Listen to David Licata read 'Sundowning'
"That was some crash," my father says.
He has been in the hospital for four weeks now. His arms had been restrained most of that time and he is now being fed through a tube in his stomach because he cannot swallow. He no longer wears an oxygen mask, instead an oxygen tube circumnavigates the bottom half of his face, bolo-tied at his Adam's apple and connects to the wall, and that is progress.
"What do you mean?"
"The crash. It was bad. Mr. Henrickson was in it with me. Did they bring him here?" His voice is low, raspy, and wet from the phlegm in his lungs that he is unable to expectorate.
"What crash?" I ask.
"The helicopter crash. Mrs. Silverstein was there too." He pulled them from the wreckage, no doubt, and I'm certain there were television news crews on the scene, maybe even Chopper 4 in the sky.
"I thought you were here because you broke your hip?"
"That was weeks ago!"
My father wasn't in a helicopter crash with Mr. Henrickson and Mrs. Silverstein, whoever they are. He fell out of bed a month earlier and broke his hip. He couldn't get up or reach the phone or door and lay on the linoleum floor for two days before someone in his building noticed his absence and asked management to check his apartment. During those two days his body began breaking down. This led to pneumonia and a ferocious bed sore on his sacrum and that is why he's been in the hospital for so long.
Before the fall, he'd forget things: the day of the week, the date, the last time we spoke, things any 84-year-old would forget. But he still had a firm grip on reality, even if he never accepted the twenty-first century, or the last quarter of the twentieth century for that matter. He believed $100 a day was way too much to pay a hard laborer. He believed his rusting, beat up 1981 BMW 320i, a car he bought new for my mother with money he won on his one big score in Atlantic City, was still worth at least ten grand. This dollar value has nothing to do with sentimental worth; he paid 18 grand for it just yesterday--yesterday, 27 years ago, what's the difference. He never understood depreciation.
Before the fall he wasn't prone to exaggeration or fancy, though he may have been slightly delusional. He would take the bus to Atlantic City and sit in the front seat, on the aisle catty-corner from the driver, so if the driver lost control of the bus he could quickly grab the wheel and save the day. That kind of delusion. I daydreamed of similar heroics when I was in catholic grammar school. They involved hurling myself over rows of desks to catch a statue of the Virgin Mary as she toppled off a shelf. I would be bloodied and bruised, but my feat would make me a legend at Holy Rosary Academy. I'd get A's the rest of the year and I'd win the heart of Angela Monaco. What rewards my father imagined he'd gain I don't know. Eternal gratitude from a bus load of seniors? A spot on the O'Reilly Factor?
A few days before the helicopter story there was his request for tweezers.
"What are you going to do with tweezers?"
"If I had a pair of tweezers I could get out of these," he said, lifting his arms as high as the restraints would allow.
"And then I'd go home."
I looked him in the face and we locked eyes. This, I had been told, was a way to get him back to reality. "Dad. You can't walk. Remember? Remember what happened an hour ago when the physical therapist was here. What happened when you tried to stand with the walker?"
"All I need is a glass of juice and I'll be set right." He turned his head and stared at the curtain that separated him from his roomie in illness.
"Dad, look at me. You can't swallow. You can't stand up. You can't leave here right now. We need to get you back in shape."
My sister-in-law the doctor informed me my father is suffering from hospital psychosis, a state that comes from a prolonged stay in an unfamiliar space with unfamiliar sounds and populated by unfamiliar people. His arm restraints—unrestrained he pulls out his IVs and feeding and oxygen tubes—exacerbate the condition.
There is also the time of day and changes in light.
I met one of my father's doctors, Dr, Stapinski, during week three when she was making her rounds. She asked me how he was doing and I told her about his delusions.
"Does he get that way at certain times of the day?"
I realized I heard the fantasies in the evening. When I visited him in the morning or early afternoon he usually seemed more himself.
"We see that a lot with seniors, starting around dusk," she said. "We call it sundowning. It's an interesting time to be in the geriatrics ward."
The terms hospital psychosis and sundowning are not precisely interchangeable; no matter, I prefer sundowning, as tonight I prefer letting him believe he survived a hellacious helicopter wreck to forcing a grim reality upon him again. After four weeks, we are both tired of grim realities.
"This Mrs. Silverstein," I say, "is she attractive?"
"Not bad," he says.
About the author:
David Licata is currently working on a short story collection. He lives and writes in New York City.
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