“We can’t let Mom take him home,” my sister says over the phone line that cracks and spits into the late evening. “She can’t handle it. He’s gone beyond.”
“What happened?” I ask.
“Mom and Dad, you know, came for the weekend. A visit. He was okay, or so it seemed. Quiet. Like he’s been. Just sitting there.” I imagine my father, the man-child, propped up in a blue chaise, looking ready for a photograph at some occasion. And everyone in the room trying to look at each other, not at him, have a conversation about something else, like the news or a neighbor.
“He chased the boys around the house,” she says. “Put his shirt on backwards, took his pants off. The label sticking out looked like another tongue. They thought he was a monster.”
My father has a very particular way of walking now. He sort of clumps along, picking one foot up higher than the other. Clump foot, blump foot, that’s how he looks. And his ankles crack so loudly it sounds like he is breaking apart. The last time I visited, I remember being curled in bed listening to Mom help him up the stairs. I could hear the cracking getting louder and slower with each step, and I remember holding my breath wondering if he would make it to bed without dying in the process.
“I can’t imagine,” I say, picturing him with his hair all raised the way it gets now, looking like broken wheat. I can see his skinny legs moving like a chicken flap-flapping around my sister’s kitchen.
“And he gets so angry,” she says. “Yells and screams. Told us all he’s in charge, and we better do what he says. The way he shook his fist,” she sinks down a note, “scared me to death.”
“If she can’t take him home, what are we going to do with him?” I ask. “He can’t stay with you guys. She’s got to go back. . . .” My sister tells me about the procedure of getting him into a nursing home. First, he will go to the hospital, driven by the police because he is a danger to himself and others. Then, after three days, he will be released to a place that can take him.
I remember the day I first saw the change. I was visiting for Christmas, when we always tried to make each moment a Kodak one so that we could all come away feeling successful. Pictures would help, lots of them with us all smiling the famous Smith grin no matter what’s going on inside. My mother and I were in the kitchen cleaning up breakfast. Dad had disappeared upstairs, probably to take a shower and get dressed. Then all of a sudden he appeared in the doorway with his blue hooded bathrobe on, looking like a grim reaper. He had a wastebasket in his hand, holding it up near his head, as if measuring it. Or maybe he was listening to it. Or maybe he was going to put it on his head like a hat.
I waited for him to say something, but he just stayed there against the counter looking totally exhausted, as if he might collapse. It was then that I realized his mind was outside himself now, the way your shadow lays out when the sun is behind and you try to catch it, step on yourself, but when you do, you only step on darkness. I knew that for the life of him he didn’t know what to do with the wastebasket. And I don’t mean should he empty it in here or out in the garage—I mean that he didn’t know what a wastebasket was for. And from that moment on, I never saw my real father again.
“I’ll call you later,” I tell my sister, and hang up the phone. Outside, the streetlight flashes huge patches on the lawn, and I wonder what it must be like for him now, living with this terrible referee running around inside his brain calling for a time out.
Copyright 2003 by Cathryn E. Smith