My mother tells me my father cries every time they bring him food. There is a virus going around, she tells me. Yes, I say, and maybe he can’t say he’s sick. I imagine my father sitting up, his body erect, trying to look dignified.
I turn on the six o’clock news and see all kinds of Californians elated about having so much water. The camera focuses on flowers growing wildly, spreading their joy. A farmer is interviewed. This year, he says, he doesn’t have to worry. An aging hippie stands next to a river. Life is good, he grins into the camera.
I pick up the phone and call my mother. She sounds tired. I check the time. Were you sleeping? I ask. No, but it’s been a long day, she says. Your father won’t eat. And he doesn’t have a virus. She was called in to sign some papers so he could be fed through a tube.
When they moved him to a room to insert the feeding tube, my father who never raised his voice screamed so loud he terrorized the residents. Even the Nurse-Who-Smiles-No-Matter-What looked up from her station. They had to restrain him.
The other day, my mother says, they found him out in the parking lot. He got into someone’s car. They don’t know how he got out. He wants out, I say. It won’t be long now, she says. She’ll call me Sunday—if not sooner.
I flash back to a scene when my father could still sit in his chair at home with my mother. He had developed a nervous disorder that caused him to dig his right arm involuntarily with his fingernails, leaving a trail of what looked like a junkie’s needle tracks. The doctor had given him a drug so he would not dig his arm. He did not dig but he hallucinated. He went to the place of the scream, I think now. “They’re going to come and take me away,” he told me. “They’re going to take me out West.” His face grew tense. He was getting angry. “I don’t want to go. When the time comes, that’s what they’ll try to do, I’m telling you.”
I am in the middle of a conversation with a Japanese friend about aging parents. She needs to be in the U.S. to make her videos. She needs response. Americans respond, she explains. The Japanese sit quietly, politely. You never know, she says.
I tell her the story of my father’s scream. We both laugh at the part of the story where my father escapes from the Home. We cheer like Californians over water. We cheer as if he’d hit a home run. He only left for first base when a strike was called. He had to go back to home plate where they restrained him, can you imagine? Yes, we could imagine. We are quiet now, respectful. I wait for her response. Hmmmm, she says, about the problem that has no answer. The story is about dignity, she says. “I will like to read your story.”
I tell her about a TV program I saw years ago. An old man in a nursing home insisted he had the right to starve himself to death. A nurse looked into the camera and told us she must do her job. “It is my job to feed him,” she explained. The man said he had a right to refuse her work. She would still get paid for trying. How did members of the audience respond? No one knows. We were like a Japanese audience. Years later I respond, sitting at my kitchen table with a Japanese friend talking about aging parents and my father’s protest.
Our conversation is interrupted by the ringing phone that demands answering. I pick it up. My mother starts crying. She says she didn’t want to do it. Do what? I ask, a little confused, a little scared. The tubes, she blurts. He was such a dignified man. It isn’t right, she sobs.
I go away. I visit Santa Fe instead of my father. I am riding over red rocks in a big-screen sky. I catch glimpses of cacti and wild flowers. I stop to photograph the Black Mesa. I stop again & again to see the mesa changed by the light. Click. Click-click. I pause: the mesa takes me in. I am changed by the light that changes the mesa that remains unchanged. I study my lesson in black & white. A friend tells me the Indians regard the mesa as sacred. No one walks on the mesa. It is only for viewing.
The pilot’s voice tells us to fasten our seat belts. We are going through the clouds now. The seat belt sign flashes. We are going fast, up & down. I hold on.
In Houston I call my mother. There is no change, my mother says, or I would have called you. He looks good, my mother whispers. I’ve known him since I was 19, and now he won’t speak to me. He won’t even look at me.
I board another plane and close my eyes, letting the red & blue of Santa Fe run out to the black mesa where I am sitting with my mother next to my father. I imagine him flat out in bed, shrouded in white, his arms restrained, his eyes closed. We sit side by side. We don’t speak. We study his face: his carefully combed white hair and mustache and smooth olive skin. He’s still handsome, my mother says.
His lips are relaxed now.
His scream’s gone.
We bob through the clouds.
The light flickers.
I want to scream when the mesa doesn’t let in any more light.
My mother puts her hand over my clenched fist.
I want the mesa to respond—Life is sacred.