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christine ritenis




by Christine Ritenis

      The lightning began as the EMTs loaded my eighty-six year old father into the ambulette. Not ordinary strong weather, these bolts zigged and zagged, electrical spears, the rain a pummeling fist. By the time my father reached the hospital, the storm had abated. He told me later that the ride was comfortable. I’m sure he enjoyed the attention, the drama, but best of all, he had decamped the senior citizen’s residence, a long-sought escape.

      My father’s misery at the residence started about the time my mother contracted pneumonia and I discovered that a deep purple bruise had overspread the front of my shoulder for no apparent reason. I was four days into a beach get-away then, two-and-a-half hours removed from the parental drama at a new summer retreat. A safe geographic distance, had it not been for the telephone.
      The vacation calls commence when I’m dead asleep. “I fell out of bed this morning,” my father tells the machine, his voice grave. “I only hurt myself a little, but I have to get out of here to somewhere safe,” the first pitiful message relays. The second is firmer. “I need to go home.”
      “I’m very sorry to bother you,” he concludes, an afterthought.
      I cannot—will not—help him.
      My father moved a month ago, leaving behind his home of three plus decades, a split-level he had overstuffed to the point of peril. I don’t know when the amassment began, certainly not before my parents divorced, a hush-hush operation that followed twenty years of staying together, “for the children,” the marriage a clamor of shrieks and threats in its waning years. Once the hoarding started, the accumulation multiplied, spreading like unwanted mint in our herb garden. Now even the hallways are littered with newspaper wrappers, half-empty diet soda bottles, months expired cookie packages, crusty take-out food containers, and unworn clothing, tangled in a gnarly bug-infested heap that streams from room to room, making it nearly impossible to carve out a walking path. This is the safer environment my father demands to return to. No, I will not help him.
      A move is stressful for any elderly person. A move for my father, a solitary Latvian whose main pleasures are reading the newspaper and listening to opera, is beyond traumatic, even when both residences are in the same town.
      The unfamiliar routines and personalities have revealed a slew of intolerances that should have been obvious to me all along. My father, it seems, holds a higher social standing than everyone else. He is a Psychiatrist with a capital P, a credential he studied long to achieve, moving his small family from country to country and ultimately U.S. state to state until he found a satisfactory position in a middle-class New York suburb when I was a high school junior. Thirty-five years later this makes it difficult for him to converse with the kindly fireman who shares his table at meals. He uses obtuse professional vocabulary to describe the problem. Most of the residents are neurologically disabled, while he, thank goodness, still functions at full mental capacity. About this, I have my doubts.
      The staff, my heavily accented father insists, is uneducated and incompetent. He rages—a violent outburst that comes from nowhere—at the unsuspecting nurse who is required to monitor his medication. He speaks only to senior people, complaining to the head chef when his favorite meal of fish isn’t on the menu. They should involve residents in these decisions, he grouses. He then meets with the highest-level person who listens to him, the saintly Admissions Director, to discuss means of improving overall care, his in particular, of course.
      In contrast, he fusses and fumes, but does nothing other than contact me, his one daughter, about New York Times delivery delays. He also calls me when the phone installer, scheduled to arrive between eight a.m. and eight p.m. on a Tuesday, is not there before lunch. Could I get in touch with the telephone company? The meal, you see, is at noon. My father cannot be late, although he will have nothing to say to his tablemates or the dining room workers, and doesn’t care for the food, which gives him diarrhea. He will phone my younger brother too, disregarding the fact that my only sibling has ignored him for several years. Sometimes I think that of the two of us, my brother has chosen the wiser course.
      Last week my psychiatrist asked how often my father asks for help. “Daily,” I told her, “sometimes more.”
      “No wonder you’re depressed,” she said with a small smile that bloomed into a full-out grin, as if she were pleased with her joke.
      Although I respect my shrink, I don’t look forward to our sessions.
      Me: talking.
      Her: watchful, sussing out the truth.
      Me: disguising difficult issues, though sometimes they seep out against my will, like air from a punctured raft.
      Her: stretching, relaxed.
      Me: filling the final minutes with blather, attempting sociability despite the strained setting.
      This time I felt a powerful urge to hug her. She recognized the humor, when it has long eluded me.
      My father, the Psychiatrist, does not know that I see a fellow practitioner. He believes that depression and anxiety are private matters and that related discussion should stay within the family. Psychiatrists can have undue influence, he says, referring to my brother’s lack of contact which he is sure was prompted by a clinician. He could be right—my father’s influence on me is undeniable.
      Nor have I confided in my mother, who doesn’t believe in psychiatry either. I wonder if she ever did.
      I try for forty-eight hours to return the urgent calls. My father doesn’t answer his cell phone, where no voice mailbox has been set up, and won’t respond to the telephone in his new studio apartment. The imperative to move must have lost importance. Or the hunched-with-age senior citizen whose car remains in his house’s garage for everyone’s protection, has grabbed his cane and is attempting the uphill hike through multiple construction zones to the junk-filled home—the safer place—that he was forced out of concern by my mother and I to abandon.
      It is unusual for an ex-spouse to remain involved, but my mother ordinarily addresses many of the frantic requests. Now she has pneumonia, or something resembling pneumonia, likely brought on by stress. Whatever the illness, she has determined, after first digging passageways through the halls of my father’s house for several weeks, making arrangements for the move, then laundering and packing a small collection of his things—a task I refused at the first sight of insects—to distance herself from her ex.
      I long to remove myself from the pre-dawn calls, the unwarranted panic, and the unexpected eruptions that are as embarrassing to a middle-aged woman as I am to my teenage daughter. But hysteria has followed me on vacation, trailing me on the beach like a hungry mutt. I routinely feel a sharp pain in the left side of my head when the phone rings and the contact “Grandpa” appears in the call window. What now, I ask myself before grumbling out hello. Sometimes he needs towels or a ride to the barber, but mostly, he calls to stay in touch.
      Maintaining the family unit is vital, my father preaches in his Psychiatrist-voice. I can’t stop myself. I remind him that he and my mother are long divorced. We must feel connected to others to remain healthy, he continues, ignoring my interruption. It is clear that he is talking about himself. His voice trembles. After all, I live on only for my children and grandchildren. Tears are soundless, but the distress is apparent. I don’t mention that my brother stopped speaking to him after receiving my father’s letter. That scribbled missive insisted that my sibling stay with his wife, despite their unhappiness in marriage. “For the sake of your son,” the letter said, disregarding both my brother’s discontent and the joylessness in our childhood home. The youngster is growing up with little connection to his paternal grandfather, while my brother revolts with silence.
      My mother once invited her ex-husband to her apartment while she was watching their grandson so that he could spend time with the boy. My father became disoriented and got lost on the short drive. Later, strangers found him wandering at the side of a busy road. The brief visit that followed was a failure and my brother stopped talking to our mother as well, pointing out that she went behind his back to arrange the meeting.
      When I examine it in the mirror, my shoulder bruise resembles, if only vaguely, the grip of a hand. I still don’t know where it came from.
      Three days pass. I stop trying to reach my father and enjoy an outing of lunch, shopping, a lighthouse visit, and ice cream—a normal summer vacation day with my husband and daughter. Near dinnertime my mother Emails to advise us that my father’s telephone line is temporarily disconnected and his cell phone is short on minutes. This explains the difficulty in contacting him. I’m curious how long the reprieve will last.
      That night I sleep well. The mattress on the beach house bed is perfectly firm, the sheets a crisp cotton, and the physical suffering I’ve endured has subsided for a time. Freed temporarily from responsibility and pain, I linger in slumber. At ten a.m. the phone rings. Grandpa. “I’m sorry. Did I wake you? I wanted to wish you a happy holiday.” It comes to me through a morning fog—it’s Independence Day. He babbles on a bit, but hangs up before I remember to ask about his latest crisis. As usual, he closes with instructions to “stay healthy and happy.” It should be obvious to the Psychiatrist that I’m neither healthy, nor happy.

      By my return from the beach, the shoulder bruise has faded to that muted brown-green shade that signals its eminent departure. Soon it will disappear, like puddles when the sun comes back. In the meantime, I acquire a hacking cough. Pneumonia, I suspect, thinking of my mother. The doctor orders a chest x-ray and strep test, both negative. I’m told it’s ordinary flu that causes the agony, which I could debate.
      It’s cold here, my father pronounces and requests more blankets. He refuses to touch the air conditioning controls and claims that the aides are incapable of making appropriate adjustments. When I deliver the bedding he rants about his missing toothpaste—he suspects staff members who enter his apartment unannounced (this only because he hears poorly and doesn’t like them to knock). I find the tube in a bathroom drawer, exactly where it was stored on moving day. Now you can buy me more of these, he demands, pushing an adult plastic undergarment toward me. An oceanic coughing fit builds in my throat as I rush away, diaper free, and gagging. I determine then to research the symptoms of whooping cough, but never do.
      Daily it becomes more difficult to get out of bed. There are appointments and commitments, errands and responsibilities, but I loll about, lethargic and lazy. When I finally arise, I’m snappish and weepy. I don’t write or phone friends or care for my family and home as I used to. My anti-depressants no longer have the desired effect and the afternoon dose of anti-anxiety medication is hours away. I ache for that pill, though I have been warned of its addictive qualities.
      I didn’t always cling to medication like a barnacle to a rock. I consult the psychiatrist only after years of near constant pain brought on by multiple surgeries on my foot and spine. The needles jabbing the toes of my right foot, the fist that pounds my left arm, the clamp around my neck, the occasional knife stabbing my knee. Sometimes I forget the tormentors, but usually, performing even minor household tasks causes anguish. Exercise, especially distance running, had always relieved my stress. When such physical activity became impossible, I began barking at my family and crying without cause. The pills help, but I am not cured, and the agony continues.
      The dependence is frightening. The pills. My father.
      A good pal suggests that my father’s demands reflect a desire for company, not supplies. With no friends and a small family in the United States, he’s lonely, she adds, and likely depressed. (Like me, I think, but do not say.) I have learned that unprovoked flare-ups, such as my father’s fit of temper with the nurse, are signs of a major depressive disorder. I didn’t understand at first. Now I realize that without his car, my father can’t visit department stores where clerks flatter him by remembering his name, shopping being a common side effect of hoarding. Nor can he make daily trips to the supermarket to buy the prepared foods he prefers. I think of my own bursts of rage, the drops that dampen my cheeks at odd moments. Simple things set them off: my eyes tear when a pancake burns, a single harsh word from my teenager causes violent sobbing, a too-long line at the post office ruins an entire day, or I go into hysterics when someone points out a bit of spinach between my teeth. I worry about emotional responses I can no longer control. Marathoners are tough; it’s unlike me to be so constantly overwrought.

      Remembering my pal’s advice, I feign patience when my father asks to see my daughter. Could we take him for a walk so that we can chat? The teenager is out West on a tour and I’ve returned to the beach, I tell him, although I’ve spoken to him about our summer travels more than once. Maybe when mother and child get back, he begs, and I promise to do my best. I’m straightening the kitchen when he launches into his usual lament—I’d like to see my grandson. I suggest that he apologize to my brother, but he refuses, as always, insisting that my brother and his wife resolve their differences. For their son, he says, as always. I feel frustration building and the edge in my voice turns sharp as a razor clam. She’s his ex-wife, I screech before I remember that I planned to indulge him today. She is, he asks? This, too, is a subject we’ve discussed often. The divorce is final? Yes, I remind him gently when I hear his new melancholy at the old news.
      The pills don’t stymie anger. Anger that my brother can’t make concessions for an aging parent. Anger that my sibling doesn’t allow his son to interact with his grandfather. Anger that I have become an only child, just when our father needs us both the most. Anger that my mother—the now ninety-seven pounder—picked up the slack, making herself ill. Anger that the meds don’t overpower the angry feeling that weighs me down.
      An adult child is responsible for her parents when they are no longer able to care for themselves. I believe this, and mean to set a good example for my daughter, but my father’s constant demands are wearing, and I’ve begun to consider whether the obligation I feel stems from love or merely the accidental connection brought on by my birth.
      Our father never supported me with my goals when we were younger, my brother recently revealed, a rediscovery he made after several years of therapy. Self-imposed isolation is his revenge. I wish I’d told him then that he’s punishing me, too, and our mother; I wish I could talk to him now about the hurt he’s caused. I tried once, but he responded with a terse Email saying that he was surprised by my request for help with our father, since they hadn’t seen each other in years. I haven’t hazarded a second attempt.
      My father prattles on as I empty the dishwasher. He’s just asked if I’ve spoken to my brother recently when I slam my foot into the base of a heavy column near the glassware cabinet. “I have to go,” I scream into the phone, while gripping the newly contorted middle toe on my surgically altered foot. It was an accident that had the feeling of intention. When I call my father back to apologize for hanging up, he doesn’t ask what happened. Tomorrow, the toe will have turned a muddled purple shade, joining the profusion of bruises that mark me. Today, I disregard the agony. There is only one escape.
      I stuff my swollen feet into sneakers and run. When running becomes too much, I slow down and look. Two egrets, majestic and slim, preen in the pond that backs onto our beach street. A family of swans, the cygnets grown to teenagers since spring, cruises by and I remind myself, not for the first time, to find out how they survive in saltwater. Rabbits and squirrels and deer loiter at the edges of roads, but do not appear bothered by my passing. I feel the pressure of pavement under my feet. My skin is moist and itchy, flying insects having found their mark. I taste globules of sweat that drip into my eyes and roll down my face. Above, ospreys stand guard in a massive home atop a manmade pole. Oystercatchers and plovers that were protected during nesting now flutter in masses near the bay, their wings casting shadowy lines in the sunshine. The air is thick with humidity, but a flowery scent breaks through at intervals, reminding me of honeysuckle, although the season has long passed and no blooms are in sight. I plod on, observing, but unnoticed, and without a cell phone, unreachable. For an hour I am simply a runner, alone. Afterward I swallow a double dose of Advil, ice my feet, and for the first time, forget to take anti-anxiety medication.

      Back at home the phone rings at the onset of a business day. “Hi, it’s Cynthia from the senior residence.” I don’t recognize the name, but the frustrated tone is familiar. Cynthia sounds like me when my father calls. “I need your advice,” she starts. “Your dad fell out of bed again two nights ago, but did not report the accident. He’s been unable to walk since then. We’ve been providing care, but we have to make a long-term decision.”
      The issue is clear. My father, who believes he is self-sufficient, resides in the independent living unit. There is no provision to manage his needs while he is immobile.
      “Your dad reports severe pain, but refuses to consult a doctor,” Cynthia continues. “We’re worried. You may need to force him to go.”
      I don’t tell Cynthia that the doctor doesn’t trust doctors. Instead, I promise to talk to him.
      “Oh, it’s nothing,” my father reports when I call, though he sounds weak. “With rest, I’ll be fine.”
      “How are you getting to the bathroom?” I ask the incontinent man.
      “I have my urinal, but the staff doesn’t leave it in a convenient place.” I can still smell the foulness of his old room, where discarded attire, rotting food, stacks of dusty mail and magazines, and two urinals were arrayed around a queen-sized bed, urinals he also snuck in plastic bags on outings to restaurants when we still made an effort as a family. “The aides make fun and curse at me,” he complains. “They abuse me.”
      It is a plea for help. The compliant daughter rushes to save him. When I arrive, he is lying in his much-smaller bed, the adjacent carpet newly stained. He wears a thin white T-shirt and checkered boxer shorts that barely cover an oversized adult diaper and fail to hide pale skinny legs. His toenails are claw like and his face is pallid. His attempt to smile when I enter the room is frightening. In my fifty-two years, I have never seen my father as shrunken. “What’s going on?” I ask, attempting a neutral tone.
      “Well, I fell out of bed and my left hip hurts.”
      “When did this happen?”
      “Not last night, the night before.”
      “Have you had X-rays or seen a doctor?”
      “No, no. I just need rest.” My father is a big proponent of rest. When we were children, he skipped family dinner to shut himself into a bedroom to listen to opera after work. He still finds music relaxing, but for me, there is no beauty in the sound. All I hear when sopranos sing is the squawking of crazed seagulls.
      “Can you get out of bed?”
      The pancakes and bacon on an untouched food tray answer my question. He has not moved. His cell phone rests on one side of his chest, the apartment phone lies on the other. Like the lone survivor of a shipwreck, he’s waiting for rescue.
      “If you’re in such pain, I should take you to a doctor. You know yourself that a fracture could cause problems.”
      He wavers, fumbles with the words. “Where would we go?”
      “There’s an urgent care facility on Main Street,” I answer, though I don’t know how I would get him into my car. “You can have X-rays taken there.”
      Time passes while he works out an argument. Finally it comes out. “They don’t have my medical records.”
      “They’re prepared—it’s that kind of place.”
      My father raises his arm slowly, gesturing toward a chair piled with clothing and newspapers. “I need to dress.”
      Sorting the attire is a long process, which ends abruptly when he asks me to help him urinate. I hand him a urinal and flee to a public restroom to scrub my hands and arms with soap while unbidden wetness washes my face.
      When I return, he has reconsidered. “We’d better go to the hospital after all.”
      The dressing recommences. We manage to slip a button-down shirt over his white T and secure a pair of too-large shorts with a belt on his waist. I stretch black nylon socks over his feet, and tie his brown shoes, then lift him under the arms so that he can sit at the edge of the bed. He weighs little, but his muscles are weak and he cannot help get himself upright. Slumped and sullen, he waits. Shortly, four EMTs arrive. “You must be important,” I joke, “they sent two stretchers.” Secretly I hope that they offer me one. He happily recites his medical education to the technicians, emphasizing a short stay at Harvard. They appear perplexed, but remain friendly as they wheel him through the first floor sitting room to the exit. Do I imagine the looks of relief from residents and staff as we leave? The front desk attendant hands me the New York Times, two days worth. “In case you’re delayed,” she says. “He’ll want these.”
      My father’s intolerable pain diminishes to three on a scale of ten when we arrive at the hospital. There is confusion over whether it’s his shoulder or his hip that hurts, but he is smiling. Predictably he’s last in the triage that runs down a corridor of the ER. He lies on a stretcher while I stand close-by, wishing it were my troublesome foot or spine that was being treated. He repeats his medical credentials to each of the nurses and the doctor on call, who is unimpressed and ships him to the X-ray department before the story ends. “This is a busy place,” my father comments on his return, not fully understanding that he is in the emergency department. The activity and attention please him. Unlike the personnel at his senior residence, these are kind people, he remarks. His family members, he then mutters, never do a thing for him. I am behind the stretcher, so he doesn’t see my cheeks flame crimson. It takes willpower not to slip out through the swinging door.
      When X-rays reveal severe arthritic damage, but no fracture, the physician completes the discharge papers. He looks relieved. A nurse and I pack my fragile father with difficulty into my car. He is excited about the outing and chats on the way home, while I concentrate on roads made slick by the earlier storm. We reach the highway when suddenly, he asks to go shopping. “To pick up a few things.”
      Shopping? Have I heard correctly? Has he forgotten the hundreds of unworn shirts at his house? The crawling-with-critters kitchen? Does he miss the department stores or the supermarket? What about the hip pain? If only I had crashed the car right there—we could both have had a rest at the hospital.
      I deposit my father in his bed and ask if he needs painkillers. “Oh no,” he responds, “I never take them.” Relieved and stupid, I race away. The phone rings early the following morning. “I couldn’t sleep, it hurt so much. Could you bring me a bottle of Tylenol?”
      Of course I do. Even though my daughter and husband and dog need me. Even though our house of twenty years awaits attention. Even though I hate myself for it. Even though none of us does a thing to help the man I rarely call Dad.
      That day, or another, I pass a truck on the thruway with the words “Goldsboro, North Carolina” written on its side. Goldsboro was one of the succession of middle-of-nowhere towns that served as home while my father sought the perfect professional position. I was in elementary school when we settled into a doctor’s residence on the grounds of the State psychiatric hospital with its unit specialized in treating the criminally insane. Our house was old, dating to Civil War times perhaps, and in my fifth-grade imagination, the thick-walled stone stalls in its basement had sheltered escaped slaves or convicts. Fascination and fear ruled those damp divided rooms, but I was used to strange places by then and had no trouble adapting. I thought we were all accustomed to frequent change, but at some point, my father must have lost the ability to acclimate. If he never had that talent, departing was easier than staying. That, I suspect now, is the reason for our many moves.
      He phoned my brother about his recent fall as well, but hasn’t received a response. When my brother calls back, the suffering senior plans to ask for a ride to the opera in the city. “I’m a simple man,” he often says. “Transportation is my biggest concern.”

      The unpredictable moods are becoming more frequent. When my husband sees me starting blankly, he waves his hand in front of my face or hugs me. My daughter complains that I overreact to everything. She’s right, but I don’t understand myself how depression can overtake a happy life without warning, why sadness stays as if trapped in the grip of an octopus’ eight muscular arms.
      I felt especially bluesy when an unexpected notion took hold. It would have been easy, painless even, with a bathroom cabinet full of prescription medication. A note would assure my spouse and child that they were not at fault, that I loved them, but that unrelenting pain was unbearable and I couldn’t continue to make them suffer a churlish and weepy me. I tried to explain, but it was impossible to voice my thoughts. Words were lacking, and a writer without words cannot act.
      It’s beyond inexplicable, this despondency. I’m a breast cancer survivor, and while I don’t parade my past illness like a team banner, I am grateful to be alive. How can thankfulness for life be reconciled with thoughts, even if fleeting and inconsequential, of death? Damn pain. Damn the depression for provoking thoughts of the unthinkable.
      When I accidentally reveal the incident to my psychiatrist, insisting that I would never carry out such a random idea, she is unconvinced. She frowns, scribbles furiously in my file, and changes my medication. I recognize then that my father and I share a proclivity for the dramatic.

      The summer is winding down. Though the pain continues, the mysterious blue-violet splotches on my skin are gone. My oncologist advised that a daily baby aspirin regimen, a routine he had mandated, likely caused the excessive bruising. Cutting the dose in half solved the problem—it was simple, erasing those surface bruises. My father reports feeling better, so I risk ending the season at the beach. Singing to a pop radio station, my daughter and I hit the road with the dog splayed across the backseat. I don’t remember the last time we sang aloud together.
      The rain that spits on my windshield soon after we set off reminds me of my father’s ambulette ride and I’m suddenly sure that the trip is a mistake. My mother will join us shortly, leaving him without recourse if there’s a problem. Is this a dereliction of duty, abandonment? Would a parent desert a helpless child? Self-reproach makes its way to my hands. Tighter and tighter I grip the steering wheel until I’m clenching it like a life preserver. The fists finally loosen their hold when we arrive at our destination, but the imprints of my nails in my palms remain for some time.
      We don’t hear from my father until thirty-six hours later, when he calls to confide that the senior residence has resolved to adopt a few of his improvement ideas. This small amount of recognition enlivens him—his voice verges on gleeful—allowing the vacationers to relax.
      I take to running again each morning. Three miles, four, six, or seven—usually an avid logbook keeper, I don’t keep track. When I tire or my afflictions make running impossible, I walk. Sometimes I pretend to sprint to the finish of the New York City Marathon, where I pass the leaders on the final incline in Central Park and win with ease. Throngs of imaginary onlookers cheer me on as I break the victory tape. Other times I jog through shady patches, but stroll in speckled sun, feeling the August heat color my bare arms and legs. Daily I search out new routes, slogging through sand on the beach or ambling along rutted roads. Once I see an island, which looks, on first sight, to house a single home. An entire island for one. It is a mirage designed especially for me, who craves silence. Another time I get lost and travel miles out of my way. The day is sultry, and dehydration is eminent. It is another vision. No, a real food truck is parked in a suburban driveway, a truck stocked with icy cold energy drink, a bottle two dollars, which, by chance, I have in my shorts pocket. I don’t recognize it at once, this feeling that is old, yet new. For the first time in weeks, hope creeps into my consciousness.

      My father phones after our return to report that his bathroom flooded overnight. “I didn’t know who to call at that hour.”
      “What did you do?” I ask, biting my lip.
      “I waited until early morning and the service men came. A pipe burst. They said it couldn’t have been prevented.”
      There is pride in his voice, like a toddler telling a parent he has learned to swim.
      “Before the disaster, I was nervous. You don’t know what to do. But they fixed it for me.” He is delighted at his self-sufficiency. “I left messages for your brother and your mother, too. They haven’t responded.”
      I should have shared his joy, been pleased that he didn’t require help. Instead, I stand utterly alone and helpless. Broken pipes can be plugged, but severed relationships, poor health, aging, and depression require time and care. Though weak and unequipped, I’m apparently in charge of repairs.
      My father asks for grapefruits one early fall day. If I’m at the store, could I buy a couple of bottles of diet soda and dark chocolate as well? He doesn’t want to inconvenience me. I’m rushing to an appointment in the city when he calls, but promise to try.
      “You can leave them at the front desk,” he suggests.
      As I’m toting the bags inside, I realize that they will be too heavy for him to carry, so I bring them upstairs and unpack the grapefruits amid growing clutter in his apartment.
      He looks puzzled. “Not that kind of grapefruit.”
      “Should I have chosen yellow instead of pink?”
      “No, no, the other kind of grapefruit.”
      “I don’t understand.”
      “In bunches.”
      “Grapes? You wanted grapes?”
      “Yes, grapes. I can’t eat these. I don’t have a good knife or fork.”
      “I’m sorry, I have to go,” I say as I rush away. An acrid taste fills my mouth and the unwanted fruit remains on the counter to rot.
      The next day, 8:00 a.m., my cell phone vibrates.
      “I have big news,” Grandpa discloses.
      Here’s what I fantasize as I await the announcement: he’s abandoned the senior residence with his cane or he’s made an appointment with the onsite internist for a checkup to determine the cause of the constant diarrhea or he’s met an equally educated resident while drinking tea in the lounge. Of course none of these possibilities are realistic; except for the recent plumbing repair, he rarely calls with good news.
      Here’s what he actually says: “I’ve been trying to reach your brother to invite him and his son out for a birthday celebration. I haven’t done anything wrong, but he’s not returning my calls.”
      My chin drops. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I respond at last. Has he just acknowledged that my brother is ignoring him?
      “I don’t know what to do,” he concludes, his voice infantile.
      He intends to call his ex-wife next, but doesn’t know if he will reach her. “Your mother has stopped helping me.”
      I know this to be untrue.
      A few months ago I would have been furious at the Psychiatrist’s lack of comprehension. Frustrated tears would have flowed and my hands would have formed involuntarily into fists. On this September Friday I roar. The laughter is uncontrollable and insane tears roll down my cheeks. This conversation is as humorous as the funniest joke I’ve ever heard. I’ve been feeling better, less edgy—the medication change has had a positive effect—but now I’m behaving like a madwoman. Sadness, resentment, sympathy, and relief coalesce into one maniacal outburst that cannot be contained. A brief voluntary institutional commitment begins to look appealing.
      But that is not to be. In the following weeks, my father lashes out at the pharmacist who, lacking the proper prescription, cannot refill his medication. Rather than calling to follow up, he insists on waiting at the drugstore, reminding the staff that he is a physician. On the third day, I am there when an associate calls him to the counter: “Your prescription is ready, doctor.” She smiles as he hobbles away, holding fast to a shopping cart for support. “Now I need more anti-diarrhea medicine,” he announces to no one in particular.
      My father insists that housekeeping at his residence removed him from the toilet to clean the bathroom. They also looked in his closet without permission. “Unacceptable,” he rages. While I agree, the veracity of his stories is questionable. He again demands anti-diarrhea medication as well as diet soda and chocolate. When we reach the store, he cannot remember why we are there; when we return to his apartment, I see that it is already overstocked. He next accuses my mother of abuse because she tries to pay his delinquent bills. I promise to apply for power of attorney so that I can assume responsibility, but fear that my father will not agree.
      He further asserts that my brother accepted one of his calls because the answering machine allowed him to leave a complete message. I explain that the voice mail system itself places time limits on communication, but he cannot be swayed. He then maintains that my sibling contacts him each morning by sending a musical signal through the telephone. When I ask which phone, he cannot say, but vows that the sounds are beautiful. Shortly afterward, the Psychiatrist requests help in renewing his medical license.
      The signs of dementia are obvious. He even admits that he is afraid he could be experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. My mother, a retired social worker specializing in Alzheimer’s, has lost all patience. “I don’t know how I can spend days assisting patients at my volunteer job, but have no sympathy for your father.” She is near hysteria—he has that effect on people—when she reports the latest. “Your father seems to be playing us off against each other. He says he never sees you, when I know you stopped by at least three times last week. He trusts you though. You need to take over.”
      I’m not ready. I’ll always be unready. Some have no time to prepare, others too much. If only I could quit the pain and avoid the responsibility. Instead I retreat—no, escape—to the beach house on one of those flawless autumn days that smells of summer. I write, walk in the sand, and lie in glowing sun, by myself, but not lonely. A near-perfect conch shell rests beside me and the swan family swims by on the bay, one youngster, almost grown, leading the way. They are sending me a message, I think, these stately birds that always travel together.
      “I’m alone in the world,” my father says, his eyes moist, when I stop by on another cloudless day. “I’m not being demanding. I just want to see your brother and my grandson.” He doesn’t understand how much they hurt, these too-frequent discussions of the absent sibling. He still rarely asks about my physical condition, but tells me he loves me when he calls to ask a favor. These are not words I’m accustomed to hearing from him, and they feel false. I’m clearly his last source of aid.
      Yet in general, the drama has lessened. Even the weather has remained mild and cooperative. My father agreed to grant me power of attorney today, but the onsite notaries were unavailable and we couldn’t complete the paperwork. I’m not optimistic. Storms are predicted for tomorrow.

When not shuttling her teenager or father around the suburbs, Christine Ritenis writes, runs, and knits recycled plastic totes. She also serves as New York Arts Correspondent for Connoisseur magazine. In 2010, she was a finalist for the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize and her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Still Crazy, The Fiddleback, and Brain, Child magazine. Christine earned an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

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