I stared at the rack of enamel buttoned cardigans, hands numb, relaxed chinos everywhere. Nothing made sense. I looked around confused. Where was I? Was this…? Yes. Right. I was so lost, I walked into a Talbot’s.
I had just left my father at a Memory Care Center and I felt pretty crummy. Not crummier than the place I’d had to leave him at two months prior, but crummy none the less. We’d sat in the common room, people in wheelchairs were being spoon fed in rotation by a caregiver. A woman named Kathy sat at our table. She had big fish eyes and a yellow sweater and a flapsack over her walker in a homemade fabric that had Elvis all over it. Another attendant, a woman in her twenties with a faded tattoo over her eyebrow sat with us. Whatever was over the eyebrow was in the process of removal. Around her wrist, a delicate black rosary dripped on to her hand that my eyes kept returning to. Any illustration of faith was comforting in this liminal rec room off the 405. My dad didn’t say much. I tried not to micro manage but really got into it with Kathy about Elvis hoping the vibe could feel fun. I rambled about “King Creole,” my favorite Elvis movie. Going as far as to belt out “crawwwwwwwwfish.” Kathy frowned. I stopped. I overtry in these situations. Memory Care Center cheerleader. It’s awful. But it is better than the silence.
My dad ate slowly, elongating the time I had to stress out about leaving him there. The truth is, I don’t want to leave him anywhere. Ever. But a lot of him has left us at this point and we don’t have a choice. He gets angry, red faced, violent words he never used in my childhood spew. Last week on the front porch he told my brother and I that he’d cut our fingers off and feed em to us like in Viet Nam. We looked at each other and stifled a laugh; that is where we are. Lewy Body Dementia with a lifelong PTSD chaser. Memory Care people call it LBD. Which used to mean Little Black Dress to me. Halter, strapless, now extra protein in the brain that results in hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia.
He’d been my favorite person to talk to on any given Sunday. The man who made me laugh with wordplay and feel safe with his emotional IQ. But now, he needed full-time attention, twenty four hour tenderness from a professional equipped to not think about the finger eating comment for the next week/lifetime. He got kicked out of the first memory care home we’d placed him in after he lobbed a punch at his 94 year old roommate which I could only imagine looked like slow motion fighting. We were now here. Praying he wouldn’t have “behaviors.” Praying he was drugged properly. That is the objective now: drug him into a hazy soup of non aggressive jibber jabber. Soup in a fleece lined corduroy coat. No wonder I was looking for spirit in the hands of strangers.
Half of his plate eaten, he shook his head no as I spooned another bit of rice. We got up, took another walk around the empty grounds. When I left I told him I’d see him next week. He looked at me confused. On the way out I grabbed Lisa, the activities director and tried not to cry and told her he likes coloring and crafts. Can he have coloring and crafts? A few people were sitting at a table where she had unpacked some yarn. No one knows what to do with this yarn and I’m sure Lisa has a plan but I feel like a criminal leaving him there.
I promised myself I would move him in and go home. But away from the dribbly food, I had an appetite and remembered there was at Wahoo’s in Crystal Court. In high school, we would pile into a Toyota Forerunner and go to the original one on Placentia in Costa Mesa for lunch. Surf stickers and ahi rice felt like home. These were things I knew. This is mahi mahi, this is a guy grinding in Vans. Here is my father, buttoning a flannel as he leaves to run the scoreboard at the high school football game. Waving at me from the box while I grit my teeth through a cheer dance. Never sure why I was doing it, probably because of his wave. Here, here is a Volcom poster from the Pink Is Punk Party you went to senior year. Here. Here is salsa. Here is a fountain soda. Here, hear is a Prussian march cranked up in Dad’s Volvo. He got the collection at the car wash. “Best music and best birthday cards are from the car wash,” he said with whimsical authority. An attorney in child protective services, I’d imagined the brassy insanity strengthened him to go prosecute bad guys. Years later he told me a story about threatening a father on the phone and knowing it was time to change departments. That it was the saddest he had ever been to me. I eat my salad, but I don’t want to go home.
I, in fact, want to wander around Crystal Court. So I do. Every person I look at I want to touch. I want to tell them we are all going to disappear one day, as if they don’t know. That our honeycomb brains are going to crumble into fractured poorly edited movies playing in a loop while we sit at tables with strangers, lash out at invisible enemies, and shit in our pants. So buy something pretty while the show still makes sense and the undercarriage is rosy. I want to tell them I love them and their dumb sunglasses on their heads, and their self important conversations, I want to tell them I love all of it. I look at them lost. Sensitive as a sunburn, searching for something familiar, like my father. I could go home. Instead, I walked into Talbot’s. No LBDs of either variety here.
I had never stepped inside this store but there was a fair aisle sweater in the window that evoked pumpkin patches and PTA meetings and I liked it. I wandered around and felt shoppers and salespeople look at me, in a backless pencil skirted dress. Everyone in here might be pro-life but I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t know why. I just didn’t want to stop being in an in between place between my dad and my own life. I picked up a striped sweater that looked preserved from Annette Funicello’s Mickey Mouse Club wardrobe rack. A woman escorted me into a dressing room. I was tired from the night before but there’s something so soothing to me about a dressing room transformation. Different woman, different pain. Start with different top. Who am I now? Does me dress like the Mickey Mouse Club? Does me have no dad anymore?
The mirror said no sweater. As for dad, you had a feral thug who would be horrified that he was no longer splashed in Aramis cologne making the whole room laugh. At the first home, the ratio of women to men was extreme and he referred to it as “beaver island.” I appreciated the edgier material, but it wasn’t really him. The way the sweater wasn’t really me. What was I doing in this store?
I left and walked around, but for some reason, I made a freaking second trip into Talbot’s because the fall fantasy in the window called to me, again. This time I went for it, plus a weird MLFY cowl neck situation and why not, jeggings. A different woman intercepted me. Grayish shoulder length hair, not much make up, understated Talbot-y outfit. She put me in the dressing room and when I came out she stood there and gasped, “no one has ever made that sweater look sexy!” Looks like you just sold yourself a sweater, lady. Oh nooooo…I demured. She shook her head. I asked if she’d give her opinion on the other color. Absolutely, she nodded. I didn’t know this, but what I needed in that moment after leaving my dad, was laser sharp loving attention. Even if it was for mom knits. I showed her the other color, something in her face was so earnest, so heartfelt, I didn’t even care about figuring out the accuracy, her love had me by the shorthairs. It didn’t feel like selling love. It felt like kindness. Like pleasure. I tried on the fair aisle from the window. She shook her head, “it is also absolutely adorable!” We grinned, two basic lunatics in a Talbots. I was getting FREAKING SWEATERS. She looked around, made sure the coast was clear, and said, “I have a forty percent off coupon at the front. You were supposed to get it mailed, but I have one you can use.” I gasped. GET THE F OUT. Okay. We were getting jeggings and sweaters and looking towards a cozy future that hasn’t happened where I will be in knits and cuddled or meeting for a spicey cider thing not being up at 4 am making lists of VA hospitals with psych wards! I had crossed the rubicon into Talbot’s! Transformation complete!
She said, “wait, I have a Christmas one too!”
“What is your name?”
“Karen!” For real. Wow.
“Oh god, Karen,” I screamed at my new best friend, Karen from Talbots-“Bring me the Christmas one!!!!!!” This time last year I was wasting energy on cashmere to go out with a producer in Venice. But what my soul needed now, was the realest. What I needed was forty percent off coupons with Karen.
By the time I got up to the register (I passed on the Christmas one, only in petite it read real Susie Chapstick), I felt so easy with her that I had to say it:
“Karen, I was having a really rough day and this was just so lovely. Thank you.” She told me if I needed to return anything she’s always here. I think I could be here next week. This could be my thing. Dad. Then Talbots. In a month I’ll look like Nancy Reagan and the Orange County metamorphosis will be complete.
“Today was hard,” I continued, embarrassed but unable to stop. Recently someone (yes, a therapist) had told me my ‘work’ was to feel more and love myself for all those feelings (ugh). So here I was, tenderness and gratitude flying. I was on the autobahn of feelings, going a million miles an hour. It felt out of control, like I could crash, but I was going to do what I was told. Feel them, love myself for it, strangers in a mall be damned. “I dropped my dad off at a new memory care center so, thank you for this.” Just saying it choked me up. And before I uttered another word, Karen stopped what she was doing, looked me in the eye and said, “It is the hardest. I had to drop my mother off two years ago. She was so violent she threw a chair through a plate glass window at the other home and then she got kicked out.”
“My dad got kicked out!”
“We had to put her in a psych ward until we could a find a place in Cerritos. It was terrible. She had dementia. Brought on by alcoholism.” She said it with the same authenticity that had me buying a cowl neck. I felt compelled to share my personal theory. “I think agent orange!” I practically shouted.
We both nodded together.
“It is so hard,” she said. “I am so so so sorry.”
There was a force field between us as she looked at me from across the counter. She had packed my items, but the moment was easy. It was honest and painful, but easy.
“My mom died last year,” she said.
She shook her head. There was relief. I understood. This grieving, a water torture of sorts. Each shift in cognition, a drop on the forehead. The anxiety of anticipating which part will go next. Eroding my bearings, which led me to this mall. She told me about her hairdresser’s father who had LBD and wanted assisted suicide. I had been listening to my dad say he wanted to die for the past month. But as long as he could blink there’d be no assisting, my selfishness a surprise.
I almost walked away without the bag. I forgot that I was shopping. The woman at the other register next gave me an ‘are you okay?’ look. I recalibrated. Karen handed it to me. Yes. No. I didn’t know. But I was less lost than when I walked in.