Brazenly, she walked to the front of the line. Tufts of slate-colored hair escaped from her dingy grey woolen hat. Fine lines rimmed her tired brown eyes. Yet on her pallid face she wore a child’s, “I got something to tell you,” expression.
Ignoring the rest of us, she slapped a pack of Camels on the counter. Thrust a mixture of crumpled dollar bills and dirty coins at the young attendant. Hesitantly, he grabbed the money and shoved it in the cash drawer. Gave her a short nod.
“Have a nice day.”
She didn’t move.
“Is there something else?”
The woman nodded. “Me and Michael don’t know what to do about them finches.”
“Them finches,” she repeated. “Me and Michael don’t know what to do about them.”
All eyes focused on the attendant. He stared back at us with a look that said, “What am I supposed to do?”
With our shuffles and sighs, we told him. Make the finch lady go away. We, the mentally sound, don’t have time for this.
Little did I know that day that the finch lady’s gibberish was to be a prelude to my father’s decline. For months my brother, sister, and I had been writing off his nonsensical remarks. His forgetfulness.
We took notice when the paranoia began.
“Goddamn police. They’re all crooks,” he said to me one day. “Yeah, I got their number. I’ll blow their goddamn heads off if they try anything.”
The local police, he went on, were trying to take away his 50-year-old Navy issued gun. The one he kept in the dishwasher for safekeeping. The one my brother removed after that conversation.
But there were other suspicious characters on my father’s hit list. Nameless neighbors and thieves who absconded with his scissors, magnifying glasses, light bulbs, and flashlights. According to Dad, their plan was to scare my father out of his house, buy it for a song, resell it, and make a killing.
I laughed and told him that was absurd. Gritting his teeth, Dad shook his fist in the air, and stomped into the house. Even then I was still unable to face the full magnitude of what was happening to my father.
At a family picnic, I finally did. Whispering to his youngest grandson, Dad told him about his new job: government spy. Pulling up his shirt, my father pointed to pieces of tape on his chest, telling the boy the FBI had wired him for a special assignment. The tape marks were, in fact, remnants from Dad’s recent EKG test.
A diagnosis of geriatric leukemia forced my father into the hospital a short time later. He would need occasional blood transfusions. That was manageable.
Dad’s dementia was another story.
Whenever I called to check on my father, I heard the same thing: he’s agitated. Agitated meant my 100 pound, 85-year-old father was slinging coarse, offensive insults at anyone in earshot. Convinced people were trying to kill him,he pulled out his IVs, hid his medication, and refused to eat. He screamed the nights away, slept most of the day. Sneaking to the elevator, he repeatedly tried to escape.
The hospital was finally forced to sedate and restrain him.
And then release him.
Hospitals, I learned, are not equipped to handle physical and mental needs in tandem. Which meant each time my father got physically well, he was sent to a behavioral care facility. When his leukemia acted up, he was sent back to the hospital. His last year was spent playing human ping pong between two hospitals, two nursing homes, and a locked behavioral health center.
At times, I saw glimmers of rational, cognitive thought flash in my father’s eyes. Over time, those moments spread further and further apart. During his final days, Dad’s beautiful grey eyes looked up at me with a blank stare.
That early spring morning, waiting in line at the Appleton gas station, I had no clue what was happening to my father. I just wanted to pay my bill and be on my way, like the rest of the people in line. People who were audibly annoyed by the finch lady's blathering.
Finally, reacting to our collective frustration, the young attendant snapped. “Shoot ‘em,” he said, glaring at the confused woman.
The finch lady scrunched up her face. Leaned forward. “What’d you say?”
“The finches,” repeated the attendant. “I said shoot ‘em.”