The lost navigator

Before Parkinson’s, my father never needed to consult a road map.

  • A road stretches across the Montana prairie.

    Tony Bynum
 

His dresser and bathroom sink counter are covered in notes, long lists of words in an agitated scrawl. The words extend into the margins, curl up the sides, shrink into pinpoints. I squint; they squint back. I ask my father about them, and he clicks his worn front teeth together and giggles, without explanation. Maybe he doesn’t understand me. I wonder if the lists help his memory. I stuff a few of them into my pocket, a memento of this stage of his life, then transfer them to my suitcase. But when I unpack after the flight home, I can’t find them. Perhaps they slipped out of my pocket unnoticed, much the way my father seems to be slipping out of my life.

When his Parkinson’s worsened, my parents moved to a retirement center. I take my father on walks down the hallway, leading him by the hand so he doesn’t get lost. He used to have a phenomenal sense of direction. After church, he took us on drives into the country, navigating the gravel roads by instinct and the position of the sun. No street signs for guidance, acres and acres of plowed prairie the color of daylight, an occasional farmhouse with a bleached barn — nothing like my mountainous Colorado home. Dad never needed to consult a road map. I inherited his orienteering skills: In the Colorado Mountain Club, I’m known for my route-finding.

He was fascinated by trains. From the comfort of his easy chair, with the TV chattering nearby, he’d plot a course across the Western United States and Canada, using the railroad timetables and histories that crowded his bookshelf.

He drove until Mother finally took away his car keys. He didn’t protest or complain. The dopamine-producing nerve cells in his brain would misfire, and his right foot would stomp on the accelerator in heavy traffic. Or the needle of a random thought would get stuck, repeating itself like a refrain from a wrathful gospel hymn, and, muttering and gesturing, he would start conversing with an imaginary traveling companion who was less terrified than we were.

            

Today, on the phone with him, I can’t quite make out the words. Too much static. My side? His side? Maybe both.

I think he’s saying what he always says when I call and my mother isn’t there and he picks up the phone. “Jane, is that you? Jane?”

I say my name again and again: “Jane, this is Jane, daughter Jane.” I shout my name louder and louder, until I run out of oxygen.

He giggles. “Mom? You want Mom? She isn’t here. I think she isn’t here. I think she … I don’t know where she is. Maybe she is here?” The line crackles with static or the scratching of untrimmed fingernails as his grip on the receiver falters. But his words penetrate. “I love you.”

He drops the phone with a thud. He must be standing in the carpeted living room. I hear an intake of breath, then a click. It could be his teeth grinding as he presses the receiver again to his lips. Another click, with more bite this time. The line dies, with an interminable buzz. I have this routine memorized.

A few days later, I’m in the grocery store, inspecting the bananas, when an elderly man shuffles by, chin stuck to his sternum, bowed legs stiffer than a bucked bronco rider, barely gaining ground. It’s my father’s gait, that peculiar Parkinson’s shamble. I mutter, probing my absentee father with unanswerable questions. The woman rifling through the bananas stops, stares at me, grabs her son’s hand and pushes her cart toward the lettuce stand. Before I know it, I’m standing outside in the sunshine, reassured by the snap of my bicycle lock, the pinch of the shoulder straps on my stuffed pack, the copper burnish of autumn’s ephemeral foliage.

Before he moved into the care center full-time, Mother left him there twice a week, so she could run errands. If left alone in the apartment, he would turn the burners on, scorching empty pans, and raid the refrigerator repeatedly, devouring the fruit in the vegetable bin as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks.

 

I take him on one more drive, past the lake where we used to picnic before his confinement to a wheelchair in the care center. Shielded from the city by forested hills, the sunlit lake reflects the rusting hues of late autumn. Dad dozes in the seat beside me until I nudge him and point. Wide-eyed with childlike astonishment, he gazes at the lake as if seeing it for the first time.

It is December when Mother awakens me with a call on the nurse’s cellphone. His face is turned toward the curtainless window beside his bed, toward the rising sun, she whispers. “He looks so young, not one wrinkle.” I can hear the wail of a passing train in the background. “It’s carrying him off.”

 

Jane Koerner of Fairplay, Colorado, scattered some of her father’s ashes in Rocky Mountain National Park, where the family vacationed throughout her childhood.

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