Even When I Forget
Don't You Ever
Rhea didn’t think anything of the brown paper box sitting on the ground next to Dad’s arm chair when she visited him for dinner the day before graduation. It was one of those few times the whole family was back together outside of the holidays. Rhea’s brothers flew in from out of town - Gareth with Janet on his arm, the new ring sparkling bright on her finger couldn’t match her smile, and Jace’s lady came with a tiny little hanger-on. Her nephew – Rhea couldn’t believe she was an aunt already! – was so soft and fragile she was afraid she’d break him if she held him. Still, it wasn’t a moment she’d give up for the world, and having them all out there, watching her finally cross that stage, filled Rhea with a sense of pride.
It might just be the local community college, but she had done it. She’d pulled herself together, despite the poor grades from her rebellious years, despite all of the doubters and nay-sayers – including her own brothers - and managed to get her degree. Finally, no one would have a reason to talk down to her for not getting a “real job”, for being the family disappointment. Finally, she’d get to make something of herself.
Rhea didn’t think anything of the brown paper box sitting next to her Dad’s arm chair when she came over to help him with his computer either. Dad wasn’t terribly old yet, only sixty-three, but occasionally he had trouble with remembering things. Small things, mostly tech stuff. Rhea didn’t mind taking an extra hour or two out of her day to drive over and fix whatever issue Dad was having with his internet or his DVD player. Rhea was a secretary now, so dealing with grumpy old men and their problems was now more or less her full-time job. Even if these were problems she’d rather hand off to IT, she’d fix them easily for her grumpy old man.
It was weird, though. A few times, Dad got confused between the file explorer and the internet browser on his computer. Like, he’d call her up to complain that the internet was down, but when she got there he’d been trying to access Youtube from his C:\\ drive window. That, or the opposite – he’d been trying to find a file on his computer using Google. It wasn’t like he was one of those techno-phobic boomers who couldn’t really figure it out. Dad was a techie. He built his own computer, every computer in the family, in fact. It was one of his hobbies, and he was the one Rhea always went to for computer advice before now. But she tried to put it out of her mind, and just gently reminded Dad how everything worked before cooking dinner with him and chatting about how things were going recently.
Rhea wondered what the brown paper box was when she started coming over more regularly to help Dad with his gardening. He had a fall while cleaning out the pond’s pump house in the backyard, and it tore up the muscles in his back something fierce. So Rhea volunteered to help him out while he recovered, at least where he let her. It had been a while since she’d done yard work, given you don’t have to mow a lawn when you move into an apartment, but Rhea would rather do it and give Dad a chance to rest and recover.
Though, Dad was never the same after that fall. He always tired out more quickly, and his balance was off. Once, Dad came out to see how Rhea was doing and leaned too far forward, and for some reason couldn’t get his body to straighten. His momentum ran him right into the car, where he crumpled to the ground. It was frightening, but he was okay, other than the embarrassment. Rhea couldn’t say the same.
Rhea asked about the brown paper box when she started helping Dad with the household chores too. It was just little things, at first, like noticing that Dad hadn’t cleaned the pans after dinner, or that he’d pulled out the coffee tin and left it on the counter without even refilling the grounds’ jar. Rhea had tried reminding Dad to take care of them, and he would when prompted with a little joshing and heckling between them, but the more often Rhea noticed these things the more often she took care of them herself. Dad claimed the bag was part of his mail, and he’d get around to it eventually, so Rhea left it alone.
Rhea moved back in when she had to start helping Dad get his groceries. He had called her in the middle of work, lost and confused because he couldn’t find the store he’d been going to every couple of weeks for the last five years. Dad wouldn’t listen to her directions, or couldn’t understand them, so Rhea had to leave work to go find him and bring him back home. It didn’t matter that she was fired for it. Rhea probably would have been hit by the layoffs that swept her company in the early weeks of the pandemic anyways, or that’s what she told herself.
The brown paper box still sat unopened months down the line, in the same place it had always been, among a growing pile of mail. It just became another part of the house that Rhea’s eyes glazed over like any other - nothing out of place here. At least, until their credit card was cancelled while they were trying to check out at the store. Apparently, while all of the house bills had been put on an autopay system, Dad still liked to pay his credit in checks by hand. Only, he hadn’t organized, opened, or even touched his mail in months, and Dad’s unpaid debt exceeded his credit line. Rhea tried to explain to Dad how this had happened, while taking care of the groceries herself, but he didn’t seem to understand even the concept of credit, despite harping Rhea and her brothers on the subject ad nauseam when they got their first cards.
It all was getting to be too much. Rhea had managed to land a job that let her work from home while everything was still under lockdown, but between that and constantly caring for her father Rhea had no time to do anything for herself. Every day it was – make sure Dad gets his medicine, log into work, step away from the computer to see whatever Dad had on his computer or on the TV, try to focus back on work, make sure Dad didn’t leave the stove or the oven on after fixing meals and cleaning up whatever he forgot, log off work, help Dad into bed so he didn’t fall out and help him find a show to watch.
She’d called her brothers for help, but they told her she could handle it herself. Gareth and Jace were already settled down with jobs, and families, with little toddlers running around with scissors in hand and they simply couldn’t up and upend their lives to come back down here and help deal with dear old Dad. No, they were simply far too busy for that, and he seemed fine when they visited for Thanksgiving. She was the youngest, the one who wasn’t tied down, and she was already there, wasn’t she?
But try as she might, hope as she might for Dad to recover and get better, he just wasn’t. She even considered maybe getting an in-home nurse, or even sending Dad to a retirement home, but it just wasn’t something they could afford. Medicare would only cover half of the cost, and even then, even the cheapest options ran something like fifty grand a year. And in the pandemic? A nursing home could be as good as a death sentence.
Finally, though, Rhea took her Dad to see a doctor. She couldn’t find him in the house one morning, and after calling his phone and finding it on the closet floor Rhea frantically flew around the backyard and then the front of the house, calling for him. Rhea found her Dad standing at the end of the street by a stop sign. He was waiting for a bus to take him back, home, to Anadarko. Early onset Alzheimer’s, the doctor said. He was only sixty-five…
Finally, Rhea sat down with Dad to go through his pile of mail, knowing now he really couldn’t do it on his own, and opened the brown paper box. Dad didn’t seem to really know or care about it, until Rhea pulled another, smaller box of green and white out of it. He reached out and tried to snatch it, crying, “Oh, you’re not supposed to see that!”
“What? Why?” Rhea said with a wry chuckle, pulling the box high out of reach. This thing had been sitting by his armchair for – what? – a couple of years now, and she wasn’t supposed to see it?
“It’s a surprise,” Dad grumbled with a frown, insistently holding his hand out for the box. “You’re not supposed to see it until your graduation.”
“But I already graduated,” Rhea said before she could stop herself. She really shouldn’t be surprised at this point, but could he really not remember?
By the upset look of panic on his face, Dad really had. “But what-? What do you mean you’ve already graduated?” Dad had some awareness that he’d been forgetting things, that he was getting senile and it would only get worse. He’d been in denial all this time, but faced with the truth of what was happening to him he was terrified.
“It’s the pandemic, Dad.” Rhea didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth. She put a gentle hand on his arm and gave her Dad a reassuring smile. “I graduated, but I couldn’t walk the stage. No one could, so they just mailed me my diploma.”
“Oh…” Dad looked embarrassed, but relieved, and that soon morphed into grudging disappointment. “Well, in that case you should go ahead and open it. I really wanted to see you wear it when you walked the stage, but… well, you can’t fix the world.”
“You got that right.” Rhea grinned, and opened the box. In it was a necklace, pearl inlaid in a silver floral design, with matching earrings. Rhea’s mouth dropped open, and looked back at her father with shock. “Dad…”
“Now, don’t get onto me about the cost,” Dad groused good-naturedly. “As my ma always said, every girl needs a good pearl necklace. And it’s your birthstone, and I know you’re into all of that astrology stuff…” He shifted, looking a little unsure.
“It’s gorgeous, Dad. I love it.” Rhea took the jewelry out and replaced her earrings with the pearls. Then she handed her Dad the necklace and turned her back to him, lifting her hair. “Put it on for me?”
“Sure, darling.” Rhea’s Dad carefully brought the necklace around her neck, the trembling in his hands betraying his decline in strength these last few years. When she turned back to look at him, Rhea saw tears welling up in Dad’s eyes as he took her in.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve always been proud of you, even when you were running out and getting in trouble, coming back all hours and all colors. I know things were hard for you, after Angie passed. But you’re strong, Rhea. You've never given up. You picked yourself back up, after all the heartbreak, and still dared to care for doddering, weak old me.” Dad’s smile wobbled, and Rhea couldn’t hold back a sob when she went in for a hug.
“I love you , Dad.”
“I love you too, my darling girl. Even when I forget, don’t you ever.”
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