The Box of Daughter

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The Last Visit

This is a short story based on my last visit with my father a year before his death. The story won Honorable Mention in Warren Adler's 2011 Short Story Contest.

The Last Visit
by Katherine Mayfield

I pull slowly into a parking spot at the Columbia Home and turn off the engine. The mingled smell of horseflesh and exhaust from the trailer I couldn't pass for twenty miles on the two-lane road still lingers in the rental car. My muscles are grumping from the heavy heat and the long flight, and I lean my head back against the headrest, giving in to a short sigh of resignation. I hadn’t wanted to come, but my need to comfort has always been stronger than my desire to keep myself safe.

I shoot off a small prayer to the universe that things will go well and that this time I’ll finally be able to make some kind of peace with the situation. I haul myself out of the car, the hot metal searing my fingers as I slam the door, and head toward the entrance. Turning my gaze from the empty fountain and wilted flowers, I hurry up the walk and buzz the door to get in.

My relationship with my father had always been difficult. An explorer from birth, my innate need to examine, investigate, and discover the world around me had continually bumped up against his devout Protestant rigidity and his unwavering belief that there was only one way to live life: his way.

Without my consent, my mind spews images from my childhood: my father teaching me to hammer and saw, his gentle voice encouraging me to take my time; stumbling into my brother’s room and seeing him lying face-down on his bed, silent and still, as my father raises the belt above him; my father asking in the daily blessing of food that our home be a happy one. The love and fear clash and mingle in my heart, and, with nerves tingling, I remind myself that at 92, my father is no longer a real threat to me.

The buzzer sounds, and the scent of bleach drifts to my nostrils as I push the front door open. At least they keep the place smelling clean. Stalling for time, I stop at the nurses' station to ask how my father is. I get the usual report: “He's doing fine.”

Grabbing a big breath, I head to his room. The last time I visited, I made my entrance shortly after dinner when he was getting ready for bed, and walked in on him sitting with his pants half off, waiting for the nurse. This time, I peek around the door frame as I knock. Fully dressed, he’s napping peacefully in his wheelchair, his gray goatee resting gently on his blue bow tie. At this moment, I remember that I love him, and I gingerly step into the room. It’s hard to believe that this withered body holds the soul of the man who built me a playhouse and taught me to ride a bike.

I pull a chair over and sit down next to him. My eyes drop to his shrunken forearms, and the image of them slaps against a childhood memory of his fist raised in the air four feet above me. I look around the room for something to distract me from the mental replay, but the nausea overtakes me, and my hand shakes as I gently pat his shoulder.

“Hi, Dad.”

I've grown used to repeating myself over the years, and I struggle to keep the annoyance out of my voice as I raise the volume.

“Hi, Dad. Did you have a good nap?” Waking often seems to be an ordeal for the elderly, as if they're not only sleeping, but already visiting whatever dimension they're getting ready to travel to, and they have to come all the way back to wake up.

A sigh spills out, as if he’s distressed to find himself still here. I wait to see if he can still figure out who I am.

“When did you get here?”

“Just now,” I say.

“It took you long enough.”

Swallowing my anger, I clench my jaw and say, “They're serving dinner soon. Would you like me to wheel you down?” He looks at me for a moment, as if he doesn’t understand, and then he nods slowly.

The ordeal of moving through the line in the dining room behind the other elderly residents and choosing what to eat leaves me with little appetite. With guilty relief, I see the nurse pick up his tray and help him settle himself at the table. This time there’s no conversation as we eat. Not only can he not hear most of what I say, but the arduous process of getting food to his mouth takes most of his attention.

When I bring him back to his room after dinner, he points to the desk.

“Open the drawer,” he says. “There's something important I want to show you.”

I turn his wheelchair to face the desk, and pull my chair around so we can get at the drawers.

I open the top drawer, but after peering inside, he shakes his head. It’s not in there. I open the next drawer; not in there either. And the last drawer: no, not in there. His disappointment shows plainly on his face, and I wonder whether he really had something in mind that he wanted to show me, or whether going through the desk was just something we could do together.

Then I notice the plastic laughing box he used to love, the one where you push a button and an old man laughs hysterically. With a glimmer of hope that I might be able to distract him out of the dissatisfaction of his dementia, I pull it out of the drawer and push the button, hoping to brighten his face for at least a moment. Crazy laughter fills the room.

His face turns red. He scowls and pounds his fist on the arm of the chair, and like a scared rabbit, I rush into the hall to take the batteries out so it will stop. I find myself blinking, my hand in a death-squeeze on the batteries as I recover from my body's automatic response. And once again, I feel as if I can never make up for the mistakes I always make when I’m around him. It doesn’t seem to matter that they’re unintentional.

I swallow my fear, and manage to step back into the room. I look at him sitting there, slumped in his wheelchair as if the small display of emotion has drained him, and I make myself move back to him. I ask if he would like to go outside to sit in the garden. He says yes, so after carefully putting the laughing box back in the drawer, I pick up his favorite cap, gently place it on his head, and wheel him out.

The softness of the evening air whispers against my face as we step outside. A lacy fretwork of sunlight through leaves decorates the patio, and birdsong floats through the trees as I settle my father’s wheelchair and sit on the bench. He points at a small metal sign stuck in the rich soil: “God lives in the garden.”

He says, “I like it here.”

I lean close so he can hear. “Me, too. It’s beautiful.”

We sit in silence for awhile, and I notice him staring at the sign. Setting my own belief system aside to offer comfort from his, I ask if he would like me to say a prayer. After a moment, he nods, and ignoring the unexpected flame of old resentment in my chest, I move closer and put my arm around his shoulders. He bows his head, and I close my eyes.

I’m not sure exactly what to say, but I feel a powerful need streaming out of him, and I want to address it, to bring him some kind of comfort and peace. “Dear God,” I hesitate over the word, but push on. “Thank you for the lovely evening, and for our chance to be together again.” My stomach is jumping. Will my prayer be good enough for my father, who has said thousands of prayers over his lifetime? “We ask that you grant us peace on our journey, wherever we may go. I ask you especially for peace for my father, who has lived a life in your service.” I have to clear my throat, and I feel his shoulders shake for a moment under my arm. “Bring comfort to his heart and soul, and be with him as he travels on from here. Bless us and guide us as we move forward into the unknown. Amen.”

I have to squeeze my eyes for a moment before I can open them. My father’s head is still bowed, and his thin, white hands are trembling on the arms of the wheelchair. I swallow the lump in my throat, and rub his shoulder for a moment. We sit silently again as the birds serenade us and the soft breeze flutters the leaves.

When it starts to get chilly, I wheel him slowly back to his room, wishing with all my heart for both of us to find peace. I settle his wheelchair by the window so he can watch the sun set over the garden where we sat.

I lean down to kiss his cheek, and say, “I love you, Dad. Goodnight.”

He blinks, and his head jerks slightly. After a moment, he looks up at me and whispers, “I love you, too.”

He turns to look out the window, and as I leave the room, I notice he’s smiling.

I hope you enjoyed the story. Here's an interesting website about how the father-daughter relationship can affect your romantic relationships.

Copyright © 2017 Katherine Mayfield. All rights reserved.

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This site includes information on the subject of family dysfunction. Information represents one writer's point of view, is for general purposes only, and is not to be construed in any way as professional counseling or mental health advice.