There’s no sense of victory when Russell gives in—merely sadness that it took this long and under these circumstances.
“Well, Dad. You’re here. Hope you’re comfortable.” My gaze falls on the recliner where he rests.
Of course, he doesn’t respond. His words left along with everything else.
I scan the addition’s sitting area. Completed several years ago, it’s still meticulous. There’s not so much as a scratch on the white woodwork, and the pale goldish-beige walls look as if they were painted last week.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time with you. The kids and their families are coming for Christmas, and this’ll be the first time you’ll be here to celebrate in too many years.”
Wendy’s stayed in the kitchen in order to give me some time alone with my father.
Now I turn and walk toward the door, leaving all the lights ablaze. Put the television on, I think and tune in his favorite ESPN. “Be back in a shake.”
Heading for our kitchen in the main part of the house, I wonder what she’s making for dinner. An earthy tomato and zesty spice aroma greets me. It’s her spaghetti. We’ll start eating in Dad’s rooms tonight.
* * *
Several years ago my mother was hospitalized with a fast-growing, inoperable tumor. During one of our last private conversations, she said, “Take care of your father. He mustn’t be left alone.” Then, “If only Susan were alive.”
I gently squeezed Mom’s limp hand. “Wendy will help in every way.”
“You’re right. Wendy’ll know what to do.” Mom released a rattily sigh. “There’s plenty in our accounts for his living arrangements.”
A short while before Mom’s illness, Wendy had retired from her nursing position at a local medical clinic.
Mom had always been close to her, and after Susan’s car accident, their bond firmed. No surprise, in these final hours she would think of my older sister. I assumed that my mother didn’t know about Susan’s drinking on the night she plowed into a telephone pole. Our police chief, a friend of the family’s, kept this out of the news. Roads coated in black ice seemed like enough of an explanation.
Mom, however, surprised me with her following words. “Poor Susan. No family of her own and your father passed his problem to her.”
When I relayed this acknowledgment, as well as her wishes, to Wendy, rather than look for a retirement home, my wife immediately started planning the addition.
“What if he won’t move in?” I worried.
“It’ll be so nice, he won’t be able to resist.”
“If he does?”
“We’ll use the extra space for when the kids come to visit.”
Holidays with our two sons, their wives, and the five grandchildren did get cramped.
“Maybe Russell would enjoy having the little ones camp out with him.”
“A positive argument.” But nothing about this idea made me feel upbeat.
* * *
During construction Dad had three car accidents and still he wouldn’t stop driving. Somehow he never got a DUI, and luckily no one had been injured or killed. I was forced to confiscate his car keys and donate the old Buick to charity. Being the kid who got bullied in school because of thick glasses and braces, this was the first time I ever assumed such a role.
And this new role became a bigger part of my personality with each call from the fire department. Against Dad’s better judgment, I’d installed a security system right before Mom died. He never set it, but the smoke alarm went off when he forgot something on the stove or a lit cigarette fell to the carpet. Firemen would arrive within minutes to save him, and I would follow close behind, having dropped everything for the twenty-mile drive.
“I’ll sure be glad when your addition is done,” I finally told Wendy.
“It’s ours,” she said. “And Russell’s.”
Meanwhile, we brought him over to our house every Sunday. He showed no interest in the construction that was behind a protective barricade so we didn’t tell him anything. When he did ask about the mess in our driveway, I said, “Doing some improvements.” In the past he’d have demanded details.
* * *
The addition looked better than I figured possible. Instead of an L-shape, the house, with specially milled cedar painted to match the original medium brown, was a U-shape. Inside, heavy, functional furniture and rugs with designs that reminded me of Southwest Native American art—tan and brown and rust with splashes of turquoise—made the rooms warm and inviting.
Dad always liked to visit Arizona. He’d say, “Great to get away from the rain in Seattle.”
“He should like it,” I said to Wendy.
“You like it too?”
“It’s great. The cactus garden’s a nice touch.” I hesitantly rubbed my finger on a prickly plant. “I couldn’t quite picture the plan.”
“For an architect, you showed an amazing lack of imagination.”
“My imagination worked fine. I had a hard time buying into the whole idea.”
“I’m sure Russell will decide to move right in when he sees it.”
“Wish I had your confidence.”
* * *
The day we showed him the completed rooms, I picked Dad up from his three-story house that dated back to 1910 and brought him to our mid-century rambler.
As usual, he grumbled every few minutes, “If I hadn’t given up the Buick, I could have come by myself.”
After brunch of his favorite thick-cut bacon and runny eggs and cinnamon rolls, we showed him the addition.
“You want me to live in this apartment?”
“It’s not an apartment; it’s part of our house. And sure, wouldn’t you be more comfortable here than shaking around in that big, drafty place of yours?”
“I like my big, drafty place.”
I understood why he was attached. He’d spent decades there with my mother, and there were hundreds of projects he’d worked on.
Still, “It was fine, Dad, when Mom was alive, when Susan and I were growing up. Wendy and I worry about you being there alone every day…every night.”
“I like my privacy.”
You like to be unobserved so you can drink as much as you want.
Saying that wouldn’t help, so I aimed for patience. “We want you to give this a try. Wendy went to a lot of work getting it ready for you. There’s plenty of space. A sitting area with a big-screen television for watching your games. A desk for your computer. You can even bring guests.” I pointed to the far wall.
Wendy hadn’t said anything until this moment. “I included a kitchenette,” she piped in. “You have your own bathroom. A separate bedroom.”
“What more do you need?”
All six feet of him pushed my five-foot-two wife aside and huffed from the rooms.
Wendy put her hand on my arm and my breathing eased.
For eighty-five years old, Dad moved fast. Within minutes, he’d put on his jacket and stomped out the front door.
“Wait a minute. We need to discuss this.”
“Discuss-Miscuss! If you don’t drive me home, I’m calling an Uber.” Standing on the sidewalk, he reached for his iPhone.
Anyone watching this little drama would have found him to be as with it as many sixty-year-olds. That anyone wouldn’t have seen the father we feared for.
“Russ, let it go,” Wendy whispered. “Take your dad home and let him think for a while.”
* * *
Once he’d rejected the addition, we continued to bring my father to our house for visits at least once a week, and I stopped by his house every few days to check on him. Wendy filled in with shopping and appointments.
“The doctor says his blood pressure is awfully high,” she told me. “If he remembers the medication, everything should be okay.”
“Will he remember?”
She shook her head. “The doctor also said Russell shouldn’t be alone.”
“That’s what everyone thinks—everyone except Dad.”
Since he’d been so negative about a move, Wendy started serving our weekly meal in the addition, saying, “This way he’ll get used to it.”
The first time he said, “Why are we eating in this apartment?”
“The television is better,” I blurted out. “Want to see the Seahawks win on that big screen?”
“The other one is fine with me.”
Wendy made his favorite golden-brown pork chops, like Mom’s, and afterward the two of us hunkered on matching tan leather recliners, positioned toward the screen.
Dad never said another word, merely chugging several Bud Lights. He didn’t even cheer the Seahawks on or chew them out.
As football season progressed, my attitude gradually shifted upward. We’d gotten him to every family gathering: grilling burgers on the new patio for Labor Day, making a turkey in the new oven for Thanksgiving, cooking a beef roast on a rotisserie setup of Mom’s for Christmas.
Our sons were effusive when they saw his rooms. Later, I toned them down. “Have to play our cards right. Too much pressure and he’ll dig his heels in and never move.”
“In that case, we’ll sure enjoy staying here, “ our oldest son’s wife said.
“I like it too, but it’s meant for Grandpa,” he said.
“Just trying to be helpful.”
* * *
During a drive back to Dad’s house after the 2014 Super Bowl, I felt as buoyant as a helium balloon floating toward the sun.
“Best team ever, huh?” I said.
“Could you believe that safety?”
“Wilson looked terrific.”
“Did you enjoy it at all, Dad?” In the past we would have replayed the whole game.
He paused for a few seconds as my balloon sprang a leak.
“I know what you and Wendy are trying to do, Russ,” he said. “I’m not having any of it. That apartment she put together is damn nice. Maybe you can find a renter. I’m not moving in.” This was followed by the real zinger. “You took over the company. You’re not going to take over me.”
I’d worshipped Dad during my formative years. We spent hours together drafting plans and building model houses. It was a no-brainer that I’d be an architect too. With retirement from our company, he’d been excited about lots of travel. My parents did go on a tour of England before Mom got sick.
After I walked him onto his porch, I hugged his thin shoulders. “Please reconsider, Dad.”
“Not going to happen, son.”
* * *
Wendy and I gave up that day of Seattle’s Super Bowl win, opting to go back to our old way of entertaining my father, in the old part of our house, reconciling ourselves to the possibility that he might never leave his house. Whether he made a conscious decision to up his stubbornness, or whether what came next was because of brain deterioration from alcohol-related dementia, we never knew. The following week I went to pick him up, and a new behavior surfaced.
An hour beforehand, I called him. “Dress warmly. There’s snow in the air.”
“Warmly,” he mumbled.
When I got to his front door, I noticed that the blinds were tightly shut. I rang the bell and waited and rang and waited and rang and pulled out my phone. Three calls went to voicemail.
Has he succumbed to a stroke?
With my heart beating like a sledgehammer, I took out my key, opened the door, and crept in.
Snores reminiscent of the cranking sound his old Buick had made when he ran out of gas filled the living room. With only one far-off light illuminating the whole house, I could barely see him. My eyes adjusted and I looked toward his recliner. He sprawled on it like a cast-off Raggedy Andy, with mouth gaping. As I moved closer, the sweet smell of alcohol clouded his face. Unlike me, my father’s hair never thinned. Its reddish-gray surrounded his head as if blown about by a tornado. In his right hand, a tumbler tipped, about ready to fall on the floor. A lone drop of whiskey clung to the rim, aiming for a soaked-up puddle on the carpet below.
I took the glass from his hand. He never stirred. I picked up the open bottle next to him, along with the full ashtray, and brought them in the kitchen.
When he comes to, will he realize I’ve been here?
I walked out the front door, carefully locked it, and pulled my coat collar more snugly around my neck.
Upon my return, Wendy said, “Why didn’t you wake him and bring him over?”
“He was down for the count. No amount of shaking would have roused him.”
“What if there’s another fire?”
“The stove was off and there weren’t any lit cigarettes.”
“If he won’t move in here, we need to find someone to live with him.”
“Good luck with that!”
Despite my misgivings, we started our search for a companion.
A guy about his age, whose wife had died, didn’t want to live alone. A serious young fellow who attended the nearby community college, studying computer science, needed a cheap place to live. A woman friend of my mother’s, whom Dad had always liked, couldn’t afford their house after her husband died. She would have cooked and cleaned and done laundry for him.
On this one, Wendy said, “A romance might bring Russell out of his doldrums.”
His clipped verdict for all three: “Damn it! I want my privacy!”
* * *
After he got lost in the woods behind his house, taking a shortcut to the store where he bought booze, a police officer said, “Go to Senior Services and request help.”
The receptionist said, “There’s nothing we can do without his consent,” and referred me to a geriatric attorney.
He said, “Even with all the legal papers in order (Dad had signed a Power of Attorney and medical directives as Mom had requested), you won’t be able to get a guardianship if he stands up in court and declares his desire to stay put. Plus, you’ll have to pay all the legal fees. You cannot expect to win. Until a person is deemed a harm to himself or others, nothing can be done.”
“What about getting lost in the woods and having fires in his house?”
“Not severe enough.”
“I have to wait for something catastrophic to happen?”
“That’s about it.”
There were monthly occurrences of other dangerous behaviors: things like crossing streets in a drunken stupor and being narrowly missed by a car (the woman driver took him home); entering some stranger’s house with a tale of woe about how his family had deserted him; and tripping on a curb at the drugstore and receiving a check by a customer who happened to be a doctor. These people were creative in how they tracked me down. Dad never would have provided my identity. They tricked him into revealing personal information. He offered my mother’s name to the woman who almost hit him and drove him home. On her call, she told me, obviously feeling like quite the detective, “I found you through Ancestry.com.”
Without exception, these folks who made contact were sympathetic and passed along their own stories of alcoholic relatives.
The worst thing was when I got to his house and found him with a bruised and swollen face, his eyes bloody-red.
“How did this happen?” I demanded.
He shrugged. “Bumped into a doorframe in the dark.”
I pleaded to take him to the doctor.
He absolutely refused.
Night times, staring at the bedroom ceiling when I should have been asleep, I’d contemplate what might happen next.
“The circles under your eyes are getting darker,” Wendy said.
On a last fire call, the chief personally came to the scene. He told me, “One of these days we’ll be out at another incident and won’t get here in time. He absolutely should not be living by himself.”
“I’ve done everything I can do to change that.”
“I’ll disconnect the stove so it won’t be a problem and put a notification on the back: Do not reconnect by order of the fire department.”
“That’s a great idea. He has a microwave.”
I never did figure out how my father got the appliance operating again.
* * *
It didn’t matter. Soon after this, his story ended. It wasn’t anything painful or horrible as I had imagined. One day I stopped by his house after a weeklong out-of-town trip. It was always hard to leave, but Wendy and I agreed we couldn’t stay home in order to maybe pick up the pieces. As was my practice, I called ahead. He didn’t answer. When I got to his house, he didn’t come to the door, and I had to use my key—something I’d gotten used to doing. Inside, he was curled up in a fetal position on his chair, with the same gaping look about him. There was no snoring and he didn’t have a glass in his hand. Several empty bottles circled his chair. The ashtray overflowed with extinguished cigarettes. It was a repeat of other times, except for the smell. He’d been gone several days, the coroner determined.
* * *
We’re done with our spaghetti dinner—delicious, as usual. Wendy puts our dishes on a tray and heads back to the main kitchen. I’ll join her in a few minutes.
I pick up the brass urn from Dad’s recliner and hug it to my chest. It has Navajo designs etched upon it.
Where will he go?
One light in the ceiling flickers, stops, flickers again.
“You did it your way, Dad,” I say. “Was that worth it?” and “No matter, it’s over.”
I choose to put him on a shelf, facing the television. I give the urn one last gentle rub across its rough surface. I turn on ESPN. I’ll leave the television going, very low, indefinitely. Along with the flickering light.