My Father’s Car, His Watch, and His New Nursing Home
I am driving my father’s car to my hometown to put him in a nursing home.
R.M.F. 6 – 22 – 46
My mother took on these tasks until they overwhelmed her and she hired a caretaker. Sometimes, when I visited, they became my job. It seemed like a cruel reversal for a son to bathe his father, to pad dry his thighs and his scrotum. A man who had lived his life so closed was now embarrassingly open. His old age has brought more intimacy with his body and his frailty than I ever imagined. I look at him in his wheelchair and realize the things we never did together will never be done now. Will this be my own end, I wonder? A slow failure of organs and limbs, a molting of layers of identity and pride until all that remains is biology?
“Oh dear,” my mother sighs. “Life isn’t a bed of roses.”
She wants to make sure she’s packed everything he’ll need. On the bed where he’s been sleeping—alone, since she moved out of the room a few months ago— my mother has set a weekend bag, as if he’ll be back in a few days. She runs her hands through it and checks its contents against the list in her hand. Sweaters. Sweatpants. Slippers. Hospital socks with the rubber grips on the soles. She’s packed his toothbrush and toothpaste and razor, his shaving brush and mug. A travel bag from their bus trip in France a few years ago is filled with his multiple medications, organized by day and night. Eye drops for his right eye after surgery removed tumors from his eyelid. Pain medication for the leg cramps he’s started complaining about in recent days. Pills for his tremors.
My older brother, Rob, rings the doorbell and I answer it. “Do you think you two can manage him?” my mother asks us. We say we can and go to our father, sitting in the family room.
“I always think there’s something I want to say to each of you,” he says, “and I can never remember what it is.”
We pause for him to recall, but he doesn’t.
“Well,” I say, “we’ll be around.”
“What time is it?” my father asks.
My brother checks his phone. “About ten after two,” he says.
“Well, I guess we’re ready to go,” he says, brightly, like he’s ready for an afternoon appointment. I cannot tell if it is a brave face, or if it is denial, or if it is confusion. I cannot tell if he can even tell.
I grip the wheelchair handles, turn him around, and push him to the passenger door of the Cadillac he used to drive.
The automatic doors of the nursing home swing outward and usher us from the cold, white world into a hallway papered pastel blue and hung with farm scenes. Along the walls, residents sit in wheelchairs and watch the day’s action cross the corridor. Others pad down the hallways, using their feet to pull their chairs along. They are bones and skin and sinew, and I can’t help but feel my father doesn’t belong here with them. He looks healthy. His hair holds on to flecks of black. He’s still an encyclopedia of names, dates, and relations once and twice removed. Yet these skeletal people can move their wheelchairs on their own, which is more than he can do.
Two of the nurses lead us down the hallway to a room where an empty bed waits beside a single chair. Across the room is a worn dresser with a lock but no key, and a closet with no hangers.
We stay with him for a few hours before leaving him alone. After dinner, my mother and I return to say goodnight. As we cross the parking lot, she seems to feel both guilty and relieved.
“He’s fine from the waist up,” she says.
More like from the neck up, I think. No, not even from the neck up. His mind is eroding.
When we visit him the next day, he’s having lunch in the cafeteria. A woman at a corner table is shouting. “I was offered a house today! For free!” My father struggles to cut the beef on his plate. Food stains ring his mouth. This is not the way he ever believed he would be, I think. This is not the way he ever would have tolerated allowing himself to appear.
He slept well, he says. His doctor came to see him. “I asked him why I’m here,” my father says. “He says, ‘for therapy.’”
Because you cannot dress yourself, bathe yourself or lift yourself, I want to say. Because you can’t remember the previous president, even though you’re reading a book by him. Because you have secondary parkinsonism and it sometimes makes you think you’re someplace you’re not, think you can walk when you can’t, think doors are swaying when they’re perfectly still. Because it will gradually get worse. Because you don’t even understand why you’re here.
After lunch, my mother and I get up to leave. The head nurse flags us down and tells us my father did well his first night. “Do you think he’ll ever come back home?” my mother asks. I’m not sure what answer she wants.
“Probably not,” the nurse says. “If he does, he’ll be back here again soon.” She says it kindly, and I appreciate her candor. She’s seen it before.
I drive my mother home in my father’s car and follow her into the house they built for a family, not an old woman living alone. “I never wanted this big house,” she says.
I spend the night in my old bedroom so my mother’s not alone. In the morning, I wind my father’s watch. I fold his white shirt, place it in my backpack and sling it onto the passenger seat of my father’s car, where he sat as I drove him to the nursing home. I hug my mother goodbye and sit in the driver’s seat. I turn my father’s key in the ignition and place my hands on the wheel. They hang like the hands on the watch I wear on my wrist.