Jeb McKinney sat in the bathtub. His wrinkled, withered body was being washed by his oldest, Sandy. He stared at the granite wall as his daughter lifted his arm, scrubbed, put down his arm, lifted the other, scrubbed, put that one down, too, and continued in this fashion until they were finished.
Sometimes, though, thankfully not this morning, Jeb would get confused, frightened and embarrassed all at once. He couldn’t possibly lash out at his daughter—the thought could never cross the tender man’s mind. He had always been a sweet, considerate soul—Sandy had loved him for this since the day she was born—but in more trying moments he would be brash, boorish and unhinged, flailing about the room, making a fuss and yelling as loud as he could “Why?! Why do I have to bathe, damn it? Just let it be, if I can’t do it myself, there’s no use! I don’t smell anything! To hell with the others who can! I think I smell fine! No, no need to go out if I have to bathe first…To hell with the grocery store, the doctor and the rest!”
Today, much to Sandy’s delight, Jeb was more compliant. Perhaps it was the memories that greeted him when he woke, settling his tumultuous mind. Memories of his beloved wife, Anne, recently lost to lung cancer (though she never smoked a single stick). He thought of the two of them in their old house in Eugene, Oregon, where they spent their middle years of marriage together.
The front porch view was a water color painting of green trees, blue jays, children on bikes and skates, neighbors out with their dogs, cars passing by. This was a time of love broad and deep—before the time of tested love, before things got more difficult, then easier, then, inevitably, more difficult again. Through it all, Anne was a most wonderful woman. Anne was the kind of woman whose gentleness had its own radiance that poured out of her as she walked, talked, laughed, did most anything.
Jeb, when not daydreaming, would often try to think of her smile and the warmth contained within the blueness of her eyes, the roundness of her cheeks, the softness of her hair, but the thoughts would get fuzzy, muddied, like a Monet, then, would disappear into nothing until he finds himself feeling in the darkness for what was once real and, finally, confused by the happening, he gives up, frustrated with it all, cursing the damned disease and God along with it.
Though he forgot the pleasant memories almost immediately, the feeling still remained and he found himself happy to take a bath on that crisp, autumn morning. Yes, when Sandy, in a pretty yellow blouse, blue jeans and shoulder length faded brown hair, went in to greet him at 6:30, she found her father smiling and she in turn became positively pert. Oftentimes, on occasions when maybe his dreams or memories were not so good, or maybe when his disorder had taken a bigger toll than usual, she would be met with a look of perplexity that said, “Who are you? Why are you in my house?” and it wasn’t until she reminded her father, with the same bold, blue eyes as her mother, just who she was and what the routine was for the morning, that he remembered and went along with the reality.
All throughout the bathing, Sandy softly sang familiar melodies to Jeb. She mostly recited Frankie Valli, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, so on. Sometimes the look on Jeb’s face would turn from a vacant stare to a dim light, then back to a vacant stare. Sandy thought the songs helped—they helped her, at least. They helped her to see her Dad have a moment of clarity amidst the swamp of unsorted memories. With a tender voice, she would ask him “Do you like that song, Dad? Cracklin’ Rosie? You and mom used to sing it when we all went on road trips…The boys and I would get so embarrassed, ha! You guys couldn’t hit a single note! But you didn’t care…It was still fun.”
She laughed and poured the shampoo into her hands. Jeb looked at her, his mouth open to say something, but it didn’t say a word. His mind couldn’t make the connection. Sometimes it could. But then, in that moment, it couldn’t. He closed his mouth, cutting the cord to the original thought. He continued to stare at her, still smiling.
Sandy understood him and kept humming. She remembered how once, not too long ago, this whole process disturbed her. It shook her hardened soul. Washing her own father, the very man who took care of her for years and years, in this most vulnerable, most naked state filled her with empathetic embarrassment and made her body tense at the thought. Now, she was used to it. She didn’t like that she was used to it, but there it was—as normal as a dog needing his breakfast at six in the morning.
“When is Jackson going to be here?” Jeb asked. Jackson was one of Sandy’s brothers who lived in Ohio with his wife. His kids had already moved out and they had kids, too.
“He’s not coming today, Dad. He’s still in Toledo.”
“Oh…Well, how’s his little Drew doing?”
“Drew is good, Dad. He has a couple of kids himself. They’re good kids. The oldest just started 2nd grade and is really good at math, likes his teacher. He’s very active, too. Plays outside a lot, plays on the soccer team…”
“Kids?! Haha, okay, yeah, kids…You’ve really got your mom’s humor, Sandy.”
“Well you know me, Dad.”
Sandy figured early on it was just best to go along with him, to follow his train of thought. What’s the use in telling him he’s wrong? When she did so, it only served to make him upset and confused. He would end up sitting there, staring at the wall, his eyebrows furrowed and his nose crinkled, not saying anything for a while, until he couldn’t remember why he was so confused in the first place. Sometimes this went on for a couple hours and Sandy couldn’t get him to do anything. Like a Freshman student of philosophy, she asked herself, “Well, what is reality, anyway?” and let him have his own. At first it was awkward for her, but after a time it became a fun sort of game. “If this is how he thinks, let me play along.” No different from the floor being lava, or the closet being Narnia. It was amusing to witness, seeing an imagination so unhinged, so unabashedly run rampant at such a golden, learned age.
There was one Saturday morning at the local park, about a year ago, where Jeb was 100% certain that the park was sitting on a Native American burial ground. “Yes,” he said with all the confidence of an academic scholar, “I remember learning about it when I was young. We took a field trip here when I was, oh I don’t know nine or ten, and there my teacher—I can’t remember her name…Mrs. Pliskin, perhaps?—told us about a tribe of Indians that buried their loved ones here. There was a little informative signpost, right over there.” He pointed to where a teeter totter was set up, “With a black and white photo of the Apache people, and it said that their spirits come out at night…Not for revenge or anything—though it’s terrible that now we laugh and play and read books right on top of their dead. Savage, really—but just to wander around and say hello to their families.”
Sandy knew that none of this was true. There were never any Apache people or field trips or teachers or anything of the sort. Not that Jeb was making it up or lying—no, not at all. Jeb firmly believed every word—he was just relaying a memory. Sandy thought about the fickleness of memories. She thought about how she had heard on the radio that some memories we believe to have existed never really existed at all, or are modified versions of what we thought happened. Memories aren’t files stored away in the filing cabinet of our minds like we wish them to be. No, they’re far more malleable. In that case, what difference does it make?
Sandy said “What else did the signpost say, Dad?”
“I don’t remember…Hey, look, over there!”
“There I am! Haha!”
“Where, Dad? I don’t see you.”
“There! Don’t you see me there, by the monkey bars? My spirit is there, playing with the grandkids. ‘Oh, just stopping by to say hi, little Andy. And how are you this morning, my dear boy? Enjoying the playground on such a nice Saturday?’ Yes, Sandy…Sometimes I’m over here, on this bench, with you, but my spirit is over elsewhere, wandering, enjoying the pleasantness of youth…It’s like, well, you know, the-the…Native folks, er…Which ones…Oh, oh well.”
Sandy smiled at him with warm understanding. She found herself looking at the playground in a new light, then turned her eyes back to her book.
In the bathroom, Sandy got her father dried off, then dressed him in his favorite clothes—really, the only clothes he’d wear. If he didn’t have his gray slacks and blue button-up—which Sandy liked on him anyway because his eyes became deep, clear and polished—he was in for a fit. “Why change a nice thing?” he would ask. He couldn’t understand. No, he couldn’t understand that clothes need to be washed and taken care of. Sandy thought about buying him extras of these clothing items, but it had happened only recently and she hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Plus, what if he didn’t like them because they weren’t exactly the same? She could never know with her father—each day was different than the last. Some for better, she often thought. Though, some for worse, she also often thought.
Leading her father into the kitchen, Sandy kindly asked Jeb what he wanted for breakfast: Eggs or biscuits.
“Oh, uhm…Eggs, I suppose. Yes, but can you put the uhm, what’s that stuff, the, sort of, it’s in a-”
“Yes, that’s right. If you could put that on that’d be nice.”
She responded with a smile and began scrambling the eggs, frying the bacon, brewing the coffee. Jeb sat in his leather recliner, watching the tan, blonde woman on the local news.
Sandy said “So Dad, we’re going to see Dr. Bedi today and see how you’re doing. You have been taking your pills I’ve set out, right? So we’ll see her—I hope your blood pressure is down, we wouldn’t want any unnecessary stress—then I have a couple errands I’d like to run if we have time. How’s all that sound?”
“Oh, that sounds fine…Ha, Dr. Bedi…Good gal, yes, certainly. I first saw her some years ago…She was always so friendly, from the moment I walked into her office. Always smiling.”
“Mhm. She’s a real sweetheart, Dad.”
“I like that in a lady,” Jeb said with a twinkle.
They sat around eating their breakfast, drinking their coffee, watching the television, making mild, inoffensive remarks at what the newswoman said. The kitchen, facing east, glowed a mellow orange in the light of the slanted sun, hinting at the browning of fall that was soon to come.
Shortly after their morning breakfast, they made their way to the car. Sandy struggled to help her lumbering father out of the house and into the street. She had to remind him again, for the third time, where they were going and why. He ended up angry for a short time, frowning, crossing his arms and stroking his chin, then looked at his daughter and felt a change of spirit.
As Jeb followed Sandy outside, into the crisp neighborhood, the world around him seemed to bend and blur as it did sometimes. He was here, but then he couldn’t be here and what was here, anyway? He followed the sweet voice of his daughter to wherever he was being taken. Undecided on his confusion, he tried to get into the driver seat but was stopped by Sandy as she reassured him that she felt like driving that morning. He complied and got into the passenger seat—driving was too much of a nuisance, anyway; the signs are misleading and the pedestrians aren’t careful enough.
The street in front of him seemed to fold onto itself like a thin piece of paper in the wind. He marveled at the sight for a short time, then found himself looking toward the trees and the sky. Each leaf on each branch of each tree was an angel swaying in front of his eyes. The leaves echoed “Jeb, aren’t we beautiful? The sacred geometry expressed in our existence? You could reach out and touch our crinkling selves, feel the lightness of our lives. Here we are, there we go,” and he watched them go as a child watches a passing car from the back seat—the doppler effect. So taken aback by the leaves, he leaned back in his seat, not knowing how to interpret the stimulation and beauty that God had given him. Were the trees and the streets always as they were? He wasn’t sure, but hadn’t they been? At some point, yes. At some point, maybe not. In his ever increasing age and wisdom, the neighborhood seemed newer and prettier with each passing block. Yet, simultaneously, shifted and bewildering. When did this Hispanic family move in a few houses down? Nothing against the Mexican folks—really, they’re good friendly people, it’s not like that—but he just hadn’t seen or heard of them before. Maybe he should stop and say hi? No, Sandy reminded him that the family already knew them and that this family was, in fact, nice neighbors. They could have a barbecue sometime, it would happen eventually. Jeb listened to the reality and, though he didn’t understand it, he trusted it for the time.
Past the greenery of the shaded neighborhood, they made their way into the city, where doctors, lawyers, cashiers, accountants, construction workers and sandwich makers all lived together for the duration of the work day. In the city of Phoenix they found a minor bustle. Not a bustle like San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York, but still enough of a hubbub to be worthy of note. Making their way through the semi-congestion of cars, they found themselves at Dr. Bedi’s office on 3rd St. and Osborn. There were some trees for shade and across the street was a Chinese restaurant—decent food.
Inside the lobby was a fish tank. Inside the fish tank were numerous, multicolored fish that looked at Jeb and Sandy as they walked by. The gleaming turquoises and magentas of their scales seemed like beacons to the father. He stopped and looked for a time. They stopped and looked back. Sandy ushered him along.
They checked in with the secretary who was a convivial, overweight, middle-aged white woman, then waited for a little bit—reading magazines and looking at their phones.
After a short time Dr. Bedi opened up the door and called out Jeb’s name. He and Sandy got up, smiled back at the agreeable doctor, and followed her inside.
The doctor’s room, much like most doctors’ rooms, was lit with fluorescent lights, had a bench with white paper and many other mundane medical objects organized neatly across the counter. Dr. Bedi asked Jeb how he was doing on this fine morning and Jeb, falling in step with the formalities he had been used to his whole life, told her that he was good, indeed, though he had been better (this he said with a wink). Dr. Bedi laughed politely and they noted the weather, the minor life events coming up shortly, etc.
The doctor asked if Jeb was still taking his prescriptions regularly—Donepezil, Galantamine, Rivastigmine, which Sandy confirmed. She then inquired of how his memory was doing, and Jeb repeated what he had said the previous visit, and the one before that, and so on:
“I read somewhere that this disease, what it does to my brain, is, well, it’s…A lot like an iceberg. If you watch an iceberg, sometimes little bits of it drop off into the ocean and they drift away. Other times, though, a whole big chunk of it will drop off and drift away…That is to say, doc, my memory isn’t getting any better, and sometimes it seems a whole lot worse.”
Though the graveness of his statement was real, Jeb couldn’t help but deliver it with a wink and a smile.
The specialist, addressing both members of the family now, asked how Jeb had been doing recently, and what kind of changes had occurred in the past month or so since they had last visited. Sandy, putting on her reading glasses and grabbing her handbag, pulled out the care log she had been keeping for the past year or so. In this log was noted all of Jeb’s unusual, disheartening behaviors; the sorts of behaviors that make a person feel as though the time slipping by only worsens in its depravity. Yet, though she couldn’t help this entirely negative, dreadful feeling of terror, she often reminded herself that, while the feeling is real and, therefore, true, the opposite feeling—the feeling of time spent caring for a loved one in their stages of utmost vulnerability, as they once did for you—was also real and more important to consider in those moments of graveness.
The log went like this:
9/2/16: Dad slept fine, but wouldn’t eat his breakfast. He insists he’s not hungry, but I know he must be because he hardly ate last night.
9/5/16: In line at the grocery store, Dad insisted he knew the cashier. When we got to her, he was asking her how her son, Matt was doing. She was confused and I tried to calm him down and change the subject. He became confused, too, and shut down.
9/6/16: In the middle of the night, Dad came into my room, waking me up and began speaking incomprehensibly. Something about mom, and where she was…I couldn’t quite make it out.
The care log was filled with similar incidents up until the present day. Most importantly, there was a particular episode that Sandy wanted to share with the specialist, and which required more detail than could fit in a box on a piece of paper.
A few days prior, when Sandy went in to greet her father and get him up and ready for the morning, Jeb laid in bed, only mumbling a few words to himself every now and then, paying no attention to his lovely daughter as she sweetly asked him if he was okay, if she could help him with anything. He couldn’t figure out how to get up. He couldn’t figure out he needed to eat, or pee, or perform anything else. Jeb just couldn’t really figure out anything.
When Sandy’s husband, Mike, came in from work that afternoon—because he was not yet retired, as his wife was—he was met with wet eyes. She looked at the love of her life with longing and desperation, saying nothing, begging for help. He understood without asking any questions, and hugged her so warmly and tightly she felt like a child in a sleeping bag. He cried, too. He cried just as she did for he loved her father with all of his heart. Not like a daughter loves her father—the inseparable, special bond—of course, his love was different. He cried because Jeb was a beautiful man with a beautiful family and here he was, on the mattress—his coffin—slowly eroding to shell, then dust, until eventually nothing would be left. Mike cried for his father-in-law and Mike cried for his wife crying for his father-in-law.
After explaining the most troubling incident to Dr. Bedi, the doctor’s expression turned from a genuine care and interest, to a painful, stoic thoughtfulness. She considered the implications and it was clearly seen in her face that she was turning over questions, searching for solutions.
The cordial doctor calmly, reassuringly told the McKinneys that it would be best, at this stage in Jeb’s dementia—that is, the final stages, as it worsens from moderate to severe—to get him into a care home where professionals could look after him 24/7. At this news, Sandy swallowed a lump that plummeted down her chest. The lump latched on to her heart, spreading its cancer through her previously calm, collected demeanor. Her eyes became like grapes, slightly smushed between the weight of two fingers.
In a few short moments, she considered how necessary it was. After all, she had taken care of her father this whole time…Then she considered that the doctor was probably right, in the end; Sandy had to put aside her pride. In those same moments, her thoughts turned to the overwhelming dread that her father would soon, though still too slowly, be taken from her, her husband, everyone else. This was an emotion she had contended with at numerous stages in Jeb’s degradation, but it was these words spoken by the doctor that solidified the terror in her heart, the pit in her stomach, the reality of suffering. There was no coming back. How was a woman supposed to keep a warmth about her? How was she to be a light in her father’s deep, darkening tunnel of a mind? Who would these other women be? No doubt they would care for him, too, she could trust the good women of care homes—the women who, not unlike nuns and humanitarians, devote their entire being to the nurturing of lost folks in need—but at the same time, they were not her.
Still in these moments, as every thought existed at once, criss-crossing over one another like a tangled net, she found herself in her father’s shoes; He would be surrounded by so many unknown people, every hour of the day. How confusing that would be for the man! What an impossible life! He would wake up in a state of unknowing, with a feeling of unknowing, compounded by food, chairs, beds, kitchens, pills, people, plates, TV sets, books, magazines of unknowing.
She would visit, of course—she must! Every day! But still…! It wouldn’t be the same.
And then again, maybe it would be better. What a thought! Yes, maybe it would all be for the better in his last, fragmented hours on this lovely planet. Surely, if this is what the doctor recommends, it must all be for the better, no?
These emotions and ideas were a boiling broth in her wizened soul, so fervorous in their passions, so tumultuous in their contradictions, that she could not compose herself any longer, and she cried. She cried and cried and cried. Then Jeb, half understanding the situation, half from fatherly instinct, held his sobbing daughter in his strong arms, caressing her hair, rubbing her back. The doctor excused herself, leaving alone the strongest bond.
“Oh, Sandy,” Jeb started, his eyes full of fresh dew, looking at his child’s reddened, runny face, having a rare moment of clarity. “My dear daughter…It’s okay to cry. Everything is okay. Life is suffering, my angel, life is suffering…”
She looked up at him not as a grown woman, a mother of two, grandmother of three, but as a lamb, looking to her father for the eternal gift of stability and comfort—a gift which she had provided for him profusely in recent years, a mutually beneficial gift that would keep on giving long after death.
After they sat there for a while, digesting the information, they went out to the doctor, seeking advice. Dr. Bedi, with a tender sensitivity to the situation, wrote down the name of a care home nearby that she could personally recommend as it was where she, herself, sent her mother some years back. She insisted that a remarkable job was done at that home and she wouldn’t have had it any other way. Sandy thanked her for the help, put the card in her purse, and led her dad back out into the world.
The world was bright and shining. It was only mid afternoon. Yet, these events had crushed Sandy’s spirit so that she couldn’t bear to go out in public, to do the things that must be done. She asked her dad if it was okay if they just go back home, which he had no problem with. She could always cook something for lunch, anyway, and maybe Mike could pick up the groceries on his way back from work.
After getting into the car, Kathy said,
“Well Dad, very soon, other people are going to be taking care of you for a while. Do you like that?”
“Oh, well, I don’t know…It could be worse, I suppose.”
“I’ll still see you, Dad. Every day—I’ll still see you.”
They drove along with the windows down. Jeb felt the wind of change in his chest, the meandering of his spirit, the love of his life to his left. Jeb looked out at the buildings he had looked out at for years and years in this neighborhood. They had changed, too. New owners, new tenants, new restaurants, new bars, then all of that changed again at some point. Though, thankfully, the buildings were not yet demolished.