issue thirty-five
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(2888 words)
Timothy Caldwell
My Father's Elf

"Daddy, Gwampa gotsa elf!" Four-year-old Josh came running out of my dad's room in the hospice, his blue eyes open wide. He leaped into my arms, and I lifted him so we were face-to-face.

"He has an elf?" I asked.

"Yeth. I alweady said dat," he said with a frown. I grinned at his lisping imitation of a phrase his mother, Kristin, frequently threw at me.

"Josh, Grandpa doesn't talk anymore. Remember? His brain is very sick and doesn't work."

He wiggled, signaling he wanted to be put down. "I 'member," he said as soon as his feet touched the floor. "But Mistew Elf say his brain still work good."

"Mister Elf?" I knelt in front of Josh. "Where did you hear that name?"

"Mistew Elf telleded me," he said matter-of-factly.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Dad couldn't have told him that, I thought. He hasn't uttered a coherent word in months. We looked in Dad's room: He lay on his back, tucked in on his hospital bed, his arms resting at his sides, with only the slow rise and fall of his chest showing that any flicker of life remained. Although the man looked like my father, the man I knew and loved was not there. Early-onset dementia had taken him away from me one memory at a time for the past five years, leaving only a voiceless, mindless shell inhabited by the inchoate reflexes of an infant. Love and repulsion wrestled inside me as I peered at him; now that death was near, sorrow and relief had entered the fray.

Josh tugged at my hand. "Mistew Elf say he sleepy and goin' to take a nap. He say I should take a nap too. Can we go home now?"

       Kristin opened the side door of the house as we pulled into the driveway. She was barefoot and wore skinny blue jeans that disappeared under an untucked white blouse that highlighted her light brown complexion and black hair. Even after nine years of marriage, I was still bedazzled by her beauty and delightfully puzzled by what she saw in me when we were in grad school. As soon as I unhitched Josh from his car seat, he ran over to her.

"Mommy, Gwandpa gotsa elf," he said as she hugged him. "Mistew Elf say I should take a nap, just like him." He ran into the house.

She threw me a quizzical look as he disappeared. "An elf?"

"Let's go inside. I need a drink," I said.

"At three o'clock on a Saturday afternoon?"

"Once you hear what I have to tell you, you'll think I'm already drunk, or nuts."

"I'll put our resident elf down for his nap. How about I meet you in the living room?"

"Huh? Oh, yes. I hope I'm awake -- these visits with Dad…"

"I know," she said as she gave me a quick kiss, then disappeared inside.

       I was sitting on the sofa with my elbows on my knees when she came into the room with two glasses of red wine. She offered me one, then sat on the other end of the sofa, leaning against the armrest.

"That's one for the record books -- Josh took a nap because an elf told him to. Does the elf hire out?" She smiled as she took a sip of wine, then leaned toward me and put a soft, cool hand on my cheek. "How's Charlie?"

"He's the same as yesterday when we moved him to the hospice -- he's unconscious and seems like he's not having any pain. The doctors say it will probably be just another day or two before he, um…" I couldn't finish.

She moved next to me and took my hand as thoughts about Dad led to memories of Mom's sudden death two years earlier. After she died, what parts of Dad's mind that remained seemed to fall away as randomly as autumn leaves in the wind. For him, Mom became first his "mother," then "that nice lady," then no one. I missed my mom and dad.

I felt myself sliding toward tears, but that stopped when I remembered what Josh said. "Josh came out of Dad's room and announced that he had an elf."

"Josh said he has an elf?"

"No, he said Dad had an elf, and that the elf spoke to him," I said. "Can you believe that?"

"Josh has a lot of invisible playmates," Kristin said. "He was probably talking about --"

I stood up. "No, you don't understand. Mom and Dad -- they had elves."

"Huh? What do you mean?"

I told her that when I was Josh's age, my parents had this quirk: they said they each had an elf inside them. Ms. Elf lived in Mom, and Mr. Elf in Dad. My parents were highly respected academics, but when no one else was around, except me, they would talk in high-pitched voices as well as their normal voices. Sometimes they would begin a conversation in their real voices; then one of the "elves" would say something, and both of them would laugh. They didn't try to hide the fact that the elf voices were coming from them. It was like a performance of the musical Avenue Q, where it was easy to pretend the puppets were real even though the actors who manipulated them were in full view.

"When I was fifteen, a buddy and I were playing some video games at our house. He overheard them using their elf voices. Mom and Dad were part of a community theater company, so I said they were practicing for a play. After he left, I yelled at them about embarrassing me and said I never wanted to hear their stupid elf voices again. I never did. I had forgotten that until today."

Kristin, known to her clients as Dr. Knight, the psychologist, said, "All the time I spent with them, I knew nothing about this. I think it's a charming way to work out conflicts."

This was not going right -- I kept getting distracted. I flopped down on the sofa next to her, laid my head on the back, and looked up at the ceiling.

"So now you're in your no-one-ever-listens-to-me teenager pose. What am I missing?" she asked.

I sat up. "I hate it when you read me like that." I was smiling. "Okay, the reason I brought up this whole elf thing was that Josh said Dad's elf talked to him. Dad hasn't said a word in, what, six months? Nothing but gibberish, baby babble, so how could he talk like Mr. Elf?"

"Mister Elf?" Kristin asked.

"Yeah, that's what Josh said -- Mr. Elf talked to him. That was Dad's elf. How would Josh know that?"

"Bill, slow down. You're talking about your parents' elves as if they were real."

I took a deep breath to calm myself. It didn't work. "I know they were not real, and Mom and Dad never pretended that they were real. But when Josh called him 'Mister Elf,' I had goose bumps."

"I think we need a refill," Kristin said and picked up both empty glasses. The ringing of my phone stopped her; I recognized the number -- Dad's hospice. I put it on speaker and answered. The nurse said that I should come as soon as possible -- she thought he perhaps had just an hour or so left. I told her I would go right away.

"I'm going with you," Kristin said.

"What about Josh?"

"Sara said she would be glad to stay with Josh anytime."

       Ten minutes later, Sara, the teenager who lived next door, came in carrying two textbooks. "Thanks for calling, Dr. Knight. I can study while Josh is asleep. No problem. It's like, you know, getting paid to study."

"Thanks for coming. We're going to visit Bill's dad at Meadowlark."

"Oh, yeah, sorry about your dad, Dr. Thomas. Meadowlark's a nice place to…you know…"

"Thanks, Sara."

Neither of us spoke during the ten-minute drive to Meadowlark Care; Kristin held my hand the entire way. After we signed in at the front desk, the receptionist informed us that a much-loved musician and teacher was in a room near Dad's. "Musicians can sometimes get a little loud," she said, "so I'll ask them to quiet down if it bothers you."

We walked along a wide, tiled hallway where indirect lights revealed cool, earth-toned walls. Wide wooden doorways punctuated the walls. Some doors were open, showing the sofas and chairs where family and friends could watch and wait for the last flickers of life to leave the tired, ailing bodies of their loved ones.

We heard a flute; its breathy-sweet sounds surrounded us like butterflies as we entered Dad's room. He looked the same except for a serene smile on his face, as if he was listening to the music drifting down the hallway.

Kristin kissed his dry forehead. "Hello, Charlie," she quietly said as she lightly brushed her hand over his thin gray hair. "What is this I hear about you having an elf?" He didn't respond.

I went to the other side of the bed. "Hi, Dad. It's Billy. I'm here too." His eyes opened slowly, then moved, as if searching. When he saw me, he smiled.

He raised his hand, and as I took it between mine, he said in a high-pitched voice, "Hello." I was so startled, I dropped his hand and stepped back from the bed. "Don't be afraid, Mr. Billy. It's me, Mister Elf," he said.

I looked across to Kristin -- she looked stunned. A big grin appeared on Dad's face, the same happy grin I saw as a kid when he watched me open a birthday present. I didn't know what to think. Laughter floated up out of me at the same time tears flowed down my face. Kristin came around the bed.

"Bill, are you all right?" I nodded but couldn't stop laughing. She pulled a chair up behind me and settled me into it. I kissed Dad's hand and raised it to my cheek as my laughter turned into sobs. I felt her hand on my head.

Although it felt like hours, only a few minutes passed, and with them, my tears. As I wiped my face and blew my nose, I noticed Dad still looked at me with a sad smile. Kristin was wiping her eyes when I turned to her. "How can he be talking?" I asked. She shook her head.

"Well, Mister Billy, I don't know how this be happening. Mister Daddy's brain-mind is not working too good, and…" A few seconds passed.

"And what, Mister Elf?"

Dad, or Mister Elf, was quiet, but he looked at me with sadness in his eyes. Then he said, "I not be here much longer 'cause Mister Daddy is leaving."

From the other side of the bed, Kristin asked quietly, "Mister Elf, can Dad -- Mister Daddy -- talk to us?"

He looked at her. "You Ms. Kristin. You marry Mister Billy."

She nodded.

"No. Mr. Daddy forgotted how to talk, so I talk for him 'cause I know what he say if he could talk but he can't. It very consufing, consufing, con -- fus-ing."

Kristin smiled as she said, "It is very confusing."

"Ms. Elf, she talk more better than me. But she goed away when Ms. Mommy goed away. I miss them."

"I do too," Kristin said. I was feeling overwhelmed again and couldn't talk.

"Mr. Billy, Mr. Daddy say that him and Ms. Mommy love you so much." He looked at Kristin. "And you too, Ms. Kristin. And Mr. Josh -- he very smart, like you was, Mr. Billy." His voice was weaker.

A waiting silence flowed around us. Dad's hand was growing cold, so I covered it with both my hands, as if I could will the living warmth of my body into his.

"Mr. Billy? I can't see you now. Is you still there?"

"I'm here, Mr. Elf."

"I going with Mr. Daddy now. He very tired."

"I know."

"And Mr. Billy. I…love you…"

"I love you too. Good-bye, Mr. Elf."

       It was dark when Kristin pulled us into our driveway. I was in the passenger seat feeling wrung out, barely able to move. "Let me sit here for a couple of minutes," I said.

Sara's mother, Allison, came out of our house and hugged Kristin. They talked for a moment; then Allison went back inside, and Kristin came back to the car. She opened my door and knelt.

"Billy, Josh is wondering what's going on. I think we should tell him together."

"You're right," I said. I was slow to get out of the car; sleep was what I wanted, not movement.

We found Josh and Sara sitting on the living room floor, playing a board game. When Josh saw us, he popped up and ran to give us Josh-sized hugs. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Allison say something to Sara. They collected Sara's gear and left.

"We go see Gwampa now. I gonna talk to Mr. Elf," Josh said.

Kristin glanced at me, then said to Josh, "Let's talk a little bit." She sat down on the sofa, and he expertly climbed up onto her lap. My heart sped up as a wave of heat and energy passed through me, leaving me with the urge to hug them with a fierceness I had never felt before. I don't know how to describe the sensation other than feeling grown up, older somehow.

Perhaps Kristin sensed something was happening with me because she asked if I was all right. I didn't trust my voice, so my reply was a smile and a small nod.

"Josh," Kristin said in her gentle mother-voice, "you know your grandpa has been very sick, right?"

His eyes got bigger as he nodded. "Did Gwampa go to sweep and not wake up?" He looked over at me.

His question took me by surprise. "Yes," I said.

"Mistew Elf, he say that Gwampa vewy sick and wants to go to sweep and not wake up. It a good thing, Mistew Elf say."

Kristin paused for a moment, then said that Mister Elf was right, and that Grandpa would not be waking up anymore.

Josh wiggled off her lap and stood up. "So we go talk to Mistew Elf now."

He had turned and taken two steps when I said, "Josh, stop. We can't talk to Mister Elf."

"Why?" he said as he came to me.

"Because…" I couldn't find the words.

Kristin said, "Mr. Elf didn't want Grandpa to be all by himself when he went to sleep and didn't wake up. So Mr. Elf went with Grandpa."

For a moment, Josh seemed frozen. "I can't talk to Mistew Elf no more?" When Kristin shook her head, he erupted into tears. I pulled him onto my lap and wrapped him in my arms, the way Dad held me when I was little and hurt. As I gently rocked him, I remembered the smell of Dad's aftershave, the feel of his strong arms, and the sound of his voice telling me that he had me, that everything was going to be okay. Mr. Elf's high voice surfaced in my memory. It reminded me of the many bedtime stories he told me, the many words I learned because of his silly mispronunciations or misuse. As I held Josh, I remembered the many times he could turn my tears into giggles.

Josh had cried himself almost to sleep when Kristin fetched a warm washcloth and wiped his face. He protested, but it woke him up. "We'll have pizza for dinner," she said, "and then, maybe a movie on television. How does that sound?"

"Good idea," I said. "Right, Josh?"

He wasn't falling for our efforts to cheer him up. "Okay," he muttered with the same low level of energy as when he had run a 101-degree fever. He barely touched the pizza and asked to go to bed almost an hour before his regular time. Kristin usually tucked him in, but I said I would like to do it. She smiled as she nodded.

It wasn't long before he was in bed with his favorite stuffed animals. He couldn't decide which book he wanted me to read, and frustrated, he cried.

"Mr. Daddy, why is Mr. Josh crying?" I said in a high voice. Josh was instantly alert. "Hi, Mr. Josh, I'm Mr. Elf." I hadn't planned to do this, and I was almost as surprised as Josh looked.

"Mistew Elf?" Josh said. "I tought you goed away with Gwampa."

"Oh, you're thinking about my brother, Mr. Elf." Where am I getting this?

Josh frowned. "Wait a minute," he said. I couldn't help smiling -- I heard Kristin in that imperative. "If you and you bwuder gots the same name, how do people tew you apawt?"

"I'm better-looking."

Josh stood up so we were eye to eye. "Mistew Elf, will you live with us?"

"Yes. Of course. Woohoo," the elf said. Josh was out of the room so fast that all I saw was the back of his Superman footie pajamas running through the doorway.

"Mommy, Daddy gotsa elf!"


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This work is copyrighted by the author, Timothy Caldwell. All rights reserved.