It’s Friday night, and like every Friday night, we go to see Joe’s parents.
On the drive over, Joe calls: “What do you guys want for dinner?” Usually it’s Korean take-out, or occasionally Chinese, though that’s too salty. “Chinese people don’t know how to make rice,” says my father-in-law, no matter how many times I say that restaurant rice isn’t authentic. Tonight it’s Korean.
We lay the food on the table. I set up Joe’s mother’s bowl: duk mandu gook, dumpling soup, over rice. At this time, she can still feed herself, though she’s a bit messy. We don’t care that she’s messy, but Joe’s father fusses over every dropped grain of rice, every dribble of soup.
After dinner, we clear the table and do the dishes. Joe’s parents go up to their bedroom. Joe and I go down to the basement living room. Joe’s parents don’t have cable so there’s not much to watch though Joe always manages to find some sports game. After an hour, I get sleepy.
In Joe’s old room, I change into my pajamas. There’s little of Joe’s childhood here. Some yearbooks, a few pictures. Mostly it’s his parents’ stuff. The room, like most of the house, feels crowded. His parents like to collect things. Jewelery, pocket watches, fountain pens. Vases, china, grandfather clocks. As the years pass, they collect more and more, and yet their house gets no bigger.
Soon Joe comes upstairs and climbs into bed with me. There are only twin beds in Joe and Billy’s old rooms. I try to sleep but I can’t. I’m squashed. I rise to go to the other room.
“You can’t take one night?” Joe says. He thinks that a husband and wife should always sleep in one bed, no matter how uncomfortable, the way he thinks of many things, that there is only one right way.
“Sorry,” I whisper, and steal down the hall. I stretch out on the empty twin. Outside a brook gurgles; somewhere a clock ticks. I sleep.
Joe’s father runs an acupuncture clinic on Saturdays. Some weekends, he has clients at the house. Once I met one, the daughter of his friends.
“What do you do?” I asked her before remembering she had been a trader on Wall Street before having a stroke at 35.
She bristled. “I stay home with my daughter,” she said.
“That’s great!” I said. I’m not one of them, I wanted to say. I don’t care what you do.
By the time we’re awake, Joe’s father is already out the door. At Joe’s parents’, everyone showers and dresses immediately upon waking, even on the weekends. At my parents’, we lounge in our pajamas, drinking coffee and chatting, till almost noon.
While Joe picks up breakfast, I help his mother shower. I used to be afraid to be alone with her. I didn’t know how to hold her, and was nervous she’d fall. But now I know.
First, I take her feet from the bed and turn them to the floor. Next I take her by her left arm and hand, and lift her up to sitting. I shift my hand to her armpit, and help her stand. Then we walk.
When you walk, you don’t realize how you move. You don’t know you lift one foot while pushing off with the other, then again with the opposite foot, then again, and again. People with Parkinson’s disease get stuck, like cars revving in mud.
Joe’s mother is stuck now. “C’mon, Mom!” I say. “One, two, three!”
She tenses. I know she’s trying. “Right foot,” I say instead, like a drill sergeant. “Right foot, left.”
Still nothing. She begins to drool.
“C’mon, Mom.” I nudge at the backs of her ankles, but she’s rooted. Instead of lifting, she pushes, digging deeper into the floor. All of her socks have holes in the same places.
I get in front and take her by both hands, the way Billy does. Joe doesn’t like it. “She’ll fall like that,” he says, although Billy is a physician and knows these things. But Billy isn’t here now.
In front isn’t working. I inch her forward, but her lower half doesn’t move, which means she’ll fall. The last resort. I get behind her, line up our legs, and stick my arms under her hers. Then I walk her like a giant puppet. She doesn’t like this, embarrassed by the proximity of our bodies, though by that point I wonder how either of us can feel embarrassed about anything.
In the bathroom I attach her hands to the towel rack while I pull down her sweatpants and underwear. Then I sit her on the toilet. While she goes, I pull off her sweatshirt, undershirt, sweatpants, underwear, and socks. The whole time I keep my eyes averted. Her medicine had taken away her appetite so that she’s mostly bones. Her legs are broomsticks, her spine like dinosaur scales. Only her stomach is fleshy, a wrinkled yellow paunch.
When the water’s ready, I stand her up and get her in the shower. There’s always a moment of panic as she steps over the metal threshold. I’m always afraid her ankle will catch and she’ll cut herself, or worse, she’ll trip and, slippery and out of my reach, I won’t be able to stop her from falling. She doesn’t fall. She steps over the threshold, turns herself, and sits on her plastic chair.
At this time she can still wash herself. Later she won’t be able to. Later she’ll get so bad, she won’t be able to feed herself so that one of us will have to cut up her food, put it in her mouth, wait for her to chew, to swallow, give her a sip of water, then start again.
If this is what it’s like to have a child, I’ll think, then I don’t want one.
After the water shuts off, I return to the bathroom. I dry her off and get her dressed. I comb her hair. You can always tell who’s taken care of her by the way her hair is combed. The caretakers and I let it fall into its natural part and cowlicks. Joe and her husband part it severely and slick it back. Billy takes the time to blow it dry.
I bring her to the sink. She holds onto the edge while I brace my body against hers. My hands free, I can ready her toothbrush. I hand it to her and she brushes her teeth.
“Take your time,” I tell her. The longer she takes, the more time passes, and the closer we are to leaving. In the walls of my mind are taped the hours of the day. Twelve, eleven, ten, nine. In my mind I cross out each one. She spits and rinses many times. Parkinson’s hinders swallowing so that her mouth is always full of saliva and phlegm. I wait.
I walk her back into the bedroom and onto her bed, easier now that her muscles have warmed. I smooth moisturizer on her face, over and around, like a facial. I put lotion on her hands. I rub Ben Gay into her bad leg. Billy says this is no use. There’s no muscle there, only bone, but she says it helps. I wash my hands for a long time, the Ben Gay tingling the webs of my fingers.
I’ve bought a book on Parkinson’s disease. There are exercises to help keep limbs loose and supple, and I perform these on Joe’s mother after her shower.
“You should do these on your own,” I tell her, bending one of her knees, then the other. “You should get Wanda to help you.” Wanda is her caretaker during the week.
She shrugs, and I know she won’t, though she appreciates my efforts.
Joe comes home then. I smell fresh coffee and fried potatoes. “Your wife practices damned good medicine,” she tells him. “My doctor said he could tell someone has been exercising me.”
I smile. But then Joe says to his mother, “You should have been exercising this whole time.” He returns downstairs.
I help her take her medicine. Joe thinks she takes too much. “You were a physician,” he says, “and you pop Sinemet like candy.” Sinemet is for stiffness. She does seem to take a lot, but sometimes she takes only half. Then again I don’t know what she takes when I’m not there.
Joe and his father are especially afraid she’ll take too much Valium, which is for extreme stiffness. “I’m freezing,” she says moments before an attack.
“You’re not freezing,” Joe always corrects her, although that’s what my book calls akinesia. “Freezing is very cold. You’re just stiff.”
I recognize many symptoms from the book. There’s ataxia, or loss of balance. Dysphagia, difficulty in swallowing. There’s dyskinesia, that extra, involuntary movement from too much dopamine, such as that found in Sinemet. There’s the resting tremor I see in her chin right before akinesia. I often know that freezing is coming before she does. I can try to calm her down before she starts to panic.
They keep the Valium where she can’t reach it – in my father-in-law’s study, on the top shelf. Usually I give in, figuring five mgs is so little. But sometimes I resist.
“Wait five minutes,” I tell her. “Let me watch this show till a commercial, and then I’ll get your pill.” For the next five minutes, she moans. Sometimes she cries.
I don’t think I’m being cruel.
For now though she’s not freezing and doesn’t need her Valium. I bring her downstairs.
Joe has already cut up his mother’s eggs, sausage, and hashbrowns. He studies the box scores intently as he eats his own breakfast.
I close my eyes and sip my coffee. Soon I’ll feel better. “If you feel like going out,” I tell Joe, “go ahead.”
Sometimes he buys groceries for his parents, or hits a few golf balls, or goes to an aquarium store. We can manage without him, and when he returns, he’s more relaxed and less angry. Besides, he comes to his parents’ again on Sunday, although his dad is around, and I do not.
“Maybe,” he says.
After he finishes eating, he stands and stretches. “Maybe I will go hit a few golf balls,”
When Joe is gone, his mother and I sit in the kitchen and finish our coffee. She often tells the same stories over and over, how people have wronged her – her siblings, her husband, her mother-in-law. When she’s clear, she makes sense. But sometimes she tells the stories in circles. She reaches a point, then says the same point again and again, like her foot digging into the floor.
Other symptoms I know about now are hallucinations, delusions, and dementia. Before this, I believed everything she said, like how as a girl she often visited a beautiful garden, where once a strange woman gave her a red coat. Or how at her medical school graduation the same woman appeared, bearing a white rose, the woman who is supposedly her real mother, not the woman who raised her, several years’ dead, but a woman who gave her up during the war, wealthy beyond our imaginations, living in nearby Connecticut, ignoring her daughter while she’s been sick for some unimaginable reason.
I believed my mother-in-law when she said this woman called her one day out of nowhere, after years of no contact, to ask if she wanted to get together for a cup of tea. When she said she pulled up to their house in a limo in the middle of the night.
“Your father-in-law told me,” she said, and pointed at the window. “He was standing right there. He said, ‘Your mother’s here.‘”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “It wasn’t a dream?”
She was crying. “It was real.”
I wanted to believe her. It seemed possible, not like probing aliens or talking dogs. Later I found out for sure.
“Do you know what she said?” said my father-in-law one night at dinner. “That her mother came here, in a limo! And that I was the one who told her!”
She glanced at me. I didn’t know if her look meant she’d been caught, or see, her husband was in on it too.
“You’re like my daughter,” she says now. “You’re like me.”
I don’t answer.
We finish our coffee and return upstairs. I turn on the TV and find a cartoon we both like. Next we’ll watch a cooking show, and then maybe Antiques Roadshow, her favorite.
“That’s our cake platter!” she’ll cry, pointing a wavering hand at the screen. “That’s my ring!” In her mind, her wealth grows.
To keep my hands busy, I darn the holes in her socks. She falls asleep, and Joe returns with lunch. I bring his mother down; we eat. I bring his mother upstairs; we watch more TV. She sleeps again. I fold laundry. She wakes up, chin trembling, and panics till I give her Valium.
Three o’clock. Four. When will Joe’s father come home? We don’t know. He never calls. He doesn’t feel he has to.
Five, and it’s getting dark. “Stay for dinner,” Joe’s mother says.
I feel the walls of my head closing in. I want to leave, to breathe, to be in my house with my husband.
“I don’t know,” I say.
Finally, Joe’s father walks in.
By the time we get home it’s almost eight. I’m exhausted.
“I feel like going gambling,” Joe says. He’s looser now. We’ve put in our time at his parents’, and he can, at least for now, release his guilt. “Wanna go?”
I don’t gamble. “I’ll be bored,” I say.
“I’ll get us a room at the hotel,” he says. “I have enough points.”
He knows that if I go, I’ll want to say at the casino hotel. That way, I can wander the gambling floor and head up to the room whenever I want. That way, I know he’s right nearby.
“You’re sure?” I ask.
He picks up his phone. He’s smiling now, humming a tune. In a few moments we have a free room. “A deluxe corner,” he says.
I feel myself getting excited. I’ll eat some bad food, watch TV, take a bath. Maybe Joe will win some money, and we can go shopping the next day.
We throw together an overnight bag, and head down to the car. As we get in, he says, “I love you, honey, I really do.” He turns on the motor and we’re off.
This is why I stay.
Excerpted from the author’s memoir, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl.