July 2012. This is the part of my father's death when I can't do anything but go to work, come home, and put on my pajamas. I’m twenty-two years old, and I spend most evenings now in front of the television set watching a scratched DVD of Charlie's Angels season one. My diet is 99% Red Vines and 1% goldfish crackers. I look thin and puffy at the same time—how that’s even possible I don’t know. But I do like it just the teeniest bit when my friends say I look awful.
Yesterday, my fifty-five year old father fell at the dementia care facility where he lives now and cracked the toilet. The bowl shattered just like a teacup, only it was a toilet. The nurse nobody likes says she thinks my dad does these things on purpose—breaking toilets, escaping into the parking lot through the locked gate, knocking his plate of food onto the floor. Attention getting schemes. And I know she means attention from ME, because he gets plenty from my mom. She gives him attention all the time. She's over there right now looking at the broken toilet. I'm on my sixth licorice whip since this episode started.
I’m dazed, my eyes like two cartoonish vortexes glued to the screen. This show is hypnotic for me—perfect order in a stylized 70s, though mildly chaotic, world. The Angels are brave and smart and sexy and heroic—all the things I’m not—their world is all so much flashier than mine. The clatter of machine guns grazing them as they navigate motorcycle chases or scale a rope up to a hotel balcony. The pounding platform shoes on pavement as they tackle the creep who almost gets away but not quite. The fierce face and the screaming of "Freeze!" from one angel just as another angel is about to be stuffed into a trunk. Sabrina, the Smart-One-Who-I-Think-Looks-the-Most-Like-Me, plants her foot on the villain's chest and says "Ok, pal, that’s it. Just wait until the district attorney hears about this.” Bullets always miss them. They’re always just a little faster than whoever is chasing them. Handcuffed to a pipe, locked in a dripping cellar, an electrical fire inching closer and closer, it never matters. It’s always wrapped up in forty-seven minutes. The Angels are predictable and safe. Nothing can really touch them. I already know there were five seasons. No one is ever in real danger when there are another six discs stacked on the DVD player. Pretend danger. Not real life.
In real life, I can’t seem to move. All night long I try to think of a single thing I can do to make this shitty situation better for my mother or my father or for me and I can’t. I can't even go over to look at a broken toilet.
Once upon a time, there were three little girls who went to the police academy, and they were each assigned very hazardous duties…
This is what happens in real life. Last night while I watched the Angels bail out of an exploding Pinto, James Holmes entered the Century Aurora Theater in Colorado with a pre-purchased ticket for The Dark Knight Rises. He had come and gone once already, leaving through the emergency exit at the front of the theater and propping the door open so he could get in again. Part way through the movie, he lobbed two canisters of tear gas into the dark theater, the plumes of greenish-gray smoke instantly enveloping the seats and movie goers. He fired into the ceiling and then into the crowd. Twelve people died immediately, three of them young men stretched out over their girlfriends in a failed attempt at protection. He exited through the same door he had entered. The police caught him in the parking lot behind the theater. Someone probably yelled, "Get down on the ground" and maybe someone else said "Ok, pal, that’s it." Inside, I imagine blood splashed across floors already sticky with spilled diet coke and stepped on Skittles. I imagine that some left inside were gag crying, the kind of tears I can never get to come up. I'm sure others couldn't cry at all—couldn’t even move from the flattened theater seat cushions they had been in when Holmes slammed through the emergency exit door and out into the parking lot. I think how there is no place in this world that is safe—not even sitting in a superhero movie chewing a licorice whip. Not even there.
My dad has a brain that's dying, and once enough of it is gone, he'll be dead. Dementia isn’t one of the diseases that people race for a cure or pin looped ribbons to their lapels. If they do, it’s for research, not a cure. We say things like "someday" and "next generation" when we talk about eliminating the disease. Maybe it's a battle we can fight, but it won't be for him; it's too late. I already know how his story is going to turn out, and there doesn't seem to be any point in watching the whole thing. I've fast forwarded to the last scene, and there is no last minute twist or miraculous healing. At least, not for our family. Spoiler alert.
Watching the Angels scale a chain link fence, I think how this isn't the story I wanted. This is the first time in my life when trying harder or wanting it more doesn’t fix the mess. I won’t watch the news anymore because there’s nothing anyone can do to fix that mess either. Life will never be wrapped up neat and tidy, not in forty-seven minutes or a hundred years. What's the point?
On my screen, Kelly Garret and Jill Munroe are distracting the prison wardens by pretending to get into a fight. This is their cover—lady convicts. They shove and slap and pull each other's uber teased hair while Sabrina searches the warden's office. She's smooth and stealthy, opening drawers and sifting through stacks of papers, quick glances over her shoulder just often enough to make me think the coast is clear. Then, out of the corner of my eye, something crawls across the living room floor towards my feet. In real life.
It's a roach. The bug man who comes out to the house the next day will tell me it’s not a roach, it's a water beetle, brought of out the dry desert earth by the recent unusual pelting of rain. But I don’t care what the bug man says. It’s Kafka-esque— big, black, and shiny, and all I can think to do is stand up on top of my chair and scream. I scream and scream and the roach-thing is apparently just as scared as I am because all it can think to do is run under the chair I'm standing on.
I miss my dad. I've missed him before in the year he's already spent in the facility. I've missed him when I'm driving at night and want to ask him what I'm supposed to do with my lights in fog. I've missed him when my mom has been crying and won't tell me why and I know it's because she knows he’s dying, and I want to ask him what I should say to her. I've missed him when my last friend from college gets married and it's just single-me left in our group, and I want him to say “Ok by me—you're my girl anyway” because I know that’s what he would have said.
But now I've got an freaking roach under my chair and Mom is looking at the broken toilet and your brain is dying and there is no one to do any rescuing.
On the screen, Sabrina is cuffing one of the crooked wardens to a pipe, and Kelly yells for Jill to quick, go call Bosley. The television is way louder now that my attention is splattered in all directions. The theme song that strums in my being like a familiar call to arms seems to rattle against my ribcage and shake the beams of the house.
What would I have done if I'd been in that theater in Colorado? I picture myself jumping up onto the flap-down seat and screaming like I just did. Isn't that what I've done all along since my father's diagnosis? The equivalent of utterly useless screaming—giving up. If I can’t fight this tiniest battle, how will I make it through the next year? The rest of my life? How long before I have no choice but to move again?
Stepping over the back of the couch cushions so my feet don’t touch the ground, I make it to the hallway broom closet. The canister vacuum is all kinked tubes and cords that don't reach the outlet because of the massive knot I've just made. I think I can hear the scrabble of little roach feet on the floor this very second. It’s after me. Or maybe it's not going anywhere at all. Maybe it's pulled up a mini-roach deck chair and is lounging on its crackling skeleton to mock my struggling.
I shove the arm of the vacuum beneath the chair like a javelin and poke it around in the tiny space. My elbow bangs into the lamp table and sends the DVD player remote sailing. Batteries and cracked plastic ricochet off the hardwood floor and the roach tries to take cover under my left bare foot. I have to scream some more.
Now it scales the wall on suction-cup tiptoes and hangs at my eye level, its wiry antennae tasting the air. It rolls its mean little roach-eyes at me like I am the stupidest human being it’s ever done battle with, which is correct. I smack at it with the arm of the vacuum just as it makes a break for the ceiling, tripping over the stretched tube hose and scraping a divot in the wall paint. With one more jump on the chair cushion, finally the creature disappears into the machine’s whirring mouth and is gone. I’m out of breath. The house is wrecked. But I got it.
At the home where he’s living, my father is getting cleaned up. A nurse is cleaning the drying blood from the lacerations on his arm and back, two deep slashes where the jagged porcelain had entered his body. My mother is brushing the hair back off his forehead and wiping crusted gunk out of his eyes and the corners of his mouth. A custodial crew is mopping up water from the flooded bathroom floor and removing the new toilet from its crate.
In Colorado, clean-up crews find two hundred and nine rounds of ammunition and fifteen cartridges on the slick theater floor. Camera crews hug the periphery, newscasters almost whispering into their microphones. The parking lot is surrounded in caution tape that snaps and stretches in the warm wind.
I don’t know on that day how long my dad will have to keep fighting, though it won’t be that long; he’ll die in January of the next year. I don’t know how many more times people like those in Colorado will go somewhere expecting safety and not get it, though that won’t be long either; there’ll be another shooting in a few months, this time at an elementary school in Connecticut. I don’t know then how long any of us will have to keep fighting, keep struggling, keep going—just to move from one day into the next. All I know is on this one day, this one small battle is over. There will be days in the next few years when I can’t move again, when I’m frozen in this confused grief-cloud that keeps me in a chair eating Red Vines. Then there will be days when I can’t stop moving, when I bounce from one place to another, looking for something to fill the Dad-Hole he’ll leave me with that can’t be stuffed with anything else. There won’t be a huge battle won, but little ones like this. The day the Aura Theater opens again and another family sits in their seats with a pack of Red Vines. The day I can get my dad to eat when he won’t open his mouth for anyone else. And every day, each little fight will have a beginning, middle and end. Every day that gets wrestled to the ground before the next one waits—daring us to win.
About the Writer
Katie Martin is a Phoenix based writer and graduate of Pacific University's MFA program. Her work has appeared in several journals, including Green Briar Review, Silk Road, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Gravel Magazine, and Daily Dose of Lit. A chapter of her in-progress memoir has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Katie loves planning trips to Disney World and running with her lazy dog.