This story is by Debra Lobel and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Get up!” Jennie snaps at her seventeen-year-old daughter, nudging her for the second time. “Don’t take so long getting dressed unless you want to skip breakfast. Again. And I’m not taking you to school if you miss the bus.”
“Why can’t you wake me up earlier?” she hears Meghan grumble as she walks down the hall.
“Any earlier you’d be in bed right after dinner,” Jennie shouts as she knocked on the bathroom door and opened it enough so her college aged son could hear her over his singing.
“Let’s go, Steven,” she says. “Get out of the shower!”
“Okay. Oh, Mom. I’m taking Lisa out to dinner tonight so don’t expect me home for dinner,” he says turning off the water.
“My new girlfriend. She’s in my creative lit class.”
“What happened to Gloria?”
“We broke up last night.”
“Don’t you work tonight?”
“Robbie is happy to fill in for me at the bar. Friday is the best night to meet chicks.”
Jennie shut the door, shaking her head, trying to remember the names of the girlfriends her son had in the past year. Steven had ended his two-year relationship with Carol and began a string of short-lived romances not long after his father Bill moved out to live with his twenty-something law clerk.
“Shut that dog up!” shouts her father.
“Keep breathing,” Jennie says to herself.
“I’m coming, Dad,” Jennie says, racing downstairs, doing her best not to clench her teeth. She quickly feeds her Cockapoo, Sasha, and goes to look for her father, finding him in his underwear trying to open the front door.
“How do I get out of here? I’ll be late for work!” he says.
“You don’t work anymore, Dad,” Jennie says, feeling awkward being her father’s parent and guiding him to his room to get him dressed. Tim Goodwin received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s almost eight years ago. After he began to wander, Jennie convinced her mother to have a complex set of locks installed to keep him safe in the house. “You’re retired.”
“What? No. When did I retire?”
“It’s been a while.”
“Is that the TV?” Tim asked, hearing a loud argument coming from the kitchen. She escorted her father to his favorite chair in the living room, urging him to walk faster and wishing her mother was still around. Jennie had been awake barely an hour, her nerves frazzled and grateful his ride to the day care center would be here soon.
“I’ll be right back.” She went to the kitchen to break up the fight between her grown children.
“Stop fighting, you two. As young kids, you rarely spoke to each other, but now you guys constantly argue!”
“But she …”
“I don’t want to hear it, Steven.” She snapped, glaring at them, angry for having coddled them, and blaming herself for their lack of interest in being on their own. If their father hadn’t quit his law firm to play in a band and party to the wee hours of the morning, she would send the kids to live with him.
Steven pushes his sister, brushing by her as he leaves, not saying goodbye to anyone.
“Creep,” Meghan calls after him, grabs the lunch Jennie made for her the night before and chases after him.
“Mom, Grandpa’s bus is here!” Meghan screams before slamming the door.
“What are you going to do today?” her father asks her as she walks him to the bus.
“What do you do?” Tim asks her, not remembering what she tells him every day.
“I teach dancing and yoga.”
“That’s right. I remember when you were a young girl, how you danced all over the house. That’s how you stay so trim,” Tim says, laughing and hugging his daughter.
“Have a good time and play nicely,” she says, hugging him while holding back her tears.
“Good morning, Mr. Goodwin,” Ralph says, helping Tim into his seat.
“Have a good day, Ma’am,” he says to Jennie, tipping his hat and waving goodbye.
Back in the house, Jennie gets into the shower, letting the water run over her, washing away the stress of the morning. She reflects on the days when she owned a yoga and dance studio, missing the social interactions she had with her clients. She had to give it up to take care of her father after her mother died instantly from a heart attack while helping her father get out of bed.
She remembers crying in her friend Barb’s home the morning her husband packed his bags and walked out, leaving her alone with two kids to raise while caring for her father.
“Bill must have flipped,” Jennie told Barb. “He said that being a lawyer is evil and playing music makes people happy. He’s giving me the house and our savings, but I’m going nuts being at home every day with nothing to do.
“Why don’t you create an online business?” Barb said.
It sounded like a crazy idea, but after taking online classes for digital marketing and website creation, she designed and built YogaAndDance.com. After a few months, people were paying to see her video streams of dance and yoga instruction, and she sold custom designed choreography.
Jennie dresses in a tank top and shorts she bought from one of her vendors at a discount, a perk from having advertisers on her website. Sitting in front of her laptop’s webcam, she captures new instruction on the Pas de deux. She doesn’t get far before the phone rings. It’s her father’s doctor.
“Hi Jennie,” he says as if they are old friends. “I read the test results from your father’s last blood tests. I think you should bring him in for a checkup. Is sometime tomorrow morning at 11 okay?”
She opens her online calendar and marks the time, irritated that she has to spend hours convincing her father to get in the car, insist that no one is will hurt him, and drive to the appointment. Then there’s the task of getting her father from the car to the doctor only to do the same routine in the reverse order.
Jennie pops 600mg of Ibuprofen to relieve the constant tension in her shoulders. Her ability to concentrate on her video slowly slips away. She clicks on the mindfulness class bookmark that she had signed up for, but her mind continues to wander.
She tries surfing the web but finds it depressing looking at pictures of smiling families on Facebook and reading posts of happy lives.
Her phone pings with a text from the home health agency that gives Jennie respite letting her know they cut her hours due to budget constraints.
She lays out her yoga mat and starts stretching when she receives another text. This time it’s from Meghan, saying she’s having dinner with her father and spending the weekend with him. Jennie replies with a happy face. She revels in the first good news she’s had today.
At three o’clock Jennie helps her father in from the bus. “Did you have a good time, Dad?”
“Sure,” he says, hesitates and then adds, “What did I do?”
After dinner, Jennie’s father often gets agitated, sometimes for hours before she gives him his medication that helps him sleep for 12 hours.
“Where am I?” he often asks after she helps her father put on his pajamas and get into bed.
“You’re home, Dad.”
“I don’t live here.”
“You’ve lived here for 40 years. We moved in with you last year.”
“Where’s my wife?”
“She died a few years ago,” she says, knowing it’s best to be honest.
Jennie pulls out a picture of herself at nine years old with her mother under their majestic maple tree, remembering how much they both loved the fall evenings, dancing in the leaves that crunched under their feet.
“This is Mom, Dad. Do you remember her?”
His eyes glaze over. Tears drop. He holds the picture and stares at it.
When his breathing slows to long, gentle, even breaths, she opens the door to the backyard and checks that the outside intercom is working.
The exhilaration of life in the fall evening air returns to her soul. No one is asking for help or complaining. She puts earbuds in her ears, selecting her favorite playlist on her phone. Relieved that Steven hasn’t raked yet, Jennie jumps into the massive bed of colorful leaves and dances with the memory of her mother until she is both relaxed and exhausted, ready for her ultimate reward for being such a great caregiver.
In her bedroom, Jennie pulls down the plush comforter, puffs up the pillows, and gets between the super cotton sheets with the one who loves her most – herself.