When my mother calls after breakfast on Saturday morning, she's using the extremely calm tone of voice she only employs when something has gone terribly wrong. After the basic “Hello,” and “How are you?” she says, “Well, it's finally happened, your father has gone to pieces, or had a nervous breakdown. I'm not sure which, but you should probably come over.”
I was at my parents' house a week ago for dinner since it was my dad's birthday. We had chocolate cake and Dad looked morose, but he always gets depressed on his birthday. Mom says he's doing a life inventory, pondering what he's done so far and what he can do in his remaining years and if it will be enough to justify his time on the earth and the resources he's consumed.
I thought my father was just sitting with a crossword at the kitchen table, but really he's considering mortality, the additions and subtractions that make life worth living. He seems too young for that, but then I realize he's only six years younger than my grandfather was when he died, and he's already outlived his own grandfather, who had heart problems at sixty-two. What equations does my dad do in his head and not tell us about?
“He's in the living room,” Mom says when I arrive.
When I walk through the door I see my father has indeed gone to pieces, like a decapitated doll torn apart by an angry kid. I did that to my Barbies, but I was playing Civil War field doctor and performing amputations. Because she is tidy and meticulous, my mother has lined up the parts of my father against the wall—both his legs, his arms, the lower torso, the upper torso and shoulders, and his head.
“Um, hi,” I say.
“Hello,” says my father's head with a sigh. His fingers give me a wiggle of greeting.
“How are you feeling?” I say.
“Been better, been worse,” he says. I don't ask when he has been worse, which isn't to say I'm not curious about it.
“Should we call a doctor or something?” I ask.
“I don't know how they could help,” my father grumps, because he often gets mad at doctors. “They'll tell me this is just one of those things that happens when you get older and I have to wait it out.”
“Can I get you anything?” I say.
“Go have lunch with your mother, she's hungry,” he says in a slightly accusatory tone, as though being hungry is my mother's fault. “Leave me here for a moment. I need to think.”
I return to the kitchen, surprised since this is a tidier explosion than I expected. There are weeks when it seems like my dad is always on the verge of combusting, like someone planted land mines in his brain and we have to be careful to walk around them. He lashes out because nobody can do anything right.
Last week when my mother wrote “oregano” on the shopping list, Dad said, “We already have a new jar of oregano in the spice cupboard,” in a tone as if this was a personal affront. We do not try to understand him, just study him, like careful biologists or heavy weapons technicians.
“It's just been that time of the month for him,” my mom says with a shrug. “Let's make quiche. I've been wanting to try your recipe forever.” Dad has been possessive of cooking since he retired from teaching. Mom wants to cook, too, but stays out of the kitchen to be on the safe side. Sometimes I worry she has to think about the safe side too much.
From the living room Dad calls, “When's the date for your wedding?”
“We don't have one,” I say, which he already knows.
“Why not?” he says. “What if you or your boyfriend are in an accident and the other one needs visitation rights for the hospital?”
Don't get me wrong, my dad is a loving person. When I was a little kid he'd lie on the carpet and hold me in his hands above his body. I'd flap my arms and giggle, trying to fly like a bird. But sometimes he'd put me down and get upset for something small, such as the times I took three cookies for dessert when I was only supposed to have two.
“Aren't you listening to your mother?” he yelled as I cowered behind a counter and didn't want cookies anymore. Other times when we went on road trip vacations, he'd get upset about Chicago traffic and be snippy the rest of the day, making Mom and I wonder why we tried to have fun around him.
I can list all his primary rants over the past fifteen years:
Why did I just attend one semester of college?
Why didn't I go back to school after I lost my job at the hardware store?
Why didn't I go back to school after the shoe store closed?
What do I plan on doing with my life now that I've been unemployed for four months? Do I want to live in a cardboard box?
The last one hurt. I left without speaking to him and went home to my boyfriend who said that when people get mad they say things they don't mean. I know that, but my dad doesn't realize how his words are a slap that stings forever. Mom and I don't forget, though we're sure he does.
I make the quiche filling and Mom makes the crust and we slide the pie plate in the oven and wait. We don't want to go back to the living room with the pieces of my father. Sometimes it's easier to leave him alone, so she makes tea and we sit at the kitchen table.
“At least it wasn't a heart attack,” says my mother.
“I wonder how long it takes to recover from something like this,” I say.
“We'll have to take his lower torso to the bathroom sometimes,” she says, “when he lets me know. It's nice to cook again. Since he got out of that basement workshop, I can't get him out of the kitchen.”
My dad was a high school math teacher who always wanted to be an inventor, but it never worked out. He spent a long time in his basement lab, soldering things and swearing and waiting for someone to recognize his genius, but it never quite happened. You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right people needing the thing you came up with. Dad never wanted to go on the road with his gizmos. He wasn't big on self-promotion, which makes being an inventor more difficult. His ideas came in obsessive phases. For a while it was jar lids and how to make them hard for kids and easy for people with arthritis to open. Then he was working on devices to help visually impaired people read, but inventors with more money and better computer skills were always a little ahead of him.
The oven buzzes, the quiche is finished, and I'm starved.
“Did you put peas in it?” says my dad.
“Of course we did,” I say. “Mom and I both like peas.” Besides, he was in the living room and couldn't stop us.
“Why did you have to ruin a good quiche like that?” he says.
“I take it this means you don't want any,” I say.
“Not if there's going to be peas in it,” says Dad.
“More for us, then,” I say.
This is my father in a bad mood. When that happens he casts a pall over the world and no one can do anything right. My mother is a part-time saint for living with him, but as a children's librarian she's honed her skills to withstand toddler hurricanes and my father. I think she's spent the better part of her life trying to decode him. It's part psychology, part genetics, part biochemistry, and part theorizing with me over coffee.
We both have two pieces of quiche, save the rest for dinner, and congratulate ourselves on a lunch well done.
“Can you stay with him this afternoon?” she asks. “I need to go to the store and run a few other errands.”
I take a deep breath and nod, then sit with Dad in the living room and try to make conversation.
“My friend Trish is training me how to do makeup for dead people,” I say, “so maybe I can work part-time at her parents' funeral home.” I smile since I've never liked putting makeup on my face, but other people are different. Easier. They're also dead, so they can't complain if I use a little too much blush.
“When will that be a real job?” Dad says. “Right now your boyfriend is stopping you both from living in a cardboard box.”
I purse my lips and remind myself that Dad is grumpy and scared and we should get out of the house since we need a distraction. I decide to take Dad out for coffee, and start loading his upper and lower torso into the back seat of my car.
“Why can't we take my arms?” he says. “With them and my head, I can drink coffee on my own.”
“I'll get you a straw,” I say. “You have good coordination, but not when your arms and head are separate.”
Dad does not appreciate the criticism. “They're my arms and I can decide if I need them or not.”
“I'm not lugging them out to the car,” I say. “If they want to crawl on their own they can be my guest.”
His arms look happy against the wall and wiggle good-bye to us. I carry Dad's head like it was a heavy crystal vase filled with important gray matter. I'm not sure how to secure it in the passenger seat, so I put his head in back between the two halves of his torso.
Before we drive to the coffee shop, I call my boyfriend and ask if he wants to have coffee with us. I don't tell him about Dad's current state of embodiment, but I know I'll need help moving all the pieces.
Dad and I don't talk much on the way to the coffee shop, and I'm glad my boyfriend can meet us at the door. He carries the two halves of the torso and I carry the head, and we stack Dad on a chair. My boyfriend sits at the table with him and chats pleasantly, as he can do with anyone under any circumstance. I order our drinks. Iced coffees with straws.
“So have you applied for any other jobs lately?” my dad asks my boyfriend. My boyfriend has his PhD in philosophy and Dad thinks he should be working in the ethics department of a big company, not in a grocery store produce section.
“It's a consideration,” says my boyfriend mildly. I wonder how he can be so good at deflecting my dad when he didn't grow up with him. Or maybe that's the answer. Dad turns his attention to me, and his usual assertion that I need to go back to school.
“And study what?” I say, because we've had this argument a hundred times.
“What do you want to study?”
“I don't have passion for anything,” I say. “There's no reason for me to waste money on something I don't like. I don't want to be an accountant or teacher or chef or hairstylist.”
“You want to put makeup on dead people,” he says.
“And what the hell is wrong with that?” I say.
“You could make more money doing something else.”
“Like what?” I say.
“I don't know. That's for you to decide.”
“And I'm deciding not to go to college.”
We pout at each other. I can see myself reflected in Dad, or Dad reflected in me, the same cheekbones and nose and ears and slightly squinted eyes. We are the same kind of determined. I know he wants me to do well in life. I know he is scared as any parent would be scared about his child's future. But Dad has never been good at expressing that concern in a way that makes me want to do anything but push back. And now he's a head and two blocks of torso stacked on top of each other. For once I am in control.
I could leave him at the coffee shop. Someone would be kind enough to take him home—a friend or neighbor or barista—and Dad would have to be on good behavior. But that would not be kind of me. Because he is my dad. Because I have so many imperfections that it would take hours to list them. Because I love my dad even when he drives me crazy, which happens a lot, but that's why they call it love.
My boyfriend and I take my dad piece by piece back to the car. I kiss my boyfriend, then drive Dad home.
“He's a nice guy,” says Dad.
“Great,” I say, “since we'll spend the rest of our lives together in a cardboard box.”
Dad is quiet for a moment, then he says, “I just want what's best for you.”
“And of course I want to screw my life up royally,” I say. “According to you, that's been the plan all along.”
“I'm sorry if I upset you,” he says.
I could say You're really good at it, you've had a lot of practice. Don't you realize you've been upsetting me for the better part of thirty-five years? But I don't say that, because I can't ruin an honest "I'm sorry," because my dad's head in the rear view mirror is troubled and frowning slightly, because sometimes I use a slightly wiser part of mind that tells me to respond with “Thank you.”
By the time we get home, the two pieces of Dad's torso that my boyfriend stacked together have melded again. I need Mom's help to get him out of the car, but we lay Dad on the floor in the living room, put his arms and legs in place like a jigsaw puzzle, and hope that something good will happen. Mom and I go to the kitchen and make sugar cookies, and I tell her about putting makeup on corpses, which she says sounds very interesting.
Just before dinner my dad walks into the kitchen, shaking his limbs like he's testing them to make sure they're secure.
“May I have a cookie?” he asks. We say sure. He eats two along with a ham sandwich, then says he needs to rest on the couch. Mom and I hear his contented snore, and decide to let sleeping dads lie. We reheat the quiche for dinner, and wonder if a lesson has been learned by anyone. Mom says we can figure that out tomorrow, we've done enough for one day. I tend to agree.