Maura and I picked up the old man at the rehab, located in the ass end of North Andover. It was first time I’d seen him in a month and he looked…not great, but considerably better than the previous time I saw him. He was still depressingly thin and shrunken, but had put on a little bit of weight and — more importantly — had a trace of that old flamboyant spark about him. The nurses and aides all loved him, as everyone who didn’t have to deal with him on a sustained basis tended to do.
I gathered up his stuff and pretended to listen to instructions about his new medication regimen while the staff made some final adjustments to the walker he was supposed to be using from here on out. Maura pulled the Malibu up to the pedestrian ramp around the side, and we waited as my father navigated its serpentine length and burned through two cigarettes.
“I can’t smoke in your car, can I?”
“[a grunt implying annoyance and grudging acceptance]”
The first stop was Woburn, to pick up his cat from our place. During the drive he chatted about his future plans, gossiped about our family, and offered condolences to Maura for her mother’s passing. He seemed fairly upbeat, and even complimented Maura on her driving skills — the first and only time he ever dished out such praise to a woman. (Maura, with her characteristic rejection of false modesty, simply responded “I know.”)
He didn’t bother going inside when I went to retrieve Peej, but instead sat on the front wall and smoked some more. Peej was less than thrilled against stuffed back into a pet carrier, and gripped the metal part of the spare room bedframe with a strength rivaling a silverback gorilla’s. (“Monkey mitts,” as we call them, run through his extended feral clan. His grandpa-uncle Scraggly kept his vise-like grip right up until the FIV finally took his life.)
The old man sat in the back of our car with Peej, lobbing endearments his way between picking up various threads of our previous conversation.
We got him to his apartment in Southie, and I helped him down the precarious set of steps leading to his basement apartment. He’d always swatted away such offers of physical assistance, and I couldn’t work out if this new development was a positive or negative one. We set up Peej’s bowls and litter box, made the old man’s bed, and put away the food we’d picked up for him. We also hiked to the convenience store on the opposite slope of the Heights because whoever cleaned my dad’s apartment while he was away had tossed his stash of smokes.
Even though we told him we wanted to beat Friday afternoon traffic, my dad kept throwing in new tangents to keep the conversation going. Some of it bordered on self-reflective, though always with performative overtones. (What, you didn’t think I was born with this talent, did you? It’s a learned behavior.) I’d known him long enough to be able to separate spontaneous bits from obviously rehearsed ones, and the latter were very much on display. “When I was 20, I was at war. When I was 40, I was a widow. When I was 60, I retired. Who knows what 70 is gonna hold?” Again, it’s the type of shit which sounds really profound if you weren’t exposed to it on a daily basis since infancy.
For all the old man’s talk about turning over a new leaf, it didn’t take long before his natural deviousness reasserted itself. To make his lofty talk a reality, there were things which needed to be done. First and foremost among these was the need to see a doctor, which was an absolute prerequisite for securing other services he needed. There was also the question of getting him into some semi-assisted living place better suited to his diminished mobility and safety. My dad was great when it came to talking this shit up, but piss poor when it came to actually following through on it.
The doctor’s visit was absolutely crucial for securing him home healthcare support. Lil Bro repeatedly and forcefully explained that to the old man in no uncertain terms, and thus got an earful of irate whining when our father’s inaction threatened to blow up in his face.
He then moved onto to controlling behaviors aimed at offloading the blame, complaining that scheduling a courtesy shuttle ride to the health center was too complicated and threatening yto cancel if Lil Bro didn’t drop everything and drive him there. And when Lil Bro did contact the place to arrange a ride, the old man took credit for setting it up.
The ER and rehab might’ve dealt with some of the old man’s physical issues but they didn’t do anything about the underlying psychological one — that enforced idleness and isolation inhibited my father’s pathological need to stir up shit. I’d be hard-pressed to thing of a worse place to live than in his head, but that’s where he spent most of his post-retirement life, a stew of resentments and “brilliant advice” and plans for killer mindfucks all percolating and gaining intensity.
Non-critical tasks became matters of utmost immediacy and transparent excuses for exerting control. Lil Bro bore the brunt of it, and it was often downright nasty. He got wrongfully accused of fucking things up and not caring because the old man didn’t have an estate as large as our grandmother’s. Neurotic impatience I can kind of empathize with, but my dad made a point of dipping those barbs in pure psychological venom.
I told him as much the last time I saw him. It was on a Sunday grocery run (but no smokes, because he actually did manage to quit) and we found him back in bed like the previous three months never happened. I didn’t raise my voice or rise to his bait. I simply told him that he’d been extremely shitty to Lil Bro, after everything the kid had done for him, and he ought to apologize to him.
There was a space of a half minute or so where it seemed like the old man got the message, before launching into an extended whine about how we promised we take care of things and hadn’t lived up to that and he understands but I had to understand and a bloo bloo bloo he was totally justified in being a massive prick. I let it all slide past me, and left with “I’ve said my piece.”
We didn’t speak again until he needed another grocery run, which he used as an excuse to try and play his boys off each other. I’m still unclear what the actual scheme was, apart from telling the two of us completely different stories without (again) grasping that Lil Bro and I regularly communicate with each other and share notes. Lil Bro, who was thoroughly tired of the old man’s bullshit by that point, wanted to cancel outright but the decision was made for us by a snowstorm which rolled in on the day we’d planned to go see our father.
I had no intention of driving (or asking anyone else to drive) into South Boston during whiteout conditions, but the old man was still smarting from our previous clash and piled on another batch of pass-agg pissiness. (Lil Bro went the following day because he’d already had something scheduled in the city.) My dad stopped calling me entirely, save for when he tried to give my number to someone as an emergency contact and accidentally dialed me.
He tersely explained as much, I responded with a flat “okay,” he ended the call without saying anything else.
I felt guilty about it (and more than a little sorry for the sad old jerk), but he was the one who taught me to stand my ground when principles are at stake.