The Ant Man

ant-296556_1280I want to say right off the bat that aging is not all fun and games.  It’s really not.  You have to find your entertainment wherever you can.

Not that I know this from personal experience; I’m only 44, or as an elderly acquaintance recently put it, “just a baby.”  Be that as it may I’ve had my share of experience in dealing with the whims of the more senior members of our society.  Which is why I believe I’ve made a wise and well-informed choice by leaving my dad and his pet ants alone.

I only discovered the ants yesterday, crawling around at my dad’s feet in what appeared to be a somewhat aimless fashion.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, my dad is in a nursing home, and since one likes to think of one’s parent’s nursing home as a very clean and sterile environment, one’s immediate reaction to an apparent ant infestation is to jump up and commence stomping.  I am here to tell you that in the case of my father’s ants, one would be advised to think twice.

“No!  Don’t kill them,” he said, just as I was ready to do exactly that.  I froze, foot poised mid-air.  “They’re nice.  See?”

I did see.  “But . . . they’re ants,” I said.

“They’re cute,” said my father.  “Like tiny little babies.  I wonder how much bigger they’ll get?”

Which was funny, because I, too, wondered how much bigger they’d get.  Or more importantly, how much more abundant.  As it stood, I could only see maybe six or eight of them, but, well.  You know ants.

We sat in silence for a while, each thinking our own thoughts; my dad watched his ants, but as for what he was thinking, who knows.  My own thoughts were along the lines of: I really have to tell them there are ants in here . . .  I can’t just leave it, can I?  I mean, no one just leaves ants. What if I don’t say anything, and next time I visit they’re everywhere?  Why are there ants in the first place?  Shouldn’t I really be a bit more concerned about this?

Then again, I mean, they were only ants.

Maybe they could have a singalong.
Maybe they could have a singalong.

Also, what if they became a big hit?  What if some of the other memory patients started hanging around, just to see what the ants were up to?  They could be like little mascots.  My dad could have his own tribe.  Maybe I should tell the staff to definitely not kill them.

I know.  Believe me, even I was aware that this was a little far-fetched.  But still, even if my dad didn’t get a whole new social circle out of it, it was clear the ants were providing him with something.  He’s always enjoyed taking care of small creatures.  I’d guess that in my lifetime alone, several thousand pounds of bread had been torn up and thrown on his driveway to feed the birds.  It got to the point where the birds would perch on the windowsill at my parents’ house and look in at my dad, like, dude, we’re starving out here, where’s our Town Talk?  “Your birds are looking for you,” my mom would tell him.

“All right, all right,” he’d say, as if somehow put out by this duty that he did not have to do at all.

“I have to feed the goddamn birds,” he told me one morning, on our way to work.  We were a minute or two late, which mattered little to him – he’d still make it to his job in plenty of time.  I, on the other hand, would miss my bus if we didn’t get out of the house right now.  Too bad, though.  The birds came first.

Then there was Henry, our cat, who had not only Fancy Feast for dinner, but also tiny samples of whatever my dad was eating.  Steak, macaroni and cheese, didn’t matter.  It all got cut up into miniscule pieces and served to Henry on a paper plate.  Occasionally he got Whoppers later, as a snack.  “Hendrick!”  my dad would call, because I guess that was his nickname for Henry.  “Your dinner’s ready!’

And Henry would come when my dad called.  Not when any of the rest of us called.  Only my dad.

This could be my father!
This could be my father!

“Look at that one go,” he said now, still watching the ants and clearly charmed.  “I think he’s going over to see that other one.”

“So are they, like, your little pets?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I guess.”

“Do you feed them?”

“Yeah, I feed them.”

“Like, what?”

“What, what?”

“I mean, what do you feed them?”

“Canned goods,” said my dad.

“Oh,” said I.  “Well, then.”

When I left, he was still studying them, and I felt happy.  Good.  This was the first time I’d seen him actively pleased by something in quite a while.  Of course, it wasn’t long before I realized I’d left my dad surrounded by insects as a means to alleviate my own guilt over leaving him there at all.  A move which seemed questionable at best.

But, I don’t know.  Sometimes, I guess, you just have to take what you get.

DNR

dependent-826327_1280“If Daddy was a dog,” I told my mother recently, “we’d have put him down him by now.”

She laughed.  “Yeah,” she said.  She knew, as she always did, that I was mostly joking and a little bit not joking.  We were on our way home from Dad’s nursing home, where we’d arrived to find him in his bathroom, dressed in someone else’s coat and frantically stuffing grooming products into the pockets.  “I’m running late,” he’d said.  “Church starts at two.”

“No, Ed,” my mother told him.  “There’s no church today.”

“Yeah there is,” he said.  “We better get going, it starts at two.  What time is it?”

“We’re not going to church,” my mom said.

“We have to go.  Did you bring the car?  I’ll drive.”

We never did convince him that we weren’t going to church that day.  Once two o’clock passed, he decided it probably started at two-thirty.  I did get the coat off of him and returned it to the nurse’s station, having emptied the pockets of a hair brush, two combs, and five disposable razors.  Dad went to the closet and got his own coat out, struggled into it, then refused to take it off.

“But it’s warm in here,” I told him.  “You don’t need a coat.”

“I’m cold,” he said, slyly.

“My God,” I told my mother.  “He’s tricky.”

“Yes,” she said.  “He is.”

Dad eating lunch. Note the handy grooming tools always at hand.
Dad eating lunch. Note the handy grooming tools always at hand.

Don’t get me wrong:  I don’t really want to kill my dad.  I can’t even imagine it.  Getting him into my car, sitting him on a blanket, maybe.  “We’re just going for a ride,” I guess I’d say.  Him looking out the window as I drove, commenting on things that weren’t there.  This is as far as my imagination will take me.  Thank God.

Just the other day, my sister and her family had to take their own dog on a similar ride.  She posted a picture on of Smoke on Facebook, sitting on a blanket in the backseat of her car, looking for all the world like the big galoof he’s always been.  Apparently galoof is not a word, I think galoot is the real word, but galoof is the word I have to use.  Smoke, you made me invent new vocabulary.

I remember when they first brought Smoke home, a wild and bitey puppy.  I make no secret of my pet-o-phobia, so, this was not necessarily a happy day for me.  My niece was around eight at the time.  “Pet him!”  she told me.  “Look!  I’ll put my arm in his mouth so he’ll bite me instead of you.”

She did, and I did pet him.  In retrospect this may have been rather horrible of me.  Like I really think I should have said, “No!  Get your arm out of his mouth, I’ll take the bite, I’m a grown-up and you are eight.”  My niece is now 22 and to this day remains a much better person than me.

As for Smoke, we never did become great friends, although I will say that as far as giant black Labs go, he didn’t bother me much.  He barked a lot and threw his weight around quite impressively, but once he got out of the puppy stage, he never scared me.  What he did do was beg for food.  All the food.  At birthday parties, you had to sit hunched over and facing a wall if you wanted to eat your cake in peace.  I don’t know who started that nonsense.  I do know that my dad would never allow him to be trained otherwise.

“Just a little chicken,” he’d say, passing half of his plate to the dog.  “Unless he likes macaroni salad . . . Smoke, you like macaroni salad?”

“Dad, quit it,” my sister would say, and he’d tell her, “Shut up.  Just give him some ice cream.  Dogs like ice cream.”

Smoke, in the car.
Smoke, in the car.

Now Smoke has graduated to doggie heaven, where hopefully he’s getting all the cake and macaroni salad he wants.  And weirdly enough, it is now my dad doing the begging for things.  He doesn’t beg, not really, but the fact is he has to ask for everything, and he doesn’t always get it.  Take me to church.  Let me drive, let me go outside.  Be here longer when you visit, you don’t have to go yet.  “Stay a while,” he’ll tell me.  “Are you hungry?  Here, eat my lunch.  I don’t want it.”

I took one of my kids to visit him not long ago, and we got on the subject of baseball.  “You play?” my dad asked Joey.

Joey told him that yes, he plays.  “Both my kids play,” I told my dad.  “They’re on the same team, this year . . . I could pick you up and take you to a game sometime.  If you want.”

“Yeah,” said my dad.  “That’s good.  I’d like to go and see them play.”

So I said I’d take him, and I will.  I’ve taken him before so I already know how it will go.

“Which one’s your son?” he will ask me, over and over and over again as we watch the little league game.  “What’s his name?”

“There are two of them,” I’ll tell him.  “Joey, and Jimmy, right there and right there.”

“Oh!” he’ll say.  “Joey and Jimmy, that’s right.”

“That’s right,” I’ll say.

“Huh.  Two boys . . . that’s nice.”

“Yes.”

“So, which one’s your son?”

I should be glad, I know, that my dad can get even this little bit of enjoyment out of life.  I am glad.  Alzheimer’s doesn’t give you any breaks; enjoyment of any kind is rare and unbelievably fleeting.  And as long as my dad can have any fun at all, as long as he can steal the birthday cake off someone’s plate or watch a baseball game and like it, then, good.

The trouble is that even that little bit will go away someday.  I’ve read that Ronald Reagan was bedridden for the last few years of his life.  And silent.  I like to think he was lost in good memories, maybe enjoying his Hollywood years all over again, or his Presidency, or his childhood.  But of course, we can’t know that.  Just like I won’t know it about my dad.

Not that it will matter anyway.  Ronald Reagan was not a dog; nor is my dad.  And there’s no mercy for humans, even if we could bring ourselves to show it.  Stupid Alzheimer’s Disease.

R.I.P. Smoke, you big galoof, 2002 – 2016.