Just before he tried to eat his cherry pie with the wrong end of the spoon, Dad whispered, "Where are we?"
We are at the nursing home in Plano, Texas.
Going down the Missouri, Dad. Fur traders. See the bundle of furs. I don't know why they have a cat, Dad. I always wonder about that.*
"Comfortable," Dad whispered.
"I am comfortable," he said.
After a long period of silence, Dad mouthed inaudible words again. I moved from the armchair to perch next to his skinny leg on the edge of his bed, the better to read his lips. Again please. Slowly Dad whispered, "Are ... you ... comfortable?" The question hung above us in a heavy speech bubble.
I could not answer immediately. Too many possibilities. Falling back on my lifelong coping skill I laughed and said I wasn't comfortable or secure, that I would probably fall off the edge of the bed onto the floor if Dad sneezed or wiggled.
Instead of falling off, I fed Dad the cherry pie, then chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. He reached for the milk carton himself. He did not slap my hand holding the fork away. Instead, he ran his long, yellow fingernails against my wrist, seeming to signal a willingness to be fed another bite. So sad, so sad. My arm could feel his touch, but could his fingers sense a connection?
Top four meanings for Dad's question:
- Simple mimickry--just a slow reverb echo of my question with no meaning attached.
- Are we getting settled in our delusional home, the one where Dad is the foster child in the parsonage?
- Am I accepting his inevitable death? Can Dad still think about philosophy and emotions when he can't use dining utensils?
- Am I in decent shape financially? Dad would have asked that question five years ago, but probably not today.
Dad and I have shared a lifetime of quiet togetherness, questions, and waiting. We are the lag between the lightning and the thunder counting, sitting on the front stoop, eating ice cream from tall glasses.
We are maps, family trees, and imaginary blueprints refined on long walks after big dinners in small towns.
We are the expectation of good sportsmanship hovering over the group of kids playing Crazy Eights at his feet.
We are the slow watching and turning of the marshmallows on the skewer over the gray-orange coals, and the careful emptying of the grass-catcher on the Montgomery Ward lawnmower.
We are linked by bridges between Matisse, Buckminster Fuller, Charles Eames, and Alexander Calder.
We are the red and white bobber on the surface of the fishing pond. We are figuring square roots on long hot road trips.
Are we comfortable?
*Art sources insist the cat in George Caleb Bingham's painting is a young bear cub.
© 2011 Nancy L. Ruder