“Welp! That’s all folks! I got about six months and I’m outta here. I got Mad Cow, guys,” my father exclaimed as if we needed to prepare for inclement weather and bring the bikes off the lawn so they wouldn’t rust from an impending waterlogged storm.
The four of us stood in the sterile-looking creepy place of our bad news, the doctor’s office. My father stood, majestic as always, and rocked backed and forth on his size 13 EEE’s. The four would soon be three.
My brother’s eyes watered but seemed to bulge a little brighter. Odd.
“It’s been a good run,” my father said, I guess to soften the blow.
I’m not sure how my mother responded because I made an immediate about-face and headed out of that stuffy office and down the hallway, looking for the emblem of a woman in a dress. I had to get out of there. I was going to explode. In the bathroom stall I released fluids from above and below. I didn’t know much about Mad Cow disease but it seemed grotesquely painful. I had seen pictures of crazy cows rambling about like they were rabid, and heard pray-tell that the fate for humans was even worse. I was still in sobs but was able to phone Bev, my bestie and a medical doctor.
“Hello?” As soon as she answered, more grief erupted from me, and Bev could barely understand me.
“My dad has Mad Cow!” I managed to blurt and snot out.
“Oh God, Bev. He’s got fucking Mad Cow’s disease.”
“Matt.” I didn’t hear Bev call my name at first. I could barely breathe. “Matt!”
“Your dad doesn’t have Mad Cow.”
“He does! He does! He just said that’s what the doctor is about to tell us.” “Honey. Honey! Listen, your dad has Alzheimer’s. He probably just heard those words somewhere and attached to them. I’m pretty sure your dad doesn’t have Mad Cow disease.”
“No?” I felt relieved. A little silly. I was sitting on the commode in the stall. Little trickles of pee were free to flow whenever my bladder got even a little full. “But . . . .” I said, desperate for Bev to be right.
“Just go see. I mean that is a sort of silver lining to Alzheimer’s. At least it's not Mad Cow.”
I flushed, thanked Bev, and got myself together.
I had heard about people getting news of terminal illness but never gave thought to the torture involved. The doctor’s office was clean and organized. The walls lined with his accolades and achievements. To ensure faith in his damning diagnoses I suppose.
His manner was not bedside.
He was stern, his mouth looked like no more than a straight line that opened only to let obscene words come out. I imagined the father of this doctor ripping bandages off of scarred little knees and scoffing at any tears when he was a boy.
“So,” the doctor said. The line that was his mouth animated and teased of a pleasant something or other. “He has early onset Alzheimer’s.” He, like he wasn’t sitting there right in front of us. Like my father was retarded and unable to comprehend a medical diagnosis.
“I thought it was Mad Cow?” my mother pleaded.
The doctor rolled his beady eyes in his head. “That’s almost funny. No, it’s Alzheimer’s.”
This doctor had done this before. Many times. His middle finger pulsed up and down on his desk.
“I have Mad Cow, Doc,” my father interjected. “I’m certain of it.”
“I encourage you all to get family affairs in order. You have a long road ahead,” the doctor continued as if my father didn’t even exist.
“Doc, are you sure?” My father wanted the diagnosis to be different, we all wanted the diagnosis to be different than what was. What was, was just too painful. But not wanting a thing to happen rarely stops it from happening. The doctor pressed on.
“With medication we can slow the progression of the disease but there is no cure.”
I glanced up at his bogus degree. How can it be legal to just walk up to people and say, hey your life as you know it is done. Forget about hope, don’t even pray, just give it up, give in and let go of any expectation of being normal ever again. It seemed so irresponsible and downright cruel.
There was a small plaque with a message to consumers with an 800 number to the Medical Board. I grabbed a pen off the doctor's desk and wrote the number on my hand. I was reporting his ass.
“Can you check?” I blurted out. “He spent a lot of time in Angola and remote parts of Africa.”
The doctor raised an eyebrow. The only way I surmised that he heard me was his shuffling through my father’s file.
“I see,” came from the slit in his face. “Has he been to Europe in the past year?”
“And he had steak. He likes it rare,” my mother said, hopeful. "Is there a pill for this?"
She thought there was a pill for any and everything. Last year I took a video of a linen closet in my parents’ compound devoted to her unquestioning faith in pharmaceuticals.
“My apologies.” The man with the mouth full of bad words maybe had hints of being a human. He didn’t look up but his eyes paused at something in my father’s file.
“Ah, yes, here it is. It looks like there was a question of something. But those tests came back negative.”
“I told ya, Doc,” my father said proudly. He sat back in his chair.
My brother sat there mute the entire doctor’s visit. This is how it was and had been with the four of us. Ben always seemed to be there but when things got weird or uncomfortable, he just left the room, his body still going through the motions.
Once during healthier times, when my dad was just a simple pastor at Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in Burlington, NJ and my mother just a simple vice principal at Wilbur Watts middle school in the same town, my brother and I crawled underneath the church pews during Sunday service. I had to be 5 or so and Ben 8 or 9. We were having a crawling contest to see who could get from the back of the church to my mother’s stockinged leg in the third pew.
On our way we found all sorts of treats, a lost peppermint or stick of gum or some loose change. We didn’t notice the choir had stopped and my father had started preaching. We definitely didn’t notice him leave the pulpit. We usually could get away with more during his sermons. He snatched my brother up from the back of his collar and grabbed my little hand so quick I screamed. My father slammed me down into my mother’s lap and she gave me the Vulcan Star Trek death grip. I crumpled into submission, shoved my finger in my mouth and buried my greasy head into my mother’s silk blouse.
The screams of my brother could be heard from outside. The organist played “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
When the deed was done, my father and brother returned to their respective church positions, my father in the pulpit and my brother next to my mother. My father said something about spoil the rod spare the child to a bunch of ‘Amen’s and ‘Praise God’s. Ben sniffed once, wiping his nose and face so it was smeared with snot. He leaned his head on the pew and a robotic gaze of nothing became his affect. From then on, he would sort of glaze over whenever he was scared, angry, happy or sad. He even mastered sleeping in church with his eyes open.
We were used to Ben’s laissez faire attitude and just sort of assumed that he, the first born, would be there when it mattered. The doctor glanced at our family bumbling ungracefully through the changing of the guard.
“Okay. Let’s try this.” The doctor was actually addressing my father. “I want you to remember these three words. I’m gonna give them to you and we will talk a little bit and then I will ask you to tell me what the words are.”
My dad perked up like a little boy, eager to please.
“Okay Doc. Go for it.”
“Alright, Mr. Rochester,” the doctor said.
“Doctor Rochester,” my mother corrected.
“Bishop Rochester,” I said at the same time.
“Oh, he’s a doctor?” Mr. Tin Man almost had a heart until this offensive inquiry came out of his big fat dumb mouth. I wanted to, with one swipe, run my hand across his desk with his beautiful wife and dumb kids framed on a stupid fishing trip. You wanna fuck my family up, Mr. Man? I’ll fuck the picture of yours up! Pictures are lies anyway. They speak to a happier time but really no one knows if a fun time was had or not. But, I resisted the urge to be the stereotype: an angry black woman.
The one thing the four of us had in common–spotting that surprised look from white people that made me feel like we were in a rerun of the first encounter of Charlton Heston with the gorillas in Planet of the Apes. Yeah, we can talk, and learn, and go to school and get degrees. Why does it always raise a fucking eyebrow?
“Bear, fox, rabbit. You got that, uh, Dr., uh, Rochester? How would you prefer to be called?”
My father looked at the doctor like he was an old respected friend. He smiled. “You can call me Benny.”
Great dad, just great. My father’s need to impress or be overly impressed by
someone white, someone with a degree or loads of money, was still intact. I’ve noticed it my whole life but was only now beginning to understand and resent my dad and the rest of this racist world because of it.
My dad always went out of his way to be nice to the white man in the business suit in the elevator. He would talk extra loud to me in his doting way, always amplified for their entertainment or approval. This became my default button and I had never really noticed until now. Mad at a world that made my own family expert chameleons. Saving our best selves for those outside of our tight knit fold.
At home it wasn’t so much a contrast but more a silence from exhaustion, from the shuck and jive it took to survive–the insults swallowed because, if we reacted or spoke to every slight, overt action to create failure, or dumb-ass insulting question, we would shadowbox each other and let the stress out in forms that alienated us, not only from each other, but ourselves.
The doctor continued with his questions, meant to expose my father’s failing mental capacity.
“Who is the President of the United States?”
I sat back. I knew my dad had this one. We were at the man’s inaugural ball for his first term. My dad’s eyes searched.
“Bill . . . .”
He paused. All three of us sat erect.
“Dad you know this one,” I said.
“Don’t help him please.”
“I’m not, he said Bill.”
“Bill what?” the racist doctor said flatly. I betcha his white doctor coat had a damn white-coned hoodie underneath that damn dirty-ass desk. He probably wasn’t even a real doctor.
My dad interrupted me visualizing myself flying across that damn desk and tying this man up with a noose.
“Uhhh. Bill, Bill, Bill Bush?”
My brother coughed and shifted back in his seat. His face glazed.
“No, it’s Bill Clinton,” the doctor said with what I swear was a hint of satisfaction.
“Well doesn’t he get half-credit?” my mother inquired. “He got the Bill part.”
The doctor shook his head and looked at his watch. “Ma’am.”
“It’s Doctor Rochester. We call you Doctor, we expect the same,” my mother corrected. My mom could handle him.
The slit in the doctor's mouth gaped.
“Surprise, surprise. And I’m a Rotarian.”
“Listen. I’m sorry. But this is not a test for a grade. It’s not a contest. You have to understand that now is the time to get your business affairs in order before you have a huge financial disaster on your hands. Let’s continue, Bishop.”
“Benny is fine.”
“Well, Be . . . . Lets just keep it simple. Dr. Rochester do you know what year it is?” I didn’t want to see but I saw the semblance of a human.
“Yes!” my dad shouted. My mother sighed with relief, my brother blinked and I rubbed my dad’s arm.
“And what month is it?”
“Uhh. Now you are trying to trick me. Wait a minute. I got it! It's March. Or April.”
“Okay. And what’s today’s date? Rather what day of the week is it?”
Silence can be telling, and we all knew. Something once so simple had been forgotten. There was a smog infecting my father’s brain and whether it was Mad Cow or Alzheimer’s my father’s mind was malfunctioning. There was a knock on the door and the doctor excused himself.
“What were those words he gave me?” my father pleaded with me to help.
My eyes teared. I wanted to tell him. I still wanted him to be the leader of our pack. Every resentment was erased in this moment. How could it just change right before our very eyes? It just wasn’t fair, it just didn’t seem fair.
“Daddy I can’t tell you. You have to try and remember.” I offered reluctantly. The shift from child to parent and parent to child had already begun. My heart cracked and seemed to seep. My chest and stomach hurt. It was difficult to breathe.
“Come on. Help me.”
My brother stood and walked to the window. There was a crack even in his armor. My mother looked at me and I was reminded of times she chided a reluctant me to be with my dad. Like the time in my teenage years when my father asked me to go for a ride and I declined. He walked out the door and my mother yelled, “You better get down these stairs and go with your father. You know you need some new shoes.”
“Bear, fox rabbit, daddy. Say it over and over until he comes back. Bear, fox, rabbit. Bear, fox, rabbit.”
My father repeated the words, first out loud and then to himself. The doctor came in.
“Okay, Dr. Benny. Do you remember the words?”
“I do. Bear, fox, and uh. What was it?” My father looked at me. I said nothing and his eyes marked me for betrayal.
“I know this can be hard for a family. But he can no longer be in charge. That’s just that. His mental faculties are failing and that’s that. It’s not going to get better because this is a terminal degenerative disease. I also recommend a support group and counseling. The good news is there is a powerful drug that slows the progression of the disease. So you have plenty of time.”
Exactly six months from this telling visit my father was rushed to the hospital, never to return to his home again.
MATTILYN ROCHESTER is an international performer and storyteller. In August 2015, she founded Queen Films, LLC. www.mattilynrochester.com