Golden Age Acres is faux-colonial. Mock oranges flank the columns that flank the covered entrance that is now the employee-smoking lounge. I slam the door of my rented Metro, step over a gutter flowing more with sprinkler water than the L.A. rain, and wait for Jared who slaps through the parking lot in the Tevas I bought him for Christmas.
I recognize Charlie, my favorite nurse. His brown skin strains against his white uniform. He drags on a Marlboro and I inhale his smoke.
He winks at me. “Yo, mama, you’re stylin’ today.”
“Thanks.” My cheeks color. Only my decade-old red Justin ropers have style. I wear them when I need Helen Reddy-Nancy Sinatra—I am woman hear me roar while I walk all over you––confidence. “Charlie, this is my son Jared,” I say.
Charlie grinds his cigarette with his heel and kicks it under a bush. “Hey, my man, slap me some skin.”
Jared extends his hand and I can tell he thinks Charlie is hopelessly unhip. But he hasn’t seen Charlie work, telling stories about his childhood in Watts and South Central, inventing scads of riots and siblings. He punctuates with, “You’re gonna feel this,” and, “You’re gonna hate me for a minute.” He smiles at the faces looking through him and taps needles into veins that keep collapsing.
“You been to a nursing home before?” Charlie asks.
“Be prepared, brother, this place smells like piss.”
“Thanks for coming to see Grandpa today,” I tell Jared.
He loads his Discman. “You forced me.”
“Don’t start with me. I said I appreciate your coming.” It’s the first time Jared and I have been together since August when he moved in with my ex-husband, a landscape architect who specializes in ripping out perfectly nice lawns and flowerbeds and replacing them with gravel. He calls it xeriscape. All I can hope is that his new wife, Rhonda, is low maintenance.
Jared jams on his headphones and bobs his head to a tune I can’t hear.
I glare at him while we cross the hallway to my father’s room.
My father is dying. He’s been dying all week. I knew it when I saw him two days after Christmas, opalescent and shrunken, bony in the white bed.
His wife Janice called Christmas Day to say he’d had another stroke after Thanksgiving. She didn’t want to bother me during the holidays, but one of his lungs collapsed and he contracted pneumonia.
“I can come down the day after tomorrow,” I said.
“The boys are coming too, on the night of the twenty-eighth.” She paused and I could tell she was calculating how to squeeze all of us into the condo.
“Don’t worry, I have a place to stay. I was going to visit Jared soon anyway.”
I’d hung up the phone, returned to the living room where my mother and grandmother arranged presents around my Christmas tree while Grandpa dozed. There was a box set aside for Jared and a small cluster of gifts for my sister, Hope, and her twins, just in case she called with an address.
I wished Janice had called sooner, but I’ve always been peripheral in my father’s life. He left when I was eight and I didn’t hear from him again until he showed up at my high school graduation with Janice, his third wife. They’ve been married twenty-five years and in their world, I’m a comet, rarely in range.
People cluster near my father’s bed, the center bed in the triple room. Janice introduces Jared and me to two men, their wives, and a clump of kids perched on the end of the bed watching The Price Is Right. Luke and Mark, my half-brothers, are real estate agents from Great Falls, Montana and products of my father’s mystery decade. I’ve seen their photos displayed in the condo, but we haven’t met before. Janice’s youngest daughter, Lisa––my stepsister, I suppose––sits in the one chair beside my father’s bed. She is massively pregnant, and her four-year-old stands on her shrinking lap, with a spoonful of applesauce aimed toward my father’s mouth.
“Open up Grandpa,” she says.
His lips part under the pressure of the spoon, but his eyes are vacant. He swallows like a gasping fish.
Janice leaves her place at my father’s arm, and I shuffle in, nudging Jared, whose headphones rest around his neck, in front of me. I lean alongside Jared’s shoulder, which tops mine now, and squeeze my father’s flaccid hand. I remember it firm and huge, tugging me across Victory Boulevard into his appliance store, and capable of a killer slap.
“Hi Dad.” His eyes flick in my direction. “I brought Jared to see you.”
“Hi Grandpa.” Jared inches closer and peers at his grandfather. The last time they met was a year ago, after my father’s first stroke, and Jared was pissed that I pulled him out of school to visit some stupid stranger.
My father lets go of my hand and reaches for Jared’s. “Straight on ’til morning,” he says, quoting Peter Pan, his voice hoarse.
I see their interlocked palms, pale and fading, strong and tan. I can tell Jared thinks I’m the only link between them. But I feel the inverse, the force with which their lives have forged me. First, my father’s distance, cool like ice in a whiskey glass, even before he left, then Jared’s infant need that demanded all my time, all my attention, all my wonder, and then evaporated. I rest my hand on theirs for just a moment before Jared wriggles from our grip.
“I’m glad you came.” I kiss Jared on the cheek as he backs away from the bed.
“I’ll be in the car.” He pushes the headphones back on and slinks out of the room.
“Where’s Tink?” my father asks.
“He’s Peter Pan today,” says Janice, patting my father’s hand, explaining his lapses, as if I didn’t know the story. She’s been Pope-like, orchestrating today’s reconciliation. “It’s good you’re here.” She surveys the room. “Any word from Hope?”
Hope stopped talking to our father and Janice––mostly Janice, she’s the verbalizer–– when she was pregnant with the twins and Janice was livid that Hope didn’t marry the father. With our family history, it was probably just as well. She gradually dropped contact with the rest of us, most recently me, once I stopped sending her money. She’s an alcoholic and homeless so often, I can’t find her anymore.
“That’s just like your sister.” Her mouth settles in disapproval.
After my audience, Janice’s oldest daughter Linda ushers me to the activity room. She sits on a couch and I join her, next to an old woman trying to crochet and shaking uncontrollably.
“We need to talk about Dad’s memorial,” Linda says. “I want to serve salmon salad at the reception, he loves it. What do you think?”
“Fine with me.”
I didn’t know my father likes fish. Before the stroke, he and Janice ate dinner at Linda’s house every Friday, surrounded by grandkids. My father golfed with her husband every other Thursday. Linda knows his best friends from work and the homeowner’s association, his favorite hymns, and that he wants to donate his body to UCLA Medical School. She’s the daughter with the father I always wanted.
Luke and I stand in line at Taco Bell, assigned by Janice to bring lunch back to the condo.
“Dad was thinking about buying a summer place out our way. I showed him a little ranch he liked last spring.” Luke wears boots with mud embedded in the lariat stitching. He drags his heel across the dirty tile.
“Were you born in Great Falls?” I ask.
“Mark was, but I was born in good old Burbank. We didn’t move until 1965 after Dad sold the appliance store. I was four.”
“Then you were born the same year as Hope,” I say. “But Dad didn’t leave us until ’65.”
Luke thrusts his fists in his pockets and looks at the floor. “My mother never said, but I always thought it was something like that.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, and I am. Sorry that we grew up with lies and unspoken fears and that my father never told all of the truth or apologized. Sorry that he used my mother, Hope and me, and Luke, Mark, and their mother as tester families until he got it right with Janice and her daughters.
“Water under the bridge.” He smiles too brightly. “Anyway, things turned out okay for us.”
We unload tacos and burritos in the kitchen. Janice looks satisfied and hums a tune that might be “Amazing Grace.” I contemplate phoning my mother to reveal that my father’s secret life began while they were still married. I imagine she is long past caring; that I am too.
I overhear a woman––one of the Montana wives–– talking to Jared in the living room.
“That’s a lovely landscape. Did you paint it from a photo?”
“No, it’s home. I painted it from memory.”
“You don’t live in L.A.?”
“I do now. But, I lived in Napa with my mom.”
“Oh. Well, it’s very impressionistic.”
“Thanks, I was trying to capture reality in terms of the transient effects of light and color.” I can tell he’s been waiting all semester to use that mouthful.
“I’d say it was a success. Who’s your favorite painter?”
“Monet, Manet, Pissarro, any of the Impressionists, really. But for technical skill, I’d have to say Renoir.”
“He’s my favorite, too.”
“I read that Renoir always wore a hat when he painted. Do you know why?”
She pauses. “So he wouldn’t get sunburned, I guess.”
Jared laughs. “No. He thought the sun would damage his brain, and he wouldn’t be able to distinguish between all the shades of gray.”
Janice calls at eight the next morning. “The boys took their families to Disneyland, and I don’t feel like being alone. Will you come over for coffee?”
Don and I took Jared to Disneyland for his tenth birthday. We had a silent three-hour fight in the car on the way down after I insisted that Don accompany Jared into the men’s bathroom at the rest stop on I-5. Don refused, and waited at the door instead.
“You have to let him breathe. He’s not going to disappear.” He’d said.
I spent our day at The Happiest Place on Earth standing in line to buy popcorn and Cokes and holding Mickey Mouse sweatshirts and souvenir cups while Don and Jared went on rides that made me motion sick. When the three of us were finally closed into a car in the Haunted House, I had a fierce desire to clutch Don’s hand, but kept it on the metal bar instead.
I think of Luke and Mark, arms wrapped tight around their wives’ waists and clasping their children’s hands as they herd them through Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, and Dumbo. They will wave while the kids steer cars on the Tomorrowland Autopia, and pretend they can see around corners.
I arrive to the condo, drink coffee and read the Times while Janice returns calls from well-wishers. Her voice, sharp as her diamond cocktail ring, reports my father’s temperature, food intake, and consciousness ratio. She talks about her grandchildren; how the nine-year-old wears eye-shadow, throws her hair back, and sings, “Hit me baby, one more time.” The little kids insist on Lucky Charms and eat breakfast by the TV watching aliens with TV sets built into their stomachs. “What is the world coming to?” She laughs, a pleasant sound, unlike my father’s stern voice.
He called last Christmas.
“Well, how’s the weather up there in Napa?” he said.
“We had a big storm blow through a few days ago. Six inches of rain.”
“Uh, huh. It’s been dry here, only a quarter inch this month. And the damn smog, gets worse all the time.”
“What are you and Janice up to?”
“Nothing much. We spent the weekend in Huntington Harbor with Lisa’s in-laws. They’ve got a boat, and took us around the canals looking at Christmas lights.”
“That sounds like fun. How are…”
“Say, we’re headed over to Linda’s now. How’s Jared?”
“He’s doing great. In fact his…”
“Good, good. Well, I just wanted to say Merry Christmas.”
Conversations were always like that. Don used to tease me after I hung up frustrated. “Just the facts, ma’am,” he’d say, like the detective on Dragnet.
Janice continues her calls. I write thank you notes for flowers and lasagnas, prowl the hallway, and study the jumble of photos that give the impression my father and Janice raised six of us. There’s a sixteen-by-twenty inch Olan Mills portrait taken several Easters ago of Luke, his wife and two boys, Mark, his pregnant wife, and their toddler all clad in pastels. Janice and my father smile in front of a Silver Anniversary banner. Don, Jared, and I hug Goofy outside Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland. Hope’s date’s hair is longer than hers at her senior prom. There’s a framed color photocopy of a picture I took of Hope’s gap-toothed twins posed at the door of their kindergarten. Baby Jared sleeps in his high chair. Linda, her husband, and their three kids relax on the beach alongside a giant sandcastle. Lisa and her husband kneel against a tree and balance their daughter on a red tricycle. A grainy sonogram of their imminent baby is tacked to the wall. I marvel at this fantasy family. What if we were real?
Janice and I join my father at the convalescent home shortly after ten. We make small talk and greet visitors from work and the neighborhood until lunch.
“Oh, you’re the teacher from Napa,” they say. “Isn’t your son the one who’s attending the high school for the arts? He wants to be a painter, right?” I’m invariably surprised that they’ve heard of us.
An attendant brings in lunch. I try to avoid visiting at meal times. The curtains between beds are open, solids are returned to the kitchen in exchange for purees, and “Just one more bite” becomes a prayer, a family’s tangible sign of hope. Janice feeds my father. He’s helpless like a newborn bird, and with each meal, less able to prove his love for her.
“He ate well, didn’t he?” she asks.
“Yes,” I answer.
Janice and I head to Mimi’s Grill for lunch, where we complain how appalling it is that Max’s wife––Max is in one of the beds next to my father––has hired someone to sit with him at the hospital.
“Where is her loyalty?” Janice shakes her gray-streaked head. “I know it sounds trite, but money can’t buy love.”
I pucker my lips around the straw in my iced tea. Janice registers this as agreement and slips her Mastercard underneath our ticket.
We run errands, go to the condo, return phone calls, and return to Golden Age just after five. I flip through a magazine and try not to watch while Janice feeds my father dinner and the paid sitter feeds Max; it seems an invasion of privacy. Bob, in the far corner, surrounded by his small family, eats nothing.
We stay and pretend to watch a little television with my father, although he’s conscious less and less as the week winds on. At seven-thirty, Janice kisses him goodnight and slips an ice chip down his throat.
Tonight I lure Jared to the Best Western with the promise of all-you-can-eat pizza and R-rated in-room movies. When I pick him up Rhonda answers, wearing designer sweats. She fills the doorframe with her big hair, big teeth, and big breasts. “You’re early, Jared’s in the shower.” She pauses. “Won’t you come in?”
“Thanks.” We’d both prefer I wait outside, but that wouldn’t be civil, and we try to be the poster family for modern divorce.
A naked Christmas tree and three full Hefty bags sit in the entry. “Excuse the mess. I don’t have everything back in order yet.”
“What’s the rush?”
“The new millennium.” She pauses for me to add a mental duh. “We’re having a huge New Year’s Eve Party. Stop by if you get a chance,” she says, knowing I will decline.
Jared takes the stairs two at a time, stepping around boxes of ornaments. He’s wearing the Tevas and carries a leather portfolio on one shoulder. His wet curls glisten.
After he’s eaten seven slices of pizza, and about eighty-seven people are killed in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s latest movie, Jared spreads his portfolio over one of the beds. He’s done dozens of sketches and almost as many paintings this semester. He holds each piece, framing it with his delicate fingers.
“There are five principles of organization,” he explains as if he’s giving a school report. “Balance, movement, contrast, emphasis, and harmony.”
He has me compare a series of charcoal sketches and we determine that I favor irregular rhythm, and asymmetrical over radial or formal balance.
“You’re catching on, Mom. Now, there are five basic elements of design: line, shape, color, texture, and space.”
I study watercolor, oil, and pastel renditions of the same still life until I can correctly identify realistic from abstract shape, dark from light values, actual from simulated texture, and positive versus negative space.
He shows me an experiment in Pointillism. “Everything is made up of tiny dots using only primary and secondary colors. What do you think?”
“It feels static.” I do my best to sound like an art critic and not a mother who wants to snatch her son back for purely selfish reasons.
“Exactly. The precision of color sucks all the life out of it. That’s why I like Impressionism. This is my favorite.” He holds up the painting of our yard in Napa.
From across the room I see everything clearly, the dilapidated barn, the almonds and magnolia in flower, chickens pecking near the pond. When I come close, the images blur and become indistinct.
Jared falls asleep while I floss my teeth. He’s sprawled across the bedspread, face down, elbows angled under a pillow, legs arranged like the number four. I pull a corner of the bedspread over him, sit on the bed’s edge and rest a hand on his back, feeling the shallow rise and fall.
When he was a baby, Jared couldn’t fall asleep without my hand on the round of his back. Until he was three I eased him into his crib after our ritual rocking and countless verses of “Bye Bye Baby Bunting.” I stood for long minutes with my hand across his spine waiting for the breath of sleep. Gradually, I retracted my hand into the space above him, feeling the connection between us diminish. Finally, I’d turn to tiptoe away, but often he sensed me move, and I’d repeat the process again. I was everything he wanted and everything I could give him was enough.
I lift my hand and crawl into my bed. Jared doesn’t move.
Jared likes me this morning and asks me to take him to the Rose Parade tomorrow. “It’s an awesome study in color and line.”
“It depends.” I park in Don’s driveway.
“I mean, if Grandpa doesn’t kick off tonight.”
Don is washing his truck. He pretends not to see me while I walk to the front door with Jared’s portfolio while they talk.
“Dad said okay.”
“Great. I’ll call you.”
“I love you, Mom.” He hugs me.
I hug too hard. He bounces into the house.
I take a step toward Don who looks up. “I’ll probably be over really early tomorrow. I hope it won’t interfere with your New Year’s plans.”
“It’s fine. It’ll be good for the two of you. Jared won’t say it, but he misses you.”
“I’m sorry about your dad.”
“I always liked him.” He smiles, quick and sad, a lapse in the usual reserve.
“I know.” I return the smile and remember the afternoon I told Don about my father.
“What kind of scum-bag runs out on his family?” he’d asked while we were twined in bed. “I will never leave my family. When I get married it will last forever.” It was a proposal, a confession and an opportunity for someone to hate my father for me.
After taking shifts at the Golden Age with my fading father, we gather for New Year’s Eve at the condo. Linda supervises cookie making with the kids in the kitchen. Lisa, feet up in a recliner, discusses pregnancy aches with the Montana wives. Luke and Mark make a grocery run to Von’s, and Janice and I borrow folding chairs from the clubhouse. The adults have a chatty dinner, packed in the dining room, while the kids take over the living room. We eat green salad from bags, pre-made garlic bread and the sympathy lasagnas. It’s a reunion-like atmosphere, punctuated with awkward silence when we remember why we’re gathered. We talk about everything, except my father.
Later, the kids want to play charades or Pictionary, but Janice decides games are too festive, and we watch a colorized version of It’s A Wonderful Life instead. There’s sniffling at the end when the townsfolk pay homage to Jimmy Stewart’s principled and self-sacrificing George Bailey, and Linda passes around Kleenex. I step onto the balcony and stay outside until I’m chilled. I can’t help but think of my father. Would we have been better off without him? If he could choose to live over, would he head straight to Janice?
The kids clamor to stay up until midnight, but the rest of us lack celebratory spirit. At eleven we open three bottles of sparkling cider and one of champagne––which is left untouched either in deference to my father’s twenty years of sobriety, or fear that alcoholism is genetic and will kick in tonight. We toast and sing “Auld Lang Syne” while the kids bang pots and pans on the balcony.
Jared is a kid who sticks to his New Year’s Resolutions. “What did you resolve, Mommy?” he used to ask showing me his crayoned list.
“Nothing.” I’d reply. No resolution, no failure.
This year it’s different. I can’t sleep. There’s a party in the hotel lobby, firecrackers in the street, and a new century ready to impact me. I take a sheet of stationery from the bedside table, place it on the Gideon’s Bible, and write resolutions for the first time in ages.
1. I will learn how to mother from five hundred miles away.
2. I will stop punishing Jared for leaving me. It’s his job.
3. I will keep in touch with Janice after my father dies.
4. I will think of one good thing to say about my father at his memorial service.
5. I will try to appreciate Rhonda and her love for Jared.
6. I will forgive Don for being human enough to leave after I
kept pushing him away.
I fall asleep with pen in hand and wake at four to my alarm.
We’re crowded and freezing on Colorado Boulevard waiting for the Rose Parade in the pre-dawn, huddled in sleeping bags on lawn chairs culled from Don’s garage and clutching my father’s promotional thermoses, filled with cocoa. Jared sings Christmas carols to keep his teeth from chattering. I pull the sleeping bag over my ears and watch his breath steam the air.
“Close your eyes,” he says.
I obey and hear him open the ice chest and clunk around. I burrow further into the flannel. It smells faintly of Don’s aftershave. I drift into the scent and scenes I don’t often let myself recall. My unspoken don’t leave me breathed into his neck, his chest, his thighs, when we’d save our disagreements for the cover of night and the shelter of bodies.
“Okay. You can look.”
I open my eyes to dawn and Jared holding a black plastic plate arrayed with crab puffs, sushi and ruffle-cut radishes, and a plastic champagne flute filled with orange juice and a strawberry. “Compliments of Rhonda.”
“Hold on.” I fish a bag of Winchell’s donuts from my purse and add them to the spread. “Happy New Year.” I raise my flute. We toast with a click of cups. “Art school’s pretty great isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Jared snaps a radish and chases it with jelly donut.
“I’m glad you’re here.” I sip the juice. “Not glad, exactly, but happy for you. I’m sorry I blew up when you wanted to come.” I’d been nasty, saying he was just like his dad and my father sliding from one family to another when it was convenient. “I never meant a word of it.”
Jared chews and nods.
“Leaving is what growing up is all about. This is where you should be now. Forgive me?”
“It’s okay, Mom.” He wipes his nose on his sweatshirt sleeve.
“I have this idea,” I say. “How about the two of us drive to Chicago this summer? We can check out the Institute.”
The next morning, there’s an empty bed, freshly made in my father’s room. All that remains of Bob is a stack of photos on the tray-table at the foot of his bed.
Our leave-taking begins. My father lingers, and his assorted children must return to their lives. “Call us for the memorial,” we tell Janice and Linda. Janice says she’ll copy our addresses, so we can keep in touch. “Great,” we say between hugs and handshakes, and we mean it, for another few weeks, until the reason our lives collided no longer exists.
My plane departs in a few hours and Janice leaves after she feeds my father lunch, so I can be alone with him. I’d blurted “I love you” instantly upon my arrival last year after the first stroke, scared by the tubes in his nose. He was startled, but answered, “I know and I love you too.”
Today his mind is far away. He breathes roughly and floats in his Neverland. I kiss his cheek, hollow and too soft, not the sandpaper I remember. I scrape my mind for other memories.
There are fragments: sitting in his lap while he read the Herald Examiner and drank scotch and soda until he passed out. Being spanked for finding the Playboys he hid in the bathroom. The time my sister and I sat at the dining room table in our party dresses and Mary Jane’s until midnight waiting to shout, “Surprise” on his birthday, while Mom rotated dinner from oven to table and back and dabbed her eyes with her apron. All memories his absence would eclipse, except one, my eighth birthday. He bought me a Bobby Vinton album and plastic record player and told me how I almost died at birth and how he, giddy with relief after hours of praying to a God he wasn’t sure existed, took me in his arms and named me.
He left two days later.
“I love you, Dad,” I remind us. I take a long look, my last, at this man, my illusive father who won’t speak my name again, and decide I’ll ignore much of his life. What will I remember? That he phoned on my birthday and Christmas, that I called on his birthday, Easter and Thanksgiving, sent vacation photos and Jared’s school pictures and still remained outside his orbit? I tell myself he was scared of his past, afraid to risk forgiveness, so he withdrew like a crab pinched to his mistakes, the way I did with Don and almost repeated with Jared. I tell myself that when I go home and hang his picture on my photo wall, I will believe he loved me even though I never felt it.
I retrieve my purse, blot my eyes with Kleenex, turn to leave and see Max staring in the vicinity of the television. A soap opera airs, on screen people recover from brain tumors today only to be shot next week. Max’s tray is untouched. His sitter is nowhere to be seen, and the nurses, too busy to feed patients, take leftover meals to the kitchen. My temples throb as I cross the room to his bed.
“Hi, Max. I’m Faith. Are you hungry?”
He looks at me.
“I thought I could feed you lunch, if you’re hungry. Is that okay?” I hold a spoonful of pureed peas in the air.
Max looks at me vaguely and opens his mouth.
Cathy Warner (cathywarner.com) is a writer, editor, occasional blogger, realtor, and home renovator in Puget Sound, whose short stories and essays have appeared in dozens of print journals and online venues, including a Best American Essays nomination from Under the Sun, and a Pushcart Prize nomination from So To Speak. Her first book of poetry, Burnt Offerings, was published in 2014.
Featured image on this post © Bennett North. Author photo © the author.