My husband must feel really guilty about not stopping to get me ice cream last night because now, driving back home after a week of vacation, three days in Washington DC, trekking our boys from monument to monument, in and out of museums where their glazed over eyes looked only to get back out to the sunshine to complain about walking from monument to monument, and then three days in Maryland for a two day baseball tournament in the cold and rain where we lost but went down fighting, he has just asked me, with no arm twisting or reasonably subtle hinting on my part, if I want to stop to visit my father.
Of course I don’t want to stop. We’ve been on the road for hours, but I know it would perk up his day, maybe his week. So I accept the bone my husband has just thrown me, because even though it doesn’t come with chocolate sprinkles, it was very sweet, and not an easy gesture for him.
Emerging from the car, we stretch out like newly popped corn then make our way to his apartment. My boys look at each other with crooked sideway smiles while we wait, listening to the clanking and shouting coming from the other side of the door to let us know that he’s having some troubles, that he can’t even manage to open the door without issue.
Finally, the lock turns and we stand face to face; the five of us looking in on a narrow, cluttered hallway with my father blocking the way, not really meeting our eye since he is hunched over his walker and turned away.
“Hi dad,” I mumble, wanting to kiss him hello but there is some kind of chocolate smudge around his mouth that makes me not want to. Thankfully, the children barrel in and divert his attention. I am saved.
“I have comics for you,” he says and awkwardly moves to follow them, but the wheel of his walker catches on one of the many stacks of books carpeting his floor and he almost pitches over.
“Dad!” I call out, even as he rights himself. As usual, I am tense being here, even more so, watching him maneuver in this unmanageable space. “You have too much stuff on the floor.”
“I know,” he says. “I fell again yesterday.” The ‘again’ hangs like bait but I grind my teeth together.
“Can I move them?” I ask, sucking in deep breaths.
“Hurt myself bad…” He mumbles, talking more to himself. “Not as bad as the other time…”
“Can I move them?” I ask again. This time he hears me and shakes his head.
“No. I’m working through them. They’re not done.”
I sigh but let it go. He’s been ‘working through’ his thousands of collected books and tapes for decades. It’s a tired, old argument.
“I have comic books,” He repeats and my oldest son, bless him, comes over and feigns interest, but unfortunately my father is too busy searching for approval, for something to offer, to notice.
I follow him as he hunts while my family huddles uncomfortably in between chairs, books and boxes, looking for somewhere to escape but there is nowhere to go.
“Dad,” I suggest, and will myself to infuse some warmth into my tone, “Why don’t we go down to the community room for more space.” I’m not sure if I succeeded.
“Okay,’ he agrees and before he can even swivel his walker around, my husband and children have bolted. I wait while he looks for his keys, muttering something about the lost comics. I don’t hurry him. It only stresses him and doesn’t make things go any faster. Finally, he finds them and I step into the hallway to push the elevator button while he locks up.
I watch him, fiddling with the keys, his elbows leaning heavily on the handles of his walker, and even though I know it’s him, I don’t recognize him. He is old at 71. He is unwell, both physically and mentally. He is struggling to hold on but keeps falling.
He wheels himself down toward me, his face lined but full with excess weight, his eyes a murky green, his body hunched and twisted. I am sad for him. So very sad. I might not even be able to wait until I’m alone to cry.
The elevator door opens.
I want to kiss him but I let the chocolate stop me.