It’s a long-standing tradition in my family to offer help with the understanding that you will never be required to follow through with it. The gesture is symbolic, a substitute for more direct expressions of affection.
Other families say “I love you.” Mine says “Let me know if you need help with that thing.”
I told my dad I’d help him out because I was reeling from how ghastly he appeared and didn’t want to stick Lil Bro with the responsibility and stress-reverted to force of habit response patterns. The important thing was getting him to make a doctor’s appointment and pre-empting his protests. The rest would then sort itself out. (Another deep-seated family belief.)
At most, I thought I’d be on the hook for a couple of grocery and pet supply runs to be arranged at my convenience.
What I got was a series of increasingly bizarre calls at random times. Despite he claims about “cutting down,” the old man was still burning through multiple packs of smokes a day. No one else was willing to buy them for him, so he pestered me whenever he was running low. He wouldn’t do it directly, however. He’d call and babble about something or another before couching the request within a less objectionable one. “I’m running low on cat food for Peej…and could you pick me up some cigarettes, too?”
While his apartment was a couple miles from my place of work, that short distance ran a gauntlet of hazards which included the deadliest rotary in Boston and a narrow steep slope where stupid shits parked on both sides of the road. Never mind the fact I had to walk a half mile across a wind-blasted peninsula to get to my car, plus give up my breaktime during a stretch when my job was nothing but putting one fire out after another. Making the trip on a lazy Saturday morning was one thing. Doing it during rush hour while a snow squall raged around the Malibu was another.
And no matter how much I tried to make sure he was set up until the weekend, his Marlboro consumption would increase to ensure that I’d get another call two days after the previous one. The breaking point came when he wanted me to make a run on a Wednesday afternoon, after the winter darkness had already descended. I tried — and failed — to convince Maura (a far better city driver than I am) to come with me, and thus had to go it alone.
It was a nightmare from beginning to end, with my anger and anxiety reaching meltdown levels — which I then channeled into an ugly blow-up with Maura. After I regained a semblance of self-control and made what amends I could, I decided that pity and the fumes of filial obligation only went so far. Yet the more I stonewalled, the more absurd his demands became.
“Hey, where are you now?”
“Stuck in shit traffic on the northbound expressway before the tunnel, so the signal might drop soon.”
“Oh…so I guess you wouldn’t be able to pick me up a couple packs of smokes tonight.”
“No, that’s not going to happen.”
“Oh…okay…I see…hmmm… I guess I’ll think of something. It’s just that you offered.. Don’t trouble yourself.” Then an abrupt hang-up and — I swear — the sound of sad violin music.
While this multi-act epic of pass-agg behavior was unfolding between the old man and me, Lil Bro’s interactions with him had entered avant-garde territory. My father had started experiencing hallucinations where my dead mother or dead cousin or Lil Bro’s younger self would show up in his apartment. His retelling of the incidents would slip in between acknowledging they couldn’t be real and talking about them as if they were.
My father’s mother went a bit loopy in her later years (above and beyond the trauma caused by a stroke in her mid-forties) and his elder brother had begun to suffer severe cognitive impairment within the last decade or so. At the same time, my father was also spending most of his day in a pain-wracked state of semi-slumber and subsisting on junk food. On one of the cigarette runs, I found him in bed, surrounded by a dozen empty pudding cups and bottles of Coke.
The only way to know what was really going on was for the old man to see a doctor, which he insisted was in the process of happening “any day now.”
There was no way we could force the issue. In the end, we didn’t have to, because our father forced it upon himself.