what HAPPENED to your pants

I really wanted to know what the world looked like through dad’s eyes as his vision continued to worsen. At the donut shop one day we sat at a small table facing each other and I asked him, “Dad, tell me what you can see when you look at me.” He told me that most of what he saw was a silhouette…he really couldn’t see the features of my face any longer. I paused to ponder a world without all the spectacular details that it held for us…but somehow he had made peace with this. Whatever life tossed at him, he found a way to deal with it – he just kept on going.

Once when we were driving, he sneered from the passenger seat, “Don’t try it you son of a gun”, to a driver about to pull out of his driveway into our lane. “How could you see that guy,” I asked. He said he could still see out of the corner of his eye quite well, and he could – he’d caution me about bike riders or pedestrians. His eye doctor had told us it would go this way…even when he couldn’t see straight on, he’d still have his peripheral vision. When he first started back seat driving from the passenger seat, I’d bristle, falling into adolescent thoughts of, “Daaaaad, I KNOW how to drive”.

A bit of compassion began to develop in my heart after being wary of this man for much of my life. I remembered that he’d been driving since he was 10 or 11 years old. He’d told stories of “borrowing” his older brother’s car before he could even reach the pedals. He’d drive it around the block without permission when his brother was at work, sometimes leaving it in a slightly different position when he brought it back. He was young enough that he couldn’t figure out how his big brother knew he’d driven it. My father, almost 80 years later, had given up driving on his own accord, and what an enormous thing to give up, so he was still trying to contribute, to have some say, some purpose – it wasn’t at all about my driving, it was about his “not” driving and trying to find some use for himself. With the crazy behavior of LA drivers, it was good having another set of eyes, even if they could only see part of the story.

I walked into the kitchen one morning as he was organizing the refrigerator, carefully positioning each item after he determined its contents. He slid the milk away from the wall of the refrigerator, moved a bowl of leftover salad – which to my father had always meant a few pieces of iceberg lettuce without dressing – so it was not too close to a jar of mayonnaise. Watching him, I realized why he refused to keep much food in the refrigerator. With enough space around each object, he could “see” the silhouette and feel pretty confident that when he grabbed something he’d get what he thought he saw.

I’d taken to writing him notes because he’d begun to forget what I told him more often than he’d remember it. Where I’d gone or when I’d be home were crucial bits of information, and not knowing these caused him great anxiety. He was too proud to tell me that he couldn’t read my notes…but soon enough it became obvious. As I began to better understand the way that the world looked to him, I learned how to write notes that he could actually read. If I wrote large, thick black letters with a Sharpie marker, and with plenty of space around each letter, he could read a written note. Early on, it embarrassed him to have to read notes written with those big, huge letters, but eventually it was more important to be able to read the note than to worry about the fact that it looked like a page out of an elementary school printing lesson.

By the time that we had our last Thanksgiving meal at his home, the refrigerator was covered with these kinds of notes: one with emergency phone numbers, a list of doctors with a word or two describing what they helped him with, the numbers of his caregivers, the numbers for each of his three children. The ENTIRE refrigerator door was covered with these notes, each one using one or more 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets of paper and I have to say, it did look insane. Being that dad and his siblings were neither shy, nor quiet, it was inevitable that one of our dinner guests was going to make a comment about the crazy refrigerator door as soon as they entered the kitchen. His younger sister walked in and the first thing out of her mouth was, “What the hell’s wrong with you? What are all those notes on the refrigerator?” My sister and I shrank to hear her speak to him that way…but we were both smart enough to stay out of the middle of their family drama.

My father’s increasingly limited vision, coupled with the dementia that was now becoming a more and more constant companion, caused changes in his eating habits. A few months after Thanksgiving, we had a smaller family gathering at dad’s house for his 93rd birthday. One of his caregivers made him a beautiful feast – an entire traditional Philippino birthday meal, including barbequed chicken and several noodle and vegetable dishes.

The problem was, he couldn’t see what was on his plate; the chicken had a nondescript shape and the rest was just piles of food to him. He’d had no luck with randomly jabbing at things with his fork. I watched him put it down and then he just dragged his fingers around the plate until they ran into something, he’d grab it, give it a little squeeze to try and figure out what it was, then into his mouth it went. This was the first time I saw him pick up his food with his fingers. I completely understood that this was the best, most practical solution that he could come up with – and he was a very practical man – but I knew this was not going to go over well with his brother and sister, aged 91 and 86. Unfortunately my aunt, who was his baby sister, was sitting right next to dad, and she reacted to him like he was a toddler. Before she could stop herself she slapped his hand and chided, “Don’t eat with your hands! Use a fork!” There had to be some kind of grace present with us at that meal, because luckily dad didn’t haul off and slap her back, instead he just laughed at her, and at himself, and kept using his fingers. “Wow”, I thought, “We are definitely in some new territory here.”

Dad and I were learning our way around each other. I joined him in the living room after returning from my morning walk, wearing a pair of pants that I loved. I thought they were beautiful and they were so comfortable. Sewn out of a rayon batik fabric, they were loose and flowing, with large flowers scattered all over. Dad was sitting on the couch with his arms crossed, facing me. He took one look at me and shouted, “What HAPPENED to your pants?” I didn’t know what he was talking about at first but I knew there was an insult in there somewhere. I looked at him and his whole body was quaking because he was trying so hard not to laugh. “I THOUGHT YOU COULD ONLY SEE SILHOUETTES?” I threw back at him. “Oh I can see THOSE pants just fine…WHAT HAPPENED to them?” There he sat with his characteristic tight-lipped smirk, shoulders bouncing up and down as he tried to hold back his laughter. We had arrived at a good place. Instead of taking it personally I could laugh with him as I imagined how they appeared with his vision; big, baggy pants with very large, dark blotches. By this time he’d had more than a few bathroom emergencies where he’d gotten there just a little too late…he was probably relieved to think that he wasn’t the only one. So what else would he say?

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not bad

We all knew this would probably be the last Thanksgiving at Dad’s house. Growing up, our cousins fondly called it, “Aunt Rose and Uncle Ted’s house”. My parents, that house; they were always there. I remember when one of my cousins visited them after being out of town for years. Gleefully and with a broad smile across his face, he announced, “Your dad’s still sitting in the same position, on the same couch.” I laughed along with him and also rolled my eyes a bit. But it was true…no matter how crazy the world was, we could return to Beeman Avenue to that safe, solid, and yes, maddening consistency, if even just for one evening.

The years rolled on, we cherished the house and all the memories it held for our family. For the last five or ten years that my folks, and then my widowed father, lived in that house, it fell to our family to host the Thanksgiving feast. For all the years that it was her responsibility, this assignment was mom’s nemesis, her unraveling. She was a mother, and a wife who, like most women of her time, cooked all the meals for her family. She’d try some new recipe now and then, but cooking did not make her heart sing…never had, and my father was…well, he was how he was. A man of few words, a man who never, ever, tasted food before dousing it with salt, he was also not one to praise unnecessarily, which from my perspective meant…there was no praise.

So it was no surprise each year as Thanksgiving loomed near – mom’s dread increased. My sister and I in our various ways inherited some of her dread or resistance or insecurity or whatever it was, so sadly we were not the triumphant daughters who would come home and just take over the task.
We helped out for sure and we made a great team. We created the beauty that Thanksgiving at 5219 Beeman Avenue became known for: we ironed all the vintage table linens inherited from mom’s folks, we polished every piece of beautiful silverware and serving pieces that sat hidden the rest of the year in the deep drawers of the breakfront that came out of grandma and grandpa’s living room. We set the tables with the lavish, gold filigree-edged dinner plates that had graced my grandparents’ Sabbath meals as my mother was growing up.

To my astonishment, in those last years, dad found his own tenderhearted way of contributing to the beauty of our evening. Using a tray, which in earlier days would have been piled with his “famous” hamburgers, cooked every weekend on his old-fashioned barbeque, and with a pair of scissors that mom had forbidden anyone else to use, and dad of course broke her rule every time, he’d disappear out into his beloved backyard and cut mountains of bougainvillea flowers bursting with life. What a sight he was…close to ninety-years-old, skinny as a rail, carrying his collage of tangerine, magenta, and scarlet hued flowers into our home.

The tables were rich, sumptuous and oddly out of place, pasted on top of the plain interior of our home. It was a little fairy tale that we all traveled into, together. The den that held our feast began as a large, 1950’s era screened-in porch complete with sloping concrete floor. Dad helped remodel the room in the ‘60’s, keeping the original floor, tiling it with linoleum. This was a great feature if you needed to hose down an outside porch, or if you were a kid rolling toy trains across the floor, but bizarre and unsettling for a bunch of octogenarians, some who were losing their eyesight or hearing, and some gaining dementia in exchange. Dementia was definitely beginning to move into dad’s life in inconsistent but obvious ways. Tinged with bittersweet, we all knew, without speaking of it, this might be the last time.

Neither my sister nor I were up to the task of taking on the actual preparation of the turkey. In mom’s absence we marveled that she had done it for so many years. No matter what several of our well-meaning friends told us about how easy it was to roast a turkey – we knew we could not manage both dad’s increasing unpredictability and our grand lack of confidence around cooking a meal for so many relatives…several of whom had also slipped into the realm of “unpredictable”.
Enter the Angel of Thanksgiving. My sister’s childhood friend happened to be coming down to L.A. for the holiday and she came from a family of fabulous cooks…she loved to cook. After hearing my sister’s description of our dilemma, SHE VOLUNTEERED TO COOK OUR ENTIRE FEAST. Our anxiety-ridden circumstance appeared on her horizon and she was happy to get the opportunity to cook an elegant meal, and to offer a treasured gift to our family.

We, and our home, had never seen such a feast. Yes, we had green beans, but for the first time ever, we had FRESH, delicately cooked green beans, with FRESH herbs. The deliciousness went on and on throughout every detail of the meal. The menu equaled the elegance of the crisp linens, sparkling silver and riotous flowers. It was magnificent.

The air was thick – collectively we were in a food stupor. I sat next to my father and watched him go through the motions he’d made every single night of his married life to signal that he was indeed, finished with his meal. He pushed himself away from the table slightly, took his grand, sage-green, linen napkin, which any other night would have been a small, white paper napkin, and with both hands, gently wadded it up and placed it in the center of his plate.

“How was your dinner, dad?” I asked, truly expecting at least some small amount of praise even though praise was not his style.

After a long silence and looking straight ahead, he responded.

“Not bad.”

I burst out laughing at the absurdity of his reply. How far I’d come, that my unscripted response was pure laughter where years before it would have been anger or resentment or rage. All I could do was laugh.

“Not bad?!” I thought to myself.

“Not Bad?” I flung at him, inside my head.

“NOT BAD?!?!?” I said out loud, incredulous.

I began to describe the subtle and exquisite flavors that Paula had included in this feast that defied any inkling of anything we’d ever eaten as a family. I was on a roll, flinging words right and left. Finally I noticed that dad’s body language had changed ever so slightly. He was still facing straight ahead, but his arms were now crossed, resting at his belt (he had no belly to rest them on) and his shoulders were shaking ever so slightly. That subtle smirk formed across his lips.

“That meal, to quote mom, was ‘INCREDIBLE’,” I informed him.

He nodded his head slightly, saying,

“That’s what I said.”

Time stopped. The earth stopped its rotation. I stopped breathing. Everything stopped.

“THAT’S what NOT BAD means?”

He nodded again, showing a little more movement in his shoulders now, doing his level best to hold back his laughter.

In a complete state of shock, and in the brief space between one sentence and the next, my whole world had been thrown on its head. I had spent a great deal of my childhood and a good chunk of my adult life consciously or unconsciously seeking approval from my father. What I was hearing from him right now was pointing to the very real possibility that much of my quest for approval stemmed from a problem with translation.

Not bad = Incredible

I honestly will never know if my father was only shaking with held back laughter at my reaction to his response about dinner, or if he had a glimpse of our life-long struggles and this issue of mistranslation.

Thankfully, by the time this extremely disorienting discovery arrived, I was able, rather gracefully actually, to take it in stride. TAKE IT IN STRIDE? Well…pretty much.