She sits next to him at the dinner table every evening going through the same routine:
“Eat….you need to finish your dinner” she says as she spoon feeds him.
He’s in his wheelchair, opening and closing his mouth for her, stretching out his neck like a baby bird. She reacts to his every move, anticipating what he will do next. He takes a swing at her from his sitting position, eyes closed, a blind warrior brandishing an invisible sword.
“Does something hurt you…do you have pain in your legs…why are you pointing at the floor….?” she asks, searching for an answer in his distracted gestures.
“ I want to go home” he says
“We are home…… this is our home…”
It will go on like this until half past eight, until she administers his medication and wheels him to his bed for the night. Only then will she start rummaging around in the kitchen, trying to be quiet while she washes the dinner dishes and places them in the sink , bypassing the accommodating dishwasher. What seems like the end of the day is only the beginning. It is only when he sleeps that she can finally sit down and try to think, try to free herself from his incessant banter, from hearing him call out over and over.
He cannot remember who he is. He speaks in tongues only he can comprehend, and yet she tries to make sense of it all, to give each syllable a meaning, each sentence structure. She is relentless in her belief that somewhere behind his hazel eyes there is still a spark of recognition fighting to break through.
Her routine has consumed her. She dwells within its gestures, a sanctuary of everydayness.
“Helloooo……helloooo……” he calls in the early morning hours, signaling his awakening, howling at the still, thick, morning air. And thus my mother steps into what will be yet another day filled with the same redundant questions. In her robe she hurries to him, her thin grey hair like string, her head swaying like a dandelion as she works her way toward him.
“Who are you?” he will ask
“I am your wife,” she will answer as she stands over him.
The caregiver will come down the stairs in large strides, making his presence known.
“Don’t touch me…go away…I don’t want to…. don’t kill me…where is my mother?…..hellooooo…helloooo…..”
“I’m your friend…remember me…I just want to help you get dressed…shave…get washed up…,” the caregiver will say.
This scenario will play out until one day he will become less demanding, less verbal, and will lie in his bed in the middle of the living room as if in a cage with those iron sidebars raised to the very top to keep him from falling out. She knows that soon she will not be able to talk to him, and he will no longer look at her. Looking at her in confusion is better than not looking at her at all. Anything is better than silence from the one you love.
At eighty six she is more determined than ever to save him from his destiny. Everything has lost its importance except for him. He has become hers once more, like when they were young, before they had me, and before the fear of death became real.
“You should have never had children,” I tell her.
“Who else do I have if not your father?”she answers. “Nobody needs the elderly.”
Now that he is helplessly trapped in a reality where nobody can reach him, he has given up his resistance.
My father was raised by women in a communist country. He experienced WWII, being displaced, antisemitism, and the holocaust. He had chosen her.
He chose her because to not choose her felt like a crime.
In 1955 while sitting on a bench in the courtyard of her four story housing complex, she leaned over and whispered, “Take me away from this place.”
The “place” was a one room apartment she shared with her mother and sister, a microcosm of forced intimacy no different from any other CO-OP living space that was handed out in 1931 by the Soviet government as a reward for loyalty and devotion to Mother Russia.
“Give me a reason to leave my life, let me step softly into yours,” is what my father understood as he sat close to her, so close he could feel the warmth of her body through the hand sewn dress she was wearing. She was taller than most girls and slimmer. She had straight, perfectly polished white teeth and black lashes so thick that she never wore mascara.
Who would look after her if not him?
He would save her from her single mother who worked at the local pool during the day and as a seamstress in the evening sewing swimming trunks for the national swim team, and from her younger sister who wanted nothing better than to disown her identity of being the child of divorce, and a Jewess to boot, and blend into the unforgiving masses.
He would inspire her to become his equal.
He wanted to bring her into the light, to fill her mind with his imagination.
Instead, their life together was marred by his effort to appease her appetite for rules. The invisible guidelines by which she made sense of the world around her devastated him.
“Look how beautiful we looked together….your father was so handsome….all the girls from work wanted to date him…..even if he was Jewish,” my mother says as she leans over a faded black and white photo smothered against a glass frame in the bedroom. A sliver of the past condensed into a square. My mother and father are wearing each other’s gabardine raincoats during a May Day parade. Both are laughing as they embrace. She has three carnations in her hand. In her album there is another photo which is not exposed to the world. It was taken that same day, perhaps just moments later, as they walk away, their backs to the camera, coats slightly swinging, their giddy stride captured on film.
“It was an important day, everyone was in the streets,” she says. She is standing with her hands in the pockets of her polyester robe. She wears light blue socks with white clouds printed on them. Her legs are swollen. She lifts her gaze and most naturally says: “I’m so worried…on the box of medication it said not to crush…but I had to, otherwise your father can’t swallow it….I hope it will be alright…I hope it will still work.”
She was taught not to question, not to deviate, to follow instructions whether they came from her superiors at work, a college professor, or the writing on the back of an oatmeal box. She looked to directions for guidance, yet instinctually she doubted their validity. She read medical journals and research papers. With her magnifying glass she read the fine print on every bottle of pills he was prescribed and on every occasion she found them to be inadequate, until she convinced herself that he was better off without them.
Suddenly struck with fear, she walks away from me and disappears down the hall. Secretly she is on her way to make sure that he is still there, that he has not fallen over or run away like he used to do when he could still move his limping body with the help of a cane.
My father is shuffling a mountain of loose pages with glossy images he has ripped out of fashion magazines across the kitchen table. He has a love of paper. He likes the way it feels. He hides it in his pockets. He loves it so much he eats it.
“What are you doing? You can’t eat the paper..it’s…it’s not food…you can choke! “ she screams in front of him. She is facing him, ripping pieces of magazine from his hand.
“Are you crazy?…..?” she continues. He looks at her and blinks twice like an owl.
I am in the kitchen standing next to her. I am outside of myself observing the three of us. The windows are open, Spring is pressing against the screens, trying to invade our aching space.
“He plays dumb on purpose!….answer me…..!” she is shrieking at him at the top of her lungs.
“Oh my dear…..I am so afraid,” he says as though asking for forgiveness.
“Afraid of what?” She is irritated and amused at the same time.
“I don’t know,” he says and shrugs his shoulders.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. Everything is alright,” her voice is a lullaby.
His gaze absentmindedly travels back to the colorful images laid out on the white tablecloth.
All of her life she did her best to resist, to be planted firmly in the soil, like a stubborn weed waiting to be plucked. To her everything was just a matter of time. If she waited long enough, if she stood her ground, her willfulness would overshadow even the most explicit reality.
In her bedroom she has a dreamcatcher hanging off of the small lamp on her nightstand. She says it helps her sleep better. It was sent to her as a gift by the National Veteran’s Association of America for her sponsorship. Every year she makes her fifty dollar donation.
“And look at their generosity. They collect money to give to those poor people and yet they make such an effort to be thankful. What decency, such nice people.” She stands mesmerized by her token of appreciation as she swayed it by its string, trailing the feathers through the air. Watching her, I get a rare glimpse of what she must have been like in her youth. She’s smiling, revealing the gaps left by the missing incisors on moth sides of her mouth. She’s not wearing her bridge. She saves that for special occasions, when she has to look whole to the world.
He cannot go to the restroom without her guidance. Even children can do that on their own. He has fallen into her arms like a lost kite.
“Put on your glasses. You can’t see without your glasses,” she says sliding them slowly on to his face. He resists, trying to brush her away like a bothersome fly. He smiles sheepishly. He’s in a good mood and breaks out into song. His loud voice fills the room with the notes of Ave Maria….Pavarotti…..O Sole Mio…..and then the songs from his days in the country he used to say robbed him of the first forty years of his life. But all that is forgiven now. He sings with gusto, perfectly in tune and remembering all the lyrics, like a recording.
“He cannot understand you,” I say.
“It’s because he’s had a bad night’s sleep. He’s tired. Can’t you see that his eyes are closing from a lack of sleep?”
“Mom he doesn’t understand you!”
“Stop repeating that…I’m not like you… I still care about him. I still give a damn…he’s your father…he would have given his life for you,” she screams.
Why would he have to? To prove to me how much he loves me?
My father does not recognize me. My father thinks that I am a young boy and that my short black hair, fashionably cut away from my face, is a hat.
“Who is that young man with the hat?” he asks the caregiver
“That’s your daughter,” he answers, but my father has already moved on, started a discourse on the car he sees through the window and asks, “ Where are we going? Are you all coming with me?”
“Yes, Dad. We are all coming with you. We are all here with you,” I answer.
He looks up at me. I am just a stick figure, a shadow, an image of his imagination.
“Will you call my mother please….I want to talk to my mother. Is she upstairs…sleeping?” he asks. Now that he is ravaged by dementia, all he wants is his mother. He calls out to her, he talks to her, he cries for her, and somewhere deep in his heart half knowing the answer, he starts to make the noise of a child in despair.
Rimma Kranet is a Russian-American fiction writer with a Bachelor’s Degree in English from the University of California Los Angeles. Her short fiction has appeared in Brilliant Flash Fiction and is forthcoming in Construction Literary Magazine. She resides between Florence, Italy and Los Angeles, California.