I am in upstate New York, visiting Lake George with family. It is late afternoon and I am taking pictures of my father-in-law. We came here for him, because he loves it here, has been coming every summer for years and years, and today we are celebrating his eighty-fifth birthday.
He’s a handsome man, with a full head of dark hair streaked with gray. He’s put on quite a bit of weight lately. Layers of fat have swallowed up his muscular physique, in which he had always taken such pride. He has back and foot problems, hasn’t been running his five miles a day; he hasn’t renewed his gym membership either. At home, my husband takes him to the high school track in the evenings and walks with him. The extra pounds sometime make him breathless.
He is staring at the camera with a half-smile. His skin is tanned. He has no wrinkles, but the flesh sags a bit here and there, like it’s gotten too heavy to hold itself in place. His dark brown eyes have faded to a cloudy gray, and I think maybe that change is a reflection of what is going on behind them. He is in what, six months ago, his doctor called “the early stages of dementia.”
Three years ago he was still running his own business. He wore an expression that was sharply self-assured. He dated younger women. He’d go out dancing, dressed impeccably, and the next morning would call to tell us how much fun he’d had the night before. But that was then. I am looking at his face through the camera’s viewfinder, knowing that parts of him have slipped away.
We’re gathered on a grassy area behind a motel on the shore of the lake, in the seasonally crowded, always touristy-tacky Lake George Village. Most of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren are staying here; the rest of us are at the motel next door – Surfside, my father-in-law’s favorite place to stay. We’re a crowd of Addessos: moms and dads, children, aunts and uncles, cousins – my father-in-law’s gift to the world. He is sitting at a picnic table with his daughter Roni and her husband, Richie, a can of Molson Ale in his left hand. My husband, Bill, sits with them. I am across from them, on a white plastic Adirondack-style chair. It’s hot and sunny, but the breeze off the water cools us. Other adults sit helter-skelter nearby, some sipping wine or beer, a few drinking soda. The teenagers are off to the side, cell phones in hand, constantly looking down to read or send a text. Several of the little ones are near the shore, building a castle in the sand. Three of his thirteen great-grandchildren play in the grass at his feet.
“Okay, Dad,” I say. “One, two, three, smile.”
He laughs, and throws one hand up into the air, telling whoever is listening, “This girl…she always comes…she always…any trouble she helps…this girl…this girl…” He’s talking about me, I think.
Just the night before, in a nearby restaurant, he told my son Steven, who was seated next to him, “See her,” and he pointed to me. “She doesn’t like me…she…she doesn’t feed me.”
I have known this man for thirty years. I met him and his wife, June, shortly after Bill and I started dating. Four years later, and before we had married, she became sick with a recurrence of breast cancer, and soon after, she died. I didn’t know either of them very well at that point, but I knew they were happy together, that they were in love. After June died, Bill and I began to spend more time with his father, and gradually, as I got to know him better, I began to love my future father-in-law very much. I know he feels the same toward me. And I know, because of his ability to care so deeply, I am married to someone who has that same sensitivity, that capacity for love. “Jaci. Jaymie. Dom. Stand up. Let me take your picture with Grandpa,” I tell the great-grandkids at his feet, and they pop up, smiling, wrapping arms around his neck, his chubby belly.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” my father-in-law says. “All these beautiful…children. So cute. I love them.” And I know he does, even if he’s not sure who is who, or that they belong to him. He’s always adored children. He’s been such a patient, attentive grandfather to my two boys. He still remembers their names. Our houses are only three blocks apart, and they visit him almost daily. They keep their weights and exercise equipment in his basement and use it as a gym. He sits down there with them while they work out, listening to the radio, the music they like. My father-in-law does not live alone; his youngest, Dean, forty-three years old, single, a postal worker, lives with him. But Dean cannot be there around the clock; we all know that soon Dad will need full-time care. This brief interlude in Lake George has been stressful, and alerts me to what lies ahead. I don’t like to think about it. Instead, I take more snapshots, recording this chapter of a family tradition.
The Addessos began coming here one week each summer when my husband was a small child. His father would close his diner, pack the car, and off they’d go. When Bill’s older sisters married, had children, they would follow behind in their own cars. And so it went.
After his wife died, Dad continued to come here, whether with his grown children and their kids, or by himself. Until two years ago, he was able to take the three-and-a-half hour drive alone. He remained faithful to Surfside, and visited with the owners, sat at the restaurant bar talking with other vacationers, sunbathed and swam in the pool and lake. He enjoyed the ride up and back.
This morning, he left his room early, before any of us had a chance to get to him first, and wandered off. My husband’s cell phone rang, and I heard him asking “Where are you? Park Lane? On the road?” He began explaining to his father how to find his way back to our motel as he ran out to meet him.
We hadn’t realized it would be this hard. We had reserved the room he always stayed in. We were in a room right across from his. Still, he got lost.
“We better get going if we don’t want to wait for a table,” Bill says.
I take two more pictures as Roni helps her father up from the picnic bench, and holds his elbow as we walk down toward the lake and along the sandy shore to our motel. Tonight we are not going out with all the others. When we did that the night before, my father-in-law was overwhelmed; the crowd and noise disoriented him.
“I’m tired,” Dad says.
“You can rest before dinner, for a few minutes,” Roni says.
“But, I’m hungry…I want…you know…I want…”
Bill, Steven, Roni, Richie and I meet at his room. He opens the door as soon as we get there; I’m sure he’s been standing by the window watching for us. Time for him is now a thing that shrinks and expands mysteriously. He wears his gold watch every day, but usually it is upside down, and he will look at it often, squinting, and still he never knows what it is trying to tell him.
“Forever…so long…why are…you took so long,” he says, chuckling, but with annoyance in his voice. “Do you have your room key?” Roni asks him. None of us bother to explain that we are on time, it’s 6:30, exactly when we had told him we would come to get him.
At home, this battle with time is constant. He will wake at three in the morning, Dean tells me, and take a shower, then wander through the rooms of his house wondering where Bill is, why he’s so late to come and get him. He may think they’ve made plans to go to breakfast, or even dinner, it doesn’t matter if the sun is up or the moon shining in a dark sky. He will mutter and complain, and Dean will try to calm him down, settle him in his easy chair. Eventually, with the TV before him flashing images, he’ll doze off. A couple of hours later, he’ll wake again, look around, stare at his watch, and wait for someone to come get him.
Although he’s alone in the house the five days a week that Dean is at work, and alone when Dean goes out with friends, when Bill and I come to visit or to take him out to dinner, he will tell us about “the kids” and “the people” who are always making messes, and noise, and coming and going at home. “They don’t like me,” he says. When we ask, “Who are you talking about?” sometimes he gets annoyed, stumbles over his words, can give no names to any in this crowd that haunts his house. At other times, he will disguise his confusion with jokes. This makes the moment less awkward, but it confuses us; we are never sure how much he understands.
Yet, there are times when he seems to bounce back. He will sit in my living room, look around and tell me how clean everything is, how nice, and then he’ll begin to talk about his wife. He is still so in love with her. But he knows she’s gone. In halting speech, searching for words, describing things instead of naming them, he tells me the stories. She bought him a Cadillac for a birthday once. They loved to go roller-skating. Skiing.
She laughed all the time. She adored her children. “Oh, how she would have…to see…Billy and Steven…she never…” he will say, and I feel the same sadness, and anger, that my sons never knew their beautiful grandmother.
As Roni checks to make sure he’s locked his motel door, and Bill and Richie help him navigate the curving, uneven stone steps that lead down from the small terrace, he asks, “Where are we going?” “To dinner. To Mario’s,” I say.
Steven reminds him, “You picked the restaurant. Remember, it’s your favorite. For your birthday.” My father-in-law laughs softly. “Oh, my birthday. Wow…I’m 55, right?” And we laugh, not sure if he is joking, or if he is really asking.
In the restaurant, which is crowded and loud, we six sit at a round table in the center of the room. Dad holds the menu in front of him, but he is looking around, talking under his breath, short phrases; I hear the sound of his mumbling, but cannot decipher words.
“Do you know what you want, Dad?” Roni says.
“I’ll wait…see…I’ll look at what you have…wait and see what you have.”
“How about veal? You like veal?”
“What is he having?” he asks, pointing across to Richie.
“I’m having braciole.”
“I’ll have…that guy…what he gets,” Dad says.
Roni and Richie discuss this decision, Roni insisting her father won’t like the braciole, Richie telling her he should have what he wants. Bill gets involved in the discussion, which quickly approaches an argument. My son Steven watches and listens.
“Grandpa. I’m having linguini,” Steven says over the politely disguised bickering. “You like linguini. Have what I’m having. And a piece of veal.”
“Great…such a brilliant guy…this kid…yes…” says my son’s grandfather.
Steven is sitting next to me, on my right. I look at him. He will turn 18 next month. He is unshaven today, with long sideburns and a goatee blooming on his chin. Dark and handsome. I wonder if I am biased; I think he has a perfect face, interesting, kind-looking.
We give the waitress our order. She returns shortly with a basket of bread, and our beverages. Merlot for Richie and me, ginger ale for Roni, beer for Bill, water for Steven, and a root beer for Dad. He looks at the soda in front of him, and then over at the wine glasses in front of Richie and me. “That…why…some of that…I can’t have?” He sounds hurt, confused.
“Here. Take mine,” Richie says, handing the glass across the table. “I’ll tell the waitress to bring another.” “Rich…he doesn’t need that,” Roni says.
“Let the man have a glass of wine, already!”
And I think to myself, why not? Why not give him whatever he wants? But I know Roni worries that the alcohol will cause him to become more confused, or that it is contributing to the progression of the dementia. I turn and watch her face, eyes downturned, as she adjusts the napkin on her lap. She looks helpless. She looks like her father. A pretty rendition of his sharp bone structure, the curve of the lips, and the same smooth, ever-young skin.
Dinner arrives and we chat between bites. Dad keeps pointing to a long table by the windows.
“Right there,” he says. “All the kids…all those kids who know me…last summer…they were there…me…I was there.” And he is right. Last summer, he sat there with Roni and Richie, their daughter and her husband, and her three young children.
He tells us this many times as we eat.
When his plate is empty, he becomes agitated.
“Terrible…food…what a terrible meal,” he says.
“And I never got that…the…that…” he points to my side dish of spaghetti.
“Yes. Dad, you had linguini. You ate it already,” Roni tells him.
“No…I…did…not,” he says, looking around, and I read the expression on his face as a mix of anger and fear. “Have mine,” I tell him, handing the small bowl across to him.
He twirls a fork full and eats. He shoves the bowl away from him.
“Cold…hot…this stuff…it’s cold,” he says.
We try to calm him down, but his voice is raised, and he begins to complain about the waitress.
“Her fault…she doesn’t like me…this place…forty years…”
“Dad, the waitress is very nice.” Roni places her hand on his.
Bill says, “You ate it all. You liked it.”
“No! I…terrible…this place…been coming here a long time…should get what…they should give me…should get what I want,” Dad says.
“How about some Sambuca?” Richie says.
“What?” says Dad.
“Rich, he doesn’t need more liquor.”
“Listen, Roni,” Richie says, turning in his seat to make his point, talking close to her ear, gently, firmly. “The man is eighty-five years old. If liquor makes him happy, then let him have the fucking liquor.”
I appreciate Richie’s attitude. Let the man enjoy himself. We should all have another drink, I think.
Just then, our waitress, accompanied by several other waiters and waitresses, moves toward our table and they begin singing “Happy Birthday.” She is carrying a dish piled high with cake and ice cream, topped with whipped cream, and a single, small flickering candle.
We join in singing. Dad is beaming. I imagine his mouth watering. He loves ice cream, sweets. As the waitress places the dish in front of him, Steven leans forward and tells his grandfather, “You can blow out the candle now.”
A snifter of Sambuca arrives as my father-in-law is devouring his dessert. He pauses and knocks back a good, long sip.
“Ahhh…” and he coughs, choking a bit. “That’s good stuff…delicious.”
Vicki Addesso is married, has two sons. and works as a personal assistant for a toy inventor. In between family life and her bill-paying job, she works at writing. Co-author of the collaborative memoir Still Here Thinking of You~A Second Chance With Our Mothers (Big Table Publishing, 2013), she has had work published in The Writer, Damselfly Press, The Feminine Collective, Tweetspeak Poetry, and Stories From the Kids. A personal essay is included in the anthology My Body My Words, edited by Loren Kleinman and Amye Archer. You can follow Vicki on Twitter @VickiAddesso and tumblr http://vmaddesso.tumblr.com.