When she entered the studio, the old man was bent over his worktable, overly-large blue jeans cinched tightly at the waist, hands shaking, as he replaced his drafting compass in its plastic sleeve. He barely heard her come in. Thoughts flitted through her mind, barely registering: His jeans weren’t that big a couple of weeks ago. He isn’t eating enough, or maybe they’re stretched because Mom doesn’t remember to wash them. How sad to see him handling one of his impeccable, beloved tools, for which he really has no use any more.
The tools – his whole studio was filled with all the accoutrements of an artist, everything needed to produce paintings that hung in the best museums and in private collections from coast to coast. Everything in its place – always! And oh boy, do not mess with his tools, his pride and joy. He babied them. He gave them undivided attention. They were symbols of his accomplishment. Each tool represented a victory, a step up, his pride, his livelihood.
But today, the old man was using his drafting compass to poke a hole in the top of the Elmer’s glue bottle. No more grid lines on a canvas, semi-circles and patterns: He needed the compass to open the glue to affix a postage stamp to a letter. He was startled to see her come in, to see her witness his clumsy effort on so simple a task. But he continued methodically.
He affixed the stamp. A 37-center. What is the postage now, he wondered? She didn’t know but she knew it wasn’t in the 30-cent range anymore. Maybe 43 cents? He had 2-cent stamps but couldn’t peel the backs off correctly. His shaking hands, whether from Parkinson’s or tremors of old age – it really didn’t matter – couldn’t manipulate small things. She could see the embarrassment in the old man’s face as he completed his task. But he didn’t say anything. She knew, he knew, they both knew that the other knew. Denials and explanations suddenly weren’t necessary.
When had that happened? When had he lost the energy to lament all those things he could no longer do? It was frustrating and boring to hear it over and over, but this was worse because the old man was resigned. Finally resigned to what he couldn’t do, which was just about everything.
They left the studio together and entered the house. Her mother, because of course the old man was her father, was stretched out on the sofa. Her impeccably dressed mother – the person who could take three years to decide on a new pair of pants (ok, three hours at least, and then they got returned) was wearing her uniform. Yes, she had a uniform now – the cut off, frayed, pseudo-denim pants that landed mid-calf. A non-descript shirt.
They all sat in the living room, but something was wrong with the visit. The last visit had been like this too. There was no conversation.
Her father wasn’t tracking – he was trying to follow but there wasn’t anything to follow, really. Not a month before, conversation had been steady and even interesting, hinging on the events of the day and the comings and goings of family members, and the past, always the past. Of course he did most of the talking, but that was normal. His pattern was to dominate the conversation, take control, tell stories, instruct, teach, drive everyone crazy sometimes. But it was lively, no denying that. Her mom followed and chimed in here and there, completing stories, asking questions, trying to remember. But her mom had been trying to remember for years now. Everyone, even Dad, covered for her.
This was different.
She realized undeniably that Mom no longer initiated any conversation at all. Yes, yes, she already knew it. But with Dad not talking, well, there were no more excuses for Mom. How long could you ask how everyone was? “Have you talked to Stephanie lately?” “No, not for a week.” “Has Kathy been over recently?” “Not so much, she’s working a lot of Weight Watchers meetings.” “Have you seen Brent lately?” “He’s back on nights.”
And then from their end: “How is Jim?” “He’s fine, Dad.” “Has the doctor put him on any dietary restrictions?” “No, Dad, he’s fine – he’s just the same Jim as always.” “How is his activity? Is it limited?” “No, Dad, he’s just like he’s always been.” “Where is he today?” “He’s at work, Dad.” “Oh, he can still work? Good.”
She sifted through her mind – what could she talk about? She furtively looked at the clock and inwardly groaned – only 15 minutes had passed. Strategy, what was the new strategy. Current events were always safe. Oh yes, Obama was about to make a speech. That would be safe.
“So Obama is going to make a speech soon. Do you know what it’s about?” From her mom, “He’s at Camp Lejeune. Gary, why was I in Camp Lejeune before we left North Carolina? I was with, oh, well, some ladies, and we stayed up until 3 a.m. in our hotel room. I wonder why?” “You must have been having a lot of fun, Mom, to stay up that late.” “But why would I have been there?” “It was a quilting seminar, June.” “What could we have been doing?” “June, it was a quilting seminar!” That conversation was normal, anyway. At least, the new normal from a few years ago.
The next part was normal too. Perhaps things were looking up. “I hate it when they go to fake places to give speeches. It’s just for show. It’s ridiculous.” “But Dad, I think he’s going to talk about the timetable to withdraw from Iraq. Soldiers are interested in that so it makes sense to speak at Camp Lejeune.” “Yes, Gary, that makes sense.” “It’s all trumped up. They are all the same.”
Then some more complaining. That was normal also. She thought that maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as she thought at first – things could be normal after all. Then, “I’m cold Gary. Let’s turn up the heat.” “No, it isn’t cold.” “Well, I’m cold. I don’t feel well.” “I’ll get you a blanket. But what’s wrong with you? You aren’t sniffling?” “I don’t know, I just don’t have any energy.” And her dad, who was a 90-year-old man, an old man in years and demeanor, went to the linen closet and extracted a powder blue thermal blanket. A very old, worn, unraveling thermal blanket. No one old buys anything new. Which used to drive her crazy, but now she didn’t care. After all, the old stuff still worked. And her mom was comforted.
Still and all, it wasn’t normal. Those were just patterns, old, well-worn, comfortable threads of conversation. The details didn’t matter very much. Ultimately, there was no conversation. Not a visit’s worth. The sun was setting. How long until it reached the horizon, she didn’t know. She just hoped it happened soon – soon enough to avoid the major fall, the accident, the trauma, the fire from leaving the stove on. A month, two weeks ago, she would have worried about the humiliation, loss of dignity her dad felt, but now she didn’t know if he realized how far his mind had slipped. And she knew that her mom didn’t know. Except –except. Her mom had always been inscrutable. Who knew how much she processed at any given time, or when a wisp of memory would be retrieved? Her mom was still dignified to a fault and acutely felt humiliation, even when it wasn’t intended. Well, that was a stupid thing to think. Humiliation was never intended. But the ability to screen out the unintended was lost to her mom. Offense could be taken.
They were an old couple. They did the dance of old age every day and every night – the getting up and lying down, the naps, the meals – such as they were, the cleaning and cleansing, the daily ablutions. They trod the paths from the kitchen to the living room, from the living room to the patio, from the patio to the studio, from the studio to the sunroom, from the sunroom to the den, and then they returned to the kitchen and it started again. And they forgot how to work the television controller.
Finally, she had to leave. But agonizing as it had been, she didn’t leave gladly. She had her own heightened sense of awareness that the sun really was setting this time, and when it dipped below the horizon, there would be no more visits. Excruciating as each visit could be, she no longer wished them away but approached them gratefully. The whole thing was poignant but really, it would be wrong to call it sad. Because it was the cycle of life, after all, and they had created their patterns, their lives, their ways of doing things, and now they were living accordingly. When you got right down to it, it just was.
The old man said, “Let me walk you to the car.” He placed his feet carefully, a bit wobbly, fumbled with the doorknob, but they got out. A vestige from an earlier time, his parting words were, “And how is your car running?” “Fine Dad, no problems. It’s running fine.”