Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Birthday Party

Today is my father's birthday. He is 78 and still vigorous enough to inflict dark bruises on my mother's arms and shoulders. For a while she had fingerprints on her neck but I knew better than to ask about that.

My mother baked a chocolate cake and frosting sweetened with Splenda, half honoring his diabetic diet. She asked me to come for the birthday celebration, to help make the event more festive. "We are a loving family," she said. "We will surround your father with love and familiar faces even if he seems not to recognize us."

My mother's greatest joy is to bring my father home and feed him lunch or dinner, or both at once. She pays the aide an overtime rate for this outing, but no matter. Recently I stopped in during lunch and found them all together in a scene reminiscent of a Dickens nightmare. The television was tuned to a football game, cranked loud enough to hear the players' helmets crash together. Dixieland music seeped from the Bose sound system in her bedroom. "Isn't it great music?" She vamped her shoulders, dancing in place. "That's your father's favorite CD." The furniture was pushed to the side, the rug was rolled up along the wall. The aide, a lovely Nigerian man who claimed to have a Masters degree in business, stood near the wall of the tiny apartment bemoaning diminished funds for the civilian police forces in his home country. My mother sat on the sofa, knitting and waving gleefully. "Come in! Come in!"

My father walked up close and peered at the shiny charm hanging from my necklace. I leaned in and kissed his forehead. "Hey, Dad." He bent toward me and my heart skipped. He was going to hug me! Instead, he lunged and tried to bite the heart-shaped charm at my throat. "Be careful," my mother laughed. "Your father is feisty today!"

On the table was a single setting: placemat, linen napkin, three colorful plates loaded with food. "Lisa, let me make you a plate," she said, rising. "We're having short ribs and mashed potatoes, three kinds of vegetables and a big caesar salad just like your father likes." She had poured diet Coke into a wine glass for him.

"What did you eat?" I asked her. She shrugged. She wore rumpled pants, held around her waist with one of my father's old neckties. Her shirt was untucked, unbuttoned and stained. She was not only thin; she was sunken. "I'll eat if you'll eat," I challenged. She smiled and danced past me to retrieve a cup of Ben and Jerry's ice cream from the freezer. "I'll eat later," she lied as she speared a spoon into the cup. "Your father loves ice cream."

I'm guessing right about now my mother is serving a plate of chocolate cake topped with ice cream to my father. I am not going to the birthday party. In truth, my father never really liked that sort of thing anyway.

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