Published on August 28th, 2020 | by Teresa Yang1
He’s my most challenging, like a rebellious teenager who might stomp into his bedroom and hiss “Bitch,” behind my back. Only he’s not a kid—he’s my 95-year-old father.
In the midst of this pandemic, we speak on the phone daily at 4PM, right after he sunbathes outside and before the evening news. Routines and schedules are important to him.
My father cannot hear well, so there’s always three people on the line, the two of us and some anonymous stranger from, I think, India who transcribes my every word. Our conversations are lengthy but not much gets said. Mostly I let my dad do the talking. He reports to me, much like a sixth grader, mundane things like, “Your mother was very quiet today.”
Now with the quarantine, he tells me he hasn’t done laundry in three months. “Not necessary,” he says. “I’m not sweating.”
He used to visit my mother daily, arriving like the morning dew, and stay for the communal lunch. He gave the staff grades. He occasionally fed my mother but his efforts were eclipsed by the A+ worker. He found a niche though: he peels the tough skin off the green grapes and plops them like kisses into my mother’s mouth.
He is like a member of our family, the director gushed.
He would leave after the diaper change, at naptime, like my son used to do in pre-kindergarten, stubbornly refusing to sleep without his stuffed monkey Charlie, such transitional objects unpermitted now that he was almost in “real school.”
My father prided himself on walking to my mother’s facility until a nagging leg pain made this difficult. I suggested the director arrange for an Uber.
“Not necessary,” he said.
If my dad still had his driver’s license—and his hearing—he would’ve made the perfect Uber driver. Naturally gregarious, my father talked to everybody, friends and strangers alike. He loved to drive, often in one long day driving from San Francisco to Vancouver, where my mother’s relatives lived. He could easily have driven short jaunts in the city, fitting them in between spousal visits. And he would’ve liked rating the passengers.
I knew my dad had also given my brother and me grades because he told me so. I privately beamed that my grade was higher.
Sans computer, internet, or smart phone, he researched and announced he would take the bus. Rather than a straight line, his route was rectangular, requiring three separate buses to take him home, one up, one across, and one down.
“It’s not safe,” I said.
“It’s not safe. If you must, be careful,” his doctor said.
“It’s probably good for his brain,” my son said.
My son stored his motorcycle in my dad’s underground parking spot, a bike I objected to until he was too old for me to object, buying and insuring it secretly with his own money. My father looked serious and concerned when I mentioned the motorcycle, but behind my back, gave my son the thumbs up.
They were allies, grandfather and grandson, with their respective white and black goatees shrouding their faces from my gaze. Sometimes I would go into the corner of the garage and just stare at the motorcycle, imagining the worst. Once I even cleaned the side mirrors.
When I visited, I stayed in my mother’s vacated room, where previously I had stayed with my son in the two-bedroom condo, a win-win solution for unaffordable rents and needy mothers. Though I was to learn that one party always wins more in the win-win dynamic.
“Ma, can you stay at Grandpa’s now that there’s room?” my son asked after his grandmother’s stroke. The sheets at my son’s smelled like Ikea, whereas my mother’s blanket retained her fingerprint smell. I cringed at the prospect of sharing a bathroom with my father. I reminded myself—boys have to separate from their mothers.
Early on I realized my dad was washing dishes without soap in the same sink where he oftentimes brushed his teeth, then storing them like wet sweaters in the unused, suspiciously moldy, dishwasher.
“What?? You’re not using soap!” I blurted, too quickly.
“Only me here. Not necessary.”
At the outset of the pandemic, I sent my father masks. He gave some to his neighbor, saying he couldn’t use them all. “She cooks me fuzzy melon soup,” he said. I imagined him walking the city blocks, mask casually looped and dangling around one ear, nose and mouth fully exposed. I imagined another “not necessary.”
During my stays I would spoil him with food: chocolate croissants from B Patisserie, lion’s head with cabbage from Old Shanghai, linguine with clam sauce from any Italian restaurant, anything to break the monotony of the old people’s food he was eating. Like an empty nest mother, I would swoop in, scouring, changing sheets, doing laundry. I drew the line at trimming toenails.
“Your hair is so long,” I said, offering to cut it. He already had it calendared—eight more days until his quarterly Chinatown haircut.
Recently my son sent me a picture of him giving his grandfather a hair cut. My dad sat with a towel draped over his shoulders and a mask covering his face.
On one visit I noticed the bathroom floor was wet. Legs bent like an insect, I checked the toilet for escaping urine. His soup cooking neighbor had recently mentioned moisture on the garage ceiling.
“It never leaks when you’re not here,” he said, in a double negative.
I studied and sniffed, finally identifying a culprit—the underutilized bathtub. He admitted he preferred baths, so he could sit.
I worried the entire bathtub would crash into the garage below. He listened to me, first agreeing to a plumber, then later reneging via telephone. “You’re too tall and bossy in person,” he said, even though we were the exact same height.
He dragged me into the tiny bathroom on my next visit. “I’ve been testing it,” he said. “There’s no water.” Well, if you never take a shower, of course there’s no water, I countered. Undeterred, I was going to fix this problem before it plummeted. We screamed at each other but it was useless without the transcriber. He couldn’t—and wouldn’t—hear me. Still, I secretly thrilled that, if nothing else, he would feel my rage.
Our battles came to a head over my mother’s flu shot. He himself had gotten one, at my son’s urging. How’d you convince him, I asked. My screen vibrated: Prob ‘cause I’m not his kid.
Was I jealous of their easy, natural bond—straightforward and linear rather than rectangular and right angled—envy that drove me to treat my dad like a teenager because I could no longer treat my son like one? Was I trying too hard to figure out our respective roles in the parent child construct, a paradigm that, like my dad and me, had flipped upside down? Did they both love me—as much as they clearly loved each other?
“Not necessary,” he echoed. He trusted the A+ worker.
I held back from saying what we both knew: I have the medical power of attorney for my mother, just as I don’t want to say to my son that motorcycles are death traps.
“The doctor says Mom needs this,” I said instead.
I have since stopped bothering my dad about hearing aids, laundry, or water leaks. In the midst of this pandemic, the issues seem trivial, maybe even pointless. Last week my dad’s good friend died at 97, after falling on the stairs leading to the garage and hitting his head.
If my dad’s bathtub also falls into the garage, it won’t do so until I can visit again—and use the shower. Maybe my son will allow me into the spare bedroom during the bathroom repairs.
Maybe he and his sister will take care of me one day as I’m doing with my dad. Or maybe not. I joked after the flu shot, “Haha, remind me of this when I’m 95,” to which he suggested I would forget by then. “Save this text and show me in 30 years,” I wrote, a little monkey icon and smiley face, still issuing orders.
I admit I also like the control of routines and schedules. After all, I am my father’s daughter. If I’m honest and unafraid, I have to admit one more thing: I may never see my father in person again.
Slowly I’m learning the meaning of “not necessary.”