Family Legacies Chapter 35

(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)

Cottonwood, Arizona, September 1999

[Ten years later, living in a world of silence because of his stroke, Al Cullen sees the end for him. And he is glad.]

After Kate’s death, Al returned to his home and pretended that he could cope, but the children agreed that their father could not live on his own. A year passed. Al lived with and visited each of his children for various lengths of time. He was a man adrift, homeless, lost, speechless and unhappy. Eventually, he returned to his home in Cottonwood where he lived with his oldest daughter, Katrina, now divorced from Eric.

Nearly eight years passed, each year the same as the one before. Al suffered more minor strokes, each one taking away from him a bit more of his dignity. He gave up trying to communicate with others. He was always on the move, eating in restaurants, often walking from place to place, sometimes taking a taxi. He became the town character whom everyone knew, shuffling along the street, often going to visit his wife’s grave.

For Al, time passed slowly, a long, silent time without Kate. He was lonely and miserable. An articulate man without words to speak. An athletic man with no strength or balance left. A well-read man who could no longer read books or the newspaper or even letters from his children. A do-it-yourselfer who no longer knew how to use a screwdriver or a hammer. A fastidious man who no longer could eat without something sliding down his chin. An independent man who no longer could live in his own home without assistance. An adventurous man who could no longer drive his car wherever he wished to take it.

Each day was the same as the one before, endless repetitive times, frightening and tiring. He marked the days off on the calendar only because it was one rare thing his brain still allowed him to do. It was hard to think, or to do any single task. There was no joy in his life. Every single day he missed his Katy. Kate, he would often think, why could I never make you happy? What else could I have done?

And then one day in the late summer of 1999, Al’s daughter took him in her car and stopped outside a pleasant looking building. To Al, it looked like a hospital.

“So, here we are, Dad,” Katrina said. “Come in and have a look. You’ll like this place, I think.”

Al‘s heart, tired and lonely, told him that this place was not where he wanted to live. He sat down in the lobby while Katrina went to talk to a woman at the counter. What are we doing here? he wondered. He could see a lot of people coming and going in the hallways. Most of them were old, like him, but now and then he saw a nurse or an attendant. It looked a lot like a hospital to him. Am I sick? Is Katrina going to leave me here? I don’t feel sick. But I am tired. He felt uneasy. He didn’t like this. He wished he could go home and just lie down. He’d be close to Kate then. In the same bed where she had died. I just want to go home, he thought, and he tried to move but he couldn’t.

A young and officious lady and his daughter approached him. “Mr Cullen,” she said. “Hello. I’m Nancy Kitchens.” Al sensed that this was an introduction. Using the lessons he had learned as a child, he stood up and extended his hand to the strange woman. He nodded his head and smiled.

“Your father seems to understand quite a lot,” Nancy Kitchens said.

“Yes,” replied Katrina. “But don’t let him fool you. He knows how to behave and how to act, but a lot gets past him.” Al smiled as his eldest daughter spoke. Not much gets past me if people go slowly, he thought, no matter what Katrina says.

“Do you think he understands what is happening here?” Nancy Kitchens asked Katrina.

“Probably not,” Katrina said. Al smiled as the two women talked about him as though he weren’t there.

Nancy looked at Al and said, “Mr. Cullen — “

“Oh, it’s Dr. Cullen,” Katrina corrected her. “He has a Ph.D. in administration.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She turned again to Al. “Dr. Cullen, how are you today?”

Once again Al went through the usual motions of smiling, nodding his head. He took his hand and placed it on his heart. Nancy Kitchens decided that his gesture meant that he was feeling well; Al meant to tell her how much he missed his wife, Kate.

Together, the three of them walked down the hall. “I’ll show you which room will belong to Dr. Cullen,” she said to Katrina. They passed three closed doors and then reached an open one, labeled Room #104, and entered. “Now, isn’t this nice?” Nancy said. “He will have a bed, a bureau, a small bathroom, his own little locker for clothes, and a TV. We do recommend that clients not bring too many personal items because they can be stolen, but he can make the room his own. What do you think?”

Katrina turned to her father; she wondered how much he understood. “What do you think, Dad? Don’t you think this is nice?” She crossed the room and lifted the blinds at the window. “Look, Dad, you can see the mountains from here. Look.”

Al crossed the room and looked out the window. He laughed, smiled, and agreed with his daughter by nodding. But Al knew what was happening. He thought that perhaps this was where he was going to live. This was where he was going to end his life. It’s almost over, he thought. I don’t want to live here. There’s nothing left to live for. I want to be at home, in my own bedroom, with Kate. His eyes looked sad and longing, but neither Miss Kitchens nor Katrina seemed to notice. While Al watched, the two women surveyed the room, opening up drawers and peering into the small closet, turning on the TV to see if it worked.

They took a tour of the building — a cafeteria, a games room, a TV room, a crafts room, a large sitting room with a fireplace. Afterwards, Al and his daughter returned home. For a few days, nothing changed. Al thought that perhaps he had imagined their trip because Katrina never mentioned the place again. But then one morning Katrina came into his bedroom and began to pack a suitcase. “Dad,” she said. “It’s all arranged. You’re going to live in that lovely room we went to see the other day. I’m going to take you there and you’re just going to try it for a few days and see how you like it. I promise, Dad. If you don’t like it, I’ll bring you home again.”

Al stared at his daughter. Her words were going way too fast, but he saw the clothes going into the suitcase, and he knew he was going somewhere. “Would you like to take Mother’s picture?” Katrina asked, as she picked up Al’s favourite picture of Kate which he had beside his bed. Al grabbed the picture and moaned his displeasure with Katrina for moving his things. He became agitated and began to make loud sounds. “A-a-a-a. Ugh. No. No. No.“ He slapped his forehead and shook his head. As his agitation increased, Katrina tried to calm him down. “Now, Dad, it’s going to be all right. Let’s have a look again. You’ll like it there, I’m sure.” Al sat down in a chair and pouted.

Katrina took the suitcase to the car. She came back into Al’s bedroom and took her father’s hand. “Come on, Dad. Let’s go,” she said, and Al took one last look at his bedroom before he left. He was certain he would never see it again. They got into the car and Katrina drove him to the hospital — it seemed like a hospital to Al — and she took him into that same room where they had been before. “This is it, Dad. I’ll unpack your things.” She took his clothes and placed them on hangers or into the bureau drawers. She placed Kate Cullen’s photograph on the nightstand beside the bed. “Now, Dad, this isn’t everything. I’ll bring some more things over for you this evening. You’ll be amazed at how homey I can make this for you. I’m going to make some curtains for your window and a nice new bedspread for your bed. In a few days you’ll love this place.”

Al knew Katrina was leaving him. This is where I’m going to die, he thought. Katrina moved around a lot and then finally she was just gone. Al supposed that she had said good-bye but he didn’t remember when she had left. He was alone. He sat down on the bed, grabbed Kate’s photograph, and held it close. He didn’t know how long he sat there, but eventually a woman in a light blue uniform came in and introduced herself. “Hello, Dr. Cullen,” she said. “I’m Mary, and I’m here to help you get familiar with your new home. Supper is being served in the cafeteria now, so I can take you down there and show you what to do.”

Al understood little of what she said, but he thought it had something to do with getting food. He stood up and placed Kate’s photograph back on the nightstand. “Is that your wife?” Mary asked. “She’s lovely. I’ll bet you miss her a lot.” Al nodded, and then he walked down the hallway with the young woman and entered a large room where many people were eating at smaller tables. Mary led the way and helped him to pick out his food. She carried the tray for him to the table and she sat with him as he ate. Afterwards, she walked with him back to his bedroom. “Do you need help getting ready for bed?” she asked. Al was shocked that this young woman might help him undress. He shook his head vehemently and indicated with his hand that she could leave. “All right, all right,” she smiled as she left and closed the door behind her.

Al stood alone in the room. He crossed over to the TV and tried to turn it on but he couldn’t figure out how to do it. He changed into his pyjamas. He hated this room. It was lonely here, and only Kate’s picture reminded him of his past life. He took her photograph and held it tight as he laid down on the bed. It was early but getting dark. He doubted he could sleep but he didn’t know what else to do. He stared at the ceiling. Images of basketball games, his marriage to Kate, his parents, and Kate’s dad flashed through his mind — in no particular order. He looked out the window. He closed his eyes. He opened them again and looked at Kate’s picture. One moment he was conscious — a beautiful memory of the day he convinced Kate to go up the courthouse steps and get married — and the next moment he felt a sharp pain in his head. Al Cullen’s eleven-year imprisonment ended, precisely ten years to the day since his beloved Kate had died: Friday, September 10, 1999.

Disclaimer: While it is true that my characters were inspired by my own genealogical study, I could not and did not know my ancestors with the same intimacy that I have created in my characters. Therefore, let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.

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