Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Game of Scrabble

My elderly parents’ decision to relocate to a small, quaint two-bedroom house in a sleepy Ohio town just a ten-minute drive from my sister’s farmhouse came out of left field and confused the heck out of me.

“We considered your area,” my mother explained in a phone call, trying to make certain that I didn’t feel slighted. “But it’s such a big city and so expensive.”

I was relieved. Overseeing my parents’ care in the last years of their lives was not on my “To Do” list.

“And while I’d love to live in France at John’s place, your father would never agree,” she said somewhat wistfully. “So when your sister said there was a house for sale in Yellow Springs, we decided to have a look.”

My baby sister had one upped me without saying a word.

“And?” I said.

“And it’s adorable.”

I couldn’t envision my parents squeezing into a small house after having lived in large, beautiful spaces for most of their adult lives. But more power to them. I admired their guts and their faith in a future. How many people in their late 80s moved anywhere except into a nursing home or in with a son or daughter?

“Dad’s willing to live in Yellow Springs?” I said. “What about golf? And the winter?”

“For now, we’ll go there in the summer and fall and come back to Sarasota for the winter.”

“Does the house need work?” I said, wondering whether my sister knew what she was getting herself into.

“It really doesn’t need much, though we’re talking about putting on an addition off the bedroom. And we might fix up the attic, put in a bathroom, and a separate entrance for live-in help, if and when we ever need it.”

I should have known. My mother and her plans. Always one step ahead of the game.

“And the fact is that now we’ll be only a short plane ride away from you or a five-or-so-hour drive.”

The initial relief at not having to care for my parents quickly turned to guilt. I was the oldest child, the one who should have made the offer. But there was no way I could bring my parents to Chicago. I was back at work full-time. And my mom could barely walk up the front stairs of our home the last time she visited.

“When are you moving up? I said.

“As soon as we can.”

My sister had plenty of time on her hands. She hadn’t been employed for years. Sure, she had her art and her farm that kept her busy. But it wasn’t the same as going to work every day. Besides, she had a close-knit group of female friends who knew and loved my parents. I was sure that they would pitch in. I vowed to visit often and prove to my parents that I loved them as much as my sister did.

It didn’t take long for my sister to call and ask if I could stay with my parents while she and a friend went camping. I was pleased to help her out but had to hold back reminding her that she’d gotten herself into this whole thing. What did she expect?

My dad was at the side door when I pulled my car into the driveway. “How was the drive?” he said, giving me a quick kiss on the lips.

“I got caught in the usual morning rush hour traffic in Chicago. After that, it was a breeze. Took me less time than I thought.”

“Good. That’s good.” He put my suitcase down on the driveway. “Listen, I want to talk to you before you go inside.”

Now what? I ‘d only just arrived.

“Things aren’t going well with your mother.”

“What’s wrong?” I said, already wishing that I hadn’t come. My sister wanted my parents close by. She should have been there to handle this.

“It’s just so hard to see her like this.”

“What’s ‘like this’ mean?”

My dad choked on his words. “She’s not herself. Her memory is shot.”

“It must be hard for you,” I said, trying to mirror his feelings when I really wanted to ask him why he was spending every day on the golf course instead of with my mother.

“I can’t take it anymore. It’s wearing me out.”

“How do you think mom feels? You think this is easy for her?”

“I don’t think she has a clue.”

“Oh, sure she does. But she’s made up her mind to accept things. She told me on the phone the other day that she’s just happy to be alive.”

“Well, I’m not! This getting old business is for the birds.”

I laughed. “You mean ‘not for sissies.’ That’s what you’ve always said. ‘Getting old is not for sissies.’”

He didn’t crack a smile. Where had his sense of humor gone? He’d always been the kibitzer, the one making the jokes, a lot of them off-color. Now he’d turned into a bitter, old man whom I no longer recognized and didn’t like.

“And I can’t get her to do a thing,” he said. “She spends half the day in bed.”

My sister had told me that my mother loved to go out and be pushed in her wheelchair but that my dad was never willing to go along.

I wanted to push his buttons, to see for myself. “Well, maybe we can go for a walk into town. Get an ice cream. Mom loves ice cream.”

“We’ll see,” he said without conviction.

“How’s your golf game these days?” I said, picking up my suitcase and moving toward the house.


“But you’re still out there, plugging away.”

“It’s a waste of time.”

“But it gets you out of the house.” Away from mom, I thought. But I swallowed the thought. I was afraid that he’d yell at me or, worse yet, never love me again.

My mother sat in the small living room with an unopened book on her lap. She looked good, a bit heavier than usual but more relaxed. Maybe it was a blessing of sorts that she no longer had to create those “To Do” lists and worry about managing her life and everybody else’s. She recognized me. That was all that mattered.

I was shocked when, later in the evening, my mother suggested playing Scrabble.
I glanced at my dad, trying to gauge his reaction. In years past, our family often sat at the dining room table and enjoyed a good game of Scrabble or a couple rounds of Word Duel. My mother was almost always the winner and usually racked up double the points of her nearest competitor. But now she had trouble doing simple things like following a recipe, completing a crossword puzzle for beginners, or following a conversation. She was a shadow of the sharp, responsible, powerful woman she used to be; I couldn’t count on her for much of anything. And that pissed me off. How could she abandon me and apparently not give a damn?

“Well, are you two ready to play?” my mother said. She’d made her way to the small breakfast table with the Scrabble game in hand.

Again, I looked at my father who hadn’t budged from the wicker chair. I thought of our conversation earlier in the day and wanted to encourage him. “C’mon, dad,” I said, grabbing his hand and pulling him up from the chair. “Let’s play Scrabble.”

My mother dropped a few of the word tiles on the floor, and that drove my dad nuts. “Shirley!” he said. “Quit dropping the tiles.”

“Oh, Mor,” she said. “What’s the big deal?”

“They’ll fall into the heating vent. That’s the big deal.”

I hated my dad for being so damn insensitive. Each time she dropped a tile, I shot him a nasty look, bent down, and picked up the tile. None of them ever got close to the vent.

My mother was having trouble making a word. I looked at her letters and saw at least two obvious possibilities. I resisted helping her because I thought she’d be humiliated.

“Shirley,” my dad said in that accusative voice of his. “You’re taking too much time.”

She looked at him and glared. All I could do was shake my head in disgust and wonder how my parents had stayed together for sixty-eight years. I ached for them and vowed not to let my own marriage sink into the depths of barbs and misunderstandings.

My mother continued to stare at her letter tiles. At one point, she picked up a letter and started to place it on the board. I held my breath. “No,” she mumbled, realizing in that split second that she’d forgotten whatever word had filtered in and then out of her mind. It was pathetic, really. The woman who could do The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle without a dictionary could no longer form one stinking word.
“Shirley,” my dad said again. “You’re taking too much time!”

That did it. My mother threw her tiles on the table, shoved her chair from the table, said something about “Play your own damn game,” and marched into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

I sat, my arms folded in front of me, fuming. “You’re a mean man.”
He flinched but, instead of hollering, he asked me to please go talk to my mother and bring her back to the table.

“That’s your job, not mine,” I said, trying to keep my voice down so my mother wouldn’t hear.

“I just can’t stand to see her this way,” he said, trying to explain. I didn’t give a damn about his feelings. He’d become a stranger to me.

“Please, Jane,” he said. “Go get you mother.”

I knew my going wouldn’t solve a thing. My parents needed to work this one out themselves. “You should go,” I said. “You’re the one who upset her.”

My dad put his hand on top of mine. His hand was severely sun damaged, covered by red and purple blotches and open sores. The blotches disgusted me.

“I’m asking you to go get your mother,” he said, no longer softly pleading but commanding me to act.

I pulled my hand from under his and placed it ceremoniously on my lap.

My dad had removed his glasses. The deep indentation from the nose clips on either side of his long, prominent nose and the dark, puffy shadows under his blue but now milky eyes made him look like the old man he was. Despite myself, I felt sorry for him. Sorry for him, for my mom, and for me. Our family was falling apart, disintegrating in front of my eyes.

“I’m doing this for me,” I said, getting up from the table, pushing the chair away.

I found my mother standing at the end of the bed. She’d taken off her robe and was wearing a cotton, sleeveless nightgown. I couldn’t tell from the blank look on her face whether she even remembered what had just transpired.

“I am so proud of you, mom,” I said. And I meant it. “Most people who have memory problems would never dare to suggest playing Scrabble. But you jumped right in and gave it your best shot.”

She looked at me adoringly. “You’re the best daughter any mother could ever ask for,” she said, encircling her arms around me and pulling me close.

I nestled my head in between her large breasts and felt safer and more comfortable with her than I had since she betrayed my trust and read my diary some forty-five years earlier.

“Why don’t you come back to the table?” I said, reaching for her hand and leading her back to the kitchen.

She shuffled behind me, taking small, uncertain steps.

My dad managed a faint smile. “Glad you’re back,” he said.
I bet you are. I saved your ass.

I pulled my mother’s chair out and, still holding her hand, placed her body squarely in front of the chair before having her sit down.

“Now where were we?” she said enthusiastically as if nothing had happened. She reached into the velvet purple bag and picked seven letter tiles, carefully placing them on her wood rack.

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