This is about how we move…
Dad moves by alternating shuffles and stumbles. His feet hover, barely, but don’t lift. His knee constantly throbs. The progression of his illness is sometimes slow, other times fast, but the trajectory is always down. He can’t even complain much about it, since his voice is leaving him; it gets softer each day. He can no longer be heard in restaurants. Falling is a constant worry. My Stepmom won’t let him take walks alone anymore. His lower lip trembles when he tells me this, and I wonder if it’s an involuntary tremor of his uncooperative nervous system, or a display of genuine emotion.
I’m seven, at a cousin’s graduation party. Dad sits next to me. I can feel his foot tapping, shaking the tablecloth. The guests, including us, had been directed to return to their tables. Previously, I was planted at a tiny bar, where I ordered one Shirley Temple after another. Dad does his half whistle, half hum thing.
“Mom,” he says, using his odd nickname for me, the origins of which I have long forgotten. Leaning over, a twinkle in his eye, he says: “Let’s go dance.” His black hair is slicked back from a prominent widow’s peak, the strands perfectly spaced by the comb.
“No one is dancing yet,” I tell him. Is it even allowed? I think. Doesn’t someone have to come around to the tables, tell us it’s time?
“That’s exactly why we have to go,” he explains. “We have to break the ice. Once we go, everyone else will follow. You’ll see,” he tells me, with an authority only grown-ups have. I hesitate merely a second and then take his proffered hand. The rough calloused mitt has a familiarity that is instantly comforting.
We take the dance floor, Dad leading me through songs with the same three-step box waltz he always dances, counting under his breath: “One, two, three, one two, three.” He likes adding flourishes, leaning back and swinging his arm in a circle. My brother and sister and I call that the lasso maneuver. He whistles, does the lasso, tilts his head back, than guides me with his non-lasso hand. I have forgotten to be embarrassed and start having fun, taking turn after turn and making myself dizzy. The eyelet-edged dress Mom made for me swishes around my skinny legs.
Dad’s right, too. Before the music even dies on the first song, people start coming out to join us. Soon there’s a big crowd on the dance floor, cousins and uncles and aunts, nieces and godparents, all mingling. People start leaning over and patting Dad or me on the back, circling in and out of our periphery. I see aunts and uncles, who haven’t been seen to smile in years, laughing and dancing. Dad grabs my hand and leads me into a spin, a neat out and in with one flick of his wrist. At the end, he always dips me, no matter what song is playing.
This is about what we learn…
Dad learned boxing. And not just the sport of boxing and the rules of boxing, allowing him to follow along with matches and understand calls. He learned the history of boxing in Philadelphia, read books about the key players – boxers and promoters. I spent my childhood watching televised boxing matches, Dad yelling at the screen when a ‘ref’ made a call he didn’t like. Mom even made Cigarette Girl costumes for my sister and I one Halloween – complete with Playboy bunny leotards with fluffy bunny tails and long bunny ears.
Dad has fond memories of trips to the Blue Moon, a boxing ring in Philly, to watch live boxing matches. I learn it’s still open. I get tickets, hoping the familiar environment will be good for him. The journey inside is a minefield of folding chairs and stretched legs, a slick reflective gymnasium floor, and a cavernous ceiling with poor acoustics for a soft-spoken Parkinson’s patient. I can’t understand anything he’s saying to me as we navigate the room. I have second thoughts about this field trip as I hover by his elbow, helping him get into a seat. Maybe I made a mistake, I think, and I imagine my Stepmom’s disapproving glare if I were to drop him off with a new bruise blossoming on his face. Dad would probably make a joke about going a round with an aluminum chair, but AnnaMarie would never laugh.
But once we are seated safely in our uncomfortable folding chairs, his cane jutting into the aisle, Dad scans the room and starts talking. He tells me a memory of another night in this place, years ago, an epic boxing match he can recount round by round. Then, he starts gesturing towards people as they walk into the room: “See that guy with the fur hat?” he asks, and when I nod, he continues, telling me the names of every promoter who walks in the door, first last and middle, and details about their careers and lives even they may have forgotten.
The spring of 1985, I am ten. It’s dinnertime. The five of us are arranged around the dinner table. Dad sits at the head, facing my sister, Maria, who gets the other head. Mom abdicated the head to Maria – to be close to the stove, she once explained. Mom rarely sits, anyway, always flitting around the small kitchen space, always doing something. Dad, in contrast, inhabits his chair like a throne, everything he needs placed within his reach.
Dad turns to me: “How was school today, Mom?”
I am sitting to his right, my brother between us, and I crane my neck around Joe’s head to see Dad’s face. “Good. Miss Bassetti wants us to do projects on George Washington. We have to…”
“How is Miss Bassassasetitini?” Dad interrupts, doing his little joke and changing the name to make it sound funnier.
“She’s okay,” I say, slower now. “So she told us today…”
“Miss Bassassasetitini. And how is Lucas Marchessissanni? Luke Marchessissanni.”
“He’s fine, I guess. He’s not in my class anymore.” I look down, start eating my peas one at a time. Poke, put in mouth, chew, swallow, poke, put in mouth, chew, swallow. Dad turns to my sister, attempts to goad her into a funny anecdote, forgets about me.
This is about what we remember…
The first birthday card Dad bought for me was when I turned 23. He mailed it to my post-college apartment. This was before everything: Before Dad got sick, before my parents divorced, before he met my Stepmom, before I moved back to Philadelphia to go back to school. My parents had separated, though, and Dad was living by himself in the house – Maria was married, Joe and I had gone away for college and other things.
The birthday card was sent two weeks early, and I knew he was hedging his bets with my birthdate. I knew he only remembered my birth month because it was the same as his. I was used to Mom’s loopy, neat cursive, and her Miss Manner sensibilities, always addressing envelopes to me with “Miss Melissa Rosato,” and later changing it to “Dr.” Dad’s handwriting was jarring, half cursive and half print, the letters all different sizes. My name was misspelled on the envelope. I no longer recall if he added an extra ‘l’ or omitted the extra ‘s.’
It’s the summer that I am eleven, and Dad invites me to go to work with him. We climb into his van, my pale pink sneakers looking out of place against the dusty black floorboards. His worker called out; he needs an extra hand to catch fished wires or to fetch tools. Dad has deemed this a man’s job, so I figure my brother must be unavailable for him to be taking me.
“See that house there,” Dad asks me, pointing to a row home as we drive by. “The one with the blue door. That’s Mr. Smits’ house. I did some work for him, put in some high hats, updated the electric.”
Dad smoothly shifts lanes, his right foot on the gas and left foot on the brake, a habit formed from his years driving stick shifts.
“He has this dog,” he explains, “every time I came to the front door to start work, that dog would bark and bark. I could hear him wrestling the dog on the other side of the door, ‘Precious, come to Daddy, Precious,’ I would hear him saying to the dog. He talked to that dog like he was a person.” Dad laughs, shakes his head.
I laugh with him, watching his profile, his five o’clock shadow already creeping up on his cheeks before it is even noon. The old van has no air conditioning, and our faces shimmer. My pale legs stick to the vinyl seat, and I keep readjusting, peeling my thighs away and repositioning on another sticky spot. The dashboard knobs are greasy from his work-stained hands; a roll of toilet paper hides in the corner of the wide dash for the houses still under construction.
“He got that dog a couple years ago. The neighbor told me his partner died, and a few months later he got that dog. His partner, you know, a guy,” Dad adds, an implication in his inflection, and I nod, even though I don’t know exactly what he means.
Dad does residential electrical work, so he is often in the middle of people’s lives, able to observe their domestic day to day activities in a way that only handymen like electricians and plumbers can. Driving through Philadelphia city streets, Dad will point out all the row homes where he did electrical work. He remembers surprising details of each job, and details about the clients’ personal lives as well. He also remembers two or three ways to get to any location in the city. He works in a pre-social media era, pre-GPS era; everything he remembers is stored in his own memory banks.
This is about what we do…
Dad does attend my brother’s high school play. It is understood by all of us that he would not be here if Mom hadn’t forced him. He picked fights with Mom the hour before we were scheduled to leave, wondering angrily why the trash cans hadn’t been emptied on the second floor, distracting Mom as she was trying to do her hair. The car ride over was full of tension, Dad angrily whistling while he drove aggressively in a way he knows upsets Mom. But the play itself relaxed us all, and my delight at seeing my brother on stage made me giddy. We make our way to the backstage door, taking our cue from other families who have done this before. Mom has a bouquet ready, and Maria, Mom and I pounce on Joe when he comes through, peppering him with questions. Dad is silent and sullen on the sidelines, with empty hands and stiff arms. He does not offer flowers, or hugs, or even words. The look on his face is one we are intimately familiar with: I’m missing my favorite TV show for this?
The summer of 1987, I am twelve. It’s our one-week Jersey shore trip, a ritual every summer. Most years Dad doesn’t join us until the last night or two of vacation. But this year he comes for the whole week. Mom has sacrosanct vacation rituals, and every night we walk the boardwalk. We play in the arcade or shop in the boardwalk mall or ride rides. Dad opts out, the neon glare from the TV already reflecting off his face as he watches us getting ready to go out.
On the walk back, our purchases in crinkly plastic bags and our faces smeared with traces of powdered sugar, we get caught in a downpour. It’s one of those quick, heavy downpours, coming on us without warning in sheets.
Mom starts running but keeps falling behind, yelling “Oh Jesus Christ, hurry up!” Her white jersey knit shorts are soaked to the skin.
My brother sprints ahead, his knees making sawing motions high in the air, saying “I have to pee, I have to pee!” in time to the leg swings.
My sister becomes so doubled over with laughter she stops, leans forward, anchoring her palms onto her thighs, laughing in that way that makes no sound, her dark brown hair wetly matted to one side of her head.
The rain keeps coming down in sheets, getting harder and harder as we reach the end of the boardwalk. Our shoes become quieter on the tar street, the wooden boards no longer slapping out our rhythm. Then, our voices echo through the metal and Astroturf stairwell and across the porch as we climb the two flights up to our hotel room.
Mom, still laughing, says “Shhhshhh, shut up, your father,” and I instinctively look at Joe who I know will be angry at this suggestion.
I feel a stab of defiance, thinking: Why can’t we laugh loudly, what’s wrong with that? as Maria pulls open the door to our room with a hearty tug.
Dad meets us at the door with a disapproving look. “I could hear you halfway down the block,” he says, “You probably woke up half the hotel.” He is already wearing his slippers, and his hair is flattened in back where his head was resting on the recliner.
Mom’s voice is gentle but she stands her ground, “Joe, they’re on vacation,” while my brother stomps into the bedroom, too mad to speak.
“Everyone else in the hotel is probably still out,” I say brazenly, and Maria laughs as she looks through her purchases, trying not to crinkle the bags too much.
This is about what we know…
My Stepmom knows Joe doesn’t sign his name to Dad’s cards. She thrusts a card in front of my face.
“Melissa, is this Maria’s handwriting?” she asks.
I recognize the birthday card Maria bought for Dad, and signed our names to. Or, more precisely, the card she bought that she and I signed our names to, and then added Joe’s.
“Do you know how upset it makes your father that Joe never signs his own name to his cards?” she asks me, assaulting me with another question before I have even been allowed to answer the first.
AnnaMarie cannot stop complaining about my brother to Maria and me. She cannot get over the fact that he is often in between jobs or that he doesn’t feel the need to mark his union with an actual marriage. She cannot forgive him for the one time he sent her a clipped email after a communication mistake, or the time he asked for a loan. This is her latest on the long list of Joe offenses: Not signing his own name to Dad’s cards.
It’s any year in the 1980s or early 1990s. Christmas is a big deal in our house. Mom loves decorating, laying down sheets of white cottony material – to mimic snow – on the cold front window ledge, lining each window perfectly with tiny white lights. She was delighted one year to find mechanical dolls of Victorian-era children dressed in Christmassy attire, the girl holding a candle, the boy a lamp. The boy’s arm moves his lamp back and forth again and again to peer through the darkness of our street.
Joe likes to help, enjoying the challenge of one-upping themselves each year. He stands at the base of the ladder patiently while mom unspools the tangled lights, and helps her plug in each strand to test it. If one strand doesn’t light, he patiently makes his way down the long strand, examining each tiny bulb one by one until he finds the culprit. When he takes out the repair kit and sits on the floor, hunched over the faulty bulb, I come over to watch him. He patiently unbends the tiny copper wires and removes the bulb, and then positions the new bulb just so, fitting the copper wires into their home, bending them just right.
The mechanical doll’s arm of the Christmas window display makes a sound like water rushing through a pipe at regular intervals as it swings. Dad complains: “I can’t hear the TV with all this noise.” He shuffles around the living room in his slippers and wife-beater T-shirt, frowning. Every year, Dad scowls when Mom pulls out the dusty boxes of decorations from the basement. He never helps decorate, and seems angry when neighbors compliment them.
Christmas morning is epic. Three sets of gifts are neatly piled under the brightly decorated Christmas tree, a different wrapping paper for each of us, neat tags labelled: To Melissa, From Santa. Joe usually wakes up first, excited. Sometimes he hides with a camera, poised at a spot with a good view of the stairs, so he can catch our expressions when we see the gifts for the first time.
Mom always sets one gift apart for each of us, a gift that isn’t from Santa but from her. She labels the tag: From Mom and Dad, and signs Dad’s name to the card. As I got older I noticed it was always only her handwriting on the cards and gifts. And many years later, I learned that Mom did it all herself. Dad wouldn’t ask about buying gifts for Christmas, wouldn’t discuss toy possibilities with Mom the weeks prior. He wouldn’t ask if she needed help buying the presents or even whether she was buying them at all.
Christmas eve, Dad would silently go upstairs to bed, the same time he always did. He left Mom to play Santa alone. One year, when Mom jokingly needlepointed “Bah, Humbug” in bright green onto the brim of a Santa hat for him, Dad frowned, didn’t get the joke. But he plopped it on his head every Christmas, shuffling around the living room in between balls of discarded wrapping paper and bits of curled ribbon, looking lost.
This is about what we accept…
We accept Dad’s illness, now. But for a time, Maria, Joe, and I did not accept it. When my father started showing signs of Parkinson’s and dementia, sometime in his 60s, we didn’t believe it. We were all college grads, and me a family physician. My Stepmom kept reporting inconsistencies to us – things my Dad couldn’t remember or didn’t do properly – as signs of impending trouble. She took him to a neurologist and relayed the potential diagnoses. But for several months, Maria, Joe and I whispered to each other our doubts. She seemed to be overreacting, picking out small errors like a forgotten name or date, and presuming the worst. We also chafed at her infantilization of Dad – talking about him in front of him, reminding him of his mistakes constantly.
“Remember last weekend, when the neighbors were outside on their lawn, dear?” Dad asks. I recognize a laugh getting ready to bubble up behind his words, a suppressed mirth Dad gets when he wants to joke about something or poke fun at someone. He wants AnnaMarie to join in the joke with him. But as usual, she does not take the bait.
“Joe,” she says with an exasperated twinge to her voice and a slight eye roll, “that was two weekends ago. Last weekend we were at Jennifer’s house.”
Dad and I are sitting in front of the T.V. We are watching a ‘M.A.S.H.’ rerun, my father’s favorite show. He laughs with the audience at every joke, but I don’t understand why most of them are funny. It’s how we spend our evenings, though – watching the TV shows that Dad likes. Mom will often stay in the kitchen, reading one of her many books or chatting with a friend on the phone. Maria is often out with friends after dinner, and Joe often locks himself in his bedroom, playing on the computer.
I’m the youngest, and I take whatever toy I am playing with these days and find a spot in the living room. I watch Dad out of the corner of my eye, waiting for him to engage me. Some nights are quiet nights, nights when he watches his shows in silence. Other nights, he’ll talk.
When the commercial advertises a made-for-TV movie, an actor we know well playing the villain, he remarks: “He can’t do that, he’s Boomer!” He knows it will make me laugh, and I do laugh. I take the bait.
“I know! What’s Boomer doing? He can’t be the bad guy!” I reply, happy to have this familiar back and forth with Dad, happy to share something with him.
“What’s that about?” Dad asks.
The question is rhetorical, but I want to answer. It’s what sets us apart, in the end. Me, always wanting to answer and wanting to know the answers, and Dad, never answering, never telling me what it’s all about.