For essentially my entire life, bringing all of my siblings under one roof required an official “get-together.” My sister Darlene, who is twenty years older than I am, moved out of the house before I could walk. That fall, my brother Matty went off to college. By the time I could add two numbers, Denise was doing considerably more complex calculations at Dartmouth, where she prepared for her now-storied corporate career.
My mother used to refer to me as her “wonderful surprise,” since she became pregnant with me when she was in her early forties. Denise, twelve years my elder, would refer to me as “the accident” whenever she was forced to babysit me in her teens. There was no question that I was completely unplanned. And while my mother, who would have “gone pro” as a parent if such a thing were possible, tended to me with the pleasure of someone who had been offered a free second ride on a roller coaster, it was difficult for me not to feel like a bit of an appendage in the family. This became even truer when Darlene and Matty both got married and had children in close proximity, giving me a niece and a nephew much nearer to my age than any of my brothers or sisters. I was too young for one group and too old for the other. I was a man without a generation.
My most vivid recollection of family gatherings when I was young was the sound. Darlene telling colorful stories about life in “the real world.” Matty regaling us with profundities gleaned from whichever class was capturing his imagination at the moment. Denise suggesting that neither of them knew what was really going on, in tones much too cynical for someone her age. My father engaging each in debate with a voice that spoke of both authority and admiration. My mother calling down to the den from the kitchen on a regular basis to make sure that everyone had everything they needed. And all of this taking place at extreme volume. I found the entire thing both entertaining and daunting.
My image of that time always has me looking up at the family as though each member were a towering, pontificating mountain and I were standing at the foothills. I was enormously impressed with their ability to express themselves, to cajole one another, to generate so much spirit. I was envious of the attention my father gave the opinions of his older children, and the obvious joy he took in being able to converse with them in this way. It was easy to fade into the background when everyone was over at the house. I had nothing to say that was nearly as important as what they were all saying, and even if I did, I had no idea how to project my voice over the din. I was the little one. My thoughts came too slowly. By the time anything of even passing value entered my mind, the conversation had moved on. I suppose this is one of the reasons that I became a writer. It was a way for me to state my case without risking interruption.
Over the years, the number of get-togethers declined dramatically. Darlene’s husband Earl got a management position with a textile company in Orange County, California. Matty and his wife Laura moved to Pittsburgh for a while, and then to Chicago about ten years ago. Denise moved to various apartments on the Upper East Side before buying a condo overlooking the Hudson River. That put her about fifteen miles away from my parents’ house physically and several continents away emotionally. Denise had obviously taken my father’s oft-repeated advice that she needed to be her own person to mean that she should stand in virtual isolation from the rest of her family.
I’m not sure why things with Denise bugged me so much. I suppose it had something to do with the fact that we actually spent a fair amount of time together under the same roof and therefore I expected more from her than I did from Darlene or Matty. I knew Denise was brilliant, I knew her accomplishments were genuine, and I had seen their development closely enough to come to a true admiration for them. But when it became clear to me that my admiration not only went unheeded, but in fact unnoticed, my feelings for her became considerably less charitable. I didn’t want to acknowledge that she adored my father, only that she couldn’t be bothered to visit him when he needed her the most. I didn’t want to acknowledge that she had been extremely generous with my parents, only that she had always been stingy with her time. I didn’t understand how you could do this with people you genuinely cared for.
The last time all of us had been in one place was after Mom died. I remember sitting at the dinner table with them the night before they all left and feeling an uneasiness beyond anything associated with the funeral that had taken place earlier in the day. Through the haze of my grief, I felt that something else was out of skew. I ate with my eyes cast down toward my plate, but with my senses extended outward, as they almost always were when I was amongst these people. I couldn’t get a handle on what was wrong until I finally realized that it was quiet. There was virtually no conversation.
While we had begun to contemplate my father’s frailty, we were completely unprepared for my mother’s death. She had been hale up until the point when she experienced complications from a minor respiratory procedure. She spent a week in Intensive Care and, even though she ultimately returned home, she was never the same. Within two months, she was dead, and it was enough to shock everyone into silence. Her passing wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly. It wasn’t supposed to happen at all for at least another twenty years. I’m not sure what everyone else was thinking that night, but I thought that perhaps it was appropriate that this dinner feel and sound different from all others that had come before. Everything in the family would be changed from that point on.
Since then, we’d all made our attempts to convince my father to give up the house. He wasn’t moving well anymore, he seemed tired and sullen, and we were all concerned that he was going to hurt himself if he tried to keep up with everything he needed to do to live in that space. He wasn’t interested in talking about it, though. My own conversations with him had been brief and perfunctory. To say he was dismissive with me would be to suggest that he considered what I was saying in the first place. I tried various techniques of provocation I’d picked up from his interactions with Darlene, Matty, and Denise, but they seemed different coming out of my mouth, sharper, filled more with sarcasm than persuasion. The others were quietly relentless, though, all trying to find a way to treat him gingerly and respectfully while still getting the point across.
After the Fried Egg Crisis, all bets were off. We knew that we simply had to get him out of there. As an indication of how seriously everyone was taking this, Darlene and Matty flew in, and Denise actually hosted the sibling conference in her apartment. Of course, she was a half-hour late and blew into the room crowing about an employee who would “simply not let her get out the door.” Still, she proceeded to enter the conversation as though she had been conducting it in her head the entire cab ride home. Even when I found her annoying, which was most of the time, I had to be impressed with the way she could make her presence felt immediately.
“I’m just saying that I think a nursing home might be too drastic a move,” Matty said in response to the suggestion Denise entered with. “It’s not like he has Alzheimer’s or needs a wheelchair or something. He’s old and slow, but he’s not three feet from his grave.”
“Nursing homes aren’t only for people who are about to die,” Denise said curtly.
Matty smirked. “Actually, I think that’s the exact dictionary definition.”
Denise shook her head and did that little thing with her teeth. It was like she was grinding them together, except the top level and the bottom never touched. It was code for “I can’t believe I’m wasting time trying to communicate with you.”
At that moment, Denise’s eight-year-old son Marcus entered the room with a book in his hand to ask his mother what she thought the snow symbolized in White Fang. Marcus is the kind of kid who gives precociousness a bad name. Without acknowledging the boy, Denise turned to her husband Brad and said, “I’m kinda into this right now.” Brad escorted Marcus from the room. I’m sure he made some kind of notation of the task in his Blackberry before returning to the meeting however, so he could receive the proper quid pro quo later.
“We could hire him a full-time nurse,” Darlene suggested. “A nurse would make sure that Dad was safe and could offer companionship at the same time.”
“Feels like we’re getting him a substitute for Mom,” Matty responded. “And Dad’s not going to go for the nurse thing.” He altered his voice to my father’s rougher tone. “‘If I’m not sick, why do I need a nurse?’ You know how hung up he gets about any of us suggesting that he can’t do everything he used to.”
“What Dad needs is an assisted living community,” Laura suggested. Of the three siblings-in-law, Laura was the one closest to my father by far. It probably had something to do with my father’s being nothing at all like the man who had abandoned Laura, her mother, and her sister when Laura was eleven. “These places are like apartment buildings – some of them are really nice – and the people who live in them still retain a good level of independence. They just don’t have to worry about things like laundry or cleaning.” She smiled knowingly. “Or cooking.”
“Amen to that,” Denise said sarcastically.
“They’re popping up everywhere in Southern California,” Darlene said. “They’re like Starbucks. I’ll bet it’s the same in New Jersey.”
There were lots of heads shaking and discussions of procedure. How do we research the different facilities? How do we discuss it with Dad? Do we discuss it with Dad, or do we just tell him to start packing?
I got up from the sofa to get more coffee. I hadn’t said a word since the conversation had begun, which meant that I was right on my quota as far as sibling meetings were concerned. It certainly wasn’t that I didn’t have any opinions or that I was intimidated. I had simply fallen into the same pattern that I fell into whenever the group of us got together. I’ve often wondered what the others thought of my regular silence. Actually, what I’ve really wondered was whether or not they even noticed it.
Regardless, I had to stand up, because I needed a moment to gather my thoughts. I had something I wanted to say, something that seemed absolutely fitting to me and that none of them could possibly have anticipated. It required my walking a few steps and then returning to the room, as though I had just gotten there.
I hadn’t put any advance thought into this. Like everyone else in the room, I had given the evening’s agenda serious consideration. But it wasn’t until I was there with the rest of them listening to suggestions that ranged from serviceable to frightening – and all more than a little empty – that I realized there was something more to be done with this decision. Something that offered my father more than just a coda to a rich life. “I want Dad to come to live with me,” I said before taking another sip of coffee and doing a quick scan of everyone in the room.
Denise adopted another of her annoyed expressions. Darlene simply appeared confused. Matty turned to face me head on.
“Right, great idea,” he said sharply.
“I’m serious.” I sipped some more coffee.
“No, you’re not, Jesse.”
“Yeah, I am. You can’t tell me that living with me isn’t going to be better for Dad than living in some elder care facility.”
He screwed up his face as though my suggestion came dissolved in a quart of lemon juice.
“Jess, it ain’t even close,” he said.
I could feel myself getting flustered, my frustrations looping between having no idea how to talk back to my siblings and how easily I lost my composure when challenged by them. I finished the coffee and muttered something like, “I really think it would be a good idea.”
“Babe,” Darlene said, “it’s great that you want to be involved and I’m sure Dad would appreciate the gesture. But I think this assisted living thing makes a lot more sense. You could be a huge help to us here if you scouted around for the best facility in Jersey. None of us can really do it long distance.”
I had been dismissed. I knew my face was red and I knew I wasn’t in any condition to continue the argument. I immediately wished I had thought about this ahead of time and e-mailed my justifications to them before we all gathered. I should have known better than to introduce an idea this provocative without a huge amount of preparation. As a result, I fell back on my traditional role. I simply said, “Sure, whatever,” and left it at that.
I spent much of the rest of the time I was there in my own personal funk. The others were moving forward with the plans. My father’s fate had been decided, my role as advance scout confirmed. If anyone had given any further thought to my pronouncement, they gave no indication of it. I certainly didn’t mention it again.
But I knew there was something right about this, and while I hadn’t even considered it before that sibling conference, my conviction grew exponentially in the days that followed.