Late in the day we go out to the Home for happy hour. It's a little custom we have when I'm on the Cape now. I buy a nice bottle of Chardonnay, or one of Beaujolais, and round about four o'clock I pack my aged mother into my rented car and we drive to the edge of town, where the handsome, gleaming Home houses the ancient and the crippled.
I drop my mother off at the front door and watch her totter in, carrying her cane. When I'm not here, she comes at lunchtime on the old folks' bus, and pokes along through the halls, nodding and smiling and stopping to say hello to any oldsters parked along the wall. At this time of day, though, most of the inhabitants are already in their rooms, propped up in chairs watching Oprah, so my mother makes her way with expedition down to the end of the southeast corridor, to the room where Me Old Dad lives.
I park in the visitors' lot and follow in my mother's footsteps, lugging the liter of today's vino through the bright lobby and past the reproductions of fine art on the walls. I'm fond of the Home, which has a good reputation; I like to think that getting my father into it was a coup. Today the corridors smell of beef and lemon cleanser, and the nursing station at the head of Dad's section is deserted except for Violet Kennedy, who reclines beside it in a padded chair, taking her sweater off.
"Hello, Mrs. Kennedy," I say. Violet looks at the ceiling and cries "Help me!" in the ugliest old voice you can imagine, but it doesn't bother me anymore.
In every room an old, slumpy person is staring at a TV. "Get your hair out of your eyes, Martha," I hear a crone from 211 shout. "You'd be prettier if you'd use a comb."
Halfway down the hall Bobbi is standing at the mobile meds cart, mixing drugs in a cup. "I'm on my way down," she says brightly.
Aren't we all? I think, but out loud I say, "See you there."
As I arrive at Dad's little pink room, Martin, a tall Jamaican man, and Ella, a very pretty young woman from Brazil, are lifting my father out of his bed.
"Okay, turn now," Martin says, "turn, turn, turn to me." I could listen to his musical voice forever.
Dad's old feet patter on the linoleum floor as he tries to help Martin and Ella turn him. Then Martin says, "Okay, now, Mr. Williams, here is the chair, behind you," and they lower Dad into the wheelchair. Martin moves in behind him and grasps him under the arms, and Ella leans over in front. They shift him to the left, and Ella stuffs a cushion between his hip and the side of the chair.
"Okay now, Mr. Williams?" Martin says, bending over to be at Dad's eye level. I can see Dad's head slightly, slightly nod. "See you later then," Martin says, and Ella caresses his shoulder and says, "See you later, Mr. Williams." They smile at my mother and come out of the room, and smile at me and say hello as they pass.
My mother is pulling dead leaves off the foil-wrapped plants on the windowsill, left over from the most recent Happy Holiday.
"Hi, Dad," I shout from the door, and I walk past the bed where Harry died, to Dad's side of the room.
Dad slowly, slowly, slowly turns his head toward me, and his hand lifts slightly from the arm of his chair.
"Bill, can't you say hello?" my mother says.
The faintest of whispers issues from Dad.
"Hi, Dad," I say again.
"I'll say it then," my mother says. "Hello, Vera."
"He did say hello," I say. How on earth do they manage when I'm not here? "Mom, are you wearing your hearing aids?"
"What?" she says. She looks at Dad. "Did you say hello?"
He slowly, slowly turns his face toward her. He slightly, slightly nods.
"Oh, damn," she says. "This damn thing." She cups a hand beside her right ear and then her left ear, and shakes her head. "The battery's dead again."
The batteries in my mother's hearing aids seem to die at the drop of a hat. "Do you have any with you?" I shout.
"What?" she shouts back.
"I have batteries," she says.
"Want me to—?" I hold out my hand.
"What do you want them for?" she asks.
"I'll put them in for you," I say, enunciating clearly and pointing to her purse, to her hearing aid, to my own chest.
She shakes her head. "I can do it," she says, and she sits down in the visitor's chair and takes the hearing aid out of her left ear and begins rooting through her purse in search of her spare-battery case.
"How you doing, Dad?" I say.
"What?" my mother says, looking up.
"I'm asking Dad how he is," I shout.
"I can't hear you," she says, waving her hearing aid. "Wait till I put the new battery in."
I look at Dad. "How you doing, Dad?" I whisper.
"As well as can be expected" is what I'm sure he whispers back.
"Care for a drink?"
"Yes," he says very clearly.
I pull the bottle of Beaujolais out of its brown-paper wrapper and, holding it against my forearm, present it to Me Old Dad as if I were wearing a tux and he were a young buck of seventy sitting close to a buxom blonde at a white-linen-covered table for two. He nods very, very slightly. With a flourish I pull a corkscrew from the pocket of my denim jacket and open the bottle of wine.
"There." My mother taps at her ear. The battery is installed, the hearing aid replaced, and she can hear again. Pretty well. "What is it?" she says.
"Beaujolais," I say.
"Oh, Daddy's favorite," she says. She leans forward and pats his knee. "Isn't it, Bill?"
He slowly turns his face toward her and slightly nods.
I take three plastic cups out of my father's handkerchief drawer, set them on the adjustable table, and fill each of them half full of dark wine. My mother takes a straw from the cache in his sock drawer, unwraps it and sticks it into one of the cups, and, holding the cup up to his face, inserts the end of the straw between his lips.
I take a drink of my Beaujolais.
My father sucks, but his straw remains empty. My mother pulls it out of his mouth and reinserts it. My father sucks again, and the straw turns pink. Beaujolais is delivered to the target. My mother removes the straw from his mouth and sets down the cup. She picks up her own and takes a healthy swig.
"Mmm," she says. She holds it up toward me. "Good!" She looks at Dad. "You like?"
He lifts his eyes toward her and slightly, slightly nods.
With a rattle and a whir, Bobbi and the meds cart appear outside the door. "Ah, happy hour," Bobbi says. She bustles around the cart, opening containers and pouring sludge into a cup. She crosses the room, stirring as she comes, and gets right up close to Dad. She says, "Here's your Sinemet and your Requip and your potassium supplement and your Paxil, Mr. Williams."
Dad opens his mouth, and she spoons in the medicated pulp.
"What's it in?" I say, and Bobbi says, "A little chocolate ice cream, with thickener to make it go down easily."
"Must taste good with wine," I say.
"Oh, Vera!" My mother laughs as if I am the wittiest comic on the face of God's green earth. I wonder what she thinks I said.
Bobbi puts her hand on Dad's shoulder and leans close to gaze into his eyes. "Did it all go down?" she says, and he slightly nods. She pats him and steps back. "Want some orange juice to wash it down?"
"No," he says clearly, and he motions with his left hand, the stronger one, toward the table in front of him.
"He wants more wine," my mother says, and she picks up his cup.
"I'll have someone bring some in anyway," Bobbi says briskly.
It is nearly five o'clock on a February evening, and the world outside my father's windows is going dark. Evening is my second favorite time of day in the Home, after early morning, when things have not yet begun to hop. In the evening the inmates are tucked into their own rooms and the people who mop and clean and instigate therapy have gone home for the day. The only people around now are the ones who medicate, the ones who lift and turn and carry and prop, the ones who feed. Except for two dozen televisions, and Mrs. Kennedy calling for help, the evening is quiet. It's especially pleasant because Dad's last roommate has not yet been replaced.
("How's Harry?" I asked during a phone call last month. "Dead," Dad said. He didn't seem much bothered. He expects to die himself one of these days.)
My father's windows look down on the rear entrance, where trucks deliver things and ambulances pick up corpses. Beyond that driveway is a playground where the children of the Home's employees, jerky little urchins in bright colors who yell and toddle and swing and weep, cavort in fine weather. On the hillside beyond is a grove of scrawny oaks, whose leaves have turned from green to gold to brown to gone in the months Dad has lived in his little pink room. Two red-tailed hawks sometimes sail through the sky above the oaks, together or alone, at leisure or pursued by crows. The drops of bright yellow I see from time to time are American goldfinches.
My mother, never one to sit still when she can putter, is now taking Dad's clean clothes from a clear-plastic bag and putting them into his five drawers. "Someone mixed the white with the colored," she says, holding up a pair of pink socks.
"I don't care," Dad says.
She looks up. "What?" She looks at me.
"He doesn't care," I say loudly.
"Of course not," she says, bending again to her labor. "He never cared what he looked like."
"Ready for more wine?" I say to Dad, and I think he nods, so I lift his cup and insert the straw between his lips. He sucks mightily and nothing happens.
"You have to put it in farther." My mother has abandoned her putting away of clothes in order to monitor my work.
I pull out the straw, my father's lips open another smidgen, and I plunge the straw deep into the interior, sure it is shredding the soft red tissues of his cheeks. He sucks, and the straw darkens. After a moment I say, "Get enough?" He slightly nods, and I pull away the straw.
The clean laundry stowed, my mother sits again in the visitor's chair. She leans toward my father. "Did you get enough?"
"Yes," he says clearly.
"Orange juice?" Millicent has come, another of the beautiful Brazilian women who take care of my father and his fellow incarcerees.
"Oh, yes," my mother says. "Bill, look, Millicent has brought your orange juice."
"Thank you," Dad says to Millicent, who has crossed the room and placed the cup of bright liquid on the table beside the empty wine cups and the half-full bottle.
"You're welcome, Mr. Williams," she says. She smoothes his hair briefly with the palm of her hand, as if conferring blessedness.
"Bill, say thank you," my mother says. She looks up at Millicent. "Thank you, Millicent."
"You're welcome, Mrs. Williams," she says. She smiles at my mother, and she smiles at me as she walks by.
I smile very hard back at her. I try always to look like a great obsequious pool of middle-aged gratitude to these young people from foreign lands who take care of my father and smile at my mother. I would like to give them money, but they can't accept it. I would like to give them gifts, but I don't. I would like to tell them all how much I appreciate their kindness and their willingness to do this work, but if I try to say more to them than a few words of greeting, I start to sob and can only blurt clogged, unintelligible monosyllables.
"She is so cute," my mother says. "Isn't she, Bill?"
He turns his eyes toward her and nods slightly.
"Well, I think she's very cute," my mother says. "Do you know she has a thirteen-year-old daughter?"
"She does?" I say. Millicent looks about twenty-two years old.
"That's Emilia," Dad whispers.
"Yes, she does," my mother says. "She and her husband both work here."
"Emilia?" I say.
"No, Millicent," my mother says.
"Emilia has the daughter," my father says.
"Dad says it's Emilia who has the daughter," I say.
My mother shakes her head. "Bill, that was Millicent." She reaches over and tucks the towel more securely around his neck.
My father clears his throat. "Emilia has the thirteen-year-old daughter," he says.
"What?" My mother leans close to him, placing her ear directly in front of his mouth.
My father gathers his energy and says loudly, "Emilia has the thirteen-year-old daughter."
My mother shakes her head and sits back. She looks at me. "I can't hear him, can you?"
"Dad says it's Emilia who has the thirteen-year-old daughter," I shout.
She looks at him in surprise. "Are you sure? I was sure that was Millicent."
"It was Millicent who brought the juice, but Emilia has the daughter," I say loudly.
Dad nods, and my mother removes the straw from his wine cup and puts it into his orange juice. She holds it to his mouth, and bit by bit, without pause and with great effort, he drinks it all.
"Shall we have another?" My mother is holding up her plastic cup, and, never one to refuse wine, I pour some for her and some for me.
She picks up a cloth from the nightstand and wipes pink spittle from my father's beard.
"More for you, Dad?" I say.
"No," he says.
"Well," my mother says. "Here we are."
"Okay, quiz time," I say. "Who is Doctor McDonough's favorite poet?" Yesterday my father and I rode the cripples' bus to his neurologist's office. After only a twenty-minute wait the nurse beckoned, and I pushed Me Old Dad into the inner sanctum, where Dr. McDonough shook Dad's hand, said he hoped they were treating Dad well at the Home, and asked Dad if he'd written any poetry lately.
"No," my father said. "I can't write."
Dr. McDonough looked at me.
"He can't write anymore," I said.
"That would be a problem," Dr. McDonough said. He sat down and crossed his legs at the ankle. "My son writes poetry. None published yet, though. I have never written, but I love the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins." He looked at my father. "You know Hopkins?" he said in a louder voice.
"Nothing is so beautiful as spring," my father said.
Dr. McDonough remained as expressionless as a man lacking dopamine. "Yes," he said in a noncommittal fashion.
"It's why we're here," I said. "That he can't write. We were hoping you could think of some last little thing, some drug, to squeeze a bit more function from the limbs."
"Ah, yes," Dr. McDonough said. "When the brain cells are dead, there's no bringing them back."
"Glory be to God for dappled things, for skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow," my father said.
"What's that?" Dr. McDonough said.
Now I say it again. "Doctor McDonough's favorite poet." "Oh, that three-named man," my mother says, for I had filled her in yesterday, once Dad, exhausted, had reported back to quarters and been put to bed. "Gerald Something Hopkins."
"Two points for Mother," I say. "Okay. Here's the next one. Has Doctor McDonough's son been published yet?"
"His son?" my mother says.
"No," my father says.
"Got it," I say, pointing my rapidly emptying cup at my father. "Here's the clincher. What is the physical condition of Doctor McDonough's seventeen-year-old daughter?"
"I didn't know he had a daughter," my mother says.
"Virgin," Dad says.
"You win!" I cry.
"A virgin?" my mother says, having heard my father's last word distinctly.
My father's face seems to indicate amusement, and I believe he is vibrating slightly with laughter.
"As Doctor McDonough sat reading the paper one night, he overheard his daughter and her friend in the kitchen, discussing their love lives," I explain to my mother. "His daughter said, 'I'm still a virgin.' Doctor McDonough's heart swelled with joy." Dr. McDonough had paused yesterday, pen poised to up Dad's Requip another half mil, to tell us this. "Okay, final question, fifty points. What is Doctor McDonough's daughter's friend's opinion of Doctor McDonough's daughter's lack of sexual experience?"
My mother is busily draining her plastic cup of dregs.
"Not missing much," my father says, and his mouth breaks into the shape of a grin. His eyes squeeze closed. He is laughing indeed.
"One more for the road," my mother says, and she fills her cup and mine. Even though I am now the designated driver for life, I do not stop her.
How did this happen? How can I be so pleased to see my father tucked in here in this sparkling, barrier-free, circumscribed existence? I know the answer to that one: after years of quarreling about the sharp-edged end tables, treacherous footstools, slippery throw rugs, and precarious lamps in my parents' house; after months of forcing visiting nurses and home health aides and grab-bar installers through their front door; after days of no-more-driving rage, when the summer air was so heavy with furious shouting about the car that I might be forgiven for thinking I'd fallen through the looking glass back into my adolescence; after these long years of decline and fall and fall, how can I be anything but pleased to have Dad safely in the Home?
And surely they are, too. Because every time they gave in, relinquished another acre of territory, accepted another piece of undesired help, we sighed and sat down for happy hour. And (as long as Dad could speak boldly and hold his glass) they'd lift their drinks and marvel, "What would we do without you!"
Dad's in the Home. His situation, I think, is perhaps what he thought he always wanted: a total life of the mind, nothing to do but think and read. Well, of course he loved to eat, too, and he has said that he sometimes longs for crackers and peanut butter, or a celery stalk filled with cream cheese, or apple pie—unpuréed.
My mother, too, despite her mild stroke, has everything she wanted: the house is hers again; she can entertain her friends (too late for that, of course, since all her friends are dead except Mrs. Rager, who is mad, and Margie Caviglia, who lies bedridden in her own home, attended by an angry daughter). She shops, she reads, she sleeps as late as she wants to, and she takes the Council on Aging bus to the Home four days a week to feed my father his puréed lunch. Then she takes the same bus home again, brings in the mail, and sits down in the blue chair to read Martha Stewart Living.
"I keep thinking I'm going to stop subscribing," she has said more than once, "but then I think, just one more year."
Something bumps at the door, and we hear the sound of labored breathing. My father moves his eyes in that direction and then turns his head the other way and says, as if thoroughly sickened, "Oh, God."
My mother has heard nothing.
I turn around and see an aged man struggling to disengage the wheel of his chair from the edge of the door. He is panting with the effort, working hard, whether to move forward or to back up I can't tell.
"Goodness," I say to my father. "Who's that?"
"It's Mr. Henderson."
He says it in such a tone of disgust that I laugh, and suddenly my father laughs too.
"Does he come often?" I say.
"Yes," my father says, his eyes closed.
"What?" my mother asks suspiciously. "What are you laughing at?"
"At Mr. Henderson," I say, leaning toward her and motioning with my head at the door.
She looks quickly. "Oh, that man again!" she says. "Vera, push the button, push the button." She waves her hand toward the call button clipped to Dad's blanket.
"Push the button?" I say.
"Yes, push the button," she says. "Someone will come and get him."
Mr. Henderson groans. I reach over and push the button. "What's wrong with him?"
"He goes through Daddy's drawers," my mother says.
"He comes in and sits looking at me," Dad says.
"God forbid," I say. We watch Mr. Henderson trying to move, pushing and then pulling at the wheel of his chair. He grunts with the effort. I should do something—go give him a hand, alert a nurse. "Is the light on?" I lean over to peer at the light beside my father's bed.
"Yes, it's on," my mother says. "They can see it in the hall. You have to wait."
"Sometimes they don't answer for half an hour," my father says.
"What are you saying, Bill?" my mother asks.
"He says sometimes they don't answer for half an hour," I say loudly. "That's terrible. What if you need to go to the bathroom?"
"I wait," my father says. "They have other people to take care of."
"He has an accident," my mother says.
"I'm never one of the others," Dad says.
Mr. Henderson has managed to back out of the doorway, and I catch a glimpse of the back of his chair as he starts rolling himself up the hall.
"You're what, Bill?" my mother says, leaning toward him.
"Never one of the others."
"Never one of the others!" She frowns at him. "What are you talking about?"
If Lucifer himself sat down to design a hell for Me Old Dad, this would surely be it: my father, descendant of Irish talkers, long a long-story teller himself, a long-winded lecturer, a writer and reciter of poetry, a declaimer of the Chaucerian English he learned to rede and speke thanks to the GI Bill, an actor and a director of Shakespeare's plays and an admirer of the sonnets, a man who often sang in a lovely tenor that he came to the garden alone, can barely speak above a whisper, clearly, or for long. During the last two years he and my mother lived together, they were the Jack & Mrs. Sprat of miscommunication: he couldn't speak, she couldn't hear.
For her, the inability to hear him may have been a bit of heaven on earth after fifty-odd—very odd—years of listening to him go on.
The smell of beef—really, the aroma of beef—has made its way into my father's little pink room. The supper hour approaches. I have eaten food here, and it is quite good; the meat is tender, the coffee is hot, and the vegetables are often surprisingly close to al dente. Of course, that last—al dentism—is something my father can no longer appreciate. Nor, really, is tenderness an issue in meat that is puréed. And by the time the cup is lifted, the straw properly inserted, and sufficient vacuum pressure applied to draw liquid into his mouth, his coffee has had a chance to cool. But for his first few months here, before his ability to lift food to his mouth and swallow it had declined to its present sorry state, Dad was able to enjoy the Home's carefully prepared meals: a bit of crunch in his chicken salad, a crispy crust of breadcrumbs on his Friday filet of sole, buttered toast that was (astonishingly!) still hot when his breakfast tray arrived.
Along with the fragrance of beef comes Martin. "I see your light is on, Mr. Williams," he says. "Can I get you anything?"
"No," my father says. "It was Mr. Henderson."
"It was that man who comes in here," my mother says.
Martin smiles. "I saw Mr. Henderson coming away from this room," he said. "I thought, Maybe that is why Mr. Williams has his light on!"
We all laugh in delight. Happy hour is nearing its close.
"Supper is on the way, Mr. Williams," Martin says. "I will be helping you tonight, you and Mrs. Salamone and Mrs. Wolf across the hall."
"Oh, good," my mother says. "He'll like that. Won't you, Bill?" She leans forward. "You like Martin to feed you, don't you?"
"I like you to feed me," my father says.
She frowns and turns her ear toward his mouth. "What?"
"I like you to feed me," he says again.
She shakes her head and looks at me.
"He likes you to feed him," I say.
She sits back. "Bill, I have to take Vera home and feed her," she says. She looks at Martin. "I have to take my baby home and feed her supper!"
"Ah," Martin says. "This is your baby?" He smiles at me.
"My little baby," my mother says.
I glance at my father, who stares expressionlessly at me. "I know, I know," I whisper, "you'd hate to be hanging by your thumbs since I was a baby." His mouth moves; he's sticking his tongue out at me. I stick mine out at him.
"I, too, am my mother's baby," Martin says. "She will always think so."
We smile at each other, big baby, old baby. He can't be more than twenty-five. As I smile, I hear a craaack as the thin lines that have begun to erode the edges of my lips gain another millimeter.
"I will be back in a little bit," Martin says.
"Time to head out, Mom?" I say.
"I guess so," she says. She is blotting saliva from the sleeve of my father's shirt.
I put the cork back in the neck of the Beaujolais bottle. Not much is left, but I lift it and say jovially, "This goes home with us!"
"Bill, how's your wine supply?" my mother says.
"Fine," he says. "Fine."
It's written on his chart: 6 ounces of wine with evening meal. Every couple of weeks someone rolls my father downstairs to the business office, where he withdraws nine dollars from his personal-expenses account, and someone—Jennifer, Kathy, my mother—replenishes his wine supply.
It's not a bad life: beautiful women to bathe and dress and toilet you, a man with a musical voice to feed you your purée, six ounces of cheap white wine with every evening meal.
Or is it?
The evening meal arrives, borne into the room by Heather from Dietary. "Hul-lo, Mr. Williams," she says, waiting for my mother to whisk away the little plastic cups before she places the tray on his table.
"Hello, Heather," my father says.
"Hello, Heather," my mother says. "Thank you, Heather."
"You're welcome, Mrs. Williams," Heather says. She lifts the covers off the dishes and carries them out the door.
"Let's see what you've got," my mother says, leaning over the tray. On the dinner plate are three lovely scoops of supper: one brown, one white, one orange. On another plate is a little golden ball of dessert.
"Did someone make that or do it?" I ask.
"Did it," my father says.
"They do it down in the kitchen," my mother says. She's peering at the weekly menu taped to my father's door. "'Rib-eye steak, potatoes, carrots. Apple pie.' Do you want me to get you started?"
"I'll go get the car," I say. "Mom, I'll meet you out front."
"All right, dear." She's loading a spoon with a bolus of mashed potatoes. "I'll just get Daddy started. If Martin has to feed three of them, he won't get here for a while."
"I'm never one of the others," Dad says.
"Good night, Dad," I say, and kiss the top of his old white head. "See you tomorrow."
But his attention is focused on the mashed potatoes now zeroing in on his mouth.
"Mom, I'm going," I say.
"All right, dear," she says, not looking away from her work. "Chew, Bill. Chew. Now swallow."
Heather and the supper cart are disappearing around a distant corner as I start back up the hall. I nearly collide with Martin as he emerges from the room next door. We laugh.
"Good night," I say.
"Good night," he says, and he enters my father's room.
In each room that I pass, an old person (or two) sits upright (mostly), gazing at the bright colors jittering on the screen at the end of the bed. "Help me," Mrs. Kennedy calls, from her own room now, and I hear someone say, "What do you need, Violet? Here is your apple pie."
Night has fallen. The automatic doors close with a firm whump behind me, and I walk down the sidewalk past the brightly lit windows in the rehab wing. Even though these inhabitants will not be here forever, they have no more modesty than the lifers; in nighties or johnnies, they are perched in beds or on chairs in front of trays, watching Emeril cook gumbo, unconcerned that their curtains are open. Perhaps they assume that no one would bother to look in.
The parking lot is nearly empty; not many people visit the Home in the dark. I unlock my car and then walk past it to stand at the edge of the asphalt, staring at the obscurity under the trees. For fifty years I have been coming to the Cape and going away again. My father came and went before me, but is here for the duration now. His father did the same, and lies among others in the ground a few miles away.
What would they do without me? And as if my breath had touched a frosted pane of glass, I suddenly see clearly that whatever it is, they are doing it without me. I'm on my own.
A blade of wind slips out of the woods and scrapes my cheeks. I love the beach, the dunes, the ceaseless roar of the wine-dark sea, but this is the Cape to me: Sharp breeze in the oaks, staggering pitch pines, the rank essence of last year's leaves. Faint fragrance of skunk, and a rustling in the underbrush as it pokes its sharp nose into the hummocks of spongy humus that leaves and sand have slowly, slowly manufactured together. A thin moon. Crisp, impassive stars.
There is something like happiness here in the dark.
"Vera?" My mother is standing at the end of the sidewalk, shading her eyes as she peers into the pink light of the nearly vacant parking lot. "Vera?"
"Coming, Mother," I shout. "Coming, Mom." I start back to the car.
Has she heard me? For all I know, she thinks I'm the wind.