The Dementia Games

by Jennifer Batler

Jennifer Batler’s writing has appeared in the Hart House Review and in The Unpublished City Volume II, an anthology of essays curated by Dionne Brand. She currently works on the fiction team for Juxtaprose Magazine.

 

 

The Dementia Games is what we called it, or what I called it at least, once, in a text I sent to Michael a few days before we converged in our hometown for an annual reunion with our father and extended family.

“Don’t make me laugh, I’m in a meeting,” he texted back.

“Let’s up the stakes this year,” I typed, then let the conversation drop. As siblings, we enjoyed a worn-in disregard for each other, an informality which strung our interactions together. We never had to sign off. We never said goodbye or take care. Certainly never I love you.

On Friday we arrived at the hotel at almost the same time. I found him peeling cellophane from a mint at the front desk and dug my arms under his jacket to hug hello.

“Good to be home,” he said, rolling his eyes and the mint in his mouth together with revolting agility. I checked us in, ignoring the messages waiting for us from our father to see if we’d arrived. We would get our fill of him, starting tomorrow.

We spent the first night drinking in a rooftop vodka bar where the ice was cut into large garish diamonds that smashed into the teeth of the enthusiastic drinker, until my husband called my cell because my youngest daughter was having night terrors. These episodes only happened when I was away, so I assumed she did it to punish me because I never took her to these reunions and she thought she was missing out.

One day I might alleviate her of this illusion by describing just how tedious these people are, I thought the next morning as I greeted aunts, uncles, and cousins at brunch. Viewed from afar, I’m sure we all looked very happy to see each other. Michael and I always got lumped in with our father between us, seated at the head of the table with his attendant hovering behind like a waiter who showed up to work at the wrong restaurant.

“How’s Jimmie?” my father asked me. This is what he called my husband, whose name is Lawrence.

“Fine, Dad.”

“How’s school. Going well?” Occasionally his memory reverted to a period of time when I was nineteen, still in college and boasting about going into environmental law.

“Very. I’m the top of my class.”

“Oh!” This made him happy.

“You’re so good with him,” the attendant said, leaning over and touching my elbow. Michael and I had hired her six years ago, when we could no longer deny that our father was getting senile. She was under the impression that she worked for a kind old man, a former psychiatrist, a healer of the mind before his own mind had jellied. If he did anything odd, like calling her a cunt when she asked him to take his pills, she ascribed it to the dementia. Our whole family did this now, so fluidly that I sometimes worried about their memories. It wasn’t the dementia, I would have told anybody who asked, had anybody cared to delve into my personal life, someone new, someone I hadn’t already bored to tears with my articulate diatribes about the ways in which my childhood had disappointed me. When he called his attendant a cunt, he was just being himself.

Only Michael and I remembered how he was, which made it easy to fuck with him in his vulnerable state, a sport we looked forward to every year.

At one time, I’d been clear on why; I’d wanted to extract some acknowledgement of wrongdoing from him. But then the disease came, and took that reason away. So we started the game.

In the past the stakes had always been money, as in, how much could we get out of him over the course of two days. Michael would ask for an investment in his new company. I would ask for money for an abortion. The stories were fun but didn’t really matter since, by the time he was writing the cheque, he couldn’t remember what he was writing it for. Then, two hours later, Michael might ask for help paying for hair plugs, or I would claim I had an assassin after me and if I didn’t give him ten thousand dollars in the next twenty-four hours I would be shot through the head. I had him make the cheque out to “Mr. Assassin.” We laughed good and long at that one. I kept it in my wallet for months, taking it out whenever I needed a pick-me-up.

We never cashed the cheques. We didn’t need the money. Michael was flush from something to do with apps, and I had achieved wealth by marrying Lawrence, who truly loved me and was also rich—hardly the feminist ideal but I would never apply that term to myself anyway.

Yes, we were horrible, but why shouldn’t we be? In the past we’d been good, but we found it didn’t matter—we suffered regardless. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, yet it did; our father had always been awful to us, but enjoyed a life that was truly blessed. I’d assumed he was just immune to what I thought of as the intrinsic justice that balanced the scales of the universe. Where I got this insane theory I have no idea, though Maria Montessori may have been partly to blame.

“Why do you go?” my husband asked whenever I returned from these things, crazed with renewed anger and disgust and needing to decompress for a week. I told him I felt guilty if I didn’t. Dutiful daughter, all that. The truth was I didn’t have a reason, not anymore. At one time, I’d been clear on why; I’d wanted to extract some acknowledgement of wrongdoing from him. But then the disease came, and took that reason away. So we started the game.

The rest of the family didn’t like it, but I felt that since they hadn’t stepped in when my father starved us until we cried or when he locked Michael in the trunk for a night because he’d thrown up in the car, then they had no right to interfere now.

This year, I was tired of the money game and wanted to strive for something that would actually count. What could we get out of him that he cared about? The man had no capacity for sentiment—one of his major failings as a parent, I’d told my therapist. The only material possession he was soft on was this old watch that had belonged to his brother, who died young. As a teen, I’d snuck it out to a jeweller. It was worthless, a letdown to me then (I’d hoped to pawn it and run away), but the knowledge was a boon to me now. I knew that he valued that watch, and I treasured the thought of him tearing his hair out with worry one day in the future when he went looking for it, because he’d forgotten giving it to me.

Michael went first, since he lost last year. He got his chance later in the day, during some blessed quiet when the rest of the family had gone back to their hotels and it was just us in our childhood home. His attendant left the old man alone with us while she went off somewhere, I assume to scream into a pillow or bench press a divan, muscular creature that she was.

… I saw a flash of his former untouchable rectitude, when he’d been god in this house, with a brain that was more than just a pickle in brine.

Our father was on the couch, sloping to the side and obviously keen to nap, his face slack as an oyster. Michael knelt in front of him and took the older man’s hand in his, startling him with physical affection.

“Dad,” he began. “We might not have that much time left together,” our father nodded—he’d been telling us as much himself since we were toddlers, threatening suicide whenever we misbehaved. Michael pressed on as if the next words were difficult for him. “So it’s important that I forgive you. I forgive you, dad.”

“Forgive me? For what?” our father laughed, and I saw a flash of his former untouchable rectitude, when he’d been god in this house, with a brain that was more than just a pickle in brine.

“For what happened,” Michael was looking at him now like a parent tenderly coaxing an admission of guilt from a child who’d stolen a cookie. “When you made me lie down in bed with you that time. For what happened after.”

“What are you saying? I never touched you.”

“You did. You just don’t remember.”

“No,” our father insisted, anger lighting on his forehead and turning it white.

Michael kept on him, rolling out details so exact they could have been true, wearing the old man down until he started to believe it himself.

“That didn’t really happen?” I directed in low tones to Michael. His performance was so earnest I wasn’t sure.

“How am I supposed to know what I’ve repressed?” he answered.

Our father didn’t notice our exchange, stuck on a feeble loop of mumbled uncertainty.

“I don’t know, I don’t know what—what is going on, I don’t know what I’m doing.” His ambling gaze landed on me. “Rachel?” He reached out a hand but I instinctively pulled back. “Maybe … I don’t remember. I can’t remember anything.”

The attendant came back in at that point, “to take Dr. Silver to his bath.” He went pliantly, bowed over the steel cable of her arm. Michael stood up tall and released a sigh so grand it pulled his voice out with it; a grunt of accomplishment. He tipped his head down to me.

“Beat that.”

I couldn’t. Not that year anyway. I did get the watch like I’d wanted. I just asked, and let him look for an hour before I went straight to the box where it always was and slipped it on my wrist. When I got home I would realize that I forgot it on the night table at the hotel. I wouldn’t even call to see if they could ship it to me.

All of this was fine, in our eyes, since it had absolutely no discernible effect on our father’s wellbeing. But perhaps something chiseled through; a few weeks later I called his attendant to see how the meal delivery service was working out and she put my father on the phone because she liked to annoy me. Unable to help myself, I gave the usual speech about how I was doing well, despite all the work I was having to do healing myself of the past and learning to cope in a world full of people who had it a lot easier because they’d had normal childhoods.

“I had a hand in that, didn’t I?”

“Well, yes,” I said, shocked, cold with joy, hilarity beating on the back of my tonsils.

“I’m sorry, darling.”

Good lord, I thought, are we having a breakthrough? Two sentences later he was asking me, again, what was new—school going well? Irritation pulled me back from the precipice I’d been standing on a moment before, a cliff I’d have to dive off later, in therapy perhaps where the emotional waters were climate controlled. It was only a matter of time before he would leave a message on my phone, something I would need a shower after listening to, words that would raise the hairs on my neck as I held up my end of the conversation with my own daughter at dinner later that night. In the meantime, I went back to indulging my favourite form of revenge—imagining how I’d cry at his funeral, if I went. I pictured a slow burn. Show up dry-eyed, leave under a shower of my own tears. If I couldn’t cry, which was more likely the case, I’d just have to come prepared with a veil, something tastefully un-showy that harkened back to a time when people died appropriately young, before they broke into pieces hard enough for their children to crack their teeth on.

 


Jennifer Batler’s writing has appeared in the Hart House Review and in The Unpublished City Volume II, an anthology of essays curated by Dionne Brand. She currently works on the fiction team for Juxtaprose Magazine.

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