The head-on collision didn’t kill me.
My cell phone wasn't so lucky.
“…Sandy…Carol’s…she’s in…” I deleted the message. I’d had no messages until about 20 of them popped up all at once on my cracked cell. Hiding, no doubt, till safer terrain prevailed.
Sandy. Not familiar. Carol…hmmm…oh right. Carol.
From the remaining, wounded messages, I cobbled the story together. Carol was in hospice. Sandy left several voicemails with the details. The cancer that lurked in Carol’s sinuses marched on undeterred.
“Sandy called. Carol is in hospice,” I said to my husband.
“Carol who?” His face squinched up. “Sandy who?”
“Carol, My dad’s wife…remember?” I mulled a couple seconds. “I think Sandy is one of her daughters.”
“Oh,” he nodded. “Never heard of Sandy, I kind of remember Carol, I barely remember your dad.”
You and me both.
“I should go.”
“Vegas. I hate that he’s alone when his wife is dying.”
“Why?” he said. “He’s never given a shit abou-”
He shuffled closer, arms swinging, legs stiff but bent like a marionette without enough strings, looking 20 years older than when I’d last seen him.
Lurching through the airport crowd, he grabbed my carry-on in silence and kept going.
“Hmmm?” He glanced back. “We’re going to the car.” His watery eyes widened, brow raised, a thin line of panic snaked through his voice.
“Yeah, we are…I guess…” I followed.
That’s it? I hadn't seen him in years and that’s all he had to say? No, hello, or so good to see you? When I let him know I planned to come he'd sounded distracted, which I kind of expected, considering.
Not true. I expected some gratitude. At least a lilt of surprise in his voice, some sign he felt pleased that I would make the effort.
A hair of shame tickled up my neck. No expectations – I’d come for him, not for me.
Something wasn't right.
We'd walked around the parking garage several minutes before it occurred to me he didn’t know where he'd parked his car.
“Are we lost?” I asked.
He stopped short, his shoulders drooped with the weight of an unknown burden. “Where are we?” My carry-on slid from his grip to the concrete.
“He spun in circles all around the parking garage,” I whispered into the phone to my husband. “He ran up and over the medians into oncoming traffic, like three times. I thought he was gonna kill us both.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“If I had to take a stab, I’d say Alzheimer’s, dementia or something.”
“He recognizes you though, right?”
“Yeah, but he doesn't know where he is or where he’s going.” I leaned against the sink. “He just acts weird.”
“Where are you now?”
“We made it to his house – a miracle. I’m in the bathroom, hiding.”
I inched the door open a crack to peek out.
“He’s got a chair turned over in the living room. Fixing it with his ice pick.”
“Wow. That is weird.”
“You're telling me.” I leaned in to make sure my dad couldn’t hear me. “There’s a hole in the wall where he put his fist through it.”
“I should’ve come with you. No telling what he might-”
“He can barely stand. I don’t think he’s a threat. Not anymore.”
“Same, I think. I haven’t seen her yet.” I checked my watch. Time for a drink. Please God. “Tomorrow morning we're going over.”
“Well, maybe you can head back early. Not anything you can do any-”
“I gotta go. He’s unplugging the TV.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Dad, give me the keys.” I'd just loaded the dishwasher with our breakfast dishes.
“No. I can drive fine. What’s the matter with you?”
“The sooner you give me the keys the sooner we can see Carol.”
“You don’t know where you’re going.”
Shit. That made two of us.
His eyes filled, he shook his head. “She just lies there. Doesn’t even open her eyes. What am I gonna do without her?” He wiped his face with both hands and breathed out, heavy. “How long have you been here?”
I wanted to reach out for him, but didn’t. “Let’s go, Dad. You can tell me how to get there. You’re tired, too tired to drive.”
He surrendered his keys. “How much do you think I can get for her car?”
“Something is definitely wrong with him,” Sandy said. After a quick introduction, we huddled in the corner of her mother’s hospice room. “I told my mom we should call you, let you know. But, she was afraid he’d find out, afraid of what he might-”
“Yeah, I know the drill. I don’t blame her.” My eyelids felt heavy, the air trapped in my chest. “I don’t know what I could’ve done about it anyway.” Or what I can, or want, to do about it now.
“He’s in pretty bad shape,” Sandy nodded her head in my dad’s direction. He sat perched, like a parakeet before flight, at the edge of the small sofa in the room, his eyes murky, full, mouth half open, nearly catatonic.
“Let’s go,” He jumped to both feet, startling us. “I want to get an ad in the Penny Saver to sell Carol’s car.”
“Pull over. You don’t know where you’re going.” I jumped, surprised by his screech in my ear.
“What are you talking about? I’m going the same way we came.” I drove on.
He grabbed the steering wheel, hurtling us into oncoming traffic. I shoved him sideways and cranked the wheel back. We skidded back into our lane, horns screaming, cars swerving. He rammed both fists into the dashboard, his face purple, contorted.
“GIVE ME THE FUCKING KEYS,” he yelled, spittle flying out of his mouth.
I veered to the side of the road, my heart racing like a rabbit’s. I stopped.
“Get out,” I said.
“I said, get out.” I couldn’t look in his direction. “You almost killed us. Get out.”
“YOU almost killed us. You’re stupid. You’re head’s up your ass. If you’d just give me the goddamn keys…
Don’t cry. Don’t cry. My hands shook, but I said nothing, kept staring straight ahead. From my periphery I saw his head fall forward.
“I’m sorry…that’s no way for a father to talk to his daughter.” He wept, wiping at his still red face. “Say you forgive me.” He pled, a desperate tremor in his voice. “Please, say it.”
I shrugged, not trusting myself, or him.
“SAY IT,” he screamed.
I pulled back out onto the road.
“Are you hungry?” It’d been a bad day. I never gave eating a thought until I noticed the sun lowered over the mountains.
My dad hovered over his checkbook, muttering, painting Whiteout on his ledger, painstaking, careful strokes. “This isn’t right…”
I tiptoed behind him, peering over his shoulder.
BAM! For the umpteenth time that day, I nearly bolted out of my skin. He slammed his tight fist on the tabletop. “This isn’t right, they’re taking my money.” He turned his head to glare at me. “I told that bitch at the bank I’d turn her in if she didn’t stop stealing from me.”
I slid his check register closer. He’d scribbled numbers everywhere. It looked like John Nash’s chalkboard. Every white space covered in numbers with the occasional thick Whiteout skid mark written over in red ink.
“I’ll take care of it tomorrow, Dad.” My molars hurt from gnashing. “You need to eat.”
His face lit like a flashlight shone on it. “We could go to Marie Callender's. I know where it is.” He grinned like a 3 year old.
"No, I'm gonna cook you something."
"You are?" He clapped like a three year-old.
“Ummm…well…yes.” His mood swings destabilized me. “I got some stuff at the grocery store to make chicken soup.”
“Soup?” His face stretched open, delighted. “I love chicken soup…I didn’t know you could make it.” He toddled to the recliner, plopped down with a sigh, folded his hands in his lap. Waiting for his soup.
“Where are you now?”
“In the bathtub.”
“Where is he?”
“Taking his computer apart with a turkey baster and a cheese grater.”
“Any more incidents?”
“No, dinner went peacefully, thank god.”
“I could fly out and be there in the morning.”
Husbands worry when their wives try to corral psychotics.
“It’s fine. I don’t know what good I can do here so I’m gonna have to head home soon. He can’t live alone, and for Christ’s sake he shouldn’t drive,” I gulped my wine. “No way he’s giving up that car though. And I don’t think he’d agree to move somewhere else.” I chewed off a big doughy bite of my glazed donut.
“Where would somewhere else be?”
“I feel like it should be with us. He’s my dad.”
I could hear breathing on the end of the line.
“Are you there?”
“Yeah…look…this is up to you. I know he’s your dad…but he’s never done one thing for-”
I started crying, surprising myself. I held my half eaten donut out of the bubbly water. “I don’t know what I should do, I only know it doesn’t feel right to leave him to fend for himself.”
“I know…I just-”
“I don’t even know if we could handle him. He’s mean, maybe meaner. Unpredictable. I’d think some kind of an assisted living would be better equipped.” I swallowed a lumpy, sugary ball of heaven and chased it with a swig of Chardonnay, let my tears dry without wiping them. “I don’t know…”
“Does he have the money for that?”
“No idea, but I doubt it. He agonizes over his checking account and wants to sell Carol’s car. I talked to the bank teller, he’s got about $3000 to his name. But, I don’t know what he owes, where. He’s got a brand new car, already scratched and banged up, I’ll bet it’s not paid for.” I sat up far enough in the bubbles to pour another glass of wine. “The teller made it pretty plain he wasn’t welcome back at their bank. They try to help him figure out his bills, write checks, and he accuses them of ripping him off.”
“Man, what a mess. You don’t think they’re ripping him off do you? I mean he’s a prime target for-”
“No. I think they feel sorry for him, he’s alone, obviously ill…” I bit off another cloud of deliciousness. “No good deed…” I chewed with vigor. “Of all the men to end up without a wife.”
“Carol’s still hanging on, right?”
“Yeah, just a matter of days, or hours. No one knows. Poor woman.”
I could hear his wheels turning. Considering, discarding. “Carol was…is…his sixth wife?”
“Jesus.” I imagined his eyes rolling. “You’re eating in the bathtub?”
“Donuts…and wine.” Nirvana. “I’m not getting out till they’re all gone…”
“…Or until my dad goes berserk. I gotta go.”
“I think you broke it.” I said. The keyboard looked bent, hanging off the table, teetering. The monitor cracked.
“I need to get that money.” He paced back and forth, a stilted hobble, his feet going forward, not leaving the ground.
“What money?” I pushed my wet hair out of my eyes, still gripped my wineglass.
“Carol has money in her account. I need to get it.”
“She has her own account?” Smart woman, Carol.
“Well, yeah…but she wants me to have it.” He banged the keyboard for good measure, sending it sailing to the tile floor.
“What’s all that?” I pointed to a heap.
“Stuff from Carol’s closet.”
I peered over the top of several haphazardly packed boxes.
“You can take whatever you want.”
“Dad…she isn’t even…and she has daughters…they should-”
My eyes went right to it.
“Why is this packed?” I held up a framed photo of my dad and me, circa forever ago. I realized there were several framed photos around the house, here and there. None of me, or my family. I dug through the box - two more photos of my kids, lay face down at the bottom.
His face stayed blank, “Why not? I told you, you could have whatever you want. Take it.”
I close my eyes to keep the tears in and put the photo back in the box. “No, that’s okay.”
“Is there any more of that soup left?” He bobbed to the next thing, like an ostrich. “I didn’t know you could make such good soup.”
“Yes.” I gathered myself. “I made a lot of it, so you could have leftovers, later.” When I’ve escaped.
"You know..." he gave me a smug smile. "It could still happen for me."
I turned the heat up under the soup pot. "What could?"
"You know..." He kept grinning. "Another woman."
"I'm still pretty young," he said.
Speechless, I stirred the chicken around in the broth.
“HEY! I have an idea. You wrecked your car, right?” He switched gears, all of a sudden he could remember.
“Well, I’ll give you my car. I’ll keep Carol’s and you can have mine.”
“No…I don’t want your car…thanks-”
“You can just have it.”
“….and I’ll make the payments for you.”
“Payments? I don’t-”
He giggled, giddy, excited about his good idea. “Yeah, I’ll make the payments for you…for the first six months.”
“Ummm…no…thanks, but no.”
“Come on, it’s a good deal.” He stopped pacing. “I’ll make the payments for the first three months.”
“Dad. Stop. I don’t…”
“It’s a great car. Brand new, Chrysler. You drove it.” He waved his hands, animated, face flushed. “All you have to do is take over the payments.”
“Flight get in okay?”
“Yeah, just walking out to my car.” I adjusted my sunglasses. “I’ll be home in 20 minutes.”
“That woman is tough. She’s still hanging on.” I shook my head. “Ten days now, no food or water. She looks peaceful though, sleeping.”
“What’s gonna happen with your dad?”
I sighed, loud. “I don’t know. His doctor says his dementia seems pretty advanced. He shouldn’t live alone..blah, blah…nothing I didn’t already know. Sandy graciously offered to keep an eye on him while we figure out what to do. Social Services said no one could force him to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Unless he kills someone, then the police will come but until then…”
“Knowing him, killing someone is a possibility. If I were you, I'd let it go. He doesn't deserve your help.”
“I know, I know…I just can’t let him wander the streets can I?” Anxiety’s prickly fingers ran up my neck. “We can talk about it this afternoon, when you get home from work.”
I saw seven voicemails on my phone, left during my flight home. All from my dad. He’d written my phone number down in giant numbers and had me tape it to his phone.
“ARE YOU THERE? I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME.”
“SOME FAT BITCH FROM SOCIAL SOMETHING OR OTHER CAME HERE. YOU'RE RUINING MY LIFE.”
“PICK UP THE PHONE. I HATE YOU. YOU CAN’T TAKE AWAY MY CAR.”
“I’m sorry. Say you forgive me. I shouldn’t talk to you that way. Say you forgive me. PICK UP THE GODDAMN PHONE.”
I deleted them all.
I turned into the driveway at the same time my phone rang. Him.
“Dad?” I braced myself for the barrage of abuse.
“What are you doing?” He sounded young, vacant.
“Just getting home.”
“Home? Oh…did you go somewhere?”
I rubbed the creases in my forehead with my free hand. “Oh…nowhere special. What are you doing?”
“I’m heating up some soup. I think its left over from Marie Calendars. I went there…before….Do you want to know what kind it is?”
I felt my heart break.