Monday, September 10, 2007

The End of Men X: Water

Dad won’t move to a nursing home. Won’t stop driving. He won’t sit in a wheelchair.

The first few times I visited him at Laura’s, we talked about his new place, how it was going. But then, Dad seemed to want to talk about his memories and I offered to help him record them by interviewing him on tape and later, typing them up for his memory book.

We did that twice, after that, we both seemed to want to process our feelings about Mom and how she’d broken up our family. Dad misses Mom terribly. His eyes fill with tears when he talks about her—and his little black and white cat, Mookie. I know that sometimes, he stops by the house to see them, on his way back from work.

Laura and her partner, Arnie, who is also Dad’s friend, share a condominium in a pleasant, quiet neighborhood near Union, New Jersey. “He’ll be comfortable here,” Laura said as Matthew and I carried Dad's belongings up to his new room. It was bright and sunny and clean—nicer, in fact that his room at home had been. Laura had filled it with green and living things.

She explained that Tom, another boarder who lived in the next room, was a certified home care aide and would be helping Dad to shower and preparing and serving his meals.

“I’m going to make him shakes with organic berries and protein powder,” Laura narrated as we moved Dad’s suitcases and the couple of boxes of books and papers he’d packed into his room.

Her eyes glistened with hope and eagerness; she couldn’t wait to start healing him back to normal. “We’ll rebuild his nutrition. He’s been living on Ensure and cookies,” she said. “He’s lost so much weight.” Her implication was that no one had been taking care of him, that he’d been sitting neglected all day while Mom, who Laura perceived, had abandoned him in favor of her own interests, was gallivanting around the world with friends telegraphed the story she'd been told by Dad.

She seemed to believe that Mom was traveling, working, hanging out with art friends and that my sisters and I, three busy working women, simply didn’t have time for him. This was not remotely accurate--and smacked of manipulation (on Dad's part).

Still, this wasn’t the time to talk about his stubbornness. The way he pushed help away, translating any suggestion into an attempt to reduce his freedom. The way he resented the very people who took care of him—as if, somehow, the limitations of his corrupted and insulted body was their fault.

This was not the time. Perhaps there was some magic afoot here. Perhaps, Laura would fill the veins of his body with nutrition and the arteries of his soul with conversation—and bring him to healing, untwisting his spine with tender care and friendship. “We don’t really understand torticolis,” she told me. “Maybe he was twisting away from all the…” she stopped, editing herself. “Maybe we can straighten him out a bit.”

Maybe indeed. I have witnessed some miracles of healing. As editor of an angel column, I’ve read thousands of letters about things other people might not believe. But I will never doubt that they are possible.

“We’ll have our theater group meetings at the house,” Laura glowed, as she hugged me goodbye. “If we work it right, he can still be a part of everything. He can be happy here.”

“This is too good to be true,” I reported to my sisters and my mother. With her halo of wispy white hair—tinted with stripes of bright pink--Laura even looked like an angel. I reported the diet plan, the theater meetings and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Laura had promised, “I am hoping to keep him here and take care of him until the end of his life.”

The third time I came to visit Dad at Laura’s, I went downstairs for a while and found Laura in the kitchen. We talk about Dad and about her kids and about the house and how nice it is that she has taken him in. Then, Laura asks me about the goldfish.

“Do you think it looks sick?” she asks me. We peer into the small bowl, watching the bright orange fish flash around. I also see the cat watching it.

This is the second fish, Laura explains. The first, purchased on a whim carried carefully home in a plastic bag filled with water, died after only a week. When she saw it float to the surface of the small goldfish bowl, Laura was surprised by how deeply she felt the loss. “I felt as if I’d let it down,” she told me.

She went to the pet store and asked questions about food, water quality and oxygen. She learned that her fish had been a special kind of fish, and that it needed a different fish food. She came home with a brand new goldfish, a new kind of food selected by the trained salesclerk, a little sack of blue gravel which would help for reasons I don't quite understand, and a small water plant that was, she told me, supposed to do something to oxygenate the water.

When I returned two weeks later, the second fish had died.

Deeply troubled, Laura returned to the pet shop and returned with a small tank, different food, and another fish. This time, the salesclerk suggested that the tap water she was using to fill the tank was probably causing the problem. When I got there she was pouring filtered water from a Britta pitcher into the tank.

On my next visit, the third fish was showing signs of trouble.

“She’d kind of obsessed with the goldfish right now,” Dad told me. He wasn’t making fun of her. His comment sounded concerned and loving. “She takes things so hard,” he continued. “I’m worried about her.”

Downstairs, while Dad used the bathroom, Laura showed me the new bubbler the salesclerk had recommended. She was very upset because when she put the bubbler into the tank, the third goldfish had somehow gotten caught and churned up a bit in the gushing stream of bubbles. “He hasn’t been the same since,” she said, squinting into the tank. “He used to be so active, so full of life, Now he just lays there. Does he look sick to you?”

“I can’t really tell,” I said, trying to help. “Maybe he’s just shaken up. Maybe he’ll be okay in a day or two.”

”He’s stopped eatingm" she said ominously.

“Laura is having a drama with a fish,” Dad tells me when I go upstairs.

“I know,” I say. “She told me.

“It’s not about the fish,” he says.

“I know,” I say, she told me.

Two weeks later, when I returned to visit Dad, the tank was empty.

Has anyone thought to blame the cat? I wonder. What in the world will she do when she loses Dad?

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