We finally figured out what to do with my wife’s father. We locked him up. “Shoulda done it years ago,” was Kermit’s opinion, expressed at a family meeting called to decide the old boy’s fate. Really, there was nothing else to do. His wife, no spring chicken herself, couldn’t deal with him anymore. Who else was going to take him in? His brothers and sisters were either dead or as crazy as he was, Kermit, the youngest, being the exception. But Kermit, a bachelor, wasn’t caretaker material. Kermit and Earl didn’t get along anyway. “Never did, never will, “Kermit said. I once asked Kermit why he didn’t like his brother. “Because He’s a jackass,” Kermit replied.
Earl’s children couldn’t take him in either. My wife Kat worked, and Billy and Dot had kids. “Keeping track of somebody with Alzheimers is a full-time job,” Kat said. Kat wouldn’t have volunteered even if she weren’t working. Her relationship with her father was only slightly more cordial than Earl and Kermit’s.
After the powwow, I asked Kat if we knew for sure that Earl had Alzheimers. “What do you call it,” Kat said, “when somebody tries to call his old school friend, who’s been dead for twenty years, to tell him He’s in Colorado, and He’s coming to see him? And he’s right here in California when he picks up the phone.”
Earl was bonkers; there was no doubt about that. And Edith, his wife, was a nervous wreck. So we put Earl in a home. “The Lodge,” Billy called it, hoping it would make Earl feel better about the move.
Earl didn’t want to go, of course, but he went peacefully enough when the big day came. At first he was pretty confused, but after a week or so he settled down. The home was nice, as such places go, not luxurious but pleasant, and the staff was cheery and seemingly competent. To his delight, Earl found that his musical talents were greatly appreciated at the evening entertainments. Earl sang in a reedy tenor and accompanied himself on the ukulele. He knew dozens of old songs. He might not know what day it was or whether he was in California or North Dakota, but he knew every word to “The Sheik of Araby” and “Oh, Susanna.”
One Sunday, several months after we parked Earl in the home, Kat popped in for a visit. When she got home, she headed straight for the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. I found her in a sling chair on the back deck, her feet propped up on a canvas foot rest.
“That place is a zoo!” Kat said. Kat said that when she got there, she found Earl wandering around the hall outside his room. He couldn’t get in, he said. The door was locked. Kat tried the door, and sure enough, it was locked. She fetched the charge nurse who unlocked the door. When they got inside, they found some other old timer in Earl’s bed. The nurse rousted him, and he wasn’t happy about it. “He don’t use it anyway,” the old boy groused as he was led away.
Kat said that Edith told her that the previous week she had spotted one of the other patients, a woman, walking down the hall with Earl’s laundry bag. Edith knew it was Earl’s because it had a pattern of flowers at the top that she had sewed on herself. Edith marched up to the woman and took the bag away from her. She surprised herself, she said, but it made her mad. “That’s my husband’s laundry bag!” she said. When she opened the bag, she found Earl’s soiled socks and shorts, but there were some of the lady’s things in there, too. “Can you believe it?” Edith asked.
Of course I doubt that Edith drew the same conclusion from the laundry bag story that we did. Edith is a nice lady, but she’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. I asked Kat if Edith knew about the “Colorado Connection.” Kat said that she had to; they all grew up together. Earl had been married four times. He met his first wife, Kat’s mother, in San Francisco. Lydia and Daisy were from Colorado. Edith wasn’t from Colorado, but her husband was. Like Lydia and Daisy, he was one of Earl’s high school classmates.
The story of Earl’s Rocky Mountain brides was a family joke. Billy referred to Earl’s periodic trips home for his high school reunions as “fishing trips.”
Earl was fifty when Kat’s mother died. He hooked up with Lydia, his second wife, in 1985, ten years later. Some years after that, Lydia left him, taking the furniture with her. Earl was in Scotland at the time. Lydia was supposed to go on the trip, too, but at the last minute, she backed out. Earl returned to an empty house.
Earl moped for a while, but the following summer, he was back in action. Once again he traveled to Colorado for his class reunion, and this time he struck gold.
Earl’s courtship of Daisy was storybook material. They had been high school sweethearts. After graduating, they put their wedding plans on hold, and Earl went off to college. There wasn’t enough money for both to go, so Daisy stayed home. That’s the last she heard from Earl.
“He took the money and ran,” was Kermit’s sour comment.
I don’t know what lame story he told her fifty years later, but apparently Daisy bought it. They got married, and Earl packed up and moved to Texas where Daisy had a home. Daisy had married a Texas oilman. The oilman had died the previous year. He was struck by lightning while fishing for bass on Lake Arrowhead. Once again, Earl’s luck turned sour. Daisy got sick a year later, and the doctors found a tumor in her gall bladder. A few months later she was dead. Earl didn’t get her money this time, however. Not a nickel. She left it to her kids.
A short time later, Earl left Texas and headed back to California. On the way, he stopped to see his old friends Al and Edith in Arizona. He called us from Sun City. Al wasn’t doing too well, Earl said. He had cancer, and the docs had given him only a few months to live. Earl said he was going to stay a few days longer than he had planned.
Kat hung up the phone and reported the conversation. “You don’t suppose …?” I said. Kat said she didn’t want to talk about it.
This year it was our turn to host the family get-together on Father’s Day. Kat cooked dinner, and Dot picked up Earl at the home on her way over from the coast. When the doorbell rang, I went to the door, and there was Earl, looking fit as a fiddle. Earl is a big, pear-shaped man, bald as a teapot. He is moonfaced and rosy, a cherub with wattles. Earl had dressed up for the occasion. He was sporting a bow tie to go with his fresh white shirt and crisp flannels.
“Come in, come in!” I said.
Earl shook my hand. “Happy birthday,” he said.
Without much difficulty, Kat and Dot persuaded Earl to lead a sing-along after dinner. Earl had his trusty ukulele with him, of course.
I joined Kermit and Billy on the landing between our living room and the family room where the entertainment was taking place.
“What’s the matter?” I said to Kermit. “Aren’t you a music lover?
We watched and listened for a while, and finally Kermit said to me, “I don’t know. Maybe I’m too hard on the old boy. All he ever wanted was somebody to wash his clothes and darn his socks.”
Earl picked away at his uke and sang tune after tune for his appreciative audience in a voice that was once, I’m told, a rich tenor, now grown rusty with age. He was having a wonderful time.