BY NORAH WAKULA
Copyright is held by the author.
THE RED River was rising along with my anxiety. News reports predicted the river would crest over the weekend. It was my monthly trip home to look in on my parents but I wasn’t going home, not exactly. The house I’d grown up in had been closed up, indefinitely. Instead, I would stay with my friend Diane who advised: bring rubber boots.
I hadn’t worn rubber boots since I was a kid.
I wanted just the right ones — no graffiti-design, no pink ones with umbrellas, no multi-coloured balloons. Definitely not black. I scoured shops in the downtown, the uptown. I combed the inner-city malls and Chinatown until I found them — egg-yolk yellow ones with green trim. They might have been youthful for a woman my age, midway between my 50th and 60th year, but I wanted them to be fun.
I smiled just slipping them on. Perhaps seeing me in the yellow rubber boots would brighten my father’s spirit and when I walked in wearing them, I would add colour to the cheerless corridors of the nursing home where he now lived. Yellow was the colour my father liked to dress me in when I was a child. By wearing them, maybe I could be my daddy’s little girl again.
The changes hadn’t come quickly. My mother had been complaining about his memory for years but I’d dismissed her concern. He’s just getting old, I thought. In my 50s, my memory wasn’t as reliable as it had once been.
But two years earlier, when I’d brought my husband home to Winnipeg to meet my parents, I’d realized these weren’t simply idle complaints.
My father had picked us up at the airport, as he always did when I made my infrequent visits home. On our way to the house, a road repair detour confused him. It was as though my competent Cooperesque father had been commandeered by a frightened child. Between gasps for breath, he shouted, “Which way do I go?”
“It’s clearly marked, Dad. Just follow the signs,” I said from the back seat. At every corner, instead of following the signs my father turned in the opposite direction. Who was this man behind the wheel of my father’s car?
My father had lived in Winnipeg since 1948, one year shy of 60 years, the year he and my mother immigrated to Canada as refugees from Eastern Europe after the Second World War. Ten of those years, he drove cab. My father knew how to get to the airport from any neighbourhood in the city, and he certainly knew the route to the home where he’d lived the last 49 years. John thought his confusion cute and endearing, never having met him before, but I knew something was wrong.
My father played the good host — fresh coffee in the morning, cups always refilled. He carefully measured the coffee to water ratio, and in retrospect, it did take a bit of time, but he had always been meticulous, exact. Exact about everything he did.
He took a liking to John immediately, perhaps because someone finally had the good sense to marry his princess, if now a little ragged at the edges. John had barely settled into the plastic lawn chair on the back patio when my father handed him an antiquated string weed trimmer.
“Johnny, the string’s come off the spool and darned if I can get it back on again,” he said in his Ukrainian-accented English. “Can you fix it?”
When I was young, I might have taken this as a test of John’s manliness, his worthiness to have me as his bride, but my dad was earnestly asking for John’s assistance. Despite three missing fingers — severed by a lathe during an air raid — it wasn’t dexterity he lacked but rather the logic of the re-stringing. My father was a born Mr. Fix-it. Toasters, radios and hairdryers he repaired in no time. Give him some nails, a hammer, and a couple of good boards, and my dad could build just about anything. I’d never heard him ask anyone for help.
John looked it over. With one wrap this way, and another in the opposite direction, he fixed the trimmer and handed it back to my dad.
“N’ yah! That easy?” he said as he started to futz with it, attempting to pull it apart again.
“Maybe we should just put it away, Dad,” I said as I eased the trimmer from his hand.
In less than two years, my father changed from an independent man taking care of his home to a man who no longer remembered how to tie up the laces on his shoes. He often forgot which step came first when puzzling over how to settle down into a chair. And was continually perplexed by little slips of paper that seemed to appear and disappear from between his fingers. “See, Eleanor, don’t you see it? The receipt. It was here and now it’s gone.”
I picked up the rental car, and as I drove over the bridges, I could catch glimpses of the Assiniboine and Red rivers. Usually the water level lingered far down below, barely discernible from the driver’s side of the car, but now it threatened to swallow up the houses on its banks. Sandbag dikes lined the yards of homes that were in the most danger of being devoured by the deluge.
I rode the car radio’s scan button, hoping to catch a news report. They were saying towns had been evacuated in North Dakota to the south and farming communities to the north of the city. The water level was near its crest but ice jams were impeding the river’s progress. Emergency services were preparing to blast or bomb them if they didn’t dislodge on their own.
Instead of picking up the supplies the nursing staff had recommended — socks, underwear, new slippers, and a sufficient supply of trousers to keep up with my father’s frequent accidents — I drove directly to the home for a quick visit before my dad’s lunch.
I pulled up on the side street closest to the nursing home. Before getting out, I surveyed the street. It was like a small lake, in the distance a few oases of dry pavement. The street’s back yards butted up against the river; its seepage must have backed up the sewer system. How was I going to walk the block from the car to the nursing home? Then I remembered: I was wearing my new rubber boots.
I waded through the near ankle deep water. Despite my apprehension of the visit — some days were good for my dad, others were not — I chuckled at the sight of my yellow boots splashing through the dingy water.
The elevator door creaked open. A scent of soiled laundry lingered in the hallway. To commemorate the season, the walls were appliquéd with cardboard chicks and bunnies, and baskets with ribbons overflowing with coloured Easter eggs. I navigated my way through the sea of residents patiently waiting for their lunch: shriveled men and women half-buried in stuffed armchairs, some slumped over in wheel chairs, others, laps covered in crocheted afghans, in mechanical chairs that reclined. The more mobile ones, preceded by their walkers, paced the floor.
When I entered his room, my father was napping. Not prone on the bed, but in a way that had now become a habit — on his side, bum barely perched on the bed, his feet still planted on the floor – as though committing neither to sleep nor to stay awake. He was still dressed in his pajamas. Over the pajama top, he wore a windbreaker, and over the bottoms — white jockey underpants.
I tiptoed to the bed, climbed on to it. Squeezing in behind him, I whispered, “Hey old guy. Hi, Daddy, I’m here.”
My father turned toward the sound, his eyes struggling to function in consort with his mind.
“Oh, it’s you, Eleanor. I wasn’t expecting you until yesterday . . . no, no, tomorrow.”
He recognized me.
My stomach muscles relaxed.
I knew he hadn’t been expecting me, but it served no purpose to challenge him.
He righted himself, feet firm upon the floor, and nudged them into his slippers. His once broad shoulders slumped over — head hanging — leaving him no option but to fix his attention on the space surrounding his feet. Rather than sit on the chair beside his bed, I crouched down on the floor so he could see me. I crossed my legs, positioning my yellow rubber boots directly in my father’s field of vision.
“Let’s get right down to it,” he said, as though I’d stopped by just yesterday. “Did you hear about what’s happening in the village? Everybody . . . everybody’s talking about Marinka.”
I knew nothing of the comings and goings of my aunt Marinka. My father’s family still lived in a small village in western Ukraine — a village whose name I couldn’t remember, and even if I could, I wouldn’t have been able to pronounce it. The only phone in the village was at the collective farm, a mile walk from my aunt Marinka’s house. Never having met me, it was unlikely she’d make that walk to dial my number, nor did she have my father’s new one. I added Dad’s tattered address book to the list of things I needed to retrieve from the house.
“How come you don’t hear about it?” he said, hovering millimetres above anger. “Everybody’s talking . . . at the shopping centre . . . at the mall.”
There was no shopping centre. There wasn’t any mall. At least none that he’d been to in a long while.
“She’s getting a divorce. After 50 years of marriage, she’s divorcing Pavlov.”
I wondered what might have triggered these thoughts, and wished they didn’t cause him such distress.
I changed the subject. “Did you have a good sleep, Dad?” I said, crossing my yellow clad feet.
“N’ ya. How do you think to get a good sleep when you’re in the street? Outside. In the cold,” he said as he pushed himself up to what was no longer his six-foot frame, forming an elongated tightly wound question mark, and started rummaging through the drawer of the rickety night table beside his bed. I pushed myself up from the floor and plopped down into the chair, a noisy fanfare emanating from my feet.
I knew he’d been safe in his bed, but I played along. “You slept on the street?”
“In a doorway. I went for a walk and ended up far, far away.” In the 20 years since my father retired, he’d walked 10 kilometres a day. Now that he was in the nursing home, the staff told me he shuffled up and down the hallways about the same distance. “So far, I couldn’t make it back home. I tried to take a taxi but there weren’t any.”
He stopped speaking. Something had distracted him. He looked down at his right hand gently rubbing his fingers together as though caressing fine tissue paper between them. The gesture that had become all too familiar.
“The receipt. It was here. The receipt for the radio.” He rubbed again, more briskly. “Now it’s gone.”
He released the space between his fingers.
“Eleanor, did you see it?”
I wanted to see it. Just like I wanted to see the grasshoppers jumping in the midwinter snow. It was just a few months before we got my father out of the house, over his dead body. That time, too, he’d near begged me. The difference, however, was back then he suspected the delusion wasn’t real. “It’s like science fiction, Eleanor. I know the grasshoppers aren’t real, but I still see them,” he’d told me. “And I hear them, too. They make a chirree, chirreee sound.”
I picked up the loose thread. “That must have been horrible, Dad, not being able to get home. Why weren’t there any taxis?” I was curious about his sleeping on the street and testing if he’d be able to return to where he’d left off.
He knotted his brow and narrowed his almond eyes as if listening for the voice that would remind him.
“The city was filled with crazy people . . . thousands of crazy people from Steinbach,” he said, then paused to recollect. “Some kind of space ship dropped them off. They took all the taxis in the city so we couldn’t get one.”
“You weren’t alone,” I said, assuming his stranded companion was my mother, who lived in another nursing home across the city. “Who was with you?”
“Some guy from Brandon. Just like me, he was trying to get back home.”
I’d been listening to his story, but the whole time I was crossing and uncrossing my feet, hoping my father would catch a glimpse of my yellow boots.
A nurse poked her head into the room, announcing it was time for lunch.
I assured my father I’d be back after I visited Mom and picked up a few things. I rhymed off the list leaving slippers for my dad until last.
“How about yellow ones?” I said as I lifted a boot for him to see.
“Yellow — for a man. I don’t think so.”
I agreed, disheartened that he hadn’t picked up on the cue. Yellow is my favourite colour and knowing this my father bought me gifts that colour — a yellow Easter bonnet when I was eight, a yellow taffeta dress at Christmas when I was a little older. When I moved into my first apartment, he brought over the brushes, trays and turpentine and helped me paint my new kitchen, a soft shade called “baby chick yellow.”
“Maybe not for you, Dad, but how about for me?” I stuck my yellow boot beside my father’s threadbare plaid slipper. “Do you like my boots?”
“Boots? Is it wet outside?”
“Yes, it is Dad.” I didn’t mention the impending flood.
As I walked toward the door, my father called after me.
“Watch out for the shield.”
“They put up a shield. The staff. A glass shield, so you can’t see it . . . to keep us in our rooms. Careful. Put your hand out. See if it’s there.”
“I’ll be careful, Dad. I think they take the shields down for visitors.”
As I walked to the car, a middle-aged couple passed by me and smiled. Prairie hospitality, I thought. I bet they like the boots. I couldn’t give it up.
I crawled in behind the steering wheel. As I checked the rear view mirror, I saw the mascara-laden tears that had streaked down my cheeks. They hadn’t smiled because of the boots; they’d seen me crying. The tears had begun unwittingly, and now I couldn’t stop them. I grabbed hold of the steering wheel, shaking it as if I were trying to rip it off the column.
I wanted him to cradle me — like he did when I was a little girl — and tell me everything was going to be okay. I knew that wouldn’t ever happen again.
Rather than take the quick route to my mother’s nursing home, I took the road that ran alongside the river. I needed some time to pull myself together.
The water was precariously close to the road and the river more than double its width. It had been a bitter winter, but this was a pleasant spring day, no sun but mild. People strolled on the swath of grass that separated the street from the swelling river’s edge. All of a sudden, people stopped walking and started pointing at the water.
I pulled over and parked the car.
To my right, slow moving water, to my left, the ice jams had just begun to move. The massive snow-laden slabs of ice looked prehistoric. They heaved and undulated, creaked, carrying along with them debris they’d collected along their journey: tree trunks, picnic tables, shards of lumber. I watched the river’s power, its indifference. Until, in the distance further up the river, I spotted something cemented into the ice. It appeared to be the uppermost floor and roof of a house with a gable. A section of wooden railing crept along with it.
“Does your camera have a zoom lens?” I said to a man standing a few yards away holding a digital camera. He was around my age, dressed in a Winnipeg Blue Bombers jacket and John Deere ball cap.
“Can you take a look? Is that a house down there, at the bend of the river?”
He looked through the viewfinder.
“Yes, yes it is,” he said, handing me the camera. “See that blue cone coming up alongside it? I know every inch of the river from here to the American border. Never once seen a blue marker like that on the river. That house must’ve come up all the way from North Dakota.”
We watched the house pass until it became another speck of rubble in the river.
“Do you live in the neighbourhood?” He said as I gave him back his camera.
“No, I’m just visiting. I live in Toronto.”
“No, not really.” Then I told him an abbreviated version of my story.
“Kind of the same situation for me.” His voice gentle, self-assured. “At least I live here. Must be hard going back and forth.”
I agreed that it was.
As we commiserated about the challenges of caring for aging parents, I couldn’t erase the image of a family’s home adrift in the river.
The ice jams had moved on, and now it was just the muddy Red River flowing passed us.
“I have to go. Thanks for the chat.” I really was thankful.
“Have a good visit.”
I assured him I would, and headed back toward the car.
I ignored it, not thinking anyone would be calling after me.
“Hey, you, the lady from Toronto.”
This time, I turned around.
“Yeah, you. I love the boots.”