Most of the time my father didn't talk much anymore. He let my mother do all the talking, and she was more than happy to oblige. He spoke up when he wanted something, but other than that, he didn't have much to talk about. He was eighty, and had been using a wheelchair for over twenty-five years. His mental capacities were fading fast; his heart wasn't faring much better. He had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure a few years earlier, just another malady to add to a long list. My mother took care of him, despite her own age. I was thankful for that, but I worried about the possibility that she could die before him. He still had the wherewithal and enough energy to put up a fight if he sensed the possibility of a nursing home.
If she was away, he would call me. My mother had programmed my number into the speed dial on his extra-large-buttoned bedside telephone. He knew if he needed anything, to pick up the receiver and push the three. She had put a pink circle sticker on the three so he could find it easily. When I knew she was there, I didn't always answer the phone.
"You never answer your phone," she would say. "What if something happened? What about emergencies?"
"Well I hope you'd be smart enough to call 911 instead of me," I'd say sarcastically.
I was the good daughter. The dutiful child who didn't marry an Air Force officer and go traipsing all over the world. The faithful child who didn't hang herself and leave the family business in a shambles. I was the one who stuck around, who lived ten minutes away. The patient one, the good sport, the forgiving one, the one who wouldn't say no.
I answered the phone this time because I knew she wasn't home. Gone for the weekend with her ladies' group to The Business and Professional Women's conventon in Lafayette. I suppose in her mind she was a business and professional woman, even though she was seventy and had long ago thrown in the towel on the family business. She and my dad, along with my brother, while he was alive, had run a paint and sandblast company, and for forty years sandblasted and painted their way through southeast Texas and south Louisiana. She joined the BPW for the networking possibilities, although I don't think she ever got a single painting contract out of it. And she joined in on BPW's big cause - equal pay for women.
"Do you realize," she would say intently, "that if I were a man, I would be making twenty-five percent more money? That's the average disparity in salaries between men and women in the same job, you know. You ought to be speaking up, Annie. Don't you think you deserve to be paid as much as a man? You have to be squeaky wheel in the working world, or you'll get pushed around. You never speak up for yourself."
It did no good to point out that as a teacher, my salary was determined purely by a step system, and like all teachers in the district, including the men, my salary was determined strictly according to the number of years I had in the system. It also did me no good to point out that as a woman who ran her own business, bid her own jobs, and wrote her own contracts that she herself was the one who decided how much she should be paid.
"Yes, but what about the other women? The women who don't have it lucky like me and you?"
Let the other women figure that out, I would think to myself. I don't have the time or the energy.
I did answer the phone, because she had gone to her BPW convention, and what if something really had happened? I would look like a real jerk if I left my invalid father to die alone in that apartment because I was avoiding his demand that I come over and change a burnt out bulb in the bathroom again.
"There are seven other bulbs in this vanity light. Does it really bother you that much to have one out?"
"It's not bright enough. I can't see my book."
"You don't have to read in here. You can read in bed. It looks like an airport landing strip in here."
I had already changed every bulb to a hundred watts; the temperature in the bathroom was easily several degrees higher than the rest of the house. Still there never seemed to be enough light in there for my dad.
When I answered the phone, sure enough, he claimed there was another light bulb crisis. When I got there, though, my dad was in bed, the blankets pulled up to his chin. I flipped the bathroom switch, and all eight bulbs lit up like a 1980 disco at closing time.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I need to change." He said it without looking at me.
"Didn't Curtis come over this afternoon?"
Curtis was the certified nurse's aide that my mom arranged to have come and help my dad with his daily routines whenever she was gone. He was a black man, about thirty-five, and despite my dad's initial objection to having a "nigger" see him naked, he learned to like Curtis and looked forward to his visits. Curtis was an ex-crack addict and ex-convict who had found Jesus and sobriety. While he gave my dad sponge baths or changed his adult diaper he would give his testimony about how Jesus had turned his life around. Sometimes he would tell stories he remembered from the Bible. My dad would nod and listen, but never say much. He liked the stories, but he didn't believe in God.
"I need to change," he said again.
I pulled back the covers and saw a brownish yellow stain on the sheet under his right leg.
"Curtis went home. I think I'm sick.".
"It's ok, Dad. I'll help you."
With the blankets pulled away, the smell was almost overwhelming. When I rolled him over onto his side, there was shit everywhere. It had oozed up above the waistband of the diaper onto his back. It had run down between his legs, to the back of his knees. it was on his hands, and there was a pile of soiled tissues on the floor next to the bed. He kept a dish towel on the night stand that he used as a napkin when he had his lunch in bed. That, too, was covered.
I went to work without saying anything. I retrieved some more towels from the bathroom and ran them under warm water. I peeled away the diaper and tried to catch the runny mess in a towel. Then with another warm towel, I swiped again, trying to keep the mess contained and clean him up at the same time. At over two hundred pounds, there was no way I would be able to get him in the tub by myself, and I wasn't about to try.
"We'll just do a sponge bath for now, Dad. When Mom comes back tomorrow, I'll help you get into the bathtub."
He moved cooperatively when I pushed him over again to clean his back side, between the crevices and the cleave in his buttocks. I rolled him flat onto his back again. He laid very still and stared at the ceiling, while I began to manipulate his feet and knees wiping the mess between his thighs and around his scrotum I recalled how i had changed diapers without a second thought when my two boys were small. How I sang to them, or told stories, and putting my face down right next to theirs even while I held a waste-filled diaper in my hands. I glanced at my dad. He was still staring up at the ceiling. His eyes were wet.
"Did Curtis ever tell you the story about Jesus giving his disciples a bath?" I asked him.
Without looking at me, my dad shook his head.
"Well you know, the disciples, and a lot of the other Jews at the time, too, thought Jesus was their long awaited king, right? The one who was going to finally stick it to the Romans and let them know who was really supposed to be in charge," I began.
I felt my dad relax a little. I kept talking as I helped him sit up and pulled the soiled t-shirt over his head.
"Jesus had planned for them to all have a meal together, which turned out to be the Last Supper. In those days, it was considered proper manners to wash your feet before you went into someone's house for a meal. I guess their feet must have been pretty nasty after walking around in that hot desert all day. The host would have a container of water outside so his guests could wash up. Well that day, as they were about to enter into the house for the meal, Jesus takes off his robe and wraps it around his waist, like a towel, and he says to the disciples, ' Let me wash your feet.' Can you imagine? Jesus Christ - King of kings, Lord of lords,the son of God himself, half dressed, kneeling at their feet, ready to do whatever it takes to make them presentable to the master of the house? Well, of course the disciples couldn't let their king stoop so low. They couldn't have their leader acting like a slave. It was downright inappropriate. If anything, they should be offering to wash HIS feet! So, Peter, the bold one, spoke up. He told Jesus no way! No way was he going to let someone as important as Jesus sink to washing feet!"
I helped my dad sit up and move over into his wheelchair. He sat, bare naked in his chair, and watched while I stripped the bed. I kept talking as I spread clean sheets on the bed.
"The funny thing about Jesus, he can make you feel like a real jerk sometimes, especially when you think you are doing everything right. Well instead of praising Peter for his humility and his respect for the office of Messiah, Jesus pretty much tells him, 'If you don't let me clean you up, you're dead to me.' "
I looked over at my dad, who was now listening intently and seemed to have forgotten he was naked. I kept going.
"So Peter, realizing the last thing he wants in the world is to be dead to Jesus, whips off his shoes, his cloak, and everything, and says, 'Well, Lord if that's the way it is, then don't just wash my feet. Do my head, too, and everything in between while you are at it! I want to be clean!' And that's just what Jesus did. He cleaned him up."
I opened a fresh diaper and laid it out on the newly made bed, and helped him lay down. I shook a little medicated powder on, taped the diaper closed, and pulled a clean white t-shirt over his head. He held onto my neck to support himself off the bed, helping me get his shirt down over his back. Then I lowered him down gently and pulled the sheet up over his chest. I pulled a clean white blanket from the closet shelf and whipped it in the air above him, and let it float down on the cool breeze it had created. He watched while I gathered the soiled linens and towels into a laundry basket.
"Mom has some quarters in the dresser drawer for the washing machines."
"I'll wash them at my house, Dad. I don't like your laundromat. It's always too hot in there."
"Curtis says that when we go to heaven, we all get new clothes. He says God don't like his children wearin' no dirty rags."
"Curtis sounds like a smart man."
"When we get to heaven, God gonna open up them gates, and ask us who we is, and all we got to say is we friends wif his son, Jesus, and God gonna welcome us right on in. And I'm gonna walk right in there on two good legs, and sit down at his table and we gon' bless the food and eat like we is children of the king, too!"
I stared at my father. For a moment he had become Curtis. Not just in the words, but deeper. A strange half smile came across his face. In his demented, aging mind, was he finally beginning to grasp what he never could seem to understand or accept in his right mind?
"But first, I'll have Jesus wash my feet, because it's proper manners to wash your feet before you go into someone's home for a meal. Can you imagine? The King of kings and Lord of lords, the Son of God himself, half dressed, kneeling at my feet, ready to do whatever it takes to make me presentable to the master of the house?"
Now he was me, and I stood over him in disbelief. In the past half hour, I had seen my father morph from cranky old man, to helpless child, to Curtis, and finally to me. I realized that I didn't know him at all, and now it was probably too late. I looked at his face and felt tears start to come.
During the next several months I found myself at the apartment more frequently, showing up often when I knew my mother would be out, and Curtis was scheduled to be there. Sometimes my dad and I would sit together and listen to Curtis talk about his "amazing transformation" as he called it. Sometimes we would all take turns speculating what we would do together when we got to heaven. Sometimes I would just sit in the next room and eavesdrop while Curtis washed my father and told him stories - the woman at well, the water changed to wine, the feeding of the five thousand. When Curtis was there with his stories, my dad came out of himself; the crazy convoluted walls that he built over the years, the walls that had twisted over on themseIves in his dementia would, at least temporarily, begin to fall away. It was too late for me to get to know him as he used to be, but not too late to know him as he was now. And that would be enough. Curtis' stories sustained and changed me, too. The same stories I had read and analyzed and taught for years in my own Sunday School class became fresh and wondrous to me, too, when I heard Curtis tell them. The demon possessed man, the adulterous woman, the lost son.
"... And when his daddy saw his boy coming up that long dusty road, you ain't never seen a man so happy an' excited. One day, Mr.Richard, your daddy gonna see you comin' up that road, and what he gonna say? He gon' say, 'There's my boy. I'm sho' am glad to see him!'. "
And my father would answer, "I'm sho' am glad."
A year later my father died. His heart had finally given out, although my mother had tried heroically to revive him. Her efforts at CPR managed to keep him going long enough for my sister to fly in from Germany, approve our decision to remove life support, and say goodbye. I don't know if he heard the last few words that we said to him, but it didn't matter. He had heard enough.