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The Long Road Home


december 20, 2009, originally uploaded by kevin s koepke.

I am sitting in an armchair tucked in the corner of a room at The Ramada Inn. My father sits on the bed closest to the phone. The bed closest to me is stacked with the evidence of his recently itinerant life—old newspapers, crushed boxes of Entenmann’s coffee cakes, cookies, shirts, sweaters, and maybe an undershirt or two. I try to look away from this heaping cauldron of incongruence but find it difficult to avert my glance.

It is the same stack of mess that follows him everywhere in the untidy life of emotional chaos that is his habitual abode. The stacks of old newspapers that cover his living room floor and are never thrown out. The collection of rotting, artery-clogging food that adds daily to his three hundred pound plus bulk and chips away at the remaining years of his life. It is the external evidence of the dysfunction that lurks unchecked within. A disquieting reminder of the fractured remnants of my childhood.

It never changes. Just as the compulsive din of his voice never changes—analyzing, modifying, and endlessly constructing events that no longer matter or have meaning. As nothing that belongs to the past—either distant or near—ever matters. Yet he clings to the past with a force of compulsion; of reckoning. It is a hardened stake representing his position in this decaying, impermanent world. It’s as though all things, including his own body, can dissolve around him, yet his voice will continue to drone on. Those declarative statements of all that isn’t are what he believes binds him to this world. But even as he clings fast to them, they continue to slip away. He has never understood that the only thing that binds us to this world is the depth of our own illusions. Nothing more.

***

If they call again from the nursing home demanding payment, I shall scream. If they call again to arrange another “conference” with my sister and father, I shall scream. If I have to spend another whole day on the phone arranging things for my mother—who now believes she has taken leave of her earthly body—I will feel only the tightness and despair in my own body. That body which is now a mother’s body. That body which can now anticipate the unfathomable loss and despair that accompanies the death of a child. That body which has compassion for the endless death a parent dies upon the loss of their child. That body which has died a thousand deaths from losing first a brother, then a mother. I have kept company with the past and it has proven dismal counsel. In my family of origin the future and past are always welcome, yet the present is never invited in for tea. So I heat water in the kettle and add five bags to the teapot. And wait for my dear friend the present to show up and join me.

***

The nursing home keeps calling despite my protestations. I refer all calls to my father and cease to answer the phone. I write e-mails to the social worker and keep scarce. I no longer pay visits to my mother. I stopped going after she called me at 7 o’clock one morning to tell me where to find her will, where to find the money my sister and I will inherit. It isn’t that I am hard-hearted or lacking in compassion. It’s just that my visits bring neither of us pleasure. She tells me repeatedly that she is dead, that it’s “no good,” that her body is rotting.

“I am already dead, already dead, already dead,” she says.

I feel that Edgar Allen Poe’s raven will start circling her bed at any moment. My sister and I are familiar with the signs. The psychotic episodes and the disassociation from reality. We are aware before my father finally tunes in, despite his fifty years of marriage to our mother. The nurses, who formally said they could “handle the problem” are now trying by hook or by crook to force my mother out. There are terrible scenes with my father, whose famously short-fused temper is now rampaging out of control. I exit the conference room when he starts yelling about my mother’s elderly German roommate, who has taken an immediate and vicious dislike to him. The feeling is completely mutual. My father won’t hear that the woman has Alzheimer’s or that she’s 97 years old. He insists that she is making his life a living hell.

“Don’t forget that your uncle and I were forced to leave England in ’40 because of the Nazi’s. Because of Hitler!” he rants.

“I don’t forget it,” I say on my way out of the room.

***

E lurks behind a curtain in the room she shares with my mother. As a permanent resident, hers is the larger half of the room. My mother’s portion, which is closer to the door, seems almost closet-like by comparison. But E’s looming presence extends beyond the curtain and throughout the room. She resents the constant stream of visitors my mother receives and soon decides that either she must share our attentions or we must leave. My sister and I—brought up to be well heeled and polite to a fault—fall into the former category. We have learned the ways of gentle kindness from our mother. My father falls into the latter category.

“E is a fine woman. A fine woman,” my mother repeats. “And she has lost a son too.”

Vring that boy over here,” E commands in a still heavy German accent. “I love children.”

My son regards the old woman with a look of pure, abject fear. I coax him over to her side of the room.

Vring me that Christmas tree,” E demands.

I bring her the small, artificial and gaily decorated tabletop Christmas tree.

“What does this note say?” she asks.

“It says ‘with love from Heather, Henry, and Hadley,’” I tell her. “Are those your grandchildren?”

“I don’t remember,” she says.

***

My father sits in the chair near my mother’s bed with a furious scowl reddening his face. He is holding his cane in a vice grip, as though willing it to anchor him to the floor.

“You vare NOT her husband!” E rasps from behind the curtain. There is a short span of silence, then:

“Visiting hours vare over!”

My mother, nearly completely deaf, leans over to hear my sister’s remark.

“I think E is lonely,” my sister whispers.

“Damn it all! We’re here to see your mother. Not her!” my father thunders.

“I told you to leave!” E’s thin voice strains.

“No, No!”

Vat, vat?” E cries.

Nein, nein!” my father shouts, banging his cane on the floor for emphasis.

I see Hitler’s army move in, thirsty for blood, for annihilation, for denial of its own humanity. And quietly remember that in one of our chats, E had told me that she had moved to the United States from Germany in 1935. Before the war.

***

A week later and my father still hasn’t left town, even though my mother has been transported home by air ambulance. He was given the opportunity to travel with her, but couldn’t extricate himself from the pile of the past heaped upon the second bed in his hotel room. He needs time to pack, he tells me. And his mail. He can’t possibly leave until he goes to Maine and gets his mail. And now the engine in his car has blown. That will take a week to repair.

We are almost an hour into our daily phone conversation. He tells me each of his successive grievances in slow, obsessive detail. He wants to know why the air ambulance dispatcher gave me such a hard time about the bank wire transfer, although this is now a moot point as the flight has been paid for and my mother has safely arrived at her destination. He tells me how the auto mechanic didn’t offer to come tow the car this time (this is his second visit to the auto shop to have his car repaired), but how he managed to get CAA (the Canadian version of AAA) to tow it for him. He tells me how much the new engine will cost and that it will take a week for it to arrive from Florida. He tells me that Brattleboro is a pathetic excuse for a town because it has no reliable taxi service. And, with unapologetic glee, he tells me of his parting shot to E.

“I called her Hitler. I told her she was a Nazi! And that gave me some small measure of satisfaction, I can tell you,” he says with a sort of demonic glee.

I make an excuse and quickly get off the phone. Revulsion and sadness overcome me.

“He’s a lonely old man in a strange land. It’s time for him to go home,” my husband says gently.

I’m reminded that the road Home can be either long and arduous, or light and lovely. Herein lies the yin yang of the human condition. I silently wish my father safe travels and wordlessly place the phone back on the receiver.