three hours with papa johnny

when the cat’s away, the mice will play! i tell you as mama pulls out of the driveway.


hen the cats away, the mice will play! i tell you as mama pulls out of the driveway. you laugh. first, i continue, but i’m cut off, pivoting to rescue my coconut truffle from your increasing food-and-drink theft. thats mine, you had yours! you hold up your hands in defensive surrender. it’s easy to forgive, but at the same time, so hard. you didn’t know. but i know. i know all the small boundaries and motions of daily life that you used to, and now i hold such knowledge for us both.

i know all the small boundaries and motions of daily life that you used to, and now i hold such knowledge for us both.

i eat my truffle and let the pause shift me into the groove of playful patience. when the cats away, the mice will take their vitamins! a baker’s dozen years ago, when i was 12 and you could speak full sentences, you’d draw the i out long—viiiitamins. today, i say the word short and brisk, british, and you laugh. i open the orange medicine box, and hand you the first vitamin. un, i count in french. deux, you reply, and delightedly, i continue to trois. but you do not bounce back with quatre. i prompt you to put the vitamin in your mouth, to wash it down. you lean toward your glass, lips pursed, as if you’re about to spit it into the water. please not this time. please no chewing the capsule. please nothing to knock me out of the groove. pick up the water. swallow it down.

the folks from the area agency on aging who came to evaluate our little family trio for services called this cueing. the constant nudges to try, try, try to get your brain to connect to your muscles, movement, sequences.

when you’ve swallowed the vitamins—huzzah! you didnt spit them out!—i open the group chat with your brothers. i pull up the photo uncle bubbi has sent. 50 years ago today, he texted. march 10, 1973. your old buddy tom’s worn notebook page, teenage-boy print in pencil and blue ink. it is, as cousin quintin says to me later, “magical realism.” what you and bubbi and tom wished could have happened. once upon a time there were three boys they left here … took a train to british columbia, walked for 15 days to the ingenika river and asked each other how they got there. they didnt know as it turned out so they just died of bepuzzlement.

we laugh so hard, you cry. you are laughing to tears all the time these days. a new exhibit of once-repressed emotion, released to percolate in the ground-up coffee beans of your brain.

walk time. i hand you your coat. you fumble with the zipper. can i do it for you? yeah. you say that all the time now. stilted affirmation that could sometimes mean what? or i dont know, or even no. i slip your fleece hat with the ear flaps over your wiry white hair. i loop your scarf around your neck, wooly navy and beige plaid, and tuck the fringed ends back around front. i hold your black hiking boots open as you jam your feet in. how many times have i done this? this dressing routine, this guidance of your stiff body. you have to wait so i can put my boots on, my coat, whose heaviness weighs down my weary shoulders. i pull on my own ear flap hat, and you laugh to tears when i remind you i’ve had this hat since i was six. i can’t believe it still fits, i say, and you squint at the purple wool. yeah?

on the walk, after we’ve waited arm in arm for the cars to pass so we can cross to stoney alley, a little curve of snowy dirt road, you sing snatches of a song. welcome … to the machine. sometimes, when i find it necessary to hold your arm—when it’s icy, or on the road’s shoulder—i sing were off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of oz. i hope it drags up memories of your participation in my childhood oz fandom. i sing it because i hope it’ll ease potential embarrassment of having to be steadied, so much less competent than your child. i sing it because it might make you feel as if i’m just being silly. to enact a song from a film we once loved—our joy the only reason i’d hold your arm. but today, i don’t have it in me to do that. to put one foot in front of another is enough. besides, you are singing instead.

we meander past the house with the tiny, yapping dogs you don’t like, past the driveway with the "for sale" sign. debra. you point at the realtor’s name. you’ve done this every time we’ve walked past it. i find it incredibly irritating. why this, why not any other words that hold more meaning? but then, the word puck springs out your mouth.

puck? like a hockey puck? i ask. you shrug. are you thinking of hockey because its snowy? you say yeah, but there’s a twinge of uncertainty.

when we’ve made the slow trek back home, and shed our outerwear, i pull up welcome to the machine. you peer over my shoulder at the burning businessman on my spotify screen as the song plays: you didnt like school, and you know youre nobodys fool. you and i both. once upon a time there were three boys they left here …

we are cold, and i let you sniff the tin of nettle-mint tea i want for myself. i’m wary—you’ve been downright disgusted by so many familiar foods lately. but you want some—at least right now. i cue you to sit at the table, to look at one of the many national geographic issues you’ve ripped the covers off. when this started, mama and i tried to get you to stop this illogical action. we’ve given up. maybe you’re annoyed by the ads. it would certainly align with the ethos of your former self. but your former self was never good at taking care of paper things, ads or no ads. tom robbins novels thrown in a tool box, meddle CD liner notes separated and fraying. these days, you sometimes fold the glossy yellow-bordered national geographic covers in uneven fourths, tuck them in your pockets. i know this is a common dementia behavior. hoarding, pocket-collecting small objects. does it give you a sense of safety? of usefulness, like carrying cash used to?

i slip into my own head, relieved you’re occupied as i brew the tea, slice apples and cheese. loose leaves float in the measuring cup. cheddar sticks to the paring knife. david gilmour sings through my phone speaker. you’re staring silently at the national geographic without turning the page. until you’re not, and your mouth-breathing comes faster, agitated, and you’re scrubbing your hands through your hair. i want to stay in my head. i want to eat cheese in peace, i want you to read about whales.

papa, whats wrong? i know the question is useless, but i can’t help myself. is it the music? do you miss mama? are you impatient for the snack? you look up at me. yeah?

and the questions i don’t ask: do you wish you could skedaddle out of here—allons-y!—and drive into the depths of the canadian wilderness? do you wish you could discuss the contents of this issue, fascination with whale communication or fury at climate change or fragments of a lifelong interest in space? do you wish you were able to slice your own apple?

i pause the music, looking for a little dopamine hit in the form of anything on my screen. a small escape from your huffing and puffing. but it’s empty. youre being grimble grumble. i’m referencing a different pink floyd song. i mimic-grumble at you, and you laugh, but it’s fleeting, the distress taking hold again.

you hold your head in your hands as i pour the loose leaf tea through the strainer into two cups. for me, the typewriter mug you gifted me in my teens. for you, the mug you inherited from your dad, dzia dzia written in red across the white ceramic. you don't read aloud the polish word for grandfather like you sometimes do, but you lift your head. i give you the apples and cheese, willing the tension to ebb. should we watch something? something to hold your restless attention. something to spark my understimulated brain. yeah? i hold my hand out to catch your catchphrase, and say: stay put! i’m unsure if the command is worth anything as i dash upstairs for my laptop, but thank you, thank you for not following me.

we’ve been watching the mysterious benedict society, a rewatch of season one so we can get to season two. adventures of middle-school kids seem to be the sweet spot for stories we share. nothing too intense, weird kids doing unconventional things—it’s like you and i, when i was ten and you were 53.

you begin to eat your snack, drink the tea, laugh with the bouncy opening credits. it calms us both.

we’ve reached the last episode of season one. quiet, trustworthy, strong milligan, who suffered at the hands of the antagonist’s “brain sweeper,” remembers he is kate’s dad. he and kate finally have a quiet moment to themselves. kate looks at him thoughtfully, 11 or 12 with a red bucket of useful gadgets clasped to her belt at all times. like your garage, condensed. what does it feel like, kate asks, having no memory?

milligan almost imperceptibly shakes his head. it felt like … searching. always searching for a word, or the answer to a riddle that was right in front of me but just out of reach. he turns to kate. do you know that feeling? she nods. i couldnt give up, though. because i knew that what i was looking for was special. incredibly special. i just couldn't put a name to it. tears gather in milligan’s eyes. it was you, kate. it was always you.

i have rarely been comfortable with emotion around you—not because you were strict, or cold, or any other archetypes of emotionally unavailable fathers, but because you were so uncomfortable with it yourself. bumbling. quiet. unsure how to express feelings you rarely seemed to know you even had. and now that you cry easier, you still don’t know. but i have to take this moment before it passes. i stand and wrap my arms around your shoulders from behind as kate hugs milligan, tucking my head on top of your hair, hands over your soft eddie bauer vest. you do not react, but i am glad i did it.

maybe there are words swimming behind your frontal lobe, words that can't get out, words you think you’re getting out but you're not. maybe a whole sentence, struggling to string itself together. maybe there is understanding, recognition of this fictional parallel. maybe not.

uncle bubbi texts another photo from your friend’s old journal. kits: a heading. a list of first aid items. inside my pack: another heading. oats, flour, honey, nuts, matches, knife sharpener, sickle, gloves, socks, sweaters, more. the plans of boys escaping suburbia and a windowless school. tom’s story, the first picture, goes on to chart a two-week route of hiking from vanderhoof, british columbia into the omineca mountains. magical realism. then they followed the mighty shore of this lake for four days and so three little boys from orchard lake arrived at the ingenika river and as i said earlier, died promptly of bepuzzlement.

maybe there are words swimming behind your frontal lobe, words that can't get out, words you think you’re getting out but you're not. maybe a whole sentence, struggling to string itself together. maybe there is understanding, recognition of this fictional parallel. maybe not.

mama asked me to make your bed while she has her respite hours. it’s been years since you’ve slept in the same bed as her. since we turned the lower level into your space, sheltering her from your restless legs, your accidents. i lead you to the adjacent bathroom, move through the repetitive routine, a script imprinted on my mouth. how many times can one say the same cue phrases before one’s vocal chords wear out?

let me help you take off your vest. roll up your sleeves. no, not my sleeves, your sleeves. lift the lid. lift the lid. go pee. ill be waiting out here. you done? okay. push the silver button. no, that one. turn on the faucet. turn on the faucet. get your hands wet. soap? okay, keep scrubbing. okay, i think the soap is all gone. dry your hands. turn around. theres the towel. roll down your sleeves. time to put the vest back on.

you stand content to watch me put the sheets on, lay out the comforter cover and tie the duvet inside of it. it’s hard to shake out the navy blue flannel to lay evenly, especially alone. well get it, you say, holding a corner and pulling it above the pillows.

seven years ago, you were still solving complex automotive mysteries. running in your work boots to rescue customers stranded on the side of the road. navigating traffic to the other side of town to deliver me to my senior year film class. now, these tiny moments of competency—a tug on fabric, a successful bathroom session, a string of three words—are marvels.

basically, tom’s story concludes, they left on saturday instead took a car and came back in time for spring vacation. a discovered backpack. an untouched coffee cone. a stolen van. a scrapped truck. teens chased down. memories chased down. false starts and stops. unprocessed instructions. dreams unrealized. windowless walls versus homesteading. searching for words versus finding words. familial legends. familial misunderstandings. nearly 18. nearly 68. laughing to tears. bepuzzlement.

About the author

andrea lianne grabowski’s writing practice includes chronicling the experience of her father’s frontotemporal dementia, from his life history to her position as young caregiver. published pieces with this theme live in Cicada Creative Magazine and cool rock repository, and other works appear in Just Above Water: A Voyage YA Anthology, fifth wheel press, HELL IS REAL: A Midwest Gothic Anthology, and elsewhere. andrea is a Best of the Net nominee, former editor of NMC Mag, and a midwestern lesbian occupying anishinaabe land. you can find her making zines, on long drives being inspired by music, or peering in the windows of abandoned buildings.