Since my mother’s passing last year, my father has remained adamant about staying on in their home. He has been there for sixty years; his entire life is contained there. But the house is too big, too demanding and much too expensive to maintain. There are too many stairs for a ninety-year-old man to climb every day. His family and friends can’t convince him that he now needs to move to an assisted living community for his own safety and well-being. He is entrenched in the house, steeled to defend his independence. “You fall down, Dad, and injure yourself,” I remind him on the phone daily, “then you end up in the hospital and I have to drive down and take care of you.” “I’m not going to fall down again,” he assures me. “That was just a one-time accident.” “Yeah,” I reply, “one time too many.” “I don’t need your help,” he lashes out. “I’ve been taking care of myself since I was five years old.” “OK, Pops, have it your way. Just be careful.”
I hire a caregiver, Sophia, to come in for four hours a day. She does all the domestic work and shopping. In the evening, after dinner, he lies down on his sofa and watches TV. After a few minutes he falls asleep. Then he wakes up and goes to bed. Out of twenty-four hours, he probably sleeps about sixteen. I call him twice a day from Quebec. He tells me he doesn’t go out much anymore, especially in the cold winter weather. He has no meat left on his bones, no muscle, no protective padding. Every fall, every little bump results in terrible damage. Much of his body is black and blue from even the slightest encounters with door frames, furniture and other benign objects. Simple daily routines have become potentially dangerous actions for him. “Use your cane and your walker,” I urge him. “You don’t want to end up back in the hospital.”
He tells me he has discovered a new pastime: shopping from mail order catalogues. “These catalogues are terrific,” he exclaims. “I’m ordering all kinds of things.” “Sounds great,” I say. I go online to see the catalogues for myself. One is called Heartland America. Just a minute of perusing the eclectic array of medicine-show gizmos and trinkets, man-made leather footwear, clothing designed by Chairman Mao’s tailor, ill-conceived housewares and specious miracle cures is enough to make my heart sink. There is not a single item offered that anyone in their right mind would purchase. I see the “revolutionary” Fat Freezer, guaranteed to take off 20% of your body fat; the combination stun gun/flashlight/hunting knife; the recording of James Earl Jones reading the entire Old and New Testaments; the bio-energizer spa that releases harmful toxins from your body; collectable statues of the saints made of holy clay from the Jordan River; portable tanning salons; dog bark eliminators, laser brushes, holistic hearing aids, dream catchers, sleep masks that massage the eye lids—a phantasmagoria of products to dazzle those whose minds are steadily slipping further and further away from reality, whose bodies are frail and whose pocket books are tight. I turn off the computer. I’ve seen enough.
My father began his shopping spree in the fashion department. He ordered jackets, sweaters, shirts, trousers and shoes. In his new wardrobe he looks like a mummy that has been dressed up for a big night of trick-or-treating. The shapeless clothing hangs off his black and blue skeletal physique like oversized grain sacks. The colors are blinding: vibrant greens, purples, reds and yellows. He thinks he looks fine. From there, he set his eye on this season’s Elders Gizmo Collection: glow-in-the-dark toilet seats, electric blankets that play soothing muzak favourites, talking atomic-powered watches, 3D eyeglasses that restore vision, wallets that say “I’m here, I’m here” every minute from their hiding places. Then there are all the miracle ointments, salves, oils, creams, capsules, suppositories and lotions that restore youth and vigour to bodies barely able to move. He has shelves of these. In our daily phone talks he keeps me up to date on his purchases. I say, “Didn’t you buy a pair of black plastic shoes last week, Dad?” “No, those were brown,” he replies. He doesn’t remember. Now he has three pairs of new black plastic shoes. Sophia puts his shoes and clothing away in the closet where they belong, but he forgets they are there. Then he forgets he has a closet. I need to get him a glow-in-the-dark sign for the bedroom closet door that reads: Look in here before buying any new clothing. “I just bought a new frying pan that turns colour when it’s hot. You’ve never seen anything like this before,” he recently told me. “Probably not,” I reply. “Don’t worry, I got one for you too,” he informs me. “You’ll love it,” he says.
Right now he is focused on the miracle cure magnetic body wraps, pads and belts. These products are Velcro-tightened and infuse the body with magnetic energy that straightens the spines of hunchbacks, eliminates crippling arthritis and restores muscular strength and balance. My father has them for his arms and legs, back and neck. They are lying all over the house. He wears one for a day or two and complains that he doesn’t feel any better. I tell him that he has to be patient, give them a few weeks and then see. I explain that if they do anything at all, the improvement will probably be gradual and subtle. “No, no, no,” he retorts. “These magnets are powerful, they really work.” “OK, Pops,” I concede. “Good luck with them.” Yesterday he managed to get all of the magnetic wraps strapped on for maximum impact. He had Sophia help him. He walked back and forth letting the magnets do their thing on his emaciated, ninety-year-old body. Then Sophia went home. Sometime later, as he was passing in front of his fridge in the tiny kitchen, the combined magnetic force from all the wraps was so great he was sucked up against the door, wham, and stuck to it, unable to free himself. No strength. Sophia was gone. All the windows were closed and no one would be coming by. He was helpless, a victim of magnetic overdosing. He hung there by the power of the magnets all evening and all night in his purple trousers, lime green sweater and black plastic shoes until Sophia arrived the next morning to pry him off and revive him. Sophia is middle-aged and a devout Catholic from the Philippines. She told me on the phone that she had screamed in shock when she found him on the fridge door, his head hanging down and his arms and legs spread out just like Jesus on the cross and got down on her knees and began to pray. All her life she had worshipped before images of the crucifixion, now here was the real thing right before her. For weeks, she told me, my father had been having visions of people dressed in robes, holding crosses and walking through the walls of the house, but she had never heard of a saint being crucified in their own kitchen before. As she knelt there praying, he suddenly raised his head and began crooning “My Blue Heaven,” and she just about fainted from fright. The poor woman gathered herself together and dialed 911. She called me as the paramedics were prying him off the fridge. I listened carefully, poured a stiff Bushmills and packed a bag for another journey south.
Jeff Shucard was born in Paterson, New Jersey. He attended the Minneapolis School of Art and Franconia College. After a decade of foreign travel, he settled in Vancouver for twenty years and worked in education and music. He lives in Nanaimo.