By the time of his face-off with macaroni, the warranties on most of Dad's body parts had pretty much expired. He'd shrunk three inches and suffered from a bad heart; but despite partial blindness and decrepit knees, he still walked, levitating himself by power of his will. Deep lines carved his face, and his lips, always thin, had grown finer. His hair was sparse and resisted comb-overs, but he carried himself with dignity even when he wore his favorite outfit in retirement: a pair of tight, faded jeans riding high over white socks.
When I was a child, I would challenge him by covering a caption to a random picture in his boyhood copy of A Tale of Two Cities. As if conjuring from within, he would look into space and recite, "He gently places her with her back to the crashing engine that constantly whirrs up and falls." As I listened to him, I contemplated the noble fate of Sydney Carton as he paused beneath the shadow of the guillotine, and I would marvel at dad's memory, which remained intact until his death.
On his 88th birthday, I visited my parents in Belvedere, California. Their home lay on the sunny side of the mist drifting in each morning to cover San Francisco. In the back of the house, a bank of windows framed glimpses of lumbering pelicans and stiff-legged egrets fishing on a lagoon.
Dad's doctors had told him to expect only two more years of life because of his heart, and he relayed this to me in a matter-of-fact way. Perhaps, to lighten his disclosure, he looked over my shoulder and cried, "A bufflehead." I turned and saw that he had correctly identified a bird landing on the water 100 feet away. At this distance, his macular degeneration would not have allowed him to see more than a shadow.
Dad was not big on surprises, either being surprised or surprising others, but he left me stunned when he announced, "Michael, I want to look at the VA retirement home in Napa." Initially, I didn't understand where this idea came from, but when he said something, I believed him. "I'm a veteran," he added; "I've earned it."
My mother's response was totally predictable; she had obviously heard his declaration earlier. "I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, willing to live in the VA, or any other retirement facility." The subject was closed for her.
As the three of us drove to the VA, father's jaw remained firmly shut and mother stared ahead, disgusted by the whole project; I alone was mildly intrigued by our pilgrimage. We headed north on I-5 at 45 mile per hour while I chanted a silent mantra in the back, "Don't let us be rear-ended." I was relieved mom was driving because on a previous visit, I'd driven to San Francisco airport with dad to pick up a friend. Once there, I'd jumped out to rush into the airport and suggested dad take over while waiting. Somehow I had not yet digested his developing blindness. "Ha," he said when I returned, "that was something. I couldn't see a thing when I drove under that overpass."
Dad suddenly interrupted the silence. "It's getting hard for us to live alone." He'd forgotten for a moment that there was no "us" involved in this mission, and mom ignored his comment.
Earlier, he'd told me, "Your mother's becoming confused," his voice low so as not to carry into the next room where she sat reading. He and my mother didn't discuss concerns like "I am not going to live much longer" or "Do you think you're having trouble with your memory?" Four years later when he was two years dead and she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, I thought I understood what he'd tried to say about dying and leaving those whom you love behind. He sought a place where she would be cared for when he was gone and plunged ahead like a train stuck in forward long after she had refused to board.
When we arrived at the VA, we were greeted by James Raskin, a resident who volunteered to show prospective clients the facility. "Is this for both of you?"
Father shrugged. "No, Margie has other plans." We piled into an expanded golf cart for our tour and putted around the grounds.
James proudly pointed out the many nice features: "the handicraft room where you can work on airplane models, a large community center for poker, a big screen TV for football, and a garage with an automotive shop." Great, I thought, dad doesn't like crafts, play poker, watch sports, and definitely knows nothing, and cares less, about working on cars.
That is not to say dad didn't know a great deal about automobile theory. What he lacked was an even rudimentary understanding of any practical application such as changing oil. When I was a teenager, he took Jack Smith, a gangly friend about a year older than I, and me to dinner at an Indian restaurant. Aware of Jack's interest in cars, Dad launched into an intricate explanation of the internal combustion engine. Jack was dazed at Father's profound automotive knowledge. I was awed, too, at the extent of his abstract knowledge, convinced that in an idle moment, perhaps during the Second World War almost 60 years previously, father had skimmed and memorized a book on auto mechanics.
As he listened to James recite the glories of life at the VA home, Dad's lips compressed. "Pretty impressive," he said, "but can we skip the community room? I really want to see the apartments." Without hesitation, James circled to a solid but uninspired brick building. I sensed his growing conviction that dad wasn't going to end up in this, or any, VA Home.
As Dad intended to become a resident without his wife, James said, "You'll share a room." We rode the elevator to the third floor and entered an empty room. It was severe, institutional, worn, with green paint and small, dirty windows without a view. None of us asked, "Why is this room empty?" I'm pretty sure none of us wanted to know.
"You get your own dresser and you can have some privacy by drawing this curtain between the beds," James said.
"What happens if you can't get along with your roommate," Dad asked, somewhat tensely I thought.
"You can always request another roommate," James suggested. He moved on to the rules for visitation, which the management allowed only during certain hours. Still steamed at mom for bailing on this project, Dad maintained tight self-control; he wasn't about to express concern about restriction on others visiting him.
James continued with the requirements for residents to leave the facility, and I suspected he was beginning to enjoy himself. "You have to sign out when you go anywhere, but they're pretty good at letting you out whenever you want." I imagined a zoo with guards. Dad's going to blow, I thought; but there was steel in that frame, and he didn't buckle.
I was engaged in small talk with James when I noticed father peering at the daily menu posted on a cork board in the corridor. A slight slump in his shoulders revealed that he'd pieced together the week's offerings through his clouded eyes. A cosmic stillness revealed we were reaching the end of our tour.
"Canned green beans?" Dad asked.
"Yep, every third day."
"Fresh?" Dad suggested.
"From the can," James answered.
"And macaroni?" I heard a slight tremble.
"Kraft's Mac and Cheese. Every Wednesday." I was now sure James was having a good time.
"Thanks," Dad declared, "but we have another appointment." As we escaped, moving quickly for a group led by a man with congestive heart failure and a left thigh strangely offset from the bones of the lower leg, dad called over his shoulder, "I'll get back to you."
Subdued, we returned to the car. "We're going to the French Laundry," father croaked, naming the most expensive French restaurant within 20 miles. We had finished the appetizer of aged goat cheese with basil and the first glass of pinot gris before dad initiated a conversation on changing policies at the World Bank. He embellished his exposition with details from a New York Times article mom had read aloud at breakfast. With the promise of the cassoulet entrée looming bright, he'd begun to recover. We never mentioned the VA Retirement Home again.
BIO: Michael is a graduate of Portland’s 2011 Attic Atheneum, a one-year alternative to a MFA program. His published fiction and creative non-fiction has appeared in PANK, Fringe, Prime Number, Prick of the Spindle, and other journals and anthologies. His series collectively called “Mississippi Freedom Summer in Eight Vignettes” was published in the “Best of the Net 2011” by Sundress Publications.