At three o’clock on Saturday, my sister calls from our parents’ home. “Mark, come here as soon as possible.” Leslie speaks softly but sounds desperate. This is unlike her. As a public relations director, she is unflappable. No emergency can disrupt her poise.
“Speak up. I can hardly hear you.”
“I’m at Mom and Dad’s. I found them in their nightclothes. They’ve been drinking.”
“Oh, dammit.” No sooner is one problem resolved, then up crops another.
“I know. I’ve been suspicious lately but couldn’t be sure. I hate to do this to you, but I’m taking clients out for dinner and I’ve got to get home.”
“I’ll drive over now.”
“Stop for some food on your way? There’s nothing in the frig and I doubt they’ve cooked in days. Get some yogurt, fruit, deli stuff to make sandwiches. Sliced thin. Not the processed stuff…” Her list grows. “…before I leave, I’ll explain Mom’s meds.”
“The shopping will hold me up.” I’m not complaining, but I’m hopeless in the market, constantly asking for directions. Usually what I’m looking for is right in front of me. “If it was a bear,” Mom is fond of saying, “he’d bite you.”
“Do the best you can.” Leslie sighs impatiently. “They’ve been sick. Look, I can’t talk now.”
Before I can ring the bell, Leslie opens the door, her coat on, ready to leave.
“What took you so long?”
I suppress a flash of irritation and briefly stick my head into the living room. “Hi, guys.”
“Oh, Mark, can you—?” That’s Dad.
“I’ll be right in. Let me put these bags down.”
The windows are wide open, an early autumn breeze lifts the curtains like streamers. An unpleasant odor lingers in the house.
“—close these windows?”
“Dad, I’ll be there in a sec.”
Leslie takes a bag of groceries. In the kitchen Mom’s dosage tray is on the counter. Leslie lowers her voice. “When I walked in, there was a terrible smell.” She grips my arm. “For a moment, I thought one of them had died. They were asleep on the sofa. I woke them and opened all the windows. I got Mom into a clean nightgown. God knows how long she’s been wearing the one I took off. Dad wants to take a shower, so I’ve left that for you. Remind him to use the rubber mat.”
Leslie is always organized. That’s why she’s successful, but she can be overbearing.
“The whole house needs a good cleaning. I hope the cleaner comes next week.” She frowns and bites her lip. There’s something more she wants to say. “Anyway, this is the story on her meds…”
Leslie kisses Mom and Dad goodbye. “See you tomorrow.”
At the door, she promises to call me when her dinner is over. She has another thought: “Now I remember. Check the dryer for clean clothes. Make sure there’s nothing damp in the washer.”
The door closes, and I take a deep breath.
In the living room, I kiss Mom. “I’ll boil some water for tea while I put away the groceries.” From the kitchen, I hear my father trying to close one of the windows. “Dad, I’ll do that.” I speak cheerfully as if this is a routine visit.
Mom is talking, but I can’t make out what she’s saying. Neither can Dad because he keeps asking “What, dear?” and “Say again?” He’s going deaf, but even with perfect hearing, he’d have trouble deciphering her words. How on earth do they communicate? The thought chills me: they’re like two people living alone, but in the same house.
“I made peppermint tea.” I carry in the tea tray trying to sound excited. “The doctor wants you to drink eight glasses of water a day.”
“Ha!” Dad grunts. “If I did that, I’d be on the pot all day.”
Mom laughs in agreement. “Me, too.”
“You don’t want your kidneys going on the fritz.” I pour tea into the mugs. “Sugar?”
Dad stirs in two teaspoons, spilling a few drops on his bathrobe. “Close that window before we catch our death.” He places Mom’s tea on the end table beside her, and then finds a straw in the drawer. “It’s tea, Harriet.”
“I know that,” she snaps.
Despite the mild weather, I close the two windows. They stick from accumulated paint. “The tea will warm you up in no time.”
Dad slurps his tea. “Ahh…hits the spot. Harriet and I came down with a bug this week.”
“Why didn’t you call Leslie or me? We’d have come by to help.”
He shrugs. “Thought we’d be better in a day or two. Besides you’re busy with your own lives—”
I interrupt. “We’ve told you to call us when you need help. We’re practically around the corner.” I exaggerate. With traffic, the trip can take forty-five minutes. There’s no quick way into Arlington.
“We thought we were getting better.”
“Have you been taking your pills?” I ask Mom.
Dad speaks before she can respond. “Oh, yes. We might have forgotten once.”
“Did Madison prescribe anything?”
“I told you. We thought we were getting better.” He’s annoyed under my cross examination.
So, they never called the doctor. While preparing the tea, I found a bottle in the trash bin. Why ask for a prescription when you have liquor?
I change the subject. “When you’ve finished your tea, I’ll help you with your shower.”
“I can help myself. That’s why I added those bars on the wall.”
Mom starts laughing. “He doesn’t want you to see his dinky,” but she doesn’t pronounce her words clearly and I think she says “binky.”
I can’t help joking. “I hope his dinky isn’t a binky.”
“I said “dinky,” but I’ll never tell.” Mom closes her mouth and pretends to lock her lips. She tosses the key over her shoulder.
“I should wash your mouths out with soap.” Dad’s never appreciated Mom’s off-color jokes.
Where did she got her bawdy sense of humor? Her mother was not one for risqué repartee. She became angry with me as a child if I said anything that displeased her. Even “Oh, my God,” earned a rebuke.
Dad carries his mug out to the kitchen. He’s tall, almost my height of six feet, but he walks with a stoop. He starts up the stairs. One tie of his bathrobe drags on the floor.
“Let me fix this.” I kneel to adjust the tie. I hope he’ll shave. Not shaving is a predictor that something’s wrong. He never misses a day unless he’s ill or on a camping trip.
I sit on the coffee table and hold her mug, so Mom can sip the tea through a straw. Her hands shake. If she tries to hold the mug, she’ll spill it. She needs one of those hats with a tube that frat boys use to drink beer.
“I bought a chicken pot pie for dinner. From Harrow’s. Your favorite.”
“Sound’s good.” She licks her lips.
I want to ask when she last had a decent meal. This is Dad’s fault. When Mom cooked less and less over the years, Dad assumed cooking and cleaning up. And food shopping. Leslie and I will have a problem if, after eight years on the wagon, they’re drinking again. Is this a one-time lapse or have they been lying to us?
I’m somewhat sorry for Dad. Mom probably nagged him to get her a ‘drinky’ – a sherry or a gin and vermouth. In the end, he’d give in, not that it would be hard to convince him. He’d have a drink ‘to keep her company’ and then inevitably switch to vodka, scotch, or whiskey. If not for Leslie’s visit today, we’d never have known they’d broken their promise to stop. How naive we were to think that one conversation could solve the problem. Social drinking was always part of their lives. Over the years it got out of hand.
When Leslie comes tomorrow, we’ll have to sit down and have the conversation all over again. So much harder confronting parents than a teenage child. What if they don’t stop? Can we trust Dad with the keys to the car? I can’t think about this now. One day at a time.
I carry the rest of the groceries in from my car and put the milk, ice cream, and frozen food in the fridge. I leave the rest on the counter. I no longer remember where everything is stored, and I hope seeing the food will rekindle their appetites. I place the frozen pot pie on a cookie sheet in the oven and set the timer. I take out the trash and collect the newspapers for recycling. Opening the dishwasher, I turn away. That’s the source of the odor. I add soap and turn it on. I wipe down the counters, stove and table with Lysol. My wife Rachel would be proud of me.
Crossing the hall, I hear the shower upstairs. Dad closes the shower curtain with one swipe, the hooks rattling in protest. Shit! I forgot to mention the rubber mat. I listen carefully. No sound of him slipping in the tub. So far so good. An example of my dark streak of humor.
Mom hasn’t moved since I left her. She’s the shortest member of the family. With green eyes and high cheekbones, and with her teeth in, she’s still pretty despite the wrinkles. I remember her thin waist and high heels. As a child, I cracked my head on her bureau trying to walk in her heels.
“Do you need to use the bathroom?” I hope Leslie took care of this before she left.
Mom shakes her head.
“How about some TV before dinner?”
“It’s Saturday. Nothing good’s on.” I try to find a decent movie but remember they only have basic cable. As a Christmas present two years ago, Leslie and I gave them a subscription to HBO. I doubt they ever watched it, and after a year the subscription expired.
While I worked on my homework after coming home from high school, the quiz shows’ theme songs, Mom’s laughter, and the emcees’ voices were a familiar backdrop. Her favorite shows were Password and Hollywood Squares. She always watched them with a glass of wine. I often took a break and joined her at the end of a show for the final challenge. She was disappointed when the show ended, and I returned upstairs.
I sit beside the fireplace across from Mom. She stares at me, waiting for me to speak. “We got a letter from Jon. He’s in Japan. Teaching English.” I drop clues like breadcrumbs, waiting for her to pick up the trail.
She twists her ear lobe between her fingers as if trying to find a station on the radio. I wait for my information to catch hold. But she looks at me as if I’m speaking Japanese.
“He’s a teacher’s aide, isn’t he? Will he be home for Christmas?”
I’m encouraged that she remembers. Maybe she’s not in an early stage of Alzheimer’s after all. Leslie suspects that Mom is too lazy to try and remember the past. I believe that, having difficulty making herself understood, she’s given up trying to answer.
“He won’t be home for the holidays. The flight’s too expensive, and he’d only be here a short while. I told him to travel on his vacation. He says Japanese kids aren’t as studious as we think they are. The teachers can’t keep order in the classroom. Jennifer said—”
So much for ‘Thank-God-there’s-no-dementia.’
“Jennifer. Your granddaughter.”
“I know that. I didn’t catch the name. She’s in Ireland.”
“That’s right. She married Declan.”
“Did I meet this...Declan?”
“Remember we hired a limo to drive you and Dad to the church? You met him at the wedding.”
Sometimes talking with Mom is like rehearsing a play by Harold Pinter.
A car stops in front of the house. Thank God! Leslie cancelled her dinner plans and has returned. But it’s only the mailman. A moment later the truck moves on to the next house.
I stand. “The mail’s here.”
“Don’t bother. Nothing good comes in the mail.”
Outside, I stoop to look inside the mailbox. A voice startles me. “Are you their son?”
The mailman is delivering mail on the other side of the street. He leans awkwardly across the front seat. “I was worried. They haven’t picked up their mail for days.”
“They’ve been sick. I only found out today.”
“I thought they were away and forgot to put a hold on their mail. Hope they’re feeling better.” He takes his foot off the brake, and the truck rolls toward the next house.
The box is stuffed. How many days has it been? I pry the mail out, one magazine at a time. Letters fall to the ground. I attempt to carry all of it in a single trip, but a catalog slides out, pulling a stack of envelopes with it. I stumble on the stairs. More mail scatters across the porch.
God damn it. I’m angry with my father. What have they been doing besides drinking? I open the front door. The shower is still running. If he doesn’t turn it off soon, I’ll need to check on him.
“What was that noise?” Mom asks from the living room.
“I dropped the mail.”
I sit on the front steps to sort the mail. During my early teens, I sat here reading Agatha Christie mysteries. Neighbors said ‘hi’ or waved as they walked or drove by. Over forty years ago! I examine each house on the street, taking a census. Every neighbor I knew has died or moved away. Only my parents are still here. I don’t remember what’s become of all the kids in the neighborhood, except for the Robinson boy who lived on the corner. He was two years older and once gave me a ride home from school on his motor bike. He died in college. Fell from a dorm window. Drugs. I remember seeing his father walk home from the bus stop in his trench coat and hat staring at the ground, in a world of his own. The family moved that summer.
I separate the mail into piles – advertisements, magazines, letters, bills, junk. I’m sad, the shock of time passing claws at my throat. I close my eyes. The neighborhood as it was years ago appears fully realized in my mind. The houses are smaller without the added rooms and dormers. Two oak trees stand in front of our house. The row of hedges planted between the Donnellys and the McGhees are only a foot high. The faint shouts of kids in someone’s backyard, a radio playing a ballgame, someone practicing the piano, the clicking of a bicycle at the end of the street.
I lived in this house from first grade until I left for college and have only returned for holidays and the summer before I enlisted in the Air Force. Those years are another lifetime. This house will always be ‘home’ for me. Tears fill my eyes. Why do I think of those years with sadness? Is it only mawkish sentimentality? The old neighborhood has disappeared, now only a memory. How cruel to be given life to enjoy, only to lose it piece by piece as we grow old.
Those feelings of loss are replaced by concern for my parents. Too often, visiting them seemed like a chore: with little to say, trying to keep the children from misbehaving, gauging the time when we could leave without appearing to rush away. Those years have blown away and—
“Thanks for getting the mail.” Dad stands in the doorway. “Aren’t you cold sitting there?” The storm door squeals as he pushes it open. “I’ll take the bills.”
I hand them to my father. I don’t look up fearing my eyes are red. I clear my throat which aches painfully. “I’ll bring in the rest.” I stand, and the sadness drains away as fast as it came. It’s all chemicals in the brain. I have a healthy and happy life, but I’d never want to relive it if offered the opportunity. The future is waiting for me in the living room.
Dad is dressed in slacks and a long-sleeve shirt. He’s shaved, his face shiny and his wet hair plastered against his skull. I smell the shampoo from across the living room. He sits at a card table by the fireplace wielding a letter opener shaped like a Turkish scimitar. With a swipe, he slits each envelope, reads its contents and then either tears it in two or staples the letter to its envelope. The card table is his ‘desk’ with checkbook, credit card receipts, envelopes, stamps, and stapler organized by an engineer: everything aligned for maximum efficiency without sacrificing geometric symmetry.
“Can I help—oh!” Something brushes against my leg. It’s Snowflake, their cat of indeterminate lineage. She jumps onto the card table landing precisely on the pile of bills. Jet black except for a white spot beside her nose. When company arrived, Dad always enjoyed calling “Snowflake” and watching their expressions when a black cat streaked between their legs into the house.
“She wants to write the checks.” Mom laughs. I wish she’d put her false teeth in.
“Say what?” Dad cups his hand around his good ear. Amazing how often he positions himself with his deaf ear toward her. He’s examining a bill and hasn’t noticed the cat.
“Mom said Snowflake wants to help write the checks.” I speak slowly.
“I’ll write the checks later.” Dad raises his voice as if Mom is hard of hearing.
“No, Snowflake wants—oh never mind.” Mom clamps her mouth shut, glaring at him. She’s bored with her own joke and blames my father. She’s testy if he doesn’t appreciate her stories.
I pick up the cat and place her on Mom’s lap. Snowflake slowly turns in a circle, pushing at Mom with her paws, her claws picking at her bathrobe.
“She’s trying to soften you up.”
Mom twists her mouth to one side. “Dad’s too bony. The cat can’t get comfortable on him.” She strokes Snowflake who raises her back. Her purring roars like a jet engine. I want to close my eyes and lie on my back, soothed by the sound.
“They’re charging me interest?” In disbelief, Dad throws the bill onto the table. “I paid that on time, dammit. And look, there’s a fifteen-dollar penalty.”
I pick up the bill. There’s no record of a payment the previous month. Dad searches through his checkbook. Mom and I watch in suspense. “Here it is.”
I look over his shoulder and see that the date is two months ago. This will obsess him until it’s straightened out. “You finish opening the mail. I’ll call the company and find out what’s up.”
Dad calms down. “If they give you any trouble, I’ll get on the horn and tell them what’s up.”
I call from the kitchen. As I suspect, he missed a payment. I lower my voice and explain to the woman that my father is eighty-two-years old. “He gets confused at times.”
“I understand, sir.”
Blah, blah, blah. I give her Dad’s checking account info. “Will you also reverse the late fee?”
“Of course, sir.” A moment of silence. “I’ve posted the credit. I see your father has been a loyal card holder for twenty years. He’s eligible to upgrade and earn travel awards—”
“My father isn’t going anywhere.”
“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
I assure her I’m all set and hang up before she asks me to take a quick survey.
After checking the pot pie, I return to the living room. “It’s all straightened out. You missed a payment, but they’ve waived the fee and interest.”
Dad slumps in his chair. I’m about to say I’ve signed him up for automatic bill payment but decide against it. His pride is hurt, but it’s not like he designed a bridge that collapsed. Cold comfort for an engineer to whom accuracy to the tenth decimal is second nature. He takes these moments of forgetfulness to heart and will be withdrawn the rest of the afternoon.
When Dad returned home after WWII, he looked for his first job. Trained as a mechanical engineer at the University of Maine, he joined Stone & Webster in Boston. Dad considered himself fortunate to have a job in a solid company with health benefits, a two-week vacation, and a retirement pension. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for a man to work at the same company for his entire career. Dad was no different: he remained with S&W until his retirement.
Just as I’m about to serve dinner, the telephone rings. Dad answers it on the living room extension. I listen to find out who’s calling, but my father’s voice is too low. “Mark, it’s for you.”
“How are things going there.” Rachel is home from her shift at the hospital. “I saw your note.”
“Leslie called earlier and asked me to take over down here. I’m about to serve dinner.”
“You mentioned they were sick.”
“They’re over the worst of it. Hey, why don’t you come for dinner?”
“I’m desperate for a hot shower and put my legs up, but I’ll come by later this evening.”
“No, no. Go to bed early. I’ve got things under control. See you around noon.”
“I have another shift tomorrow at three.”
The timer on the stove buzzed. “I’d better get their dinner. See you tomorrow.”
After I serve Mom, Dad cuts her chicken into smaller pieces. “Make sure you chew it good,” he warns her. Mom is eating before I return from the kitchen with my own plate. She concentrates on her food as if she hasn’t eaten in a week. I’m pleased that I bought something she likes.
During the meal, I’m reassuring Dad that having his bills paid automatically from his checking account is not a scam. “You won’t have to write a check every month.” He warms to the idea.
Mom drop her fork on her plate. When she gags, Dad jumps up to pound on her back. Her throat heaves, she takes a breath, and the food slowly overflows from her mouth. Like a student’s volcano project. Dad grabs a napkin to keep it off the rug. I’m rooted in fascinated horror. Dad guides her toward the bathroom. He motions me to continue eating. “We’ll be back.”
Dinner is over.
The wind has died down and the evening is warm. The top of the maple tree is on fire in the remaining sunlight, but the porch under the canopy of leaves is in shadow. Dad plugs in the bug zapper and returns inside to get Mom’s sweater. Finally, everyone is seated and settled with coffee, but no one speaks.
These long intervals of silence are not unusual. Dad is not much of a talker, unless the subject is wood working, camping, model railroads, or sailing. I didn’t share his interests. Instead I read novels, acted in plays, and listened to classical music. We lived parallel lives, intersecting on family vacations or when I had a question about math or physics.
The breeze picks up and the leaves twirl at the end of their branches. “Looks like rain,” Dad says. Mom pulls her sweater closer. “Are you cold?” She shakes her head and closes her eyes.
When Mom and Dad return inside to go to bed, I check the basement and empty the dryer into a laundry basket. In the washer, the clothes smell of mildew. I dial a quick cycle to refresh them. Coming up the stairs with the dry clothes, I hear my father cursing. Mom has stumbled going up the stairs and Dad can’t manage to lift her up.
It’s not the first time this has happened.
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