This is part four of Notes from the Problem Child. Read part one, part two, and part three.
I was alone that night.
My wife, Jen, was on a business trip in Prague. She’d be really upset to hear the news and I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt her trip until I knew for sure what as going on. Jen and dad had a wonderful relationship. Jen’s father died of a heart attack when she was a little girl and she easily warmed to him. He was taken with her and I suppose, in some psychological way, took up some of the slack. She called him “dad” and he called her, “my special daughter.” I would call her and tell her what was going on when it was more appropriate. I didn’t have enough facts and an unfinished story would only set her head spinning. I needed her to remain in the zone, at work.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” my brother Johnny told me, over the phone.
“He’s delirious, not making sense. They have him sedated. He sleeps a lot and mom has been there all day. They’re going to run tests.” I asked what they thought. “No one knows. They need to run tests to see if he had a stroke or if it’s something else.”
I must’ve asked if he thought dad was dying. Johnny said he didn’t think anything was imminent.
But he started to cry and struggled with his words; “I love you Artie. I have to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.” And he hung up.
For years, I’d thought about what it’d be like to say goodbye to my parents for the last time.
When I moved to the West coast 25 years ago, I waved to them from my car while they stood at their door and waved back. At the time, I wondered if that would be the last time I’d see them. It pained me as I pulled away.
More recently, as they grew frailer, I would have that feeling every time I came to visit and left. Every time we had a phone conversation, I made an effort to say; “I love you.” Now, as I was driving back there, with tears welling up in my eyes and bursts of sobs hitting me in waves, I wondered if this would indeed be the time. And would I be too late to say goodbye? The thought of that made me worried sick.
I arrived at the hospital parking lot at night. I called his room from my cellphone to let mom know I was about to come up. I could hear dad moaning in pain in the background. The orderlies were changing him. The slightest movement hurt him. “Why don’t you wait about 15 minutes, Art,” mom said. I was dejected. I wanted to be there but I used the extra time to walk into a drug store and buy myself some toothpaste, a toothbrush, deodorant, shaving cream and blades.
I’d brought enough clothes for a week. But I had no idea how long I’d be there.
I would check into my hotel room later. I couldn’t stay at their house. There was no way to bathe– the bathrooms were a mess. The downstairs toilet worked but the sink was clogged. Same upstairs, plus the shower was clogged. My mom had to fill a plastic ice cream container with water and bath herself out of that.
Not only were the bathrooms mostly out of order but the floors, in particular, the down stairs linoleum floor, were covered in grime, stains and the unmistakable smell of urine. My dad was not making it to the bowl in time, obviously. And nobody had been cleaning for months at least.
It was just awful, embarrassing, depressing.
There were so many things that needed to get done in that house. To me, the place seemed unlivable even for healthy people. There was no way a sick, elderly person could live there safely. There was no way anyone could comfortably rehab at home. There was much work to do there. And guess who was going to end up tackling all that? Guess who going to have to wade through the quirky dynamics of our family and get us all to work together?