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The Last Time I Saw My Father

by Andrea Marcusa

 

A meal out with food that had a bite to it had been my mother’s idea. “It’s a new spot right outside downtown Santa Rosa, on the way to the airport,” she’d said. “You can get a meal before you board.” She backed the ancient blue sedan into the drive, and I placed my suitcase in the trunk and then opened the passenger door for my father. He carefully folded his body into the seat, and the sight of his frailty struck at me. He’d declined since my last visit and I still wasn’t used to it, even after three days with him. My mother kept saying he had Alzheimer’s and it was just a matter of time before he’d grow into that word, imbecile, that she used.

 

I didn’t think so. He’d slowed down, was sometimes forgetful, but Alzheimer’s? When I saw him sitting in the car, even in that crumpled position with those mottled hands and forearms, all I saw was my father, not a future imbecile.

 

I hadn’t known when I was a girl how much I would grow to be like my father, and so I always felt like I understood him, maybe in some ways more than my mother. And when he and my mother had moved away eight years ago from the East to live nearby my sister in California, I’d missed him. Now he was a quiet, handsome man, even at 93, and mellowed. And despite all my mother’s talk, he still recognized me. His brown eyes always brightened when he saw me. That was enough. I didn’t care if he couldn’t remember the name of my sister’s husband. I don’t think my father ever liked him anyway.

 

A few minutes later, my mother pulled into a parking lot and I was out of the car to open the door again for my father. He seized my arm to steady himself as he stood up, and I dug my heels into the ground to make sure I could support him. When he was upright, he said, “Thank you, Emily,” as if I’d just completed a demanding and complicated task. And although I liked being appreciated, feeling in some way essential to him, this made something sink and then drop inside me. He needed so much help. Then my father made a point of trying to walk without any aid.

 

My mother marched ahead of us with a look that said she was worried there wouldn’t be a table. I hung back with my father, not wanting to rush him. He shuffled along, his head drooped, his chin almost grazing his chest. I hated seeing him struggle. I took his arm and we walked together, and it was my father, the same smell of Dial Soap and some citrusy aftershave, and a kind of vague scent of sweat and something else, something stale. I had never imagined myself doing this. This tender taking of this man’s arm to help him. And he’d never needed it. He’d always been the one, even late into his life, who’d been so strong. And there were those Saturday mornings years ago when he crossed a parking lot hauling a huge bag of lawn fertilizer on his shoulder and steadying it with one hand, while holding mine with his other. Now he looked like such a load would break him like a toothpick. He leaned on me as we walked and as he did this, I thought of myself as one of those kind people, those daughters who help their aging parents. I made myself take a mental picture.

 

“Where’s your mother gone?” he asked. He’d started doing this. Losing sight of her and panicking.

 

“Right there, Dad, by the door to the restaurant.” I pointed and his face relaxed as soon as he saw her.

 

Tia Maria’s was completely empty and pitch dark, even though it was Sunday afternoon in sunny Santa Rosa. A young woman was busy setting tables; there wasn’t even a hostess to seat us. The waitress stopped folding napkins and signaled us to a booth in the corner and then she disappeared into the back.

 

We sat blinking as we adjusted to the dark interior. I had taken a seat across from them. My mother looked festive in her navy blazer and white blouse. She’d applied lipstick and fastened gold clip-ons to her ears. Even at 90, she was still pretty with her snowy ringlets, pink cheeks and perfect mouth. My father’s clothes looked too big for him; even his yellow knit shirt. His face was drawn and shadowy. But his hair, a salt and pepper reddish brown, was neatly trimmed, just as it always had been. He smiled when he saw me looking at him.

 

“It’s so dark in here,” my mother said, squinting at the menu. “How do they expect us to see this?” I picked up the little lamp that lit the table and held it over her menu. My mother pressed her lips together and sighed. “That’s no good. Put it down.” Her tone was harsh. I had to hold my breath to keep from barking back at her. There was no use starting something. My mother looked around. “Where is that waitress? Yoo hoo! Yoo hoo! Señor!” She waved at a man in a long white apron who had left the kitchen and was headed outside. My mother’s sharp voice in the empty restaurant rang out. “Waiter Waiter!” she called. She waved again. “Seen Yooorrr!” The man halted, obviously startled by my mother’s lethal tone. Halfheartedly, he walked over to the table.

 

“You have to wait for the waitress. She’s in back,” he said.

 

“There’s no one here,” my mother said. “It’s not like this room is filled with hungry diners. Could we at least get some bread?”

 

“Restaurant’s closed. Opens at 5:00,” the man replied. Then he looked at me as if for help.

 

“Oh, we didn’t know,” I said, smiling apologetically. “We’ll, wait . . .”

 

Before I could finish my sentence, my mother’s voice broke in. “See that door over there? It was open.” The man straightened himself, readying for a fight. “If the door was open. Then you’re open.”

 

The man glanced at my father, back to my mother and something shifted. He found a spot on the floor to stare at, a dark piece of linoleum probably preferable to battling the raging old woman before him, and rested his eyes there until she was finished.

 

“We’re your customers and we’re starving,” my mother said with a final flourish, stretching out the word starving for maximum impact.

 

“Mom, chill. It won’t be long, you can’t talk to people like this,” I said. She’d been getting more and more like this — exploding at small things, acting totally inappropriately.

 

“Well, I’m starving,” she said. “Why can’t I at least get a chip or a taco shell, or something.” While I tried to reason with my mother, the man backed away, then turned and disappeared behind the black door. It swung behind him with a defiant whoosh. I hardly blamed him.

 

My father sat with his hands in his lap, looking first over one shoulder, then the other, and, seeing nothing of much interest, glanced at my mother. Her hooded lids drooped over her dark eyes, more gray than deep brown these days, but the outrage they announced was as pronounced as ever. When she caught my father looking at her, she bore down her gaze on him until he turned away and focused his attention to the small light on the table glowing burnt orange. He looked worried.

 

“Have you eaten here before, Dad?” I asked.

 

“Oh yes,” he said. “It’s marvelous here. Marvelous.”

 

My mother jumped in. “Honey, we ate here three weeks ago with your niece, Martha, when she drove up from L.A. for a visit.” Her tone was accusing, as if she’d caught my father in something. He dropped his head guiltily and picked up the light.

 

“Look at that,” he said. “It’s a light that looks like a candle.”

 

My mother shook her head, then fished around her purse and produced her glasses case. Finding it empty, she scowled, picked up the light again and held her menu. “I don’t think I can stand it,” she said. “How long are they going to make us wait?”

 

With that, I was out of my seat and at the kitchen door. I poked my head in. “Do you think you could bring some chips or something? They are quite elderly.” Then I lied, “My mother hasn’t eaten today.” She’d done it again. Pushed me to a quietly desperate place that demanded cowardly acts of deceit. Then I rationalized. It was a small price to pay for having them both still here, to still know I was somebody’s daughter, to have parents at all.

 

The waitress nodded and returned with a basket of corn chips. I carried them to our table with a kind of pathetic stride of triumph and took a seat. My mother brightened as soon as she saw the food. “Those are the most delicious chips I have ever seen,” she said and dug in and bit into one. “Stale,” she frowned. “Of course.” And then pushed the rest of the chip into her mouth.

I tasted one. “They’re okay, Mom.”

 

“How would you know?” she scowled. “They’re always stale back East. California taco chips are an entirely different food group, Emily.” These little side comments always cut into my hide. For years I’d tried to let them roll off my back, but her tone and words set off something that had a life of its own, one I knew would travel with me onto the plane across the country and be there to wake up to, even days after saying goodbye.

 

My father had remained quiet through this last exchange, and it was just now that I noticed his expression — half worry, half resignation, like a child who has grown used to a kind of inferior treatment and made the best of it. I offered the basket of chips to him and he eagerly took one. “I like these,” he said.

 

The waitress filled our water glasses and my mother ordered three taco salads. My father didn’t seem to mind. For years he’d always ignored the healthy option my mother had suggested and made his own choice when the orders were finally taken. The skirmish always followed with my mother illustrating her point by acting out the pose of a wheelchair ridden stroke victim and my father sneering back with a loud Shhhhhhh. But this afternoon, he was focused on the chips, reaching back and forth across the table for more. Just as he was pulling his arm back, he knocked into his glass tipping it over. Water flooded the table. “Now look what you’ve done!” my mother cried. “Señora! Señorita! You there! Could you please bring us some extra napkins?”

 

My father pushed back from the table, picked up a napkin and frantically began blotting the water. I reached onto the adjacent tables for some and helped. By the time the waitress arrived, it was almost dry. My mother barely noticed.

 

Instead, she let out a disgusted sigh.

 

“It’s water, Mom. Not a problem.” She pursed her lips together and glared at me. I glanced at my wrist. 5:05 p.m. This would all be behind me soon. In three hours, I’d be on a plane, scrolling the movie selection, ordering those small bottles of wine.

 

“Easy for you to say. You’re leaving,” she said, as if reading my mind. “There will be another spill tomorrow and then a bathroom accident.” She poked my father in the back. “Don’t slump. You’re going to collapse your spine.”

 

I recoiled, as if she’d jabbed me too just as my father lifted his head, startled. He had stretched his cloth napkin over his index finger and had been polishing around the fresh paper placemat the waitress had provided. Finally, he barked at her with a curt, “Honey,” and I thought he would finally stand up to her the way he used to. But no, he slumped back into himself.

 

My mother rolled her eyes, “You have no idea, Emily. He’s on his good behavior because you’re here.”

 

The waitress arrived with a tray holding the three plates. “Taco salads for three,” she said in a cheery, singsong voice.

 

“We can count,” my mother said.

 

The woman wiped her hands with a cloth, exhaled loudly, and left us.

It was taking my father quite some time to get the food from the plate to his mouth. He kept pushing the fork under the ground meat trying to grab some, then slowly trying to bring the fork to his lips without the meat falling off. He had to start over several times.

“See?” My mother shout-whispered just as some of the meat fell into his lap. The sight of it dropping seemed to wound her.

 

“Shouldn’t we help him?”

 

“No. That would be humiliating. I make him practice every day. Peas, corn, rice. I make him get all the food he can on his fork.”

 

“But Mom, you’re so hard on him. There are ways to help. They have all these new things for the elderly. Spoons that work as forks.”

 

My father was pinching the fallen meat between his fingers and slowly bringing it to his mouth. His face looked so thin.

 

“Not him. That isn’t for him. It would be an insult.”

 

“He acts like he’s afraid of you.”

 

“Him? He’s as tough as an old goat. There were plenty of years with him when he was just plain rotten to me.” She held her lips together and looked off toward the kitchen. She was always finding a way to justify decisions, even the bad ones. “Mom that all happened sometime in the middle of the last century. Look at him. He adores you.”

 

“It’s kind of late for that, don’t you think? It’s creepy.”

 

I took a bite of my salad and it tasted very salty. “This is way too high in sodium for Dad with his heart condition. Doesn’t he take water pills?”

 

She took a taste and shrugged. “This is how Mexican food is, Emily. Look, I know what I’m doing. I’ve taken care of your father all these years. He’ll be fine.” She wouldn’t look at me. Just focused on the food on her plate, taking dainty, polite bites.

 

Then she added, “Those pills he was taking were terrible. He’s off everything. I talked to Dr. Pouzik. He’s a wonderful man. He understands.”

 

“Understands what?” I asked. Something was going on. My mother had a way of hinting at things without coming out with it.

 

“He’s very experienced,” she added.

 

“At what?”

 

“Old people, Emily.”

 

“But you can’t ditch Dad’s medicine.” I lowered my voice. “What about his lungs? They’ll fill up. He’ll end up in the hospital again.”

 

“He’s never going back there. That was terrible. Look, I’ve been all over this with Dr. Pouzik. It’s not your concern.”

 

“But he could get really sick, Mom.”

 

“Emily, it’s going to be fine. Dr. Pouzik is wonderful and your father likes him too. And I don’t have to fight with him to take all those pills anymore. Sometimes it took all morning.”

 

“But it makes no sense, Mom,” I said.

 

“Emily, Dr. Pouzik and I worked this all out.”

 

My father paused from eating. “This is good!” he said.

 

“No sane doctor would say it’s okay to stop medication. What about Dad? He would never want this. He always told me he wanted to live as long as he could.” He looked so contented there with his food, even if it took a long time to eat it.

 

“He has no idea what he wants, Emily.”

 

“But you could kill him, Mom.”

 

Things got silent, then. My mother focused on her salad while I couldn’t get past how salty mine tasted. I drained my glass of water. I glanced at my watch. I was running out of time.

 

“When I think about how he used to be. What he could do. If he knew how far gone he was.” She shook her head. “He’d be horrified.”

 

“What do you mean? He’s a little forgetful. But, he’s here. He knows you. He adores you. He won’t let you out of his sight,” I said. “He’s my Daddy. I love him.” I glanced over at him and patted his arm. He looked at me, blankly at first. I held on and patted again, and he smiled back. “He just spaces out a little.”

 

She rolled her eyes. “You’ve always been so sentimental.” She lifted her water glass, took a sip, then dabbed her mouth with her napkin. “I have to do everything now. He can’t even tie his own shoes. You know it hurts to bend down like that for me, too.”

 

I looked at my Dad’s hands. He’d always had long fingers with smooth curved nails and bright moons. Today they were thick and yellowed, his fingers were curled and swollen at the knuckles and looked like they ached.

 

“What about someone to come in and help? I’ll pay for it.”

 

“Emily, we don’t need any help. We’re not invalids. I don’t want some dumb stranger sitting around waiting to do something. We’re fine.” She took another bite. “We made a promise that we’d each care for each other to the end. We gave each other our word.” As she said this, my mother suddenly looked old — her lined and baggy skin, her sunken eyes looked lost and lonely, and there was a sad hollowness in her face.

 

My father looked up from his meal and asked. “What promise?”

 

“I promised I would get Emily to her plane, back to New York,” my mother said, with a curt, perfunctory smile. But that was all my father seemed to need and he returned to his food.

 

My mother looked over at me, raised her eyebrows, shook her head with a defeated expression of someone who has only terrible options before them.

 

“Mom, let me help you somehow.”

 

“What can you do? You live three thousand miles away. I’m not one of those old ladies who wants their children to give up their lives to come hold their hand.” She was always so strong-willed. Now it was as if it had turned in on itself. What was left was a kind of wildness that I used to see in the eyes of the wounded sparrows that fell into my childhood backyard after flying into the bay window and breaking a wing. They always batted their wings so, even if they were broken, to keep everything away from them.

 

My mother arranged herself in the driver’s seat and said, “That food was awful. They don’t deserve to be in business,” and slammed the door. At ninety, she still had an arm. “The chef ruined a perfectly lovely dinner with all that salt,” she said as she backed out. “I’m terribly sorry.” She turned the wheel and pulled out onto the road. “We’ll drive over to the airport now. Too bad we don’t have time for coffee or an ice cream or something.”

 

“That’s all right, Mom,” I said. I watched the road from the back seat thinking I should have insisted on driving. But she would never have allowed it. The only person who could ever impose their will on her had been my father. But that was over.

 

“These roads. They’re impossible,” she said and then began to brake. Ahead were barricades and blinking orange lights. We crept along single file. “They are always digging up these roads. They look terrible. It’s been going on for years. I don’t understand it.” I looked at my phone to see how much farther we needed to drive.

 

Suddenly we’d sped up again. We flew past squat shopping centers, tasting rooms, vineyards. The speedometer climbed to seventy-five. “There’s plenty of time, Mom,” I said. The speedometer inched to eighty. “I don’t want to miss my plane because we’ve gotten pulled over.”

 

“Gosh, you worry way too much, Emily.”

 

“Look at that,” my father said, pointing to a sign in front of a low stucco building. “Jerry’s Tasting.” It was obvious that my father could still read.

 

“He’s always doing that,” she said. “He sounds like a ten-year-old. Where’s that turn?”

 

We were going so fast I couldn’t look at the speedometer, but I could feel the car lurch forward each time she pressed a little harder on the accelerator. The road never seemed this long. We passed grazing fields. Then we drove through a grove of pines. I felt sure we were going in the wrong direction when finally, the tiny terminal building appeared in the middle of a clearing.

 

“Mom, there — there it is!”

 

She twisted the wheel, missing the drive completely. The old car lurched over the curb, its chassis scraped the concrete, the wheels thunk-thunked.

 

“Oooooh. I almost missed it,” she said. Then she sped up the driveway and stopped in front of the terminal’s double doors. “See, there’s plenty of time. You’re such a worrier!”

 

I opened my door, pulled my suitcase out of the trunk and walked to my mother’s window.

 

“Bye Mom,” I said, and pecked her on the cheek. I think she waved. But I’m not really sure. I walked to the other side of the car and motioned to my father to lower his window. He fumbled for the button until my mother opened the window from the driver seat controls.

 

“You’re leaving?” he asked, looking surprised.

 

“Dad I have to go. I have to fly back to New York.”

 

“Now?”

 

“Yes Dad, we’re at the airport.” I reached into the car and hugged him. He held onto me. “Daddy, I have to go. I have to catch my plane. I’ll come back to see you next month.”

 

He held on a moment longer while I gently tugged myself away. Finally, he let go. Our eyes met and a sadness spread over his face. I turned and strode toward the doors, my suitcase rolling behind me, the cry of a jet landing filling the air. I didn’t let myself look back.

                  First published in The Midnight Oil, Summer 2018.

Andrea Marcusa’s work has appeared in The Baltimore Review, River Styx, The Citron Review, New South, and others, and she has received recognition in a range of competitions, including Glimmer Train, Third Coast, and The Ontario Review. For more information, visit andreamarcusa.com.

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