Tic tock…tic tock….tick tock, the old grandfather clock was ticking its decades old sad mantra in the corner. It was pouring outside. Heavy drops streaking down the thick plate glass leaving incessantly changing and twisting patterns. Their pearly contours seemed frozen in micro seconds by the vicious lightening, illuminating the late evening sky and the Atlanta skyline. The high-rises were silhouetted against the purple sky, like dark giants bending their heads in morbid boredom.
Wylie stood at the window turning his back to reality and looking down at the slowly moving lights of the late night traffic. He was not aware of the muffled bass of thunder or the seemingly unending symphony of the weeping skies. But his heart was beating in perfect synchronization with the clock, aware of each passing second.
The sound of a quiet snicker and the pungent aroma of old man piss disturbed his reverie. ‘Shit! I forgot to put on his diaper again’, he looked back and cursed. Wylie Jackson Senior was secure within the cosy comfort of his own bed. Oblivious of the growing warm wet pool between his legs, his father was looking through him with his rheumy eyes and smiling at some amusing happening in his own purple world.
Eyes of an old man, alive with a dead light glowing in their farthest depths.
Eyes, lacking any apparent hotline with the grey matter.
Wiley saw the bones sticking out of his father’s night shirt and felt a strange form of pity gone stale within the last ten years or so. Embarrassed on his pity, he looked around and his eyes caught the gleaming saxophone standing in the corner, almost graceful in its sad loneliness. To him both looked similar, his father and the saxophone. Both graceful in age and both needing some intelligent skill to bring them back to life.
Wiley looked out again. The cleaning ritual could wait another five minutes. He saw the edge of heavy storm clouds, their ugly bellies pregnant with rain. He thought of another evening in far off past. It was raining and his father always loved rains. The rains somehow inspired the musician hiding behind the façade of a common accountant.
‘Wiley! Can you please bring her over?’
By her, he of course meant his saxophone. ‘Every beautiful thing was a woman to his father’, he silently chuckled. He picked it up delicately and cradled it in his arms, like small boys do when they are sometimes entrusted with some prized possession by their trusting fathers. He took it to his father who lovingly ruffled his hair and held the saxophone like a lovely waltz partner. Wiley still remembered his father’s eyes at that moment. It was always the eyes. Alive with secret dreams of an undiscovered maestro, shining with an amused intelligence. And then he cleaned the mouth piece with his hanky and started playing. He became one with the instrument and his lips blew magic into the polished brass. The rain and music intermingled with the clouds keeping time with their clapping thunder in a perfect synchronization.
Wiley loved to think of those moments. He remembered his father’s immaculately pressed black tuxedo and the carefully brushed back gelled hair. His father and the dark aroma of Cuban cigars hanging about his person like a warm and comforting aura. That was Wylie Jackson Senior enjoying the last days of the age of lucidity – A loving and caring father and a brilliant jazz musician. But then came Alzheimer and everything transformed gradually. It was like his father got possessed by some ancient evil spirit who demanded more from its prey with each passing moment. Feeding on the soul and body alike, draining them of each speck of intelligence.
A fresh clap of thunder ended the brief and intimate episode of reminiscence. He straightened his tired shoulders and went to the cupboard to get a fresh diaper. He poured some warm water from the flask on a clean towel and cleaned his father lovingly, almost like a baby. The father had become the son and the son had obediently assumed the fatherly duties. The warmth of the towel brought a kind smile to his father’s face but Wiley knew it was his subconscious playing games. His father was an empty box, containing a dark void. He no more felt any emotion. His mind was a playground of tired and disjointed pieces of memories. Memories collected over most of his sixty some years. Wiley Jackson Senior, the accountant and the brilliant jazz musician, had left the house a long time ago.
Wiley gathered the wasted skeleton of his father in his arms and carried him delicately to the rocking chair in the corner. Adjusting the blankets around him, he looked for a cushion and that’s when he saw John, his nine years old, leaning against the doorway. He was a beautiful boy. Shining eyes and a milk chocolate complexion with a head full of the densest black fur. But right then, he was looking alternately at him and his grandfather with none of that shine. Instead his eyes reflected two deep pools of a slowly growing dark awareness and looking into them, Wiley felt the jarring onset of an unsettling déjà vu.
It was a hot and humid August afternoon and Wiley just got back from a baseball game, all sweaty and soiled. Ignoring his mom’s pleas for a quick shower, he bounded up the stairs, eager to tell his father about his home run. Passing his grandfather’s room, he heard his father singing softly. The door was open a bit so Wiley just slipped inside. His father was wiping the sweat off the old man’s brow and softly singing his favourite lullaby:
My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born,
And was always his treasure and pride.
But it stopp’d short, Never to go again,
When the old man died.
(Henry C. Work 1876)
His father murmured the last sentence with almost a sad acceptance and arranged his grandfather’s head on the pillow.
‘It’s sad’, Wiley couldn’t keep his mouth shut for long.
‘Yeah, it is my boy, it is’, his father slowly turned his head. ‘Come here and give a kiss to your grandfather’.
Wiley moved forward hesitatingly and planted a quick peck on his grandpa’s wasted cheek. He never liked the old man, always smelling foul and staring blankly in space. But even his boyish disgust changed to hatred when the old man once knocked him down for touching his saxophone. He ran crying to his father, expecting a quick retribution. But his father just wiped his tears and his bloody nose.
‘Look Wiley, your grandpa is a very sick man and he deserves your sympathy. Just avoid going into his room more often.’ That day, Wiley met Alzheimer for the first time and he didn’t like the meeting at all.
Shrugging off the bitter and unhappy memory, Wiley just gave a kind and tired smile to his son. ‘What’s up John?’
‘You forgot to come to my game dad,’ and Wiley jolted with realization. ‘I forgot to put on the old man’s diaper and I forgot to go attend John’s game. Is it what I think it is?’ he thought resignedly. Cloe came up behind John.
‘What’s wrong John?’ she massaged his tiny shoulders.
‘Not a big deal. Dad just forgot to come to my game’, he shrugged in annoyance and ran to his room.
‘Wiley baby, what’s happening to you? Yesterday, you forgot to pick up groceries and last week you just skipped the old man’s appointment with the doctor’, she looked at him concernedly.
And then she saw the fear in his eyes and its dark tentacles slithered out to grip her heart too. ‘Oh merciful God in heavens, not him please, not my Wiley’, she ran into the solace of Wiley’s arms.
‘Wiley, is it…..?’ she inquired softly.
‘No, godammit no! I am ok Aloe. I am really fine.’ But Wiley knew the reality. Alzheimer had come visiting again. He tenderly caressed his wife’s head.
‘You love me now darling but wait for the time when I cease to be Wiley and then you will turn as bitter as gall’, he thought sadly of his own dead mother.
It was 1978. Wiley had just returned from school and straight away walked into the way of a mom – dead head on collision. ‘Why don’t you go to the doctor for chrissakes? You are forgetting things. You forgot our anniversary. You forgot Wiley’s birthday. And today you just forgot how to bang your own wife’, she went on with her frustrated bantering and Wiley Snr just kept on looking out the window.
‘Are you listening to me?’ She screamed.
‘Yes, I am’ he turned his head. ‘Nothing is wrong with me baby. It’s just middle age creeping in’.
And she just stood there, grabbing the back of the dining chair for much needed support, her knuckles whitening and unable to say more in the face of such blatant denial. She walked towards her husband, hugged him tightly and cried. Wiley loved both of them and wished with all the intensity of his six years old heart for his father to get better. But no matter how many times his mom cried or he prayed to God, Wiley’s father kept stepping away, towards the dark void and the doom.
His father was an accountant at the bank, practically next doors. Not a brilliant one but almost as good as any accountant could get. Not a single blemish on his twenty years long record. People respected him. His colleagues did. The neighbours did. Even Mr. Patel, the corner grocery store Gujrati owner respected him and he never respected his own father. All of them esteemed his honesty during the day and admired his talent with the saxophone when the sun went down.
Mr. Wiley Jackson Senior, the accountant and the jazz musician. The world seemed to be a perfectly happy place when his father entered the apartment beaming, pay check in hand, first of every month. They weren’t wealthy of course but respectably comfortable. The apartment was not luxurious but nice, clean and comfy at all times. His mom ensured it. And to top it all, there were the evenings in the jazz club across the street.
Wiley loved the red smoky atmosphere and the waves of beautiful magical music. He watched his father performing on the stage, smiling down at everybody and especially his wife and Wiley. In those enchanted moments, he found the sweaty face of his father the centre of his universe. For him, his father assumed an almost godlike stature, a superhuman capable of any extraordinary feat. In fact, he inherited his love for the saxophone from his father.
The day Wiley started playing saxophone, he did it all by himself. It felt real smooth like when a kid shifts the gears of the family car for the first time after intensely observing his father for a decade or so. He blew naturally and his fingers danced on the keys with an invisible life of their own. And his father watched him, his heart brimming with pride – the legacy had been transferred.
On his twelfth birthday, his father took some loan from the bank and presented him with a Yanagisawa King Super 20 entirely made up from sterling silver. Though, it was the most beautiful saxophone Wiley had ever seen, his heart still resided in his father’s old brass one. When both father and son played on the stage for the first time, the loyal audience gave them a standing ovation. They looked at each other with eyes full of tears and in their blissful ignorance, thought that the good times would go on forever
It was about a month since Wiley found his parents arguing in the kitchen. He was coming back from school and found a police car parked in front of the apartment building. ‘Maybe there has been a burglary again’, he smiled at the prospect of some excuse of an excitement in the otherwise drab and dreary daily routine. The lift was out of order as usual. He bounded up the stairs, two at a time, heart thumping wildly and almost crashed into the threesome at the last landing. His father in handcuffs between the two burly policemen.
‘What happened? Where are you taking my father?’, but his desperate queries were apparently falling on deaf ears. The policemen pushed his father into the back seat of the dark sedan and drove off.
Wiley ran to his apartment and found his mom sobbing quietly at the kitchen counter. The unthinkable had happened. Wiley’s father was caught red-handed skimming off some money at the bank. When confronted by the shocked Mr. Jeffreson, the kindly manager, he simply denied it. The bank had no alternative but to hand him over to the police.
Those were some bad times. All the meagre savings went to the lawyer. Wiley’s mom even had to pawn Wiley’s saxophone to buy him a pair of used sneakers and a second hand wardrobe for school. There was just one skimpy meal instead of the usual three for a long time. And then one day, his father came back home. The manager had found the missing money. It was always there in the cashier’s drawers. Wiley’s father had never touched a dime of it. He just forgot to enter the amount in the proper register. The bank quietly retired his father with a small pension. Apparently, Alzheimer and accountancy could not go hand in hand for long.
His mother died a decade later suddenly, of delayed spotted lung cancer but Wiley knew the reality. Her heart just got too tired and too broken to go on. She fell in love with a man who was a pillar of strength for her, energetic and bursting with enthusiasm to take life head on. She admired his resilience and determination in the face of all odds. He just smiled at her petty troubles and poof, they vanished into thin air. At the end of a tiring day, he rubbed her shoulders and the tension used to seep away. But along came Alzheimer and her towering husband started dissolving and dying in front of her eyes, gradually and slowly.
He still loved her but didn’t know how to anymore. He still cared for her but his agonies seemed to make him selfish. And that killed his wife. Wiley could still recall the vivid cruelty of the December evening when she was breathing her last in the hospital. His father came to see her. He brought her lilies and sat with her for a long time, holding her wasted hands in his own big ones and looking into her tired eyes. Then he kissed her forehead and asked who she was. She just caressed his hand, smiled sadly at her long departed husband and just died. Wiley became the man of the house that day. He buried his mom and took his father home.
Those were the dark days. His father’s feeble mind, no longer rational but still aware of the depth of his loss, made him search for his wife all day long. Soon after the funeral, he started wandering off at will, visiting all the spots where he once took his wife. Fearing the worst, Wiley went to the police for help the first few times and then when they started to ignore him and smiled behind his back; he roamed the city streets, checking each homeless man sleeping under a carton.
Once he found his father all messed up and dead drunk with a bloody nose, lying amongst a pile of disused garbage cans, cats licking his face. He took him home, cleaned and dressed up his wounds and wept on their helplessness. But when the disappearances increased in frequency, he had to collar his father like a dog, writing his name and address on a laminated piece of cardboard and tying it around his neck. Thankfully, considering it a decorative honour of some sort, his father never tried to remove it and always managed to get home thereafter, courtesy of some concerned citizen or the police.
Then phase two came and his father started talking to his dead mom all the time, like she was sitting on the rocking chair in the corner. And it was so fucking realistic, it gave goose bumps to Wiley. He literally had to force himself not to look towards the chair each time his father chose to address his long departed mother. And his father not only chatted with her, he shouted at her, sang to her and even talked dirty to her. Wiley felt like he was going mad amidst the violent erotic fantasies of his father.
But probably the worst came when his father started treating him like an enemy; abusing him, degrading him, fighting off his attempts to clean his excrements. Sometimes he refused to be fed and Willy had to tie his hands and push porridge down his frail throat. He reacted to each bathing attempt like water was burning hot acid and Wiley had to wet sponge his thick stink away, while his father slept under the dense fog of sedatives. He frequently liked to vomit on the clean bed sheets and then tried to lick back the foul contents of his stomach. He liked to pee on the bedroom floor and loved playing with his own shit. The apartment stank like a public toilet most of the times.
Once, he mustered every ounce of strength in his emaciated body, kicked Wiley in his balls and howled with devilish laughter. Wiley had to really stop himself from knocking down his own father and kicking the shit out of his skeletal excuse of a body. That day he wished him dead and then cried at his own selfishness.
Along came sweet Aloe and she saved both of them. Wiley met her at the hospital where he took his father for his regular check-ups. She was a sweet little thing: all smiles and caring eyes, showering kindness and attention on everybody. Wiley fell in love the first time he saw her. They started dating. He avoided bringing her home the first few times but then Aloe guessed the real reason. She just laughed at him. Having just buried a schizophrenic mom and being a nurse at a mental health facility, she was no stranger to Alzheimer. They both got married and she smoothly slipped into the spot vacated by Wiley’s mom. A good and strong woman, she managed to calm down Wiley’s father. He became her personal pet, waiting for her kind gestures and cooing voice to be soothed. But her resolve seemed to be shattering now at the prospect of losing her loving husband to the cruel clutches of Alzheimer.
Two days after Wiley missed John’s game, his father died. His lungs were filled with mucus and he died because he couldn’t remember how to cough. He suffocated in sleep. Wiley played the saxophone on his father’s funeral, trying to remember when he was kind and loving and warm. Trying to recall the times when he was an intelligent human being. He started playing his father’s favourite piece by Erroll Garner but could not go on after the first ten seconds or so. It was like he knew the composition but couldn’t somehow play the exact tune. Tears of helplessness and angry frustration clouded his vision. Finally, he just threw the sax away, sat on the podium, his head in his hands and cried. People thought the son missed his father but only Aloe could understand what was really happening. Wiping her own misty eyes, she went to her husband and took him back to his seat.
Wiley buried Jackson Senior besides his mother under the old oak. He looked at the still empty space in the family plot and felt mutiny rising like bile in his throat. ‘No, I will not fall prey to this deadly disease. I will fight, for John’s sake, for Aloe’s sake’ he quietly promised himself. He started on a personal quest – a quest for freedom from Alzheimer.
The bedroom became the mission control: diet charts on the walls, mental exercise regimens on a makeshift notice board and the computer monitor in the corner. He read about the relation between high cholesterol levels and Alzheimer and went on a crash diet programme. He found out about the possible advantages of brain stimulation and started doing crosswords and Sudoku every day, hours at end. He surfed the net all through the night, thanks to Alzheimer induced insomnia, looking for miraculous drugs and herbal cures. He got conned, he got robbed and he even got sick because of the drugs he ordered online. He went on to taking twenty or so cups of coffee a day because he read a study linking coffee with a 65% reduction in risk of dementia in late-life. He was a possessed man, determined to fight a war, which was probably already lost.
Wiley started getting into trouble a lot. First it was just altercations with the super market staff over the levels of nitrates in tinned food. He fought with his doctor as he thought the drugs weren’t having the requisite results. He fought the assistant manager at his bank, when he refused him a loan Wiley required badly to order some medicinal herbs from India. He even fought Aloe and accused her of wishing him dead, when she tried to fight off his attempts to eat the gold fish in the living room aquarium. He felt sanity slipping out of him drop by drop but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t plug the leakage. He knew he was getting paranoid when he tried to listen in to Aloe’s telephonic conversations with the doctors and her friends but he still went on with his crazy obsessions, understanding and submitting to the demons of the disease simultaneously.
Things worsened a lot more when Wiley made John an equal partner in his quest. He knew the increased hereditary risk of Alzheimer for African Americans and hence wanted to shield John against the disease at all costs. But John was just a kid, fond of fried chicken and pizzas. He just couldn’t come to terms with an all-vegetable diet and herbal concoctions. He started falling sick frequently. Aloe watched it all with a grim sense of impending doom. She knew Wiley was going to die but wasn’t ready to accept his inclusion of John. They started having fights. They tried counselling and had to leave it when Wiley tried to strangle the therapist for calling him sick. They tried to discuss the issue but reasoning became arguments and arguments got violent. Soon her colleagues at the hospital started talking about her blackened and swollen eyes.
And thus passed five very long years, Wiley had entered the fifth stage of the disease. He started suffering from severe cognitive deterioration. Once in the middle of a sentence, he forgot Aloe’s name and after failing repeatedly trying to recall it, he just placed his head in her lap and wept. But no matter how much his mental health declined, he still carried on with his quest. He still tried to walk a lot but had frequent falls and ultimately got his hip fractured. After recovery, he tried to enrol in an experimental drug trial but was rejected due to advanced progression of disease. He fought with the hospital staff where the trial was taking place and attacked a physician with his walking stick. The hospital authorities turned him in and the Atlanta justice system took a long time turning him free. But the last straw was still to come.
A few days after Wiley’s release, Aloe was getting back from the hospital after a tiring night shift. She unlocked the apartment door and suddenly smelt something oddly familiar. It was a smell from the past, from her college days. And then the realization dawned upon her, ‘Oh my God, Cannabis!’ She literally barged into their bedroom. Wiley looked up at her through the fumes with an almost stupid smile on his wretched face. Hurriedly she looked around for John and saw him, mercifully alive but lying unconscious within a pool of vomit.
‘Why Wiley why? He is your son and you were making him smoke this shit?’ her voice got hoarse with pent up emotions.
‘It’s just that I read somewhere that medical marijuana can help prevent Alzheimer’ Wiley offered weakly. That day, for the sake of their only son, she decided to commit Wiley. She just couldn’t go on. She just couldn’t take it anymore.
It was a rainy July afternoon. Aloe was away at the hospital finalizing arrangements for Wiley’s admission, while he and John were alone at home. Wiley was standing at the window, his back towards the bed where his father died and where John was now taking a nap. The old grandfather clock was still ticking away in the corner. It was pouring outside. He was watching the weaving patterns of drops on the glass and trying to find a meaning in their zigzag patterns. His heart beating in perfect harmony with the clock. Strangely, the old lullaby came to his mind, the one his father used to sing to his grandfather:
It rang an alarm in the dead of the night,
And alarm that for years had been dumb;
And we know that his spirit was pluming its flight,
That his hour of departure had come.
Still the clock kept the time, with a soft muffled chime,
As we silently stood by his side;
But it stopp’d short, Never to go again,
When the old man died.
Then the sudden flash of lightening and the delayed drum roll of thunder disturbed his trance. He looked back at John through the purple fog and smiled. The quest was over. He knew a way to end the Alzheimer cycle in the Jackson family. He, only he, Wiley Jackson Junior knew it. He almost felt intoxicated with the power of realization. He stepped forward, picked up a pillow and with an almost gentle fatherly love left over in his heart, placed it carefully over John’s face.
Outside it was quiet and peaceful.
The quest was finally over.