THE LOVE OF MY LIFE
I am Shelly. It is December twenty-fifth, Christmas Day, and it also will be the first night of Hanukkah, something which has only happened three other times in 100 years.
My daughter Kaitlyn is driving. I had asked her to roll down all the windows and turn up the floor heater.
Kaitlyn protests, “Mom, its warm in the sun.”
I say, “Yes, dear, but the air is chilly.”
I love to take drives with the windows down and the floor heater on high. I feel like I’m in a warm Jacuzzi yet the chill air is invigorating. My purse and my coat are beside me with the thermos of hot cocoa just the way my father likes it, made with milk not water.
Kaitlyn is driving me to Fullerton Gardens, an Alzheimer’s residential care facility, “Memory Care” they call it, where my father now lives. Kaitlyn is driving what used to be my father’s car.
As we turn into the driveway of Fullerton Gardens Kaitlyn asks again, “Mom, are you sure you want me to leave you here all day?”
I reply, “Absolutely. You can just let me out at the house entrance. You don’t have to come in with me. You saw Gran’pa yesterday for lunch and that was sweet of you.”
Kaitlyn says, “OK, Mom. Gran’pa was happy.”
I agree, “Gran’pa is always happy now.”
I was told that the big old house that is the face of Fullerton Gardens was originally the home of the late heiress Dorothy Odette. The house and its two acres was sold to developers who then built-to-purpose the care facility extensions in the back which include the fragrant gardens and the long winding pathways.
I pull on my coat. I pick up my purse and I tuck the thermos of hot cocoa into my arm, like a football, I guess. I wave good-bye to Kaitlyn. I turn and I hear behind me all of her car’s power windows straining back up at the same time and then Kaitlyn whooshes away to her boyfriend.
The street in front of Fullerton Gardens is silent. The morning air is chill and sweet and the sunlight is warm. I now hear the tee-hee-tee-ho of a little bird in the planter below this broad porch.
When I was my daughter’s age and we were losing our home I went out into our backyard in tears and I asked God for a sign if losing our home was His plan. It seemed like it was suddenly very quiet as I held my breath and I stopped crying and I waited. And I heard then the clear sweet tee-hee-tee-ho and I grasped it as the sign.
Now that song greets me here. I push the buzzer to be admitted. I hear the door click free and I push it open and I go inside. This is one of five long high-ceiling residential hallways that converge into the high-ceiling dining and recreation center, the hub of the facility. I guess it is nigh impossible for a resident to get lost.
It is warm inside. I can’t remove my coat easily without setting the thermos of hot cocoa down somewhere. Fernando, “Andy”, a staff member who helps my father get up and get dressed in the morning, calls to me from up the hallway ahead, saying, “He’s here, Mrs. Jordan, almost ready.”
My father’s room is the fourth door down on the right. The door is open. I enter. My father says again as he lately has been saying to me, “Shelly, you look just like your great-grandmother Devorah. You have her voice, her breath”. Breath? I think he must mean “spirit”.
As I set the thermos of hot cocoa on his nightstand and I tug off my coat I say, “I am…I am glad, father. You have told me many wonderful stories about her.”
Devorah, my father’s grandmother died in a concentration camp. We don’t know which one. I have heard the list of concentration camps and I have tried to understand that there were over a thousand of them. I like to think of my great-grandmother as a goddess defiant with her own faith, helping others in a way that gave meaning to their doom when God had deserted them.
I ask my father, “Are you ready for breakfast?”
My father answers, “OK, sure, my dear, but first I need to pee”.
My father goes into the bathroom but after a minute I hear him say, “Shelly. I could use a little help.”
I go into the bathroom and my father says, “I can’t undo these pants. Can you help me?”
I say, “Sure.”
It is difficult to unhook his trousers and I say, “Dad, you need new pants. You must be eating too well.”
I finally squeeze his fly tightly enough to unhook his trousers. I unzip his trousers and I peel the tape open on his adult diapers to free his penis. I accidentally touch his penis and it feels like a wax fig.
My father jokes, “Don’t let it hit the ground.”
I laugh and say, “I wouldn’t let that happen. I used to live there.”
When My father is finished I seal him up again and I ask him, “Are you ready for breakfast now?”
He jokes as usual, “Take my arm. But not for breakfast!”
We shuffle out and once inside the big dining room we sit down at a table.
My father says, “Not everyone is up.”
Andy is beside me saying, “Here is a cup for his cocoa, Mrs. Jordan,” and he puts a Styrofoam cup into my hand and I proceed to pour hot cocoa just the way my father likes it.
Andy asks me, “Would you like some juice, Mrs. Jordan?”
I nod appreciatively and reply, “Some cranberry juice if you have it.”
Andy brings me a cup of very sweet cranberry juice.
The nurse attendant named Sofia is saying, “Here we are, Naomi,” as she wheels Naomi up to our table.
Naomi has an English accent. She says, “Hello, Shelly. Good morning, Phillip.”
My father is Phillip Aschmann the writer. He doesn’t remember that. It makes me cry. Whenever I have brought him a book that he had written and I have him read passages to me he will stop and say, “Really, Shelly? I don’t remember this. Are you teasing a poor old man?” and sometimes he slyly says, “You are getting even with me for all the tricks I pulled on you when you were little.”
I have the Power of Attorney for my father’s estate. That was a “trick” he pulled on my brother Jaden, the eldest. My father did not become rich with his writing but we had a good family life and he was always proud of that. Now his estate pays for his new “home” here at Fullerton Gardens. For that my whole family is relieved.
When my mother was dying she made me promise, “Take care of your father. You know how impractical and forgetful he is.”
The nurse attendant named Isabella is saying, “Here is your Shredded Wheat, Phillip.”
I reach into my purse and withdraw a small plastic bag and I say to my father, “Here are Strawberries. The market finally got in Strawberries again.”
My father says, “Your mother always takes care of me.”
Before my mother died she confessed to me that she still loved a boy from her youth. She said to me, “My heart clenched around him and I cannot let go even now as I am dying. Your father is a good man and I have felt terrible guilt our whole life together and I have done everything to make it up to him and he doesn’t know. But my heart will not let go of that boy as hard as I have prayed and as hard as I have cursed myself. I am sorry, Shelly. I cannot leave this terrible thing with your father. I want you to take this and find forgiveness for me,” and she cried and I cried with her and I said, “There is no need for forgiveness. I love you. We love you.” I inherited tears from my mother.
I think my father knew anyway. And I think that somehow he tried to understand. One of his stories was titled Mistress of Memories.
After my father finishes his breakfast we have to wait until the nurse on duty gives my father his daily pills. Eight of them. For some reason my father had begun chewing his pills and because they were bitter he would spit them out. I remind him, “Swallow you pills. Don’t chew them,” and my father looks at me quizzically but he sips his paper cup of water and swallows all of the pills.
We excuse ourselves from Naomi even though my father says, “I think she is asleep.”
Andy says, “I’ll put the thermos back into his room for you, Mrs. Jordan. Don’t forget it.”
I say, “Thank you, Andy. Last time I forgot it the milk residue was terribly stinky.”
Andy says, “I’ll rinse out the thermos.”
I take my father’s arm and we go out the hallway door into the patio. We begin our stroll along the winding path through the rose garden. When we come to my father’s favorite bench we sit down.
I reach into my purse and I say, teasingly, “It’s a shame they don’t allow you to smoke here. I just happen to have a favorite cigar of yours.”
The staff kindly “looks the other way” when my father has an occasional cigar outside here, with me.
My father lights his cigar and I let him savor it for several minutes. We do not speak.
I hear the clear sweet tee-hee-tee-ho from the bird on a nearby rosebush.
From my purse I now withdraw a paperback copy of my father’s Mistress of Memories. I hand it to him.
I say, “Please read some passages to me.”
After a few minutes my father says, “I like this book,” and he begins to read a passage.
I burned your letters tonight. The different hued papers and inks with which you would write to me made a colorful flame.
I realize that my letters to you were disposed of long ago.
There had been a cold rain so I made the little fire on a hill under the stars. I thought I should immolate myself on that pyre.
A billion billion fiery cataclysms led to us meeting. I want to be grateful for that, not bitter.
I have cursed and dishonored the very forces that created the two of us.
I needed a ceremony. It had to end in fire as it had all begun.
Yes, I crippled myself loving you.
No, I’m sorry, that is not true. There is no one like you. That’s all.
I was lucky to know you. And for too long I have needed my memory of you to be encased in perspective and placed in amber, a sacred relic, not blinding my eyes every day.
When my father is finished with his cigar we arise from the bench and I take his arm. We stroll along the entire garden path and find ourselves back at the patio door.
Andy opens the door for us and says, “Perfect timing, Mrs. Jordan. Everybody’s ready.”
I go into the dining room and my father walks me to the upright piano. I sit down and he kisses my forehead.
My father says to the gathering of residents, “Now you are in for a real treat… the best thing going… the tops, my wife…
I say quickly, “Daughter. Your daughter,” wondering if I should laugh or cry.
My father continues, “My… daughter… the very beautiful Shelly.”
I once thought that I would have a career as a pianist. My parents were so proud of me. But then I met Edward and I really wanted then only to have children with him and be a family. Edward is a doctor at the Children’s Hospital. Today he has arranged for a celebrity concert by all of the children’s favorite performers who could be there. I have played piano for the hospital as well. There is one little girl, Laney, who has leukemia. Edward did not expect her to live to Christmas Day. But she is there with her idol Phoebe Swift, the country singer.
I enjoy playing for the Fullerton Garden residents my “classical” arrangements of songs like Roll Out The Barrel, Moon River, I Saw Three Ships, and my father’s favorite The Tennessee Waltz, and my current favorite pop song, Applause.
The staff applauds. It is now nearing the end of this day. I take my father’s arm and we walk slowly back to his room. I am grateful that he does not need a wheel chair like so many here do.
Back in my father’s room he says, “My granddaughter… Kaitlyn bought this for me yesterday. It is an electrical Minorah. They won’t let me have candles here. Isn’t that sweet? I am going to turn on the first candle.”
My father sounds like he is praying but he is saying to me, “Sorrow is trying to possess that which you love. Love is not possession. Love is giving away. Free yourself. Give your love. Share your sorrow. But hate is fear. Give your fear to God.”
I say, “That is beautiful, father.”
Then my father asks me, “Do you love your life, Shelly?”
I start to cry, “Father, I love my life.”
My father embraces me. He leans back and takes my face in his two hands and says, “Shelly, your eyes could never see but you are not blind.”
Then I hear behind me Kaitlyn saying, “Is everything alright, you guys?”
I sniff, “Yes, dear. Everything is fine.”
Kaitlyn helps me to gather my coat and my purse and the thermos.
Kaitlyn says, “Good night, Gran’pa. See you tomorrow.”
I take Kaitlyn’s arm and she leads me out of my father’s room and to his car and then home to the rest of my family.
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