I’m standing over my father, watching him sleep. My gaze traces the wrinkles around his mouth, the crow’s feet on the edges of his eyelids, his hair—nearly white now—a wild shock of brightness in the shadows of the room. I didn’t inherit his full head of hair. Instead, I ended up with his patience.
Or I should say, his lack of patience.
I’m impatient now. I want to say the words, to put things in motion, but the moment is not yet here. I hate waiting for it to come.
I watch his eyelids flicker as he dreams, and I wonder where he is.
A nurse passes by in the hallway, but doesn’t come in to interrupt me. She knows I’m here, well outside of normal visiting hours. I’ve been here so often the staff barely registers my presence anymore. I’ve never caused any trouble, and the other bed in this room is vacant. Its occupant passed away two days ago, and the next temporary tenant has not yet arrived.
I glance at the clock and sigh. The seconds crawl by, ticking toward two-fourteen, and I want to say the words but I know I can’t do that yet. I only get to use them once, and I don’t want to waste them just because I hate waiting.
My father is laughing at something, muttering under his breath. I step though the dining room to see him standing in the kitchen, in front of the sink.
“What are you laughing at?” I ask him, and my words startle him. He glances at me over his shoulder, a guilty look on his face.
“Oh, I just spilled some tea and was laughing about it.”
He’s lying, but I don’t challenge him. I don’t want to confront the truth: that he’s talking to himself as if someone is in there with him.
My father lives alone, and is lonely. I can see it, but he’s too set in his ways to make new friends, to start any hobbies, to do anything more than watch television and read the newspaper. I live too far away to visit as often as I’d like—my own family, my career, my friends keep me away, and I let them.
My father and I have little in common other than history.
That night, I tell my wife what happened.
“What was he saying?” she asks me, and I tell her I couldn’t hear him. But now I’m lying. I don’t want to admit overhearing my father having a conversation, joking around with whomever he imagined was in the room with him. Admitting that means admitting something is wrong, and then I will have to take responsibility for all that follows. I’m the one who will have to make sure he sees his doctor, will have to make all the arrangements, be the one to take him from his home and put him under professional care.
Yes, I’m the “responsible” one in the family. But this time I shirk my responsibilities. I lie to my wife and try to brush it off as nothing more than a story about my visit. But I know the real reason I mentioned it—I want her to ask me uncomfortable questions. I need her to help me confront this.
But nothing comes of it, and within a few days the topic is lost.
I’m at work when my phone rings, and I answer it to hear my father’s voice. He doesn’t quite sound like himself.
“Can you come over?” he asks me. “I think I need to go the hospital.”
My heart lurches.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t feel good,” he answers, as if that tells me anything.
“Do you have chest pains? Or are you throwing up? Do you need to call an ambulance? It’ll take me a half-hour to get there, so if you need medical attention right away…”
“No. I just…there’s something wrong. I can’t explain it. My chest is fine, but I feel…I need to go to the hospital.”
There is no way he’s going to accept an ambulance. I leave work and drive over immediately. I still have a key to his apartment, from when I last lived with him almost two decades ago, and I let myself in.
My father is sitting in his dining room, staring out the window at the street outside. His hair is messy and he hasn’t shaved in days. He’s wearing a stained undershirt and track pants. My father has never looked his age before, but today he looks old. I realize he’s almost eighty, and the thought surprises me for some reason.
Outside, a car drives slowly by. I silently wish it was me in that car, just passing by.
“How are you feeling?” I ask as I come in. He looks up at me as if he wasn’t expecting me.
“I’m fine. Are you off work today?”
“No,” I tell him. “You called me at work, remember?”
“No, I didn’t call you.”
I explain that he called me at work, telling me he wasn’t feeling well. That he asked me to take him to the hospital.
“I don’t remember that. When did this happen?”
I tell him it was only thirty minutes ago, and he thinks about it. He seems distracted, as if there are things going on around him that pull his attention away from me, though I am the only one here. The television is showing 24-hour news, with the sound off.
“I think you need to get checked out. I’ll drive you over to the hospital.”
“I don’t feel well,” he repeats to me, and gets up from the table. It takes him a few minutes to go to the bathroom and then put on his shoes. The weather is warm enough that he doesn’t need a jacket, and he goes out in the stained undershirt and track pants. There was a time when he never would have done that.
I lock up after him, as he has trouble with his keys.
At the hospital, my father can’t explain what’s wrong, and the nurses barely mask their annoyance. I’m annoyed too—I step in and put them in their place. My father seems unaware of my help, of my own frustration at his confusion. I don’t want to be doing this. I need him to answer their questions; they won’t take him seriously if all he can say is that he “feels bad.”
But eventually he sees a doctor, and the phrase “possible minor stroke” is used. How can a stroke be minor? Something has happened to my father’s brain, and it didn’t start today. I take the doctor aside and tell him about the previous incident, but the man is noncommittal.
“Let’s conduct some tests and see what they tell us.”
Hours later, I stand there and listen to the doctor tell us they couldn’t find any irregularities. My father is feeling better, and there’s nothing else to be done. I ask the doctor about my father talking to himself, and the doctor tells me it’s common with the elderly.
It’s an unsatisfying conclusion. After dropping my father off at home, I can’t wait to get away.
My eyes flick back and forth between my father’s sleeping face and the clock on the wall. I could swear time is slowing down, but I know it’s just me being impatient.
Just like my father.
I think back to the times I’ve driven him to the mall to get new underwear or shoes or some household item. He gave up driving in his late 60’s, his reactions no longer quick enough to keep up with modern traffic. I don’t mind driving him; he is not fond of shopping, and doesn’t prolong the experience any more than necessary.
But he won’t put up with line-ups. If there are more than three people in front of him, he just leaves his cart and walks right out. Of course, he has to eventually come back and buy what he needs at some later time, but that logic doesn’t matter in the moment. When he’s being impatient.
My father believes waiting in line is “wasting time.” But it’s just time he otherwise spends watching television, or sleeping. He has nowhere he needs to be. There is nothing else he’d rather be doing.
It’s just impatience, nothing more.
I don’t really look all that much like my father. I resemble the other side of the family. Instead of his looks, I inherited certain aspects of my father’s personality. Are they genetic, or have I learned them from him, watching his refusal to accept line-ups, delays, and other such nonsense?
What else have his genes given me?
I let myself into his apartment in the early afternoon. I’m here to take him to his doctor appointment. It’s a few months after the incident with the hospital; I’ve emailed my observations to his doctor, though the man cannot tell me anything without my father’s permission.
I’ve broached the topic of Power of Attorney with my father. I tell him if he needs immediate medical help, there’s very little the staff at the hospital will be able to tell me. I cannot make decisions on his behalf without that document.
My father brushes it off.
“Don’t worry about it,” he tells me, and then changes the subject. I know it’s not that he doesn’t trust me. I can see his own worry in his eyes. He doesn’t want to acknowledge he might need me to make those decisions. He’s hiding from the truth of what that piece of paper represents.
My father is frightened.
This time, he refuses to see the doctor.
“I don’t feel like going,” he says.
I can see he’s having one of his “bad days.” The disheveled hair, the unshaven face, the stained t-shirt. His eyes are wide, as if he’s surprised by everything around him. Today he’s not wearing socks, and I see his feet have become balloons from the ankles down.
“What’s wrong with your feet?” I ask.
“Nothing. Your feet swell when you get older.”
“Dad, please. You’ve got an appointment with your doctor. I left work early to take you.”
“No, I don’t feel like going.”
He looks around the room, as if watching something only he can see.
“Dad, don’t make me force the issue. Stand up and I’ll get your shoes.”
“He’s already standing up,” my father replies, and a chill runs down my spine.
“Who is standing up?” I ask him, and he looks at me as if he doesn’t know who I am.
“Your father. He’s standing right there, and there, and there, and there,” he says, punctuating each “there” with a pointed finger at another spot in the room.
“Do you see other people in the room?” I ask.
“Lots of people,” he replies. “Don’t you?”
I don’t answer, afraid of his reaction if I disagree with him. I don’t know what to do, how to handle this. It occurs to me that something like this may have been where people developed the idea of ghosts—the elderly seeing things that weren’t there, that only existed in their minds. My father sees himself standing in four different places, and I want to ask him who he thinks he is, but I don’t know if that’s a bad idea or not.
“If you won’t come, I’m going to call for an ambulance,” I threaten. “There’s obviously something wrong.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” he argues, and I can see he’s getting angry. But my own patience has run out.
“Yes, I will. And I don’t care if you get mad at me, because I’m pretty sure by tomorrow you won’t remember any of this.”
I’m being mean—deliberately mean—and I hate myself for it, but I don’t have anything left. I’ve been dealing with this for months now, and I’m still at a loss. My father invades my dreams, always needing my help but never cooperating when I try to give it. I haven’t had a good night’s rest in weeks. My stomach churns whenever I think about him, so many times, every day. I barely have the patience to talk to my wife, to play with my son. The stress is consuming me.
I step outside the apartment and call for an ambulance. I can only hope they will help me. If my father refuses to go with them, will they just leave him here? I find myself hoping they find something physically wrong with him, some health issue that will force them to take him to the hospital. Surely, this time someone will see that he can’t stay here by himself.
But my father cooperates with the paramedics. He’s always been impressed—or maybe intimidated—by authority figures, and their uniforms are enough to gain his agreement. They take his blood pressure, and I find myself relieved when they declare it’s too high.
And then I’m ashamed of my relief. I can’t even meet my father’s eyes.
My father doesn’t want to go with them, and they explain that they have to take him to the hospital, willing or not. I watch my father’s resistance crumble, and he agrees to go.
This time, a doctor gives my father a mental acuity test, and he fails it spectacularly—all the way to completely forgetting my name. The doctor tells my father that they’ve determined he’s unable to make his own decisions, and that he’s going to stay at the hospital. I breathe a sigh of relief. The wait for non-emergency admittance to a nursing home is more than a year; this diagnosis will fast-track my father into the care he needs.
An hour later, another doctor takes it all away.
“We all get confused sometimes, right?” he says, and my father readily agrees. “I know you prefer to live in your own home. So I’m going to get the paperwork to have a nurse come visit you twice a week and help you out.”
“He’s a danger to himself and others,” I blurt out. “He put his electric kettle on the stove and turned on the burner. His neighbor smelled the burning plastic and had to come in to turn it off. He could have started a fire.”
The doctor looks me over, annoyed at my interference.
“I think he’ll be fine. I’m prescribing some medicine that will help clear his head.”
“How is he going to remember to take them?” I ask. “He doesn’t remember these things. He can’t even figure out how to use his telephone anymore.”
The doctor makes a note on his clipboard and tells me the nurse will help with that.
“That’s twice a week. What about the other five days?”
No one answers me.
Only a couple of minutes left, now. I look around the room, hoping to see some sign of what’s to come. But then I realize I’m being too direct. Too aware. It doesn’t work like that.
I don’t know how I know, but I know.
The truth is: it came to me in a dream. But I don’t really want to acknowledge that; I don’t believe in that kind of thing. At least, I haven’t believed in a very, very long time.
But I am here; my actions put the lie to my supposed beliefs. I have come to see my father for the last time. I’m standing here, in the nursing home, waiting for the right moment. And when the clock hits that instant, I’m going to say the words from my dream.
Some part of me doesn’t believe anything will happen. I will speak to my father, and nothing will change. And then I’ll go home, crawl into bed beside my wife, and try to get what little sleep will be left to me before I must wake up and go to work.
But another part of me believes it will work. It’s all waiting for the right moment.
A faint whisper sounds behind me, but I don’t turn my head. If I look, I know it will fade away, and I don’t want to lose it.
No other sound follows that brief whisper, and I wonder if I really just heard someone out in the hallway. Maybe it’s all in my head. Is that something else I have inherited from my father?
And that’s what really worries me, isn’t it? Am I seeing the future, not in my dreams, but in the bed beside which I’m standing? Have I already passed the threshold at which I cannot tell the difference between dreams and reality?
Am I going to start living in a fantasy world? Will I, too, become incompetent, and need to be put under constant care and supervision?
Dread fills the pit of my stomach as I finally acknowledge these thoughts directly. I’m terrified that my footsteps are already laid out before me, that I have to follow them, one at a time, until I reach a destination I would give anything to avoid.
I have come here, to my father’s bedside, to do something unbelievable. But I must believe it. Because if it doesn’t work, if nothing happens when I speak the words—less than a minute left to wait now—then the reality is too horrible to contemplate.
I do not want to be a prisoner of my own mind.
My father’s neighbor calls me in the late afternoon. This time it is a weekend—no work to be interrupted, just time with my family.
Yeah, just that.
My father has wandered out into the street outside his apartment building, and was nearly struck by a car. His neighbor came out and convinced him to go back inside, but there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again.
I should go over there, stay with my father until Monday morning, when I can call the health services office and convince them to elevate the status of his case to immediate placement in a nursing home.
But I don’t go. I can’t bring myself to go there, to stay for two nights. My father won’t want me; he’ll tell me to leave. I don’t think he’ll get physical—he’s never been a violent man—but I just don’t know, and I don’t have the will to go.
I feel like a coward.
That night, I have the dream for the first time. I am standing in my father’s living room, but this isn’t his apartment. This is his house, the new one he bought with the money from his new job. He’s building houses now. This should be strange to me; my father has never owned more tools than a hammer and a multi-head screwdriver and has never been handy.
But here, in this dream, he leads a team of men who build houses. Many of them are here, visiting my father, hanging out because they all love working for him.
A woman comes out of a back room and I see that she’s beautiful. She gives me a friendly smile, and there’s a twinkle in her eye that tells me she has a great sense of humor.
She is my father’s wife. Not my mother—that woman never smiled about anything. No, this woman married my father only in this world, the one inside his head.
I look at the clock and it says two-fourteen, and I know that it is very early in the morning. Suddenly, it is dark outside and everyone has left. My father lies in his bed, now in the middle of the living room. I stand beside the bed and say the words, and my father opens his eyes.
When I wake up, I remember the dream perfectly. It seems more real than the world in which I live. It becomes more vivid each time I revisit it, again and again, over the months to come.
“I got married yesterday,” my father tells me.
My skin crawls, a thousand ants covering me from head to toe. I’ve been waiting for this to come, knowing it would, but hoping I was wrong.
My father sits up on his bed and smiles. Outside the window, a set of train tracks run behind the nursing home, and I wonder how loud the trains are, if the noise ever keeps him awake at night. He’s been here for a few months and has never mentioned it, but that doesn’t really mean anything.
“Really?” I hear myself say, false excitement in my voice. “Who is she?”
“I met her at work. She’s a sweetheart.”
I almost say “I know,” but manage to keep my mouth shut. Why confuse him more than he already is?
“How is work going?” I ask, wondering if he will remember that he had already told me all about it during a previous visit.
His description had matched my dream exactly.
“Oh, it’s good. You should see some of the houses I’ve built. They’re mansions.”
I smile and make small talk. We’re interrupted a few times by imaginary visitors who need to speak to my father.
At one point, I feel a presence behind me; I turn around, but no one is there. I think I hear a faint voice, someone talking from a very great distance away. I can’t help but shudder, and then I wonder if I’m dreaming.
I realize I’m freaking out. I don’t believe in ghosts, but watching my father have one half of a conversation with someone who exists only in his mind, I begin to wonder if I’m wrong.
I want nothing more than to get out of this room.
“I need to do a couple of things and I’ll come right back,” I tell my father. He’s fine with that, and I go out into the hallway. I realize that if I stay out here more than a couple of minutes, my father will forget I was here and we’ll have to go through our conversation all over again when I walk back in.
“Are you okay?” a nurse asks me. “You look pale.”
“I just needed some air,” I tell her and she gives me a sympathetic look.
“I know, it’s hard sometimes. You’re a good son to visit so often. He remembers you, and that’s good.”
“Yeah,” I reply. “Wonderful.”
I push open the door, ready to return to my father, when I see a shadow on the floor. A shadow cast by someone who would be standing where my father’s imaginary visitor seems to be. I let out an involuntary moan and stumble back into the hallway, letting the door close on the impossible sight.
My imagination is running wild, I tell myself. It was an optical illusion, a trick of light from a passing train outside. It wasn’t real.
That thought doesn’t comfort me. I’m frightened by either truth. I spin on my heel and head for the elevator, waving vaguely at the nurse who buzzes me through the ward’s locked door. Alone in the elevator, I put my back to the wall and stare at the numbers flashing above the doors. My arms and legs are trembling.
By the time I get outside, my fear has turned into anger. I’m tired of being afraid all the time. I need to get myself under control.
Twenty minutes later, I’m finally able to drive out of the lot and go home.
Only seconds left now, and then I can say the words.
I’m no longer doing this for him, I realize. I’m doing it for me. Either I’m sinking into my own delusion, or everything I believe about the world is wrong. Neither of those options is comforting, but I have to know, one way or another.
The whispers are surrounding me now. I sense I should be able to understand the words, but they’re at the very edge of my hearing. It’s maddening to not know what they’re saying, those phantoms of my father’s imagination, inhabitants of a world that exists solely within his mind. Or, perhaps, they’re not just in his world, as they now exist in my world, too.
My father’s fingers twitch, his feet under the thin sheet jerk back and forth. Whatever dream he’s having is making him react physically.
The shadows move about me, figures in the darkness made of wisps of light, of motion. I’m beginning to catch glimpses of people. No faces, not yet. But their shapes are unmistakable.
As the last seconds count down, the fear takes me again. What if I’m wrong? What if nothing happens when I say the words?
And then a last thought comes to me as the second hand crawls its last ticks towards two-fourteen. What if I say the words and something does happen, but it’s all in my mind? What if I have already broken from reality? What if my father died years ago, and now I’m the old man with a mind lost to dementia? How can I tell if any of this is real?
I look up and see her face, with the calm smile, the mischievous glint in her eye. And then I look back down at my father as the clock finally clicks over to two-fourteen in the morning.
“It’s time, dad,” I say. “It’s time to wake up. They’re all waiting for you.”
The ghosts of my father’s mind surround us, waiting for him to join them at last. His fingers twitch a final time, and his legs and feet stop moving.
My father’s eyes open, and he smiles.
I say goodbye to my father one last time, and silently hope this other world brings him nothing but joy. The whispers and shadows fade away.
I leave the nursing home, impatient to get back to my family. I can’t wait to see them, to touch them. I need to be grounded in the real world again. There will be time later to think about what has just happened.
For that, I’m willing to be patient.
© 2017 Andrew J. Luther