Sometime around the end of November, I got a text from my brother asking if I’d spoken with our dad recently. He was worried because he could barely understand a thing the old man said during their latest phone conversation, and thought something bigger might be going on.
I didn’t think too much of it. I was used to incoherence from my father, and assumed the muddled speech was the result of a three-pack-a-day over sixty years habit and his unwillingness to put in his dentures. Even when my brother mentioned the old man had been spending most of the day in bed, I wasn’t too concerned. He had a degenerative spinal injury (which netted him a hefty settlement from his former employer) and had made a big deal of his refusal to seek any form of pain management for it.
The last time I’d seen him in the flesh was at my grandmother’s funeral the previous May. I was a little taken aback by how frail he seemed, but it’s hard to gauge what that means when it’s a person you see maybe two or three times a year. None of us were getting any younger. Only a couple months before, I’d caught my brother staring at my head during a meeting about my grandmother’s estate, so I asked what the hell he was looking at. “I just never noticed how much gray hair you had.”
My dad’s health trajectory — shit back, shit lungs, shit self-care — had been pretty clear for years. During our road trip to Gettysburg in 2011, he told me he was a dead man walking although he “wasn’t in any rush.” Seeing it unfold was jarring, but mostly because the gaps between the frames of the time-lapse reel had grown wider.
The only thing that did make me pause was Lil Bro mentioning that my father had gotten slack about keeping up his apartment. That was entirely uncharacteristic of a man whose domestic routines were conducted with spartan precision. It wasn’t something that he’d abandon without reason, but I assumed it stemmed from his back pain. I proposed making a wellness check over the coming weekend, and Lil Bro set the date and time (to make sure our father was wearing pants when we got there, which was another ominous note I should’ve paid more attention to).
I hadn’t been to my father’s place since he’d moved into the basement apartment. I had no idea what to expect, but nothing could’ve prepared me for what I saw when I stepped into the place. Shades drawn, space heater going full bore, TV blasting some old western, tobacco residue so thick it coated every surface with a sticky brown sheen — and there on the bed was the old man looking like…
You ever see those photos of folks liberated from Nazi concentration camps? Specifically the ones where unfathomably skeletal human beings are lying upon cramped and filthy bunks? My father could’ve been ‘shopped into one of those scenes and nobody would’ve been able to tell the difference. His hair and beard had gone wild and his skin was a shade of gray I’d only seen before in nightmares. His head was propped up against the wall, surrounded by a halo of sebaceous discharge. A half-empty two-liter bottle of warm Coke rested on the nightstand, next to a half dozen empty packs of cigarettes and an overflowing ashtray.
Lil Bro started the conversation. “Hey, we came to pay you a visit.”
“Whuuh. Ho. Ahhh.” Nothing remotely approaching an understandable word.
My turn. “What’s up, old man? How are you feeling? Are your dentures in?”
Eventually he settled into a pattern of vaguely recognizable speech. “Feel like shit.” “I’m fine.” “Back hurts.” A lot of dismissive nods and hand gestures.
The only bedding he had was a filthy comforter over a bare mattress. Lil Bro had brought some sheets, but we decided to make a run to the Target in South Bay for a new comforter and blanket, as well as food and other household supplies.
“You see what I meant?” he asked on the drive to the shopping plaza.
“Yeah, I don’t know what to make of it.”
My phone rang. It was the old man, asking to pick him up a new spoon for eating cereal. I managed to understand every word this time.
“That’s a positive sign, at least.”
I dropped a hundred bucks at Target — a new comforter, a fleece throw, junk food, more Coke, the requested spoon, heat and eat meals, litter for the cat, denture paste, the works. It’s just money, and money can fix anything, right? We also hit the ATM with the old man’s bank card because he was running short of cash in hand.
The old man was a bit more lucid when we returned. He even managed to shift himself into a chair and armchair quarterback our efforts to change his bed. Lil Bro and I tried to work a tag team intervention routine into the conversation.
“You should talk to Boston elder services.”
“You really ought to get checked by a doctor.”
All of it met with an annoyed “I know, I know” and defensive tough guy posturing.
“Do you need anything else while we’re here?” I knew the answer before I finished asking it — some more packs of Marlboro Reds, five minutes after he bragged to us how little he smokes these days.
Lil Bro and I walked to the convenience store on the opposite slope of Dorchester Heights, taking a few minutes to check out the Revolutionary War memorial at the crest of the hill. We used the time to brainstorm a plan for going forward, but the options are limited. The old man is going to do what he wants to do, and he will lie through his teeth or push back if pressed on the matter.
My brother had run himself ragged dealing with my grandmother’s estate, and wasn’t keen on repeating the ordeal with a less cooperative individual. I knew it was my responsibility to step up, but I didn’t want the gig either. Maura’s mom’s health was failing. We were dealing with the bureaucratic rollercoaster surrounding the adoption. Both our day jobs had entered new and stressful territory.
There really wasn’t anything to do but punt. And talk some bullshit that would come back to bite me in the ass multiple times.
“Look, old man. I want you around to see your grandchild. You need to see a doctor and find something to manage the pain. You’re stronger than this.”
Queue the “yeah, yeah” chorus and “you think I like being like this?”
“And remember, I work just down the street, so if you ever need anything…”
Oh, how I learned to regret that offer in the coming months.