“Really, it’s a funny story, when you think about it,” My mother laughs, holding her hand against her mouth. "We were living in Yokosuka, in Navy housing on base, and the ceilings in Japan were low," she says, flattening her palm a few inches above her head. “Your dad had just come back from a cruise and had you on his shoulders. He went to lift you up like this,” she raises both hands from her shoulders and holds them there, suspended in the air, “and put your head right through the ceiling light globe. I could tell he didn’t know what had happened by the look on his face. The glass was falling all around him and he kept holding you in the air, trying to figure out where it was coming from.” With a small shrug, she laughs again. “What could I do? I saw the blood and the glass and ran out the back door and down the street.”
“Hey, Pops. Whatcha doin’?” I ask, sitting cross-legged on my unmade bed. For the past five years, I have called my dad on this date. It is the anniversary of my mother’s death, the day he takes a special bouquet to the cemetery, makes an extra trip in addition to his routine Sunday visits.
“Not much, kid. This antibiotic they’ve got me on is knocking me flat. I don’t know what it’s called, Sitpro or Cipro, something like that. It’s really got me dragging.” Dad sighs in frustration before saying, “I hate to bug you but I’m gonna need help with that basement.”
“I’m working on it,” I reply, pulling the laptop across the bed and scanning my work calendar. “Things look like they slow down here in August. Maybe I can get out there then.”
“I really need the help,” he says again.
“I know, I know. Did you go to the cemetery?”
Startled into silence, I try to make sense of the abruptness of his "no." Half afraid of the answer, I pause before asking, “Why not?”
“I had to get groceries. I couldn’t do both!”
When we hang up the phone, I fall backward on the bed with a hard thump, arms spread wide. It begins, I think to myself, even though I don’t know what “IT” is. A familiar wave of powerlessness surges up and over me and I roll onto my side, pressing my face deep into the pillow. Maybe I’m reading too much into the conversation, making melodrama where there isn’t any, indulging myself in the family pastime.
A week later, I am sitting in a meeting and receive a text from my daughter. "Granddaddy misspelled my name on my birthday card."
“Well, his handwriting is not so hot. Maybe it just looks like that,” I text back.
“He skipped the ‘e’ three times,” she writes. “He’s never done that before.”
I lean over to my boss, sitting next to me. “I have to go see my dad,” I whisper.
The main airport terminal in San Diego is a cavern of glass. A long escalator connects the mezzanine to the ground floor providing a view of the milling crowd below. In the past, especially when my mother was alive, my father would stand at the bottom of the escalator in a military stance, feet spread, one hand behind his back, waiting with a tissue-wrapped bundle of grocery-store flowers, or, if the girls were traveling with me, a bright bouquet of balloons. I scan the crowd several times. No sign of Dad. I glance at the seats near the terminal doors. No Dad there either. I step off of the escalator and a man rises stiffly from the same seats I just skimmed over. The shock of unexpected recognition is tangible. Piercing. My dad, shirt untucked, pants sagging and stained, walks slowly toward me. I push a razor-thin edge of fear away with an awkward hug. “I was afraid I might’ve missed you,” he says, patting me enthusiastically on the back. “It seems like time just keeps getting away from me,” he adds, shaking his head. I nod as if I understand.
A few days later, he wanders into the kitchen, his hand on his back pocket, as I sit at the counter finishing my coffee. “I can’t find my wallet,” he says. “Have you seen it?”
“It’s got to be somewhere, Dad. When do you last remember having it?”
“At Subway, when I picked up our sandwiches last night.” He opens the refrigerator door, shuts it, and opens it again.
“Here, you call down there," I say, pulling out a thin phone book from a kitchen drawer. “I’ll go look in the car. It’s probably between the seats.”
We search the house for hours. It’s four stories, full of places to absently lay something down and lose it. In the late afternoon, we begin calling credit card companies, my dad explaining again and again how his wallet might have been lost or even stolen. No, he doesn’t know which; yes, we’ll file a police report.
“I can’t figure out how I lost it,” he repeats, sitting forward in his recliner, slapping his hands on his knees.
“It happens, Dad. We’ll get it taken care of. It’s just going to be a pain in the ass doing it.” I dial the next number and hand him the phone again.
The last call of the day is to the DMV. I am stuck in their automated system, pressing button after button in the hope of actually connecting with a real-live person. I hear a series of bell-like tones, followed by a computer-generated message: “Thank you for calling the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Your anticipated wait time is eight hours and forty-seven minutes.” No lie. I hang up the phone. My father, upstanding citizen that he is, will not drive without his driver’s license. I am secretly grateful for the lost wallet.
The next morning, I’m standing in the middle of his office, hands on my hips, when I hear him come down the living room stairs. “Hey, Dad, where are your credit card statements?” I call out. “Let’s get them all in one place in case there’s any problem with your cards.”
“Good luck,” he says, waving from the doorway in the general direction of his paper-covered desk. “I can’t seem to stay on top of the mail lately. It’s everywhere.”
He's right; it is everywhere. Stacks of unopened letters litter his desk. Plastic grocery bags of discarded mail, intended for the shredder but not quite making it there, line the floor. Other bags, filled with bills and statements, lean against a tall filing cabinet, each of its four drawers partially open. I sift through the piles, sorting them as I go. Most are asking for political donations—The Heritage Foundation, Trump and Pence 2016, St. Joseph’s Indian School—each sealed envelope proclaiming, "Act now! It may already be too late!" or the more imperative "Immediate Response Required!" Angry, in a way I can't explain, I dump them all, unopened, into the trash bin. I feel a twinge of guilt about the mission school kids, "his kids," as he calls them, but not enough to retrieve the letter out of the container. I don't tell my dad.
Sunday, July 4th. We have been cleaning out closets, working our way to the basement but today will be Dad’s version of a day of rest. It’s Military Appreciation Day at his church, a large Baptist congregation, housed in the A-frame of a defunct Lutheran church. Unable to button the uniform from his active duty days, he wears new dress whites, bought especially for this celebration. He tugs at the high “choker” collar and nervously straightens the miniature ribbons stacked in rows on the left side of his uniform. He asks me repeatedly if the creases are straight, if there are any smudges or smears. I can’t help but remember the many times my mother brushed off his back and shoulders, with a tug here and a pull there, making sure everything was as it should be, at least with his uniform. I am not that thorough, opening the front door with a final, “It looks fine, Dad.”
We stop on the way to pick up his best friend, Victor, who is waiting on the curb outside his apartment. “You are driving, Kim?” he asks with surprise. With his soft Nigerian accent, it sounds like "Keem."
“I’ve lost my wallet with my driver’s license. I can’t drive without my license,” my dad grudgingly explains.
“Oh.” Victor is silent a moment, then leans forward with a hand on my dad’s shoulder. “You know, Kim, I am so glad you are here now because I have to say that something is not right with your father.”
Dad’s eyes cut toward me without turning his head. He pauses before chuckling uncertainly, “Since when have I been right?”
“You laugh, my friend, but you know it is true,” Victor says, leaning back in the seat.
We pull into the church parking lot and I offer to let them both out at the door. Dad waves me on impatiently, refusing to get out of the car until I park. Red, white, and blue bunting decorates the front of the church; a military color guard waits in the shade. As we follow Victor in single file toward their favorite row—middle pew, on the right—I feel, more than see, the sudden movement behind me and turn as several ushers swarm around my dad, his body swaying in the aisle.
“Are you dizzy, Dad?” I ask, grabbing his arm.
“No!” He hisses through clenched teeth. “My feet don’t want to move. It’s just my feet and my legs.”
Together we shuffle-walk him to the nearest pew. I lean close to him and whisper, “We need to take you to the hospital. Or call the EMTs.” He shakes his head, his lips pressed into a thin line. I know this look well, mostly from my teenage years, every time I played my music too loud or got caught drinking sloe gin in the living room or had an opinion that was different from his. We skirmish back and forth about leaving the service, the real battle of wills taking place somewhere I can’t see yet.
Victor reaches around my dad, sitting between us, to grasp my arm. “This is what I am speaking of. Something is not right.” My father, cheeks flushed with color, squares his shoulders and stares straight ahead, stubbornly intent on ignoring our conversation. Afterward, he jokingly blames his unsteadiness on “old sea legs." He shakes off my hand at his elbow, instead using the pews for handholds, as he slowly moves up the aisle. Pausing to lean against a column near the front of the church, he reluctantly agrees to let me bring the car around to the entryway “if it will make me happy."
Tuesday, July 6th. I am setting up doctors’ appointments. I leave in four days and I can’t go without having some sort of answers, without knowing we have a plan in place. I’ve tried to get Dad to come home with me, told him long ago that if he gets sick, he will be on a plane. He doesn’t want to be a bother, doesn’t want to leave my mom, doesn’t want to surrender his friends or his small set of fixed routines. I get it, I really do. Maybe there’s a simple solution, something easy like a poor interaction between prescriptions or a needed tweak to his diet. Anything is possible.
Wednesday, July 7th. We are cleaning out the “basement,” our name for an overly ambitious crawl space underneath the house. The day is hot and California-humid, but Dad insists on helping, organizing the donation and keepsake piles as I drag out and sort through cardboard storage boxes.
“I’m so sorry, kid,” he says again, standing at the basement door, hands limp by his side.
“Don’t be. We’ll get it done, don’t worry,” I say, lifting the tin-lined cover from a large Japanese storage crate. “Look, Dad! Do you recognize these two?” I ask, holding up charcoal sketches of my young parents.
“No. Who is it?” he says, his brows drawn together in confusion.
“It’s you and Mom!” I shake the tissue-thin portraits at him.
“It must be all the hair. It’s been so long since you had any,” I tease, rolling the sketches up again and sliding them back into the box. He shrugs his shoulders and disappears from the doorway. I follow him, arms full of flattened cardboard boxes and half a second later, he is on the ground, at the bottom of the steps, arms and legs moving randomly like an upturned turtle. Half a second. The space of a breath. Inhale. Exhale. That’s all it takes.
Half a second to draw an immutable line between all of the “thens” and “nows.” His, mine, yours. Like the drop of a stone in a deep well, nothing slows its fall. Its ripples spread into the darkness. Watching sunsets on the deck—gone; sleeping in your own bed—gone; choosing to turn left instead of right—gone. I don’t see the line we’ve crossed, only the images that seem to move with the speed of an old slide projector—click, click, click. They blur together in aching slow motion. I bend over him, try to roll him to his knees, but he can’t make his legs move. I feel the jarring slap of hard rubber, my tennis shoes on concrete, the sting as I slam the flat of my hand against the kitchen door, the coolness of the hard-plastic handheld phone, the frantic fumbling for three simple numbers, punching them in as I run back down the steps to my dad.
A few short minutes after being surrounded by the paramedics, Dad is upright on a low stretcher. A ruddy-faced EMT pronounces him “okay” after a quick examination. “Do you want to go to the hospital? We can still take you if you think you need to get checked out," he says as he snaps his kit box closed and stands up next to the stretcher. My father holds my gaze for a few seconds, then looks away without saying a word.
I think about four stories of house, about what if he falls again, about what if I hadn’t been there. “Let’s do that, Dad. Just to make sure there’s nothing broken or anything,” I say.
He looks up at the EMT with an embarrassed grin. “My kid says let’s go.” He lifts his palms in a “What can I do?” gesture.
Six hours later, we are still waiting to see a doctor. The emergency room is so packed, Dad lies on a gurney parked next to the nurses’ station. I arrange his sweater over his shoulders, buttons down, like a makeshift cover. Even though they’ve said he can’t have anything by mouth, I sneak him a Snickers bar. I figure if things are that dire, we wouldn’t be sitting in a hallway for six hours. Finally, a doctor introduces herself. She is young, quick to smile. He plays off the fall as something “us old men do.” They laugh together. Victor is right—this is what he does—offers up a joke, a sheepish chuckle, misdirects you with the “old fart” sleight of hand.
“Well, you seem to be in great spirits for such a long wait,” she says.” If you’re sure you’re feeling all right, I can go ahead and discharge you now. All of your vitals are fine.”
My dad looks up at me, a question in his eyes. This time I know the answer. I lay my hand on his arm, then look back at her. “My stoic German father, who never complains, is telling me he doesn’t feel well,” I say quietly. “Something is wrong,”
She nods her head. “All right, then. Let’s get a little bit more aggressive. See if anything turns up in an X-ray.”
I am sitting on a plastic chair, waiting for Dad in the empty space left by his gurney, my head resting against the wall, his sweater covering my legs against the chill air of the emergency room. The doctor kneels in front of me. “I have a cause for all of your father’s issues—the falls, the unsteadiness, the problems with his legs—all of them,” she says. I feel relief, feel my shoulders slump downward.
“It’s a brain tumor.”
A strange sensation of forward motion follows her words. A sudden shift of the horizon line as it pitches first left, then right. I have not moved from my seat but clutch its sides so tightly that the edges leave small red creases across my fingers.
“We’re going to go ahead and admit him. I've sent him on for an MRI," she adds, patting my knee. “That will give you some time to get yourself together. He’ll be able to tell how upset you are. You don’t want that. It’ll just upset him more.” I flinch at her observation. What does she see that I can’t hide?
I gather up my purse and gently shake Dad’s sweater out before folding it over my arm, my movements careful, deliberate. Following a nurse to the MRI Lab, I try on one mask, then another. Not able to make a choice, I push through the double doors and cross the threshold into the dimly lit lobby. He is waiting for me in a wheelchair.
“Here, Pops. You’ll need your sweater,” I say, laying it across his lap and then lean down to release the wheel brakes. I take my place behind the chair, reaching over to squeeze his shoulder. It feels frail beneath the thin hospital gown. He grabs my hand and squeezes back.
I am three, riding on my dad’s broad shoulders. He is wearing his uniform—khakis, I think—and I can feel the rough braid of the shoulder boards underneath my thighs as he hop-skips us around the living room. Stopping in the middle of the room, he lifts me up and over his head. There is a breath-taking sensation of air, of swinging free in flight, and then a shower of white light, a roaring sound in my ears. I am suspended above my father as he tries to make sense of the falling glass, then pulled against his chest so swiftly I still think I’m flying.
He continues to call my mother’s name while holding me with one arm and leaning me facedown over the kitchen sink. The ceramic edge is cool against my cheek. Using his free hand, he pulls out slivers of glass that plink a tinny counterpoint to my screams as he drops them into the sink. The sink is white at first, like the light, turning pink, then red, as the blood swirls in slow, tight circles before disappearing down the drain.