I have just set down a reheated casserole on the white formica table when my father leans his head far back and sprays out the water he had been dutifully drinking into a fine mist. I saw him a moment ago breathing in deep, noticed his frail chest rising with purpose, and knew it would be useless to stop him. Braying like a donkey, he claps his hands with unadulterated glee as I sit down and wipe up his wet, shiny traces before starting to eat.
I find myself having to come over to my childhood home more often; I visited today because our nurse was only part time and had called in yesterday with pinkeye from her son’s daycare. I notice that the sturdy metal clock in the living room isn’t working and am trying to figure out why when I see father at the back porch, halfway sprawled out of the lawn chair and his thin, cotton pajama pants soaked down to his knees with piss. The hyacinths in the garden we used to tend together are coming into full bloom; the heady smell wafting through the yard and making my head swim. I jam my hands under his musky arms and he looks up at me with a distant pair of cold, almost reptilian eyes. “You little fuck,” he says, giggling at himself, a disobedient schoolboy once again. For a flash, I’m tempted to toss my head back and laugh with him. I bend down and take his thin arm, his loose skin making it hard to grip. Provoked, he twists away, kicking his legs out furiously into a blur of motion, riding out the slowly ascending wave of anger, the sharp smell of his urine pricking my nose and mingling with the fresh hyacinths. Bemused, I watch until he peters out, his withered frame rising and falling with every labored breath. I take his arm again and gingerly wrap it around my own shoulders, his bony ankles clattering and too shaky set a straight trajectory into the house on their own. Easing him into the worn, soft corduroy recliner he spent the last five years on, I immediately regret it as soon as I think of his soaked pants pressing a wet, sour imprint on the chair’s fibers. I know that I have to clean him up and get him into dry clothes, but the walls in this house have started to feel oppressive, as if they are stretching out and down, getting smaller and tighter, until I don’t know anything but the smell of piss and flowers. Father starts to let out a deep, low groan from his recliner. A gradual process that grows louder until it hangs heavy and saturates every room, interrupted only to catch his breath and continue. It holds the same self-righteous, entitled cadence for attention that every sick person always adopts, consciously or not. I don’t realize my fists are clenched until I finally come to take him to the bathroom and have to uncurl my white hot hands to ease him out the living room.
After clumsily gracing the wheelchair with father’s crumpled figure, I skirt him around only to realize that there is no possible way for me to move him upstairs unless I take him into my arms and lift his full weight. On the good days, he’s able to stand steadily, even hold a conversation with quiet murmurs, but today is not a good day. My jaw flexes, clenching involuntarily at this oversight, but I had never been nor wanted to be a caretaker, and right now I can’t help but feel as though there is a growing force in this too familiar house that is pressing onto my back, a large hand growing stronger every minute I am here. I make the executive decision to wash him down in the backyard; I reason that it is fenced for privacy. I take the bar of soap in the kitchen and wheel him outside. His small frame seems to turn in on itself even more in the white brightness of the harsh sunlight, his squinted eyes blinking rapidly and focusing on the purple bush of flowers on the other side of the yard. I gingerly lift him to set him standing and quickly strip him of his clothes and underwear, not knowing when his legs will give out. I sit him back down in the faded green plastic lawn chair we bought one summer when I was in middle school and walk over to the tap to turn the hose on and wait for the water to cool.
Father keeps looking around the yard, at the waxy green tree leaves, the overgrown grass choked with weeds, the hyacinths. I watch the yard with him and all its slow instances of still life, waiting to be captured. I jolt out of my stupor when I notice him watching me instead, a naïve, achingly youthful smile slowly stretching across his face, absent of any previous maliciousness. I take the hose and let a steady trickle flow into the deep, hollow crevices on his sunken in chest. He lets out a quiet, strangled sigh, his head hung down. Underneath the wasted, mottled skin and strange sagging, I can see that there are still whispers of my father that have lingered. His sturdy jaw sharp and jutted out, almost petulantly. The nape of his neck, exposed and vulnerable, and the curving, undulating wave of bone. There is a growing bubble in my throat that I am pushing down, fully aware of the situation’s irony when I remember how father used to hose me down this same gentle way whenever I would run home from the pool in the glaring summer, my skin dry and tight and my bare feet still stinging from the blistering pavement and the hot glass sun.
I start dinner sometime after drying father off and washing out his pants, leaving them to hang in the rusted rack I had found and unfolded outside. My father sat, slumped in his recliner, clean but still left dissatisfied. I could see something gave way with how his eyes shifted to follow me wherever I went in the house, his posture better than it had been for a while, back quivering but held straight. I leave the room to reheat the casserole and wheel him to the table; we are both eating the same thing but I have mixed his serving up until it is an indistinguishable handful of soft mush. He sprays water over himself, his food, and is too far gone laughing deliriously to realize how mortified he would be if he could see himself now. Father had spoken to me only once about his will, years ago right after mother died and the house started to look foreign. He had talked about the property and his funds allocation, but never about the act of dying. Ours was a quiet, almost casual relationship. What I remembered about father as a child was the rhythmic ticking from mowing sharp smelling grass, the metallic rattling when I rapturously watched him clean his hunting guns, his soft padded steps down the hallway before drifting off to sleep. I wondered what he would have said to me if he had known what it would be now. I wondered when his last times were: when he walked up his own stairs, when he ate solid food without frothing vomit, when he wiped his own ass.
I can hardly chew the overcooked block of meat and greasy vegetables I have been sawing through, eventually giving up entirely and dumping it all in the garbage, making a mental note to take it out with me when I leave. I am drying the dishes, savoring the few minutes of focusing on a chore I am used to. Father sits the next room with the door open so I can hear him. Few cabinets are opened until I realize that all the utensils and plates still go back into the same drawers they did when I was young. I put away my dish, but stop when I spot a blue Wedgwood cup in the corner of the cabinet, dusty but still intact. My mother made it her hobby to collect antique china, though she usually was only able to find one or two cups instead of the whole set. I remember her coming home from the consignment store one afternoon, sweeping through the doorway and brimming with pride at her latest find, the slant of sunlight from the window glancing off of the English bone china and fragmenting into diamond and sapphire flecks on the carpet. She had called me into the kitchen, standing not far from where I was now, cradling the Wedgwood like a newborn babe in her small, upturned hands. She let me gently wipe it down with a wet terry cloth, her trembling voice hushed in the confined space between our bodies and as soft as her ivory cashmere cardigan, reminding me to be careful, be careful.
I am still with the Wedgwood in the kitchen, the memories of my mother’s exuberance on that day lingering, when I hear the glass back door to the yard slide open. “Damn,” I mutter to myself, throwing the drying cloth down. I cross through the kitchen and living room in big strides, only to find him clawing to pull back the bolt on the Remington .22 rifle I thought he had gotten rid of when mother died. “No,” he shouts when seeing me, but I have already taken the nozzle and pointed it up, away from the both of us, grappling it out of his pitiful, disappointingly weak grip. I set it by the lawn chair and father is blubbering, wailing, thumping his bony fists against my chest and face, the blows barely glancing off me. He pulls away when I try to lift him like a child into the house by the armpits, landing with a hard click from his teeth when he slips out from my arms. After some time filled with quiet pleas and hushes passes, I can finally drag him back to the house and in his recliner. After having him drink a not-insignificant amount of scotch I find in a cabinet above the pantry, he looks at me, drinking the amber steadily with two hands like a child, eyes unclouded and clearer than I have seen for years. He sets the glass on his lap and looks at me again with that unblemished gaze until the many wrinkled cross lines on his face sag and his eyelids close from the tug of sleep. I sat, watching my father sleep, his mouth agape and innocent looking, his breath slightly hitching. I sat and thought about how he could not remember, how in his perpetual confusion he could not and could now never even recall my name or anything else, and I walk outside to pick up the rifle to check the bolt and realize that it wasn’t even loaded. I turn around and the father-stranger is still there, but where my father starts and the stranger ends we both do not know. And I remember his eyes, a glint of his former self, healthy and tired, holding my own for those few seconds of searing clarity. So I take the rifle and load it with two bullets that hold a promise, pull the bolt back, and quietly leave it on the end table next to his recliner before I turn off the lights and lock the front door.