Life’s Routines

Baker’s Pick
Cheryl Lynn


When my father fell down the stairs, I decided not to help him. I was sitting in a recliner watching Jeopardy when he landed just a few feet away in a crumpled mass of arms and legs, skin and bones. He mouthed something, his eyes bulging with terror and I casually wondered, my pulse never breaking eighty, if he had broken his neck.

After taking in the sight before me and committing it to memory, I turned back to Jeopardy and tried to ignore the strange gurgling noises that came from his mouth. I realize that may seem a bit cold, but you have to understand the situation before you pass judgment on me.

You see, my father had emphysema several years before he was diagnosed with it. I bugged him to see a doctor, but he held out till the last. Some people just don’t want to know. In fact, he didn’t even go willingly. I found him passed out and burning up on the couch one afternoon. The doctors told me he had acute bronchitis.

After the second rush to the hospital months later, they called it chronic bronchitis, pumped him full of drugs and insisted that he stop smoking. He didn’t. He never would. Smoked till the day he died.

So for years I had the horrific honor of watching my father die. There are, of course, worse things to die of and worse ways in which to watch. I just liked to feel sorry for myself. It didn’t help that my mother was also slowly killing herself, but with alcohol instead of tobacco and since the divorce ten years ago, I couldn’t visit them together and save myself some gas money.

My mother hadn’t been diagnosed with anything terminal yet, but if I managed to drag her to a hospital I was sure they could identify at least three potentially serious health problems. Instead, I decided it was easier to deal with one death at a time, better to spread the gut-wrenching pain out across a few years. Well, mind-numbing might be a better term for the way I felt for my parents. For me, gut-wrenching was watching a chef prepare some form of chocolate ecstasy on TV without any chocolate within reach. Yes, I think mind-numbing would better describe it.

I never broke out into tears over some wonderful memory of them and I never wondered how I would get along without them. I knew how I would get along without them: the same as I had for the last thirty-four years. Except for when I was in diapers, I had always gotten along just fine without them.

As for wonderful memories, I didn’t really have any. Just a few and they weren’t that great. And I never cried. The last time I cried was when the schoolyard bully cut off one of my pigtails. He laughed. I cried. Then I punched him. I got much more pleasure from the punching than the crying so after that breaking out into tears was unacceptable.

It’s not that I didn’t love my parents. I loved them. In the same sort of affectionate way you feel for an old car. The thing has been with you forever so you’re attached to it, but boy does it piss you off when it breaks. You’d love to send it to the metal dump, but then again, it’s been with you forever and you take a sort of whiny pleasure in complaining about it when it does break.

So that about sums up my family life. It sucked.

My mother was a firm alcoholic by the time I was ten and she never helped me with my homework or took me to Girl Scout meetings or any of those other things mothers are supposed to do. My father smoked constantly and never talked unless he was yelling at my mother. I never had a cohesive conversation with the man. It always came in pieces.

One day he made a random statement about people needing to mind their own business. The next day he said that the poor woman on the feeding tube for fifteen years should be allowed to die. And then a week later he muttered that he would let my mother die if she wanted it. So this is the conversation.

“Hi, Hank. You watching the news?” I would ask.

“Yeah, they’re talking about that brain-dead woman who’s been on a feeding tube for fifteen years. Why don’t those people protesting just butt out? Like they have nothing else better to do but stand there for weeks?” This would be my father’s reply in my fantasy world where the moon and stars would align in just such a way that my father would utter more than his usual one or two syllable grunts.

“I agree.”

“If that had happened to your mom, I would have pulled the plug.”

“I’m sure she would have wanted it that way.”

“Don’t ever let me be like that. That’s awful. I don’t want to live like that.”

“Neither do I.”

“Look at those idiots. There’s children starving in the world and this is what they do.”

Of course, this wasn’t a real conversation. My father would never have responded that many times or with that many words, but this is what I gathered from the random statements he made.

My mother, on the other hand, could have cohesive conversations, although they weren’t always coherent. Her conversations were fragments of thoughts sliced through with alcohol and remixed to form anything but a normal, rational conversation.

“I kept telling them the blue pills weren’t working. They wouldn’t listen,” she said.

“The blue pills?” I pointed to the martini in her hand. “You know you can’t take the blue pills if you drink.”

“They just say that to scare you. Just like the commies. They take blue pills you know. And they drink like a fish.”

“The commies? You mean communists? The Cold War is over. They’re not communists anymore.”

“That’s what they want you to believe. I was watching a show last week. They were talking about the nuclear stockpiles and all the kids whose hair falls out. Have you seen the pictures?”

I shook my head.

“Of the children?”

Again, I shook my head.

“Whose hair falls out?” she said, holding onto her own hair as if I didn’t know where hair grows. “Aw!” she said throwing her hands up and sloshing her drink. “It’s terrible, just terrible.”

“Wait, does this have to do with the communists or the nuclear stockpiles?”

“The blue pills! Aren’t you listening? You know, the little children whose hair falls out.”

“Yeah, I got that. The kids take blue pills?”

“No, the commies do.”

“Is this the same blue pills you take?”

“No, but the commies take them and the kid’s hair falls out.”

“Do they take them during pregnancy?”

“No, when they’re little.”

“Well, maybe it’s the nuclear stockpiles that cause the hair to fall out.”

“No, it’s the blue pills. I saw it on TV.”

“Well, what did you watch about nuclear stockpiles?”

“Oh, well, your father used to say that the commies had a lot more nukes than they said. Which makes sense, why would they tell us? You know, your father took some pink pills about ten years ago and he wouldn’t tell me what they were. So one day I found them all and threw them away.”

“Maybe that’s why you got divorced,” I muttered.

“What? What was that?”

“How did you know it wasn’t something important?”

“How could it be? He wouldn’t tell me what they were.”

I shouldn’t talk to my mother at all except with simple yes or no responses, but curiosity always gets the better of me.

*

After years of chronic bronchitis, my father developed emphysema. Though I knew it would happen eventually, it was still difficult to sit there and listen to the doctor confirm the disease. My father was stone-faced, but I could tell what he was thinking, or rather what he was craving—those damned cigarettes. Even then he couldn’t quit. Even when his life depended on it he wouldn’t quit.

“What difference does it make now?” he grumbled.

Next came the oxygen tanks, the coughing, the phlegm, the regular trips to the hospital and the constant worrying that I would find him dead one day and I wondered what it would be like to find a dead body.

But he was always there in his trusted recliner watching game shows or the news with a cigarette in hand and an oxygen tube in his nose. I thought the emphysema diagnosis would significantly change our lives, but alas, life’s routines continued on. Drive a half-hour one way to literally watch my father die and an hour another way to figuratively watch my mother die.

*

“Hank has emphysema,” I told my mother after a few months.

“Who? Your father?”

“He has a name. I call him Hank so why don’t you?”

“I’ve never liked that you call us by our names,” she said as she swallowed the last of her drink. “It’s very disrespectful.” She stood and walked to the kitchen for a refill.

“The home you raised me in was disrespectful.”

She didn’t respond, only proceeded to mix another martini. She probably didn’t even hear me.

“He won’t quit smoking so it’s just a matter of time,” I said when she returned.

I couldn’t make out her reaction. Just like my father, my mother had a tendency to go stone-faced, but I don’t remember her being like that when I was younger. To the contrary, I saw her cry openly numerous times after she and Hank were done yelling at each other. As the years passed, the crying became much more subdued, down to just a trickle of a tear. All the years of fighting and booze had worked to preserve Betty’s face to a porcelain mask, more wrinkled than porcelain, but just as solid and unyielding.

“Did you hear me?”

She waved her hand in annoyance. “Of course I heard you, what do you want me to do about it?”

“Maybe you can call him.”

“I haven’t talked to him in almost ten years. Why would I want to start now?”

I straightened and raised my voice. “Because he’s dying.”

She looked at the TV. More game shows. “Now why did that woman pick that door? Even I can tell it’s not the right one.”

I continued to stare at her, my face growing hot, and came to realize she had no intention of responding. She chose to hide behind the mask. I stood, grabbed my coat and didn’t bother to say goodbye.

*

The day my father fell down the stairs was just like all the others except for the ending. He wasn’t making it up and down the stairs all that well so for the last few months he was sleeping on the couch. With a cigarette hanging from his mouth, Hank kept flicking the lighter, attempting to use the small flame that would jump up before the lack of fuel extinguished it.

He coughed and wheezed. “Can you go upstairs and get the lighter in the nightstand? Bottom drawer.”

“No.”

“Just go upstairs and get it.”

“No.”

He couldn’t breathe well and his arms had wasted away, but he still had enough muscle to throw the empty lighter at me. It made a sharp, cracking noise when it hit the wall behind my head.

I didn’t flinch. Instead, I slowly turned to look at him. “I’m not getting your fucking lighter, Hank.” Then, I turned back to the second round of Jeopardy.

A low, guttural sound emanated from his direction as he tried to stand and I swore I could hear his bones creaking and scraping against one another. He shuffled his way to the stairs and I had the urge to trip him as he passed, but somehow refrained. The second round was over by the time he made it to the top.

I don’t know exactly how he began his tumble down the stairs. I imagine he couldn’t wait until he got down the stairs to light his cigarette. So he stood at the edge of that top step, flicking the lighter on, breathing in his sacred tobacco, and probably overestimated the distance to the first step down, losing whatever tentative balance he had left.

Like a pinwheel, he flew downward, arms and legs flailing outward and hitting the wall, the banister and every step. When he landed at the bottom, one of his ankles was caught between the railings and the other leg was twisted behind him in a very unnatural position. One of his arms lay trapped beneath his body and his other arm rested on top of his head where his eyes focused on me.

Those eyes begged me to help, but to be honest, I never considered the idea. It was pointless. Even if the ambulance got here before he died and he made it to the hospital before he died, what would they do about it? The doctors said it was a matter of weeks.

The other reason I knew I wouldn’t help him even as he began his tumble downward was that the cigarette he lit upstairs somehow managed to make it downstairs and roll along the floor until it hit my shoe. The cigarette actually made it to my shoe before my father was done settling into his current physical state.

I watched the small wisp of smoke, rising up from the burning end, and listened to my father’s raucous descent. Those damned cigarettes had finally killed him, just not in the way we all thought they would.

I looked at my father. All I got from him for thirty-four years was cold, crude and detached. I figured it was time to return the favor and since my parents didn’t seem to give a shit, why should I? I would just tell the police I found him that way. I mean, he was dying anyway, right?

So I turned my attention back to final Jeopardy. And you want to know something? I got the answer right.
pencil

“After 15 years of writing as a serious hobby, I am now taking the idea of getting published seriously. I spent many of those years in sweaty, outdoor jobs that I loved, such as a horticulturalist at a public garden and traipsing through coastal wetlands in search of birds for the Audubon Society, but I have come to the conclusion that nothing makes me happier than writing.” E-mail: cheryl_b426[at]yahoo.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email