One morning several months after his heart surgery, my father says, “I’m surprised the bears didn’t get into the trash last night.” He’s dipping sweet cinnamon toast into coffee, which has been his breakfast every day since coming home from the hospital. The toast is crisp, more cracker than bread, each piece the size of an index card. He ate this same hard toast as a child in Michigan. He claims it tastes exactly as it did nearly eighty years ago.
“I don’t think there have been any bears here for awhile,” I tell him. I’m sitting on a folding chair next to the hospital bed we’ve installed for my father in the den. Every day during visits from New York, I drink my first cup of coffee with him, and we talk. “But I saw a raccoon the other night. He took his time as he crossed the street, as if he ruled the neighborhood.”
“They can be mean,” he says. “I don’t like raccoons.”
It’s Monday, trash pick-up day in our southern California county named for orange groves long since replaced by housing tracts and strip malls. A possum has been seen scurrying around the neighborhood on the cinderblock fences separating one home from another. Occasionally the raccoon shows up, evicting two stray cats who have become regular backyard squatters. A lone rat often drills across the telephone wires, always in the same direction, east to west, and always in the minutes after sunset. All forms of life, imaginary and otherwise, seem to thrive around us. One day I go outside, stand on the lawn, and scan all the trees within view. Years ago, flocks of wild parrots began swooping down from the sky, pausing en masse on the magnolias. Their appearance was sudden, erratic, without precedent. No one knew where the birds came from—perhaps Mexico or Central America. Their raucous fugue seemed a demonic possession. They squawked and flew from tree to tree, and then they were gone. I had not seen those parrots in many years, but I look for them now.
Our suburban menagerie is varied, but if there were bears here they moved away centuries ago. The nearest wild bear lives a hundred miles to the north-east, five thousand feet up in the mountains where, on two or three long-ago winter weekends, my father drove up a winding incline so my sister and I could ride plastic toboggans in the snow.
My father’s bear, at first, seems to come out of nowhere, the idea of it held over from a lingering dream, or perhaps a result of too much staring at the stucco ceiling in the den, where he will stay for who knows how long—until he can walk again and take showers again and prepare his own soup for lunch, or maybe forever. Fierce infections had kept him quarantined in the hospital for months, causing his muscles to atrophy. Now he spends all his time in a wheelchair at the kitchen table or in his bed. As we talk over coffee, I soon realize he might be blending memories of his youth in Michigan with those of his life in California. I wonder if the taste of cinnamon toast has helped him merge these two realms into a continuum of reality with rearranged plots.
For entertainment on summer evenings in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula people drove to the public dump and waited for the black bears. The animals would waddle out of the woods and across mounds of garbage, ripping open paper bags and milk cartons stuffed with edible scraps. This was fishing country. Trout heads and perch bones were prime, but the bears also relished the stale bread that had been tossed around the dump to lure them into the open. As soon as my father mentioned the bear, I remembered the summer we returned to Michigan and, for a day, we drove deep into a forest on a road that no one travels any more, a work camp route from the early 1900s. When the road ended, we proceeded on a grown-over gravel trail, the underbrush scraping beneath the car. In the fly-buzzing heat we looked for deer and bear, not to hunt but to observe. I had never seen a bear in the wild. That day we spotted a black bear and thirteen deer, some of them mothers with spring fawns. In the distance, the bear seemed small, barely larger than a child’s toy; it was nothing like the grizzlies I had seen on television and thus imagined finding in the wild. Resting on its hindquarters, rocking slightly, it nibbled field grass and berries, seemingly oblivious to our intrusion into the center of its world.
In the evening my father asks me if I am going to sleep upstairs. This house he and my mother have lived in since moving west, the one I grew up in, has three bedrooms but only one story. I don’t know what house he’s thinking about: perhaps his childhood home in Houghton, Michigan, or one of the upper-level apartments my parents rented after I was born, before they moved west.
“I’m sleeping in Patti’s room,” I say.
“Oh,” he says, but I can see that he’s flummoxed. He wonders whether my sister’s room is located upstairs in the house that I now perceive as several homes melded in his mind, places from his past and the house in which we ponder bears straying from the distant woods of memory.
In the morning he still asks, “Did you sleep well upstairs?”
I would come to like this idea of an imagined upstairs bedroom where I could read myself to sleep, removed from the endless routines of caregiving and the clamor of TV game shows. My father’s figment created a space elevated, in my own imagination, beyond the reach of illness and suffering, if only for a time. His reinvention of our house, its dreamlike expansion, offered a paradox: the room upstairs was anchored in our home, and in the joy and struggle embodied by it, while also hovering afloat as a placid mystery. In the evenings, on my way to bed, I began to walk down the hallway as if ascending stairs to an attic or climbing a ladder to a serene tree house. The room became a fantasy I gladly elected to enter.
I began saying to my father, “Good night, Dad. I’m going upstairs now.”
“Okay,” he said. “Sleep well.”
His hallucinations first began in the hospital. Until the surgery, my father’s mind was sharper than his butcher’s knives, his power of recall formidable. He could recite the long serial number of his army rifle issued sixty years ago. He subscribed to three newspapers and retained prodigious amounts of information. He had shown no signs of waning memory. His parents, who lived into their mid-eighties, maintained their cognitive ability until the end. On my mother’s side of the family, a different story: several of her aunts had Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia; her own mother probably would have followed the pattern had she not died from lung cancer.
In the hospital one morning, as we stood beside his bed, my father said, “I saw ants crawling around the clock, and other animals too.” He had cats and dogs as a child. Old pictures show him grinning with kittens piled in his lap, so it was not surprising that creatures of all kinds figured prominently in his fabulist creations at home and on the critical care unit. Spiders swarmed the ceiling, a giraffe came to greet him, and children gleefully chased each other around his room.
One night at the hospital, long past visiting hours, a bevy of nuns came to see him.
“I’m going to complain to the diocese,” he said. He didn’t want nuns anywhere near him, especially when he was supposed to be sleeping.
He never seemed to mind the animals.
In the mornings he often woke up thinking he was on a ship. On the way to his army post in Austria, my father had crossed the Atlantic on a naval vessel, where he slept in a twelfth deck bunk. It was his first grand adventure in life, the ocean a bracing surge into the future. His job was to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner for his shipmates, ever-hungry men from every part of America. In the hospital he worried whether there was enough food for his current voyage.
“I hope we’ll make it,” he said.
On other days he believed he was on a train destined for cities we visited on a family trip to Europe after my year abroad in London. “We had a good trip to Belgium,” he said, but we had never been to Belgium. I looked around his hospital room. His bed was next to a wall of large windows overlooking a neighborhood lush with palm, jacaranda, and juniper trees. It was easy to understand how he envisioned a passing countryside. Outside his room, nurses and doctors walked to and fro, carrying on with their duties. They could be crew and fellow passengers on board a train or a ship to anywhere, or everywhere. Suddenly I saw the orderlies who mopped the floors as deckhands, and the blinking, humming hospital machines as instruments keeping our vessel on its intended path.
One evening, a nurse new to my father’s care asked him what he had done for a living before his retirement.
“You’ll laugh when I tell you,” he said.
“I won’t laugh,” she said. “I promise.”
“I was in the circus.”
“And what did you do in the circus?” the kind nurse asked.
“I was the boss!”
He had never been in the circus. After his stint as army cook, he worked in supermarkets for more than 35 years as a meat cutter, and never as boss.
The animal kingdom in his room and the journeys over land and sea persisted during the months spent in two hospitals and a nursing facility. After the giraffes and nuns first visited, we mentioned my father’s visions to a nurse.
“Oh, it’s probably sundowners,” she said. None of us had ever heard the term. The nurse left the room without elaborating, so I did some research and learned that sundowners syndrome—or “sundowning”—can affect people with dementia and elderly patients recovering from surgery. The common symptom is an onset of confusion in the late afternoon and early evening. “The changing light and the shadows can trigger it,” another nurse explained. Morphine also causes hallucinations but the drug hadn’t been given to my father.
In the hospital and nursing home, his memory loss and confusion became protracted, starting before late afternoon and continuing long past sundown. At home, his long journeys by train and by sea continued, with a cast of ever-changing characters joining him along the way. Sometimes he thought my sister was my niece or that I was a doctor. He could not remember what year it was or the name of the president. On my birthday, eight months after surgery, he thought I was turning seventy-five.
“But you look good for your age,” he said.
“Dad, if I’m turning seventy-five, how old is Mom?”
“Ninety-two,” he said. “But she’s not looking too good.”
My mother, just five days earlier, had turned seventy-four. When they first met at the A&P where he was cutting meat in the late 1950s, she was sixteen, my father a scandalous twenty-five. Soon he would be taking her and her younger sisters out for rides in his Chevy, or they would go downtown to watch a movie. He remembers calling my mother by an affectionate nickname, “Killer,” which infuriated her father but apparently captivated her. One afternoon my mother locked herself in the bathroom. From behind the closed door she said she wouldn’t come out until her parents agreed to let her marry the butcher. They insisted she wait until after she finished high school and turned eighteen. A deal was struck and they were married three months after her threshold birthday.
We laugh when my father gets our ages wrong, and he laughs too when we correct him. After a while it’s not clear when he’s forgetting or pretending. Our displeasure with being twenty years older than we are provides new entertainment for him. Although he never forgets his birthdate or the precise day of his inscription into the army, sometimes he adds or subtracts ten years from his age and waits for our reaction.
Occasionally he also gives me an extra sister.
“What’s your other sister’s name?” he asks one morning as we drink our coffee.
“I have only one sister, Dad.”
“Right. You’re sure?”
“Yes. Just one.”
I don’ t know if he’s confused or if he’s pulling my leg, testing my patience and aiming for a reaction. Could his miscount be traced to having two sisters of his own, or to my mother’s two sisters? Someone has two sisters around here, his expression seems to say, and maybe they live in the room upstairs.
For now my father’s mixed-up memories lead me happily astray, his confusion serving as an unexpected buffer between my relative youth and old age. With our lifetimes in constant flux, the future seems elastic, stretched indefinitely before us. However warped or misleading the illusion, as long as my father is alive I will be young, regardless of my real or imagined age. After major surgery and savage infections, after processions of animals and dreamlike landscapes, my father has prevailed. Grappling with my own mortality, I hitch my hope to this man. I see him as proof that humans can withstand unimaginable trauma, and that life can be long despite grueling setbacks.
But then there are periods of true blankness, as on the morning my mother and I sit beside him at the kitchen table.
“When’s David coming?” my father asks, looking only at my mother.
I do not speak or move. Among his plunges into absolute confusion, this one strips me of all defenses. If I was not David sitting next to him, who was I? Perhaps wrongly, I assume he has registered my presence but not my identity. Yet maybe my very presence eludes him too, for he has not asked my mother about the man sitting next to him—me, his only son. He has not asked whether the man has a name or why he is here. He has not looked me in the eyes. In this moment of being and not being, of missing my identity as his son, I feel like the personification of the room upstairs or the mythic animals prowling our neighborhood.
I cannot bring myself to answer: I’m already, here, Dad.
Instead, my mother says, “He’s here!”
She glances at me with an expression that means: give him a minute, he’s just tired and confused.
“Oh,” my father says.
He turns to me and studies my face. I can detect his attempt to seize the present, accurate reality, if such a thing exists, and to remember that I have been here next to him all along.
“Dad, it’s me,” I say. “I came home yesterday.”
“It’s nice to have you here again,” he says. “I missed you.”
One moment I was invisible or unknown, and then, like the wild parrots, I have returned.