"It's Beth." The caregiver was trying to hand him the telephone. I was trying a second time; J. had just called and his father had sounded like he couldn't hear him; after a few words he had put the phone down on the bed and apparently given up. When I called back the caregiver said he wouldn't talk to her at all this afternoon, and asked grumpily why she kept waking him up in the middle of the night. "Do you want to try?" she had asked, and I said sure. "It's Beth. Your daughter-in-law," she repeated. In the background I heard him say, "I can't talk to ANYone."
"It's OK," I told her, when she came back on and apologetically tried to explain. "It's getting pretty impossible to talk to him on the phone. Don't worry."
He'll be 99 on Wednesday. I wonder if he knows, somehow. We're planning to be there, but there's not much point having a celebration, though we may make a cake for the care team as a small way of acknowledging all their efforts. As he slips further and further away, into places and times where we cannot follow, we all try to keep him contented and comfortable, with varying degrees of success. He's confused most of the time now, always turned upside down about what time of day it is, often about where, and sometimes about who. On good days he's still sweet and amusing, speaking in Arabic or sometimes in French, and apologizing when the caregivers remind him they can't understand him. On bad days he's confused, angry, frustrated. But even on good days, lucid comments follow disoriented ones, and there are long spaces between thoughts and utterances; his eyes close as if he's asleep, but often he's just resting, as if each thought is a heavy weight to gather and then push out onto his tongue.
Last week I came into the apartment after I got back from visiting my own father, who at 83 had just competed - and done quite well - in table tennis at the New York State senior games; I can barely keep up with him. My father-in-law was dressed and sitting in his wheelchair in the sun on his balcony, and when he saw my head appear behind his son's, his eyes brightened and he smiled. "Hello!" he said. "Sit down. How was your father?" But the conversation faltered quickly; he just seemed too tired to sustain any train of thought and I didn't want to contribute to his fatigue. I sat and held his hand, unsure if he was aware of me, and after a while he asked to go inside out of the sun.
After a short rest he opened his eye and seemed more alert and connected. He asked what we were eating these days. I mentioned a few things, and said that the grapes had been good lately.
"Such grapes we had from my uncle's vineyards in Bludan!" he exclaimed.
"What else?" I asked.
"Are you hungry now?"
"Not hungry, but I feel like I want to eat."
"You mean, just have something to chew on?"
"Yes," he smiled, as if he was relieved someone understood, but when the three of us suggested several things, he just shook his head no, smiling rather sadly.
"He's been asking for nuts today but he refuses what I offer," the caregiver said. She was a young woman of twenty-two or so, pretty, with dark hair and eyes, wearing large star-shaped earrings.
"What kind of nuts have you been thinking about?" I asked him.
"Ah! I've seen them but never eaten any. How do you do it?"
He explained how you crack and remove the outer covering, to reveal another shell that has to be removed in turn.
"Sounds like a lot of work."
"Yes, but that's the point. You sit and do it all day... We got those in Bludan too, there were lots of different kinds of nuts in my uncle's orchard."
"I'll look this week and see if I can find you any, sometimes they have them at the market."
He seemed to sleep again after this burst of conversation, and then opened his eyes. "Tell me," he said, lowering his voice just slightly and giving a small nod toward the caregiver who sat at the desk a mere six feet away. "Is this a Bludani girl?"
"I don't know," I said, looking over at her; she smiled. "What do you think?"
He gave her another appraising glance and said, "I don't know where these girls come from. But I think this one looks more like a city girl."