I look at my father lying in the leather recliner that I and my mother -- his long-time ex-wife -- picked out for him just a few months ago. A stain is visible on the arm, probably ice cream, I think. The stains I see on his pant leg are ones I don’t want to think about.
This new apartment originally held such hope, filled with sunshine and all new things; such a huge departure from the dank, over-cluttered, cigarette-stained and dust-filled disaster where he'd lived before. But already this place suffers along with him, displaying the signs of his hard-living existence: pills scattered on the table and floor, latex gloves, half-filled cups of soda, open boxes of cereal and food. Everything disrupted, nothing in its place. The only unsullied spot is the bed, where he never sleeps.
The social worker gently presses my father for some answers. He responds to her interest, perking up a bit and repositioning himself. I watch the crumbs from cookies dusting his shirt relocate to the floor. I sigh, desperately wanting to leave this apartment, this whole nightmare, him. But unfortunately, I am the meat of the operation, sandwiched between him and my other life as wife and mother of three young boys.
“You’re so good at this!” the social worker says as I flip through folders of papers to supply her with the answers she needs. I smile politely and shrug, but I want to lunge across the table and strangle her. I don’t want to be good at this. I don’t want any of this at all.
They always gush as I provide document after document, carve out hours from my days, my kids and my life, making phone calls and appointments, following up, putting out fires from my father's medical and social mishaps, sitting through evaluations for him on everything from Medicaid to Meals on Wheels to nursing and home health aides as he slips in and out of lucidity, occasionally emerging to interject an answer or some confused muttering.
Decades ago, he wasn’t this person, at least not in any way that seemed to matter to me as a child just going about my business. I spent my days traversing the streets of Brooklyn on my bicycle and, at home, hiding away in my room with a book and my stuffed animals.
A big dreamer moonlighting as an eyeglass salesman who liked to drink through his nights, my father typically spent his days in bed with the television on, forking large leafs of dressing-drenched iceberg lettuce from a giant salad bowl into his mouth. It was that or a grapefruit, juice dripping down his arms. I watched with fascination as he’d spit seeds at a napkin off to the side.
Where all this sleeping, eating and dreaming took place was also the epicenter of fun, though. He'd be a beast under cover, prowling the mattress back and forth as my younger brother and I tried to cross without being pulled under and eaten. Or he'd hold our hands and feet together like sloths and then hurl us, 10 feet high, onto the mattress.
At bedtime, he told tales using his fingers as characters. My father could spin a yarn from a thread. There was the famous Vernon with V, who held a striking resemblance to the peace sign, and Chickpea, his smaller, generally wiser sidekick. Another character was his disobedient and dangerous hand named Oscar, who would often try to strangle him while his other hand pulled Oscar off, and I’d giggle as they battled, one hand against the other, my father struggling against himself.
Back then, he was a charismatic man full of mischief and laughter. It didn’t matter if I might wobble over his Scotch-soaked form on the hallway floor because he just might reach out and grab my ankle for that touch of connection, flashing me a wicked smile before letting me pass and then passing out again.
Not until I was 17 did I have my first real awakening to his problems. My parents’ divorce was seven years past, and my mother had been remarried for six. She, my brother and I lived on Long Island now, and my father lived alone, moving from one small, nasty apartment to another, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, an island in a sea of empty liquor bottles and clutter.
I could somehow ignore that, until the day his sluggish, rambling voice left a desperate, pleading message on my personal answering machine.
“Leetha I need helppa… no...I okay… Help…,” his voice slurred, followed by the sound of his phone clanking haphazardly. The line went dead.
I didn’t call my mother, understanding even then that he was my responsibility. Sitting alone in my room, I repeatedly called my father’s number, panicking with each angry bleat of the busy signal. Ultimately, not knowing what else to do, I called the police, who went to his apartment – this one in New Jersey – and had to break down the door when they received no response.
He was there, of course, and claimed he had taken an extra sleeping pill. I don’t remember the details, but it was the end of the man who had me giggling at the edge of my bed and the beginning of me becoming the hand to keep him from strangling himself.
The social worker laughs at something he says, and my father gives me a crooked, satisfied grin.
Amazingly, a small glimmer of childhood idolization lingers. Forget the hospital stays, the dependencies, the self-destruction, the emotional manipulation, the cries for help that always leave me crying. I want to believe that this 73-year-old man will somehow find his way back, that he’ll stop beating himself up and beating me up along with him, that he’ll defeat the demons of pain, depression and anxiety and find some happiness.
But I have no real hope. I have too many folders.
For more health news, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter here.