by David Hallock Sanders
A thin crescent moon hung low above the other apartments. The bright arc cradled the moon’s faint, red shadow. The new moon in the old moon’s arms, he thought. That’s what his father used to call it.
Terry’s head throbbed. His 60-year-old body ached. He hadn’t taught a yoga class in months, and his own practice had suffered. Breathing in the summer night, he imagined the universe filling him with its strength and patience. He exhaled slowly and visualized his tension and exhaustion flowing into the night air.
“Help!” His father’s voice rose from inside. The cry was vague. Perfunctory. “Help me!”
Terry treated himself to another deep breath, another long gaze at the moon. Then he stepped into the small kitchen and latched the door. “It’s alright, Dad,” he called. “Be right there.” He re-filled his father’s sippy cup with milk and plodded barefoot to the bedroom.
His father sat upright in bed wearing a baggy grey sweatshirt. The man’s once muscular body had waned to just a sliver of its former strength. His back rested against the headboard, and the top sheet was bunched at his waist. An incongruous smile lit the old man’s face.
“Help me!” his father called again, still smiling. “Help!”
Terry allowed a smile of his own. “Help has arrived, okay? Cool your jets.”
“Cool your jets,” his father repeated.
“My jets are just fine, thank you. It’s your jets that need cooling.”
“I have to go! I have to go now!”
“Not today. No school today.” Terry had to think a moment. What day was it? Rather, what night? Friday? Saturday? Sometimes he felt as lost as his father. But yes, it was Saturday. Another wild Saturday night.
Terry lifted the sippy cup to his dad’s lips. His father looked suspicious at first, then gripped the cup with both hands and gulped eagerly.
“Easy Dad. You’ll…”
Too late. His father choked on the milk, and with a great white eruption spat it down his front. In the same motion, he knocked the cup from Terry’s hand and spilled more milk onto the bed.
“Oh, fuck!” Terry shook his head. “I just cleaned you up.”
“Fuck!” his father repeated.
Terry suppressed a smile. “Exactly.” He worked at removing the top sheet, his thoughts racing. “So, Dad. There’s something I need to tell you.”
“I have to go now!”
Terry tossed the sheet into the corner with the other dirty laundry. “No need to go anywhere today. Now hold still. I’m going to take your shirt off.” He lifted the damp sweatshirt, exposing his father’s chest, sunken and carpeted with grey hairs. He eased the shirt over his father’s head.
“Help!” His father flailed his arms. “Help me!”
“Please! Just relax.”
One of his father’s thrashing arms caught Terry, hard, across the side of the head.
“Fuck, Dad! Relax!”
His father became suddenly calm.
Terry rubbed his head. Resentment simmered. “Was that so hard?”
“I have to go now.”
“Great. Have a nice trip.” Terry clasped his father’s sweatshirt in a fist and visualized his anger flowing out of him into the soiled cloth. It wasn’t working.
His phone rang, an annoying banjo riff that he kept forgetting to change. It was his sister, Barbara.
“Yeah,” he said. “What’s up?”
“And a cheery hello to you, too. You called me, remember? Rather cryptic message there, Terry-o. Is Dad okay?”
Terry’s father wailed again. “Oh god, help me!”
His sister inhaled. “Doesn’t sound fine. What’s going on?”
Terry knew his sister didn’t mean to annoy. Still, she was good at it.
“Just Dad being Dad.” Which, he thought, she’d recognize if she ever came out for a visit.
“Sounds like you’re torturing him.”
“More like the other way around.” Terry took the phone with him into the dining room. “I swear, seems like all I do now is feed him and change his diapers.”
“Those were your kids. This is different. Wiping Dad’s bum?” Terry took a long, deep breath. “I’m seriously hitting my limit here.”
“I can’t keep this up.”
“So what are you saying?”
“Just that he’s gotten worse. Much worse. And I’m in over my head.”
“Yeah, but that was the deal.”
“The deal was care and feeding in exchange for a place to stay. This has gotten way beyond that. I’m scared, sis. Seriously. I’m afraid he’s gonna fall, or get sick, or worse. He needs to be someplace safe. Someplace that can keep him from hurting himself.”
“You mean just lock him up somewhere.”
“Do you really think that’s what I’m suggesting?”
“Fine. I’ll bring him to live with you.”
“Get real, Terry! I’ve already got a house full of kids and dogs. I can’t take on anymore.”
“Which one is Dad? Kid or dog?”
“Don’t be terrible. I’m just saying, we promised we wouldn’t put him in a nursing home.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“But we agreed Terry. We can’t send him away.”
“This is so like you. Just go with the flow, man. Who cares if it means breaking your promises?”
“Look….” Terry lowered the phone. He breathed in. Breathed out. Released his anger into the universe. Then raised the phone. “Somebody’s coming by tomorrow to do an assessment. It’s for a place not far from here. A nice place, given what we can afford.”
“Can you cancel?”
“Cancel? No. It’s been scheduled for a while.”
“And you never told me?”
“You never asked! You never call. Why would I think you’d be interested?”
“Because he’s my father? Jesus, you act like you’re the only one involved here.”
He let the statement hang in the silence.
“Terry?” Barbara’s voice became soft and urgent. “Cancel the appointment. I’ll send more money.”
“Money’s not the issue.”
“Just promise me you won’t send him away.”
“I’ll think about it. That’s the best I can do.”
“I’m taking that as a promise.”
“Look, I gotta go.” Terry ended the call without waiting for a response. His father was surprisingly quiet. “Yo, Dad?” he called. “You okay in there?”
He hurried back to the bedroom. The bed was empty.
“Dad?!” Panic swept through him. He ran his eyes over every corner of the room. No sign. Then a soft rustling drew his attention to the narrow space between the bed and the wall. It appeared far too small a gap to accommodate his father, but when Terry leaned over to check, there was his dad’s puzzled face staring up at him.
“Christ, Dad! This, here, is when you’re supposed to call for help!”
Getting his father back on the bed, and propped up on pillows, was not easy. His dad must have bumped his head on the way down because the hint of a bruise had already formed at his forehead. Terry wet a washcloth in the bathroom and placed it over the bruise. Then he pulled a fresh sweatshirt from a pile of clean clothes, yet to be folded. The image on the shirt, the logo of an Irish ale, brought a faint smile. He held it up.
His father, the washcloth now covering one eye, stared at the ceiling and didn’t look.
Terry brought the sweatshirt to the bed. It was a souvenir from a drive around Ireland they’d done years before with his mom. It was during that trip when Terry had noticed the first signs of his dad’s dementia.
“Now raise your arms.”
His father obeyed. Terry examined his dad’s frail body for any other injuries, and then did his usual scan for bedsores. Satisfied, he slipped the shirt over his father’s head, wrestling to get the right arm in the right sleeve.
“Remember our Ireland trip?” he asked. “You and Mom in the back seat reading from the guidebook? Me driving you around like I was your chauffeur?”
His father growled at the struggle with his shirt.
“That was a grand time, wasn’t it?”
No response. The second arm found its sleeve. Terry straightened his father’s shirt and leaned back.
“Well, maybe not so grand. But it got me past the divorce. By the way, that was Barb calling. She…sends her love.”
“I have to go now,” his father said.
“I know, Dad. Soon. Very soon.” Terry returned to the laundry pile and searched through it. He felt tears welling. “That’s something I need to talk with you about. Okay?”
His father tilted his head and appeared to listen. Terry continued sorting through the laundry. He wasn’t sure his sister would forgive him, but it was his decision to make. He breathed in, breathed out.
“This situation, Dad? All this? It’s getting to be kind of hard to handle, you know?” Terry wiped his eyes with a pair of clean sweatpants. “I can’t just keep doing this by myself. Do you understand? So I’ve started talking to some places. Nice places that I think you’ll like. And tomorrow somebody’s going to…”
“Mom?” Terry pulled two fresh sheets from the pile. “What about her?”
“I have to tell Julia!”
“Tell her what? She’s no longer…” Terry exhaled slowly.
“I have to tell her!”
“Okay. How ‘bout you tell me, and I’ll tell her. Alright?” He brought the sheets to the bed. “What do you want to say to mom?”
But his father wasn’t listening. He now appeared to have discovered his hand for the first time and was watching it move as he flexed his fingers. Or maybe, Terry thought, he was trying to grasp something imaginary? Really, he had no idea what went on inside his father’s head anymore.
“I’m going to change the sheets now, so I have to move you.”
Terry climbed atop the bed and worked both arms under his father. It always shocked him, how light his father had become. He eased him to the side of the bed, then pulled what he could of the soiled bottom sheet free, exposing the black plastic. Then he rolled his father onto the plastic to free up the rest of the sheet, and ran his fingers around the sheet. A section was damp, so he pressed his nose into it. Good news: just milk, not urine this time. He used a section of the soiled sheet to dry the plastic, then tossed the sheet into the corner.
Terry took one of the fresh sheets and spread half of it atop the plastic, then tucked in the corners. He rolled his father onto that half of the sheet, then spread the rest of the sheet over the plastic and tucked it in. Finally, he rolled his father back to the center of the bed, retrieved the second fresh sheet, and draped it over him. The maneuver, usually routine, left him exhausted.
“There you are. You alright?”
“I have to go now.”
“Fine.” He exhaled. “Where do you want to go?”
The question appeared to surprise his father. He stared in silence.
“I know where I’d like to go.” Terry sat on the edge of the bed. “I’d like to go to sleep. Care to join me? The two of us off to dreamland?”
“Yes. Would you like that? The two of us together?”
Maybe it was a genuine response, maybe just a word to say. But it gave Terry’s spirits a tiny boost.
“Cool. Let’s go. I’m going to join you on the bed, okay? Don’t freak out.”
“I have to tell Julia.”
“That’s fine, Pop. Let’s go tell her together.”
Terry stretched out atop the bed. The plastic crinkled beneath him. Fatigue overwhelmed. Tomorrow, everything would change. But tonight, he closed his eyes, visualized the universe, and repeated his mantra: breathe in, breathe out. His father draped an arm over him. Surprised, Terry placed his hands over his dad’s, and continued to hold on as they both surrendered to the pull of sleep.