The Family Tree
Irene’s father, John, was a construction worker. He built her childhood home from the ground up. When she was 17, newly out of high school, she went to work on jobs with him. The other men would taunt her, to put it mildly. “Don’t complain,” Her father would tell her, “Do your best and then there’s nothing they can say that will hurt you.”
John was stubborn. There was his way or there was no way. He was proud to a fault. He didn’t complain and he didn’t ask for help. So when he asked Irene to move her family back into her childhood home, where he had lived for over half a century, she knew that she could not decline. The recent death of her mother had changed him. His eyes, once effervescent with light and strength, were empty and unfocused. The thought of him ambling around that house, with only the company of the ghosts of his memory was too much for her to take.
Soon after the move, Irene began to suspect that he was not just sick with grief. There was something deeper.
“Is something in the oven?” He asked her on the eve of Thanksgiving.
“Yeah, Dad, it’s pumpkin pie for tomorrow.”
A half an hour passed.
“Are you baking something?” He asked again.
It was harmless enough. In his sadness, he’d let go of a lot of things; daily routines and weekly poker games with friends. He’d sit for hours in Irene’s mother’s chair and stare off into space. He’d lose track of the day or the week, since he wanted nothing more to do with the passage of time. But his forgetfulness at Thanksgiving alarmed her.
A week later, Irene’s worst fears were realized. She was watching TV with John when he grabbed her hand. He held it lightly, touching her gently. She was unnerved.
“Hello, honey.” He said to her. It didn’t sound like her father’s voice. His glassy eyes leered at her body. There was no recognition in them. He didn’t know who she was. He didn’t know she was his daughter.
Alzheimer’s, the doctors said. Rapid progression. She was given brochures on the disease, and pamphlets on nursing homes. They prescribed John medicine to try to slow down the deterioration of his mind and Valium to settle him when he became agitated. Every “I’ll never forget this” or “I’ll always remember you” her father had spoken in his lifetime became a lie. A promise he didn’t have the power to keep.
Years earlier, when Irene’s mother had suffered a brain aneurysm, leaving her body paralyzed and her mind altered, John never once considered putting her in a nursing home. He devoted his days to taking care of her. He would carry her from her bed to her wheelchair, put her makeup on, feed her breakfast, lunch and dinner, drive her to her hair appointments, bathe her, and tuck her back into bed. He would not hear that it was too much for him to take on. And he never complained.
It was Irene’s gift and her curse to be bestowed with John’s tenacity. Her heart would shatter every day watching him wake up afraid and confused, but it would never be too much for her. She would never allow herself to complain. Her father deserved that.
Irene’s daughter was 16 years old. She was a smart and sensitive girl with light auburn hair and green eyes, just like Irene, and just like Irene’s mother. Irene had always suspected Lucy was John’s favorite grandchild, though he would never say as much. When Lucy was a child, Irene and her husband would leave her with John when they went out on date nights. Lucy didn’t like sleepovers, as she would often worry and get homesick. John was the only one who could make her feel safe when her parents were away.
Lucy took her grandfather’s sickness poorly. As a teenage girl, she was vibrant, full of life and opportunity. Her grandfather was disease, grief and death. She resented having to live daily with the reality that all bodies would decay. She was a blooming rose being forced to recognize the soil it would inevitably return to.
John would often roam the house in the middle of the night, knocking on doors, wondering who was behind them. On bad nights, he would knock on Lucy’s door every 15 minutes, forgetting that he had already done it. Irene would get up to sit with him, but sometimes there was no stopping him from doing what he wanted to do.
“There’s a little girl back there.” He would say when he left Lucy’s room.
“I know, Dad. That’s Lucy.”
“Oh.” The name meant nothing to him.
Lucy kept quiet for several months. She’d retreat to her room as soon as she got home from school and would rarely come out. She began to lock her door at night and not answer her grandfather’s knock. Irene had no idea her daughter was siphoning John’s Valium, sometimes taking two or three at a time to be able to sleep for as long as possible. Lucy was kind to John when she saw him, but she worked hard to make sure that happened as little as possible.
Lucy was behind on getting her driver’s license. She had her permit, but Irene had little time to teach her how to drive or to take her to get her test. She felt embarrassed still taking the bus at her age, so Irene would pick her up from school. But with John’s disease rapidly progressing, it was getting harder to be there on time. She couldn’t leave him alone at the house anymore, even for a few minutes. The last time she did, he ended up at their neighbor’s house, drinking from a gallon of milk in nothing but his underwear.
One day, after failing to pick Lucy up on time for a week straight, her daughter snapped.
“I used to be able to rely on you.” She told Irene, angry tears brimming around her eyes.
“I’m doing the best I can.” Irene stressed, feeling more tired than she ever had in her life.
“For who?” Lucy countered. She didn’t say because it isn’t for me, but she didn’t need to. Irene heard it hanging heavy in the air.
“This is too much, Mom. For you. For all of us.”
“I’m not going to put him away somewhere, Lucy. I couldn’t live with myself if I did.”
“But I can’t live like this!” Lucy rarely raised her voice, so when she did, it had an impact. “He’s gone, Mom. He’s not dead but he’s gone.”
It was a Tuesday morning. John complained of having a headache, so Irene fed him breakfast and then let him take a nap. When she came to wake him for lunch, he couldn’t speak or move. His eyes were still mobile. They looked at her, full of fear. She called the ambulance and rode with him to the hospital, holding his hand. As they wheeled him away from her, he held her gaze. “Help me” his eyes seemed to say, “Don’t leave me”. Within an hour, he was in a coma he would never awake from. Before the dawn of a new day, he was dead.
Irene tried to comfort herself with the thought that it was his time. That part of him had died along with his wife, and the other part of him had been unrightfully chained to the Earth by his disease. When people told her he’s in a better place, it was hard to argue. But his eyes in that last moment she saw him told her that he wasn’t ready. His fear haunted her. She spent nights awake, thinking about what more she could have done. She wondered if she’d been negligent by not treating his headache seriously. And most of all, she wondered if someone, somewhere else could have taken better care of him, if only she had allowed them to.
For a time, when he was alive, he would wake up, wander out to the kitchen, and find a picture of him and his wife. He remembered her, but not that she’d died. He would carry the picture to Irene, slightly crumbling it in his hands. “Where is she?”, he would ask.
Irene would have to explain her mother’s death to her tearful father, the same way every day for weeks. The repetition of his heartbreak was tortuous. Eventually, but not soon enough, she took down all the pictures of her mother. John stopped asking about her, and lived in oblivion rather than pain. Irene didn’t know if that was better. She was sparing him hurt, but she was also taking away the only thing that reminded him of the love of his life.
“When I get old and sick, I want you to put me somewhere.” Irene told Lucy at John’s funeral. “I want you to know that it’s okay. I want you to know that’s what I want. I don’t want you taking it on. No child should have to see their parent like that.”
Lucy nodded. Irene could tell she didn’t want to discuss it or to think about it. But she felt that it was important her daughter understood. If she had it to do over again, Irene would still choose to take care of her father, but she never wanted Lucy to experience the pain that she had felt.
“Promise me.” She asked of her daughter. Lucy ignored her request.
“I don’t think he knew that I loved him.” Lucy confessed. “I was too afraid. You weren’t.”
“He knew. And he loved you. He asked about you a lot. Especially before he fell asleep, he wanted to make sure you were home and that you were safe.”
Lucy began to cry.
“He was the one who wasn’t supposed to know who I was. But I acted like I didn’t know him. I acted like he wasn’t my grandfather anymore. I’m sorry, Mom. I’m so sorry.”
Irene held her daughter as she sobbed out all of her regrets. As she held her, she realized that Lucy would never make the promise she so desperately hoped that she would. Irene knew that if she lived long enough to be old and feeble, Lucy would take care of her. Her daughter would watch her deteriorate, and she would hold her hand while it happened. That’s what love is, Irene thought.
Love is not looking away, even when what you see rips you apart. Lucy was too young to realize it when John was alive, but she knew it now. There would come a day when Irene required Lucy’s help. Whether Irene was humble enough to ask for it or not, Lucy would provide it, and she wouldn’t complain. It was a bittersweet cycle. The only way to spare the pain would be to take away the love. But Irene finally understood that if the love was there, then the pain would never be too much.