This morning, Haley sluffed school to hang out with me. OK, really, she sluffed because we had an early morning appointment with her school councillor to get her next year's schedule figured out, and then there was an assembly so I just brought her along with me on my errands. Since we were down in Provo anyway, we stopped by to visit my dad.
When we got to his home he was asleep, with just a brief and one leg of his pants on. I'm sure if I were a more capable and emotionally stable person, I could have just helped him get dressed and into his wheelchair. But I couldn't. He looked so...vulnerable lying there. So stripped. There are some memories of him I don't think I want. I found a nurse and asked if she could help, but she needed to call an aide, so we stood out in the hall, waiting.
There was a woman walking her wheelchair down the hall, her footsteps slow and carefully planted. She was carrying a plastic baby doll, swaddled in a towel. As she approached us, Haley said hello to her. The woman's face lit up in a smile, and she held out her baby, so we complimented her on its sweetness and beauty. Then she continued down the hall.
At the other end, the door opened and five or six patients wheeled back inside. One carried a plastic box full of cigarettes; they'd been outside taking their smoke break. At the nursing station, they scattered, pushed by attendants to their rooms, or into the day room. One older man, however, stayed near the counter. His body language babbled with anger and frustration. "Hey, eff you!" he yelled, his inflection perfect, to seemingly no one. This started a sort of dialogue with another patient. He'd yell the F word, and she'd yell back at him to not talk to her like that. She said this with a nearly-regal elegance, sitting there in her wheelchair, TED hose hiked up to her thighs, a bib her only accessory.
I thought of another visit a few months back, when a different patient wandered into the room where Kendell and I were visiting Dad. "I cannot find my baby," she wept. "I put her down just right over here but now I cannot find her. Someone's taken her! Oh, how can I have lost my baby! Can't you help me find her? She's the girl. She's the girl I lost." (If you know me then you know: this made me weep, too.)
Or one of the times when I took Kaleb, and a patient came over to talk to him. Her teeth were mostly missing, and her socks didn't match, and her hair was a stringy grey cloud. She patted him on the shoulder and started talking to him. "Oh, I've missed you so much! I'm so glad you've come back. Look how big you've gotten. And you're so handsome." Kaleb turned his face away, but she persisted. "You're so handsome! Please won't you give me a hug?"
I don't know how the people who work there manage the madhouse feeling all day. It is not that I don't have compassion for these trapped souls. I do. It would drive me mad, coming to work every day and feeling helpless, knowing I could do nothing to help them out of the endless loops of tangled memory. They get stuck inside some handfuls of moments from their lives and there is no escaping.
And then there is my dad: he is silent. He never says a word. He wrings his hands together and shakes his head, a sort-of yes. He looks through bleary eyes that remind me, somehow, of a cat's. His eyes have the same spirit that Emily had, near the end. Trapped and exhausted and vaguely troubled by some unnameable physical pain. But always, always, surrounded by his silence.
We pushed Dad out into the courtyard. There were two white rabbits hopping around the just-green grass; blue sky and white Timp and naked trees all touched by sunlight made me sigh. "It's spring, Dad!" I told him, and I talked. About the weather, about Haley, about my other kids and my flowers blooming. I told him his daffodils are blooming, too.
He looked at me with one Emily eye, the other squinted tight against the light. He shook his "yes," he closed his other eye. He seemed exhausted. So, instead of talking, I sat in the gazebo with him, holding his hand and thinking:
The woman with her baby.
The angry man's cursing.
The woman defending herself, holding her own in elegance and composure even while her mind deteriorates.
The woman with the lost baby and the other one with the child she hadn't seen in so long she replaced his face with Kaleb's.
My dad, the silent man.
Even when our memory is lost, we still are ourselves, somehow. We still react based on what we know: the man still full of his customary anger, the elegant woman, the others with their habitual need to love their someone small. As if, stripped of memory, we are able to be flayed of everything else, until all that is left is our one essential definition: anger, courage, love, shame, pride; the one you lost and still cannot find, the ability to nurture, the self-assured belief in your own value.
That my father has been flayed into a bone of silence gives me pause. I think of him, reading the newspaper on the floor of our front room, a cup of coffee by his side, or reading a book at the kitchen table, or laughing with Kendell over their old jokes. Telling jokes, or talking interminably on the phone, or talking at the kitchen table. He was many things, some of them flawed and some not, but I always thought of him as a man of words. I didn't know his deepest thing is silence. It is a seeping sort of knowledge: in silence, your only companion is loneliness. This lack of words—the absence of image or repetition or even hallicinations—is perhaps the saddest thing I know about him. It makes me feel that I failed him. Not my mother, with her constant desire for him to be better than he was, nor my sisters, nor me; not the holiday rituals or the family vacations or the years of teenage angst; not even his childhood or adolescence or early single years: none of this left a mark on his essential self, which is silent, white. A piece of blank paper.
And it makes me know: live harder. live better. Be better. "I don't want to be where you are" is the constant thought I have, visiting him. Both where he is physically (the rest home with its patients' internal arguments turned inside out, the thin mattress and the sharp, sweet-rotten scent) and metaphorically (my only companion my naked, essential quality, whatever that might be). Dad's illness teaches me about helplessness and silence while it works its hidden message: life isn't the future or the past, it is only right now. Right now is the only thing we have, and so we must fill it. Hopefully we fill it with something good, strong. Something that leaves a mark, so if the thing I fear most—being where he is, eventually—ever happens, I might have something other than silence.