“What room am I in?”

“305.”

“What room did Mom die in?”

“212.”

“Don’t let them put me in room 212.”

“I won’t.”

His breath was strong and steady, but his hands and eyes darted back and forth as if he were dreaming. His words didn’t match what was going on. Not anymore. He wasn’t dreaming. He was wide awake and living in a world where he was always thinking of her, looking for her, wondering where she was, and when she was coming back. Those were the bad days and my job was to sit beside him and lie.

“That nurse doesn’t work here anymore. They fired her.”

“Your glasses are being fixed.”

“She’ll be here before you know it, Dad. It won’t be long.”

On a good day, we’d talk about football and fishing and politics and all the things he knew before his mind fragmented. He’d tell me to ask the coach why the hell we quit using a spread offense and what his grandsons needed to do to fire those Tigers up like the old days. He’d point out all the cracks in the walls and how a good foundation would have prevented them. He’d look at the sky and tell me which fish would be biting down in Matagorda Bay early the next morning. He’d explain how the US involvement in the Middle East was decades in the making and just exactly what needed to be done to make it right. He’d remind me of how his funeral was supposed to run and what music to allow and how to “tell that preacher just exactly how my religious cookie crumbles” so no untoward embarrassment would creep into the service and haunt him in his afterlife.

Oh, how I loved those good days! How relieved I was to discover my mental preparation was for naught because I could just be myself. Everyone was a bit lighter on those days. The nurses dispensed with that pitying no-teeth smile and really looked into my eyes to tell me how much he’d eaten that day and what joke he’d told at physical therapy. The social worker would giggle as she told me how he’d been flirting with her. Dad would have a craving for a milkshake or pecan pie and I’d race into town to fetch it and watch as he spooned it into his own mouth without my assistance.

But, the bad days. The bad days would drain the joy out of me like a vacuum.

“What room am I in?”

“305, Dad.”

“What room did Mom die in?”

“212.”

“Don’t let them put me in room 212.”

“Daddy, we’re not at the hospital. You won’t ever go to room 212.”

“Promise me, Lis.”

“I promise, Dad.”

I’d sit there and watch his face, looking for a recognizable expression. I thought I knew all of my dad’s expressions. When he was thinking of a joke, he had a shit-eating grin that deepened when it was something he couldn’t share.  He had a disgusted face when my sister or I didn’t measure up to his exacting standards. The placid look when he was working on a calculus problem or reading about nuclear mechanical maintenance is the same face I make when I’m reading Jane Austen or writing about something funny. He had a goofy expression when he would grab my mother and dance her across the kitchen floor. He had an all-knowing face that would allow me to finish spinning a tale of why I’d missed curfew and, “No, I didn’t drink any beer, Dad. Gah!” He’d wait until the next day to tell me I was grounded and had a ton of yardwork as punishment for lying. (Obviously, I sucked at deciphering the all-knowing face.) My dad never looked confused or quizzical. EVER. He was supremely confident and what he lacked in confidence, he made up in bullshit. My dad was a great bullshitter. The best.

After Mom died, there were so many days that his expression was foreign to me. Confused and quizzical don’t even begin to describe it. He was completely lost. His mind had swallowed in upon itself and played cruel tricks on him. He was trapped in a maze with neither plan of escape nor wherewithal to bullshit his way out. He was gone, my Dad. A shell. Waiting.

“Tell that nurse Mom’s coming to pick me up.”

“Daddy…”

“What?”

“Nothing, Dad. I’ll tell her.”

After a while, Dad got to where we didn’t have good days anymore. Then, even the bad days stopped. He became unresponsive and quiet for about a month before he went to be with Mom. At the very moment he died, his face, yet again, held an expression I’d never seen before. It was smooth, free of lines, and filled with peace. He didn’t smile, but there was a radiance that showed me he was finally happy. He had found the key to unlock the prison of his mind with the one and only person who would make him whole again.