“How about Crittenden Lane, Pop?” I ask, but by now I’ve lost hope.
We’re driving aimlessly over the rolling hills on Route 23 in northwestern New Jersey looking for some sign that my Pop might recognize. But we may as well be wandering through a dark cave with a flashlight whose batteries are on their last few blips, the bulb flickering with increasing intermittency.
“Does that name mean anything to you, Pop?” I ask again. “Does it ring any bells?”
The purpose of our journey had seemed straightforward enough when we’d set out earlier this morning. My Pop and I were going to visit the gravesite of his kid brother, Sam, who is buried somewhere within a twenty-mile radius of our present location at the intersection of Route 23 and Crittenden Lane. At least that’s my hope. For all I really know, though, we’re in the wrong county entirely.
I slow my car to a crawl as we approach the turnoff, giving him time to process my question and provide some sort of response. Instead, there’s silence.
I glance over to the passenger seat. He’s sleeping. His eyelids flutter with visions of who knows what. Some reimagining of a childhood memory, perhaps.
The side of his face is speckled with liver spots, as are the backs of his hands, which rest limply in his lap. He wears a light blue button-down shirt tucked into khaki shorts, which are pleated and bunched around his hips, poorly concealing the adult diaper he wears anytime he leaves home. From that diaper emanates the unmistakable smell of human waste.
“I need your help,” I say with slightly more force. He stirs but doesn’t wake up. I pull over to the side of the road and put the car in park. I exhale, letting the stream of breath flutter my lips as it passes. A putter of exasperation.
I’d heard it loud and clear, the evacuation of the bowels, its wetness muffled only slightly by the cotton filling of the adult undergarment and the fabric seating of my 2014 Toyota Avalon. Neither of us mentioned it – the sound – he and I too proud and too embarrassed, respectively, to do so.
I’d prayed that it had been nothing more than a fart. Yet here the smell lingered a full hour later, despite all four windows being wide open and the fans in the dashboard going full blast. Now, with the car no longer moving, it mixes strongly with the scent of talcum powder and the aftershave he’d used his entire life. I wish Lucille were here.
A proud man. A respected member of the community. A renowned doctor. That’s who my father had been his whole life. Now he sits in his own filth, diminished in size and status, an old man unable to remember the directions to his brother’s grave.
Naturally, it had fallen to me to move home and take care of him when he was diagnosed with non-Alzheimer’s dementia a year ago. There was no way he was going to any sort of facility. “You’re not putting me in one of those places,” he’d made clear. My brother, Ben, couldn’t do it, obviously. He was far too busy. He’d followed in Pop’s footsteps, just as Pop had hoped we both would. He’s a cardiologist in Los Angeles. He has patients who need him, surgeries to arrange, treatments to prescribe. That sort of thing.
I, on the other hand, had a flailing (or failing) “career” as a writer in New York. My most recent contract had been for a three-thousand-word profile of a hedge fund manager turned goat farmer, for which I’d been paid the grand sum of $1,200, half what was due monthly on my rent-stabilized one-bedroom. I didn’t care for the guy, the goat farmer, and that had come through too clearly for the magazine editor’s taste. In the end, the article had been cut in its entirety. "It's not too late to go to medical school," Pop liked to tell me when we used to talk sometimes on the phone, back when he remembered who I was.
"But then how would I fulfill my role as the screwup in the family?" was how I liked to respond. That would usually end the conversation, which was fine with me.
Moving home seemed like a better option than eviction, and far better than asking Pop for money. We still don't talk much, even now that I’m back in my childhood bedroom. That hasn’t changed. Mostly, he watches TV.
Lucille, the Jamaican nurse, comes over every day from 10 a.m. until about 6 p.m. She makes sure he showers, cleans him after he uses the bathroom, makes sure there's food on the table. I like her. Before we left the house, she gave me a bag with a change of clothes and a couple of spare diapers for Pop. "Just in case," she'd said, pressing the bag into my hands.
I never met Sam, my would-be uncle. He died when Pop was still a young boy. Some rare childhood illness with a name that had been far too long and foreign for me to remember. Pop didn’t say much about him much when Ben and I were growing up, except that he was a sweet kid, a wanderer, a dreamer. He’d once shown me a few yellowing pages with Sam’s poetry written in careful cursive letters. During recent weeks, though, Pop had started reminiscing. He talked about adventures in the woods and fishing excursions in the farm town where he and Sam had lived as boys.
Then a couple days ago, while we were watching television, he asked to visit Sam’s grave.
Pop swore that he remembered where the graveyard was. “I’ve been there a thousand times!” he proclaimed confidently when I pressed for more information, asking him for a name of the funeral home or a crossroads that I might have been able to put into my phone GPS. I was sitting across from him in the heavy, overstuffed leather chair in the living room filled with the photos and bric-a-brac of my childhood.
The television was on too loud.
“Mind if I make this a little quieter?” I asked, nearly shouting to be heard. I picked up the remote control and turned the volume down without waiting for him to reply.
“I can’t hear it, Ben.”
“It’s Jake, Pop.” I said. “Ben’s in California, remember? He came out to visit you about a month ago. We all went to the seafood restaurant you like?”
I pretended to turn the television volume up, making a show of pointing the remote at the television and exaggeratedly miming the push of a button.
“I know who you are,” he responded sharply, as though he hadn’t called me by my brother’s name.
He had on a bathrobe that revealed his upper thighs. The skin was like tracing paper – delicate and translucent – almost completely devoid of hair. Blue veins meandered in rivulets and gathered in deltas. His gaze remained firmly fixed on the television, which was now playing an advertisement for low-cost reverse mortgages.
“Ben’s a doctor now, right?”
“Yeah, Pop. He’s a doctor.”
“That’s great. I’m really proud of him.”
I made a mental note that he didn’t say anything about me. We allowed the inane chatter from the television to fill the silent spaces before returning the conversation to its starting point.
“Is there maybe someone who could give us the name of the cemetery?”
“The cemetery, Pop? Where Sam is buried? We were just talking about us visiting. Is there anyone who I could call?”
“There’s no need for that, Jake. I know where it is.” He pauses. “I’ve been there a thousand times,” he says again. Perhaps it was the fact that he referred to me by the correct name that inspired me to take the leap of faith.
“Okay then, Pop. We’ll go tomorrow. How’s that sound?”
“Uh, huh,” he mutters. And then, distractedly, “that sounds good.” I wondered whether he had forgotten again what we were talking about. “Turn it up, would you? I can’t hear the damn thing.”
I'd pointed the remote again and this time pressed the volume button.
On the shoulder of Route 23, I lean across the center console of my Avalon and put my hand on his shoulder. “Wake up, Pop,” I say loudly and begin to gently shake him.
“Get your hands off of me!” His voice is raspy, hot air passing over a lethargic, desiccated tongue. I’ve startled him. His eyes are wild when he looks at me, the panic of unrecognition, of the mind grasping for a toehold.
“Pop, you’re okay,” I say, trying to calm him. “Take a deep breath. You fell asleep. We’re pulled over on the side of the road.” He doesn’t say anything. I close my eyes and let my grip on the steering wheel slacken until my hands drop into my lap. “We’re on our way to visit the cemetery, Pop. Remember? You said you knew where it was.” I open my eyes. Surrounding us is thick forest, the branches showing the first bareness of the coming winter. Beyond, I can just make out the glint of the afternoon sun reflecting off the surface of what looks like a mountain lake.
He doesn’t speak, but I can hear his breaths becoming less shallow, more regular.
“It’s beautiful out here,” I say at last. “I haven’t been in a decade. Maybe more. I’d forgotten how pretty it is.”
Pop turns his gaze to the open window. “Remember that fishing spot we used to go to all the time? The one with all the yellow perch and the striped bass. You once caught one that was this long.” He holds his hands up about a foot apart. “Biggest one we’d ever seen. We brought it home to mother, and she cooked it for us for dinner.”
I let the question go unanswered.
“Oh, you remember. We were kids. I was probably about eleven. That would make you eight or so.”
My eyes wander to the road sign again, regulation-sized reflective black lettering on a white and green background.
“I think you’re confused, Pop.” I sigh. "I’m going to turn around. We’re completely lost. I’m taking you home.”
“Crittenden Lane,” he says suddenly. The words are crisp and sharp. He’s pointing to the sign.
“What about it?”
“Crittenden Lane, Sam. It’s where the fishing pond is. The one we used to go to.”
I have no idea whether it’s true, what he’s saying, but I want to believe that it is. I look over at my father and meet his gaze. A broad smile has spread across his face. It’s the first one I’ve seen in a long time.
"Been there a thousand times," he says.
“Yeah, I remember, Andy,” I say, calling him by his first name. “The one where I caught that yellow perch?” I hold my hands aloft and space them about a foot apart.
He nods and chuckles. “I remember that like it was yesterday.” He is still looking directly at me. He sighs.
“You grew up, Sam,” he says. “Look at us. Grown men. How the hell did that happen?”
“I don’t know, Andy. Time, I guess.” I look at my own hands, the deep creases in the palms and in the knuckles.
“I’m so glad you got over that lymphoma. You had us terrified, Sam. I thought I was going to lose you.” He pauses before saying, “you’re why I became a doctor, you know.”
I hesitate, not sure how to proceed. He continues.
“I’ve got two boys now. I don’t think you’ve met them. Ben and Jake.”
“Do they make you happy?”
“They do." He pauses, and then says, "come to think of it, Jake reminds me of you. You’d get along with him. He’s a dreamer, like you. A writer. I was always jealous of that. I never told you. I think I was too proud to admit it."
My throat tightens and I look away. Off the exit is a rest area with a gas station and a small convenience store. There should be a bathroom there that we can use to change and clean up.
“Take the turn, Sam,” Pop says. He points again at the sign. “Let’s go to the pond. What do you say? We don’t have our fishing rods, but we can just sit and talk and enjoy the view.”
“Sure, Pop. That sounds nice.”