Aging Ungracefully: One Man's Illness Narrative from Multiple
Stephanie Zimmerman L-SAW 2009
As one hundred and
sixty five pounds of frail old man went crashing into the banister, I thought,
Well at least he's made an impact on something.
The crash came first,
prompted by nothing. The dogs scared him, my uncle said. He tripped, my mother
said. He lost the will to stand, my uncle's girlfriend said. Shit, my Dad said.
That banister was brand new.
Splintered pieces of
the railing litter the floor around his immobile body. He looks up at the
ceiling, inexplicably. His eyes water. He buries his face in his hands.
I fell, he says, dazed.
Go help your
grandfather, I'm told. But he does not need my help. I can offer him nothing,
though I don't stop trying. He needs the help of a licensed professional. I
bring this up and am reminded, He's already tried that, three times.
I accept this fact. I
move towards his small body and am brushed aside by my uncle. I'll do it, he
snaps. He doesn't deal well with conflict, and what's more conflicting than
your eighty–five year old father losing his will to live?
Come on, Dad. Let's get you up.
I can't do it. I can't move. Leave me alone. Sobs ensue.
Downstairs in the kitchen, my father complains. He's just looking for attention, he says. He's
making a scene on purpose. Couldn't he be more careful? He sleeps all day, lets
us wait on him. He's helpless.
My mother looks at him, hurt. How could you be so cruel? He's sick.
He has made his way into the kitchen. No apologies about the banister escape his lips.
How are you feeling, Papa? I ask.
Not good today, not good.
I'm sleeping well for the first time in weeks. I'm unconscious of it, presently, but my body
recognizes how badly I've needed this. I'm rolling along seamlessly on waves of
unconscious bliss. Nothing could wake me up. Nothing in the world, except…
I blink my eyes. Something too loud and too close has disturbed my rest. I sit up. Ah, the
phone. "What time…?"
"One o'clock in the morning," my husband mumbles. "Who the hell could be calling?"
I pick up the receiver. "Sue, it's your brother. Sorry to call so late, but they lost Dad again. They
went around at 12:30 to do the midnight check and he's not in his room and
they've checked the premises. He isn't anywhere on the property."
"Jesus." Sleep immediately falls away and is replaced with immeasurable amounts of panic. Last
time this happened, I remember unwillingly, he was walking in the cold,
outside, without a coat, next to the highway, contemplating…
I force myself back. "I think we should call the police," he says.
"Yeah, ok. I'll call Pocasett and see if they've discovered anything." I hang up the phone.
"What is it now?" My husband asks. He doesn't understand. He thinks of my father's depression as a
nuisance—something that invades our house, breaks our dishes, calls in the
middle of the night. He has given up hope. He thinks I should, too. How can I
tell him that hope is my fuel; hope is all I have. If he knew, would he still
ask me to give that away?
My back left door is opened, feebly, by stiff, cold fingers, and a frail shape steps inside. "My
head, my head," it moans, and I want to do something, but I can't. He lays
himself across my leather seats. It's fourteen degrees out and my interior is
chilly. I wish I could warm myself for him—he needs it.
I wonder what he's doing here all alone when the rest of the family eats inside the restaurant.
They all seemed so happy on the way here. He told jokes and smiled. Why doesn't
he want to be with them now?
He's holding his head in his hands and moaning strangely, and I feel hot drops of liquid on my
carpeted floor. My back windows are foggy from his rapid breathing. He squeezes
his temples tighter and begins to rock from side to side. I hear him whisper,
"Let me die."
His son comes out from the restaurant. I know him—he's my owner. He opens my door and pokes his head
in. "Stop making a scene, Dad. Come inside and finish dinner,"
"I can't," he says. "My head hurts too much,"
"No it doesn't. We both know it doesn't. You just think it hurts. Your pain is mental." He says this
last thing slowly, as if speaking to a child.
I feel the man's muscles tighten against me. "Leave me alone," he says.
"Sure, Dad. Congratulations. Thanks for ruining another family dinner."
He slams the door too hard and my frame vibrates. The old man lies back down and spills more drops of
salty liquid on my rugs, but I understand. I know what it's like to be alone.
I am startled awake by a piercing noise, and my muscles immediately tense up, then relax
again. It's just the alarm. But that still means something big to me.
It's the hardest part of my day—time to get up.
I hear the brain's command: rise out of bed. But I remain motionless. Lately, my mind and my
muscles have not been connecting so well. I will my legs to move, but they
remain stiff, arthritic. Come on knees, bend, just a little. Ever so
My eyelids close involuntarily as I attempt to work the ligaments, the tendons, the old, barely
living flesh that hangs off these bones. I don't blame those lids for closing
again. They don't want to witness the long, slow, struggle. They want to block
out the pain.
But the pain in my unbending knees is nothing compared to the pain in my head: sharp, searing
currents. White hot beams of piercing torture course through the left side of
my temple as I awake to the expected, but never dull, pain of a migraine. This
happens at least once a week. My hand rises to massage the area in vain.
If only my rusty knees could carry me to the kitchen faster to take my pills. Then I could await the
mid–morning stupor that relieves most of the hurting, and the thinking, too. I
used to hate how the tiny tablets made my thought process blank, and my words
slurred, but I've learned to appreciate them. These days it's easier not to
Sunday: Typical Sunday. Went to
church in the morning, then watched some football.
Afterwards, I had dinner at my sister's house. Her grandchildren came and we
read stories and did a puzzle. I wish my grandkids called me more.
Monday: Felt very tired today.
Stayed in bed and slept all day. There was no point to
getting up—I had nothing to do.
Tuesday: I talked to Susan on the phone. She sounded concerned about me, but I assured
her everything was fine. She worries too much.
Wednesday: A very bad day. I feel like I don't want to live any more. What's
No one would answer my phone calls today. I went to Doctor Walder and she said
I'm not improving. They're switching me back to the stronger meds, but I don't
want them. When I'm on them, I feel nothing. A numb life isn't worth living.
Thursday: Today I awoke incredibly scared. What if they never find the right
combination of medicines? What if I feel like this forever? What if my family
abandons me and I spend the rest of my life alone? What if?
Friday: I'm leaving today to go stay with my son for a while. They said in my current
state I have to be under "constant care," like a child. I'm a grown man, I
should be able
to take care of myself. I'd rather be dead than live like this.