Memoir

Denzil

FOR A MOMENT he doesn't recognise me. He stares at me, rheumy-eyed, then breaks into a smile.

'Very nice,' he says, 'very nice.'

I'm in a suit and tie but he's still in his pyjamas. Earlier, I'd spoken to the nurse. 'He's a bit stroppy this morning. Wouldn't let us shower him. We tried to call you but your phone didn't answer. We gave him a few drops under his tongue to calm him down. I hope that's okay?'

'Sure,' I'd replied, glancing at my watch. 'Anything for a quiet life.'

I take off my jacket and tie, and roll up my sleeves. He looks at me quizzically.

'Come on,' I say. 'I'm going to give you a shower.'

'I don't need a shower,' he replies, but I'm conscious of the time. We can't be late today, so I gently steer him into the shower room. He protests but his aphasia and dementia muddy any coherent objection.

He's still chatting to himself as I remove his top and two singlets, both of which are on backwards. I have to bend to remove his pyjama bottoms, while he steadies himself with his hand on my back. It's not the greatest position for me to assume: a little too close to those areas of your ninety-year-old father's torso that you've spent the last sixty years not contemplating. I turn on the shower and shepherd him toward the spray.

I look at his body. It's bent now, and diminished, almost mummy-like. Bones protrude from his rounded back and, when I put my arm around him, his shoulders feel like a bunch of keys in a small cloth bag. His skin is parchment-thin and covered with a white thatch of body hair. His legs have atrophied; they are like sticks. His backside is flat and flabby, a newborn baby's.

Is this the same body I remember, a body that carried me as a child effortlessly as we swam in a cool grey sea? Is this the same body that boxed, played football, knocked out the next-door neighbour and fathered children? Is this the body of an upright soldier and policeman? The frame that carried him through a world war, twice wounded?

'I'll do your back and chest, Dad, but you'll have to do the other bits,' I say.

'Do my crack, will you?' he says, blank-faced.

I know he's winding me up. 'I'm not doing your bloody arse,' I say, laughing. 'That's your job.'

He looks at me and smiles. 'What about this, then?' he says, grabbing his shrivelled penis and tugging on it.

I still can't quite get used to his newfound lack of inhibition. He was always such a modest man. Sexuality was only alluded to in slightly off-colour jokes, a way of distancing himself from any intimate discussion.

I look away. 'Go on, you silly old bugger. Get on with it.' Now I'm the modest one.

He laughs again and starts vigorously soaping the assigned areas.

'All of it,' I say. 'Not just that bit.'

I towel him down while he grins and grunts approval. I almost expect him to shake himself like a dog when I finish.

'Bloody marvellous,' he says, flushed and smiling.

In front of the mirror I lather up his creased face and start to shave him.

'Christ,' he says, when I nick his top lip.

I apologise, but shaving him is difficult, like knotting a tie on someone else, and complicated by a craggy and unpredictable facial landscape.

In his room I manoeuvre him into his socks and underpants, and get him to stand while I put on his shirt. I pull up his grey serge trousers and slip on his favourite brown loafers. I've brought along one of my ties.

'Is this okay?' I ask.

'Bloody beautiful,' he says.

I can tell he's enjoying this.

'Where's your comb?' I say. He looks at me conspiratorially, winks and taps the side of his nose. He beckons me over to his bedside cabinet and opens the bottom drawer, revealing a dozen or so identical black combs. This is done with theatrical solemnity but it slows down the proceedings, and I'm starting to get impatient.

'Where did you get all of those?' I ask, knowing full well the answer, but he taps his nose and winks again.

He's become a hoarder of late: in addition to the combs there are dozens of towels stolen from the laundry, four cans of shaving cream, a collection of used disposable razors and a drawer full of incontinence pads, all of which he offers to me as gifts on my weekly visits. Nobody else is allowed to touch these items. To do so and to ignore the warning on his clinical notes (hoarder, may become aggressive) is to invite his wrath, as the new ward nurse, from Kenya, found out last week.

Reminded of this episode, his face clouds over. 'Black bitch,' he says angrily.

'Hey, that's enough of that talk,' I say sternly. For a moment he looks like a chastised child, embarrassed and defiant at the same time. Age and dementia have removed any sense of propriety or self-censure, and inhibitions and prejudices that were once kept in check now emerge, often forcefully.

'Come on,' I say. 'Stand in front of the mirror.'

I slip on the blazer with his regimental crest on the breast pocket, and stand back. He looks distinguished, the formality of his dress seeming to add more structure, more dignity to his appearance. He's always been aware of how he looks, and even in his current condition he still chooses his daily wardrobe – though, it must be said, with varying degrees of creativity. Last week, as I undressed him for his shower, the various items of his wardrobe were carefully chosen but the effect was somewhat compromised by a sleeveless cardigan under his shirt and a pair of Hawaiian-patterned short pyjama bottoms worn over the tops of his trousers.

'Are we right?' I say, extracting his wheelchair from behind the door.

'Yes,' he says. 'Of course. Let's go.'

As we emerge from his room the staff form a respectful phalanx of approval. They know this is a special day, and heads turn. Most have never seen him presented like this, and I think some are a little surprised.

'Good luck,' one of the nurses shouts. My father returns their good wishes with a regal wave and a smile. He's lapping it up.

 

OUTSIDE IN THE car park, the autumn sun casts deep shadows.

'Where's your car?' he says squinting in the glare.

I point it out in the distance. He's seen it many times before but each viewing excites him.

'Oh Christ. Black,' he says. 'Bloody beautiful.' It seems nothing can go wrong today.

My wife is waiting in the car. Nursing homes make her edgy; the smell of the wards and the proximity to frailty – to death – unsettles her. His eyes light up when he sees her, even though he's never quite sure where she sits in the female pantheon. Wife, mother, sister, daughter: they are all interchangeable entities now.

'Hello, Denzil. Don't you look smart?' she says.

He beams again.

'Where've you been?' she says to me, glancing over my father's shoulder while she helps him into the back seat. 'And your bloody shirt's all wet.'

I shake my head. 'Don't ask.'

We pull out of the driveway and into the traffic. My father has not stopped chattering since we clicked him into the back seat. It's largely nonsense talk – his own jabberwocky language, its twisted vocabulary eerily woven through the more familiar rhythms of English, and punctuated by facial expressions and body language that at least give us some clue to his mood, if not to the meaning of his monologues.

As we join the expressway he starts reciting a series of seemingly meaningless words and sounds. 'Fim,' he says. 'Wag, fidle, cabon, dij, cuv.' As the traffic thins, he pauses, but soon starts up again. 'Stu, jark.'

My wife looks at me, puzzled.

'Number plates,' I say softly. 'He's reading number plates.'

'Nice trees,' he says, and then starts whistling softly, inwardly.

My wife shoots me another glance and shrugs her shoulders. I clear my throat.

'You know where we're going today, Dad?' I say. He keeps whistling and doesn't answer.

'I say, Dad, you know where we're going today, don't you?'

He pauses. 'Hmm,' he murmurs, his fragile concentration broken. I can see his confused face in the rear-vision mirror. He catches my mirrored, enquiring eye.

'Momma,' he cries triumphantly a moment later. 'Momma.'

'That's right,' I say. 'Dorothy.'

Momentarily he's lost in his thoughts, but soon the whistling starts again.

'Thoroughly enjoying myself,' he says, rubbing his hands together briskly – and then, under his breath, 'I'm thoroughly enjoying myself.'

I ponder his reaction and wonder whether he understands the significance of the day. My sister and I worried that he might be aggressive or angry, his common reaction of late to events that confuse and upset him, but once again he has confounded us. He's spent his life confounding us: at once feckless and stubborn, drunk or sober, distant yet caring, vulnerable but strong, an enigma whose self remained buried within, far from the caring curiosity of his family.

As a child, I knew somehow that he was not a settled man. Ill at ease with others, he disguised his awkwardness with a quick wit and a fragile bonhomie. By the time I was in my teens I had lost interest in his inner complexities, exhausted by my attempts to understand him. As he further descended into alcoholism my connection with him became more tenuous. Had it not been for my mother's total dependence on him I would have probably severed my connection with him there and then, but in those days wives rarely left hopeless husbands, preferring a joyless marriage to the perceived shame and uncertainty of divorce.

When he was in his sixties, perversely, he gave up the booze and cigarettes overnight. 'The contrary old bastard,' my sister said, but we were pleased when he and my mother retired to a small town on the far north coast. I'd bought them a modest house by the sea and told them it was theirs for as long as they wanted it. It seemed like a new life, free of care, free of fear, and I hoped it would make them happy. And for a while it did. Predictably though, the novelty waned and they returned to Sydney, bored with the bleakness of their own company, hoping for another new start.

 

I GLANCE AT him as the afternoon sun strikes his worn face and know he will never be able to explain his life to me now. It's too late. His memories are all but gone. I realised some time ago that we both missed a fleeting moment of curiosity and recognition.

For most of my adult life I faulted him for our lack of intimacy, but now I know I'm as much to blame as he was. Why was my curiosity so self-serving, and why did I save it in the main for the trite and the spectacular? Why did it take me so long to understand that a caring curiosity for a loved one is the ultimate intimacy?

So much has happened in the last three years: my father's accident; my mother's swift and brutal decline into full-blown dementia, tearing apart already fragile and tentative lives. How quickly things change and how quickly we are forced to evaluate our lives. How efficiently dementia has taken my mother and father while tantalising us with their physical presence. With a futile urgency I longed to unscramble his thoughts, to make sense of things, to draw closer.

Just after his accident I sat by his bed each day and talked with him. Even at this point dementia had him, broken and bruised, in its grasp – but we were able to have a fragile, disjointed conversation. We talked of his childhood and his mother and his village in Cornwall. He spoke of his seven years as a young soldier; of fear and of death and of the fighting in France. He told me of his time lying badly wounded in a field in Normandy, blood-soaked and alone, life draining from him.

He told me things I'd never heard him speak of before. Drawn to his past and curious to locate his memories, I visited the field in Caen the following year. In the middle of a bitter Normandy winter, overcome by the spectral presence of my father and all those young men who suffered and died on this spot, I fell to my knees on the frost-hardened earth and cried inconsolably.

Last week, as I sat with him on his balcony, I asked him to read the front page of the newspaper. I do this sometimes, but it is for my benefit, not his. His aphasia does not affect his reading skills, though his comprehension is muddied. I ask him to do it so that I can hear my father talk sensibly again, string more than five or six cogent words together, cut through the confused babble. I do it to remember him.

Sometimes too, he remembers me. I know he regards me as a familiar face who takes him for a drive and showers him but probably, most importantly, as someone who sits and listens to his earnest talk. I think it makes him happy and if he is happy, then so am I. I no longer need him to call me his son. To expect him to do so is more to do with my guilt, my conceit.

A few weeks ago, though, in his room, he suddenly stopped talking. He looked at me strangely and then beckoned me over. He struggled out of his chair as I moved toward him. Momentarily he lost his balance, steadied himself and then threw his arms around me.

'My big darling boy,' he said, gripping me and holding my face close to his rough, stubbled cheek. And then he kissed me. I held him even tighter while the tears stung my face.

 

'ARE YOU OKAY?' my wife says. She touches my arm, worried. 'Don't think too much about it. You need to be strong today. You'll be all right. You always are.'

We round the corner, pass through the wrought-iron gates and follow the signs to the car park. There are a few familiar faces milling around the chapel, mainly friends of mine and of my sister. Some remember my parents from our childhood; others are there to add support. There are few of my parents' contemporaries: most have died or drifted away.

An old family friend approaches. 'Hello, Denzil,' he says. 'Long time, no see.'

My father smiles and shakes hands vigorously. He has no idea who this person is but he replies all the same. 'Yes indeed, long time.'

Others gather around him as I push his wheelchair into the throng. I can see that some are shaken by his appearance, having last seen him thirty years ago, robust and imposing. Most have fond memories and are just happy to see him.

I leave him with a group of friends while I seek out my sister.

'Are we okay?' she says. I nod and point out those gathered around the wheelchair.

She laughs. 'Look at the old bugger. I think he's really enjoying himself.'

My mother died on 15 April 2010, aged ninety-one, her body and mind ravaged. She weighed 30 kilograms. Even her nappy wouldn't fit her.

She wanted to die. We wanted her to die. For a year or so before the dementia took away her understanding, she would point out frail and diminished patients in the nursing home. 'Don't you ever let me get like that,' she would say; but we did, watching her deteriorate without dignity, without hope.

My father would walk the corridor of the nursing home, from his room to hers, and sit by her bedside for most of the day. He would look at her, tut-tut and shake his head ruefully. Somehow that said it all, a poignant summation of her condition.

I'd never planned a funeral before and the prospect filled me with dread, but my sister and I negotiated the arcane rituals, knowing that certain things needed to be done. We met with the undertaker – or bereavement consultant, as they now prefer to be called – and viewed our mother's waxen corpse, coiffed and tidied in a satin-lined coffin. I kissed my mother's cold forehead and held my sister's hand.

In the funeral home's courtyard afterwards my sister shook her head angrily and said through tears, 'What the fuck is it all about? I mean, is that it?'

 

WE WHEEL MY father into the chapel and immediately he is transfixed by my mother's photograph on the incongruous plasma TV screen looming above the lectern. He ignores the white coffin covered in cream roses on the curtained stage. Someone cues the music and the images on the screen shuffle through an organised sequence: my mother as a sepia schoolchild, baking a cake; a portrait at twenty-one, during the war; a photograph of her and my father on a windswept beach.

'Who's that handsome bloke?' I whisper, and he looks at me, confused. 'It's you,' I say, 'on the beach at Bonny Hills.' He shakes his head, failing even to recognise his own image.

The family occupies the front row: me and my wife, my sister, her husband, her two grown children and Denzil in his wheelchair. He's solemn now, the music and the serious faces of the mourners conspiring to subdue his ebullience. The celebrant steps down from the stage and makes a special point of greeting my father. She seizes both his hands and talks to him quietly with her face close to his. He accepts this intimacy from a stranger with dignity, composing himself as she goes back to the lectern.

After a while the room stills and the strains of 'Jerusalem' fill the chapel. The celebrant speaks of a woman she never knew.

Soon it is my turn to speak. I mount the stage, grasp the microphone with one hand and shuffle my notes with the other. I look up and scan the expectant, half-empty room. My father regards me intently, but as I catch his gaze I have to look away. I'm barely maintaining my composure, and I know that looking for too long at his innocent and confused face will tip me over the edge.

'My mother was born in a small village in rural Essex in 1919...'

My voice seems oddly distant, but it's strong and I press on, trying to avoid thinking about what I am saying, trying to erect a barrier between my words and my grief. I talk of my mother's harsh upbringing, of wartime England and of the opportunities that eluded young women like her during those tumultuous times. I recall our childhood, our escape from drab postwar England and the voyage to Australia.

'For my mother, this five-week voyage was a brief chance to retrieve some of that lost opportunity – a glimpse at another life. She embraced it. I remember her, perfumed and glamorous, sweeping into our cabin to tuck us in and wish us goodnight with the sweet smell of sherry on crimson lips and the rustle of her flared black satin dress as it brushed the doorway on her way out. One evening my parents were invited to dine at the captain's table, an event that she spoke of proudly for years to come. There were a thousand passengers on that voyage, a fact that didn't go unnoticed by my mother. "It's not just anybody who gets invited to the captain's table," she would say.'

And then I am finished. I choke on my last words.

'Safe journey, my love.'

I look toward my father. I realise that I am looking for comfort, for a sign of his approval. I am twelve again.

My nephew, a man-boy, speaks next of his grandmother, but he is overcome by sadness and finishes his childhood recollections barely able to speak, tears rolling down his face.

My sister too fights back tears, but stiffens and delivers her eulogy. She talks of the love between a mother and a daughter, and I realise it is a love a man will never fully understand. Her words hang in the air as she descends the stage and takes her seat. I draw her close to me as she carefully blots her tears.

The celebrant asks us all to stand, but indicates that my father should stay seated in his wheelchair. He's having none of it, and attempts to get to his feet. There's a moment of panic as his chair starts to move from under him but I rush to the aisle, hook my arm under his armpit and drag him upright. He holds my arm tightly, stands ramrod straight.

My mother's coffin is theatrically retrieved by an invisible mechanism and, as the curtains close around her, the music begins again. This time it's another of my mother's favourites, an instrumental version of Psalm 23.

When we were children, our house was always filled with song. Both my mother and father had good voices, but my father's deep baritone was a cut above. In his younger days he had been asked to sing professionally, but he lacked confidence and self-deprecatingly dismissed these approaches. Even now, in the nursing home's choir and music therapy classes, his voice can turn heads.

He starts to sing, quietly at first, then rising to a rich, sonorous chant. 'The Lord's my shepherd, I shall not want...'

He is word-perfect, the aphasia and dementia temporarily banished. Behind him, the congregated are at first unaware of the source of the singing, but when it becomes obvious that it's my father's voice women weep quietly and men clear their throats and look at the floor. He leans on me and I hold him tight, feeling his voice resonate and rumble through his fragile frame, seeping into me, making us one.

It is in this moment that I realise I am closer to him now than I have ever been. It is an imperfect closeness, tempered by guilt and lost opportunities, and confused by the unexplained; but it is closeness all the same. I know now that there is no need for forgiveness, only for understanding. Whatever or whoever made him the man he is also made me. He is my father. I am his son.

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