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Family Circle 2009 Fiction Contest: "The Sanity of Socks"

Cynthia L. Hefti's story, "The Sanity of Socks," won third place in the Family Circle 2009 Fiction Contest.

By Cynthia L. Hefti

"The dog is wearing my socks!" Daddy yelled.

He leaned over the side of his wheelchair and stared at Rupert, my big mess of a dog who was fast asleep on the lawn, his long white paws curled toward his belly.

"The dog is wearing my socks!" Daddy repeated, his voice rising in pitch.

I stopped re-potting geraniums and looked at Daddy. He sat in his wheelchair in the warm summer sun. Today, Daddy was clean. He had let me shave him and change his clothes. His hair was combed, and there wasn't any food crusted on his face. He almost looked sane. He almost looked like the father I had adored my whole life.

"The dog is wearing my socks!" Daddy said again, agitation tingeing his voice.

"It sure looks like it," I said cautiously.

And I waited.

So far this morning, Daddy had asked me seventeen times—and yes, I was counting—when we were having lunch. He critiqued the potting soil I was using in the geranium pots and repeated endlessly how much he hated geraniums. He had picked them out at the greenhouse this morning. Daddy had called me by the wrong name three times (twice my mother's and once his sister's, both long dead). He said he had seen an elephant in the neighbor's yard and it was staring at him.

And today had been a good day.

Daddy had been changing for several years. At first it was simple repetitiveness, the same story word for word, over and over. Then it was what at first seemed befuddled forgetfulness—lost glasses, misplaced wallet, locking himself out of the house. Then he began seeing things—hyenas in his kitchen and neighbors spying on him to get national security secrets. Late last year I received a call from the police that they had found Daddy wandering down Main Street, barefoot and dressed in his pajama bottoms and his old, too tight WWII Army jacket. The police had taken him to the hospital and that's where my brother, Brian, and I found Daddy, strapped to the bed and heavily sedated.

Daddy's doctor announced the obvious; "You need to do something about your father right now."

I felt like I had been slugged in the stomach. Brian stared at me. "What do we do?" he asked, like I might possibly have the answer.

"You have some options," Daddy's doctor interjected. "There is the Sun Valley Nursing Home, but they have a waiting list sixteen months long."

I stared at him. The very last thing I wanted to do was put Daddy in a nursing home. Brian, however, was nodding. Apparently he didn't feel the same way. He looked at me, "At least we'll know he's safe and not driving the wrong way down the interstate."

I railed against that idea, claiming that Daddy just needed some help, not to be incarcerated. Finally, we decided to enlist the services of in-home aides, and so began six months of trial and error, mostly error.

The aides were lovely, compassionate and kind. Daddy was mean, spiteful, and impossible. He resented the aides' presence in "his" house. He hated being told what to do, when to go to bed, what to eat. He made up stories about the aides torturing him and force-feeding him dog food.

One night six months ago, Kathy, the sweetest and most patient of the aides, called me in hysterics. "Your father has locked himself in the bathroom and refuses to come out. He took the key with him. He says he has a gun and will shoot anyone who tries to open the door."

I arrived just as the police were breaking down the bathroom door. There, sitting on the toilet was my father, pants down around his ankles, aiming the television remote at the door.

The police officers grinned in spite of themselves. Later I could see where someone might find this funny. But right then, I burst into tears. All I could feel was the absolute horror of what my father had become. A cartoon character. An angry, crazy shell of the man he used to be. The Daddy I knew would have died of embarrassment to cause such a fuss, to be so confused, even to be caught on the toilet with his "drawers down." This man, the one aiming the remote, was not my father. Even worse, I realized in a panic, he was a man I didn't want to know.

After an ugly argument with Brian about whose responsibility it was to take care of Daddy, the final decision fell to me. I was single and my two children were grown. Brian still had kids at home and a wife who believed, as clearly my brother did, that nursing homes were the first stop, not the last. "Besides," Brian said, "I already paid my dues." Brian had told Daddy when we first hired the aides that Daddy wouldn't be driving any longer, that the aides would take him wherever he needed to go. For the first time ever, Daddy swore at Brian and told him that there was "no way" Brian could stop him from driving his own car. Hurt and angry, Brian had stormed out of the house. What Daddy didn't know was that Brian stopped in the garage and took out the spark plugs and distributor cap from Daddy's car, and just for good measure, he flattened all four tires.

One of the aides called me a few days later and said Daddy had sneaked out of the house and when she had found him in the garage, he was trying to start the car with a bottle opener.

So like it or not, Daddy was my responsibility now. When I arrived to pack up Daddy and move him into my house, Daddy didn't recognize me. He thought I was another aide, come to wreck his life. He glared at me, his face red and full of rage.

"It's me, Daddy," I said quietly, trying to get him to look directly at me. "You're going to come and live with me."

"Over my dead body!" he hissed and stomped off into the kitchen. At that time Daddy was still walking. It was only after living with me for a month that he decided he didn't want to walk anymore. It wasn't as if he couldn't walk. In fact, at times he could practically run, but when he didn't want to walk, there was no budging him. I finally relented and got him a wheelchair, and he seemed quite pleased with himself to be rolled around on his own terms.

That day I followed Daddy into the kitchen. He sat at the table, pouting and making exasperated sighs like the boys had when they were little. I busied myself making a pot of fresh coffee and fixing turkey sandwiches. I didn't talk.

Finally, I heard Daddy speak.

"When did you get here Katie?" he asked.

I turned toward him. He was smiling up at me, his old face soft and as endearing as it had always been. There was the Daddy I knew and loved.

"Daddy, I've come to bring you home with me."

He looked at me for a long time. His eyes filled with tears and he wrung his hands together in his lap.

"Okay."

So began the journey with my father. He bellowed when I hired an auctioneer to sell off the house and its contents. He swore at me when I tried to bathe him. He cried when I made meatloaf for dinner. He sat on his glasses. He patted Rupert's head until I was afraid the dog would go bald. He clung to my hand when I left for work and left him in the care of a day aide. He perked up when I took him for rides in the car. He yelled at the kids biking in front of the house. He hugged me some days and called me his little girl. Other days he called me, "Hey, you" or "Missy" and reeled off a list of my faults, imagined or real. He would only get into bed at night if I promised him a Reese's cup. He forgot my name. He didn't remember his grandchildren.

There was the other side, too. The side where Daddy was clever and devious. Some days he pretended to be blind. He couldn't feed himself because he couldn't see his food. He couldn't watch TV, so he needed to be read to. He couldn't find the toilet so he peed on the floor. Other days he pretended he couldn't hear. He turned the TV volume up to BLAST, so loud the house shook and my teeth hurt. He couldn't hear me call him for dinner, but he could hear me dishing up ice cream. Some days he was so hot he wouldn't wear anything but his boxers. Other days he was so cold I had to wrap him in piles of blankets.

I knew Daddy was playing games and I knew I indulged him like a spoiled child. But, like a bratty kid, he would pitch such fits if he didn't get his own way that giving in was simpler to deal with than his imaginary disabilities.

It was so much easier to be angry with Daddy than to feel sorry for him. Pity only made it harder to live with him. Sympathy swallowed me in the grief of being the caretaker, of having my life engulfed by his.

My friends and the boys told me I needed to put Daddy in a nursing home. At first, they were gentle about it and then insistent and then irritated. And I did think about it. In fact, after one particularly difficult day, I stopped by a senior home on the way home from the office. A minuscule, ancient woman met me at the door and asked me if I had seen her son because he had gone to the grocery store a very long time ago. She was whisked away by a kindly nurse. I met with the director who took me on a tour, through hallways of the Able and Alert to the Despondent and Difficult. There were vacant eyes and reaching hands, and it reminded me of the SPCA, where dogs waited for a final reprieve before they were euthanized. I bolted out the doors and threw up in the parking lot. Whatever happened, I vowed that Daddy wouldn't go there.

When I got home, the day aide, Emily, said Daddy had thrown his applesauce at the wall and claimed ants were crawling all over his legs. I looked at her and sighed and when I checked on Daddy, he was slumped in his chair, asleep, his pant legs rolled up to the knee and long scratches all up his skinny, wrinkled calves. He heard me come in and woke with a start.

"Katie, you're home. How was school?"

Every day Daddy slipped deeper and deeper into the nightmare that was his failing mind. Every day I lost my father a bit, a memory, a word at a time.

Today I had taken the day off. I had taken Daddy to his doctor, where he was charming and called the doctor "Bob" even though his name was Melvin. Doctor Melvin patted Daddy on the shoulder and listened to his heart and pronounced him as sound and healthy as a horse. I glared at Doctor Melvin. He had no clue.

"Thanks, Bob," I hissed as I wheeled Daddy out of his office.

I took Daddy out for a treat and we sat in a cafe and ate cinnamon doughnuts and sipped coffee. Doughnut crumbs fell on Daddy's shirt and he licked one of his fingers and gathered them up. A woman with a large behind came into the cafe with her toddler. I saw her and tried to wheel Daddy out the door before he spied her.

Too late.

"Look at that big butt!" Daddy yelled as I raced him out the door and into the parking lot, my face flaming hot.

And yet, all in all, it had been a good day. There weren't any meltdowns any name-calling, and no angry outbursts.

"I said," Daddy bellowed loud enough for everyone in the whole neighborhood to hear, "the dog is wearing my socks!"

And with that, Daddy stuck out his own two feet, clad in white tube socks, the only socks he would wear. Daddy wiggled his feet near Rupert. Rupert groaned in his sleep and stretched his own legs until his paws were nearly touching Daddy's toes.

"We MATCH!" Daddy yelled, delighted in his discovery.

I looked at the two of them. Rupert was my old faithful mutt, who was nearly fifteen and spent most of his days just being. And my father, my sweet, faithful father, who spent his days, locked in the jumble of his crumbling mind. How unfair I thought. I wished Daddy could spend his days like Rupert, just being.

Daddy scooched himself down in his chair so his feet could actually touch Rupert's. Rupert lifted his head and wagged his tail.

Daddy smiled a goofy, happy smile.

"Just like twins!" he said.

I laughed out loud and then I heard a sound that startled me, a sound I suddenly realized I hadn't heard in many long months. I heard my father laugh.

He threw his head back and laughed, the deep throaty wonderful laugh I remembered from childhood. His eyes sparkled and he reached for my hand.

And in that moment, that one solitary moment, I had my father back. I held his hand to my heart and prayed that in the deep recesses of his soul he could feel how much I loved him.

"When's lunch?" Daddy asked, looking up at me, childlike and innocent.

"How about now?" I asked and put my hands on the back of his wheelchair and pushed him toward the ramp that led into the house.

"Let's go in and I'll fix you and Rupert some lunch," I said. Rupert stirred to his feet and lumbered up the ramp behind us.

"Just don't mix up our bowls," Daddy said and he smiled at me.

Yes, today had been a really good day.

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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