Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Short Stack

I have big, strong hands.  So does my brother. We get them from Dad, who was always a smallish guy, but had these powerful bear hands.  When I had a pre-employment physical done a year ago.  It included a hand-strength test.  The nurse made me repeat it twice before accepting the results.  “Your hand strength is over twice the average for a woman your age,” he said.  “I’ve never seen anything like this.”  I suppose I should be self-conscious (“Women with big hands make for insecure men,” an ex-lover once told me), but I’m not.  I knit; I garden; I write; I cook.  I cradle my loved ones in my broad palms, twine the world through my long fingers, and squeeze the juice out of life with my freakishly powerful grip.  Above all, I cling.

For years my father had been acting a little…Off.  Nothing we could really pin down. Forgetful, sometimes.  Easily confused.  He mumbled a lot.  But it was hard to tell how much of this was real, and how much was affectation, especially from my vantage point from the opposite side of the country. 

I began to fear the worst: Alzheimer’s.

Gently but insistently, I nudged my parents toward the doctor’s appointment, but when it finally came, the results were inconclusive.  I desperately wanted to believe that was good news, but I could sense a beast lurking in the background.  Even when I couldn’t see it, its presence hung like a shadow over every conversation I had with either of my parents.

“He seemed really good today,” I would remark to my mother, and she would try to latch on to that optimism, too.  But neither one of us could hang on tightly enough.  Even when he seemed fine, or normal, or like his old self or whatever other high-water mark euphemism we could find, there was an implicit threat—good was now the exception.

Then they came to visit.  My dad was standing in my kitchen, his hand resting on the back of a chair.  My mom stood next to him.  We were talking.  He seemed fine.  But my eyes kept drifting over to his resting hand, which quaked like an aspen leaf on the back of the chair. 

The air became dense around me.  I looked at his face; but he kept talking, mumbling in his low monotone while my mother prodded him, Bickerson-style, with whatever she thought he should be saying. Later I pulled my mother aside and asked her if his hand shook often.

“What, really?  His hand was shaking?”

For the rest of the visit, I couldn’t stop staring at his hand.  I began to notice how much his hands had changed.  They were sinewy now, deep crevasses between the tendons, bulbous knuckles.  And always that steady shake.  Eventually my mother couldn’t ignore it any longer, either.  A few weeks after they returned home, she called and admitted it had become hard to fall asleep with his hand trembling against her back. She scheduled a follow-up with the neurologist over my dad’s protests.  I flew out for the visit. 

I tried to stay in the background.  Both of my parents were grateful I was there, but also sensitive to the idea that I thought they were incapable of handling their own affairs.  I billed myself as a court reporter, just there to take notes so they could refer back to them later.  Together with the neurologist, they talked about his cognitive functioning, his memory, whether he could still write a check or draw the face of a clock. My dad admitted that he occasionally fumbled for a word, or struggled with simple arithmetic.  The doctor asked him questions and tested his reflexes and hemmed and hawed.

The entire time it was all I could do not to scream Look at his hands!

My mother didn’t mention it.  My father didn’t mention it.  The doctor seemed not to notice it.  The visit was winding down, still no diagnosis but some tentative prescriptions.  My father was protesting, my mother was clucking around my father, reciting the litany of other medications he was already taking, chiding him for being stubborn.

I caught the doctor’s eye.  I looked pointedly at my father’s hand.  His eyes followed mine.  is eyes

“I thought I noticed a tremor,” I said softly. 

He raised his eyebrows.  “Resting? Or during action?” he asked.

“Resting,” I said.

My parents had noticed our sidebar. 

“There’s something else I’d like to check,” the neurologist said.  He began to bustle about my father again, asking him to grip his fingers, hold a pen, write a sentence.  Finally he stepped back.

He said, “I can’t be sure, because it’s really a diagnosis of exclusion, but when I see resting tremors, I think…Parkinson’s.”

And suddenly I was nostalgic for Alzheimer’s.

That was two years ago.

We’re supposed to have accepted this diagnosis by now.  We say things like “He has Parkinson’s Disease” rather than “The doctor thinks he might have Parkinson’s…” and I know that he isn’t getting any better.  Really, I do.

But this morning I stood in my kitchen, talking to my dad.  His voice is so muffled now that I find myself turning off the exhaust fan, then the radio, then finding the quietest spot I can and shushing the kids and I still strain to make out his words.

I ask him what he’s having for breakfast.

“Pancakes,” he whispers.  “Buckwheat.”

Thirty-odd years drop away like a veil.  I am back in their kitchen, standing in front of the old electric range.  Hot oil shimmers in a cast-iron skillet. 

My voice catches in my throat, but I force myself to say the words out loud.  “That’s the first thing you taught me how to cook.”

I can see the puddle of batter in the pan, the bubbles forming at the edges, popping one at a time.  He tells me to watch those bubbles, to wait until some leave open craters along the pancake’s edge.

“Really?” he says. His voice is far away now.  I can picture his eyes swimming as he tries to recall.

But I can’t stop myself from recalling.  It’s time to flip the pancake, tricky and nerve-wracking business for me.  The spatula is too small, the pancake flops over the edges, the batter isn’t set enough, and the hot edge of the pan leaves a nasty blister when I bump it with the side of my hand.

I hold the spatula hesitantly.  He wraps his hand around mine, then decisively slips the spatula under the pancake.  “OK now, 1…2…3!”  It’s a quick movement, deft, more air than muscle, and the pancake lands perfectly, puffy and golden. 

I feel like a magician.  When the second side cooks, we take it from the pan, tear it in half, and eat it on the spot.  (“It’s a tester,” he reasons.  “We have to make sure the rest are good enough to serve.”)  Then he steps back and hands me the spatula.  It’s time to cook the next one, and this time I’m on my own.