My father particularly loved the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s: Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb, Louis Armstrong, Glen Gray and the Casa Loma orchestra. Growing up in Newport News, Virginia, he’d heard many of these musicians perform at the Newport News Armory and at Virginia Beach, then later at dances and fraternity parties at Cornell University, where he had studied mechanical engineering. Now, though much else failed him, he could remember the names of many of the band members. “See if you can find that piano solo by Jess Stacy,” he said one afternoon as we were listening to a live recording of Benny Goodman’s 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall. “I think it’s on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’”

He leaned forward, listening expectantly. The piano stayed in the background for the first twenty minutes, barely audible against the driving energy of the other instruments, and I wondered if my father had confused “Sing, Sing, Sing” with another piece. But toward the end the other instrumentalists dropped off (except for Gene Krupa, who maintained a light touch on the drums with his brushes) and Jess Stacy took over, introspectively interweaving quiet lyrical phrases with jagged percussive ones, exploring what the piano could do.

So, jazz. Late Wednesday and Saturday afternoons a small combo came to the nursing home and played for an hour or so in the Great Room. If I were visiting then, I’d push my father down the hall in his wheelchair, and we’d sit at the back of the room or out in the atrium. The band consisted of keyboard, bass, saxophone, and drums, joined occasionally by a singer. They played old standards, like “Ain’t She Sweet,” and “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and “A Foggy Day (in London Town),” and always at the end of each concert, “God Bless America.” After a song or two, a couple of the women residents would get up and dance and one or two of the aides would join them. The other residents sat on folding chairs, or in their wheelchairs, singing along, clapping, falling asleep—as my father often did.

On my first visit, the band had been playing about twenty minutes when two tall black male aides wheeled a white-haired man on a stretcher into the room. They brought him up alongside the band, where he was greeted enthusiastically, as if, now that he was here, the concert could really take off. The musicians addressed him as “Mr. K” and one of the aides, who’d been holding an electric guitar, rested the guitar in Mr. K’s hands just for a moment, and he smiled broadly, if vaguely, and gestured with his right arm as if he were leading the band. After a couple of songs, the musicians played “Bye Bye Blackbird.” The singer brought her microphone close to Mr. K’s mouth, and in a scratchy, weak voice, he sang “blackbird, bye, bye.” Later I learned that he’d founded the band and it still carried his name. He’d been a successful businessman, working, like my father, in the aviation industry, and it was because Mr. K was now a resident that the nursing home had an endowment for these biweekly concerts.

Dinner always followed the jazz concerts. When the band started putting away their instruments, I would push my father into the dining room where each table had been set with a cloth tablecloth, cloth napkins, and a small vase of fresh flowers. Sometimes we’d sit, just the two of us, at our own table, and I’d help my father eat, lifting a glass or a fork or a spoon to his mouth, holding it there, waiting for him to take a sip or a bite. An aide would already have fastened a large terry-cloth bib around his neck—these were on many of the residents—but he remained anxious that food would stain his clothes. Once as I was bringing a spoonful of tomato soup to his mouth, two drops spilled on to his hand, and he glared at me. “You didn’t have to do that, Sue,” he said. “You’re supposed to be my daughter, but sometimes you sure don’t act like one!”

I felt stung. We’d had our struggles over the years, and his anger evoked past hurts and an old feeling that he’d never really understood me, that I’d been just as invisible even when he had his sight, although this wasn’t strictly true. He’d been, at times, sympathetic to my desire to escape the confining rules of my mother’s New England family, even encouraged me, an accomplice. But now I felt myself withdrawing into the dangerous, stony place where old grievances still fester. Then I pulled myself together. He’d not often been cranky, had always apologized for his anger, and we’d resolved most of our quarrels. “It was an accident,” I said, and then asked him if he wanted more soup.

I preferred those meals where the dining staff seated us at his usual table with two women residents: frail Mrs. McGuiness, a widow in her nineties who had no remaining family, and Pam, who might have been in her seventies and whose last name and history I never learned. Their company allowed me to see myself as a good daughter. Somewhat disconcertingly, I could also feel like the hostess of a dinner party as I attempted to engage my father in old memories while explaining to the two women about our family. Because of his deafness, I had to speak loudly, and if the other residents were unusually quiet, I feared I was broadcasting our family history to the entire dining room.

Mrs. McGuiness could actually carry on a conversation. Pam was appealing in a different way. The first time we shared a table, she walked into the dining room on her own, smiling graciously, and I assumed she must be a visitor. Her sentences were properly inflected and her affect so convincing that it took me a moment to realize that her words made no sense. “Do they have packages?” she asked me, and then, “How many fit together?” An answer was clearly expected, so, leaping into the unknown, I decided she might be asking about my children. Trying still to engage my father, I talked about my son and daughter and my father’s five other grandchildren. Pam nodded warmly, as if this was indeed what she’d wanted to know. But as I was wondering if perhaps she’d had a stroke that affected only language, I looked across the table and saw that she was trying to eat her soup with a fork.

Toward the end of the meal Pam told me—she would repeat this every time we ate together—that my father was a nice man. “He’s a nice man,” she said, and I thought that my father hadn’t, actually, been very nice at all. He only spoke to me at dinner, and then only when prodded. But I thanked her and smiled as if I agreed, because, who knew? Maybe he’d been kind to her another time. I wanted to believe that Pam, despite her confused language, had glimpsed something of the father I was still hoping to find.

 

“I’ve had a good life,” my father told me. “Too bad it had to end this way.” That was how I felt, as well, but I didn’t want to remain in such despondency. In The Iliad, which I was still listening to, Homer found meaning in the heroism of the Greeks and Trojans, while in my life I was struggling to find meaning in surroundings where great deeds and sacrifices were no longer possible—or indeed any form of action at all. Yet I didn’t want to feel fatalistic as my father did. “Shoot me if I get like this,” my brother-in-law remarked one afternoon when we were talking outside the nursing home. We all felt that way. This was not how or where we wanted to finish our lives. Still, I needed to find something redeeming in my father’s last chapter, if not for him, then for myself.

I began studying the other residents, wondering what significance their lives might have now. I observed them as the aides pushed them around in their wheelchairs, or as they wandered the halls or the pathways of one of the two enclosed patios where I would sometimes take my father on warm summer days to sit in a shaded corner. I’d fit Dad up in a baseball cap and dark glasses—his eyes were especially sensitive to light outdoors—and I’d bring a book to read when he nodded off. The patios were like small walled gardens, and sometimes I’d just sit on a bench and stare at the trees and flowers, thinking. Searching for meaning helped me distance myself from the pain of what was happening to my father and to the other residents.

Until that summer, despite all the deaths in our family already, I’d been spared intimate knowledge of how difficult the end of life can be for the very old, demanding all their strength, like a climb up a dauntingly steep mountain. “Like Mount Katahdin,” I said to my husband one night after I got home from seeing my father. “You hike for months along the Appalachian Trail, and then, when you’ve almost reached the end and are tired and aching, you still have that brutal mountain to climb.”

I tried to locate my father in the narratives of his dementia, to find a link from the father I’d known to the elderly man whose conversation was filled with disturbing images. In one particularly heartbreaking conversation we had on the telephone, when I was trying to persuade him to stay in his chair until my brother arrived, he told me he had to find the nursing home “committee” that wanted to cast him out. Otherwise, there would be a world catastrophe—all the lights in the world were going to go out, all the babies in the world would die.

Because he’d lost his sight, the image of vanishing lights made sense. I wondered, too, if listening to reports on CNN might be intensifying his sense of pending doom. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was still dominating the news, and mornings when I arrived, I would often find him staring at the flickering shadows on the television screen as reporters recounted the ongoing failure to cap the well. Oil was still gushing from the sea floor, threatening the fishing industry, wildlife, beaches, entire communities.

I understood that many of my father’s delusions were common in the elderly—his certainty that the aides were poisoning and persecuting him, his fears about money, his suspicion that family members had formed an alliance with the staff to hurt him. But others puzzled me. “I’m failing a test that I designed myself,” Dad said repeatedly, explaining why he was about to be thrown out of the nursing home and left to die in the woods alone. “A test to see if a blind man can live in the nursing home.” My brother and I were confused by our father’s claiming authorship of the “test” until my brother remembered that Dad’s first job had been as a test engineer during World War II, designing tests for propellers.

This autobiographical detail, which I hadn’t known before, consoled me. It suggested not only that my father’s ravings contained shards of his history, but also that our relationship was still open: there were still things about him to discover, despite the fact that, in a generational reversal, I was now the one constantly recalling the past. “Remember our trips to Virginia each spring?” I’d ask. “Remember the house on Parish Avenue where you grew up, with the swing on the front porch, and I slept in Aunt Jean’s room in the attic? Remember when we’d spend summer vacations at Hawk’s Nest, and you’d take us out in the orange rowboat to look for conch shells? Remember when you’d fly up to see me in Berkeley after one of your business trips to LA? Remember when you and Mom would visit us in Maine? Remember how you bought me my first camera? Remember my difficult boyfriends? Remember Mom?”

 

Throughout the summer, my father’s new doctor at the nursing home, whom we all liked, kept trying different medications to lessen his paranoia and anxiety as well as control his pain. “You have to remember that he’s in a safe place and well cared for,” she assured my brother, who, like me, worried intensely about our father’s unhappiness and our failure to make his days easier.

Eventually CT scans revealed that Dad had had a series of small strokes, or TIAs, over several years. The doctor began to suspect, because of the stiffness of his body and his difficulty controlling his movements, that he might also have Parkinson’s, and she put him on medication that, to our relief, helped him. After a few weeks on the medication, his paranoia lessened. Though he continued to develop new scenarios of disaster—in September, that the aides and my brother were willfully, inexplicably, cutting up his sweaters and good shoes to torture him—it was easier to distract him from these scenes and from his narratives of imminent catastrophe. He no longer referred to going back to his room as being taken to “lock-up.” His mood improved, he joked a little, he expressed his appreciation to the staff and his visitors.

 

In mid-October, my brother and I met at the nursing home with the social worker, the dietician, and the head of nursing to discuss Dad’s care. Everyone agreed he was doing better than anticipated—his weight was stable, he willingly participated in those recreational activities he could manage without his sight. Walking back through the halls to Dad’s room, my brother and I realized how familiar the nursing home had become to us, how normal everything now appeared.

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