aging, bloodhound, caregiving, children, elderly parents, Essex County Canine Unit, Essex County Police Department, faith, family, love, patience, Salem Road, search, search dogs, UCPD, Union County Police Department, Union NJ, walk, walking
Today is eight years since my father took his last walk.
This is my imagining of his last day.
The brightening sky is clear; the birds sing. It’s too early. He doesn’t sleep the way he used to. Slowly, carefully, in the dark, he feels his way down the stairs. He shuffles through the living room, the dining room, into the kitchen; he turns on the light, the radio. He gets his plastic glass, his cereal bowl, a spoon, his box of Cheerios. He looks at the empty fruit bowl. Bananas. He ate the last mushy brown one yesterday. That’s the problem with bananas; you buy a bunch and they’re green, and you have to wait a few days until you can eat them. Then, they all turn ripe at once. At least one will be almost black by the time you eat it.
Bananas. It’s not too early for the 7-11 at Salem and Chestnut. They’re always open.
He turns off the radio and goes into the dining room. He takes off his pajamas and drapes them over a chair. His clothes from yesterday, and from the day before, are on the other chairs. He picks up the clothes he wore the day before yesterday. He already has on a short-sleeve undershirt, boxers, socks. He puts on a long-sleeve thermal undershirt that is yellow with age. On top of that, his lined flannel shirt. He puts on his pants and his belt (to which he’s added a few holes), and buckles it in the last hole. He puts on his new windbreaker, a gift from one of his granddaughter’s friends. He puts on his shoes, his watch, takes his wallet and a handkerchief. He puts on his old tan hat. He takes his keys, locks both doors, walks down the steps and down the driveway, past his car. It hasn’t worked for months. The battery is dead. His kids won’t let him replace it. His kids won’t let him drive any more.
Yesterday had been so strange—people in and out of his house all day. His youngest daughter had come in the morning and brought her friend, that nice lady, the nurse—what was her name? The nurse helped him with his physical therapy exercises, made sure he took his pills. She said she was coming again today.
As the girls were going, his son-in-law’s best friend stopped by. They talked for hours about things he forgot he remembered, about the old country, about his job in the shipyard during the war.
Later, the doorbell rang—it was the Meals-on-Wheels girl. His visitor tried to get him to eat the food she had brought while it was hot, but the food from the day before was still in the refrigerator. He ate that instead. It’s a sin to waste food.
Then, his visitor left. Alone in his home for the first time all day, he stretched out in his recliner and fell asleep. When he woke up, it was time for bed. He undressed, put on his pajamas, went upstairs.
He walks down his street to the corner, turns left, and goes down to the shortcut path through the woods to Salem Road, where the 7-11 is. He will get the bananas, go back home, eat his breakfast.
He hears something: a woman? Is she calling him? He follows her voice, veers off the path into the woods. He used to walk here with his granddaughter, when she was little. Now, there are brambles, branches, tangles of vines and weeds. The more he walks, the more mixed up he gets.
He hears her again: “Tony…Tony?”
He looks up, down, all around; no one is there. He walks some more. He’s deep in the woods now. He knows these woods end in a grassy half-circle on Galloping Hill Road, across from the hospital, a block away from the 7-11. There’s a playground, a small basketball court, a bench facing the brightly colored slide. He could sit there for a bit, then walk down to the 7-11. If he keeps going, he should come out on the other side.
Ahead, in the middle of a thicket of vines and brush, he sees a log, a fallen tree, lying on the ground. Hasn’t he seen that tree before? It’s all beginning to look the same. Maybe he should take a little rest.
He makes his way to it, sits, and thinks: Why is it so hard to get out of here? It’s not a big forest. There are streets and houses on all four sides, the playground at the end, the hospital across the street. He used to walk here all the time.
His head is swimming. His feet really hurt. He unties his shoes, takes them off, places them next to the log, in arm’s reach. He is breathing hard; he tries to catch his breath. God, his head hurts. His chest hurts. Everything hurts. He is so thirsty that if there was a puddle, he would drink from it. A little dirty water wouldn’t hurt him. You should have seen the stuff they had to eat back in Europe, back when times were bad.
He’s going to take a little rest now, then put his shoes back on, and he’ll find his way out. He shakes his head, tries to focus on the dial of his watch. It says 12:15 and 25 seconds, but the second hand isn’t moving any more.
It was so bright when he left the house, but it…it looks so dark now. How long has he been walking? He can’t tell if it’s still daylight. He is so tired. He takes off his hat and lies down.
Four days later, the bloodhound from the Essex County Police Department will find him by the fallen tree, fifty yards from the grassy half-circle edging the suburban forest, his untied shoes still in arm’s reach.
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