When I was fifteen, my father nailed my bedroom window shut to keep me from running off in the night. Almost forty years later, my sisters and I had to put him in a home with door alarms and special window locks to keep him in. Like me, he took off anyway.
“Your father has been assessed,” the letter from the assisted-living home advised, “as at risk for elopement.”
Elopement? At eighty-two, my father was failing fast; the love of his life, his wife of fifty-eight years, had slipped away two years before. When he’d first arrived at the home, a silver-haired woman named Madeleine might have been happy to do more than flirt with him. But elope? He was hardly up to it. Still, “elopement” is what the administrators named it, this inescapable urge.
Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate defines elope as, first: to run away from one’s husband with a lover or, alternately, to run away secretly with the intention of getting married; and second: to slip away, escape. I always liked the lope part, the sound of which embodies its meaning — I can see the word itself at a run. As it turns out, though, the root actually comes from Old Norse for leap, which strikes me as right, too.
Elopement runs in the family, it seems. My parents began dating when my mother was fifteen and my father sixteen. From the start, my mother’s mother disapproved. When she finally forbade contact altogether, my mother moved out of the house, taking a room downtown and a job at the county courthouse. By then, my father was in flight school half a nation away: World War II had begun, and he wanted in on it. The men at the courthouse eventually took up a collection to pay my mother’s bus fare to California, and she, who’d rarely traveled outside the state, packed her bags and rode west to her future, escaping her mother’s house for good. It was a romantic beginning to their life together, although I was a full-grown woman with children of my own before I could view my parents, especially my father, as romantic.
“You.” He pounded the first nail in at a slant, so it penetrated the bottom of the window frame as well as the sill. “Will.” The second nail, going in, rattled the glass. “Stay. Put.” Between hammer blows, my father turned his furious face to mine, eyes glinting, hard and shiny-dark.
I’d been on restriction for about a month by then, grounded for having cut school with a group of friends to go to the state fair. Six months of restriction was the sentence: no activities outside of school, no phone calls, no leaving the house unaccompanied by him or my mother.
But I’d had just about enough. The teen-club dance was starting at eight, and I didn’t know how much longer my boyfriend — blond, popular, a junior — would wait for my release. So after supper, I yawned, rubbed my eyes, and headed for the bedroom. I arranged my stuffed animals into a long lump under the covers, left my radio playing, lifted the window, and stepped out, resplendent in a miniskirt and clunky platform shoes. Hot stuff I was at fifteen, slipping my shadow-self from house to house, heart pumping blood to my ears.
Walking on the wooded path to the teen club, I saw my father’s little brown Corvair go by, the set of his shoulders unmistakable even from a distance. I stood at the edge of the woods and watched him go into the building. He emerged moments later and looked left, then right, then across the street. I shrank into the trees; he climbed into the car and took off in the direction of home.
I couldn’t go to the dance after that — he’d surely left word with the chaperones to call him. And I couldn’t stand there in the woods, either, because the fine mist that had begun to fall the minute I’d caught sight of him was now turning into an all-out deluge. I had nowhere to go but home.
My window, I found, was locked. I tapped on my younger sister’s, but she either slept through my tapping or pretended to. The rain pelted me, ran in rivulets down my face and into my blouse; my shoes were so sodden with water they’d hardly stay on my feet. Clomping around to the front door, I rang the bell.
My father let me in and then let me have it: first with words, then with his belt, then with words again. Just get it over with was all I could think. But he kept on and on until words flew out of my mouth: “You can’t cage me like an animal.” That stopped him, and his mouth grew grim. He walked out and returned a moment later with a hammer and three long, thick nails. I followed him into my room, where he set to driving them in, one by one, nailing my window shut.
Finished, he turned to face me, hammer in hand. The backs of my legs stung, but my eyes were dry and as fierce as I could make them. I did not look away.
That night was the culmination of our battle, my father’s and mine. After that, he let go a little. He had to, I suppose, or else kill me. And I’d stood up to him, face to face. One thing we discovered that night was that he was a man, and tough, but I was a girl on her way to becoming a woman. I could do things — make babies, for one — and there was no way in hell he could stop me. We somehow knew something else, too: soon enough, I’d be gone.
When my sisters and I first cajoled our father into assisted living, we called the arrangement “temporary,” to him and to ourselves. But the Alzheimer’s progressed rapidly to the point that he couldn’t be left alone for even a minute. So he stayed at the home, where his initial anger at us quickly transformed into a fixation on escape, getting home — even though the meaning of home grew increasingly elusive. He showed remarkable cunning: he outsmarted window locks, pushed out screens, and slipped away; he wedged a small stone at the bottom of an exit door to disable the automatic lock; he triggered alarms and tried to hitch rides, though he couldn’t remember where he wanted to go. Several times he was discovered on the highway, cane in hand. Once, around midnight, wearing only his undershorts and three pairs of socks, he swung his walker at a pursuing nurse.
That’s when the elopement letter showed up. My sisters and I had to choose: agree to the risks or permit the use of restraints.
How could I not think back to that night, and those nails? My three sisters had all had similar, if perhaps less mythic, confrontations with that restrictive, punishing father of our teenage years. But after he left the military and we became adults, all that had changed. As we grew into our new selves, he did, too, somehow becoming a cheery extrovert known for his generosity, sense of humor, wild-colored clothes, and distinctive whistling — a miraculous transformation we could neither explain nor deny.
Now, though, as he slipped deeper into dementia, his angry self resurfaced; his lips grew thin as he ordered us to “get me out of here.” I tried reasoning: The highway was dangerous, I said; he could be killed. And in one of those breathtaking breaks into clarity his disease occasionally allowed, he looked at me — really looked into my eyes, seeing me — and asked: “Do you think I’d rather die like this?”
And so we did sign the paper, accepting his at-risk status. Afterward, the escapes continued — less leap, as time went on, than fall.
Elopement was on other residents’ minds, too. A man named Dewey, whose dementia was less advanced, asked my sister to draw him a diagram of the building, so he could get around better. She did. After studying it, he asked for a map of the second floor.
“There is no second floor,” she assured him.
Long pause. “OK, then,” he said, “what’s on the third?”
Plenty of the stories that come out of that place are funny, and we have learned to laugh. Among my favorite people at the home is the minister’s wife. After a lifetime of doing for others, she responds to whatever is asked of her with an elegant, rueful smile and the same three words: “Not right now.”
This kind of madness often makes plenty of sense. Dewey’s curiosity about the third floor wasn’t isolated — in fact, it’s common to hear residents talk about the third floor, as if it were a secret deliberately kept from them. They’re all looking for a map or a diagram, something that will tell them about this place where they’ve landed, and how to leave it.
On September 11, 2001, I called my father, who, like the rest of us, had been watching television nonstop. He was hunkered down on the third floor of the Pentagon, he said; most of the building had been blown away, but he was safe. “You stay safe, too,” he advised me.
Staying safe had never been my strong suit. Slipping out the window at fifteen had led to driving fast cars and motorcycles that didn’t belong to me, at midnight, without benefit of a license. Drugs weren’t handy in my small town, or I’d likely have latched onto them. I chose instead what was at hand: cigarettes and drink, guzzling first beer and then whiskey, and sometimes the two together — Southern Comfort with a Bud chaser; reckless sex, too, which finally stopped and saved me, both. Pregnant at seventeen, I dropped out of high school, left home, fell into marriage, had my first child. By eighteen, I was working in the steel mill where I would spend the next twelve years of my life, typing memos and fetching coffee. Escape seemed out of reach.
Still, all through my twenties, on summer weekends, standing breast-deep in the ocean, swaying in the salt tide of it, beer bottle raised above water level, I’d say out loud — to a sister, or a friend, or maybe even a stranger — the secret idea that sang through my head. “One of these days, I’ll run away,” I’d murmur, all dream-afloat, “someplace where nobody knows me.” I’d do just enough mindless work to make a living, I imagined — waitressing, maybe — and keep to myself the rest of the time. Or I’d work in a library, gorging myself sinfully on one book after another, savoring them like bonbons.
I rehearsed flight for years: trekking daily to a community college that set my mind afire; starting reading and writing groups; traveling halfway across the country for graduate work in literature. I was running away by degrees, and getting in shape for it, too: I dropped the excessive drinking, quit smoking, pedaled a stationary bike as fast as my legs would go. At the same time, I tried to ground myself: I started a business, built a house, had a second child. But when I finally did leave my twenty-year marriage — eloped, by Webster’s second definition — it was with the same headlong urgency that had propelled me through the window all those years before.
Now I live in upstate New York, a thousand miles from home, so I rely on my sister Lynn for daily reports about our father. He’s physically unable to escape these days, and with this decline his anger has mostly left him; what’s stayed is often sweet and funny — and always, somehow, still him: what I have come to see as his true self. Even in the depths of dementia, this essence remains.
When Lynn’s elderly sister-in-law was dying, Lynn mentioned to our father that she needed “to go see about Ellen. She’s very sick.” He looked at her blankly, so Lynn explained who Ellen was. He nodded, then asked: “Isn’t there anything we can do for her?”
“No,” Lynn said, “she’s had a long, full life; she’s ill and ready to go.”
He stared into space. Then: “What if we brought two cars — would that work?”
Lynn, reasonably: “No, that wouldn’t help.”
Another pause: “Well, could we get her into a taxi?”
He always was a problem solver; is, still.
Not that he’s given up on the idea of escape. Recently, he told Lynn, “We may never be able to get out of here, and if we do, it’ll be nip and tuck.” At the time, he was holding on to a column separating one of the common rooms from the hall, refusing to loosen his grip, no matter what soothing words my sister murmured. Last week, glimpsing what seemed a flicker of reason in his eyes, Lynn said to him, “It’s hard, isn’t it?”
Unblinking, he answered, “Yes, it is.”
After my mother died, I had only two hours to write her obituary — a cause for regret ever after. That will not happen with my father; I’ve already begun his. It’s brief, but full of details I think he’d like. Many of them, I see, have to do with moving down one road or another: that he drove his father’s used cars between Florida and South Carolina at the unlikely age of fourteen; that, at twenty-two, he led a bomber crew in the South Pacific, for which he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross; that he taught fledgling airmen to fly; that he served for many years as grand marshal for the Pawleys Island Fourth of July parade, joyfully driving a 1969 Excalibur roadster that had once belonged to soul singer James Brown. Neon yellow and black it was — chrome everywhere! — and when he put foot to pedal, the V-8 engine snapped your head back. That thing flew.
And then come the more personal details: that he loved his wife, that he was loved. Inside of us, his four daughters, lie other truths: that before we loved him, we feared and even hated him; that he changed, moving through life; that we have, too, leaping from one place to the next, turning into different people as we go.
In my dreams, I see my father walking down the road, a small something in his hand, maybe a lunchbox. He could be a child heading off to school. He’s not in a hurry, and he’s not limping — no walker, no cane. He’s become a boy again, playing hooky or going fishing at some secret spot. He’s taking his own sweet time, heading back from this brain-sprung place to seek his old life: Home. His one girl. The wild blue yonder.
In my dreams, his leap has brought him full circle. And the truth is, even in life, much about him seems boyish now — especially the way his face lights up when he catches sight of one of us. Surprised and endlessly pleased, he always asks the same thing: “How did you ever find me?”