February 12, 2006
“The funeral is on Saturday.” That’s how Dad told me that Grandpa died. I met him coming down the hallway and he said that as dryly as if he were giving me the weather forecast.
I felt a twinge of guilt since I hadn’t seen my grandparents in at least two or three weeks. I probably should have gone to the nursing home more often, but my visits were stilted and awkward. I didn’t have anything to say, Grandma didn’t have anything to say, and Grandpa wouldn’t even look at me. I couldn’t tell if he still thought I was cousin Bill or if he was just in his own little world of dementia. Cousin Bill didn’t have any problem visiting with them, though. He could hold a conversation with a brick wall for three hours without a break.
Dad was pissed because he thought I hadn’t been to see them at all. Whenever I did go I signed the visitor’s book as Nicodemus, Darth Vader or Lord Wilmore. It amused me and the staff at the front desk rarely paid attention. But Dad always checked and he kept a record of who else in the family had visited. He ranted about how his “shit for brains” brother lived in the next county and couldn’t be bothered to see his parents. My brothers and sisters almost never saw my grandparents either. I guess they hadn’t just cut Dad out of their lives, but his whole side of the family as well. “I’ll bet they think they can hurt me by hurting my mother, or whatever goes on in their sick minds,” he’d fume. “But of course they’ll all be there at the funeral.”
They were. I was expecting a coffin-side blow-up, but nothing happened. It was just another awkward affair with everybody giving each other plenty of space. My uncles Tim and Chuck gave moving eulogies, and then Dad stood up and rambled a bunch of nonsense before sitting down again. I couldn’t even begin to describe it. And poor Grandma. She was obviously upset. We were allowed to take her out of the nursing home for the funeral, and now that she was alone in there Dad and I launched a rescue operation.
Funerals weren’t the only thing they allowed Grandma out for. We could take her for walks around the building and sit outside with her. Dad started doing test walks with Grandma to see how their security was. This time he actually made the necessary preparations at home and started interviewing nurse’s aides. When everything was in place, we went over to the nursing home the day before Thanksgiving. Dad went inside and told them he was taking Grandma for another walk, and then he went into her room and packed all her things into a bag. Meanwhile I was in his car outside the front doors with the engine running.
Dad was taking longer than expected inside and I was getting nervous that something had gone wrong. Finally the doors slid open and Dad wheeled Grandma through at top speed. I was out of the car in a flash and helping her into the passenger seat while Dad flung her bags into the backseat and dove in after them. Then I peeled out of the driveway, steering with one hand and buckling Grandma in with the other. Dad called the nursing home when we got home to tell them Grandma wasn’t coming back, and then he put Grandma on the phone and she told them she didn’t wish to return. Dad took the phone back and had a heated conversation with the woman on the other end. He finally yelled, “Ma’am, you can go ahead and call the police if you want, but she’s staying here!” and bashed the phone down.
While I kept an eye out for arriving police cars, Dad rang Uncle Chuck and informed him of current events. Another heated conversation followed by another bashing down of the receiver. The police never showed, only Sam. Sam was our latest boarder and this guy was a real Emmy-award winner. Dad knew him from the pro-life movement. He’d fathered eight kids, and there was a big fight at his house when one of them farted and didn’t apologize. Sam slapped him and then two of his other kids jumped on him and started beating him up.
Um, what? There had to be more to the story than that. But in any case he needed a place to stay until he could find an apartment. So he’d moved with us and slept in the little room under the stairs like Harry Potter. This guy took five minutes to walk from the kitchen table to the fridge, yet he told us he led a bayonet charge in Vietnam. Oh really? Did they give you a week’s head start? I felt like asking. Sam also drove a school bus. I don’t know how the kids ever got to school with him, because he drove so slowly that even old Asian women were cutting him off. Then on weekends he drove a meat truck and always came home with boxes of pork chops that he stuffed in our freezer.
He was annoying as hell. Polish jokes every five minutes, and after each one he’d laugh and rub his belly. He made fun of Bill by telling him he looked like Doc Brown from Back to the Future. And while Bill and I had to sit in the furthest corner of the house muffling our laughter with pillows, suddenly it was okay for Dad and Sam to watch The Sound of Music or Vietnam War movies at full volume while Grandma was sleeping.
Sunday night after Thanksgiving the nurse’s aide that Dad hired showed up, but she pulled a bait and switch on us. She claimed the family she was working for offered her more money to stay, so she brought along her friend Tina who displayed a handwritten letter of reference. Supposedly she was a nurse’s aide too, but we learned that she was just an out of work hairdresser. Yet Dad accepted this turn of events without question, and Tina became our live-in aide Monday through Friday. She took the Harry Potter room and Sam moved into the den. Dad hung bedsheets from the ceiling to give him some privacy, and while we ate dinner it looked like Alfred Hitchcock was doing a striptease in the next room.
Tina went back to Brooklyn on the weekends, and then she took off the whole month of January to visit her family in the old Soviet republic of Georgia. Dad hired a variety of aides in the interim, some of whom had more teeth than brains and none of whom Dad was around to meet when they arrived in the mornings. That task fell to me instead. You’d think you’d want to be there to meet a complete stranger coming into your house to look after your mother, but whatever. One of them didn’t even know Grandma’s name or what she was supposed to do, so I had to give her instructions before I left. Jesus.
Meanwhile it was amazing that the house hadn’t burned down with the combined efforts of Dad and Sam. I lost count of the number of times they put things into the oven and forgot about them. I’d walk into the kitchen and find something on fire on the stove top, and the two of them would be in the next room oblivious to the smoke and smell. Must be a guy thing.
The kitchen became the latest battleground. Dad kept flipping out because somebody kept filling the kettle all the way to the top every day. I couldn’t get over how mad it made him. He’d pick up the kettle, find it full of water, rip off the lid, fling the contents violently into the sink and slam the empty pot down on the counter. Then he’d storm out of the kitchen muttering darkly to himself. Jesus. I prayed he’d never find an odd number of slices in the bread box, because he’d probably lift it up and hurl it through the window.
Eventually I learned it was mostly Bill’s fault. Apparently Bill was using too much water. Bill was my one bright light in that crazy house, but Dad’s behavior towards him was endangering the only good thing about the place. The shortsightedness and hypocrisy was astounding. He got on Bill’s case about his water usage, and I couldn’t resist pointing out to Dad that he’d leave lights on five rooms yet he wasn’t in a single one of them. He angrily waved his hands at me to shut me up and chewed me out afterwards for ruining the point he was making to Bill. I just shrugged and walked away.
True to form, Dad found a way to pay me back. I always did the dishes after dinner, but instead of scraping all the crap off into the garbage he started piling all the plates on top of each other and mushing everything in between. Then he’d stroll merrily out of the kitchen, whistling a tune. Every time I had to resist the urge to wing his sopping wet napkins and chicken bones at the back of his head. Ironically his spitefulness resulted in me using more water than usual to clean up the mess he made for me each night. And heaven forbid Bill joined us for dinner. Every time he did Dad started up with his muttering: “amazing… just plops himself down at the table… what a freeloader…”
Bill never heard anything Dad was chuntering under his breath, so he thought Dad was losing his marbles and talking to himself all the time. “You know, Tommy, I was suffering from severe depression before I moved in with you guys,” Bill told me one day. “Then I met your dad and realized that he’s more fucked up than I am. So now I’m feeling a whole lot better about myself!”
I was seriously considering moving out by then. I wasn’t dealing with any nonsense from Dad like my brothers and sisters did, but I knew it was only a matter time. The hourglass was running out and I wanted to get out before anything happened.
However, Tina was back in town. And now it was war.