by Donna Albrecht
A previous version of this story was originally published in UnderMyDeadBody.com in 2013. This one is a bit dark and twisted.
“Yes, Dad, there was an accident on Highway 95 or I would have been here a while ago.”
“You should plan better instead of leaving me looking like I don’t know what time you’re coming. How hard can that be?”
“Hmmm,” Tim said noncommittally and turned up the radio, hoping it would end the conversation. Bringing his Dad home for Sunday dinner had started out as a once-a-month event—a way for him to prevent possible future regrets about not doing enough for him. But his Dad wanted to get out every week, and somehow, whatever Dad wanted, Dad got. And once they arrived at the house, what Dad wanted was to watch the Raiders’ game. Tim got them both a Bud and set the beers down on the coffee table in front of the couch.
“I missed the kickoff because of you,” George grumbled.
“Sorry about that.”
“You’re sorry, that’s for sure.” George lit a cigarette and hunkered in to watch the action.
Tim wearily glanced at his wife Julie who was passing through the room with a big basket of laundry that needed folding.
“Dad”, she said sharply. “How many times have I told you not to smoke on the couch? You just knocked hot ashes against the armrest. One of these days you’re going to set the house on fire if you keep that up.”
He held out his arms to her and gave her an icky kissy-faced look. “Come on now, give me a big smooch and stop all your fretting. This is my son’s house and I’ll do whatever I want in it. Right, son?”
“Dad,” Tim replied carefully. “We’ve both told you we don’t want you smoking in the house. It’s dangerous the way you flick ashes everywhere and the smoke makes the house smell.”
Tim immediately picked it up. “Dad, what if Kaitlin stuck that thing in her mouth? She’s only two years old and she tries to eat everything.”
“Make her grow hair on her chest,” his swaggering statement gave way to deep hacking coughs. Tim handed him the tissue box and George grabbed a handful, coughed some evil-smelling stuff into them and dropped the wadded tissues on the table. Tim picked that up too, and took the trash to the can in the kitchen. He returned with some spray disinfectant and a paper towel and began wiping the table where the tissues and cigarette butt had been.
Distain dripping from every word, George said, “What are you, pussy-whipped?”
“No, Dad. I’m Kaitlin’s dad and I try to keep the things she touches clean.”
“Well,” he drawled. “Now that you’re done being Susie Homemaker, how about bringing my sweet little granddaughter to me? We’ve got some catching up to do!”
“Her nap’s nearly over. Why don’t you come up with me and we’ll get her up and we can play with the new dollhouse you sent her?” Tim’s voice was a little tight because he knew what the answer would be. Beyond having emphysema, George’s lifetime of hard liquor and hard living had rendered him too weak to do much more than walk a few steps.
“Tim, you know better than that! Just bring her down here.” He turned up the sound on the game to end the conversation.
Going up the stairs, Tim nodded and as soon as his dad couldn’t see him, he smirked.
His dad had always been a powerful man who had insisted on absolute obedience. In high school, Tim had wanted to play trumpet in the marching band, but his father signed him up for football in spite of the fact he had neither the size nor the temperament for the game. When his ACL was torn during a practice, George had wrapped it in an ace bandage and told him to man-up. Fortunately, the coach kept Tim on the bench for the season and kept telling George he’d put the boy in “soon.”
This invitation to go upstairs was just a little way to needle his dad. A sorry excuse for one-upping the old man, but he’d never really stood up to him on anything important. If Julie hadn’t insisted on the smoking issue, he probably would have folded on that, like so many other things.
Kaitlin was just waking up when he reached her room. The pink ruffled quilt on the pink bed surrounded by pink walls with pictures of princesses made him smile. She was a very feminine girl and loved to pretend.
He poked his head around the door jamb and smiled. “Where’s Daddy’s little princess?”
“Here I am, here I am,” came the sweetest voice in the world. She stood and bounced on the bed and when he got over to her, she jumped into his arms. “Here I am! Dance, Daddy, dance!” He held her close to him and did a little waltz around the room. “More, more!”
He danced her over to the changing table for a fresh diaper. “We have company, princess. Grandpa George is downstairs.”
He swept her up in his arms and headed downstairs. At the bottom, he let her go and she walked cautiously over to George.
“Well, there you are!” he grabbed her and plopped her on his lap. She tried to pull away.
“Grandpa stink,” Kaitlin said pushing him away.
“Tim don’t you think it’s about time you taught her some manners?”
“Dad, she’s only two. And she’s right, you smell like an ashtray.”
“Don’t you smart-mouth me like that, boy. I’m your Dad and you owe me respect.”
Tim bit the inside of his lip. Any answer he could give would just egg his old man on and start a fight. If he said it was the truth, he was a bad son who had no business saying something like that about his father. If he agreed it was too much, he’d get yet another lecture on being spineless.
Kaitlin wiggled off her grandpa’s lap and went across the room to play with her stuffed animals. Both men watched her for a moment and then George went back to the game. When the Raiders got a field goal, he celebrated by pounding his beer on the table. Ted winced.
“Dad, did you hear I just got a promotion?
“So is there any money in it?”
“Probably, downstream. Right now, with the economy the way it is, promotions are instead of a raise.”
“Right. You know that pitiful check you send me every month, doesn’t go as far as it used to. It’s time for you to step up and take better care of me, that is, if your little wifey isn’t the one controlling your money.”
Tim sighed. “Dad, we’ve talked about this. In fact we talk about it every time we see you. With your social security, union pension, and the five hundred dollars we give you every month, you should have plenty of money.”
“Well, it’s not enough.”
“Maybe you could go to the casino less often…”
“Look, how I spend my money is none of your business.”
Tim just looked at his father and bit his lip again. He wanted to say that it was his business when it was his money, but he really didn’t want to argue while Kaitlin was in the room. He was tempted to leave the room to get away from his Dad, but he and Julie had vowed never to leave George alone with Kaitlin again after they caught him giving her sips from his beer.
Blessedly, Julie called out that dinner was ready, and Tim smiled as he gathered Kaitlin and followed his dad to the table. Once dinner was over he could drive his dad back to his assisted living apartment and be done with him for a week.
* * *
When Tim’s phone rang at work on Tuesday just before lunch, he smiled to see the incoming call was from Julie.
He barely got out a “Hi, beautiful!” before she broke in.
“Brace yourself. Your dad’s place called to say he didn’t come down for breakfast. When they checked on him, they found him on the floor of his bathroom. He apparently slipped on that old rug in front of the toilet he wouldn’t let us replace, and he’d been on the floor all night. The ambulance is taking him to Humboldt General Hospital right now.”
“You have to go.”
“You know I don’t want to. Can’t you go?”
“I don’t hold his healthcare power of attorney—you do,” she explained softy. “I wish I could do this for you, but I can’t. How about I dig out the paperwork and you can pick me up on your way there from work. We’ll go together.”
After a drawn-out silence, Tim sighed. “I’ll pick you up in an hour.”
When they arrived at the hospital, the Emergency Department staff was busy. Julie and Tim were directed to a waiting room that was beige and stuffy. The only decorations on the wall were Thomas Kinkade-style ethereal landscapes, a no-smoking sign, and a discrete arrow pointing to the chapel. While they waited for the doctor, Tim’s eyes closed and a jumble of memories about his father flooded his mind.
There was the time his Dad had taken his car keys for a week because he missed curfew. It was his car, he’d paid for it and the insurance, but he didn’t dare cross his Dad, even if he had to walk three miles each day to school in the dead of winter. Another memory surfaced: he was only five and his Dad had thrown him off the end of the pier, saying it’d teach him to swim; he could taste the foul water he’d swallowed as he flailed around in terror—and sank. He’d earned his own way through college, and the only mail he got from home was an endless series of recruitment brochures for the Marines, with notes that the Marines could make a man of him.
Only Julie came to his graduation; Dad said he had to repair the cellar steps that weekend. Without realizing it, Tim squeezed Julie’s hand as he recalled the day he’d told his Dad he was marrying Julie and his Dad’s response was to ask when the baby was due.
“I’m Doctor Anson,” said the slim, dark-haired physician as he entered the room. His pristine white coat had his name embroidered on the pocket. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
Tim stood up to shake his hand. “I’m Tim, George’s son, and this is my wife, Julie. How’s Dad doing?”
“Well, at this point it’s impossible to decide whether he had a stroke that caused him to fall, or if he slipped and the fall brought on a stroke. Right now, he has virtually no responses in his extremities, and he’s aphasic—he can’t speak. We’re not sure how much he understands. He’s also in some respiratory distress, which is what I need to talk with you about. If he has a Living Will, it will direct us to the level of treatment we must provide for him. Otherwise, as his son, it will be up to you.”
Tim squeezed Julie’s hand before she could respond. She knew he had his father’s Living Will in his jacket pocket. She knew it said George didn’t want to be kept alive on machines if there was no hope for returning to a normal life. In one of those time-stands-still moment, Tim reviewed all he had experienced with his Dad. How his Dad had always accused him of not making the manly decisions. Tim looked Julie in the eyes and straightened his shoulders. She assumed it would be a relief to Tim if his father died sooner rather than later.
“Doctor Anson,” Tim said with a strong, voice, “My Dad would have wanted to be kept alive as long as possible.” Tim felt Julie flinch.
“Then, it’s okay with you if we put him on a respirator?”
“Absolutely. He’d want nothing less.”
“Do you want to see him?”
Tim and Julie nodded solemnly. They followed the doctor to the cubicle. The blue curtain was drawn and there was George, all but naked, with tubes and monitors everywhere. It was the first time Tim had ever seen him look scared. George calmed down noticeably when he saw Tim, knowing Tim would do what he’d been told to do.
Tim stood between the doctor and George, hiding the sudden terror in George’s eyes. Then he turned around, and asked,
“He seems so distraught, can you give him something to help him relax?”
“Of course. We’ll sedate him while we put him on the respirator and give him enough medication to keep him relaxed,
but still alert and able to enjoy his life and visitors.”
“I know that’s exactly what he’d want,” Tim smiled at the doctor. “May I have a private moment with Dad before you put him on the respirator?”
“Sure, I’ll be at the desk. Just let me know when you’re done.”
As the curtain closed behind the doctor, Tim moved closer to his Dad; their eyes met, George’s panicked, Tim’s determined. Tim leaned forward.
“You know, Dad, they say payback is a bitch.” He leaned closer to George’s ear. “You’ll never see Kaitlin again, and you won’t be able to die. You see, after all these years I guess I finally grew a pair. You’re never going to rag on me again. You’re never going to make cracks about Julie again. It’s over. Except…you aren’t. You’re going to rot on this respirator in an anonymous nursing home for the rest of your miserable life. Proud of me now?”
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