Missed section one - click here
I spent the first 50 years of my life apologizing for who I was and the next 30 not giving a shit. I deserve to be the crotchety SOB I am today. God hasn’t exactly been generous in the answering prayers department. In fact, he’s been downright stingy. Eleven days ago I prayed my most desperate prayer yet, and nothing. The man upstairs and I aren’t on speaking terms at the moment. I’m the kind of guy who refuses to see his dying wife in the hospital. This shouldn’t have surprised my daughter; however, it didn’t prevent her from giving it one hell of a try at persuading me otherwise. Elizabeth had spent what seemed like hours first begging and then demanding me to see her mother. She’d allowed virtually no time for pleasantries when she first arrived before she started into her rant. That girl had some nerve to speak to me the way she had. She has her mother’s redheaded fiery temper but my dark hair and eyes. Go figure.
Elizabeth finally stopped for a breath about thirty minutes in. She was getting nowhere with this stubborn old man. I had taken my place in my recliner and pretended that her words weren’t getting to me. I nodded and raised my eyebrows a lot; all the while, every organ in my body throbbed. I had learned a long time ago that it did no good to try to match the intensity of my daughter or her mother when they ranted. They were too good at anticipating and too used to winning every argument. Acting as if I didn’t care about what they were saying was the best way to infuriate them, and I excelled at that. I didn’t want to accept the fact that Millie was dying and I wasn’t, which really pissed me off. “I can’t see her right now,” I’d said, which really riled her up.
“What do you mean you can’t? Blah blah blah blah blah!” She took a deep breath and opened her mouth to yowl some more. Instead, she became distracted by the state of my kitchen. “When was the last time that you cleaned this place up?”
“I can’t remember.” This obviously displeased my daughter. Elizabeth’s mouth hung open for a moment before she launched herself towards my kitchen and grabbed the trashcan. I really couldn’t remember the last time. Elizabeth didn’t know that I’d hired a fellow resident’s granddaughter to come every Saturday morning to clean my apartment. I’d never taken to cleaning up after myself, much to the frustration of Millie. Having Sarah come by and doing it for me provided a way for me to continue avoiding the dreadful task. Yesterday, when Sarah arrived, I told her I was sick and sent her away. I wasn’t really sick. I just couldn’t bear to have anyone in my apartment.
I usually ate dinner in the dining hall at the retirement home where I lived. But for the last week and a half, I’d been eating ninety-nine-cent Banquet microwavable meals in my apartment. The last thing I wanted to do was to go to the dining hall and make trivial conversation with people I can hardly stand. Hell, I couldn’t bring myself to have any conversation with anyone. Not even Elizabeth. Although I’m not sure she was in any state to have a back and forth exchange. Any communication happening in my apartment at the time was entirely one way. “How can you live like this?” she asked as she slammed the week’s worth of boxes and containers into the trashcan.
My stomach jolted. My daughter was really starting to piss me off. “Who do I have to clean up for?”
Elizabeth stopped her trash thrusting to flash me an indignant look. “For you! Do you not have any self-respect? Geeze, Dad. This place is disgusting.”
My intent was to leap out of my chair and confront my daughter in my kitchen. However, it took me so long to get to a standing position that my action lost the intimidating effect that I’d hoped for. I stomped toward Elizabeth. “It’s none of your damn business how I live.”
After Elizabeth had filled two trash bags, she flung open my dishwasher and started filling it with exaggerated movements. “You know, you don’t have to dirty a new glass every time you get a drink.”
I’d had enough of Elizabeth’s bullshit. My voice shook as I spat out my words. “I can use as many damn glasses as I damn well please because this is my damn house.” I know I could have been more creative with my explicatives but I was rather flustered. Plus, Millie had beaten all of the more colorful cuss words out of my vocabulary years ago. I grabbed a coffee cup off the counter and tried to squeeze past my daughter to put it in the dishwasher. I must not have had a very good grip on it though because it flew out of my hand and shattered on the floor.
Elizabeth gave me an apologetic look. “I’ll help you clean that up. Where’s your broom?”
“I’ll get my own damn broom and clean up my own damn mess.” My ears burned from a mixture of fury and embarrassment. “I’m not going with you to see your mother today, so you might as well just leave.” I had one hand on the counter to steady myself. I felt as if my knees would give out at any minute, and I certainly didn’t want Elizabeth here to witness it. “Well?” I yelled in the best get the hell out way I could manage.
Elizabeth’s eyes watered up. “You really are a jackass. Do you know that?”
“Yep,” I’d said, matter of fact like.
She let out a huge breath, shook her head at me and said, “Mom deserves so much better than this.” She stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
I bent to gather the slivers of my smashed cup only to realize it was my favorite one. My “World’s Greatest Dad” cup the kids had given to me for Father’s Day decades earlier was shattered along with any respect that they’d had for me over the years. I hadn’t realized how fast I’d been breathing until after Elizabeth had left. I started to feel a little dizzy. I sat on the floor to catch my breath and wondered when it was that my kids stopped looking up to me as their heroic daddy and began to see me for what I actually am.
I had a hard time slowing my breathing down to normal. I felt a tiny spark of hope leap in my chest, thinking maybe I was having a heart attack and would never have to clamber up off this floor. But then I remembered that God was much too cruel to let me off that easy.
I’m not sure how long I sat slumped on the floor of my kitchen. Eventually, I used a chair to pull myself up. It didn’t take as long as I thought to load my dishwasher and get it started. I even wiped off the counters. It’s a good thing Elizabeth hadn’t needed to use my bathroom. She thought my kitchen was dirty.
At least I didn’t have to worry about any other pesky visitors today. My kids took turns seeing me every other week. I used to look forward to those visits but now, every time I look at my kids, all I see is Millie. I miss my wife every minute, but somehow her absence feels greater when my kids are around. I poured a fresh glass of iced tea in my last clean glass and collapsed into my recliner. I resumed my never-ending pastime of staring at nothing. Aging is a lonely job, especially when your wife of fifty-eight years doesn’t recognize you anymore. My days are filled with just waiting to die, and it’s taking too damn long to happen.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Missed SEction two - Click here
I sat and stared and tried my best not to think about Elizabeth’s visit. I tried not to think about anything. My phone vibrated again. I’d already ignored a few calls from Elizabeth since she left and a couple from her brother. This time it was my son. I pressed the ignore button and shoved the thing between the armrest and the cushion of my chair. I rubbed my eyes firmly to keep myself from crying. At least Elizabeth had me so mad that I didn’t blubber in her presence. Anger is so much easier than facing the agony of losing Millie. It’s been so long since I’d had an actual conversation with the real Millie that I felt I’d lost her already. Elizabeth had no idea how close she’d come to breaking me earlier. I’d clenched my stubborn nature as if it were my only lifeline.
I needed to get my mind off of all of this. Surely there is a game on TV or something. The damn remote was across the room on my dining table. What in hell was it doing all the way over there? I stared at it as if I could conjure it to fly to my outstretched hand. Nope. A nap. There’s something I could do without having to leave my chair. I leaned back and closed my eyes reaching for nothingness. I concentrated on the whoosh of the dishwasher. Maybe the sound would lull me to sleep. Nope. Instead, Elizabeth’s words echoed in my head. “You really are a jackass, do you know that?” “Mom deserves so much better than this!”
Elizabeth’s face morphed into Millie’s, and it was no longer my daughter yelling at me but my wife. The long ago memory forced its way into my awareness with a distinctness I had not thought possible. I’d been out of town for a few days helping one of my friends on a construction job. Millie had expected me home hours earlier and was less than pleased when I finally clamored into the kitchen.
“You’re late.” Millie’s arms hung stiffly at her sides, her fists tightly clenched.
I gave her my remorseful look. “I’m sorry. Ted and I stopped for a drink and lost track of time.” Actually, we had gotten back in town at two that afternoon. We ended up calling a few other friends and spent the rest of the day drinking and telling stories. I spent the last hour and a half trying to sober up enough to drive home. I glanced at the clock: 8:48 p.m.
Millie took a few steps toward me to get a closer look. Her eyes squinted as she stared into mine. “You’re eyes are bloodshot. You’ve had more than a few drinks.”
“After working my ass off nonstop for three days, I come home to this?” I played a perfect victim. “No ‘Welcome home, I missed you’ from my wife?” I was good, but not good enough.
Her expression changed from extreme irritation to downright hostility. “You worked your ass off?! You poor baby. Do you want to know what I’ve been doing since you left? Oh wait, I don’t want to overwhelm you. Let me just tell you about today.” She held up her index finger. Uh oh. I was about to get the list. “First, Adam woke me four times in the night: twice because he was thirsty and twice because he had to pee. Four times being woken by Adam and two more times by Elizabeth wanting to nurse. That doesn’t leave much time for actual sleep.” Elizabeth started to fuss from the other room but Millie ignored her.
She held up two fingers. “Then, this morning, Adam colored on his bedroom wall. He tried to tell me that it was Elizabeth, but I didn’t think a fifteen-month-old could spell out A D A M.” I looked past Millie to see Adam grinning at me from the kitchen doorway. “He lied so convincingly, if it hadn’t been for the letters, I would’ve believed him.” She shook her head, sending her red curls bouncing, and her arms flailed around trying to make her point. Freckles spanned across her nose and cheeks that always darkened when she was all riled up. I loved those freckles. They’d faded through the years along with Millie’s temper.
God, I missed that Millie.
Three fingers. “Then, as I cleaned the markings off of the wall, the dog decided to get into the trash. I came out of Adam’s bedroom to find garbage strung all over the kitchen and dining room. And after I took care of that mess, I find that the damn mutt had vomited all over the living room rug.”
Elizabeth began to wail louder. I started toward the sound only to be frozen in place by Millie’s glare. Four fingers. “Neither kid has napped today. So, I have had no sleep and no break since 5:45 this morning and I’m about ready to blow.” Too late, she’d already blown. “I’m so sorry that I didn’t welcome you with open arms and a passionate kiss, but this is as good as I could muster today.” She let out a breath and her shoulders slumped in defeat. Tears cascaded down her face and I knew that for now, the list was finished. It was a good thing she’d only recounted the one day.
I was pretty sure that my wife no longer posed a threat to me and risked gathering her into my arms. She didn’t return my hug but she didn’t pull away either, so that must have been a good sign. “I’m so sorry you’ve had such a rough day. I had no idea. I should’ve come straight home.” I kissed her on the top of her head. “Go take a long bath. I got the kids. Take your time.” I watched as she shuffled out of the kitchen.
I raised my eyebrows and smiled at Adam. He grinned widely as I picked him up. “Son, don’t waste your lies on things that can be proved. I mean really, son, you signed your name.” He hugged me tight and giggled into my neck. I spoke from experience. I knew the guys would never give away the fact that I had been at the bar for six hours instead of coming home. We always had each other’s backs. All those guys are dead now. Lucky bastards.
When Millie came out of the bathroom, I sat in the rocker with both kids sleeping on my lap. She smiled and her eyes lit up. “I don’t think you’ve ever been more attractive to me than you are right now,” she said.
I made a point to stare at the towel wrapped around her head then took in her flannel nightgown with the pink flowers that stopped just above a pair of my socks that slouched down around her ankles. “Funny,” I said. “I was just about to say the same thing to you.” Millie laughed, and I knew that I was forgiven. She picked up Elizabeth to take her to bed. “You go on to bed,” I said. “I’m going to just rock him a little longer. He’s getting so big.”
Millie was already sleeping when I went to bed. I used to love to watch her sleep. The way her hair spilled all over the pillow and the peaceful look on her face in slumber always filled me with emotion. I gently brushed her hair off of her forehead, and at my touch a hint of a smile curved at the corner of her mouth. Even in her unconscious sleep, she recognized my touch. Millie lived with passion and gusto but was also the sweetest, most gentle woman in the world. How I longed for her to know me again.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I was supposed to be long in the ground before Millie reached the end of her life. I’d made a deal with God. I was so sure of our deal that when Millie was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I thought that at least my wife wouldn’t have to mourn me if she didn’t know me anymore. Instead, it’s me getting left behind, and I don’t even have the comfort a failing mind. Gee, thanks God. Thanks a hell of a lot.
TO BE CONTINUED...
I breathed slow and deep, trying to hold onto the image of Millie’s face. Oh, Millie. I was jolted to wakefulness when my son let himself into my apartment. What the hell?
“Whoa, Son, you must have your weeks confused. Your sister has already been here today.”
“You know why I’m here,” Adam said. His face was almost as red as his hair and his breaths came in short bursts. “Why didn’t you answer your phone? ”
I patted the front of my sweater feigning to look for my phone. “I must have put the damn thing down somewhere.” I moved my leg away from the pressure of my cell phone digging into my thigh.
“How did you lose that huge thing?” Adam asked looking over the top of his glasses. I didn’t think he believed me. “What good is having a phone if you’re not going to answer it?” Adam’s tight fists sat firmly on his hips. “You’re coming with me to see Mom today even if I have to carry your boney old ass there myself.”
Seeing my usually calm and collected son acting in this manner would’ve normally been comical. But not today. Millie used to call him the mediator. Always the peacemaker. His words reminded me of something that I would’ve said to him when he was little. I suppose it happens to every father eventually, when his kids feel the need to take on the parenting role in the relationship.
“Look at you, Adam. All tough. You got me all trembly,” I was shaking, but not from fear of my son. I wanted to see Millie but I also didn’t. “Seriously, son, calm down and take a seat. You’re gonna give yourself a heart attack or something.”
Adam plopped into the nearest chair and let out a huge sigh. He rubbed his forehead with his fingers and scrunched his eyes shut tight. “Dad, please listen. They don’t think mom will make it through the night, let alone tomorrow.” Adam wriggled in his chair in an obvious attempt to keep is composure. “You can’t put this off anymore.”
I sat in my old worn out recliner, the only piece of furniture I had brought with me when I moved into the retirement home, and stared out the sliding glass door. My chair outside sat dangerously close to the edge of my tiny six-by-six square patio. The side table took up the rest of the space. There was no need for the patio to be any bigger. A patio for one was all I ever needed.
I let out a sigh and said, “She won’t know I’m there anyway.” My damn voice cracked and I hoped he didn’t notice.
Adam’s tone was softer when he said, “I’m not thinking about her right now. You need to see her before it’s too late. Don’t you want to say goodbye? Won’t you regret it if you don’t?”
I glanced at my son. He looked just like his mother the last time I saw her eleven days ago with his furrowed brow and watery eyes, and I had to look away. “At least I won’t regret it for long. I’m coming up on eighty-two this March.”
“Your mom lived to be ninety-seven, and your dad was ninety-four when he died. You have plenty of time for regret.”
The damn kid was right. All five of my siblings were in perfect health considering. And even though I constantly complained about my joints aching and all of the stuff I can’t do anymore, I had no reason to believe that the end was near. My heart plummeted into my stomach.
My jaw tightened as I forced myself to stare at nothing outside. Why couldn’t he just leave me alone? I wanted to escape this reality that was my life. In the past, I would disappear into the world of a book. But as luck would have it my eyesight, unlike my health, was typical of an almost eighty-two-year old. Elizabeth had bought me an e‑reader a while back so I could make the print big enough to read, but it was in my bedroom, and I didn’t think I could maintain my cool trying to walk there this shaky. Plus, it might be rude with my son here and all.
“Dad, why do you do this? You just become more and more distant every time I see you.”
An easy question to answer: grief. When you’ve lived as long as I have and lost as much, you just don’t have the energy to maintain the façade of okayness.
A bowling ball stuck in my throat. I swallowed several times to make way for speech. “Let’s get this over with,” I finally said. I slid to the edge of my chair before creaking to a standing position. “Well, I’ll be damned,” I said as I held up my supposedly lost phone.
As I approached my son’s car, my daughter-in-law started to get out of the front passenger seat. Her excessive height always caught me off guard. She just kept unfolding until she towered over me. I could only take Clare in small doses. Something about her grated on my nerves. She was just so . . . sweet. It was as nauseating as it was infuriating. Her presence got my hackles up, and it took Herculean strength to keep my lip from lifting into a snarl. I lowered my head and scowled at the ground as I hurried to grab the back-seat door handle.
“Walter, please let me sit in the back. You’ll be a lot more comfortable up front,” Clare said with a honey sweetness that made me feel all sticky. Like she could fit in the back seat. I managed a noise something between a grunt and a growl, swung open the back door, and crawled in. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my son shake his head at her.
I stared out the window, wishing I were anywhere else but in this car with this woman. Clare turned toward me with her arm on the back of the front seat. “Don’t forget to put on your seatbelt.” Her voice had climbed an octave, and her words were delivered in the singsong way someone might address a disgruntled child. I turned my head toward her slowly and glared menacingly at her from the corner of my eye. Adam touched her arm and again shook his head in warning. Don’t poke the bear.
I clung to my lifeline tighter than ever. Anger is so much easier than grief.
A half block away from my apartment building, we passed the nursing home where my wife had spent the last couple of years. Elizabeth had asked me to move in with her and her family when I moved out of the farmhouse, but I had declined. I needed to be near Millie. Up until eleven days ago I hadn’t missed a single day, walking down to see her. That day had started as a normal day. I made my way toward her nursing home, wondering what kind of visit we would have. Most days she didn’t recognize me. I categorized those days as different levels of bad days. The visits weren’t always unpleasant as a whole, but not being known by your wife was its own kind of hell. Once in a while, her face would light up in a way that she reserved only for me. Even if it lasted only a few minutes, just the hint of being as important to her as I once had been earned those days a spot on the good day list. As I rounded the corner into her room I spotted her perched in a chair that had been pulled up to the window. “Good morning, Mills,” I said. I smiled at her, still hopeful.
She snapped her head toward me. Her white hair stood out in a frizzy loofa while her light brown eyes stared at me under a furrowed brow. Her watery eyes expressed fear and worry instead of the lightened up expression I’d hoped for. “I don’t know why my parents don’t come get me,” she said exchanging looks between the window and me. “They said they’d be right back but they’ve been gone so long.”