Budd and I have been talking on the phone regularly for the last twenty-five years, with the fortunes of our Nebraska Cornhuskers football team as an enduring topic. He was long the Toledo Blade’s gardening editor, so besides football and journalism, we also have green thumbs in common because I started planting seeds when I was twelve.
Last December, a few months after his eightieth birthday, Budd moved from his home under the flight path of Suburban Airport, in Lambertville, Michigan, just across the state line from Toledo, Ohio, to assisted living in a place with an arboreal name.
Good thing he did. A year ago, on my last visit before leaving Michigan for California, I found he’d sorted through framed paintings and stacked them against the front door; a kitchen fire, blocking exit through the back door, would’ve trapped him.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” he said.
Afterward, I wrote an e-mail to one of his sons with my findings. The response: “We’re aware of his situation.”
It was a relief, months later, to learn they were moving him to assisted living. But then I didn’t hear from him despite a couple of letters with my business card. I figured he’d misplaced them. The front desk wouldn’t give me his number; rather than appealing to his son, I got it through one of his friends at the Blade.
“My goodness!” Budd answered. “Where are you?”
“California. So how are you?” I asked, not trying to hide my exasperation.
“I’ve meant to write some letters. I don’t like it here. I don’t know what the future is.”
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Dear friend, the future doesn’t hold a return to your backyard chickens and your TV with the bewildering array of satellite channels. But what don’t you like? The apartment? The food? Well, he admitted, the apartment was probably more spacious than his little cottage that was always being buzzed by Cessnas, and not even half as drafty and cold. The three meals a day were great. And he enjoyed looking out the picture window at the squirrels.
“Are you getting out and walking around the grounds?”
“I haven’t done that yet.”
Well, naturally so. Winter was just ending. But what about the basketball tournament—was he following it on TV?
“I don’t think so.”
“Have you been watching ESPN?”
“I don’t remember,” he said. And then a knock sounded at the door. At home he would be interrupted by Meals on Wheels, delivering his lunch; this time, a staff member was dispensing medication.
“What’s your medicine called?”
“I don’t know.” He giggled at this admission. “It’s for my memory.”
Besides sending my contact information, I’d also dispatched news clippings that might interest him. (My friends will concur: I send a lot of clippings.) Now, thinking of the mail, I remembered something else.
“Hey, did you get a cartoon from me?”
“Yes, I did,” he said. “I didn’t understand it.”
Knowing enough to abandon the joke that requires explanation, I didn’t suggest he ask the nurse’s aide to help out. When describing Budd’s woes a couple of years ago to a psychologist friend, I learned that aging can accentuate established characteristics. Lovable though he may be, Budd always played the fool. Now his accelerating cluelessness is bad enough, but it’s painful to find him increasingly unable to form his thought into a sentence and to express the thought before the sentence ends, his hurry-up delivery resulting in mechanical failure. Of course, he’s just as disturbed about this as anyone.
“Goodness, now I’m stuttering,” he said.
There’s less and less to talk about. Telling him I’d just planted my garden produced a middling sort of appreciation. Bringing up the Huskers’ spring football practice seemed as pointless as mentioning the Touaregs’ depredations in the Sahel.
I dread the day when my call is received not with where I am but who.
At what point will he fail to notice if I don’t call up at all?