While Mom was in the nursing home, Dad always ate Christmas dinner with her and the other residents. The rest of the family visited them after dinner in one of the private meeting rooms near the reception center. We gave her our gifts and, to make it a special occasion, served eggnog and pie – pumpkin, apple, and pecan. After cleaning up and bringing Mom back to her room, we left the rest of the pies for the nursing staff.
After her death, we assumed Dad would have Christmas dinner at our house with Leslie and her children. We assured him that one of us would drive him home as soon as he was tired. He said he’d like to come, but later said he was undecided, then finally declined. We promised to stop by that afternoon. He said he looked forward to seeing us and promised that coffee would be waiting.
I think of him waking alone on Christmas morning hearing church bells ring from the five steeples seen from his kitchen window. He’ll have no tree, no presents to open, no one to whom he can wish Merry Christmas. Maybe he doesn’t care. He’ll sit on the edge of his bed making sure he isn’t dizzy, his feet are secure in his slippers, and his bathrobe, hanging on the bed post, is within reach. Before getting out of bed, he’ll take an inventory of his aches and pains. “Got to make sure I’m alive before I stand up.”
Perhaps he won’t remember it’s Christmas. It may sound like any Sunday morning with the church bells ringing. He’ll shave, dress in a clean shirt and slacks, and look out the kitchen window to check the weather. He’ll prepare the same breakfast he’s made for years: Cheerios with a sliced banana and strong coffee with half-and-half. No sugar. He’ll eat while watching parishioners enter the church on the corner.
After the meal, he’ll fill his water bottle and take the first round of pills. He’ll take the elevator to the first floor and pick up his newspaper in the lobby. I’ve told him several times the paper can be delivered to his door, but he won’t hear of it. “I need the exercise and it’s the only time I get to meet the neighbors.”
He’ll drink a second cup of coffee while reading the paper, but even with all that coffee, he often dozes in his recliner. “Nodding off three times is the signal to lie down and take a nap.” At noon, he gets up and makes lunch. “Half the day gone right there.” He speaks with the satisfaction of having completed a demanding task.
Two days before Christmas, Jon drives in from upstate New York and helps Rachel decorate the tree. Jennifer and her husband, Declan, drive down from Vermont on Christmas Eve. We sleep late in the morning, I play carols on the radio, and we enjoy a leisurely brunch before opening gifts.
Calling Dad, we take turns wishing him a Merry Christmas. It’s not a short call. We must often repeat what we say or talk louder. Sometimes he’s hard to understand but after asking “What?” too many times, we agree with him and hope it’s the correct answer. I end the call by reminding him that he’s invited for dinner. “Thanks, but no.” He’ll become angry if I harp on his doing something he’s made up his mind not to do. “Okay. We’ll see you midafternoon.”
Leslie and her kids arrive for dinner. Over dessert, we discuss plans to visit Dad. Rachel and Jennifer’s husband elect to remain home and clean up. “With Leslie and the kids going, there’ll be more than enough confusion.” Relieved of doing dishes, the rest of us don’t try to change their minds.
Normally Rachel would come with us, but Dad didn’t recognize her when she arrived for a visit on Thanksgiving. She saw the momentary confusion in his eyes and doesn’t want to cause any unnecessary anxiety on Christmas. “I’ll visit after Christmas. Don’t leave until I make up a couple of plates with leftovers. They’ll be easy for him to heat up next week.”
We drive to his apartment in two cars. My niece, Elaine, drives the cousins in her mother’s car. I imagine our children taking the opportunity to kibitz: “Guess what Mom wants us to do?” her kids might say. Our kids counter with a facetious remark about Rachel or me, or both of us.
Leslie gets into my car. “Dad didn’t sound so hot on the phone this morning,” Before I can answer, she struggles to buckle her seatbelt. “What’s the matter with it?” She pulls the strap back and forth trying to find the lock. It clicks. She leans back, sighing from the exertion. “Now I can’t remember what I was going to say.” Once we’re on the highway, she turns to me. “We need to move Dad to assisted living. He can’t care for himself alone in that apartment any longer.”
“He’ll never agree to move—”
“Then we must convince him.” Leslie logically examines a problem and makes a rational decision. Only then does she consider reality to implement her solution. I’m the exact opposite, so busy worrying about what people think of my ideas that I can’t reach a reasonable resolution.
“What if the elevator breaks down again?” Leslie asks. “Last summer he’d have been trapped like a rat if I hadn’t taken him in. Thank God for Elaine’s help. And yours too, with the shopping.” Unexpected problems dragged out the repair work for three weeks. Caring for Dad wore Leslie out despite her daughter’s help.
She’s right about the urgency to move him to assisted living. Will it be as easy as the last move? This time he has fewer belongings, but his room will be too small for more than his bed, a bureau, his recliner and a table for the television. We’ll sell or donate everything else including Mom’s clothes.
Her bedroom and closet remain just as they were when she went to the nursing home. When dementia set in and it was obvious she’d never come home, Dad didn’t have the heart to change anything. Perhaps even now he senses her presence in her bedroom, and this helps him get through the day. Does he lie on her bed and hold a scarf or a blouse to his face? All that will end when he moves one last time.
“Those places are damned expensive,” Leslie says, “but with his pension and social security, we can swing it, if we both contribute to make ends meet.
We’ll have to lie about the cost, or he’ll never agree to leave. Even then, we’ll have to pry his fingers off the doorknob on the way out.”
We both can’t help laughing. I offer a solution. “We’ll forfeit his security deposit, take the apartment door off its hinges and move it with him.”
“I’ll start looking.” Leslie is like a bulldog with her eye on a bone. She’ll line up six facilities by the New Year, with a comparison of costs and amenities in a spreadsheet. I’m grateful she takes the initiative. If left up to me, I’d procrastinate hoping everything would work out for the best.
I park the car and follow Leslie into the apartment building. I wonder what she expects I can contribute ‘to make ends meet.’ Rachel and I are wiped out after paying for two college educations. We didn’t qualify for financial help.
Leslie had it easier financially. Elaine, a high school hockey star, won an athletic scholarship that overlooked her so-so grades. Palmer, her son, attends a university in the mid-West which awards scholarships to attract students from the two coasts. I try not to be bitter, but the harsh truth is Rachel and I face retirement in five or six years.
The kids have arrived before us. I’m thankful to hear their laughter fill the living room. Their grandfather stands by his recliner, still bent from sitting. He always takes his time straightening up, afraid that moving too fast might break something.
His shirt is ironed, and his slacks pressed. The laundry delivers his clothes once a week and the son of the owner carries them up and hangs them in his closet. “And he won’t accept a tip!” Dad still parts his hair in a way that reminds me of movie stars in the forties. He’s shaved. Despite his neat appearance, his thinness alarms me. His shirt hangs from his shoulders as if on a hanger.
The grandchildren have kissed him and found places to sit. Leslie and I embrace him, and he sinks gratefully back into his chair.
“Rachel made up some dinners for you. I’ll put them in the fridge.”
He cups his hand around his ear. “Say what?”
Louder. “Rachel sent some dinners for you.”
“Put them in the icebox.”
Icebox? He hasn’t seen one of those since the thirties. I find the refrigerator filled with food. Has he been eating?
Jon is describing his new computer simulation game. My son is tall, with dark hair, athletic, and handsome. Luckily for him, he’s only like me in height and hair color. His sister and cousins fidget listening to him. Dad is enjoying his grandson’s explanation and pretends to understand him but never having used a computer, he has no idea what he’s talking about. I interrupt Jon by signaling him to wrap up his dissertation.
“Who wants to hand out Granddad’s gifts?”
My nephew Palmer raises his hand. I pass the shopping bag to him.
“You’re Santa Claus this year, are you?” Dad is pleased to be the center of attention.
Palmer smiles. He is quiet, artistic, always agreeable, unlike his father, a gregarious Irishman, who died when Palmer was six. My nephew tends to stand apart and observe people rather than join in. It makes sense that he’s the family photographer.
He hands Dad his first gift. Leslie leans forward when he holds up two pairs of slacks. “Tell me if they’re not the right size. I can exchange them.”
Dad has trouble finding the tag. He puts on his glasses to read it. This takes a minute. “They’re fine. I can cinch my belt until I put on more weight.”
He opens the presents from the kids: two books about World War II, his favorite subject. One book tells the story of the British team that broke the German Ultra code; the other is about the war in the Pacific. I picked them up at the bookstore for the kids. “Have you read them? These were published this year, so we should be safe.”
Dad has opened one book to read the flap. The room is silent as if he’s sampling a vintage wine, and the fate of the winery hangs in the balance. He raises the book and shakes it. “Looks good. The Germans thought their code was impenetrable and didn’t use the full capacity of their Enigma machine.” He hefts the second hardcover in his other hand, pretending to bench press them. “I’ll get my exercise reading these. Thanks, guys.”
The last package is from Rachel and me: an air purifier from Restoration Hardware. “This will help when the pollen starts to bother you. The machine is light enough to move to your bedroom at night.”
Dad uses an inhaler during the allergy season which, for him, lasts from spring through fall. On bad days, he’s short of breath and can’t leave his apartment. He rarely complains, but he’s frustrated when an elevated level of pollen lasts more than two days. “The damn pollen wears me out.”
“I’ll set up the purifier next time I visit.” I pray the controls are easier to understand than those on his DVD player which baffle him.
Palmer is setting up his tripod. “Time for pictures.” Elaine rolls her eyes. Playing hockey has made her strong and healthy, but she’s self-conscious and doesn’t think of herself as pretty, despite what Leslie says. I tell her she’ll feel better once her braces are off next year.
Palmer moves an armchair opposite the picture window. “Grampy, you sit here.” Leslie helps Dad into the chair. From the expression on her face, I see she’s also shocked at how thin he is. When she sees me watching her, she shakes her head.
“Uncle Mark, stand behind Grampy with Jon. Mom, sit here.” Palmer pushes a hassock beside the chair with his foot. “Jenn kneel there. Elaine and I will stand on the other side.” He zooms in and out trying to include us all in the frame. He draws the sheer curtains to soften the harsh afternoon light. “We have ten seconds before it takes the picture.” He presses the time release button and, scooting over to his place, knocks the tripod. “Oh, shit.”
We all laugh. Elaine pretends she’s speaking to someone backstage, “Where’s the professional photographer we hired?”
“Ha, ha.” Palmer is good-natured. He repositions the tripod, sets the timer, and tiptoes back to his place beside his sister. “Ready, everyone?” The camera beeps, counting down the seconds. The flash blinks three times, then momentarily blinds us.
“Don’t move. I’m taking another one. Don’t forget to smile, Grampy.”
Dad grins showing all his teeth.
“You’ll break the camera, Gramps,” Jennifer jokes.
“When your grandmother sees the picture, she’ll say I look like Death warmed over.” I wonder if anyone else noticed his mistake.
“Here we go.” The wait seems longer this time. No one moves, our smiles become less and less natural. I imagine time is stopped. Everything will remain the same, nothing will change. Another blinding flash.
Photography finished, Dad stands with Palmer’s support. Leslie moves the armchair and hassock out of his way. Back in his recliner, Dad picks some envelopes off the end table and hands them to me. “It’s not much.” He says this every time he gives a check, but he’s always generous with the kids.
There are four envelopes, each with a name. “This one’s for Jennifer.” She steps forward to take it. “This is for you, Elaine.” I look at the third envelope. Puzzled, I show the last two envelopes to Leslie standing beside me. With his distinct printing, Dad has labeled one with Leslie’s name, the other with mine. I glance at the table hoping to see two envelopes for the boys. Dad appears far away, imagining something in his mind that’s more real than we are.
“This is for Jon.” I step closer to my son with a look that warns him to say nothing.
Leslie follows my lead. “And this is for you, Palmer.” Intuitive as ever, he’s already sensed something is out of sync.
“Thanks, Grampy,” Palmer speaks first, and the others chime in. The spell is broken. Dad looks up at them and laughs. “Don’t spend it all in one place.” But his laugh sounds tired and his face is drawn. I’m afraid the visit has worn him out. We won’t stay for coffee.
“We better head back.” I put on my coat. “They’re predicting more snow before evening.” I hate to leave, but the atmosphere is tense. The kids are relieved to be going home.
“Don’t get up, Dad.”
Ignoring Leslie, he stands. His knees creak. “Thanks for coming everyone and thanks for my presents. I’ll start one of the books tonight.”
The kids kiss him in turn, exchanging glances with one another. The girls already know about the gift mix-up. On the way back, they’ll discuss their grandfather’s lapse in memory. I’ll speak to them once we’re home. No doubt Leslie will have plenty to say in the car. I only want to forget what’s happened. And what it portends.
I’m last to embrace my father. “We love you.” I kiss him on the cheek. “I’ll call tomorrow to check if you need anything.”
“Take the newspapers down when you go.” Dad indicates a grocery bag standing by the door.
I hear the elevator bell and the doors opening. “The elevator’s here,” Jennifer calls from the hall.
“Jon, take these with you.” I point to the papers.
He gestures as if to say, “What am I supposed to do with them?”
“Recycling is in the basement.” I could have asked Palmer, but he’s carrying the camera equipment.
“Bye, Dad. Merry Christmas. Don’t forget the dinners in the refrigerator.”
The elevator buzzes its annoyance at my delay. Its doors slide open and close impatiently.
“Tell Rachel thanks.”
I close the apartment door gently. I imagine the silence gathering around him like fog. My God, arrangements to move him from the apartment must be made soon. Entering the elevator, I turn toward the doors as they close. They display the distorted reflection of everyone behind me.
I wish Dad was with us. I wish he was young, with my mother alive and laughing beside him, holding his arm. I wish I never had to make a decision about their lives.
As the elevator descends, no one says a word.
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