by Nancy Agabian
My father’s frame is taut, bent from the waist but straining to straighten, and he walks like a toy soldier, one plodding foot in front of the other. I’m watching the news after dinner when he comes to me holding a plastic sleeve of orange cheddar slices.
“There are four slices of cheese missing,” he reports.
Born in 1929, the son of refugees, he has always been thrifty, saving the rubber bands from vegetables, sucking every fiber of meat from a bone, picking up grains of sugar from the table with a licked finger. I anticipate a complaint about my mother eating too much cheese.
Instead he informs me, “It says on the package there are eleven slices. But they only gave us seven!”
I try to clear up his confusion: “It’s not a brand new package.”
“But I just opened it.”
“No you didn’t. I opened it last week. We’ve eaten four slices. I made Mom a grilled cheese for lunch.”
The cheddar’s high level of sodium endangers his heart, so I had made him a sandwich with mozzarella instead. He’s unaware of the substitution, just as my grandmother didn’t know, decades before, that he taped shut the holes in her salt shaker. An industrial appraiser, he was always coming up with mechanical solutions. Now the zip lock seal on the cheese slices has confounded him, the package appearing as new.
This is the dance of dementia. Everyday tasks need elaborate explanation till they don’t matter. But now it’s imperative that he understand. This is why we wash our hands for twenty seconds. This is why old people must stay at home. This is why we didn’t wear masks but now we should. I have trouble understanding myself.
“Four slices are missing!” he insists. “We have a lawsuit here!”
Though one small part of my brain chuckles, most of my mind is fatigued. My father encouraged me as a child to write letters to the editor, to speak up against wrongdoing. How can he not understand there are more pressing matters outside our quarantine?
There are not enough masks. Tests are scarce. Black and brown people are disproportionately dying. As of today, over 30,000 people have died and roughly 600,000 people have been infected in the U.S. They are numbers, sterile, appearing on the tv screen. Not 1.5 million, I tell myself. At least they’re not as bad as our own private genocide.
Close to 200 folks lost their lives in Massachusetts today. The state lists the dead by their age. There are usually a few in their 50s. A bunch in their 80s. Today there are several 100s. Who are they? Old people who were going to die soon anyway, unable to count their last breaths.
“Why did you even open this?” I ask my father. “Are you hungry?”
“I opened it because it says there are eleven slices and they only gave us seven!”
I listen to his rage, a flag ripping in the wind. Our ability to fathom unimaginable loss, like a few slabs of cheese—missing.
Nancy Agabian is a writer, teacher, and literary organizer, working in the spaces between race, ethnicity, cultural identity, feminism and queer identity. She is the author of Me as her again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter (Aunt Lute Books, 2008), and Princess Freak (Beyond Baroque Books, 2000), a collection of poetry, prose, and performance art texts. Her recent novel, The Fear of Large and Small Nations, was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially-Engaged Fiction. She is currently working on a personal essay collection, In-Between Mouthfuls, which frames liminal spaces of identity within causes for social justice. A longtime community-based writing workshop facilitator, she teaches creative writing at universities, art centers, and online, most recently at The Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in NYC, and her own Zoom series, “Connected Rooms”. She serves on the board of the International Armenian Literary Alliance. Art by Karyn Kloumann, founder of award-winning indie publisher Nauset Press.