The Spinning Darkness of Her Hair

Sometimes, one’s own feelings don’t matter a whit.

Daria: Shut up! That’s what’s happening!
Todd: Been a long time since you’re shutting up!
Daria: What I like about you? You keep on shutting up!
Todd: Under the bridge downtown, you’ll be shutting up!

Todd and Daria both miss their little children. Conducting family life is no cakewalk under normal circumstances, let alone with a stressed-out parent hundreds or thousands of miles from home. They spend half the time they’re not holding Dad’s hand pacing the halls and the driveway, calling in favors for childcare help. Todd’s and Daria’s respective spouses are tearing their hair out trying to keep things moving. Everyone is emotional and torn and trying to have patience as we watch our father waste away, but after three weeks, patience with us is wearing thin. People want and need Todd and Daria in their homes and jobs, adding guilt to the pain of coping with losing our dad. The suckfest is beyond belief and life moves fast – not where we are, but we can see it distantly.

I have my own problems, which seem small and silly by comparison. My apartment is empty and everything in my refrigerator is turning blue. I’m lonely for a couch I’ve never seen, for my own bed and the dumb routines of my life. I say things like, “When I go home, I’ll…” thereby skipping the significant event between me and sitting on my couch; sometimes, I am still genuinely afraid. I don’t think much of my problems or desires at this moment, even my idle wish to wake up in my own home, where I live alone and very quietly. The last three weeks’ forced togetherness have been very hard for me, but that’s no more important than being tired or needing a haircut. If you can believe it, for once, I’m not the Center of the Damn Universe.

Yesterday, Dara’s nail polish had chipped to a point where I was uncomfortable looking at them so I shoved a bottle of nail polish remover at her with a bitchy grin. She narrowed her eyes and said, “Nuh unh.” A little while later, we had an unnerving incident in which Dad told Dara he had an important appointment to get ready for and Dara ran outside to cry. Daria ran after her and Todd followed suit. I remained in the kitchen, turning off boiling pots and chopping vegetables because, try as I might, I just cannot be the cuddly mommy type you need when you need a cuddly mommy type. And that’s fine: go have your group hug. I’ll mix martinis, and later, we’ll play strip poker. So when the three of them came back, we finished making dinner, which was fabulous.

After dinner, I pushed the nail polish remover at Dara again and said, “No, really. Give it a whirl.”

Dara: No.
Tata: Why?
Dara: I don’t know why.
Daria: What?
Todd: What’s going on?
Tata: She doesn’t want to take off what’s left of her polish.
Todd: Why? That looks like crap.
Tata: Nice going, dude.
Daria: Why don’t you want to take off your polish?
Dara: I don’t know!
Tata: Sweetie, when other people see you looking like this, they think you’re not taking care of yourself and they’ll worry.
Daria: That’s true. Let her take off your polish. It’s nothing. It takes no time at all.
Tata: Zip zip zip. Give me your other hand.
Daria: Did you notice? Yesterday, I was talking on the phone and when I hung up, she’d treated my cuticles and put on a layer of hoof lacquer. See?
Tata: Daria wears too much bling. She cannot go around with raggedy nails. Go wash your hands.
Dara: I don’t want to!
Tata: Thanks for doing it, then. Put your hands on the table.

I rubbed her hands with lotion.

Tata: Do you know why you want to use base coat?
Dara: No.
Tata: Tinted polish stains your nails, which you know. Use two coats, like I’m doing now.
Dara: Why?
Tata: Your nails are thin. Try eating some gelatin at least once a week, and make sure you get some calcium and Vitamin D. You’re under a lot of stress.
Dara: You’re very annoying.
Tata: Pfft, take a number! Two coats of your favorite polish, like this. Don’t worry about the little extra drops. And replace your polish more often. Do you know why?
Dara: No. Why?
Tata: Because this bottle of polish is screaming, “I’m trying to die! I’d like to join the other polishes in Nail Polish Heaven. Please send me to be with the others of my kind.”
Dara: Why do you say that?
Tata: Because the goo in this bottle is thick and heavy. Nail polish should be light and relatively thin.
Dara: What are you talking about?
Tata: Nothing. When you buy a bottle of polish, write the date on the bottom with a Sharpie. If you still have it a year later, send it to Heaven without regret.
Dara: Are they dry?
Tata: Not important! You need two layers of top coat to seal and protect against chipping.
Daria: I get impatient and ding at least just about now.
Tata: If she dings it, I’ll fix it but she won’t. Hold still!
Dara: I’m holding still!
Tata: Hold stiller!
Dara: Okay!
Daria: Now why were you mad before? This is nothing to be mad about. Why were you mad?
Dara: I don’t know! I was just mad!
Tata: Sweetie, when your polish dries, you can rub any extra bits off your skin because you moisturized it well. The first time you dip your hands into soapy water, the polish bits will rub off like magic.
Dara: So in the shower?
Tata: Yup. Baby, your nails look good.
Dara: They do, don’t they?
Tata: Dahhhhling, it’s okay if you’re mad at me, got that?
Daria: …Especially since you’re not really mad at your sister. You’re mad that Daddy’s dying. Aren’t you?
Dara: Yeah. Okay.

I hugged her in an unconvincing manner.

Tata: I love you madly. Don’t ever – uh – change.
Dara: Did you actually touch me?
Tata: Probably not.
Todd: What’s for dessert?
Tata: I’m sorry I’m not the cuddly type.
Dara: I think you’re getting further away from me.
Todd: See this piece of cake? I’m eating it and you can’t stop me!
Daria: Don’t talk to those crazy people and let me hug you, sweetpea!
Tata: When you need tattoos or an alibi, I’m your gal because we’re sisters and someday you may decide what home I live in.
Dara: How do you feel about large mice as involuntary pets?

Sometimes, one’s own feelings don’t matter a whit. Not even one.

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Dreams Unwind And Love Is Hard To Find

Tuesday, Dara peeled vegetables in the kitchen and said, “I was singing and my friends said, ‘Uh, what?'”

I’ve puzzled for days on this very topic. As time passes and Dad’s life ebbs, he sleeps more and requires greater patience and care. This means I set up laundry and clean up messes while Daria puts Dad’s papers in order and Todd cleans something else to within an inch of its figurative life. Further, each of us has specialty chores. I have been appointed Chief Cat Comforter, but sometimes I change hats and step out to exercise my authorita as Cat Wrangler. Yes, I’m the new sheriff in Cat Town, here to settle disputes and upbraid the disgruntled, bringing peace and harmony to a nervous populous. It’s a living.

When Darla makes a request of any kind, Daria and I snap to and make it happen. Yesterday, Daria comparison shopped for funeral arrangements because Darla told us Daddy says undertakers are thieves. Well, okay then. Daria spent an hour on the phone asking, “Who do you think you’re messing with?” before settling on services that messed with her least. We are working like dogs to keep this household running, and we burst into tears a lot while we wait for what little time we get to spend with Daddy while he’s awake. It’s an incredibly stressful situation. About two weeks ago, we also started bursting into song.

Picture this. You’re standing in a kitchen with three of your blood relatives. You’re preparing dinner, say. Someone is slicing garlic. Someone is reducing heavy cream. Someone is grating parmesan cheese. Someone is stirring the linguine. Suddenly: cheese on the floor inspires what sound like off-key auditions for the Vienna Boys Choir.

Tata: Oooh, I will be telling!
Daria: Shut up!
Todd: You are the one who will be shutting up!
Dara: You are the one who will be getting paper towels!

Nothing is too big or small to warble about – and I mean nothing.

Tata: We’re in a restaurant. We’d better stop singing.
Daria: This place has good bread.
Todd: Get your plastic Louis V bag off the table.
Dara: Bite me!

And:

Tata: I feel a banana bread coming on.
Daria: Those bananas look verklempt!
Todd: Does your recipe use walnuts?
Dara: When can I have some of the bread you haven’t baked yet?

We chant un-Gregorian in the car, at the grocery store, over the phone, while we’re cleaning, all the time, and it doesn’t matter who overhears us. What do I care who hears us? But Dara’s another story. It was a mighty good thing that when she warbled away from the flock it was at her friends and not at the Vice Principal, because otherwise she might be taking the bus to a special school right now – or a job in summer stock. Two nights ago, Darla ran past us all in the kitchen and said, “That singing thing? It’s not annoying yet but we’re this close.”

In bad four-part harmony, we sang without thinking, “Sorry!”

These Three Days Start Over Again

Darla sticks her head through the doorway.

Darla: He’s feeling a little better. He said, “Tell them to shut the hell up.”
Tata: Hooray! Let’s go upstairs!

I’m sitting on the floor of the upstairs bedroom my sisters sleep in. They’re allergic to cats and the rest of the house is full of them, so my sisters are pretty much S.O.L. as far as little things like breathing are concerned. Todd is so allergic to everything, he spends half his time running the wet/dry vac in the garage, which we just call “Todd’s office.” And it’s not like anybody worried until Todd vacuumed up a nest today and everyone spilled out of the garage, shouting, “What do we do with a vacuum cleaner full of wasps?”

Tata: Since you’re asking me, I say you lock the garage door and go back in December.

A few days ago, Daria and I sat with Daddy and a funny subject came up.

Daria: The freezer is full of ingredients and not food. We’re trying to cook for Darla and keep finding things we can’t identify.
Dad: Like what?
Tata: I found something I can’t identify, too!

Daria ran to the kitchen. I ran after. Daria returned with something I hadn’t seen. I came back with something else.

Daria: What’s this, Daddy?
Dad: Gingerbread. Throw that away.
Daria: What do we do with the yucca?
Dad: Whatever you want. Yucca is delicious.
Daria: Huh!
Tata: Daddy, what’s this?
Dad: Pork roast. Convection oven, 250 degrees to an internal temperature of …
Tata: Did…did you say “an internal temperature of 160”?
Dad: ONE HUNDRED FORTY and NO MORE.
Tata: I’ve got a Sharpie and I’m writing directions.

Soon, the kitchen table was filled with answers for Jeopardy category THINGS ONLY DAD COULD IDENTIFY, ALEX and by the time we’d reached the $1000 question, Dad was feeling puckish.

Tata: What’s this?
Dad: Vegetable soup.

I turned on my heel.

Dad: …I think…
Tata: I heard that!

I turned back to squint and he was laughing so I had to tell Daria, “Daddy’s done telling us the truth so watch it!” We ventured one further question:

Daria: What the hell is this thing?
Dad: It’s a chicken with feet and head on. My grandmother used to braise them and we’d suck the chicken feet like they were the most delicious thing ever. Then she gave me the head and I’d eat the wattle and break open the skull and eat the brain. It was fantastic.
Tata: How long should I thaw this thing? It looks like it sank the Titanic.
Dad: Three days in the fridge.
Daria: And then there’s a chicken with the freaking FEET AND HEAD ON!

Regardless, we labeled and thawed. Tonight, I roasted the chicken because Daddy had been very clear this chicken would taste differently than factory-farm chicken, and taste is utterly crucial. Daria happened to be handy when I was preparing the chicken, so she helped me with the seasoning I couldn’t touch because I was touching raw chicken. Gradually, the smell of roasting chicken permeated the house, making bearable what else Darla, Daria and I cleaned up and no one needs mention. Dad woke up from a deep sleep and said to Darla, “What smells really good?” At the same time, Todd and I consulted about doneness, tenting and carry over cooking in the next room, which when you think about it is a tremendous accomplishment of kitchen instruction on Dad’s part. We let the chicken rest to redistribute the fluids and when it came time to cut the chicken, everyone said, “NOT ME!”

Though we are the kids, I am the oldest woman in the house so I took the biggest, sharpest knife I could find and sliced up the chicken in a less than especially skillful way. Todd watched from across the kitchen, where presumably a knife slip might be more hilarious than immediately injurious – to him. I’d laid out leftover salads, grilled vegetables, melons, slaws and fruit compotes on the kitchen table, along with plates and cutlery. Darla appeared in the kitchen and said something that made my blood run cold.

Darla: Your dad would like to see the chicken before it’s cut.
Tata: Aggh! Tell him I’ve gone into the Witness Protection Program!

…but I sucked it up and went to see Dad alone to disappoint him.

Dad: The chicken smells good. Really good.
Tata: Thank you, Daddy. I just finished slicing it up for dinner.
Dad: Who’s eating out there?
Tata: My brother, sisters and Darla. That’s all. They’re loud, huh?
Dad: That’s it? Really?
Tata: I wanted Dara to have a little bit of normal, which is to say dinner where she sits down. It seemed important, considering how utterly crazy life has become. So right now she’s sitting with Daria, Todd and Darla. There’s salad.
Dad: Thank you.
Tata: Don’t worry, Daddy. You said this chicken would taste different.
Dad: How did you prepare it?
Tata: I rubbed it with olive oil, salt, pepper, Italian seasoning and basted with butter. I omitted garlic and anything that might bother you, just in case you wanted to taste it.
Dad: Thank you, I can’t.
Tata: Okay, it’s not important. You said we should taste the actual chicken, so I didn’t want to extravagantly season.
Dad: Logical…
Tata: I roasted it at 325 to an internal temperature of 158, then tented it to rest.
Dad: How did you carve it?
Tata: I cut through the leg, thigh and wing joints, hacked through the neck and sliced the breast meat.
Dad: On or off the bone?
Tata: On. I know the trick but I didn’t want to try it in front of the critics a the kitchen table.
Dad: My grandmother braised these chickens. You can cook them in a crockpot. The collagen from the feet will thicken the stew for you. Are you going to try the feet?
Tata: I will. Next time I use this kind of chicken I’ll braise it.
Dad: In the kitchen above the rack, there’s a clay baking dish. Have you used one of those?
Tata: I haven’t.
Dad: I…I’m too weak to explain it.
Tata: Are you sure there’s nothing I can get you?
Dad: No, thank you, my kid.
Tata: Would you like to rest now, Daddy?
Dad: Yes.
Tata: Okay, Daddy.

I kissed his cheek, he kissed my hand and I closed the living room door behind me to cut the sound of my siblings’ mad chatter. Darla finished eating and crept into the sickroom. Half an hour later, a nurse from the hospice agency arrived at the house and started a saline drip, which cleared some of the medication fog. Daria, Todd, Dara and I sat in the kitchen, singing while Todd played the guitar Dad gave him. Later, things got a little raucous when the ice cream came out, and Darla made her hilarious cameo appearance. We grabbed a bottle of wine and ran upstairs, giggling.

Daria: Daddy told us to shut up!
Tata: Daddy sent us to our room!

And we were happy because Dad was cranky again.

Damned If I’ll Get Hung Up On the Time

Last night, we called Todd in Los Angeles because his sisters are three brunettes in a tight situation with unlimited in-network minutes. Todd told us difficult news: he was coming back to Virginia but not until Thursday. Completely bummed, we poured ourselves glasses of wine and embarked on a three-state eating spree. Next thing we knew, we’d slaughtered some defenseless freezer spring rolls and a pint of Vermonty Python. Oh, the carnage of the chocolate cows!

This morning, nobody slept. When Dara got up at 6:10 to get ready for school, I was already awake. Since I’m sleeping on the floor of Dad’s office with a red-furred cat named Atticus who rearranges my hair every night, my hair stands up in dramatic curls every morning and this morning was no exception. I came downstairs looking like Carmen Miranda with an extra fruit chapeau. Daria had already taken Dara to the bus stop half a mile away because neither of them had slept, and it turned out Darla hadn’t slept much either. Essentially, it sucked to be us when the phone rang at 8 and I sprinted to Darla with a hospice nurse on the cordless. A few minutes later, Daria, Darla and I clutched tea and coffee cups for dear life during this conversation.

Darla: Your father had pressure in his chest last night. I told the hospice people he could tell he wasn’t having a heart attack because he’s had one and recalls the sensation vividly.
Tata: Right, right, you told us. It felt like an obstruction in his throat, you said.
Darla: They didn’t believe me so they called back 10 hours later in a panic.
Tata: That’s service!
Darla: He had lesions on his lung so maybe the cancer’s pressing now on his bronchia.
Tata: Would he enjoy a tasty glass of refreshing whiskey with his morphine?
Darla: Maybe.
Daria: Oh, Todd told us last night he’s coming back on Thursday. He’s got a throat thing.
Darla: Good for him. We cannot have a throat thing.

We heard a noise at the side door and froze. Because I’m small but fierce in a Nobody’s getting past me to see Dad uninvited-sort of way, I turned the corner in confrontation mode and burst out laughing. I unleashed a laughable tae bo move and ducked back in the kitchen to get out of the way.

Daria: TODD!
Darla: We were just talking about you!
Daria: The words were still hanging in the air: “Todd’s coming back on Thursday.” What are you doing here?
Todd: I hung up the phone and half an hour later I was on a plane.
Tata: You’d better gargle with warm salt water, dude, nobody needs a throat thing.

And then, an extra set of hands to carry the weight lightened the load. It’s not all right, but it’s better. Well, alas for the poor chocolate cows.

Tore the Rug In That Downtown Dive

Yesterday, I awakened to find a grilled cheese sandwich next to my head and Dad’s wife Darla staring at me.

Darla: Y’awake?
Tata: I yam!
Darla: Ya weren’t!
Tata: I ya-wasn’t but now I have a cheese sandwich! Good morning!
Darla: Your sister made it. I applauded. Weren’t you up early this morning?
Tata: I was! Then I came up here to work and sat on the floor with the laptop. Then I reclined. Then I decided to work with my eyes closed. Then I had a delicious cheese sandwich.
Darla: Your plan comes to fruition.
Tata: And cheese.

The first time I awoke to a ringing phone. My reflexes, sharpened by days of leaping at anything with a ringer, drove me straight up and at the phone in Dad’s office before my eyes opened. At the other end was an old friend of Dad’s who’d just heard news of Dad’s imminent demise, and the nice man was very upset about it. He’d been traveling to a bonsai conference when Dad got sick. They share an interest in manicured miniature trees. Dad’s back porch has about a dozen of them. Anyway, even Dad’s good friends and acquaintances are still just getting the news, so the teary phone calls can be a bit much. Dad isn’t talking on the phone anymore. Darla looks stricken every time it happens. I take messages and let these people calm down, which is exactly what I did yesterday, at 9:01 A.M. So I got up twice yesterday. This morning, Dara went back to school.

If I haven’t made this clear to you recently, you should forgive me now and beat the Christmas rush: I am 44 years old. Daria is 16 months younger than me and Todd is two years younger than Daria. Dara is 15. She is Dad’s daughter from his marriage to Summer, who is two years older than I am. Dad is now married to Darla, who was born in England, to English people a year after Daria was born in New Brunswick, and who then moved to Canada. It’s a family tree resembling kudzu, but it works for us. For instance, at this very moment, Summer’s new husband’s stepfather is coming up the driveway to jump start Daddy’s van. So: good for us.

Tonight, Dad’s having trouble with pressure in his chest, which he differentiates from a heart attack through experience. Today’s big break came when the hospice nurse told Daddy to bust out his oldest scotch as a topical anesthetic for the throat pain and sleeplessness. If I remember right, Dad said, “That’s the closest I’ll get now to an 18-year-old.” My sisters and I are eating freezer spring rolls.

Ain’t No Secret About It

My sisters have gone to pick up Dad’s and Darla’s prescriptions. I’m making crepes for regular and seafood manicotti. It’s quiet in the house but outside: rifle fire. Apparently, it’s hunting season of some kind and I’m pissed. We’ve had a tough day, and the sound of hunters trying to kill defenseless creatures just doesn’t fucking cut it.

Last night, Daddy took half an Ambien for sleep but he didn’t sleep. Before he got sick, he’d had a disastrous Ambien episode, so this is kind of an all-bets-are-off situation. This morning, he was paranoid, confused and felt bad. He told Darla he didn’t think it would be long now. Then, Todd, his wife Bette and their children left for Los Angeles, where Todd will work a shift in the bar he manages, then turn around and come back Monday. Dara has to go back to school Monday. Last night, I had the kind of meltdown your family forgives under normal circumstances after years of “I’m sorry – Jeez!” but this morning, nobody said a word because the next thing that happened was Darla cried for her dying husband with every fiber of her being, which put my little tantrum into perspective. I decided to lay off the red wine for a while.

The fear like I’m standing on an electified surface has returned. Daria has it too. Despite all this, and perhaps because of it, we get this:

Darla stepped into the kitchen, snapped her fingers and shouted, “Clean sheets.” Daria and I threw whatever we were holding on the floor and ran in opposite directions. I sprinted to the dryer, then to the upstairs linen closet, where I’d put away the last set of sheets we’d stripped off Dad’s bed. I pulled out everything we’d taken off his bed, threw it at Daria and sprinted back down the stairs two and three at a time. Daddy was sitting up in bed with his feet on the floor, feeling very weak and uncomfortable from sweating. We stripped this bed and tucked in clean sheets around him, then he stood for a few seconds as we adjusted the mattress and made everything even and crisp. This operation took less than five minutes, total. Daddy lay back down. We covered him with soft blankets and watched to see how he felt. After a minute, he was comfortable again and smiling gently.

Darla: That was amazing!
Tata: We’ve been calling ourselves your pit crew.
Daria: Not for nothing but the hospice lady said, “I’ve never seen anything like that! I’ve never seen a bed changed that fast!”
Darla: At first, I worried about power tools flying and oil everywhere, but it’s great!
Tata: Do you think we’re ready for NASCAR?
Dad: You missed it! Your sisters rotated my tires.
Dara: That’s okay, I’ve seen it twice before.
Daria: Notice how she says she’s seen it, not that she’s done it?

Hours later, deer huddle in the woods out back. My sisters and I huddled around the kitchen table and ate a startlingly non-nutritious dinner of small foods one can only eat standing up. Darla and Dad awoke from much-needed naps to the puzzling sound of repeated thumping. Darla, who is Canadian and never even saw a gun until she came here, sticks her head out of the sickroom and asks, “What’s that thud-thud-thud-ing?”

Us: Gunfire.
Darla: What?
Us: Gunfire.
Darla: It’s gunfire, Dominic.
Daddy: Shit!

So when he ate a little soup, we were very happy.