(ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)
My father ran into a problem His plan for his retirement years didn't work out. He'd married a woman much younger, but she contracted breast cancer and died leaving him stranded. We didn't go to the funeral; I didn't think he wanted us to attend.
On her deathbed, his wife made arrangements for him to live with a friend of hers. He probably should have been in a facility of some sort by this time, but the woman, Abagail, worked at such a place and said she could take better care of him if he came to live with her in return for his social security checks.
I never visited, but one day she called and said, "Your father isn't doing well. He has dementia. Perhaps, you want to come visit while he still remembers who you are."
Luckily, my son Michael was staying with me at the time and said he'd go. We arrived in the early-afternoon. It was a rundown neighborhood on the outskirts of Albany, N.Y. The house was large and dilapidated. Michael rang the bell. Abagail was a middle-aged Caribbean woman with lovely coffee colored skin and sing-song accent.
"It's so nice to meet you at last," she said. "Please come in."
It was ironic. My father spent his life railing against people "of color" and yet that was who took care of him. She ushered us into the living room. A mangy dog came to greet us that only had three legs. A bald toothless man sat on the couch with a deranged look holding a cat with only one eye. Another cat hobbled across the floor dragging its hind limbs.
"I collect stragglers," Abagail said cheerily. "Done it all my life. Don't be scared of Earl. He won't hurt ya. Come on back, your father's in his room."
She led us down a long dark hallway, past a kitchen with a linoleum covered table and plenty of dishes in the sink. "Al, there's somebody to see you. Say hello."
He was sitting on an old fashioned bed with the springs exposed watching a soap opera on a battered TV. He was still large and imposing, but his skinny legs proturded from his shorts like knobby french fries. "You remember Michael, your grandson?"
"Oh yes, Michael, my boy!" He rose to his feet and enveloped Michael in a bear hug. "And Margaret--you remember your daughter don't you?"
"Oh, yes, my little girl." He chucked me on the chin and patted me on the head the way he did when I was a little girl. I hated it.
"How are you Al?"
"I been better, but I been worse."
There was a lopsided chest of drawers, cracked mirror, crooked blinds, and a window looking out on a courtyard with plenty of weeds growing between the cracks, and a crucifix high above the bed--probably where he couldn't get at it.
"We thought you'd like a day out grampa," said Michael. "Maybe we can go to Lake George and drive around--would you like that?"
"Oh, that would be good."
Abagail opened the bottom drawer and took out an old jacket. The "Appleton Country Club" crest was fadded and freyed. "Take this," she said. "We don't want you to catch cold."
He snatched it from her as he would a thief. On the way out, I noted a thick metal bolt on the outside of the door. Maybe she locked him in at night. I wasn't asking any questions.
On the trip, Michael asked: "Are you eating good grandpa?"
"Oh yes, lots of food--peanut butter and jelly--chicken soup--cranberries."
"Do you get out much? Stretch your legs?"
"Yes. I go to the store."
"That looks like a pretty rough neighborhood. Do you ever have any trouble?"
"No. I'm no trouble at all."
After driving around the lake, Michael pulled into a small marina. "Maybe you'd like to go on a boat, grandpa--when was the last time you did that?"
"I don't remember."
"I know how to drive. My father taught me. You remember my father--Andy--don't you?"
"Yes, Margaret married Andy."
Michael went to rent the boat. He was so excited I couldn't say no. I had absolutely nothing to say to Al during the interim. He had a dreamy look in his eye as if he was trying to recall something but couldn't. His skin was pale and parched. Abagail must have prepared him for our visit; there were nicks and patches of dried blood on his neck and chin.
We bought sandwiches and beer. All Al had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride. It was impressive how effortlessly Michael untied the boat and steered out the inlet into the open water. The further we sped from shore the wider my father's eyes became. At one time, his size and power terrified me. Now, it was a relief to see him practically helpless.
When we reached the center of the lake, surrounded by the heavily wooded hills, bouncing merrily on the waves, Michael cut the engine and we drifted. "Do you want some beer gramps?"
"Oh yes, I want beer." He grasped the bottle and swilled it down in one gulp. The foam spurted from his mouth and rolled down his chin. Then Michael unwrapped a sandwich and gave it to him. He stuffed it into his mouth as if he hadn't eaten for weeks. I had the sense I was seeing him as he really was--and always had been--a man with no sense of civility or decorum--a beast barely held in check.
I kept thinking: this is my father. This is who I come from. Who does that make me? No wonder my greatest wish has always been to have a "normal" life without knowing what that was.
When he was done, he stood at the railing and tried to take his penis out of his pants. "Hey, gramps, what're doing?"
"Takin' a piss." But he didn't make it. I looked the other way; he sat back down. The front of his pants was wet--it was as if it never happened. He smiled his benign, lifeless smile, enjoying it.
With the last rays of the sun, we returned to the dock. My father seemed dizzy as Michael led him to the car. Upon reaching Abagail's, I let down my guard and reached my hand into the back seat to help him out. He seized it, squeezed hard, and wouldn't let go. It hurt so I squeezed back. We were standing in the middle of the street in a test of wills to see who could squeeze the hardest.
"Hey, hey, hey," Michael yelled. "What's goin' on?" He jumped in and pulled us apart. "I don't believe it. Grandpa you can't do this sort of thing. It's not right."
He looked at Michael and laughed. I knew the laugh well. "I'll take him back Mom," he said. "Wait in the car."
Even in his old age, he was ruled by hate. It's what gave him the strength to go on living.
(Comments and business inquiries welcomed)