The Old King
Here is my father on the day after Christmas, going home and glad to be. Eighty-four years ago, he was the first baby born in the new brick hospital in Aiken, South Carolina. He's lived in that town all his life, minus the three years he spent fighting in the South Pacific during World War II, and he means to stay in Aiken until he dies, in the house where he lived with my mother for fifty-three years. Today he's happier than he's been since I drove to South Carolina a week earlier, parked my van at his house and brought him to North Carolina in his car. At our house, he trudged through Christmas like a prisoner serving his sentence and now he's free. It's a bright winter day, with thin high clouds streaked across a hard blue sky. He and his belongings and his dog are safely packed into his blue Buick Century, the basic sedan with gray cloth seats and a Bush-Cheney sticker still fused to the rear bumper, and we are driving out of town toward I-40. Still, he must be vigilant; he knows where I'd like to be taking him. He sits up straight and watches the road, notes when I switch on a turn signal or press the brake, as though, any minute I might veer in through the gates of what he calls some institution, meaning an assisted living community, a retirement village, anyplace but home. And he's right to be wary; I would make that turn if I could ever stop thinking of him as my father whose word is truth and law and think of him as an old, frail, despondent man whose body is failing and whose mind is seriously askew.
Two months earlier, in October, I took my father to a neurologist because I was alarmed at how weird he acted sometimes. Weird is Shakespeare's word, and I'm using it in Shakespeare's way. I mean eerie, not of this world; the acts and thoughts of someone under a spell, someone walking through a dream. No doubt depression was part of it, and grief. He's taken an anti-depressant for years now, but it hasn't touched his nature, which is morose and insular. Wherever he looks, he sees what is gone, what has been lost. At his 80th birthday party, after my brother and I had read the tributes we'd written, we asked him to speak. When you get old, he began, you don't see your children much anymore. You start to ask God: Do I have to give up that dream? That one, too? You wonder if when the last dream is gone, you'll go with it. We thought that part of the speech was a warm-up: sadness first, then the story would turn and make its way to affection and on to wisdom. Instead he went on through his catalog of woe until someone lit the candles and brought in the cake, started a chorus of "Happy Birthday." I feel that I've always known this about him, that I sensed it long before I named it and that it was from this corrosive despair that I fled when I left home to go to college. I pride myself on my escape into adulthood. I tell myself that I'm not reeling, as my brother seems to be, from the discovery of what we've come to call The Red Notebook, a looseleaf binder full of yellowing notebook paper in which our father tracked his despair at our growing up and moving away from home. One page describes a young mother being followed down the street by angels (children) whom she ignores. On another, he pictures himself standing in the back yard watching our rooms go dark as we leave home. I tell myself I've escaped, but the truth is, of course, there's no way to escape a despair as thorough as my father's.
That is the background; in the foreground, my mother's death, a year and two months before this December day, that sent him under for good. Maybe he'd been gone for years, and we didn't notice it as long as Mother was there to send the birthday cards and hound him out of bed and slap checks in front of him to be signed. For years, whenever I visited, she unloaded her grievances, but the list was so familiar—his stubbornness, his stinginess, his apathy—it was like hearing about the weather. Now she was gone; it was just us—my brother and sister and I—our father and his weirdness which hovered around him like a shadow.
After Mother died, he spent most days in bed, stopped paying the bills. One morning that fall he drove down to the bank in his bathrobe and pajamas.
"What's wrong with that?" he said, when I asked him why. "I was going to the drive-in window."
People in their right minds don't go to the bank in their pajamas, I should have said. Instead, I tried to reason with him: "What if you hit somebody, and the police came? What if the car broke down?"
He shrugged, his eyes blank and blue as a cloudless sky. "I'd tell them I didn't feel like getting dressed this morning." That day, I did not point out that the bathrobe and pajamas in which he'd driven to the bank were soiled or bring up the issue of the Depends he should be wearing. The suggestion would have provoked the weirdest argument of all: "I'm not going to wear those things. I'm going to keep my dignity." I let it go, but I felt the hair prickle along the back of my neck, the creeping sense that while we stood there talking the light had dimmed, we had entered the forest of his world, where words sound familiar, only their meanings seem warped, and they no longer join with other words to form reliable meanings.
Then there was the incident with his sister. Still slender, fit and elegant at 80, with her French nose and her narrow, vivid face, her spun silver hair and the light blue family eyes, Aunt Lydia is everywhere in town: fighting for the preservation of oaks and historic houses, opposing the building of a crematorium inside the city limits. Most famously, she appears, posed beside a paddock fence with a thoroughbred looking over her shoulder, the August model in the calendar of nude photographs of Aiken's older women that raised $25,000 for the local Council on Aging. One Sunday, Aunt Lydia got down on her knees in her silk sheath and her high-heeled sandals and wiped up the marble floor of the country club lobby after my father had an accident and the boy sent out from the kitchen wouldn't touch that stuff with his mop.
The neurologist asked my father where he was. He laughed. What a ridiculous question. He was in a doctor's office in Aiken, SC. The doctor asked him what day it was, what year. My father knew those, too, though he had to think for a minute before answering. He gave my father four terms to remember: cat, orange, airplane, and the number 194. Thirty seconds later, they were gone. "Oh, now," he said. "Now you tricked me. You didn't tell me I had to remember them." I tried to catch the doctor's eye, but he was writing on my father's chart. "Let's take a walk," he said. He meant across the office, eyes closed, placing one foot directly in front of the other, something my father couldn't do. He swayed; he staggered, but he kept his eyes squeezed shut until the doctor caught him by the elbow. "I've got you," he said. "You can open your eyes now."
He did as he was told, smiling his charmer's smile. "I don't know why I'm a little unsteady on my feet."
"Hold out your hand, sir," the doctor said. "The left one." It trembled and jumped. The neurologist ordered an MRI, and when the results came back the damage was clear. Deep inside my father's brain, the small blood vessels were shutting down, starving the surrounding tissue. Microvascular ischemia, the doctor called it, Binswanger's Disease, a type of dementia. Not as bad as Alzheimer's, he said, but progressive and without cure, canceling unpredictable fractions of the brain. It would explain the incontinence, the shuffling, unsteady walk, the confusion, the bizarre logic. Demented. Crumbling. Devolving. Dismantling. Now I had a name for the driving to the bank incident, his thinking about the Depends, the bills that piled up on the dining room table, the checks scribbled on, in pencil, then left where they fell. From the outside, the world of dementia looks improvised, a world with its own language, its own time, its own rules. A world of fragments, brief flare-ups of intent that die as the words that name them are spoken, a world of memories without connecting threads. A mind that flickers and skids. I think I'll get an ice-cream cone. I'm going to put four white sidewall tires on the car. A song fragment and fingers that dance to its rhythm on the tabletop: Take a step to the right, take a step to the rear. An upside-down, inside-out rabbit-hole world where dignity becomes something to be kept by walking around in soiled clothes, answering the door dressed in bathrobe and pajamas, his legs streaked with shit.
The trouble is this: what's left of my father's mind fills in the blanks so that he believes himself whole. He's like an amputee who feels a phantom limb, only his phantom limb is a phantom self, the old king, still strong and steady on his feet, clear-headed and in control. The trouble is that wherever he goes, he carries his world with him, a portable kingdom, a warm bubble inside of which he drifts through the world where my mother has left him to live alone. In this kingdom which he has willed into being and which everyone enters who comes close to him, we are disloyal to think of him as any less than he's ever been, as anyone less than our capable father.
The trouble is that the old king is also a warrior. If we try and put him away he has promised that he will fight us every step of the way. He must hold the position left to him. He was a good fighter, commander of a combat infantry rifle company in the Pacific; he has fought us to a standstill; he has held the position for more than a year now. Now it is a siege. One by one, people have drifted away, spooked by his strangeness or defeated by his refusal or inability to make any effort or social gesture, to live anywhere but in his own world.
Old soldier. Half a ghost. Old king. Old fox. Sometimes I close my eyes and I see him running, running, dodging and doubling back, keeping just ahead of the dogs and the guns, and I want to protect him, agree with him, remain the child of this powerful ghost. But somebody has to manage the world beyond the kingdom, to care for the faltering and confused man whose life erodes beyond the reach of his will. In the fall, after the neurologist's verdict, I took him to the lawyer's office, and I have his power of attorney now; I pay the bills. One day, I blocked the door as he was coming toward it, ready to go out to lunch. "Dad," I said, while my heart raced and pounded, "I'm not taking you out of this house again unless you're wearing a Depends. I'll bring a sandwich back to you, but I won't take you out." I won that time; he wears a Depends now but only in public. Around the house he refuses; he will keep his dignity in his own house.
He is like an infant with a terrible will. And so, to shore up his dignity, Minnie works the morning shift, and in the evening Anita comes, two women who have spent their lives wading through the mess at the end of other people's lives. Now we watch and wait, my brother and sister and I. We make plans. We're waiting for a crisis, we say, anything will do. One of the women quits; he has a wreck in which, please God no one is hurt; he has to go to the hospital, and we will, we swear, take him out of that house and put him in assisted living. If he won't go, we'll petition the court and have him declared incompetent, one of us appointed his guardian, and if he has to be led out of his house in handcuffs then so be it. But nothing can happen until he breaks. Because for my father, change means loss, he must not give into it, he must not let go of anything or anyone, and so life breaks against him until it breaks him down and takes what he will not give. Defeat he understands, and when he's defeated, he'll surrender, but he's not defeated yet, nor are any of us brave enough to stand up to him, though by making our plans we tell ourselves we will be, when the time comes.
Once we're safely heading south on I-40, he reclines the seat, closes his eyes. His hands lie loosely in his lap, as though they'd fallen there, and soon he's asleep, as though the effort of willing the car onto the interstate had exhausted him. Sunlight pours through the windshield and fills the car with warmth. In the back seat, his dog sleeps, both of them snoring. Down through Greensboro, Burlington, High Point, we fall out of the North Carolina hardwood forests and across the Deep River and the Yadkin River and the Neuse River Basin and into the pine barrens below Charlotte.
He is no longer a peaceful sleeper; he jerks as you do when you dream of falling and startle awake just before you hit the ground, only he seems to crash without waking. Strangest of all, as his sleep deepens my father's hands rise and hang in the air, rehearsing the motions of his life. They climb and pull, grip and release, drop and pat and squeeze his pockets the way he's always done to check for wallet and keys.
Now he sharpens a pencil with a pocket knife the way he used to sharpen all the pencils in the house: turning the pencil with one hand and shaving, shaving, shaving the point into a stumpy wedge. Now he winds something, winds and pulls the way you'd pull thread from a spool, length by length, then threads what he's pulled through something small. I'm almost there, and then I am there, the memory tumbles out: he's winding a reel, pulling the line through the eyes of a fishing rod. He stands in the surf, casting and reeling. My brother and I are with him in a red and white row boat on dark brown water, watching him thread our rods and wind the reels.
The sun is in his face, and he frowns in his sleep. In the strong light, his beard stubble looks silver, his clothes faded, his face sunken, as though a layer of softness is gone from beneath his skin, and the skin clings to the bones and traces the hollows of his skull. He looks so frail, and with one hand I pull the visor around to shade his face, but the highway swings west and the sun spills in under the visor, and he frowns again, then raises something toward his mouth, puts out his tongue to lick it. Whatever he's licking is delicious, because he smiles, and I look away from what could be salacious pleasure on his face. When I glance over again, he's pinching something between two fingers, the way you lift food from a bowl. He carries it to his open mouth, tastes, and finds it delicious, too.
We're below Rock Hill now and heading for Columbia. When we get to Columbia, we will be an hour from Aiken, nearly home. He lies still for a while, blowing and snoring. Then suddenly, he stiffens, pats himself all over, urgently. His hands rise and fly: squaring, turning, lifting, winding, faster and faster until the frantic movement wakes him and he blinks into the strong, low sunlight.
"Dad," I say, to bring him back, "you were dreaming."
"I'm trying to look through here," he says, pointing at the windshield. "I can't get them to adjust." His eyes seem to search some wall just short of my face.
"Adjust what?" I ask.
"My field glasses," he says, and I say "It's all right, Dad," then he lies back against the seat and sleeps again. He's in the war now; he won't be back for a while. I feel myself relax. He's gone so much of the time now; he's missing, absent, strange, but for now he is here with me and he is safe. I have my father back, if only when he's dreaming, in the gestures that defined him and made him so skillful, so necessary to our lives.
Just north of Columbia, we stop for dinner at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. For the last fifty miles, my mind has been empty of everything but the thought of the baked potato and the bowl of vegetable soup I can order there. I've been thinking, too, of my father. They serve his kind of food there: meat loaf and fried chicken, breakfasts from the days when men pushed back from a plate of biscuits and sawmill gravy and ham and sausage and three eggs fried in butter and went out to work hard all day. They serve baskets of biscuits and cornbread and for dessert, his favorite, apple pie with ice cream. It's his kind of place, too, with its howdy, y'all folksiness, the country store look of the dining rooms with their enormous stone fireplaces, the barnboard walls covered with old tin signs and tools and sepia photographs of someone's ancestors. I can take him there and feed him food he likes, protect him, exposed as he is, Lear in the storm with only his fool for company. Maybe I can even make him, briefly, happy.
As soon as we push through the double doors into the gift shop that we must cross to get to the hostess station, I realize my mistake. Overhead, speakers pump out a frantic, banjo-driven version of "Roll in my Sweet Baby's Arms." Among the Ruby glass, the bowls and pitchers and flowered tea pots, the sponge-ware pie plates and pig shaped cookie jars that oink when the lid is lifted, Christmas is still alive here. Today, it's 60% off. In the middle of the gift shop stands the tree, wrapped in stiff gold and white ribbon, and around, within, above the tree are angels. Angels scribbled in white wire and gold and white twinkle lights. Chubby white stuffed bears wearing gold halos. Angels stitched in gold thread on white sweatshirts and pot holders and tea cozies. The effect is dazzling, like looking into a room lit with sparklers, and his eyes light up at the sight of it all. He's found Christmas at last, his kind of Christmas, not the duller version he had to endure at our house. He wants to stay; he wants to wander there; he wants to buy himself a little present, but I must take him by the sleeve and pull him away, deprive him of whatever small consolation he can find for the rotten deal that life gave him by letting his wife die before him.
On the chalkboard beside the hostess station the dinner special, POT ROAST, is spelled out in multi-colored, pastel capitals. "Look, Dad," I say, "pot roast," and pull him along behind the hostess toward our table, feel the tension in his sleeve slacken. He's coming now, distracted by the thought of food. In the deep stone fireplace at one end of the dining room, a fire burns, and he stops to warm his hands before it.
At the table, he unfolds the menu's three tall laminated flaps and looks at them, frowning. We must now go through fifteen minutes of menu agony while the waitress comes and goes once, (I order a baked potato and a bowl of vegetable soup) twice, three, four times. Because wherever the king goes, his kingdom travels with him, and in his kingdom he'll study the menu as long as he pleases. The breakfast menu, then the lunch and dinner menus, the salads and the side dishes. He can't help it, I tell myself. The old king is no one new, and dementia did not create him; it only exaggerated and set what was already there. He was raised for this. As a prince first, by his mother, as many white Southern men of a certain class and time were raised: as masters. Everything for the boys, my aunt, Miss August, says, bitterness icing her voice after all these years. On winter mornings, she tells me, their mother sent the girls out to bring in the firewood and lay the fire so that the boys could sit in front of it. Later, my mother indulged him; for most of their lives, she treated him like a king. In his version of their story, she was a shy girl from Macon, Georgia, rescued from genteel poverty by the handsome Second Lieutenant from South Carolina, and she lived by that story too, until her first bout of cancer, seventeen years before she died, ripped the cover of civility and restraint from their lives. "Come on, Scrooge," she'd say, foot tapping, her hand held out, "turn loose of some money." A few years before she got sick for the last time, when his hygiene became a problem, she'd shout down the hall to him, in front of anyone: "I'm not going to live by your bowels."
In a way he's right, you shouldn't be rushed in a restaurant. You're paying for the food and what's the hurry? except that it's not just the waitress to think about here, it's me, above all, me. Who has driven all day and who's ready to take him home. And there he sits, studying the menu and studying it again. It's where the bubble he lives in bumps the outside world of other people's schedules and needs, collides and bounces off and floats away. It is a marvel of psychic architecture, this bubble, fragile and airtight at once, a shell of competence that you want to believe in, until you see through it. "How about pot roast?" I say. "The chicken is good here. Frank likes their meat loaf." He dismisses each suggestion with a little irritated shake of his head or a shrug. "Oh, just do what you want," I finally say. "You will anyway."
He looks up, bewildered and hurt to be scolded, and for what? He's just trying to find himself something good to eat. And then, sadness descends. I am a cold and treacherous daughter to be angry at this dazed old man. And why? Because he will not howl as Lear howls when finally he recognizes the poor, infirm, weak and despised old man he has become, howl in surrender to that truth and save himself and his family from his own mad pride? Because he will not cry out—I'm frightened, please help me—and cling to me so that I can be kinder? Maybe that's what I should be now: kinder. Surely I can manage that. He frowns at the menu for a minute, then stares around the room, distracted by the antique ice tongs dangling from the ceiling, the sepia portraits, the flour sifters and washboards and horse collars nailed to the barn board walls. Finally, when the waitress comes back a fifth time, I say, "Dad, will you please order now?"
"Why?' He says. "I haven't decided what I want yet." He smiles at her, his boyish, charmer's grin, and she smiles back, briefly, and brushes her pad, pencil poised.
"Well, it's time to order," I say. "We need to get back on the road. Don't you want to go home?"
It's the idea of home that finally moves him. He orders a chef's salad and slaps the menu shut. Later, no doubt, he will comment to me, as though I wasn't there when it happened, that he didn't really want that salad, but he had to order, given the pressure he was under. I rummage in my purse for my cell phone and switch it on, thinking to distract myself from the rising gloom by checking my messages or calling home. If I were a better person, a more loving, patient, generous person, I might be able to make things easier for him; at least less humiliating. I might wait in a restaurant and never complain while he decides what to order. I might whisk away the soiled undershorts and trousers, the towels and sheets, bleach and wash and fold them, then slip the clothes back into his bureau drawers, the sheets onto the bed, so quietly, so seamlessly he never notices that they were soiled. I could be the one who kneels and clips his thick, pointed yellow toenails. Who hoists him from his chair and maneuvers him through the world and charms him into ordering a meal. Who does all these things without calling attention to the hoisting or the steering or the charming so that we can both believe we're the people we imagine ourselves to be and want to be. Maybe we all have to believe in what we could be in order to distract ourselves from who we are.
The cell phone signals a new voice mail message. My son's voice rushes the line. "Mom, listen," he says. "Patrick from next door to Grandaddy's called; a tree's fallen on our van in Grandaddy's yard, and there's a live power line down, too, so when you get there, DON'T TOUCH THE CAR. Dad asked Patrick to call the power company, but DON'T TOUCH THE CAR. Call us, love you, bye."
"Oh, no," I say, with my head lowered, my hand over my eyes. The waitress brings our food and sets down the steaming bowl of vegetable soup and the potato.
"What was that all about?" he asks, frowning as she sets his chef salad in front of him.
"Patrick Barton called. A tree's fallen on my van, and there's a power line down, too."
He frowns, puzzled. "Where were you parked that a tree fell on your car?"
"Remember where I parked the van when we left?" Of course he doesn't remember. I ask out of habit. I talk fast and look him in the eye, hoping that I can pour the facts in faster than they drain out of his mind. He shakes his head. "There's no tree over there that could have fallen, is there?"
"We'll have to wait and see," I say as I turn on the cell phone again, a plan forming in my mind. "Why don't you eat your supper so we can go on and get there?"
I mash the butter into the potato with the back of my fork, and while it melts I call my aunt, the elegant one, and tell her about the tree. They had strong winds in Aiken on Christmas day, she says. That must have brought it down. I ask her to call SCE&G, the local utility company, and report the downed power line again, just to make sure. Then she asks in her light, musical SC lady's voice, "Well, now tell me, what have you decided to do about your father?"
"I don't know, Aunt Lydia," I say. "I'm in Columbia right now. We're having supper."
"Well somebody needs to do something," she says in her let's get the job done voice. He was out by himself at dinner the other night, and he hadn't shaved, again." Her voice rises in indignation. "Bill Landrum stopped by his table and asked him why he hadn't shaved and do you know what he said? He said that he didn't care about that." Why don't you go out with him to dinner? I want to ask. Why doesn't Bill Landrum take him to dinner and make sure that he shaves before he goes? Why doesn't somebody in this town where he was born and grew up and served on the city council for eighteen years, where everybody knows his story, or thinks they do, why doesn't somebody ask him out to dinner? Even as I ask the question, I know the answer. Because they are old, too, because it is too hard, and he is not good company. Bill Landrum and everyone else in town has heard stories of his soiling himself or been around him when he smelled. They've tried to talk to him and gotten spooked or felt his self-absorption, the way the words go in and nothing comes out, as though you were shouting into a fog-bank. No doubt, Bill is ashamed for him and of him, but what my father needs now is beyond the reach of friendship and its reciprocities. Now, since being with him is no longer a question of pleasure and friendship but an obligation, only those bound to him by ties of blood and loyalty and love can be expected to deal with him.
"You should just call the doctor and get him to tranquilize your father and put him in assisted living at Heritage Village and keep him tranquilized until he accepts it," my aunt says.
I appreciate her help, I really do. She is my staunchest ally, tough-minded and realistic, and yet the sound of her voice at this moment is like a sharp silver wire driven into my brain, and I want to give her a dose of teenage back talk. WhatEVER. Chill. "That's a good idea, Aunt Lydia," I say. "I'll think about it."
Across the table, my father broods over his untouched salad. "Wonder where you could have parked that a tree fell on your car."
"Over by the Bartons'," I say, forking up my first warm, buttery bite of baked potato. Then I put down the fork and swallow hard. If the tree fell on a power line; the house has no electricity. It is a cold night; I am taking him home to a cold, dark house with no hot water, no stove, no chance of warmth. Food may have spoiled in the refrigerator. We will have to find flashlights, lanterns and batteries. There will be no relief from the cold, not even in bed, where the sheets will be icy. We will have to go out and eat every meal, and all of this will be up to me. For a moment, the image darts through my mind: refugees fleeing, abandoning the old people to die beside the road. I understand the logic of that act now, the logic of survival. "I'll bet the power is out in the house," I say.
He brightens. "Well, we could get by," he says. "We've still got firewood in the yard. We've got blankets. I have a heater out in the workshop."
"What kind of heater?"
"Electric," he says. "Remember that big ice storm we had when you all were children? When the power was out for three or four days?"
"I do," I say. "That was fun." And it was fun then; it was an adventure. We were children and he was young and strong. He could carry four heavy logs stacked in his arms, and fire seemed to jump from his fingers and light the wood. The morning the power went out, we got up in our freezing bedrooms and ran with our clothes back to the family room to dress in front of the fire he'd built. All day he tended that fire, and at night he banked it so that he could tease flame out of the coals next morning with crumpled newspaper and kindling. My mother made soup in a cast iron dutch oven over the fire, and for two days we lived in that room, playing board games and reading and eating soup and popcorn, with the cold house all around us, like another world we'd fled for this warmer one. There must be some place deep in our brains where this picture survives—a family together around a fire, their chilly, individual privacies abandoned, their separate lives dissolved into one warm existence—that over centuries became the image and essence of well-being and possibility because for a moment I'm happy just thinking about it; I almost believe we could do it.
"I think we'll have to go to a motel, Dad," I say. "We need to stay warm." And you're too frail, I don't say. Even the thought of finding flashlights, batteries, coaxing you from cold room to cold room makes me want to weep.
"I wonder how I got along all those years?" he says, grumpily. There is the mystery again. He has enough of his mind left to believe that he's still the person he's always been, but not enough left to actually do anything without help and constant reminders. That's the mystery, what's taken and what's left. Even if it's all an act, a desperate, maddening act of clinging to who he was even as it dissolves and drains away, it awes me, sometimes, and I yield in awe to his will, the strength of his grip on a man who no longer exists. Later this year, when he is in the hospital after what will become a fatal heart attack, he will be on fluid restriction because as his heart fails, his kidneys are shutting down. He will be desperate for water, obsessed with it, and I will feel that same stubborn strength concentrated in the one finger he's managed to hook over the rim of a cup of water that I am trying to take away from him, and I will remember this night.
"Give me the phone," he says, reaching across the table.
I hold it out to him, as you do when someone asks to use the phone. Then I stop. "Who are you going to call?" I ask.
"SCE&G," he says.
"Thanks," I say, "but Lydia's done that already."
His hand falls back into his lap, and he frowns again, puzzled. "When did you talk to her?"
The frown deepens. I hate that frown; the cloudy displeasure of it, the bewilderment and the struggle to understand reflected there. Then: "The only power line on that side of the house goes to my workshop," he says. "That won't affect the house."
"It's OK, Dad," I say. "We'll figure something out when we get there. Why don't you eat so we can go?"
But of course it's not OK; it's not OK at all. If the old king were real, I'd gladly put the phone into his capable hands and then relax and enjoy my hot soup and my baked potato while he navigated the customer service menu choices at SCE&G. But I doubt that he could even turn on the phone and dial the number. I would have to talk him through that, and when he realized that he couldn't understand, he would have to laugh in a bleak, mocking way, shake his head and say that he should have known better than to ask a woman to explain anything. I would have to lash out at him then, the way my mother used to do. At which he would laugh again, his arms folded tightly across his chest, and we would both look away.
I wonder, are there times when the fog clears and he knows what's happening to him? If so, he must be afraid, he must be terrified and ashamed. And at that moment I wish so strongly that it shakes me, for the final failure of his mind, a swift end to the phantom self, the old king, and the story that torments him and all of us. I wish for some merciful lightning to strike him down, the way it happened for my husband's father at the end of his own decline, his second wife in a nursing home with Alzheimer's, the money running out. As he sat in a chair in a hospital clinic in El Paso, Texas, waiting to be called for a chest x-ray, a stroke roared through his brain like a wildfire, and after that there was nothing to do but to wait until my husband and his sister arrived two days later and stood by his bed while the life support was disconnected.
We pull into the driveway and find the SCE&G truck there, its yellow roof-light revolving, a spotlight trained on the man in the bucket working on the pole beside the road. The driver's side door of the cab stands open. Inside the cab, a radio rasps and speaks. And there is the tree, a 30-foot white pine, and under the tree, engulfed in it, as though it had been driven into a wave, the rear of our white van. At least, I think, the back window isn't broken.
As I stand looking at my van, a man from the power company walks over. He smells faintly of bourbon and he needs a shave. He looks like a man who'd been sitting in his recliner in his sock feet, enjoying a glass of bourbon and a football game on the day after Christmas, when the call came to fix our power line. "My father lives here," I say. "That's my van."
My father has gotten out of the car now, too. He comes up and stands beside me. "I tried all the way from Columbia to figure out where she could have parked that a tree fell on her car," he says. "It's that old white pine."
"Yes, sir," the power company man says, then he turns to me, smiling. "Do you keep a rabbit's foot in that van or something?" he asks.
I must look puzzled because he laughs. "Come look at this," he says. "We've got the power shut off to that line."
"Is that the main line to the house?" I ask, afraid to hear the answer.
"No, no," he says, laughing. "You've been lucky all over the place today. The line that came down goes to that little building in the backyard." He points toward my father's workshop. "You've still got power in the house."
"You were right," I say to my father, because that is who he is again, for this one moment. I take his arm, rest my head against his shoulder, breathe in the faint cedar-chest smell of his sweater.
"Of course I was right," he says. "I just couldn't figure where you'd parked that a tree could fall on your car." He shakes his head and wanders off to let the dog out of the car.
I follow the man from the power company toward my van. The roof seems straight; there's no broken glass on the ground. He ducks under the tree. "Be careful," I say. "What are you doing?"
"It's all right," he says. "The power line didn't break. It's holding up the tree. I believe if you get in you can back it out from under here."
I edge forward, duck under the limbs, and I see that he's right. The tree came down, the power line caught it, and the limbs and branches stabbed down around my van like the bars of a cage so that my van is parked, literally, inside the tree, but the tree isn't touching it anywhere. I open the driver's door and get in, start the engine. As he stands behind the van directing me, I back out from under the tree and stop. We walk around it twice, and THERE'S NOT A SCRATCH ON IT, not a dent. Even the big limb that was pressed against the passenger side window slid away, leaving sap smeared on the glass, but THE WINDOW DID NOT BREAK. I have brought my father safely home and my van was not crushed. At that moment, it feels so right. I am good, and because I am good, I matter; I have been noticed and I have been spared. The wind blew; the tree fell; the power line caught and held it. Surely a purposeful intelligence somewhere arranged this, and I have been given the nod by whatever forces arrange fate.
My father struggles up the back steps, a suitcase in each hand. "I'm still here," he says, when I try and take one away from him, scold him for carrying them. He will not let go, and finally I do and climb the steps behind him in case he topples backwards. After the bags have been brought in he goes to the family room, switches on the TV and sits down in his recliner, fetches tobacco from the drawer of the table beside the chair and tamps it in his pipe, then gets up again to search for matches. I sit in my mother's recliner with my arms folded; I'm not about to help him find matches to light the pipe I don't want him to smoke, the one that I find tipped over in baskets of dried potpourri or resting on stacks of papers. Every time I visit, I knock the bullets out of the pistol he keeps in his nightstand and hide them. On the drive home, I fling them out the window. I can feel him waking up now, settling into his nighttime routine. Sundowning, it's called in the old age industry, this nocturnal revving of demented energy that will leave him sitting in front of the TV until 2 or 3 a.m., coasting through the channels or wandering the house, writing a check to the SPCA, deciding on repairs, haunting his life.
In bed that night, I doze and listen for his footsteps in the hall to show me that he's on his way to bed so that I can sleep. I want it back, the feeling that welled up in me when I discovered that the tree hadn't fallen on my car, and I knew who I was, a loving daughter rewarded. But it has faded now, and I remember that I am also the person who an hour ago wished for his death to free us all. Maybe it would have been better if the tree had crushed my van, caved in the roof, shattered the windshield. Having been struck down, I might have gotten up a better person: kind, humble, loving, saved from selfishness, impatience, rancor, all failures of tenderness. As it is, I've missed this chance; I'll have to go on as I am, not as I wish I could be. I envy my father his king. If I ever find the person I am, I won't let go without a fight either.