Mark Killian's "Future Planning"
The Second Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest
They grow up so fast, these parents of ours. It feels like just yesterday I was piling into the back of my dad's fuel-inefficient SUV, sleeping my way through a maze of interstates leading to various colleges and universities scattered throughout the Eastern Standard Time Zone. And now, wrestling his wheelchair into the hatchback of my Prius, I'm trying to understand where the last 30 years went.
"I need to pee," he announces as I climb into the driver seat.
"Can you hold it?" I ask, wiping sweat from my brow – the result of Florida's tea-kettle climate and an unruly handle that refused to play nice with my suitcase.
"Can you handle the smell of boiling piss in your passenger seat all summer?" he replies.
"This is why I bought you those Depends," I say, unbuckling my seatbelt.
"You'd have better luck putting me in a coffin than a diaper," he hacks from the front seat when I open the trunk for Round 2 of my wheelchair battle.
"Don't tempt me," I mumble at a frequency undetectable to his hearing aid.
The sidewalk leading to the front door of the house mirrors the man I'm pushing along the concrete: damaged, deteriorating, covered in weird spots. I reach the turn at the end of the path and pivot to pull him up the steps. I pause, challenging memories of impromptu Wiffle ball games and lawn parties to bow me over, but the nostalgia is weaker than the shallow breaths wisping from my dad's tar-filled lungs.
"You've got about 30 seconds before this chair becomes a Slip'N Slide," he says, clenching his privates with what little thigh muscles he has left.
I lean him back and pull the well-worn wheels up the stairs, each bump eliciting a different way of saying "Watch it." I reach for the door, realizing the keys are still in my cupholder. Without explanation, I bound down the stoop faster than he can say, "What the hell are you doing!?" When I emerge from the car he begins a countdown to incontinence.
"Ten. Nine. Eight."
The time between each number increases once he reaches "five," setting the stage for a photo finish.
"Three," he says as I donkey-kick the front door open and pull him through the threshold.
I wheel him into the bathroom and dash around his chair, undoing his fly and wiggling his pants down his worthless limbs.
I wedge my hands in his armpits and lift him like a defensive lineman, his limp penis bouncing from leg to leg like a Chinese rattle drum.
I plop him on the pot just in time to hear four drops of urine trickle into the toilet.
"Let 'er rip," I say, waiting for a golden waterfall and/or a thank you.
"I just did," he says, his right eyelid twitching in ecstasy.
"You are kidding me," I say, hands on hips, eyebrows to hairline, as if I've been possessed by my mother.
"Son," he says with the timbre of a horse whisperer, "no orgasm you've ever had feels as satisfying as those drops of piss."
"I'll stick with sex," I say, trying to avoid a staring contest with his scrotum while placing him back into his chair.
"How's Brandon doing these days, anyways?" he asks, not out of politeness.
"He's fine," I answer, as if it were.
"Which one of you is the girl again?" he says with the lack of shame people seem to get when Death rings their doorbell.
"At least we can pee standing up," I reply, shutting the door to the house and the topic of discussion.
The trees on either side of the road rush by unrecognized; my eyes trained on the horizon, my dad's resting behind folds of skin. If our roles were reversed, he'd shake my leg and say, "Wake up, you bum! You're missing it," but I never knew what "it" was. I let him sleep, and while he does, I try to figure out how much I'll have to sell his house for in order to cover the cost of his nursing home.
Let's see, the industry average is $205 dollars a day – if he has a roommate. $229 if he doesn't. Multiply that by 365.
"Okay, Google, what's two hundred twenty-nine times three sixty-five?" I ask my digital secretary.
She chirps and replies, "Two hundred twenty-nine by three sixty-five equals eighty-three thousand, five hundred eighty-five."
"Okay, Google, what's two hundred five times three sixty-five?"
"Two hundred five times three sixty-five equals seventy-four thousand, eight hundred twenty-five."
That helps, sort of. Okay, he's 78 now. Let's say he makes it to 85. That's seven years. Let's round up to $75,000 a year.
"Okay, Google, what's seventy-five thousand times seven?"
"The answer is five hundred twenty-five thousand."
Well, awesome. The appraiser said his house is worth just over $400,000, which leaves me with ...
"Okay, Google, what is ..."
"Who the hell are you talking to?" Papa Bear awakens from hibernation.
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that?" Google interjects.
"I'm asking the phone a question."
"A math problem."
"What math problem?"
"Don't worry about it."
"No, ask me," he insists. "I want to see if I've still got it."
"Okay, what is five hundred twenty-five thousand minus four hundred thousand?"
"Are you sure I'm the one who needs to be put in a home?"
"It's one hundred twenty-five thousand, you moron. You have to ask your little computer phone that?"
"I don't have to, but it's easier."
"This is what that college tuition me and your mother paid for got you?"
"It's 'your mother and I,' and I'm about to return the favor several times over."
His splotchy, bald head fills my peripheral vision like a waxing moon as he turns to face the window. He stares, speechless, contemplating God knows what. A doctor would say this is typical behavior of someone suffering from dementia, but I know better. He's been this way since the day I was swaddled and brought home from the hospital – I assume.
Every road trip – from family reunions to touring colleges – he imposed his addiction to silence on us like the secondhand smoke from his Marlboro Reds. No radio. No reading. No sleeping. We couldn't even share what we were thinking. Asking him what was going through his head was like asking, "Are we there yet?" You'd get a "No" – at best – and then, as if he had some kind of James Bond switch beneath the dashboard that sucked even the white noise out through the air vents, we'd drive into a deeper quietude. Well, this is my car, and I like NPR, so to hell with his sound embargo.
Fifty-ish mile markers and several fundraising requests later, we spot the sun-bleached sign of Pleasant Oaks Nursing Home. It's old and withered, and there's a joke in here somewhere, but my wit is too busy marching around my mind shouting, "No Coffee No Funny."
"Look at this quad," I say, indulging in some long-overdue mockery, but he's asleep. I know he's not dead, because the bristles lining his nostrils are swaying in the breeze like a hula skirt.
I hit his window button, hoping the shifting glass will disturb his slumber, but I've underestimated the lack of sensory nerves in those droopy cheeks of his. A little jerk of the wheel should fix this.
There's a thud, followed by a, "WHATWHOWHERE," and after a few shallow breaths, "You drive like an ass."
"Let's check out the dorms," I say, pulling into the oval driveway where an orderly is approaching with a wheelchair and an overwrought smile. "This must be your RA."
"Hellooooo," she says, extending her o's to Guantánamo Bay.
"Hi there," I answer, rolling down the window until my dad's drool stain disappears. "I'm Jeremy. Are you Mary?"
"I am," she says, stunned, like we didn't just talk on the phone a day ago.
"Great," I reply, keeping the energy level high like two parents trying to convince their child that church is going to be fun today. "Sorry we're late, this one and his prostate."
I pat my dad on the shoulder in the same way he patted mine after telling our Clemson tour guide that we were tardy because, "Princess here couldn't decide what to wear." Now I see why he got so much satisfaction from my negative reaction.
"Oh, that's no problem at all," Mary assures us. "Let's get Hank in this chariot and I'll show you two the lay of the land."
"I want mine," Dad says, regressing deeper into adolescence.
"Dad, just get in this one for now," I say, but it's too late. Mary discards the chair like an emptied shopping cart and heads toward my rear bumper.
With minimal kicking and screaming – partially thanks to his deteriorating legs and larynx – we manage to get Dad into his chair and begin our consultation. I offer to push, because I'm a gentleman, and I'm betting Mary will have the hand motions of a stewardess.
"As you can see, this is the main entrance," she says, and I was right. Her fingers dance in front of the motion-sensor doors like a Price Is Right model showing off an armoire. "If you'll follow me, we'll head to our first stop: the activity center."
We – or I, rather – comply, and I wheel my dad into an erroneously named room where the only "activity" taking place is in the movie on the projection screen. Mary assures us they do more than watch movies all day, which I believe – there are also TV shows.
Mary glances at her watch, gulps, and scans the room like a comedian looking for material to extend their set. Her search bears no fruit, so she lifts her animated hands and directs us back out to the foyer.
"How about we take a look at one of our suites?" she says once we clear the doorway, careful not to disrupt the only two residents who haven't mistaken activity hour for naptime.
We push on down a spacious hall that's like a four-lane highway reserved for motorized scooters and EMS stretchers. Ahead on the left, I see a woman with a walker heading in our direction. Beneath her wrinkled skin and mangled posture stands a real looker – the type of girl my dad would've made an inappropriate comment about during our college excursions.
"Bet you'd like to see her campus?" I whisper leaning into his good ear and nudging him in the back with my elbow. His head darts toward the opposing wall, drawing attention by trying not to draw attention. "I think she likes you," I say as we wheel by and follow Mary into a room.
"Here's one of our single suites," she says completing a 360-degree turn with her arms outstretched to demonstrate how spacious it is. "It's the perfect size; small enough to keep everything within reach, but big enough to provide a sense of independence."
"Brings back my dorm days," I say, and her eye twitches as her brain struggles to decipher my motives. This culminates in a laugh – the universal response for "I don't understand." I laugh along to put her at ease and together we decrescendo to normal breathing patterns.
"Well, you two can decide where we go next; a double room or the cafe?" she says, moving her hands up and down like she's playing with an invisible Slinky.
"What do you say, Dad?" I ask, and he replies with an apathetic grunt. "You know what, I could use some coffee. Let's do cafe."
"Sounds good," Mary says, and I sense a but coming on. "However" – close enough – "this facility only serves decaf."
"Level with me, Mary," I reply, sensing weakness in the ripples of her apologetic eyes, "You're telling me there's not a special pot in the kitchen of the nurse's station?"
Mary shields a mischievous smirk with the back of her hand and says, "I may be able to find something." She gives me a wink reminiscent of her eye spasm, and I return the gesture. "The cafe is across the hall. You two wait there, and I'll be right back with your 'decaf' coffee." She puts air quotes around "decaf," and I feel sad about how much fun she's having.
When Mary initiates Operation Caffeination I wheel Dad into the cafeteria. In my head, I pictured a beige, windowless banquet hall with plastic tables and fluorescent lighting, but it seems they reserved the best scenery for eating. The entire right wall is a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking a duck pond lined with oak trees – the only things on this property older than the residents. I push Dad's chair to the center of the glass and grab one from a nearby table for myself.
"You're wrong," Dad says as I take a seat, and I wonder if his dementia is worse than I thought.
"What's that?" I ask.
"This is nothing like college," he answers.
"It kind of is," I argue. "There's great landscaping, brick buildings, meal plans, roommates, classes, activities, tuition; I just wish there was a loan program."
"You can't get a loan on nothing," he says, and retreats to his favorite state of being.
I join him, replaying his words in my head. Each loop chips away at my clever analogy, and I begin to see this place for what it is – what all these places are. I'm scared, but my dad is not. He is stoic, resolute, staring out the window like a kamikaze pilot.
I hear the clinking of metal against ceramic, and Mary enters the cafeteria. I turn and look at her. Her mouth is stuck somewhere between a smile and a frown. She knows what I know. She's known what I know. She approaches and hands me a cup of coffee with a creamer on the saucer. I look down into the mug, and I see me, floating in darkness, alone.
"So where to next?" Mary asks.
I hear Dad say, "It doesn't matter," and for once, we agree.