ll be back in a few days to pick up where we left off. Visit by visit, over the murmur of the television mounted on his wall, we’ll watch each other from across the room, two strangers sharing a space for a little while, before my memories are all that remain of him.
Until then, I’ll still be there, and so will he, dangling at the edge of that cliff.