The morning after I visited the old man in the hospital, we got a six AM call on our landline. Maura picked up the cordless receiver. “Caller ID says it’s from your father,” she said as she handed it off to me.
I was expecting the worst. What I got was a repeat of a line I’d heard thirty years and two weeks prior.
Those were the first words, my dad had said to me the first time I saw him after my mom’s death. He’d been blackout drunk when she took her backward tumble down the attic stairs, and only discovered she’d died after waking up in the drunk tank and asking an orderly if he could call his wife to let her know where he was.
I’d viewed my dad with a mixture of awe and terror from early childhood. Even as his ugliest, he’d been a larger-than-figure, more force of nature than a man. But there, shaking and teary-eyed in the lounge of the VA Hospital observation ward, he just seemed small and broken.
Any deep-seated resentment or grudges I’d harbored toward the man — and I had plenty — evaporated in that moment. I neither forgave nor forgot the abuse I’d suffered at his hands, but it seemed pointless to keep the flames of my anger stoked. There was no payback I could’ve enacted that was worse than what he’d done to himself. It’s a decision which no one — not Lil Bro, nor Maura, nor various social workers — has ever managed to fully understand.
And there I was, three decades and change later, re-enacting the scene via phone from the interrupted comfort of a warm bed.
Just like the last time, the old man had no recollection of how he’d ended up in a hospital ward. Whatever cocktail of meds they’d pumped into him had cleared the worst of his delirium. For the first time in weeks, I could understand what he was saying.
“You totalled your car smashing though benches and picnic tables on the Sugarbowl. You didn’t hurt anyone. They said you had an infection that fucked your head.”
“Really? No. Really? Wow.”
The old man’s instinctual caginess swung into action from there, pumping me for details as he attempted to spin things to himself in the best possible (and blameless) light. It didn’t matter that he’d admitted his ignorance right out of the gate. He wasn’t sculpting the narrative for my benefit, but for his own. The destruction of his beloved Mustang didn’t bother him as much as the possible legal troubles and the revocation of his license — he had no intention of ever driving again, but seethed about that decision being made for and not by him.
I wrapped up the call by promising to look after his cat and telling him to concentrate on getting well instead of obsessing over hypotheticals — at which point he threw in a few more before hanging up.
Lil Bro’s wife managed to find contact info for the old man’s landlord, who arranged to have the building’s handyman let us into his apartment (and in turn triggered paranoid rants about “not letting that guy know my business” from my father). Besides retrieving a depressed and terrified fluffball from what Maura described as “the most depressing and disgusting apartment she’d ever visited,” I grabbed the old man’s mail, checkbook, phone charger, and glasses. All but the cat went into sealed plastic bags until the layer of sticky grime could be not-quite-successfully scrubbed off with alcohol pads.
I refused to go back to the hospital after my first harrowing experience, so Lil Bro ended up as the old man’s healthcare proxy by default. There was a new battery of tests everyday, followed by a new list of ways my father’s health was completely fucked. Besides weighing under ninety pounds and the infection thing, there were ominous spots on his lungs and evidence that the delirium had been the result of a stroke. (We wondered about that during our first wellness check, but his manual dexterity with both hands had seemed fine.)
Because the old man had been been exposed to TB but didn’t maintain much of a medical history, he got to spend a few days in an isolation ward.
His moods were all over the map. I’d have blamed the blood clot in his noggin, but these behaviors were very much a pre-existing condition. Leaving my old man with his thoughts was like leaving a nuclear reactor without a coolant source. Stray thoughts and memories and “genius ideas” energized themselves in the boredom chamber until they reached critical mass and the old man reached for his phone.
In the morning, I’d get a maudlin spiel about how he wanted to become a “better person.” In the afternoon, I’d get a hectoring reminder about cashing his insurance check for the totaled car. In the evening, he’d weave some nonsensical fantasy about the events of the crash. He got pissed at me for interrupting an obviously rehearsed speech about how I should not take him in.
“Dad, it ain’t gonna happen, because I’m not telling the adoption folks the dude who abused me is coming to live here.”
“JUST LET ME HAVE MY MOMENT, FOR FUCK’S SAKE.”
I found it irritating, but it made Lil Bro livid with anger. I’d experienced the worst of my father’s drunken rages, so his bundle of personality tics were more annoying than anything. Lil Bro’s relationship with the old man didn’t really blossom until he was in his teens, when my dad was a non-custodial weekend buddy to wander around Boston with. As Lil Bro grew older and our father became crankier and more obvious with his line of bullshit, the clashes grew more frequent. The old man took a perverse joy in needling his youngest, winding him up until he pushed back, at which point our dad would play the poor put-upon martyr.
It only got worse while my father was in the hospital. Lil Bro had already burned himself out dealing with our grandmother’s estate. He didn’t want to repeat the experience with even shittier paperwork, so pressed the old man to get his finances, funeral arrangements, and medical shit sorted in advance. My father would agree, act like it was entirely his idea, and then turn around and taunt Lil Bro with “ha ha ha, I won’t do it. It will be YOUR problem, not mine.”
And so it would be.