An Alzheimer's patient receives a visit from his daughter.
|January clouds hung pregnant and gray as Beth slid from her car and set off across the Sunny Springs Living Center parking lot. Living Center, she’d always hated that name. She’d disliked it since the day she and her brother, Seth, decided Father couldn’t live on his own and moved him in. It sounded so Orwellian calling a place like this a ‘living center’; a place where families shelved their loved ones and waited for the end.
Every Sunday on her drive to see him, it wasn’t without a twinge of guilt that she didn’t wonder if Dad wouldn't be happier at home with her and her husband. But after the episode when he and the car went missing for two days, it was decided a Sunny Springs was the only route they could manage.
She tugged her collar tight against the North wind’s plucking fingers before shouldering her way through the double glass doors and stepping into the urine-scented warmth of the Sunny Springs foyer.
“Good morning, Sasha,” she called, crossing the white tiled entry to the front desk. She paused long enough to peer into the commons room where an elderly trio was engaged in a lively game of cards. The couches and chairs in front of the TV were filled with gray-haired residents.
“Mornin’ Miss Beth.” A beefy dark-skinned nurse rose from her chair and stepped around the counter. “Always a pleasure ta see ya. How’s things been?”
Beth gave her a hug and stepped back. “Busy, but good. I’m glad the holidays are over; they always wear me out.” She rubbed a hand across Sasha’s soft round shoulder. “How’s Tyrone? He get his cast off yet?”
The big woman brushed away a lock of hair and leaned an elbow on the desk. “Yep, got it off last Tuesday.” She shook her head, her round face breaking into a wide grin. “I swear, that boy’s gonna be the death ah me, what with his skateboardin’ an’ tricks.”
Beth laughed. “I know what you mean. When Gavin was little, it was those BMX bikes. Every summer I could count on a couple trips to the Emergency room for stitches.“
Sasha stepped behind the counter and bent to retrieve a worn shoebox kept there for Beth’s visits. She set it atop the counter and dropped into her chair.
“How is he today?” Beth asked.
“Better’n some days, worse’n others.” Sasha ‘s gaze drifted to the commons room. “He was a little agitated this mornin’ durin’ breakfast, but I tol’ him he was gettin’ a visitor if he behaved, an’ that seemed ta settle him.”
Beth pulled the box over and removed the top. The smell of old cardboard and lost memories filled the air. She sifted through the things inside, a smile creasing her lips as she lifted out a dried chunk of bark the size of her palm.
“Enjoy your visit,” Sasha said as Beth made her way past the card players and TV watchers to an old man seated in a wheelchair at the end of the room. He sat staring out the window as flecks of snow peppered the sidewalk, his once powerful shoulders thin and bowed with age.
“Hey, Dad, how are you?” She dragged over a chair and sat down beside him.
The old man glanced up as one might when disturbed from deep thoughts, his brown eyes considering her from a sea of wrinkles. “Do I know you?”
“It’s me, Beth.”
He studied her for a long while then shook his head. “No, my Beth’s a young woman. You couldn’t be her.”
Ignoring his remark, she gently took his hand and turned it over. She placed the chunk of bark in his palm.
“I found this at the nurse’s station,” she said. “I was wondering if it was yours.”
He brought his hand closer squinting at the bark and running fingers as bent and parched as old sticks across its rough surface. “I remember this.” He turned the bark with hands he sometimes didn’t recognize examining the smooth back and the rough brown front. “Yes, this is from our house on Twelfth street. A piece of that big ol’ maple that grew out front by the drive.”
Looking up, he stared at the snow but saw instead a distant summer day. “I was teaching my daughter, Beth, ta ride a bike.” He chuckled, the sound of his laughter dry and pinched. “It was so humid and hot. I think it was July.”
“That’s right, Daddy, July tenth, three weeks after my birthday.”
He bobbed his head in assent. “July tenth.” Leaning back, the chair groaned with his weight. “Boy, you thought you were ready to ride. Got that new bicycle on your birthday and after two weeks, all I heard was ‘Daddy, training wheels are for babies’. All week long you said it, you remember? Wanted to ride your bike like a big kid.”
“Yeah, I remember. You told me I needed another couple weeks practice, but I wouldn’t listen.”
“By God, you wouldn’t. Stubborn as your momma. Always have been.” He looked up and met the eyes of the woman beside him, eyes of a girl he’d spent a lifetime loving yet now seemed so foreign. “It was your brother that started it,” he said. “If Peter hadn’t been up that tree yellin’ for you ta go faster, you’d have never wrecked.”
He could picture himself jogging behind the bike, one hand gripped beneath the seat, the sweat beading his brow, his shirt clinging to his chest. And Peter, just six years old, scrambling among the branches of the old maple. He yelled and waved, his shirt so red against the lush summer leaves.
“Come this way, Bethie!” Peter called, “Go faster!”
He’d let go as she wobbled along the road, striking out on her own. Yet somehow, she’d managed to make a turn and aim straight for the maple. He’d run after shouting for her to put on the brakes, but she’d peddled all the faster. Then the wavering collision. Beth hit the tree, she tumbling one way, the shiny new bike the other. When he reached her, she was already on her feet, face flush with anger as she yelled up at her brother.
“You all right?” He brushed the grass and dirt from her knees finding nothing worse than scrapes.
The bike and tree were another matter. The front wheel was smashed, the handlebars bent. A chunk of bark, shaved from the tree, laying on the ground. He’d picked it up. Lifted it to his nose. The sweet tang of sap and the laughs and shouts of his children filled the air. He’d shoved the bark inside his pocket and stashed it in a box he kept atop his closet, a box filled with bits of memories snatched along the way.
“Do you remember, Daddy? Do you?”
He lifted the bark to his nose, the smell of that summer day distant and pale.
“Yeah, Bethie, I remember.” His gaze drifted to the falling snow, and for a long while, they sat in silence. “I’m feelin' kinda tired,” he said. “I think I’d like a nap.”
She rolled him down the long white corridor and tucked him in easing the bark from his fingers before kissing him on the cheek and returning to the lobby.
Sasha looked up from her computer as Beth stepped up and placed the bark inside the box, fitting it alongside a pair of plastic vampire teeth, a child’s plastic ring and a boutonniere in a scratched plastic case. Then she replaced the top and slid it across the desk.
“See you next Sunday,” Beth said, slipping on her coat and stepping through the doors.
Sasha tucked the box beneath the counter, watching as Beth crossed the lot and climbed into her car. In moments she was gone, her taillights dwindling over the hill, her snowy footprints lingering a while longer before they too were etched away by the wind.