DEAR, WRAPPED FATHER
I leave behind a glorious spring afternoon, full of blooming forsythia and hungry robins and walk into the rehabilitation hospital where my father lies partially paralyzed. In his room, the shades are drawn, the lights off, and he lies in bed, his tall frame filling its length, his large feet propping up the sheet, tent-like. His head tilts against two pillows, his thick hair, usually parted and neatly combed, lies splayed against the bleached linens. His eyes are closed.
He’s oblivious to the season and to anything else that used to make him happy, including me, I think. Although it’s still too early for him to be in bed for the night, barely five o’clock, a nurse or aide has pulled up the metal bedrails to keep him from plunging to the floor, as, mysteriously, have a number of his personal belongings lately.
I take his glasses with their new lenses from my purse and slip them inside the drawer of his bedside table, next to a blue plastic basin that holds his toothbrush and toothpaste. I’m afraid he might knock the glasses on the floor and break them again, as he did his clock and the 12-inch iPad I’d brought. The drawer squeaks as I close it, and when I turn, he’s watching me.
“Hi Dad,” I say, still miffed over the damage. “How are you feeling?”
“So so.” He turns his head away. His voice is weak and hoarse, and I feel guilty for being so angry with him. Still, there’s something petulant and provocative in the way he’s acting, as if he’s intent on hurting me, now that he lies hurt and nearly helpless. I was here the day the clock went flying, though he insists it was an accident. He won’t speak to me if I mention the broken things, and he won’t speak to me if I skip visiting for a single afternoon. Sometimes I feel indentured and need to rebel. I stay away for a day, sometimes two, as I did after the iPad broke. Then I try to make amends.
“Here are your magazines,” I say, pulling several from my new, larger purse, a quilted red cloth bag with leather handles, which I bought recently to carry the growing number of things I bring to cheer him. I hold up Trout magazine. On the cover, an angler has jerked back his rod, flipping a beautiful speckled brook trout toward a net, its belly exposed for the viewer to admire, pink and pale, glistening and vulnerable.
“Look at that beauty,” I say. “You’ve caught more than a few like this one.”
“Don’t rub it in,” he says, waving his good hand dismissively at the once-loved magazine.
In his obituary, which, to my amazement, he prepared after his seventy-eighth birthday, saying, “Someone has to do this,” he had proudly listed, “member of Trout Unlimited,” a fishing club and publisher of Trout magazine. After that came “Fly Tiers of America,” comprising fishermen who make their own dry and wet flies with multi-colored feathers. These memberships were, he insisted as he showed me the document, to come ahead of the state bar association, and his university club and alumni associations. He wanted no doubts about what he had prized most—the outdoors, nature, and fly-fishing, his singular form of worship. But now the memory brought him no joy.
“Have you had dinner?” I ask, at a loss for what else to say after days and weeks of failed efforts at conversation.
He groans and looks away.
“What did you have?” I ask.
“Sarah, you know I can’t eat the rot they serve here.”
My father is a lamb chops and prime rib man, luxuries the hospital will never serve. I wouldn’t want to eat hospital food, either—whipped potatoes, canned green beans, and chopped sirloin; or turkey pie—lumps of dried turkey meat in a bland sauce with more canned vegetables. Some-times I bring him his favorite juicy cheeseburger from Charlie’s in the Square, but not on this day.
“Dad, you have to eat something or you’ll get sick.”
“Hah, sick—that’s a good one.”
When I visit the next morning, a Saturday, the physical therapists are already in his room working with him. The two young women come almost daily to massage and exercise his limbs, especially the left side, paralyzed by his stroke. The doctor said at first that the paralysis might be temporary, and with physical therapy, he could recover some functionality, maybe all of it, and I believed he would. Indeed, I wouldn’t consider the alternative.
But now, as I watch them move his stiff arm back and forth, it’s clear he’s not making progress, and his strength may even be waning. Has he given up? The thought terrifies me. His arm seems permanently bent at the elbow like a chicken wing flattened against his side. The hand curls in upon itself, the fingers pressed white-tight.
The head therapist, a bleached blonde, wears too much mascara and lipstick and her uniform is tight, gaping at her more-than-generous bosom, making her look rather cheap and unprofessional, I think. I’m uncomfortable around her, and I resent the way she’s so familiar with my father, calling him, “Stan the Man,” and laughing. He laughs, too, which makes the situation even more unacceptable. Her nametag reads, “Valerie Smythe.”
“Smiiithe,” she had said emphatically when we first met, “you pronounce the ‘y’ like a long ‘i.’ Please, just call me Val.”
I have to admit, she is good with my father. I appreciate how gently she pulls his hand away from his side, extending it as far as it will go, which is not very far.
She looks at him sympathetically, saying, “I know this hurts, Stan.”
Why can’t she just call him Mr. Barnes, like she should? He’s smiling at her, which contorts his mouth into a strange twist because the left side of his face, like the left side of his body, is paralyzed. What a silly smile, I think.
The stiffness in his arm is strong and stubborn as if all his athletic training—first track, then mountain-climbing, fly-casting, and scrambling up and down riverbanks—has returned to obey a berserk message inserted into his brain by nature’s hacker, a huge blood clot lodged somewhere in his motor cortex.
But he’s a strong man, surely he can beat this! Just weeks earlier he had lugged from the trunk of his car a dozen fifty-pound bags of wood chips for our garden, which curves around the front porch and into the backyard. Two at a time, one on each sturdy shoulder—he had seemed so ageless and powerful.
“Some stroke victims do recover,” Dr. Ridley tells me.
He’s an older man, white-haired, unlike my father, whose hair is still just lightly streaked with gray. I’ve asked to meet with him privately, as when he comes to my father’s room, he breezes in and out, having uttered a few banalities and encouragements. Now he looks away from me, pausing for a long time as if trying to remember something, but probably just avoiding me.
“In your father’s case,” he says, “he was lying in the woods for most of the day before he was found. The oxygen didn’t get to parts of his brain . . . for perhaps too long a time.” He’s staring at the tweed rug, and sighs, “Yes, perhaps too long.”
“You mean . . .” I choke back a sob of disbelief.
I wince at the thought of my father lying for hours on the forest floor. Many times I’d tried to imagine what he had gone through, the pain, the surprise, the sudden shock of being nearly immobilized, no one within earshot.
“Oh, no reason to be too pessimistic,” Dr. Ridley says now, sitting up straight as if remembering some long-lost intention. “He’ll go to the exercise room next week. We’ll get him on the parallel bars and see what happens.”
At home, I wander around our house feeling lost and alone without my father’s energy, his presence. I had never considered how much I depended on his being there. His things are in their place, his plaid wool shirts and spring jacket and boots in the mud room off the kitchen, his navy cashmere topcoat and silk scarf in the front hall closet, the lapel of the coat still dark with a coffee stain. My father is here—he’s everywhere and nowhere.
I’d never thought of him as old, though he was already fifty-three when I was born, his only child, and a most welcome one, he always said. His third and last wife, Melanie, my mother, had been one of his students at the law school, where he lectured occasionally, taking a break from his practice in Boston. They had moved into this house, an old Victorian on a cul de sac not far from the school. I was born and grew up here. Melanie died of lung cancer when I was only nine, and my father never remarried.
There are no photos of my mother around the house, just one in their bedroom and another in my father’s library. I like it that way. Old photos tempt a person to live in the past. My father and I have a good life together without her.
“We’re a team, Sarah,” he used to say. And we had been. When he took me fishing, he made me stick the disgusting night crawlers onto the hook myself, me trying not to squirm like the worms. No dry flies for this girl. I had to pierce the worms’ underbellies and squish their bodies along the metal curve, enough to ensure a worm would stay there while leaving some flesh free to dangle and wriggle in the water and thus attract a gullible fish. It was gross, cruel work, and I enjoyed it—for a while.
When puberty arrived, things changed. I no longer wanted to go fishing. One day I’d sauntered into the library where my father sat in his leather chair by the window reading legal papers, his bulging briefcase on the floor at his side.
“I’m going to the Square,” I said.
He looked up, about to tell me not to stay long, as he always did, but instead, he paused and frowned.
“Sarah, refined girls don’t wear makeup,” he said. I was twelve. I had met a cute boy at Lizzy’s Ice Cream Parlor. I hoped I’d bump into him again. The other girls at my private Catholic school often put on makeup in the schoolyard after school let out. I had bought some with my allowance. At my bathroom mirror, I had brushed on black mascara, dabbed a little blush on each cheek, and smeared a modest pink lipstick across my lips.
“Go upstairs and take it off. Now.”
I knew had Melanie lived, she would have at least allowed the lipstick. My father didn’t understand at all.
A few years later, when my date for the high school prom came down with a stomach virus at the last minute, my father insisted on taking me. At first, I felt embarrassed dancing with him, though we had danced together larking around in the kitchen or on the deck while steaks sizzled on the barbecue. At my school, tuxes were de rigueur at proms. My father certainly looked dapper in his, the one with long tails and a white bow tie. Indeed, I had always thought he looked positively movie-star-ish as I watched him go out the door to some function or other, perhaps a woman involved but never brought to the house, never mentioned.
We waltzed and did the freestyle club dancing—his sense of rhythm and timing was good—but for the Macarena and the shuffle, he stayed on the sidelines while I joined friends jostling in line, then bouncing in threesomes and fivesomes. I noticed several of my girlfriends swish by him, drawing out a more-than-friendly, “Hi, Mr. Barnes,” and giving him a flirtatious smile. After that, I held his arm a bit tighter.
My father didn’t understand dating. When I was a freshman at college, I met the nicest guy, Bill, a tall, blond fellow just out of the Air Force and still standing board-straight. Bill was from Buffalo and just starting at the divinity school, but his religious calling did not reassure my father. Bill and I had gone on a couple of dates—to study or to discover new folk singers on open mic night at Club Passim.
One day my father called me into the library. “This fellow Bill, you like him, do you?” When I said I did, he said, “I’m worried, Sarah. He’s much too old for you.”
“Not really, Dad, we get along fine.”
“He’s been in the Pacific, Sarah, done his R&R in Thailand and Japan. The servicemen go there for the prostitutes, dear.”
My ears rang. Bill and I had barely kissed. I was incredibly square by my classmates’ standards, still a virgin, and Bill a shy divinity student. I thought my father was off the wall.
I saw Bill for another month or so, though I never invited him home again. We stopped dating for the same reason a lot of people stop dating: we realized we were just good friends. Woodrow, however, a freshman like me, was different. My father should have been worried.
I stop by the hospital after a grueling day at the local high school, where I’ve become a substitute English teacher. I’ve vowed to get back to writing my dissertation before my thirtieth birthday in July, as my father will have recovered by then.
English, it seems, is a relatively foreign language to some of the natives. They cannot spell. Their nouns and verbs fail to agree. Or their sentences contain too many verbs to keep track of! Where does a teacher begin?
I’m tired and depressed. I feel one of my frequent migraines starting as I get off the hospital elevator. The pressure is building in my forehead, signaling the dizziness to come. I’m already a very unhappy daughter when I open the door to my father’s room.
It’s dim, as it often is, but even darker today, and at first I feel disoriented—is it the light? Or is it my migraine? I rub my eyes and then the movement is unmistakable as Valerie Smythe lifts her head from my father’s pillow and stands.
“Visiting time,” she laughs awkwardly. My father’s good arm lingers on her hip.
I drop my red bag to the floor, and an orange rolls out across the gray linoleum.
“I’ll let you two visit,” Valerie says. She sidles from the bedside, then quickly from the room.
“What the hell was that!” I fairly shout.
“Calm down.” My father coughs. “They’ll think I’m having a heart attack.”
“You . . . you . . . that cheap, outrageous . . . ”
“Sarah . . . dear girl . . . please . . .”
“I’m not your dear girl!”
“Don’t . . .” he says.
I pick up my bag, retrieve the errant orange, and turn to leave. At the door, I look back, and taking aim, I hurl the orange at his metal water pitcher, hitting it square in the center. The pitcher leaps up, the water, a long thick spray, arches over the bed and falls across my father’s lap. As I storm out, I hear the pitcher clatter to the floor.
“Jesus Christ!” my father curses.
A week passes. I refuse to answer the phone or return his calls. But then I get a call from Dr. Ridley. He wants to meet with me. I’m suspicious. Has my father told him about our contretemps, made up a lie about what happened, asked him to be an intermediary?
It seems not.
“I’m afraid we’ve done all we can for your father,” Dr. Ridley says. “I’m sorry. I know this is difficult, but surely not unexpected?”
Tears stream down my cheeks. The room turns a gauzy pink and gray. Objects vibrate, they blend into each other, his face into his white coat, the chair into the rug. My head throbs threateningly.
“There are several options,” Dr. Ridley continues. I hear him, but it’s as if I’m in a tunnel and his voice has traveled a long distance to reach me. “He’ll need help around the clock—help with his bodily functions, you understand, someone to turn him over in bed, give him his pain meds and sleeping pills, things of that nature. It’s more than any daughter should try to handle.”
I’m not sure how I get home. I’m lying on the couch, an afghan pulled over me. I want to die. Dr. Ridley’s words run through my mind. My father will not get better. He will get worse, probably rapidly. That’s what happens to unused bodies. He could remain in the hospital, many patients do, paraplegics, those with terminal cancer, and the like.
The next morning I walk slowly down the hospital corridor toward my father, who is sitting in his wheelchair in front of his room. He doesn’t see me. A cloth restraining harness covers him from the neck to the waist to keep him from falling out of the chair. The harness wraps around his chest and through the back of the chair, where it ends in long, loopy knots. Another harness ties his left leg to the chair to keep the foot from falling off the footrest. A sling tied in a knot around his neck holds his paralyzed left arm in place so the dead weight won’t dislocate his shoulder. He resembles a mummy in the early stages of embalming.
My head throbs and there’s a terrible heaviness in my chest as I put my arm around my dear, wrapped father and kiss him on the cheek. His skin is cool and paper-thin and I am filled with grief. I want to throw myself onto the floor in a fit of pain. I want to scream and cry and pull my hair and stamp my feet.
“Sarah,” he says, clasping my wrist with his good hand. “I’m so glad you’re here.”