Funny, the difference a few hours can make. At 4:30 P.M., Frank Reynolds still has a sense of accomplishment and control. By five o’clock, he’s lost his job of twenty-two years. By six o’clock, he’s learned of his father’s Alzheimer’s disease. An hour-and-a-half is all it has taken to turn Frank’s world upside down, thrusting him and his family onto a path none of them could ever have expected.
The one certain thing now is change. For Frank, that means grappling with the painful implications of unemployment and his father’s illness. For Pap, it means facing the heartbreaking realities of the affliction that is stealing his mind. For Frank’s high-school-graduate son, Greg, it consists of finding his own path in life despite his father’s disapproval. And for Frank’s wife, Colleen, and daughter, Vickie, it involves surprisingly pleasant discoveries as the family, moving to Frank’s childhood town, creates a future amid the ghosts of Frank’s past.
On the outskirts of Peabody stands an imposing old mansion known as The Faded Flower. For many, it is both a beginning and an end. For the Reynoldses, it is the place where God’s grace will unfold, changing their understanding of what life is about–and for Frank, resurrecting faith, hope, and purpose in ways he’s never dreamed.
Frank eyed his father for signs of change, any proof of what Aunt Minnie had told them in her letter. Pap looked the same as he always did—smiling face, twinkling eyes, thin strands of gray hair adorning his otherwise bald top. Were those brown age spots just above his forehead? Frank couldn’t tell. He wore brown polyester trousers and a blue-and-white-checked flannel shirt. He’s starting to dress like an old man, Frank thought. Had he always, or was Frank only now noticing for the first time? “How are you feeling, Dad?” asked Frank.
“Never felt better.”
Frank looked at him surprised. “Really?”
“Well, I did feel better one weekend in 1947. Do you remember 1947, Minnie?”
Aunt Minnie was indignant. “You must be joking. I was a mere child.”
Pap turned his attention to Vicki. “You’re getting awfully big. You better stop growing, or you’ll have to marry a basketball player.”
Vicki grinned at him. Pap always said that to her. Frank had thought it charming before, but now he wondered if it was another symptom.
“Well, boy, how’s school? Last year, right?” Pap asked Greg. Then he suddenly pointed a finger at Greg’s goatee. “Are you growing a moustache?”
“Not really,” Greg replied, touching his chin self-consciously.
“Did you hear about the man who grew his beard so long that, one day when he was running for the bus, he tripped on it and ran all the way up to his chin?”
Greg laughed politely, but Frank knew that Greg had heard Pap tell that joke dozens of times before.
“Got enough money?” Pap asked and reached for his wallet.
“Don’t, Dad. We’re fine.”
“That’s not what I hear. I hear you got laid off. Isn’t that right? Though it might’ve been nice if you’d told me yourself.”
Frank shot a disapproving look to Aunt Minnie. She shrugged.
“How many years were you with that company?” Pap asked.
Pap shook his head. “Nope, that’s no good at all.”
“It’s good to have a career change at my age. I thought I might get on as the window wiper at the car wash.” Frank tried to speak lightly, but it sounded hard and dull.
“It’ll wrinkle your fingers,” Pap retorted. “And how’re you gonna afford to keep Greg in school?”
“Or buy me a belly-button ring?” Vicki interjected.
Pap started to fish through his wallet again. “Take some money.”
“Put it away. You think you’re going to pay his tuition with what you’ve got in there? A dollar and some old business cards won’t do it, Dad.”
Pap frowned at him. “You can’t stop me from giving my grandchildren something. How about money for Greg’s first date with one of those coeds? I’ve been watching college football games. They’re mighty cute.”
“That’s just TV,” said Greg. “All the girls I’ve seen have thick glasses, crooked teeth, and stringy hair.”
“You must be hanging around the English department.”
“Watch it, buster. I was an English major,” Aunt Minnie said.
“My point exactly,” Pap said. “You make sure to date while you’re in college. That’s how I met your grandmother. She was working in the library at the University and I was…”
Frank rolled his eyes. “Here we go again.” It was a story they’d all heard a million times and could repeat by heart.
This time, though, Pap stopped himself and looked confused. “I was doing something. What was I doing? Help me, Minnie. She was your sister.”
“How should I know? It was your first meeting,” she replied.
“You were sisters. I thought you talked about those sorts of things.”
“We only talked about the good-looking boys.”
“Get out of my house, you old bug.”
Aunt Minnie sat down in Pap’s favorite easy chair. “The only thing she said about you was that you kept annoying her at the library.”
“I kept making noise to get her attention.”
“You almost got her fired.”
“A small sacrifice for love.”
“Maybe for you.”
“You were just jealous because I didn’t ask you out.”
Aunt Minnie chuckled and shook her head. By now Greg and Vicki were sitting on the couch like spectators. They watched Pap and Minnie like they watched their favorite television shows.
Pap gestured with great flourish. “I stood on the library steps and sang her a song when she came out. It was a regular serenade on my ukulele. I’ll never forget it.”
“Neither will we. You bring it up every time we’re together,” Frank grumbled.
“And then I…” Pap stopped again, a shadow crossing his face. He clearly couldn’t remember what happened next. He didn’t know what to say. It was an awkward moment, and Frank looked to Aunt Minnie to help.
“The point your grandfather is trying to make,” she said to Greg, to recover the situation, “is that you should get yourself to college and meet a woman like your grandmother.”
Pap nodded. “That’s right. You don’t need an education when you have a woman like that. And if you can’t find one like her, then look for one like your Aunt Minnie here. In the English department.”
“That’s if I go to college,” Greg said with affected nonchalance.
“Now, Greg—” Frank began, but Colleen stepped in like a referee.
She spoke quickly. “I think that’s enough reminiscing for now.”
“Do you have a dog?” Vicki suddenly asked Pap.
“A dog? No, why?”
Colleen deftly fielded the question. “Because we were thinking of getting you one for your birthday. Which reminds me: happy birthday!” She hugged him and kissed him on the cheek.
“Is it my birthday? I forgot,” Pap said. “Guess it’s ’cause there were no presents around to remind me.”
Colleen patted him on the arm. “Be patient.”
“Did you all eat? Are you hungry? I made some stew,” said Pap, with a brisk rubbing of his hands.
“We had a big breakfast,” Frank told him.
Pap looked at his watch. “But it’s 2:15. You must be starving.”
“It’s ten ’til twelve,” Greg said.
“Don’t argue with me. It’ll only take a minute to warm up.” Pap hustled off to the kitchen.
“Even less if you use that watch,” Greg declared after him.
“His watch has been stopped at 2:15 for three weeks,” Minnie informed them quietly.
Vicki leaned to her mother and said, “I hope he isn’t going to make the stew out of that dog food.”
Gesturing to Aunt Minnie, Frank headed for the front porch. Colleen followed. A moment later, Aunt Minnie stepped out to join them. Though the sun was out, it was cool and Frank shoved his hands into his pockets. The women hugged themselves.
“Well?” Aunt Minnie asked.
“He looks good,” Colleen said, pleased. “The way you talked on the phone, I expected—”
Minnie held up a hand and double-checked to make sure Pap was still in the kitchen. “We went to the doctor’s this morning. That’s why we were late.”
“No. This was a specialist Dr. Janssen wanted Pap to see. Over in Brownsville.” Aunt Minnie looked out towards the street and for a moment Frank saw the age in her face. “It was all I could do to get him there. Finally I had to tell him we were going so that I could get a checkup.”
“So what happened?” Frank asked.
“He confirmed what Dr. Janssen said. Your father has Alzheimer’s disease. And it’s getting worse all the time.”
“How is it getting worse? Your letter didn’t have a lot of details except that he fell down the stairs and keeps losing things.”
“It’s nothing big, Frank. It’s just … a lot of little things like I told you on the phone.”
“What ‘little things’?” Frank asked, checking his volume. “I didn’t think falling down the stairs was a ‘little thing.’ What other kinds of little things are there? Did he get hit by a truck? Maybe he fell asleep underneath a moving bulldozer?”
“Relax, Frank,” Colleen said.
Aunt Minnie sighed. She didn’t seem to know where to begin. “Did you notice his shoes?”
“He was wearing slip-ons,” Colleen remembered.
Frank looked surprised. His father hated slip-ons. He called them “sissy-shoes.” Frank had bought him a pair for Christmas one year, and as far as he knew Pap had never worn them. He searched Minnie’s face for answers.
Minnie swallowed hard and said in a soft voice that trembled ever so slightly, “One afternoon a couple of weeks ago I came over, and he was sitting here. Just sitting. He looked like he’d been crying. At first I thought he’d been thinking about Martha … he’s been doing that a lot lately. Reminiscing a lot about your mother. I guess that’s one of the things that happens. With Alzheimer’s, I mean. People get more emotional than they used to be. But he wasn’t crying about your mother. Not this time, at least. He was crying because he’d forgotten how to tie his shoes.”
Frank was stunned. Colleen lowered her head.
Minnie wiped her nose with a tissue she’d retrieved from a pocket. “One morning in August, Bill McKendricks found your dad out front in his bathrobe trying to shovel snow off the driveway. Needless to say, it caused quite a stir around here.”
“Oh, great.” Frank shook his head and paced around the porch.
“I caught him one morning as he was heading out the door for work,” Minnie went on.
“He was wearing a pair of overalls and his old miner’s cap. He was headed for the mines.”
Colleen sat down on the glider. It made rusty noises at her.
Frank scrubbed his chin as he tried to sort through what Minnie was saying. “But is that enough to have him put in a home?” he eventually asked. “Why does he need care?”
Minnie leveled her gaze at Frank. “Apart from doing something dangerous, or hurting himself, he’s also having accidents.”
“Accidents?” Frank asked.
“You mean accidents,” Colleen said.
Minnie nodded. “He’s losing control of his body.”
Frank leaned against the porch rail. My father is in diapers, he thought.
“His forgetfulness is chronic,” Minnie said. “One evening I came around to find he hadn’t eaten all day. He insisted he had, but I could tell he hadn’t. When I tried to fix him something, he kept protesting that he’d eaten just a few minutes ago, and I knew full well that he was wrong. Then after I’d fed him and cleared the plates away, he wanted to know when it was time to eat because he was starving.”
“This must be awful for you,” Colleen said softly. “You should have told us sooner.”
“I didn’t know what to say,” Aunt Minnie replied, tears coming to her eyes. “Everything was spread out over time, so I didn’t think it was anything but forgetfulness and confusion. The kind we all get at this age. But now I feel terrible because I can’t take care of him. Not the way he needs. And there’re the other feelings I get. Feelings I’m ashamed of.”
“What kind of feelings?”
“Hurt, mostly. He accused me of stealing his pen. It wasn’t even a special pen, just something he’d picked up at the bank. But he couldn’t find it, and he called me in a rage. He said I was a thief. I told him I didn’t have his pen, that he’d probably misplaced it, but then he called me a liar and hung up. I almost stopped speaking to him altogether for that. But then it dawned on me what was happening. That’s when I insisted he go to Dr. Janssen.” She sniffled and blew her nose.
Vicki appeared at the screen door, her face a mosaic through the mesh. “You better come in.”
There was a loud rumbling coming from the kitchen. When Frank walked in, he saw Pap standing at the sink. The cupboard doors beneath it were open, and Pap was kicking at the pipes. Greg was sitting on a chair rubbing his foot. He gave Frank a helpless look.
“What in the world—,” Frank began to say.
“It’s all right,” Pap said as he continued to jab his foot into the cupboard. “It’s the pipes under the sink. They vibrate and make a racket, and you have to kick them.”
“I tried,” Greg said, still rubbing his foot.
“You’ve gotta do it a certain way,” Pap admonished him. He gave the sink one last kick, and the pipes went quiet. He turned to Greg. “Are you gonna be all right?”
Greg wiggled his foot around. “I think it’ll live.”
“You should get those pipes fixed, Dad.”
“I’m used to them.” He waved everyone to the kitchen table. “Everybody sit down, eat some stew.”
Aunt Minnie looked at the clock above the sink. “I can’t stay. I’ve got to run.”
“Why? What’s the rush?” He looked at his watch. “It’s only 2:15.”
“I’m getting you a new watch, Dad.”
“I don’t need a new watch, this one works fine. Why are you running off, Minnie?”
“Rose Benson asked me to drive her to the hairdresser’s.”
“The hairdresser! Again?” Pap protested. “I swear, she’s got it a different color every time I see her. I’m gonna start calling her ‘Technicolor.’”
Minnie picked up her coat and put it on. “Well, she isn’t Technicolor now. She’s simply black-and-white. She got caught in one of those automatic sprinkler systems at her son’s house, and it rinsed all the color out.”
Pap grunted. “I don’t know why women fuss with their hair so much. They should leave the color alone. Leave it natural, the way God intended. Who cares if it gets gray? I don’t. The whitened hair of the elderly is a crown, isn’t that what the Bible says?”
“I don’t know,” Minnie replied. “I wasn’t there when it was written.”
“Well, if it doesn’t, it should say that,” Pap insisted. “I’m not ashamed of being old. Seventy-five years is something to be proud of. Don’t you think?”
Everyone mumbled their agreements. Frank watched his father curiously. Something was happening that he hadn’t seen in years.
Pap’s voice got darker and angrier as his face turned red. “You tell those people at the church I said that, too. There’s nothing wrong with being old. Tell me I’m too old to teach my class. Tell me I can’t do it anymore. I can do it. I’ve been a good Sunday school teacher. Over fifty years at that church, teaching those kids, and now they say I can’t—” Pap suddenly stopped himself. He looked at each one of them. “What are you gawking at?” He poked a threatening finger at Greg. “Eat your stew!”
“Sorry, Pap.” Greg turned to the table and started to dish out the stew. Vicki, her eyes never leaving her grandfather, also sat down and pulled a bowl towards her.
“What’s all this?” Frank asked Minnie quietly.
Minnie shook her head. “The elders at the church asked him to quit teaching his Sunday school class. It’s … he hasn’t …”
“Don’t talk about me like I’m not here,” Pap said.
Minnie walked over to Pap and touched his arm gently. “Don’t worry about it, Walter. You’ve been a good teacher. Bob Simpson said he became a preacher because of your teaching, and he’s somewhere in Africa as a missionary. And who knows who else has …” She seemed lost for words. “None of us will know the kind of influence you’ve had until we gather in heaven, but … well, don’t worry about it. The folks at the church don’t mean anything by it.”
Pap stood pouting with his arms folded across his chest. “So I lose my place and ramble a bit. Younger folks do it and no one thinks anything of it.” He lapsed into a brooding silence.
Aunt Minnie looked at Frank and Colleen with a sympathetic expression, and then she leaned over Greg and whispered, “It’s not him. Just forget about it.”
Greg nodded. Minnie gave Pap a quick kiss on the cheek and walked out.
They all sat down to a silence thicker than Pap’s stew.
Frank was relieved that it didn’t taste like dog food.
Copyrighted by Paul McCusker
all rights reserved