Outside Dad’s assisted living facility, I parked and ran. I’d heard that they were about to shut The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay to all visitors, including family. I had moved my 93-year-old father, who has Parkinson’s disease, onto the memory care floor just the week before.
When I got to him, he was sitting in his recliner, the TV screen dominated by the microscopic images of the coronavirus.
But he was in his own mind. He glanced up at me, and his face broke into a smile. I stood back.
How to tell him that I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to see him again. Would he understand?
I try to visit him every day, because, quite frankly, I’m not sure if there will be a tomorrow, and also because he loves, more than anything, to go out for an evening meal. Often, after an hour or two together, his mood improves and I find glints of the wise-cracking man who raised me. He comes back.
I pointed to the TV, mentioned the virus. I told him I wouldn’t be able to visit for some time after today.
“How long?” he asked, his hazel eyes wide.
I wasn’t sure.
“They’re worried I’ll give it to you,” I told him. “So that’s why I can’t come.”
He pondered that for a few seconds. Then he said: “Should I leave this place?"
I am Bob Bohen’s only child, so there was no one else to confer with when I brought him down to Florida four years ago after several hospitalizations in Williamsburg, Va. He had lived there with his 99-year-old sister.
A prostate operation had failed, so he was tethered to a catheter bag. We stopped in the bathroom at South of the Border in South Carolina, and I struggled with the little knob to empty the urine from the swollen bag hanging near his calf.
Dad grew up in an Irish-Catholic family in Queens, N.Y., the youngest of four siblings. He played stick ball in a league and talks about the time he got a base hit off Whitey Ford, the Yankees pitcher nicknamed “The Chairman of the Board,” when they were kids.
We have always been close, visiting several times a year. But I hadn’t been around him regularly in 34 years.
Raising me alone in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Westport, Conn., he worked two part-time jobs -- one as an insurance inspector and another inspecting high-rise elevators in Manhattan -- so he could often be there when I got home from school. When I got my period for the first time, I went to him.
He’d bump into walls and trip and fall to make me laugh. He let me have huge sleepovers and was beloved among my friends. He took me out to eat. Every night.
But after being removed from his surroundings in Virginia, he grew so anxious that he shut down. I struggled to get anything beyond one-word replies from him as we drove into Florida and passed billboards that pitched Jesus, vasectomies and strip clubs.
At The Fountains in South Pasadena, he moved into a studio and got his meals in a dining room. Caregivers gave him his meds, helped him empty the catheter bag.
He sat in his apartment a lot, watching the Rays. He said he didn’t want any new friends.
I took him to a neurologist, who added a medication to help him walk better. I took him to a urologist, who put him on other pills and finally got rid of the catheter. He started taking a cognitive medication, Namzaric, which gave him back some words, elevated his thoughts.
“There’s too much obsession with doctors,” he said one day as we sat waiting in a gray-washed office. “We should accept death as a codicil of life.”
Another time, he gazed out at a brilliant orange-red sunset over the smooth expanse of water outside The Fountains and said: “The sky is shouting at the peacefulness. It’s a gift.”
Every day, he wanted me to take him for dinner at a British pub, The Horse & Jockey, which he called “Boots and Saddles.” He liked the wooden booths and made friends with the waiters and waitresses, always greeting them warmly.
He told funny stories about his new home. There was a woman who said she would sit on his lap if he came up to her apartment. He turned her down. A man with a walker had rushed for a seat at his lunch table, knocking over a woman in a wheelchair. Another woman waved at him with her thumb and fingers flapping like a finger puppet; he waved back, his thumb and fingers flapping.
Later, we started going to Fortunato’s across the street. He’d get in the car and say “bread,” meaning he wanted to go there because they served it with each meal. It got to where they brought us our Diet Cokes, his with no ice, before we even sat down at the table.
He went from walking in on his own, to using a cane, then a walker and finally, recently, I pushed him up to the table in a wheelchair.
As the Parkinson’s robbed him of his mind, he struggled with words, and he had trouble swallowing.
“How come you are the third leg under this table?” he asked me one time over scrambled eggs and home fries.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
It’s strange to sit across the dinner table from your father night after night for four years and realize you went all those years without this, and now, it’s back and you really enjoy it. You get to know each other again. You build connection. You laugh.
I needed him, too.
Only now, things were about to change again.
As I stand in my father’s new room, I’m thinking this is quite possibly the last time I’ll see him. I think to myself that I’m being melodramatic. My hands are slathered in hand sanitizer. I’d even wiped down my car keys.
I tell him I think his memory care unit is the safest place for him right now. He’s on a contained floor with 15 or so residents. He was getting thinner, but I’d never seen him so energized. His routine included bingo and Jeopardy during the day and sitting with the others every night watching a movie. He said he was talking more, and he wanted to be an inspiration.
“I’m so happy, because I’m doing something that’s vivid and strong,” he said. “I’m helping people.”
“How are you helping them?” I asked.
He said people go through stages of life -- school, maybe college, a job -- and “their personality is absorbed.” He wants to help them find it again. “I want them to see that they can do that,” he said.
My heart fluttered, heavy.
He wanted to know if we could have dinner together. I said no, we couldn’t.
“Who’s going to take care of me?” he asked.
I told him he wouldn’t be alone. It would be OK. They would take care of him.
“Who?” he asked.
I told him we would talk on the phone every day. I worried, though, that he’d forget why I wasn’t there and think I abandoned him.
I told him I loved him.
“I love you,” he said, “and I want you to be happy.”
I have no symptoms of the virus, and I longed to embrace him. But I gave him an air hug. Just in case.
Contact Leonora LaPeter Anton at email@example.com. Follow @WriterLeonora.
Coronavirus outbreak stories are free to read as a public service at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Sign up for our DayStarter newsletter to receive updates weekday mornings. If this coverage is important to you, consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Tampa Bay Times at tampabay.com/subscribe.