One day over the summer, as my daughters and I were passing through my parents’ apartment on our way to the back yard, we noticed, through the windows, that the next-door neighbors were pulling up all the grass from their yard and putting in Astroturf. My father, who lives downstairs from us and whose kitchen we always have to walk through if we want to enter or exit by our back door, was sitting in his usual chair in a V-necked T-shirt stained with spaghetti sauce and a pair of boxer shorts, reading Star magazine. He was, at that time, eighty-seven years old. He ignored us as we passed behind him on the stairs. He was reading aloud to himself about Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.
Though I should have known better, for some strange reason I said, “Look, Dad. The Victorines are putting fake grass in their yard.”
My father looked up abruptly. He had not realized we were there, and seemed surprised to see us. His eyes followed my pointing finger and he saw the neighbors laying their Astroturf. “What the hell are they doing out there?” he asked.
“Putting in fake grass,” I repeated. I had already been speaking loudly, but now I raised my voice loud enough that the neighbors themselves probably could hear the conversation. Bartender ear, my mother called this back in the days when my father’s not seeming to hear anything we said was elective on his part. He had listened to drunks repetitive ramblings for so many years that he learned simply to tune voices out. He lived to a private Stan Getz riff in his head.
Now he looked at me accusingly. “Fake rats?” he shouted. “What do you mean, fake rats?”
My daughters started laughing. “Fake grass!” they shouted in unison. “Fake grass, Papa! Grass.”
“Grass,” I explained, over them. “You know, green stuff that grows on the ground.”
But my father wasn’t looking at us, which may have meant that, since he couldn’t see our lips moving, he didn’t even know we were speaking to him. Some days, his ears work better than others, but those days are fewer and farther between.
“Fake rats!” he cried indignantly. “What do they want to do something like that for?”
“Dad,” I began. My daughters and I were all, I confess, basically guffawing into our hands by then. “Dad, not rats! Nobody wants fake rats on their lawn. We’re talking about grass. G-R-A-S-S!”
“Jesus Christ,” my father said, turning back to Lohan and Hilton in Star. He was finished with us and was muttering to himself under his breath. “Fake rats,” he hissed, shaking his head while his eyes perused the pictures of twentysomething celebrities. “I never heard of such a thing.”
My father was not always like this. He used to wear a Brooks Brothers raincoat. He used to have a penchant for tea and marmalade—while other Italian men in our blue collar neighborhood wanted to be Brando, or just Joey Iupa, my father the Anglophile aspired to Cary Grant. Though he went bald in his early twenties, he never had that greasy look some men get. He always smelled good, of Polo cologne. I suspect that, to ward off any appearance of shine, he used to use Old Spice powder on his head.
About ten years ago, my mother began speaking to me in a conspiratorial tone. She began opening conversations with lines like, “Your father has bought this cookie jar in the shape of a suckling pig and is keeping it on his dresser. It has no cookies in it—he just thinks it’s a nice decoration.”
A product of the Great Depression, my father began to hoard cans of ravioli under his bed.
His hearing failed, but he insisted my mother and I merely mumbled. When we insisted this was not the case he said, “Oh Jesus Christ, you two never say anything interesting anyway.”
Apropos of nothing, he would sometimes rail about things like why pregnant women wear skimpy tops. “See, here’s Gwenyth Paltrow from a magazine and even she looks like shit, women shouldn’t do that!–don’t they know how bad it looks?” His face would grow red with frustration when in thirty-five years of knowing him I had never before heard him voice an opinion on maternity fashion, or anything to do with pregnancy, or really even raise his voice except when driving.
One day five years ago, he couldn’t move his foot–which was already riddled by peripheral neuropathy so that he experiences his feet as “round,” without the feeling of his toes or heels—off the gas pedal and had to drive his car into a sign post to avoid harming anyone on the road. After that he didn’t drive anymore, and my mother, in her seventies, got her driver’s license for the first time, and something irrevocable shifted between them.
He needed a cane to walk, but was too proud to use one, so instead he began to fall down a lot. Then he used the cane, but soon needed a walker. The week of his 85th birthday he fell on the way to the toilet and fractured his pelvis. He contracted pneumonia in the hospital and hallucinated being in the apartment of one of his many long-dead friends, Tommy Catalano, and kept saying, “What the hell did Tommy do to these walls?” He didn’t recognize my infant son and called him a “big headed little German who’d turn you in on a dime.” The doctors essentially wrote him off for dead—an eighty-five-year-old man with a broken hip and pneumonia is practically a cliché for which they offer you a special funeral rate—but against all odds he was home within the week, albeit unable to move and wearing a diaper. Then he was stricken with some of the nastier side effects of massive doses of antibiotics; we spent Christmas 2006 changing his diaper almost on the hour while he screamed at the ceiling, begging for the Death he had cheated once again.
He never walked again without a walker. Sometimes, even with the walker, he still falls. As winter snow and ice hit Chicago early this year, he announced he would just not be “going out” anymore.
When my parents were first dating, my father would do things like drive my mother to New York so she could taste the cheesecake. They would drive all night, and once they got there and downed a slice, my father would want to go out to the jazz clubs, and then he would drive home all night into the next day to make it home to work at his bar by evening.
Now, my husband, kids and I spend a great deal of time on a 160 acre farm only a few hours away in Wisconsin. It has a dilapidated old red barn my father would love—he used to stop at roadsides and take photos of barns just like that when I was a kid. But he has never been to the farm—he has never seen “our” red barn. Long car rides hurt his back too much now, and he has difficulty controlling his bladder and can have accidents if cooped up too long. We try to convince him that we’ll pull into every rest stop we see—every twenty minutes if he likes—but he is unconvinced. “Oh honey,” he says. “What am I going to do when I get there anyway? I don’t want to go anywhere anymore. I can’t even walk.”
When someone says something like this to you, you want to turn into a cheerleader. You want to protest that just sitting on the wide front porch and watching the children play in the overgrown grass, that surveying the poetic barn, would somehow be enough. But who are you to say what is enough? My father has already hit the point of “enough,” but then it left without him, and he is still here.
When I was young, my father loved to make fun of old people, to my mother’s horror and my amusement. He would shuffle around like Tim Conway and make puttering noises and twitch his hands theatrically when drinking his tea if there were gray-hairs nearby. The ironic truth is, even his most dire imitations of the elderly did not do justice to what it is like right now just trying to watch my father make it from his bedroom to the kitchen table in the morning: a ritual involving a walker, an entire pill case of tablets to lessen the pain from his osteoarthritis, his spinal stenosis, his temporal arteritis, and his peripheral neuropathy. His journey some twenty feet involves a string of repeated expletives (Oh boy oh boy oh Jesus Christ this fucking body boy oh boy oh boy), and an obsessive compulsive need for a milkshake involving ice cream, milk and bananas. To be clear: the shake has absolutely no relationship to his medical requirements, yet he will not take his pills without this shake, so that if it is midnight and there are no bananas in the house, my husband and I will get a call to go and fetch some or otherwise the routine cannot be followed come morning. If there are no bananas; if my parents are out of milk, hysteria ensues.
The first half an hour of my father’s day goes something like this: He sits in his kitchen chair reading a gossip magazine, maybe Star or People or something of that ilk—something he never would have bought or even perused as a younger man, when he read Royko religiously but otherwise was not much of a reader; when he was into Lenny Bruce and foreign films and smoky jazz and All in the Family and Carson. Now, my father could tell you the latest weight gain of some obscure starlet I wouldn’t even recognize if she fell on me in the street. He reads these magazines because they are “easy,” and nothing else in his life is easy anymore. Early mornings, when he first begins to read, he does so silently like a normal person. If he can read “in his head” and actually comprehend what he is reading, then he knows better than to stand up and try to walk yet, because the pain in his body will still be too intense. But as half an hour goes by and my father’s regimen of pain pills begin to kick in, the words he reads become blurry to his eyes and his mind, and he begins to speak them aloud to keep track. “Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting again,” he might read. (They know each other, right? Or is that Nicole Ritchie? My father would know the answer to this.) Still, he dares not get out of the chair. Finally, reading aloud doesn’t really work either. His brain has become so fuzzy that the sentence sounds more like this: “Lindsay Lindsay Lindsay Lohan and Paris Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and Paris Hilton Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting are fighting are fighting again.”
The pills have done their job. Now he can stand up and make it to the shower. Now, his daughter–can you believe she’s forty!–and his almost-teenage granddaughters can traipse downstairs on their good legs and talk to him about fake rats in the neighbor’s yard, and who knows why people do the things they do, and who cares anymore anyway? But where is the baby—why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her; the little boy they named after him, with his ringlets and his big eyes, who looks so much like his daughter at that age, back when he called her Little Flower—where is the baby, when the only reason he can bear to sit here at this table and get through another day is for a glimpse of him. Why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her—she leaves the baby too much, she works too much, runs around too much, the baby will grow up so fast, she’ll see, then it’s over, then the kids are all gone, even if they live right above you, still, they are gone.
Another day begins.