The Serpent’s Tooth
By Mel Goldberg
Re-Published by Request
“How Sharper Than A Serpent’s Tooth It Is To Have A Thankless Child”
—King Lear (Shakespeare)
Act 1, scene 4,
After my mother died, my father came to live with me in Arizona. He needed special care because of his Parkinson’s Disease. He had the type that caused muscle rigidity and his medication had to be adjusted regularly. Too much and he became agitated and had hallucinations. Too little and the stiffness prevented him from moving.
When he started to forget things, I feared the cause was more than old age. After an examination, we returned to the doctor’s office to discuss his findings. Sitting in the two chairs across from the doctor, we waited as he opened a folder.
“I’m afraid the results are what we suspected.”
My father voiced the question I wanted to ask but didn’t have the courage. “The lab tests are conclusive, then? No mistake?”
“It’s unlikely,” the doctor said quietly. “You have the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.”
“How long, then, before it takes me over. Before I no longer recognize people and things?”
“There’s no way to know. It could be years.”
We left the doctor’s office, walking silently that morning, staring at the ground. The verdict dogged our heels, pulled at our coat sleeves.
“Well,” said my father after a few minutes, his usual good humor returning. “I’m hungry. Let’s get something to eat before I forget how to use a knife and fork.”
I tried to smile, but only succeeded in wrinkling my lips a little.
Over the next few months, I realized that the doctor’s prediction was wrong.
The disease came on inexorably, like the tide at night, eating away at the shore. Each week another facility was lost.
One morning before I went to run some errands, I made his breakfast and placed his medicine next to his plate, as I always did. When I left, he was sitting in his lift chair in his bedroom, watching television and flipping channels. His attention span had become short, so he didn’t stay with a program longer than a few minutes. I suspected he didn’t comprehend even the simplest shows. When I returned several hours later, his food and medicine were still on the table, untouched, exactly where I had left it.
I went into his bedroom where he was still sitting in his chair. “You didn’t eat.”
“I must have. I’m not hungry.”
He forgot to bathe unless I reminded and helped him. When he did, he refused to use soap. I reminded him to brush his teeth, but he rarely used toothpaste unless I put it on his brush for him.
One day as we were driving through the cliffs that surrounded our small town, he asked me a strange question.
“How did these mountains get here?”
“They’ve been here for millions of years.” I was about to explain tectonic plate pressure, up-lift, and erosion, but I stopped. “I guess no one really knows.”
He lost the ability to read, and even to speak in coherent ideas, but he never did forget who I was or what a fork was for. His favorite meal was breakfast, and we went out often. We always went to the same restaurant, a place where they knew us well. I always ordered him the same thing: a Belgian waffle, covered with ice cream and chocolate sauce. He always poured maple syrup on the whole thing, and ate it all. I filled up just watching him eat.
I loved to see the shimmer in his eyes and the smile on his face when the waitress brought his plate to the table. He was indeed like a child. I thought of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” but I knew that unlike that old man, there would be no recovery. My father and I had not always seen eye to eye but he had done much for me and I was determined not to be a thankless child.
He had difficulty walking. One morning, his arm around my neck and my arm around his waist, I helped him from the car into the restaurant. The waitress, a woman in her fifties, younger than I was, hurried over to hold the door for us.
“You’re a good son,” she said to me as I helped my father shuffle to a table and sit with my assistance. “You’re a very good son.”
Now, years after my father died, I take some comfort in those words, wanting to believe he would have said them himself had he been able.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com