Dad sits staring at his plate this Thanksgiving Day, a stubborn tightness showing around his mouth.
I can't believe my father won’t eat. Here is a man who came home every evening from work and cut himself a seven-ounce slab of Safeway-brand cheddar cheese -- the cheap kind, where the second ingredient is orange food dye. Here is a man who, for years, wolfed Spam like it was the finest filet. I still remember him sitting at the head of our family table, slurping Cheerios and instant skim milk from a Papa Bear bowl, big as a tureen. I used to hate his sloppy table manners, his loud chewing.
Now, he sits hunched over in his wheelchair, refusing his dinner. I’m flabbergasted. At the same time I can’t say I blame him. The turkey, sweet potatoes and peas are mashed into an unrecognizable mush -- pureed into runny pools mounded in an unholy trinity on his Melmac plate.
Dad wrinkles his nose. I quiz him. “Would it help if I put ketchup on it?” No. “Cranberry sauce?” No. “Szechwan sauce?” No. I try again. “Salsa?” No.My father's mouth curls downward in a crooked frown. He is as obstinate snubbing the slimy stuff as I was when I refused my dinner at two years old, kicking my booty-ed feet and battering my high chair's metal tray with my fists. My dad, bib tied neatly around his neck, is as immovable as his daughter.
Four of us are grouped around a card table in the Activities Room at Baywood Court nursing home. We are a worried group, giving anxious thanks for what we've got. The young man at our table, Red, is in the U.S. Air Force. His mother Erme, about 50, has had a stroke, like Dad. She's been on the ward a week, Red tells us. I notice she can hold her spoon. She won't talk, but eats her mashed-up food with big smacking sounds. Red chatters away. He seems nervous, stealing looks at his mother as if to say, "What has happened to you?" When he invites us all to Hawaii, Dad looks interested. “My kinda guy,” he tells me. I point a spoonful of peas towards my father's mouth, but he shuts it. "Tired," he whispers.
I push him back to his room. It's tough to steer the Geri-chair in a straight line. I feel as if I will carom off the nearest wall, bashing Dad's toes. Three staff aides maneuver him from the chair into his bed.My father asks politely, “Can you direct me to my hospital room?” “Dad, this is your room!" I gesture at the window, outside of which white-barked aspens shimmer with bright yellow leaves, and at his statue of the Virgin Mary, his bulletin board. "Who else would have all these fine photos, and posters of Brooklyn, and that picture of Mayo?”
Dad frowns, imagining his girlfriend’s photo in someone else’s room. "Right."
“Dad, did you like the party?”He closes his eyes and shakes his head. “Was it mixing with all the riffraff?” He laughs and shrugs his shoulder, the right one, where he has some strength. I sense he is tired, and I’m sure he is hungry. The nurse will be hooking up a feeding tube to the little plug near his belly button in a few minutes. The resident-and-guest Thanksgiving party has worn him out.That afternoon we play records from his Broadway cast album collection: "Camelot," Fiorello." Then “She Loves Me,” and “The Music Man,” both with Barbara Cook. Dad sings along: “Lyda Rose, I’m home again, Rose.” He remembers the lyrics to "76 Trombones" but cannot place where he lives.
I keep thinking if I could hire some strapping young gay man as a nurse, he and Dad could enjoy show tunes together and the young man could help Dad onto and off the commode. Now it takes at least two, and sometimes three, female nurses to grapple him onto the toilet. His legs won't support him, won't work together. Yesterday he called out to me when he finally was settled on the seat, “Patty? Did I win?”
“Win what, Dad?” I was mystified.“Did I win the wrestling match?”I cracked up. The stroke has made my father sweet and funny. In years past he might have blown up, or resisted help. My father’s mood strays only occasionally from being cooperative and sunny. Once last week he looked at me and said, “It’s grim, isn’t it?”
“Your situation, Dad?”
“Well, Dad, it isn’t perfect, but you’ve got all your children and grandchildren who love you very much, and you’ve got your albums, and your memories, and you’ve got Mayo.” He brightened with a toothless grin. Then he said, “But I don’t have Anne.” Anne is my mother, who died four years ago.
“Don’t fool yourself, Dad.” I took his hand. “I’ll bet Mom’s watching over you, and she is doing just fine.” “I hurt all over.”
The doctor assures us Dad’s physical discomfort is minimal, that his diabetes numbs his extremities. I think when Dad says he hurts he is saying he is depressed, lonely, and frustrated. “Well, you just keep working hard at physical therapy, Dad. You'll make some progress.” I bit my lip, but it came out anyway, unbidden – my Catholic school training kicked in out of nowhere. “You can offer it up to God, Dad: your suffering. Offer it up to God.”
He nodded. “You’re very practical,” he said, but I felt useless and exhausted instead. I lower the upper half of his bed as he drifts off to sleep, and ring the nurse to ask when the feeding tube will be inserted, and when his blood sugar will be tested. The nurses are laughing and eating pumpkin pie out at the reception desk. This enrages me. I break in and tick off specific instructions for his caregiver. Then I demand to check his chart and point out a few items I think should be updated. I hate myself for being so angry. I blame the nurses for not loving my Dad as fiercely as I do.On my way out to the car, I start to cry. I am having trouble adjusting. I thought it was bad when Mom died. Now Dad is the only parent I have, and the time he must spend on the other side of this catastrophic stroke seems fraught with danger. All day I have been parked illegally in the ambulance lane. I tear the nasty note off my windshield, which reads, “Next time you’ll be towed,” and I offer it up.
Causes Patricia Milton Supports
Playwrights Center of San Francisco