I’m looking for my dad. He’s not in his room.
Moments ago a female aide at the Southwest Louisiana Veterans Home punched a five-digit code into a keypad. First the buzzer, then the ka-chunk, ka-chunk of metal on metal. A crack of light. Here ya go! she chirped, like I’d won a prize.
I push the steel door open to the whiff of Pine-Sol, beige walls awash in fluorescence, a cart of pill-filled Dixie cups, and a row of veterans slumped in wheelchairs watching Wheel of Fortune. Ahead I see a male aide kneeling on the floor beside a figure I don’t recognize until I reach the end of the hall, and the man looks up and asks, Is this your father?
No, I want to say. Not the father I know.
I’ve never seen him this way: curled inward like a comma, fists mashed to his chest, back pressed against a glass door.
All my life, I’d seen his hands open more than fisted. Open, cradling a mug of coffee at the kitchen table telling tales about camping with his dad. Open, rapping his wedding band against the steering wheel of our Pontiac station wagon on cross-country trips to Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Great Smokies. Open, snapping his fingers, swaying, as he sang Nat King Cole songs to Mom. L is for the way you look at me. O is for the only one I see.
I kneel beside him. Knead his scrunched hands until they relax into cupped palms. Massage his neck until he rolls onto his back.
His pale blue eyes skitter over my face. Scan the wall. Flash toward the ceiling.
What is he searching for? He doesn’t recognize me.
I angle my hand under his right arm. The aide clutches his left elbow. Together we lift him onto his feet—wait for his buckled knees to straighten enough for shuffling.
I’ve never seen him shuffle. I remember his legs as vigorous: scissoring water, showing me how to flutter kick. Flung forward and back, forward and back, in right-left / right-left lunges. Splayed for apart-together / apart-together jumping jacks, embarrassing us kids at gas stations with his Air Force calisthenics. As so swift and broad I had to skip to keep up with him when he walked me to school in first grade.
Here, now, he shuffles.
Past the Blue Angels aloft in V-formation. Past Kodachrome photos of fighter jets poised for takeoff. Past a bald eagle’s piercing gaze fixed on prey beyond the varnished walnut frame affixed to the cinder block wall outside his room.
Head hung like a defeated athlete, he rakes a wisp of gray hair from his forehead, plunks down on his twin bed, and begins slap, slap, slapping the broken ladder of veins at the crease of his pale, crepey wrist.
What is he doing?
I don’t want to know. And I do want to know. And I wonder if he can tell me because I’ve read about how advanced Alzheimer’s patients can manage to comprehend and return emotional signals despite significant cognitive decline.
I hold his face in my hands.
“Dad. What are you doing?”
His eyes soften into reason.
“I’m trying to find a good one.”
He’s trying to find a good one?
Of course he’s trying to find a good one. He knows where he is, and all of the doors are locked.
“What if you did?”
He leans forward. Thrusts two fists over his head like a triumphant boxer.
His splayed hands hang in the air. Then drop to his thighs.
Through the blur of tears, I see his upturned hands—slack, slightly curled, yet open, like crumpled fallen stars.
A puff of air. An exhalation. A whispered signal of the desire to vanish, to leave the room, to go—just like that.
Listen to Jean Coco read “Here, Now”
(photo credit: Alice Wilder)
Jean Coco’s writing has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Stone Canoe, The Christian Science Monitor, and New Delta Review. Her current writing project is a memoir-in-essays about public school integration in her hometown in Louisiana. Follow her on Instagram: @queenpelican