Originally published by A Long Story Short.
I walk into room 283 at the nursing home to find my father slumped in a wheelchair, face unshaven, mouth slack, eyes closed. A month before the stroke, people were amazed when they found out he was 80; he looked no more than 65. Now he looks ninety and I feel as if someone has punctured my lungs. Tears gather in my eyes. I kneel in front of the chair and put my hand on his.
“Daddy?” He doesn’t stir. “Daddy,” I say anxiously, louder, and his eyes open slowly. His head comes up. His stare is vacant. “Daddy, it’s me.”
He turns to me and stares. Then he says, “Oh. Hi, honey,” so weakly I can barely hear him.
“How are you?” I ask, even though it is painfully obvious.
“Have someone get me back to bed,” he says. His voice trembles. “I call and call. For hours. No one comes.”
Now I am puffed up with purpose. “I’ll be right back,” I say and rush out to the nurses’ station where an unkempt young woman shovels Cool Ranch Doritos into her mouth. Her considerable bulk threatens the buttons of her uniform and I resist the urge to tell her the Doritos aren’t helping.
“I need someone to help my dad back into bed.”
She wipes her fingers delicately on a Kleenex and says, “Who’s your father, hon?”
“Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you.”
“Well, he’s only been here a couple weeks and I’ve been out of town.”
“Mmm hmmm. How was your trip?”
I bristle. “It was business,” I say. Does she think I’d put my father in here and then go on vacation?
“That must be stressful for you. He’s doing fine, though, really.”
“He doesn’t look fine. He needs to get back into bed. Can you help me? He says he’s been calling for someone for hours.”
“I’m sure it seems like hours to him but he’s only been in the chair for about forty minutes.
We need to build his strength and he won’t do that by being in bed all day.”
She smiles, her eyes soft and sympathetic, her confidence deflating my anger. “Lunch is coming soon,” she says. “Let’s leave him in the chair for now and I’ll come in after lunch to help him back to bed.”
“Okay,” I say, relieved that my father’s being looked after by this kind woman. “Thank you.”
When I reenter my father’s room he looks up hopefully. “Is someone coming?”
“After lunch, Daddy.”
“Oh, honey,” he says sadly. “I’m so uncomfortable.” His disappointment erodes the good feeling I had and makes me feel like a failure.
“Lunch will be here soon,” I say, “and right after that we’ll get you back into bed. The nurse says you’ve only been in the wheelchair for forty minutes.”
“Who said that? That fat one? She’s a witch and a liar.”
I stare, stunned into speechlessness. He has never, in my whole life, spoken ill of anyone. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, were the words he lived by and instilled in me.
“Don’t look at me like that. It’s true,” he says, his anger bringing him strength. “Oh, she smiles,” he says, “and makes up to you but she doesn’t do anything. She’s fat and lazy. She’s a witch. She won’t help me eat or drink and she never answers the call button when I ring it.”
I feel as if I’ve come into the wrong room. This man bears a physical resemblance to my father but it’s as if he’s had a personality transplant.
After lunch he’s back in bed, calmer, his hair snowy white against the blue of the pillowcase. He smiles at me.
When the Dorito-eating nurse comes in to take his tray I brace myself.
“How was it, Oliver?” she asks.
“Tasted like gruel. I was hoping for filet mignon,” he says.
“Oh, you snuck a peek at the dinner menu,” she says.
His laughter floats around the room and embraces my heart. I stroke the slack skin on the back of his hand, examining the age spots, his long fingers; cherishing this moment. How many more moments like this will I have with my father?
“Do you know how much I love you, Daddy?”
He looks at me, his eyes clear now, and focused.
“However much that is, sweetpea,” he says. “I love you a hundred times more.”