The Junction
Published in

The Junction

Rainy Days and Mondays

When I picked up M. from tennis today, I asked Teddy, her coach, how he was.

“Meh. You know. Rainy days and Mondays.”

I immediately heard Karen Carpenter’s plaintive voice, the slow, sad chords that open up the song.

In other words, he felt blue.

Rainy days and Mondays indeed.

I had that kind of Monday too. I couldn’t seem to start my engine. I couldn’t seem to get in gear.

It started off well enough. I toasted a piece of cranberry spice bread for my daughter for breakfast. I served her tea and sliced strawberries with it. When she said it was “annoying bread” because it was too soft to butter, I even buttered it for her.

I know, I know.

I made it to my 8:30 call-in meeting. Then, I saw my dad. I stopped to see my dad after dropping my daughter at school.

I can be forgiven, I think, for feeling a bit, or more than a bit, off.

My dad was in poor shape last night. I called ahead. The kids and I and my son’s girlfriend R. were all on board to take him out for dinner. We tend to like to go to the Peruvian place because we can navigate his wheelchair there fairly easily and the proprietors are kind to him.

Their faces don’t fall when we appear in the doorway.

They’re not afraid we’ll drive away customers. Or, if they are, they hide it well.

They come from Peru, for God’s sake. These countries understand family. They don’t blink uncomprehendingly when you present with your father, your ailing, demented, very vulnerable father. Even if strings of viscous spit web his mouth.

They see the person in that shell of a body. Because they’re Latin. That’s how Latins are.

I could be forgiven for feeling blah today. Or worse. When we arrived to collect my father last night, he was in the dining room. He was pulled up to his normal place at the table, even though I had told the staff we were taking him out for dinner.

Luckily, no food had been served.

His body was contorted weirdly in the wheelchair. He was slumped in the chair like a sack of potatoes, like he had no spine, no strength at all. Worse though was the position of his head, slumped forward, yet cocked to the side somehow, his chin on his chest. There was a yawning chasm between the back of the chair and the back of his head.

It pained me just to look at it.

I immediately fell to my knees and took his head in my hands.

“Dad, are you okay? Why is your head so far forward? Dad, can you lift your head? Can you look up?”

I tried to position his head back against the chair. No go.

Coming up in the elevator, we’d encountered Mr. Yang’s daughter. Mr. Yang is my father’s roommate and the person he shares the table with at dinner. Mr. Yang is 102 years old.

I had said hello in the elevator to Mr. Yang’s daughter. I said, “I met your brother.”

I had met her brother. He was a babe. A very handsome, lithe, alive man, younger than his years. He told me he lived in Paris. I was so embarrassed when I called his dad Mr. Kang. I should obviously know by now Mr. Yang’s name. I don’t know why I did that.

I was also embarrassed, and moved, when Mr. Yang Junior told me about when he’d last seen my dad, when he was really ill with sepsis last year. He said he was worried. He knew a lot about my dad.

I told Mr. Yang’s daughter I’d met her brother. Somehow she dropped that he’s a dancer. A dancer from Paris. Born on a farm in Stockton to Mr. Yang.

But the daughter, this daughter, has a hard look on her face.

Now, when I was trying to help my father raise his head, she looked stony at us all. We stuck out like a sore thumb in the dining room, the four of us. Everyone was sitting down. We were standing, and my crew were between 16 and 21.

Daughter Yang said, “My father got your father’s cold.”

Yes, I imagine he did. But I didn’t for a second believe she was blaming my father or our family for this. Obviously the institution is responsible for stemming the flow of germs as well as possible. She said it again, though, and the shrill note was unmistakable. She was mad at my dad, mad at us, somehow.

She said, “He’s not doing well,” indicating my father. I assented.

She said, “You need to come more often. You need to watch them. They ignore him. They ignore them if family doesn’t come. You need to come every day.”

She looked agitated, angry, even. She took me out in the hall. She said, “They don’t bother to get him out of bed. They don’t give him water. If you don’t come, they do nothing.”

She looked at me accusingly. Her eyes raked my double-breasted, cropped sweater with the big buttons. Twice. She seemed offended by my sweater somehow. It was too chic. It bothered her.

There was a sign above my father’s bed. Instructions to place a pillow behind his head so his chin was on his chest. Could this be why his head was now jutting seemingly permanently forward? I don’t know. The reason for the direction seemed to be something about choking hazard. Thickened liquids.

We could see there was no way he was going out to dinner.

I said, “Let’s at least take him out on the porch for some fresh air.”

My son and R. held the doors open, one on each side, while I aimed for the opening. You can’t get out at all if you don’t have three people because the doors are heavy and slam shut on the wheelchair. There is no way to hold it, no way to get the elder out unless you have two partners to help you.

I have asked the facility to install doors that can actually be opened sensibly so these people can get some air, see a goddamn cyclamen bloom, see a maple leaf move on a current of air, change their perspective if even only slightly.

Although they receive at least 10,000 USD per month to care for our elders (per elder), they can’t be bothered to install a door that can actually be opened.

Once outside, we ascertained that my father would like a cup of tea with honey.

One of the beautiful Eritrean nurses brought us a tea sweetened with honey. I served it to my dad with a spoon. He drank the whole glass. R. found a strawberry on the little strawberry bush in the planter box and popped it into my father’s mouth. He chewed eagerly and swallowed that baby just fine.

That cheered us. R. went to go find more fruit. My daughter left and returned with a banana and a knife. She cut it into slices. R. arrived with pineapple chunks, a whole cup of them.

We fed my father in turns.

I said, “Dad, are you our baby bird?”

He quipped, “Trying to be!”

My heart melted.

This morning, I went there after dropping my daughter at school. I parked far away, where I wouldn’t have to pay. I stopped at Caffe Trieste for a bowl of chicken vegetable soup to go. It was $7. Which killed me. I’ll bring my own next time.

I made my way upstairs to his room.

My dad didn’t look good. He was still in bed though now it was near 11. His mouth was gummy with phlegm and parched. His lips cracked. His eyes were closed.

When I sat on his bed, he roused a bit. I got a cup of punch and a straw and held that for him. He drank the whole thing almost in one draught.

He fell asleep again before I could serve him any soup.

The young physical therapist Tony encountered me in the hallway. He said he had ordered thickened liquids for my dad so he doesn’t aspirate because he’s having trouble swallowing. I said, he swallowed about 25 pieces of fibrous fruit the night before and guzzled a glass of punch just now.

He said he had placed the sign above the bed.

For some reason, I didn’t mention the head position. A wave of exhaustion washed over me.

I felt no malice toward young Tony, with the unlined face and guileless blue eyes. It’s not his fault.

I did soliloquize a bit I’m afraid, however. I related how during the North Bay fires I had asked the head nurse if the skilled nursing unit had an air filtration system. She had looked at me (uncomprehending, I could see that) and nodded affirmatively, “Oh, yes!”

The smart Filipino nurse who’s always honest with me was walking by. “No, we don’t,” he contradicted.

I said to Tony, what’s in that “thickener” anyway? He said corn starch. I kinda doubt it’s just corn starch. I said, “You guys serve Ensure too, which is toxic, so whatever.”

I castigated him lightly, ending with, “You know ABHOW or ‘Human Good’ as they’re now calling themselves, has $1 billion in assets and $250 million in annual revenue? But they can’t afford to fix the door so elders can get some fresh air. Wow.”

When I returned to my dad, he was asleep again. The soup was cooling on his bedside. I tucked him in. I closed the curtain so he could sleep.

I left to get back to work.

I worked listlessly.

My greatest fear is that when he dies, I will feel I didn’t do enough. There will be nothing I can do to escape this feeling. I will not be able to find his friends. I’m already castigating myself for losing track of his address book. Who will come to the funeral?

This thought will pain me nightly. Most likely for months. It already does.

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