My father is on the phone screaming for me not to hang up. He says he is in a Hollywood, Florida hospital where he’s been taken against his will. The reason, I come to understand: He was sitting on a bench in front of his church when some well-meaning Samaritan spotted him looking old and lost, fragile and small, and called 911. When the local Fire Department arrived, despite protestations and sputtered explanations, he was strapped to a gurney, wheeled into a van, and whisked off to the ER.
I was waiting for mass, he tells me, voice rising somewhere between panic and rage. I forgot to change the clock, to spring forward… That’s why I was sitting there… But nobody will listen… Now they want to do a CAT-scan… They won’t let me go home… I was just waiting for the next mass… I forgot Daylight Savings Time… This is shit.
My father is 98 years old. He is stooped over like half a horseshoe, his skin so thin it seems to rip in the wind, skeletal arms splotched with purple and wrapped in gauze bandages which look as if they date to the Crimean War. Sometimes he reminds me of friends who died in the plague of the 80’s covered with KS, what they might be like today if they’d lived to be ancient, un-lapsed their Catholicism, and took up competitive Bridge. Sometimes he reminds me of a leopard poised to leap for the jugular. But that, I remind myself, is the father of my childhood, not the shrunken nanogenarian on the phone.
A nurse gets on an extension, briskly introduces herself as Audrey, then tells my father she wants to talk with me privately for a moment. We’ll get right back to you, I assure him. Scout’s honor, Dad. Scout’s honor?
It’s an old joke between us, the Boy Scouts being one of a long list of failed attempts to win his approval when I was a kid.Scout’s honor. He’s leery but he complies.
Now what seems to be the problem, I ask the nurse after he’s clicked off. As far as I can tell, this all seems to be an unfortunate mistake. So what’s he still doing in the hospital? Why hasn’t he been sent home?
Because his blood levels aren’t normal, she replies.
Normal? I just can’t help wondering what constitutes “normal” for a 98 year old. Nonetheless, from recent examinations, I know that my father is fading and his kidneys are starting to give out. I also know that he has said many, many times that he does not want to die in Florida. Dying in general doesn’t seem to bother him, just dying in Florida. He’s scheduled to return to Long Island in a week and a half and unless there is a critical issue at this very moment I swear on a stack of Baltimore Catechisms that I’ll be sure he sees his primary care physician the minute he’s back in New York. Frankly, I tell her, keeping him in the hospital would kill him.
This does not sit well. Not at all. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, she counters, but there are issues besides the blood work. Namely, dementia. We’re almost certain he is suffering from dementia.
Yes, dementia, she says firmly. A chronic or persistent disorder of the mental processes…
Hold on, I manage to interject. Just hold on.
Slowly (I think) and politely (I hope), I explain that I have just returned to New York from Florida and when I saw him a few days earlier he seemed fine – as fine as one can expect of anyone at his age, as fine as he ever was, for that matter. Terrible flirt with waitresses. Lousy tipper. Congenitally suspicious of new foods and people. But at the same time, a man who devours The Times every morning, cooks and cleans for himself, tools around in a sixteen year old Buick without mishap, and plays serious Bridge with a “favorite partner” twice a week. We’re just friends, he assured me over osso bucco last week, nothing romantic. Having outlived two wives, he isn’t quite ready for a third.
But he can’t answer our questions correctly, Audrey retorts. They’re very basic questions and if he can’t answer them correctly, we have no choice but to admit him for further observation.
He’s very hard of hearing, I explain. Practically deaf. And he’s a real Depression baby, insists on buying cheap knock-off batteries for his hearing aids…
That may be the case but…
Try again. Please try again.
Okay. Mr. Gee-niger. Mr. Gee-niger! Get back on the phone.
Genega! I scream. Guh-negg-uh!
There’s scraping and static as my father hurries back on the line. You there? He asks warily.
Yes, I’m here, Dad.
They took my cell, you know. That’s why I’m on this God damn hospital phone. Someone stole my cell.
We’ll find your cellphone later. Don’t worry about it. Listen to the nurse now.
I’m trying to sound calm and nonchalant but truth is rage and panic are beginning to bubble up in me also.
Okay, Mr. Gee-knee-guh. I want to ask you a few basic questions.
This is shit, my father replies. Shit… shit… shit… shit… shit…
First off, where do you live?
Where do I live? You want to know where I live? I can hear the frustration and disdain in his voice.
Yes, where… do… you… live? Tell… me… where… you… live.
I live in Massapequa Park. On Long Island. Next door to Barbara and Martin.
See, what I mean, he doesn’t even know he lives in Florida.
But for most of the year, he does live on Long Island. Barbara and Martin are his step-daughter and her husband. They live next door. Surely she has heard of snowbirds…
Let’s continue. Okay, Mr. Gen-eager. Where are you?
Another long pause.
Simple question. Tell us where you are.
A low moan escapes his lips.
Where are you? Tell us where you are.In the place to which I have been abducted, he finally growls.
See, Audrey booms, triumphantly.
Did you hear him say hospital? I didn’t.
Okay, one more. Who is the President of the United Sates, Mr. Gen-gah? Who is the President?
Shit, he replies, worn down to a whisper. This is shit.
I know he’s not doing himself any favors stonewalling Audrey’s interrogation but at the same time, I am kind of proud of him for resisting.
I repeat. Who is the President?
Now my father has been a loyal supporter of the Republican Party in suburban Nassau County for his entire life. He is not a ticket splitter and has never voted for a Democrat for President – never, including 2016, when he decided his best option was to sit out the election.
Who is the current President of the United States of America?
That man from New York everyone hates, he finally replies.
I didn’t ask your opinion, Mr. Gen-guh. Audrey seems genuinely miffed now. Just tell me the name.
But my father refuses to utter the name of a man he finds loathsome and detestable. A thug and a thief. A braggart and a bully. Not a real Republican.
If he can’t answer the questions correctly, he can’t be released. It’s simple as that.
This is shit, he says again. Get me the hell out of here. Get me home.
Don’t worry, Dad, I assure him. Just give me a little time.
And then the line goes dead.
Two and a half hours and six phone calls later, I finally get through to a supervising physician who spends considerable time listening to my take on the situation and finally agrees that although he’d like to run a series of further tests there is no justifiable reason to hold my father against his wishes. Someone from the hospital eventually drives him back to the Church of the Little Flower where his car is parked and he drives himself home.
We talk that evening and although frazzled, he seems genuinely relieved to be in the safety of his tiny condo, stretched out on his La-Z-Boy with a stack of library DVDs.
I am finally ready to exhale as well, so I pour myself a scotch, kick back wondering if there is anything to glean from the day’s frazzled theatrics. Well, yeah, I conclude, the first being that it’s obvious that almost no one – including me – has figured out how to deal with people living well into their nineties, many pushing to the one hundred mark and beyond. How much supervision do they need? How do we respect and preserve their independence while making sure they aren’t a danger to themselves or others? What medical interventions are appropriate at their age? In essence, what do you do with a 98 year old who is not confined to a nursing home or assisted living facility and won’t give up his Buick? How does he get the world to see him for who he really is, not some profile concocted from a series of research studies? That’s one line of thought.
The second is darker, my father’s story underscoring – again – how little it takes to be suddenly enmeshed in a vast, impersonal bureaucracy with a rigid set of rights and wrongs and little interest in who you are or what you have to say. One minute you are waiting for mass in front of your church, the next you are in a large urban hospital being declared mentally incompetent. One minute you are cooking breakfast for your kids, the next you’re in federal custody awaiting deportation. One minute you are someone, the next just another one of “them.”
I’m sure there’s more to be learned from this Florida fiasco but I conclude that my ultimate takeaway is basic and frighteningly familiar: a reminder that in this fissured age of Red state / Blue state, everything has become political. Daylight Savings Time. Good Samaritans. Emergency Rooms. Everything.
Even an old man sitting on a park bench.
His curses and his prayers.
God help us, even that.
Paul Genega’s poems appeared most recently in This Broken Shore, Off the Coast, and Tifert Magazine’s “border” issue. A chapbook of recent poems, Moordener Kill, is scheduled for early 2020 by Finishing Line Press. Among his many awards are the Charles Angoff Award from The Literary Review and an individual fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.