Brenda sat on the edge of the bed in her dead father’s room. She could still smell his piss. The staff at the nursing home tried to conceal its sharpness with bleach. But the odor lingered, reminding her of his recent presence. She scanned the area. It was small but efficient. Adjacent to the bed was an empty nightstand. A dresser sat tucked in a corner, still filled with clothes she recognized. There was a bookshelf that carelessly stored his books and CDs. Mark Twain and Bob Dylan mingled with each other on one row. The Zevons, Jaggers and Hemingways rested on the row beneath. Closing her eyes briefly, she saw him dancing in the kitchen. Highway 61 Revisited humming from a stereo. Jim singing loud. Sometimes mouthing the words in Brenda’s direction until it precipitated any kind of reaction from her. It never took long before it did.
Opening her eyes, she fixed her gaze on a bulletin board in front of her. An unstructured collage of faces. Some she recognized. Some she didn’t. There were as many with the staff in the memory unit as of him with his family and friends. She rose to her feet, focusing on snapshots of nurses wrapping their arms around him. They flashed broad smiles as Jim looked warily at the camera. Like it was ready to attack him. The last time she saw him was over a year ago. She had questions that day. Important ones. Brenda’s eyes caught a picture peering at her in the corner of the bulletin board. Standing up, she removed the thumbtack, plucking the photo carefully like it was a petal of a sunflower. Holding it gently, she absorbed the image, placing herself back on the edge of the bed. She wished she hadn’t made the drive. She wished she had never come at all. There was a job to do though. The same task she told herself wouldn’t take but an hour. The same task she told herself she’d get through. Brenda brought two suitcases. She placed the photo on the bed and began propping them open. Snow fell like static outside the window.
Brenda casually threw the suitcases in the back seat of her Volvo. An older model. The boxy kind that some friend’s mother probably drove. At least that’s how she thought of it. A grotesque shade of beige. Leather seats. The stench of smoke resided in its interior. Even if Brenda quit the habit, it would have no effect on its permanence. Settling into the driver’s seat, she stared at the flecks of snow twirling capriciously in front of her. A familiar climate for New Hampshire in March. She took a deep breath and blindly found a cigarette. It teetered on her lips, waiting to be lit.
The call had come the night before. She’d known he wasn’t doing well. Her older brother Michael had been supplying her content on his regression. He lived in California, serving as conduit of information he’d receive from the nursing home staff. Brenda hadn’t inquired since her last visit. But her brother hoped his deterioration would promote in person visits from his sister. It didn’t. His worsening condition only served as repellant and now he was dead. Deputized by her brother, Brenda agreed to drive the 40 miles to Brookdale Assisted Living. She’d enter the memory unit and pack his life into suitcases.
She started with his clothes. Packing them deliberately in the larger suitcase. Who keeps a dead man’s clothes? she thought. Her brother’s instructions were to pack everything. She didn’t argue. She just packed. Each drawer. One by one. Plaid shirts and old t-shirts she hadn’t seen since childhood. Jim was tall and slender. His hair dark, shaggy and purposely wild. Circles hung beneath his eyes like drapes, either from a lack of sleep or the drug use she hadn’t yet been privy to. Envisioning him when she was younger. Sitting, smiling with his wife Kathy while she and Michael opened Christmas presents. Just one memory. Before the divorce. A time when someone pretended things were okay enough to remind her of happiness.
She held out her hands as the car heated up and the windshield defrosted slowly. Not wanting to drive, she stared at her nails, dry and raw to the cuticle. Chewing on them was something she didn’t remember starting but stayed with her like a birthmark. Her father’s nails were immaculate. He carried a file like it was his wallet, smoothing them out in moments between his laughter and exploits. They served a purpose too. When Brenda was younger, she’d climb on his lap and insist he scratch her back. Perfectly sharp, tracing every part of her skin from the shoulder blades down. It soothed her, often putting her to sleep. The ritual continued as she grew. She’d sit next to him and lift the bottom of her shirt up. Coaxing him to give her the same familiar comfort. He’d always oblige. The memory sunk its teeth into her. She shook off its clench and grabbed the steering wheel.
The wipers did their job, producing a clear view as they pushed aside the sop of condensation on the windshield. She lit her cigarette and began the drive south. The snow had picked up. Falling just enough to coat the concrete behind the Volvo as she backed out of the driveway.
Brenda lived alone. Never married but the mother of two barely adult children. The product of relationships with two barely adult men. Her hair was sandy like Kathy’s, standing just as short in stature. She felt softer every year. Jim barely resembled her. But their personalities matched enough to confirm his lineage. Both impulsive with a knack for finding the lower end of a bottle.
Packing his musical and literary interests were less of an organized endeavor. She tossed them leisurely into the smaller suitcase, occasionally stopping to examine them like they were artifacts. When she arrived at the nursing home a small group of staff had gathered to meet her. Frazzled and far more exhausted than the length of the drive warranted, they assumed her grief-stricken. Appearing pale and battered, her trials covered her like she wore them. The staff embraced her like she’d been present since the day her father arrived. Exulting in stories of his humor and kindness. Relaying just how much they loved him. The gaggle of nurses dispersed as the facility’s director began walking Brenda towards the memory unit. She was an older woman who reminded Brenda of her mother. Except with a sunnier disposition and kinder things to say about her father. Walking down the carpeted hallway, she regaled her with stories of her father’s gentle nature and affable demeanor. Brenda’s response was bland. Overwrought with the churning stress inside her as they got closer to his floor, she probably managed a few half-hearted smirks. She liked to think she did. If only because of the women’s sympathetic manner and exuberance. The consolation only served as an accelerant to the pain that smoldered inside her. Reaching the entry of the memory unit, the nursing director punched in a code and opened the double doors. Occupants stayed locked inside, for fear of the mischief caused if they escaped. It was better this way and they weren’t worse off for it. Some sat in wheelchairs like plants. Some followed Brenda with their eyes like she’d snuck in. A large fish tank sat near the dining area. Conspicuous and oversized, its fake coral served as a furnishing for the different sorts of fish inside. A blowfish elevatored up and down the tank, fooled by its reflection. They marched on towards Jim’s room. The nursing director stopped Brenda before entering, telling her a story of his final days. She mentioned how he had stopped eating and what little drive he had. How he was losing weight and wouldn’t speak. Eventually, he closed his eyes and went to sleep. She thought he was in a better place. Brenda couldn’t help but agree.
Gusts of snow swiped at the Volvo as it traveled down the highway. Brenda pulled another cigarette from her pack, reminiscing about the long drives she and Jim used to take. They’d travel for dance recitals all over New England. He’d have her light his own cigarettes with the car lighter. She loved watching it glow before it ignited the Marlboro red that sat on his lips. Those dance tournaments ended around the same time Jim and Kathy divorced. She was perhaps 11 at the time. The fighting increased, and eventually, Jim moved to a basement apartment in the next town. His former bed inhabited by Kathy’s future husband, whose children came on weekends. Eventually, an actual stepfamily evolved. Michael didn’t seem to mind but Brenda seethed and looked for ways to escape the invaders. Jim’s basement was her bunker. The only place where she’d find peace between battles with her mother. Meanwhile, Jim unravelled. Brenda stayed by his side. Their conversations were deeper now. She was 13 when she told her mother that she wanted to live full time with him. She refused.
Jim began indulging his daughter in his vices not long after. They’d drink a beer together. Sometimes two. And smoked cigarettes while they watched movies and ate whatever sweets Brenda asked for. The closer she felt to him, the more vicious she became with her mother. Spitting venom at her and anyone else who dared speak ill of him. Defending him like treasure.
Brenda stared into the mirror as she collected the few items still occupying the bathroom of Jim’s room. His glasses. A pair of dentures. Michael had said ‘everything’ and she didn’t feel like justifying the contrary. She even threw his toothbrush in a plastic bag. She placed her hands on the sink and paused to exhale her exhaustion – a silent plea for the energy to finish the job and leave. Finding her way to the edge of the bed, she sat and picked up the photo again. She gazed at it. Caressing the edges like seashells. Her face tightened and she turned it over and put it back down.
The snow dumped in front of her, only to be shooed away by a wind strong enough to make her car shake. Her progress slowed as traffic came to a halt. Brenda lit her next cigarette with the one she had just smoked. Her eyes softened on the rows of cars covering the highway. She remembered sitting in traffic when Kathy told her that her father would be away for a while. She was 14 at the time.
“He’s sick Brenda. Ok. That’s all I can tell you,” Kathy’s voice tilted towards exasperation. “But he’s ok. He’s gonna be out soon enough, I’m sure.”
“What the hell does that even mean Mom?!”
“It means he’s sick. But he’s getting what he needs and he’ll be home” Kathy spoke rapidly. “You’re going to be in my house though. For a while. Even when he gets home. Ok.”
“No. What kind of sick?! What’s sick? Tell me.”
“Try and relax honey, please.”
“What kind of sick?!” Brenda’s voice bellowed frantically.
Brenda screamed uncontrollably while they sat in a parade of vehicles. Strangers looked over nervously as she pounded the glass. Kathy absorbed it and said nothing more.
That was Jim’s first trip to a rehabilitation facility. But not his last. His stays there served as merely breaks from his illness. Old enough to understand at this point, Brenda blamed her mother for her father’s predicament. They continued to have their beers and smoke their cigarettes. Taking long drives to the beach to waste school days away. She became closer to her father and more protective, speaking to outsiders with a sharpened tone when she interpreted their inquiries as criticism.
The last bit of work involved the bulletin board. Brenda removed each one like they were tiles, exposing the brown backdrop they rested on. Some she’d look at briefly. Mostly, she’d just place them on top of the clothes in the larger suitcase. Stopping at one picture, she paused. It was Brenda with her sons. She’d stopped talking to Jim at this point. Other than when she needed to. She didn’t want to think about why. When her brother or anyone close enough to her would ask, she would burst with rage. It was rare that anyone asked twice. The boys were probably no more than two and four in the picture. Brenda looked young but tired, not long before her own first trip to a rehab facility. Familial grounds to occupy the space between the lines and pills. She recovered only after losing custody of her children. She hadn’t succumbed to anything since. Including the withering requests from her father to reclaim their bond.
She relinquished the picture to the pile in the suitcase and continued purging the board of smiling faces. It felt like there were a thousand of them. Brenda’s pace picked up, revealing tattered cork scarred with tiny pin-sized holes. In some parts, there were chunks missing.
The traffic dissipated as tow trucks and fire engines left the accident. Brenda passed it slowly. What looked like a Volkswagen got rear-ended by a large pickup truck. The VW’s rear end was destroyed. The truck looked unscathed. She didn’t stare for too long as she drifted by the scene.
Brenda could see Brookdale’s roof as she turned onto the long stretch of road where it stood. The snow gathered neatly in a large stack. The parking lot had just been plowed. Pulling into the nearest spot, she stayed rooted to her seat. The last time she had come here she had planned to sort it all out. To ask him the questions she needed to ask. To get answers. To hear what he had to say. She closed her eyes and had no choice but to remember. Until she arrived it seemed far enough away not to harm her.
That day was nothing like this one. It was clear with a crisp wind that chopped gently at her cheeks as she walked into the facility. She remembered being led to the memory unit, moving confidently with the staff towards his room.
He sat in bed staring out at the courtyard below. The row of trees swayed together.
“Dad,” Brenda said calmly.
Jim didn’t move but turned his head.
“When’s breakfast?” He said softly, moving his mouth as if he were chewing on one of his cheeks.
“Dad, it’s Brenda. It’s me.”
Her father stared at her, trying to focus. His grey stubble matching the full mop of hair still residing on his head. Trembling hands rested on his lap. His nails were thick, cracked and calcified. He didn’t say a word.
“I had some questions. Some things I wanted to say to you. To ask you,” Brenda’s voice trailed off.
“I’m Jim. I grew up around here. I-I….” he stared back towards the window. “Where’s breakfast?
“It’s Brenda, dad,” her voice shivered. “I had some things I wanted to tell you.”
Her father looked back at her. Only for a moment. And then set his gaze back towards the courtyard. He didn’t say another word.
Holding her head low as she left Brookdale, Brenda moved through the halls swiftly. Her head down until she reached her car. She rested her face against the steering wheel and sobbed. She’d never see her father again. He’d keep the answers she’d sought. His dementia, an uncrackable safe. They’d die there with him.
She zipped up both suitcases and surveyed an empty room. Sitting back down on the edge of the bed, she placed her thumb and forefinger below the photo and turned it into view. The only thing she hadn’t packed away. The image of her and Jim filled its borders. They’d gone for ice cream that day. She was 16. Sometime in between his rehab appearances. She’d brought a disposable camera with her and had a stranger take a picture of them. Smiling broadly as she leaned into his ribs. His forearm resting on her shoulder. He looked worn down. The edge of his mouth crinkled upwards.
The same night they went back to the basement. Brenda remembered drinking a couple beers and setting them next to the array of bottles Jim had already been through. More than usual, she thought. They watched TV and wasted the evening like any other. Shows of no consequence and conversation with about as much. He was hazy and distant. The smell of alcohol accompanied every word. He began scratching her back, swirling his fingers around her spine. Up her shoulders and drifting softly across her nape. He ran his hands further down, stepping his fingers across her vertebrae like a train track reaching the small of her back. Brenda’s throat tightened. She didn’t know why. Her breath became shallow as her father’s hand strayed beneath her waist. Her stomach coiled at the same time his hand plunged slowly between the flesh of her buttocks. Whipping her hand around, Brenda grabbed at her lower back. Jim’s hand retracted like a snake as he reached for his next beer. Popping the top, and taking a deep pull from the bottle, he said nothing. The moment sat like a dense fog evaporating with each slosh of lager spilling down his throat. Brenda’s blood froze. Her lips pursed. A sore felt like it was opening inside her. She stood up and went to the bathroom. When she came out, her father was passed out in the same position she’d left him in. Retreating to her end of the basement, she laid down on the futon. Her body felt like all the blood flowing inside her had turned to cement, unable to move, her eyes fixed on the ceiling for what seemed like hours. She couldn’t remember if she ever slept that night.
The evening was never addressed. It metastasized in Brenda over the years, infecting every memory from her childhood. Maybe it was a mistake, she thought. Or maybe she didn’t remember it the way it really happened. Her relationship with her father slowly regressed. The space between their visits grew. And her penchant for escape did as well. When his mind began to dissolve, she made her decision to drive to Brookdale. To hear what he had to say. To hear his explanation. To scream at him. To tell him he was wrong. She didn’t know. But she’d remembered for too long. He kept her sorrow. He owned it. Holding her anguish below layers of his disease.
The nursing staff all wished her well as Brenda walked down the hallway, suitcases in hand. They told her they’d miss her father and hoped she’d be okay. Smiling politely, Brenda exited the nursing home and headed to her car. The snow hadn’t stopped falling.
Back in her father’s room, the smell lingered. The lights remained on. The bathroom was empty and the dresser and bookshelf sat bare but for the dust that covered them. On the carpet lay the CD’s. And the books. And every piece of clothes she had folded. Jim’s glasses and toothbrush leaned carelessly against the stack of pictures, laying in a pile like kindling.
Outside, Brenda threw her two empty suitcases in the back of the Volvo and drove away. She didn’t want any more of his memories. She had her own.
A thick layer of snow covered her driveway. It grew in her absence and kept her from pulling in. She’d shovel it tomorrow she thought as she parked against the bank created by snowplows working diligently to clear the roads. Glancing at her phone, there were missed calls from Michael and a low battery. Brenda grabbed her cigarettes and trudged purposefully towards the front door, prying her boots off after entering and enjoying the warmth that seemed to float through the house. Walking to the kitchen, she filled a kettle with water, placing it atop an electric burner on the stove. She turned the heat to high and sat down, lighting a cigarette. Closing her eyes and taking a deep pull, she rolled her free hand across her head. Her fingers feeling their way through a mat of hair, tangled and damp. She’d left the suitcases in the car. Another thing she’d deal with in the morning. Opening her eyes, she gazed at the recent calls in her phone. Brenda delicately balanced her cigarette in the ashtray. Her eyes became heavy. Her jaw quivered. The kettle began to hiss, its whistle intensified like it was begging for attention. Her mind drifted back to Brookdale; Brenda could still smell his piss.
The kettle’s wail filled the kitchen.
Photo by Ralph (Ravi) Kayden on Unsplash