This story, I swear, has a happy ending.
I’ll start here, though it’s not the beginning: My father is banging on the wall with his cane.
This is what he does when he needs help. He lives downstairs from us, but most days his legs don’t work well enough to get up our back stairs, and his hands shake too much to dial a telephone. So with my mother temporarily in nursing care, when my father requires assistance, he stands in the back staircase and bangs on the wall with his cane until I come down. He has one of those necklaces he can use to call the paramedics, but he usually doesn’t wear it, and even if he did, the paramedics are not going to fix him some spaghetti or run out to buy him bananas* or make his answering machine stop beeping. His wall-pounding stamina is impressive.
When I get downstairs, my father is bleeding. It’s his nose. His apartment looks like a crime scene. A small wicker trash bin sits next to his chair at the kitchen table, overflowing with bloody tissues. Clearly he’s been moving around the apartment, because there’s a trail of bloody globules all around the kitchen island, including on the counter. There is blood on the telephone.
“How long has this been going on?” I ask. “Why didn’t you call me sooner?
“Oh Jesus Christ,” my father says. “Maybe an hour. I thought it would stop.”
When I was a kid in Catholic school, we had a girl in our class whose nose bled almost daily. It was like she had a stigmata in her nasal passages. Our teachers used to have her lie down flat on some desks pushed together, and they would put a frozen knife alongside her nose (they kept one in the school cafeteria just for her, and different students would have to go downstairs to fetch it). This being pretty much the extent of my knowledge about bloody noses, I make my father lie down flat and put an ice pack on his nose.
Blood begins bubbling out through his mouth, spilling down his chin like a vampire.
I call 9-1-1. The first thing they tell me is not to put him on his back.
This officially confirms that everything I ever learned in Catholic school was a lie.
The paramedics are coming. My father is sitting upright now, on the side of his bed. His room looks insane, as usual. My father is a hoarder. My mother is able to regulate his hoarding except in two areas of the house: 1) The chair he sits in at the kitchen table, reading magazines, where he keeps stacks and stacks of old issues and pulled-out pictures/ads, all of which are piled under the table and spread across the tabletop, and 2) His bedroom, which has about three clothing racks pushed into the middle of the small space, baked beans and cereal boxes under his bed, and empty cookie jars—which he collects—crammed like sardines on every flat surface. On the floor are endless Hefty bags of clothing.
When my father was a younger man—until his mid-80s, really—he used to troll Marshalls and TJ Maxx for sales on men’s clothing and then take the clothes to the Italian men’s club where he had hung out since I was a toddler, selling the clothes to his friends at a small profit. “Michigan Avenue John,” they called him, because my father has impeccable taste; he brought them cashmere socks, Polo sweaters, designer tweed sports coats.
He stopped driving about eight years ago. When that happened, I began carting him to his club, and then later, after my mother finally got her license in her seventies, she took over. Then he lost interest. Most of the men he knew best were now dead. Plus, my father didn’t like people seeing how bad his walking had become. He would still go to the discount shopping venues because he didn’t know anyone there, but without the club for him to pawn his wares at, the Hefty bags full of unworn clothing with the tags still on began piling up. My mother made noise about garage sales or donating the clothing to charity, but whenever she tried to remove a single item from his possession, he would pitch a fit. He had, at her last count, more than two hundred button-down shirts, although in the past couple of years I don’t think I’ve seen him wear anything other than a white undershirt with stains on the front. I don’t think it’s always the same undershirt, per se, but with his shaky hands, they all accumulate stains pretty fast.
“These sweatpants,” my father says, about the maroon pants he’s wearing. “They’re a large, aren’t they, not an extra-large.”
I bought him these pants for his birthday, which was also the day my mother got into the car accident that caused her exodus from our home, and prompted my parents’ longest separation in more than fifty-five years. She broke her leg in three places. She had surgery, ended up in the ICU, eventually recovered enough to move to the hospital rehab wing, wasn’t making progress quickly enough to stay there, was transferred to a nursing home near our house, developed pneumonia, was told she needed a second surgery but couldn’t have it until her lungs recovered, eventually had the second surgery, and was promptly forced to go back to the beginning of her recovery timeline, it being another six weeks before she could even put weight on her damaged leg. When I am not cooking for my father or doing his laundry or going to the pharmacy to fill his prescriptions or putting his pills into his morning and evening medicine containers, I am at the nursing home, bringing my mother items from home and trying to cheer her up. One of her best girlfriends died of cancer during the time she has been incarcerated in that fucking home. Also, my father will not come to visit her, because he refuses to leave the house. My mother seems depressed. My father is depressed too, but he is always depressed so in his case this is nothing new.
“You don’t take an extra-large,” I tell him. “Your pants are always falling off. Mommy told me to buy you a large.”
“These pants are too tight,” he says. “You have to exchange them for a large.”
I’m willing to bet that Land’s End isn’t taking back a pair of sweats that my father has spent an hour-and-a-half bleeding in, but I don’t mention it.
The paramedics show up. I feel embarrassed about the state of my father’s room. The thing is, if you were a paramedic and arrived to find a ninety-one-year-old man living in a room like this, you would think some kind of elder abuse was occurring. My father’s room looks like Harry Potter’s fucking cupboard under the stairs. What kind of people would allow an old man to live in these conditions? Whenever the paramedics come, I half-expect the Department of Children and Family Services to show up at my house the next morning to put my father in foster care. I half-expect to see myself on the nightly news, my Cruella De Vil sweatshop-for-elders exposed. I imagine myself trying to explain to the newscasters that my father will not let my mother and me clean his room, but now, standing in the blood-splattered hallway, watching the paramedics try to fit into my father’s hoarder’s lair, this no longer seems like a reasonable excuse.
“I want to change my pants,” my father is telling them. “These are too tight. My daughter keeps buying me a large when I wear an extra-large. I’ve been dropping weight. They say no, but I know I’ve got the stomach cancer.”
The stomach cancer. My father has been insisting for years that he has the stomach cancer, although he has been tested and retested and, truth be told, this is the healthiest his stomach has ever been. He spent the ages of 20 through 70 with a violently hemorrhaging ulcer that thankfully got him out of WWII (for which he was training to drive a tank), but then it went on to try to kill him about once a year throughout my childhood. When medical science revealed the link between ulcers and bacteria, he was put on antibiotics and cured, although he still insists on drinking a shake of vanilla ice cream, bananas, and milk* every evening and every morning, as this was the concoction he used to favor “for his ulcer.”
So my father is not only Harry Potter, living in the cupboard under the stairs, but now I’m letting him die of cancer, too, and purposely torturing him with too-tight pants.
My son, Giovanni, keeps coming down the stairs, peeking around the corner, and I keep urging him to go back upstairs and watch TV…I don’t want him to see his Papa gushing blood. At last, my husband haps upon the scene, home from work, which saves me from having to take Giovanni with me to the ER. It is quickly decided that my husband will accompany my father, and I will stay here and clean up the mess and get Giovanni to bed. I have two other children—twin girls in seventh grade—but of course they’re at a friend’s. I try to convince Giovanni that he should stay upstairs while I’m cleaning, but I’ve been downstairs for awhile already and he wants to be with me, so he follows online roulette. The blood, at this point, has hardened into a sticky, gelatinous kind of wax. I attack it with spray cleaner and bleach wipes, crawling around on my hands and knees and scrubbing violently. It smears and expands before it releases. I’m going through bleach wipes as fast as my father used tissues. I try to make this funny for my son. I make up a rhyming song about being an old man with a nose that gushes blood like a faucet. Giovanni laughs. ER trips are a part of his reality. Not that long ago, he and I took my parents to Dapper’s, a shitty Greek diner that is about one of the only places on earth into which my father will still set foot, and before we could even get inside, my mother lost her balance and fell backwards and hit her head on the concrete with a thawk that still resonates in my bones. Two female paramedics showed up and let Giovanni play inside their ambulance while they were attending to my mother, who rode off with them on a stretcher while I took Giovanni and my father home.
I scrub the blood for about half-an-hour. It’s in strange places, as though my father’s head had suddenly spun 360 degrees, á la The Exorcist. Thankfully there is none on the ceiling, but that’s about the extent of the good news.
Like Giovanni, I too am inured to this sort of thing. Blood scouring is not even remotely the most disgusting thing I have ever done for my parents. In 2007, my father broke his pelvis and then contracted pneumonia in the hospital. Just after being released—over Christmas Eve and Christmas, before we could get in-home help—he developed diarrhea as a side effect of his antibiotics, and my mother, husband and I spent the better part of two days cleaning and wiping and re-diapering him, which was a three-person job since he had no ability to move whatsoever. Most of the time we were doing this, my father was screaming at the ceiling, begging god to kill him. My mother has also had two knee replacements, two hip replacements and diverticulitis, all of which has required a certain amount of assistance toileting and random grotesque tasks like stuffing an open wound with feet of gauze and then, the next day, removing the gauze like a worm coated in bloody slime. During one bout of diverticulitis, she also had to wear a colostomy bag for three months while part of her colon healed. After seeing the bag a couple of times, I drew a line and simply could not assist her with the maintenance of it, and she had to bring in help she really couldn’t afford. I’m pretty certain that I couldn’t maintain my own colostomy bag, should I ever end up with one, and it is now my belief that unless you live in a cardboard box under a viaduct in a cold climate, paying someone to deal with a colostomy bag so that you don’t have to is easily the best money you could ever spend.
Giovanni seems to be kind of enjoying the weird, gory turn our night has taken, but an hour later when I’m snuggling him before bed, he starts to cry.
He wants to know how old he will be when I die.
Remembering this now as I sit here, writing, I’m having a hard time thinking of what comes next. What comes after I murmur placating answers to unanswerable questions and tickle my son’s back until he calms? There’s so much more I meant to get to. Like how, a few weeks later, with my mother still not home, my father started hallucinating people talking in his bedroom, and how he managed (for the first time in two years) to get up the stairs into our apartment to “warn” us of the evildoers in our midst. Then again, that part of the story probably requires backing up to a week or so earlier, to my father hallucinating a man on the front porch staring into his window. And maybe that part of the story requires you to know that my father has been sleeping with his lights on for several years, because he’s convinced there are mice in the house and that they crawl on him when he’s at rest. Once he told my mother that they had nibbled on his toenails in the night, even going so far as to ask her if his nails looked any shorter to her. Recently, he wanted my husband to turn his couch upside down so that he could find the mice in their nest, which he insisted was inside the upholstery. We happen to have a cousin whose business is pest control, but no amount of visits or testimony from said cousin can convince my father that the house is rodent-free. I also have two overweight cats who frequently come down to visit my parents and would scare the living fuck out of any mouse, yet their presence also fails to reassure. This has been going on for maybe five years.
In my mother’s two-and-a-half month absence, I have taken over the task of talking to my father’s physician on a regular basis. (This doctor was, for years, my physician too.) He prescribes an antipsychotic for my father, who is already on antidepressants, and the hallucinated intruders mercifully go away, though at the time of this writing my father is still sleeping with the lights on.
Also worth noting: When I asked my father’s physician whether he could write me a script for a few Lorazepam to pop on an upcoming airplane trip, he instead wrote me a three-month prescription for a total of 90 pills. “You have,” he said, “a lot on your plate.”
I promised a happy ending for this story, but by now you’ve probably figured out that there is no happy ending for my father. The man is ninety-one-years old. Almost everyone he ever knew has preceded him in death—six older brothers, his parents, all of his close friends except for one, who has had both legs amputated and can no longer go out either. Although my father doesn’t suffer from the kind of dementia that plagued his mother (who outlived five of her sons), perhaps, I sometimes think, he would be better off that way. His mother, in the end, thought she was a young girl back in Italy, and would sing songs in Italian and clap her hands. My father, on the other hand, lives in chronic pain and has to wear adult diapers and has uncontrollable bleeds and cannot quite accept that he has neither stomach cancer nor a mice infestation in his room. He lives surrounded by bags of unworn clothing and cookie jars with nothing inside them. He won’t wear a hearing aid but is so deaf that his contact with the rest of the world has already been effectively severed, as only my mother and I are patient enough to stand there screaming at him—and sometimes we aren’t patient enough either, and merely talk to one another over his head. There is only one way for his story to end because there is only one way for any of our stories to end. His road to that end has already veered into dark territory, and the only question now isn’t whether things will improve but how much worse they’ll have to get before he is released from the indignity of what his life has become. And how is it possible that my mother and I still fear and dread that end?
All told, my mother spent two-and-a-half months away from home as a result of her car accident, which happened, coincidentally, on my father’s 91st birthday. She had been heading to Costco to buy some roasted chicken and cream puffs, those being my father’s favorite things. She attempted to turn left into the parking lot, but before she could reach its haven her car was hit by a speeding taxi cab zooming down a bridge. She was hit so hard that her vehicle spun entirely around and ended up facing backwards in the other lane. Her leg was shattered in three places, and the car was completely totaled beyond repair.
My twin daughters were in the car.
My daughters weigh approximately 80 pounds apiece.
Madeleine was in the back seat. Kenza was in the passenger’s seat. The death seat.
The taxi hit the car on the passenger side, completely smashing it. The airbags deployed. An airbag alone can, sometimes, be enough to kill an 80-pound person. The passenger side airbags in my car have long been disabled, ever since my daughters have been old enough to sit up front. But in my mother’s car, we never did this.
My mother’s airbag, it turned out, was old, and semi-defective, like a half-deflated balloon.
The brunt of the impact happened at the front of the car, because my mother, seeing its approach, froze in fear and hesitated just enough—just enough—to prevent its full force from hitting Kenza’s door.
Madeleine, in the backseat, was on her phone, and when the collision happened, she threw it in the air in fear. It hit her in the face and bruised her nose.
Kenza got some bruises on her leg and the side of her face from the defective airbag, but was otherwise left unscathed.
I got the call about the accident from my daughters. “Mommy,” Madeleine said into the phone, “Nana got in a car accident.”
I raced to the site and there was glass all over the road. The taxi driver’s passenger was injured and was being taken away in an ambulance. Paramedics were trying to get my mother out of the car. I can’t say I remember much about that. I was rushing to the totaled car as if with blinders on, unable to see anything but my daughters. I couldn’t stop hugging them. I couldn’t stop thinking of the way the ground dropped into oblivion and my stomach felt like I was falling down an elevator shaft when I heard the word “accident” from my daughter’s mouth.
During the ensuing two-and-a-half months, with my mother away, my life became a comedy of stress. I fell behind in every manner of work. I had no social life. I barely saw my children because I was always rushing off to the ICU, the rehab unit, the nursing home. Women in my neighborhood apparently found my life so chaotic that one attempted to organize an effort to cook meals for my family and drop them off, but this made me so profoundly uncomfortable that I refused to allow it, which probably made me look like an asshole. I kept saying things like, “It’s not like I’m going through chemo.” I said—which is true enough—“If I really get that tired from cooking, we can order out.” I said that they should save these kinds of community efforts for people who really need them, but I also might’ve said that I have a very hard time accepting help, and that I’m a control freak.
Something else I might have said: This is nothing; my daughters could have been dead.
There are circumstances that are a pain in the ass. Half-an-hour on your hands and knees scrubbing blood off the floor. Suddenly having not three dependents but five, two of whom weigh more than you do and do not live in your immediate household—but here I must add that my parents have always been absurdly good to me, and took care of me with every patience in my childhood, my father once saying of my vomit as a baby, “It’s gold.” For the most part, I can forgive myself for not feeling the same way about his blood, or my mother’s gaping wounds, or either of their waste when I’ve had to care for them over the years. The way we feel about our children is simply not the way we feel about our parents, and that seems to be one of the cosmic jokes of life: that if we are lucky, we will be loved so wholly and unconditionally by our parents that we will know how to turn around and bestow a similar love on our own kids—but that no matter how our parents love us, rarely can we love them as purely in return. We hold them to higher standards and roll our eyes at them and feel burdened by them and say things like, Are you really going to wear that? And later, our own children, whom we love as though we could explode the very world with the force of it—they will do the same to us.
There are circumstances that change your world, that undo you, that leave you never the same again. My daughters could have died in that car. They could have gotten head injuries that would have irrevocably changed their futures. They could have come away never walking again. They could have, they could have…
Maybe “could have beens” are pointless in this world. My father’s ulcer could have waited just long enough to rear its head so that he would have been shipped overseas and died in his tank on some European battlefield, in which case he would’ve never met my mother. I could never have been born, which would mean my son would not exist, and my daughters could have been adopted from China by some Entirely Other People, and would maybe be born-again Christians in Naperville right now, immersed in Suzuki piano lessons. Or maybe their referral to their new adoptive family would have waited one month, two months longer had we not been paired with them when we were, and one of them would’ve contracted some bug and died in a Chinese orphanage before her first birthday. What good are could have beens?
Maybe there is no happy ending to this story. Maybe my parents are just depressingly old and sick, and I’m stuck here bearing witness to how we all end. Maybe my son shouldn’t have to spend his time in hospitals and nursing homes and listening to me sing impromptu nursery rhymes about blood. Maybe I’m just fooling myself.
So many things, when you break them down, are really perception. Once, a friend of mine called me from another continent and incurred a 45-minute international phone bill to bitch to me about having received a bad haircut. A year-and-a-half ago, another close friend dropped dead while getting ready for work in the morning; she had thrown a blood clot to the brain as a result of ovarian cancer. On the spectrum between bad haircuts and dying alone on the floor, an array of daily complications dwell. We all live with this truth, and yet most days, it’s too much to look at. We are consumed by ordinary dramas, by what self-help books would call “the small stuff,” because honestly that’s where we live most of the time—because most events are not life and death—and it can feel impossible to face all these in-between moments with relentless gratitude. So instead we fall prey to irritation. This is part of being human. It isn’t…well…it isn’t normal to live our lives bursting with glee that we haven’t just keeled over. That we aren’t stuck in the middle of some genocidal war zone. That our children aren’t on respirators. We live where we are, and thank the stars that where we are can be pretty miraculously mundane. And if we are incredibly, almost obscenely lucky, we will end up having what people call “a good run,” and make it to 91. But of course, what does that mean? What kind of place is this world, really, when the best of all possible scenarios is to end up like my father? What does it mean to face that not only is death a part of life, but that suffering is too—the integration of illness and bodily fluids and deterioration amidst our average comings-and-goings? We Americans hear a lot about how other cultures understand this better than we do. That they don’t sweep their elderly under the rug. That they celebrate the dead. That they don’t avert their eyes. Is that their greater wisdom, or do they simply lack the luxuries that would enable them to do otherwise? I don’t have the answer to these questions. All I know is that no parent on the planet likes to hear their child cry. All I know is that here in the States we spend a lot of time trying to “protect our kids,” and that sometimes what we’re protecting them from can start to seem like Life Itself.
I’m on my hands and knees, scrubbing my father’s blood from the floor. I think of that taxi, speeding down the hill. My daughter, in the passenger’s seat. I’d said goodbye to her with no special sense of significance. We were talking cream puffs and chicken. Now here I am, singing, There was an old man, blood squirted from his nose/La, la, la/And all the neighbors said it was like a garden hose/La, la, la.
My son laughs, squealing. Later he will cry, as all children do at one time or another, wanting to know when I will leave him, totally unable to comprehend that hopefully, by the time I do, there will be other people who surpass me in his heart, onto whom his worst fears will now be directed.
So much in life comes down to choice: the choice of how to see that which we cannot choose. I am on my hands and knees, scrubbing blood from the floor.
And for the moment, this is happiness.
*The John Frangello Shake, which my father has been drinking “for his ulcer” for as long as I have been alive, is comprised of one half a banana, vanilla or Neapolitan ice cream, and milk. Although my father has now been ulcer-free for twenty-one years, he still takes his medications with this shake every morning and night. His dependence on the medicinal qualities of The Shake is so intense that if he happens to run out of bananas, ice cream or milk, he cannot take his medication. Therefore, you are liable to get a phone call at midnight asking you to go fetch bananas as though they were heart medication. Given that some of my father’s actual medications include things that he will, in fact, drop dead if he doesn’t take, this leaves us all hostage to his need for bananas, ice cream and milk unless we want his death on our heads. My husband and I have taken to just stocking up on extras every time we pass a store. Our home at any given moment resembles a banana plantation.