Friday, March 30, 2012

A reunion in the waiting room

By Felix Carroll

So this is how it goes, then? Peculiar behavior becomes “symptoms.” He brings his own coffee mug to your house for Thanksgiving. He asks, “How are the boys?” referring to your children, when he should darn right know you have a boy and a girl.

So he’s forgetful. Aren’t we all? So he’s a little aloof? Always has been. But when does forgetfulness become something else — a bookmark lodged in a lifetime whose words are slipping off the pages?

I’m remembering — when he visited, he unpacked his own sugar bowl, too, didn’t he? Yes, he did. And milk. He brought his own milk. His own milk? Lord, he brought his own coffeemaker, too. We thought it was sort of funny. He’s always been a creature of habit, now more and more so, right?

But it’s all making sense now, isn’t it? And is he really taking acting classes? Where’d that come from? He was a street-fighting man from Philadelphia, fists clinched, blue eyes scanning the horizon. Let me get this straight: acting classes? Yes, acting classes.

Maybe he knows without knowing. That words and memories slip away. So he’ll memorize everything for now on. And who will know? He performs that tear-jerker scene for you from “About Schmidt” where Jack Nicholson says, "But what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?” He keeps going, a soliloquy, about three minutes long. You can’t believe it. Dad is doing Jack Nicholson. And he’s serious about it. And he’s good at it. But this is weird, right? Why that particular scene? Oh, come on, you know why that particular scene. Dad’s taking acting classes.

It all starts making sense. Maybe this is all just practice for a larger role, a starring role? He’ll play himself. He’ll memorize what he thinks he’s expected to say. He’ll play himself till he can no longer play himself?

So this is how it goes? We get a call a couple weeks back. Dad has been rushed to the hospital. He’s got acute diverticulitis. They treat that, right? Questions are asked. Does he live alone? Yes. Did you know he was crawling around his apartment for two days? No, we didn’t know that. Did you know treating the diverticulitis may be the easy part?

Yes, take an MRI. Yes, show us the results. Yes, we’re ready. You hear the doctor say “neurons” and “plaque on the brain” and “progressive disease” and “power of attorney.”

You hear him say “dementia.”

We comb his apartment. The neat freak has left a mess. We search for clues — for the profile chalk-line marking where our father once lay and dementia rose in his place. Take a look, right there. The emails. The Nigerian email scam. He fell for it. Oh, God, you’re kidding me. No, God is not kidding you. Look, his bank account is drained. Look: unopened emails. Open them. Several from a woman. She needs more money. Not just money, but “more money.”

“Chris, where are you? Please, help,” she writes yesterday, then today. She keeps adding exclamation points to her emails. “Ashley Nash” is her name. Google her. Or just go to

He has always been generous. Say what you will. When he has money, he shares it. I hope people in Nigeria appreciate that.

So this is how it goes? We gather at the hospital. We come in from hours away, by highway, by air. To stave off germs, to stave off evil spirits, we walk these polished hallways pausing to yank at hand-sanitizer dispensers. We rub our hands together, front and back, and down to the fingertips, too. We smell like hand sanitizer. You’d think we’re rubbing our hands like worried people rub their hands.

Get me out of here, he says. But where to? No clue. His doctors have suggestions. We have a meeting planned. Until then, we sit around the table in the waiting room like tired, beaten generals. He’s in his room eating Italian ice. He has put his sneakers on. The ones he has used for his spinning classes. He has tied his laces tightly. Did you notice that? But he’s going nowhere.

Families don’t stick around the old hometown much anymore, do they? The kids grow up, and they’re gone. We’re gone. Doesn’t a father deserve better? To be able to stay put in his own home? To have his children live around the corner? To stop in before work? To have dinner with him? To take him to his appointments? What in God’s name happens next? He won’t give up the apartment without a fight. You know that, right? Yes, I do.

Just look at that. He keeps photos of us on his walls — in our Easter best, all of us on a toboggan, at Niagara Falls. Look at us, will ya? Which one of us is he cradling in his arms? It’s me. No, it’s me.

So this is how it goes? He’ll repeat stories over and over? You’ll need to undergo your own private boot camp. A Perris Island of patience. Because the war is coming. Will you have the patience to listen? Up to and beyond him forgetting what it was he was going to tell you?

Till he’s far beyond that coffee mug?

Till “remote” becomes “unreachable”?

Till we are strangers?

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