October 7, 2011 10:51 pm

A losing game

Author David Guterson wonders how he should react when strangers laugh at his father’s struggle with dementia

In 1986, Northwest magazine ran a series of attorney profiles. My father, 56 at the time, was described as “the oldest active criminal attorney in Washington (state) and, if prosecutors and judges are factored in, the best-liked”. He was also referred to as “the dean”, as in, “32 years after entering criminal practice, the dean remains spry and unmarred by bitterness, cynicism or aggression.” The dean was “congenial”, “far removed from pettifoggery”, “downright Rockwellesque”, and, in court, displayed “the polite attention a Rotary Club member might give the weekly luncheon speaker”. My father, in 1986, was approximately the age that I am now, and a man with a conspicuously sharp memory.

Late spring, 2010. My father and I have concocted a plan – we’ll go to Safeco Field to watch the Seattle Mariners play baseball, and to eat dinner in our seats.

For two weeks, each time we talk, my father covers details – what time I’ll pick him up, where we’ll park, the concession we’ll visit, and the game’s start time: 7.05. Nevertheless, things don’t go well because we failed to anticipate the lines to buy fish and chips. Do we go to the grandstands, deferring food and drink, or do we try to make it to our seat with dinner in hand before the first pitch? In the grip of indecision, my father turns toward the grandstands, the fish and chips, the grandstands again. He stutter-steps in one direction, then the other; he whirls around; he scratches his temples. “What should we do?” he asks.

We get dinner, but our seats offer little room, and the strips of deep-fried cod are heaped over piles of chips difficult to manipulate. The tartar sauce cartons have tabs that are tricky with greasy fingers; the salt packets must be opened with the help of one’s teeth; the fish doesn’t fit into the tartar sauce cartons and breaks when pushed or swiped. My father is unclear on which beer is his and drinks from both of ours. His napkins are lost – they’ve fallen under his seat. His fingers shine; he sucks them clean.

It starts to rain, but, inexplicably, the retractable roof doesn’t close. There’s grumbling, commentary, and – from my father – a railing critique. Fans press programmes to their heads as umbrellas. My father has on a winter coat, but it’s too complicated to both pull its hood up and dine. At last the roof slides toward us, but too slowly for my father, who heads for the cover of the concourse entry. Fleeing, he knocks his beer from his cup-holder, spilling it, without noticing.

I keep an eye out, but he disappears. After five minutes, I’m ready to search, but just then he emerges from the concourse and, in a hurry now that a roof is over our heads, increases his tempo. I watch him turn left and bound up stairs – his swift style of ascending, at 80, is notable – when what he needs to do is turn right and head down, toward me.

Two months later: more Mariners. I suggest Seattle’s light-rail train, which stops within 500 yards of Safeco. “No,” my father answers. “That’s not what I’m used to. Not to cause you any more trouble, but I’d prefer to go the normal way where you park and then walk through the gate.”

We go by light-rail. My father, disembarked, trudging, repeats his mantra: “It isn’t what I’m used to, it’s not how we normally do it.” Here’s the stadium, right in front of us, looming so large we can see nothing else. We can literally touch it – we’re beneath its walls – when my father says, “Where’s the stadium?”

We can literally touch the stadium, when my father says, ‘Where’s the stadium?’

We get past security and look for a bathroom. The first is unacceptable – too small. The second is larger, but there’s something wrong there, too. “I have trouble,” says my father. “It has to be exactly right.” On we go, bypassing a third – “This one is going to be like the others.” At the fourth I open a stall door to show him what’s there. He goes in.

Normally we sit on the 300 level, so far removed from the game below that it seems weightless, soundless and abstract. From such a high eyrie, baseball is geometry, and this is what my father prefers – to get “the whole picture”, as he calls it. Tonight, though, we have tickets from a friend, so we’re in Row 6 behind first base. “No good,” says my father. “It’s not what I’m used to. I don’t want to cause any trouble for you but … ”

A rare win for the Mariners, 7-1. With everyone else, we’re buoyed by the last out, and we’re effusive on the return light-rail. Always an oblivious conversationalist in public, my father is busy telling me about immigration quota laws in America between 1924 and 1939 when a rider interrupts by saying, “Wow! Were you in World War II?”

“I was in high school here in Seattle at Roosevelt from September of 1943 until June of 1947 and by that time, the war was over. This is my son. He went to Roosevelt, too. He’s a famous writer.”

“A famous writer?”

“He is. But I don’t remember the name of that book. It’s – it has the word ‘sun’ in it.”

I try not to look, but when I do, people are barely holding back laughter. The next minute, we come to our stop, and my father’s light bulb comes on. As we’re stepping out the door, he turns to the crowd and says, “Snow Falling on Cedars. It sold four million copies. That’s the name of his book.”

Nearly a year passes. My father loses considerable weight and takes a fall that lands him in a hospital. Now it’s mid-June: Father’s Day eve. Summer is imminent, but as we pull up outside of Safeco the sky is grey, it’s 53 degrees, and the roof has been drawn in expectation of rain.

But weather is not our biggest problem. Our biggest problem is that, having fallen on some steps earlier that afternoon, my father has no confidence in his legs. My brother Ben and I are coaxing him from the car, but he can’t find the means to the sidewalk. “No,” he says. “I can’t do it tonight. It’s impossible. We aren’t going to make it to the game.”

We haul him up while he upbraids us for it. Then, spent, he falls against me with his head on my shoulder. Ben goes to park; my father tries but can’t co-ordinate movement. For a while we’re paralysed outside the stadium. Finally I drag him toward a gate, where a ticket-taker points to an elevator. After resting against a pillar, we make it to our seats, but not before my father has asked repeatedly how he’s going to go to the bathroom later. He shakes his head at the prospect, then tells me that he’d like to have surgery. His idea is that he will check into a hospital, explain what’s wrong, have surgery, and emerge with his problems solved. He’ll be himself again, refurbished and whole, freed from these chains of dissolution.

He is disquieted by a disarray of clothing – he’s in turmoil over a wardrobe disorder

Inning four. We can no longer fend off a bathroom expedition. Dread of this, and the increasing urgency my father has felt regarding its necessity, has been as much a part of the game thus far – both for him and his sons – as anything else. We’ve discussed whether or not to give it a try after each inning, and in between the tops and bottoms of innings, and now it’s time. My father and I falter off while other fans find ways around us, some gawking, some knitting their brows and some, quite openly, laughing. For his part, my father is certain we’re headed in the wrong direction; meanwhile the concourse is thronged, a problem he tries to solve by speeding up and even lunging, though in the end there’s nothing to be done about the men’s room line – nothing but to butt his way forward. He prods more patient men aside while exclaiming, loudly, that the chances he’ll actually “go” are nil.

At last he’s in a stall with the door shut. Or mostly shut, because I’m keeping an eye out for fear he’ll collapse. He’s half-bent, hanging on to the back of the toilet seat, muttering, without a stream, until at last a dribble begins, followed by a brief and meagre flow. Satisfied, he zips up and we toil through our return. It’s a small victory, our trip in the name of urinating, but in his seat again he’s disquieted and distracted from the game by what turns out to be a disarray of clothing at his waist. His underwear feels askew, his shirt-tail is bunched, his belt needs straightening – in short, he’s in turmoil over a wardrobe disorder. The only thing to do is to stand and address it, with me in the role of valet.

I try pulling him together. I keep shoving his shirt-tail down across his scrawny flanks, and pulling his pants left and right by tugging at his belt, but nothing I’m doing, he lets me know, settles the matter. Aware that our fussing, tucking and smoothing are blocking views of the field, I turn to look behind us. Not entirely to my surprise, much of Section 142 is giddy with laughter.

I want to say some things then. For example, that my father used to be chair of Seattle’s Anti-Defamation League chapter and of Washington State’s Criminal Law Committee. That he was a founding board member and president of The Public Defender’s Association. That he practised criminal law for more than half a century; that he was once at the height of his considerable powers, esteemed and celebrated. That the man they’re laughing at might suffer from dementia and from the in-roads of time and circumstance, but – really – should they laugh?

And what about me. Should I laugh?

David Guterson’s latest novel, ‘Ed King’, is published by Bloomsbury on October 17, £12.99

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