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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.