The Last Visit
by Stephen Davenport
Stephen Davenport has spent his life in education, as a teacher, head of school, camp director and wilderness trip leader. Early in his career, he was also a part-time, free-lance journalist, contributing articles on conservation, education and backpacking to The New York Times Magazine and Travel Section, The Hartford Courant, and the now-defunct Saturday Review of Literature. Focusing now on fiction, he is the author of the novel Saving Miss Oliver's, set in an all-girls boarding school. He is currently working on the sequel to Saving Miss Oliver's and a series of connected short stories.
My mother called on a Sunday night. My eighty-six-year-old father had been moved from their apartment in the retirement community near Boston, where they'd lived for the last year, to the Full Care Wing of the same retirement community. "He couldn't get himself out of bed this morning," she said. "Every morning since the world began, he's jumped out of bed at first light as if his pajamas were on fire."
"You mean Assisted Care, don't you, Mom?" I said. There was no way my father would surrender to the helplessness of the Full Care Wing. He'd joked to me about the gradations when he showed me the brochure. "All aboard," he'd called and then listed the stations: "Independent, Assisted, Full, and Woops." Another time, he pretended to be angry that there wasn't a cemetery right on the grounds.
"Don't you, Mom? Assisted, right?"
"No, Francis, Full. The doctor doesn't think he'll ever come home again."
# # #
On the flight from San Francisco to Boston the next morning, I tried to work, but the picture of my father incarcerated for the rest of his life in one small room was too intrusive. So I closed my computer and managed to fall asleep. I dreamed that my father and I were running side by side across a field, a horde of policemen chasing after us. At the edge of the field, my father stopped running. He turned around, facing the policemen, and put his left hand in the crook of his right elbow, and thrust his right arm up to the sky, his middle finger extended. The policemen stopped running. "Dad, don't!" I yelled. "They've got guns."
"Stop your worrying!" my father replied. "They can't do anything to me. I'm already dead." Then he burst into laughter and I woke up. A few minutes later, the wheels touched ground.
"We'll go see him right away," my mother said when she opened the door to the apartment in the retirement village. She was even smaller than when, a year earlier, I drove her and my father to the retirement village from the house they'd just sold on Long Island Sound. I'd looked in the rearview mirror for one last glance at the house I grew up in and saw her holding my father's hand in the backseat, both of them looking straight ahead through the windshield. They didn't look back at the house they'd lived in for fifty years. Not once! Now, bending down to hug my mother in the strange doorway, I felt the thinness of her bones.
My father was in his wheelchair watching the door when we entered his room in the Full Care Wing. He reached to embrace my mother, putting his two hands up to draw her down. She bent down to him who had always towered, and he held her face in his hands while she kissed him. The room smelled of past meals and disinfectant. I was already longing for the out-of-doors.
Then I leaned down to shake my father's hand. The skin was cold and thin, waxy paper stretched over bones. "So how do I look in my new bathrobe?" he asked. "Cary Grant? Gregory Peck?"
"More like the guy who played Frankenstein," I answered.
My father grinned. "Yeah, when he's sitting down," he said.
I was careful not to look at my mother. She would be frowning, maybe even rolling her eyes. She'd never liked this kind of joking, a man's thing, made of insult, between my father and me.
Only a few minutes later, she stood up from her chair. I thought she was going to get a glass of water for my father or a pillow to put behind his head. Instead, she crossed the room to him and said, "I'll leave you now."
"You just got here!" my father said.
She turned to me, speaking quietly so my father couldn't hear, "This way, he'll focus just on you. He'll be less confused."
"Please don't go," my father said.
"Mom," I said. "The three of us can visit."
She moved a small step so she was behind the wheelchair where my father couldn't see her and shook her head, commanding me not to argue, then stepped forward again and bent over him and said, "Francis comes so seldom from so far away. I won't make you share him." She kissed my father, then turned from him and marched resolutely away, closing the door behind her.
"I need to go to the bathroom," my father announced.
"I'll help you."
"Maybe we should call the nurse."
"Really, Dad, it's nothing."
"Oh well, why not?" my father said.
I wheeled him into the bathroom, put my hands under his armpits and lifted, supporting him across the small space between the wheelchair and the toilet. Then I noticed the lid was down. "The janitor is a Democrat," my father said. "He does that just to annoy me. For you, he'd leave it up."
I laughed. He wasn't confused at all! I kept one hand under his right armpit while I bent down and flipped the toilet lid up with my other hand. My father began to fumble with his belt. He finally got it unbuckled and began to work on the zipper. "Don't worry, in an hour or two I'll get it open," he said.
"Jeez, Dad, I'm sorry!"
"Don't be, you're next," he said, tugging on the zipper. He had it half way down but couldn't get it any further. A little patch of his white boxer shorts stuck out through the track beneath the zipper's tab. I took my right hand from his armpit and reached for the zipper to yank it down. He slapped my hand away. Then he grabbed the zipper with both hands and grunted and tugged and the little patch of his boxer shorts gave way and his trousers fell down to his ankles and he pushed his boxers down and I saw how skinny his legs had become, sticks wrapped in slack skin. I eased him down on the toilet. "You can go now, Jeeves," my father said.
I closed the bathroom door behind me and retreated across the bedroom to the window and opened it. The smell of freshly cut grass wafted up from the lawn below, and I leaned my head out into the late afternoon as far as I could, waiting for him to call to me that he was finished.
I heard footsteps, as if suddenly my father were well enough again to emerge from the bathroom by himself, and whirled around to see a nurse coming into the room from the hall. "Who are you?" she asked, politely enough, but there was a surprised look on her face. She was in her early thirties, tall, slim in her white uniform, full-breasted. Her black hair made her blue eyes a surprise. I had visualized only older women, past all sexual radiance, nursing my father.
"His son," I told her. "From San Francisco."
She looked at the empty bed, then at the bathroom door, then back to me.
"He's all right," I said.
"I'd better check," she said and disappeared into the bathroom. I stayed by the window. I could hear two voices in there but not what they were saying.
The door opened again very soon, and my father appeared in the doorway in his wheelchair, the nurse behind him, pushing him into the room. My father was smiling. "This is Patricia," he said. "Isn't she beautiful?"
"Hello, Patricia," I said and waited for my father to introduce me.
"Well, isn't she?" my father said.
"Oh, you old thing!" Patricia said. She leaned down and patted his arm. Then she looked up at me and said, "He's the one who's beautiful. He's only been here one day, and already we all love him. The night nurses too."
"They should. I haven't started to wet my bed yet," my father said.
Patricia giggled. "There you go again, always joking! I'll be right back with dinner."
"Dinner!" I exclaimed as she started toward the door. "It's only five o'clock."
She didn't answer, just kept walking, out into the hall, from where a terrible smell of fish was now invading the room.
"She's madly in love with you," my father said, grinning wide. "Can't you tell?"
A minute later, the nurse returned, wheeling a tray. It carried a plate with a pale slab of fish on it, a mound of mashed potatoes, and some string beans gone pale from boiling. Next to it a bent straw stood in a glass of ginger ale and next to that a cup of reddish Jell-O encased a quarter of a pear. I waited for my father to tell her to take the stuff away and come back with something decent to eat.
Instead, he looked impassively down at the food for a few seconds. Then he looked up, smiling at the nurse. "When I was a kid, we had a chunk of amber on our mantelpiece with a caterpillar inside like this," he said, pointing at the Jell-O and the pear. "My father brought it back from one of his trips." I'd never seen the object he was describing, nor ever heard him talk about it before. He was just making it up for her.
The nurse smiled back. "We have some lovely fish for you, Dear," she said, picking up the fork and poking at the mess.
"Don't do that thing with the fork," I said. "It stirs up the smell."
She put down the fork and turned to me. "Don't you think I'd bring him the best food in the world, if I could? If I had my way, this would be roast beef au jus with gravy and pie a la mode."
That's redundant. Au jus and gravy's the same thing, I started to point out, then remembered what my father used to say about people who showed off their education.
"Au jus with gravy," my father said. "Right. When I was a kid, I always used to order pie a la mode with ice cream just to make sure I got the ice cream."
The nurse turned to my father again, her blue eyes alight. "Just to make sure!" she exclaimed. "You would! I bet you always got what you wanted." She bent over my father and fluffed the pillow behind him. "Make yourself hungry." she said. "Eat it all up and you'll have a good day tomorrow." She crossed the room to the door. "When you're done I'll come back and get you ready for bed."
"Bed!" I said. "It's only 5:15."
"We put them down at seven," she said. "I like to take my time." Then she was gone.
# # #
My father put a tiny bit of fish into his mouth and started to chew. A little piece of it lingered on his lips. Then he leaned his head back against the back of the wheelchair. "I'm finished," he said.
"Suppose I skip out and get us some scotch," I offered. "We could have a drink together."
"Not interested. It doesn't taste good anymore."
"Can I read anything to you?"
"Not now. Aren't you going to urge me to eat this?"
"I will not! But I'll flush it down the toilet for you."
"Okay," he said and I took the plate into the bathroom and scraped the food off into the toilet. I flushed and watched the mess go gurgling down. "Bye-bye" I said, loudly, so he could hear. It struck me as terribly funny. We were two boys, putting a Whoopee cushion where my mother's fat bridge partner was about to sit.
"Did you leave anything on the plate?" he asked when I came out of the bathroom. "Otherwise she won't believe us."
"I didn't think of that. I flushed it all down."
"You young guys can't think of anything. We'll have to tell her the dog ate it."
"Okay, Pops," I grinned. "You know where I can borrow a dog?"
My father leaned forward in the wheelchair. "Did you flush the toilet, Francis? You don't want her to see the food in there."
"Dad, I just told you I flushed it."
"You did? Just now?"
I saw how frightened he was. "You're just tired, Dad," I said.
He leaned back in his wheelchair and closed his eyes. "Well then, help me back into bed."
I helped him out of the wheelchair and onto the bed, and his face went slack. I thought maybe I'd kiss him goodnight before I left. When I was about thirteen, I'd got a signal that I shouldn't kiss him goodnight anymore. I had no idea where the signal came from, but I knew he didn't send it because he seemed to wonder too. Anyway, he was asleep now and wouldn't know.
A minute later Patricia returned.
"Good, you ate it all up," she said, addressing my father.
I put my finger to my lips.
She shook her head. "He's just pretending."
"What do you mean he's just pretending? Look at him."
"Then how do you know?"
"It's easy. I'm with him all day. Come on back when I have him ready for bed."
"No. I'll stay right here while you get him ready."
"Rather you didn't," my father murmured. "She gives me a bath."
"See?" Patricia said.
I stared at her.
"Oh!" she said. "I didn't mean to gloat. Maybe, if I draw the curtain around?"
"Forget it," I said, and left the room.
# # #
I went outside and crossed the lawn in the fading light and found a bench to sit on so I could think about the fact that a grown man could actually be jealous of his father's nurse, but all I could think about was how surprising that was. When I was sure Patricia had finished giving my father a bath and had left the room, I got up from the bench to return.
But Patricia was still there, bending over the far side of my father's bed, tucking in the sheets. My father lay flat on his back in the bed, his eyes closed and his chin straight up. I stopped in the doorway. Patricia pulled the edge of the top sheet back out from under the mattress and tucked it back in, making sure it wasn't too tight across my father's chest, and then she looked up and saw me. She put her finger to her lips.
I nodded my head.
She smiled and came around the bed and crossed the room toward me. "I hope tomorrow you'll make him eat."
"What makes you think I didn't?"
She smiled. "He's a terrible liar."
"Oh," I whispered, relieved. "You asked him. He didn't tell you."
"Of course he didn't. I just gave him some cereal."
"While I was outside?"
She nodded her head.
"Well, that's better than fish," I said.
She came the rest of the way across the room and stood next to me. "I do have to make sure he eats, you know."
"All right, I suppose you do," I admitted.
"Right up to the end," she said. Then she touched my hand and moved past me to the doorway.
"But missing one meal once in a while can't possibly hurt," I whispered after her.
She turned in the doorway. "Of course not."
"Besides, it's such awful food."
"Awful," she agreed and snapped off the light.
In the dark, I sat on the edge of my father's bed, listening to him breathe and wondering what it was like to lie in bed while Patricia bathed him. Was it embarrassing? Was it tender? Did it make him horny? I decided it was all of those and that they trusted each other to pretend it wasn't. After a while I bent over and kissed my father on the forehead. I thought I heard a little break in his breathing and wondered if he knew he'd been kissed. Then I tiptoed out of the room.
# # #
"Isn't it lovely here in the garden!" my mother exclaimed the next morning. I had just finished wheeling my father out into the sun.
"Is the tide up?" my father asked.
"No, Dear. We don't live by the shore anymore," my mother answered.
She turned to me and said, under her breath, "He's having a little time out. It'll clear up in a minute."
"What?" my father asked again.
"We moved, Dear. We live in Massachusetts now."
My father closed his eyes and leaned his head against the back of his wheelchair. "Dad?" I said. My father didn't answer. He seemed to be fading away. "Dad, are you all right?"
"Maybe you better call the doctor, Francis," my mother said.
"Massachusetts," my father repeated, suddenly opening his eyes. He sat up straight and turned to me, grinning. "Where all the idiots live."
"Idiots?" my mother said.
"Democrats," my father said. He pointed his finger at me and his grin widened. A joyful, expectant expression flashed on his face as he waited for me to return the volley, but before I could, the pupils of his eyes rolled up behind his eyelids, and his head fell back again. His mouth came open.
I jumped up and ran inside and down a long corridor toward the nurses' desk. The nurse on duty saw me coming and started to phone before I got there. She pushed a buzzer on the desk, and a few seconds later Patricia came out of one of the rooms. "Out in the garden!" I told her.
Patricia ran out into the garden. I rushed out after her. My father was unconscious. There were long scary pauses between breathing in and breathing out. I grabbed the handles of the wheelchair and headed back inside, and she ran ahead to open doors.
I pushed my father to his room and lifted him onto his bed. The doctor arrived, walking much too slowly, I thought. "Where the hell have you been?" I asked. The doctor paid no attention, crossed to the bed, looked down at my father, then said something quietly to Patricia who was standing on the other side of the bed. Patricia nodded. Then the doctor turned to my mother and me and asked us to leave the room.
We waited out in the hall. There was a sitting room nearby, but neither of us wanted to be even that little distance away. My mother stared straight ahead across the hall as if she could see through the closed door into her husband's room. I reached and took her hand. She let me have it without turning her head, still staring at the door.
Moments later, the doctor opened the door and called us back in. "He's all right," he said. "Just hungry, actually. Low blood sugar. He needs to eat more." His tone implied that my father was a naughty child who wouldn't eat his vegetables. "We just gave him some nice juice, and soon he'll have his lunch."
Patricia was bending over, arranging a pillow behind my father's head. She looked up at me. I nodded my head. She smiled, opened her blue eyes wide, then bent back over my father and pulled the top sheet up under his chin.
My mother stepped to the bed and took my father's hand in hers. "You'll be all right, Dear," she said. "You just get confused sometimes, and that's why you forget to eat."
My father struggled to say something.
"What?" my mother asked. She bent over him. "What, Dear?"
"I'm leaving now," the doctor said, addressing my mother. "Call me if anything further happens. In the meantime, Patricia here will stay with you." My mother didn't even look up at the doctor. He picked up his bag and moved from the bed. "You better leave now," he said to me. "Your father's awfully tired and two people in the room with him are plenty." He put his hand on my shoulder and led me gently toward the door.
In the doorway, the doctor kept walking, but I turned around. I didn't want to turn my back on my father. I watched him put his arms up to my mother, his hands outspread, and heard him say, "Please don't say I'm confused." My mother moved swiftly, arching over my father, into his arms. On the other side of the bed, Patricia was standing very close, arching over too. I wanted her to sense me there in the doorway and turn around so I could wave a good-bye to her and say a thank you, but my father was turning his head to her, and she was concentrating on him, so I turned away and followed the doctor down the hall.
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