The last time I saw my father, he danced for me.
In his pajamas and slippers and robe, he got stiffly out of a chair in the tiny nursing-home room that is now his universe and began doing a cross between a jig and the Charleston.
He always liked doing the Charleston for his children, especially the part where he put his hands on his knees and crossed them back and forth. A good salesman, he was blessed with a sunny disposition and has kept it into old age.
He was 91 last October, but if you ask him how old he is he’ll reply, “100.” That’s because he plans to make it to his personal turn-of-the-century, which comes due three years before the turn of the millennium. Mainly he spends his days saying the rosary in his 15-by-15 foot room with two chairs, a bed, two small chests, and a 30-year-old record player whose volume he keeps high so the rest of the nursing-room floor can enjoy the music of Harry James and Glenn Miller. No one ever complains.
On the wall is a photo of his bride—her dark hair cut in the cloche-cap look of 1929; she died three years ago after 56 years of marriage. “Notice how her eyes follow you?” he asks a visitor.
In another photo on the wall, he is one of six young men standing behind a seated couple in their 50s. If the photo had a caption it would say, “Maurice and Florence Collins and six of their seven sons.” There also were five daughters.
Nobody in any of the pictures on my father’s wall is still alive. Hardly anyone he knows is, except for his three children, none of whom lives in the town where he prefers to dwell. All of us have tried to lure him to our towns, but he’s not interested.
A manufacturer’s representative who peddled railroad equipment from New York to Chicago, he spent a lifetime on the road. He didn’t quit his career until he was well into his 80s, less than a decade ago. By then, his wife was too ill to care for at home. After she died, he lived alone for a while in the apartment they once shared. He liked it hot, and he kept the temperature cranked up into the high 80s no matter the season. One summer night his apartment grew so hot he had a heatstroke; fortunately, the noise of his convulsive fall attracted the attention of someone in the next apartment.
For my sister and my brother and me, it was the moment we had tried to keep at arm’s length: We could no longer ignore the fact that the child-parent role reversal was complete, that the children were now the decision-makers in the family unit, not the parent. That role reversal happens more often in our time than ever before, given the achievements of medicine at prolonging life. I had already helped my wife through a similar role reversal with her own father, so I had an understanding of what had to be done now.
The trouble comes in knowing what’s best. It’s easier to know — or think you know — in the genuine child-parent relationship. In the false one, there are too many emotional overlays for comfort. And that brings guilt, sometimes assisted by outsiders who don’t have to make the choices and so find it easy to pass judgment. My sister, for example, found herself being chewed out one day during a telephone call from a cousin who said it was dreadful that we had put our father in a nursing home.
My father doesn’t think it dreadful. The home is in his hometown; the alternatives are not. We decided he would be happier there than trying to live with any of his three children, options he himself declined to take seriously.
We visit him as often as we can, but it is never often enough — for him or for us. He is a gregarious man who comes alive in the presence of people. When he puts on his horn-rimmed glasses, he looks a little like George Burns, minus the cigar. Like any successful salesman he knows how to win the good will of clients: When we send him candy he spreads it around to the nurses and orderlies, and we’ve had to reduce his pocket money because he distributes it as quickly as he gets it — or else he leaves it out where it’s promptly stolen. He has always enjoyed being liked.
I hate visiting the home. The corridor leading to his room seems a mile long, and I sometimes have the Twilight-Zone feeling that the patient I see rounding the corner at the far end is myself in 20 years. A woman in a near room near my father’s yells “help me” all day long, and other patients sit outside their rooms and watch me blankly as I walk past. Do they envy my relative youth and vigor? Are they sizing me up as a future inmate of a home like this? The trouble with the place, I decide one day, is that there are no dreams here, only resignation.
My father’s eyes light up when any of his three children walk into the room, and he pulls together his energies and manners. “I was just thinking about you,” he invariably remarks. I find it painful to see the translucent quality of his skin that the very old often acquire, and the shock of white hair turned as fine as angel hair. He is harder to converse with each time, more confused about people and places and events.
He, on the other hand, genuinely likes being where he is. It’s the best nursing home in the city, he tells me, as if he were convincing a railroad purchasing agent of the quality of an electrical bond. His room is the best one in the building, with the nicest view out the window. But he refuses to get dressed and go to the common dining room to eat, and the world beyond his four walls grows misty and unreal to him.
The orderlies tell me he is always cheerful. And every now and then, they say, he turns up his record player to top volume and goes to his door and dances a little.
Walt Collins was editor of this magazine from 1982 to 1995.