My father lives at The Grove Memory Unit at Piedmont Gardens in Oakland, California. You have to punch a special code into the keypad in the elevator to get off at his floor. When you leave, you have to punch the same code to call the elevator again. If we want to bring him with us, to go to church or out for ice cream, for example, we must punch a different code into a different keypad on the side of the elevator car, or else the door won’t close and the elevator won’t move. This is so he and his fellow adventurers on the floor can’t escape.
My dad has a little room at The Grove, with a window that can slide open three inches. He has a bathroom and a bathing chair he can sit on so the attendants can simply hose him down as needed. He has a new single bed that we bought him a couple of weeks ago, as the double was too big for the room. It was also too soft. He was trying to use it as a sort of couch since his old couch was also too big for this new unit.
He would try to sit on the bed, but the edge would collapse, and he was regularly sliding off of it into documented falls. The documentation is important because he only gets a certain number of falls. If he passes that number, he’ll have to leave The Grove Memory Unit and move to the Skilled Nursing Facility, or SNF, floor, where he’ll be confined to a bed with rails, sharing a small room with another bed-ridden elder. Each time he falls, staff calls me and lets me know. So we can keep track. So we won’t be surprised when they tell us about the next move.
Every time I move my father, it’s to a smaller and more expensive place. His last “home” was Grand Lake Gardens, where he had an independent living apartment. He never called it home though. He called it The Institute. He called the people who lived there inmates. He also was an inmate. He did this with humor.
He still has his sense of humor, though he’s sliding further into dementia by the day. My kids and I took him to dim sum in Oakland’s Chinatown a couple of months ago. He was in pain. His back hurts him a lot these days. He can’t seem to stand up straight. His musculature simply won’t support his body. He leans crazily over his top-of-the-line walker, slumped at an alarming angle, either forward or to the side.
I say, “Stand up straight, Dad! Dad? Can you stand up straight?” I hold his torso and pull up a little. I try to roll his shoulders back gently.
So there we were at dim sum in Chinatown, my dad wincing, his face somber, ashen. We were ordering all manner of offerings from the dim sum menu and a variety of rolling carts.
It’s fun eating with my dad because he’s a world-famous glutton/gourmand who’s never lost his taste for good food. He doesn’t always know if I’m his daughter or an attendant these days, but get him talking about prime rib or oysters, and you’ll have an astute and alert conversationalist on your hands. Ice cream flavors are another favorite topic. Bring up rum raisin or pineapple sherbet, and he’s right there with you.
Somehow the topic of Rocky Mountain Oysters came up, and my son made a sidelong joke about getting them at a gay bar. To everyone’s amazement my dad chortled. His face, which was contorted in pain moments before, was suddenly wreathed in smiles. He got the joke, muttered across the table by a teen who’s constantly riffing on everything. Dementia or no, his mind was able to catch that off-color joke delivered sotto voce and respond immediately without a beat.
Later, my sister said, “I was so grateful to Ryan for making dad laugh like that. I haven’t seen him like that for months. Did you see his face? It was wonderful.”
He’s also retained his utter and complete kindness and acceptance toward all of humanity. Many folks who slide into dementia get nasty, for some reason. My dad’s financial advisor, Jay, whose mom also went that route, said this wouldn’t happen to my dad. He said, “Your dad is so sweet and kind. I think dementia accentuates certain aspects of a personality. I think your dad will just get sweeter.”
When he was a young man, just graduated from California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, my dad shipped out as a US Navy captain to Japan, where he met the beautiful Keiko at a military club party. They “…rented a little Japanese house near the bridge in Yokuska.” He’d ship out every other weekend. “Keiko would wait for me. Her family didn’t mind her living with me. Japanese don’t hold a grudge.”
My father loved and intended to marry Keiko, but when he approached his parents about the prospect, he was made to understand in no uncertain terms that he would be summarily disowned if he tried. He dutifully broke up with Keiko.
Not long after, he met my mother. He made one more trip to Japan before proposing marriage to my mother. The thing is, my mother was Irish Catholic, which was also unacceptable to my father’s parents. They refused to attend the wedding of their only child.
My father’s father sounds like an terrible man to me, but my dad revered him and said so many times, even when I tried to get him to see the situation differently. When I’d say, “But, dad, that was cruel. Weren’t you upset they didn’t come to your wedding?”, he was mum. If it bothered him, he never confessed it. Same with being thrown off a pier as a young boy to force the child to learn to swim. And the string on the doorknob trick to pull a recalcitrant tooth. That’s just how things were then, he’d say.
I remember my grandfather, a stern, forbidding relic of the Victorian era with blank blue eyes who used to pick me up gruffly and let me run my fingers through the wind chimes hanging from the roof in front of a window in their San Diego apartment.
They were old as could be in those days. My Norwegian grandma, small and slight as a sparrow, married in her 40s. Her husband, my grandfather, was already in his 50s. My father was a miracle baby conceived when his mom was in her mid-40s.
Grace. She had a thin, eager face framed by straight grey hair cut in a bob and fastened with bobby pins. She wore socks with sandals, which now seems to me particularly Scandinavian for some reason. She was forever reaching up to the top shelf of the hall closet to get dark chocolate-covered Thin Mints for us. On the kitchen table reined a pair of salt and pepper shakers in the shape of cats that meowed when you turned them upside-down.
When my father brought my mother to La Jolla to meet his parents after the wedding they boycotted, they welcomed her with a gigantic boiled beef tongue on the table. My mother reportedly got sick. Although she was quite a gourmet herself, highly skilled in the kitchen and not afraid of food, it must have been quite a sight, a whole beef tongue lolling in the center of the kitchen table as a welcome from the family who had rejected her because she was Irish, and Catholic (I don’t know which was worse).
My father accepted everyone. He worked around the world his entire life and had friends of every stripe, color, religion, and culture. He was a merchant marine when I was a young girl, shipping out for months at a time on Matson Lines, bringing Christmas trees to Hawaii and goodies from Asia back to the US. One of his best friends was a black man named Randy. His friends were Latins, African-Americans, East Asians, and Arabs. But he wasn’t self-conscious or political about this in the least and never spoke to us or held forth about race or anything of the sort. He simple accepted people. If they were nice, he liked them.
My father loved the sea. He was a navigator in later years and told me on rare occasions about keeping watch at night, about the brilliant phosphorescence that lit the waves with blue, green, and silver. About the pilot whales that would accompany the ship for miles. Once, a storm swept almost all the containers off the deck of the ship and into the sea, where they would sink just few feet below the surface of the water, posing a terrifying hazard to any sailing ship making its way through the earth’s waters.
After four or so months, my dad returned home, bringing home suitcases full of gifts for us, especially dolls — dolls from every corner of the world.
There was an especially fine Queen Elizabeth with a delicately modeled face and soft, blue velvet cape. A round little Russian man with a conical wool hat and a red and white sash tied around his rotund waist. A tall, lithe woman from Kuwait, with a serene expression, a green-striped cotton dress, and a purple-wrapped load balanced on her head. There was a curvaceous, flirtatious Pakistani woman with an urn on her out-flung, rounded hip and a silver ring through her nose.
Especially memorable was the pair of statuesque Thai woman with exquisitely rendered vulvas beneath their broadcloth gowns. We’d raise their skirts and behold tenderly defined labia painted with the faintest blush. Beneath their shirts were breasts that defied gravity, with fetching, glistening nipples. One of those unusual and magnificent dolls — the more naked one with the string skirt — was stolen during an especially raucous party during my brother’s heavy drinking days when he was “watching the house” for my parents while they were living in Bangladesh.
Although I revered my father, when he was at sea, I didn’t miss him. I was accustomed to his schedule; I’d never known anything different. When he came home, we’d throw ourselves at him. He’d untangle us, and we’d follow him into the living room where he’d ceremoniously hand out our presents.
The first doll my dad gave me though was not from overseas. She was a Japanese enchantress with a white face, demure expression, and pursed, red-painted lips, and she was from San Francisco’s Chinatown. He took me there alone. It was just me and him in the car as we crossed the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco. I was five or six years old. The car was very quiet. I felt special and honored. I had my dad to myself. I watched the cables of the bridge stutter by rhythmically. On the way home, I examined the Japanese girl, felt her crinkly turquoise dress, the painted paper windows of the lantern that swung suspended from her hands.
My father even accepted people when he maybe shouldn’t have. When I discovered my boyfriend Diego was married to a second wife I knew nothing about, I told him to go see my father. I was almost nine months pregnant with our first child. We were looking for a house to buy.
I was at work when the real estate agent called me and said, “I need the papers for the second divorce.” When the shock wore off enough for me to talk, I called Diego and ordered him to go see my father immediately, tell him the whole story, and ask his forgiveness. It was a rather odd, archaic demand. I did it out of instinct. I turned to my father for protection.
When Diego showed up and explained the situation, my father erupted in peals of laughter. When I heard about this, I was galled — stricken and angry. I felt betrayed by my father.
Now, I see it differently, and I love my dad for seeing the humor, for not shaming Diego, for taking things lightly. He’s like the original Buddha. Sometimes, I try to get him to join me in castigating some crazy behavior displayed by someone, and he won’t do it. The truth is, he’s never said an unkind word about anyone, ever. It’s quite a feat to reach 80 and never have said an unkind word about anyone. Ever.
This is why everyone loves my dad.
But, this quality which is dear is also troubling. It’s hard to get my dad to talk deeply about anything. He seems shut off from his emotions in some profound way. He won’t be critical, but that also means it’s hard to talk seriously about anything. He’s mild and neutral about just about everything, and sometimes that’s frustrating.
This character trait is also probably why and how he got fleeced by predators so many times in his life. When I was around eight years old, he stopped shipping. He came home, evidently to try all manner of businesses. The trouble was, he was a binge drinker and was passed out during the day for week-long stints of time. He’d be okay for a few weeks, then, just like that, he’d be drunk for a week, passed out on the white couch. We knew to avoid him then. He got sober on my 24th birthday. It was my birthday present.
Acting as “house husband” in those days, my dad would smoke cigars and talk on the phone incessantly, on “business calls.” We’d pick up another line somewhere else in the house and listen in. He’d have this funny, pretend-serious voice that sounded ridiculous to us. We’d laugh uproariously, hang up, and run away.
He’d collect incredible mountains of clean, hot laundry and dump them on the queen size bed in the master bedroom. Then, he’d yell at us to sort the laundry. We’d laugh and dive into the pile head first, scattering it everywhere.
He’d turn on Wonder Woman on the TV, instructing us, “Call me when she turns.” And we would. We’d cry, “She’s turning, she’s turning!” He’d run into the bedroom fast and stand gaping as she whirled, emerging in her star spangled bottoms with her gold-belted waist cinched tight. He was agog every time. Because of this, not a Christmas passes that one of us doesn’t give him a Wonder Woman coffee cup or refrigerator magnet. It’s a thing. Dad and Wonder Woman. He really liked Linda Carter.
My dad liked women in general and kept a huge stack of yellowing, water-damaged Playboys and a few Hustlers in a yellow-painted cabinet in the backyard. Now and then a shiny new one would appear.
We didn’t think much of it, but when I showed my best friend Jennifer, it seemed to scare her, and I stopped showing friends. I remember marveling at the centerfolds. I remember realizing how beautiful these girls were even as a kid. I read the profiles, filled out their own cursive hand, those mysterious measurements, all of them 36–24–38 or thereabouts, indelible in my mind. It was titillating and fun, dangerous and bad.
Unfortunately, some of those famous business calls seem to have been set ups for my father. He was prone to get-rich-quick schemes. I don’t remember them all and probably don’t even know about them all. There was an imitation crab business he got involved in and lost money on. A trucking business where he bought a bunch of trucks or invested in them or something. I came home from school and found him clenching his head, frightfully depressed. He mumbled something about the trucks being found by the side of the road in Mexico, completely stripped, trashed. Indignation and fury erupted in me. I wanted to kill the perpetrators.
There was PTI, Port Technologies International. He got kind of serious about that one and maybe even made some money. He set up office on the dining room table and made some smart blue and white business cards.
My mother would greet these ventures with pure acid. She called him a “candy ass” and a loser.
Much later, when I was in my early twenties, my father got involved in the Nikken Magnets pyramid scheme. I remember him buying hundreds of Nikken magnet products, filling the house with them. He was supposed to sell them and make a million. He even went to some kind of crazy New Age show at the Cow Palace, my Merchant Marine father with hands as big and rough as baseball mitts, amid these patchoulli-scented rainbow people floating around the Cow Palace selling crystals and remedies. I visited him there. Seeing my dad all alone, at this little table, selling some magnet remedy he didn’t understand and couldn’t describe broke my heart.
When I was little, my dad was forever giving me books about how to get rich quick and, especially, how to marry rich. He used to say, “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man. Pick a rich man.”
This is my dear father now, and the stone lantern he brought back from Japan in 1957 behind us. I love him deeply. I protected him as best I could from anyone who would have a barbed word for him. I would stand at his elbow and create a force field of love that would ensure his safety. I would dare anyone to hurt him. I was absolutely serious about this. He was my hero. He still is.