Dad was doing so well…
When Mom drives back down to Pittsburgh, I stay at her house for a few more days so I can do some maintenance work. It’s late June, and she’s been down in Pittsburgh on and off for a couple of months now. She’s been following Dad from one UPMC hospital to the next and then more recently to a smelly nursing home in Shadyside.
Because she’s been gone so much, every window in Mom’s house is still encased in its wooden storm window, and her garden is a tangled mess. I take down the storm windows and make sure that each room has at least one screen installed. I weed the garden and plant some potted perennials that we had bought during my last visit in May.
I soak in the quiet of the surrounding forest, and I’m surprised by how little I feel the urge to return to my urban life. I feel peaceful as I seldom have in these recent months of relentless dramatic ups and downs in my dying father’s health. Over the past week when I had been looking after him at the nursing home he had improved steadily, and I had allowed myself to hope.
By Tuesday afternoon, I’ve completed all the urgent tasks in Mom’s house and garden, and I’ve packed up my hatchback for the trip back to my own house in Jersey City. It is a brilliant sunny day, the air dry and pleasant, the peace hanging in it like benevolent pollens.
Just as I’m about to make one final sweep through the house to make sure I haven’t left anything behind, the phone rings, and it’s my mother. I cheerfully report everything I’ve accomplished around the house and tell her I’m just about to head home.
I ask her how things are going there, and she breaks down. “They’re not going well at all. We’re having a really bad day.”
They are back in a Presbyterian Hospital intensive care unit, my father having lapsed into some new infection that is causing him to hallucinate kidnappings and malevolent medical interns. Mom thinks the infection has come from the inadequate care at the nursing home, and she tells me she is afraid once again that we will “lose him.”
I try to calm her down, but I am seething with anger at the universe. Things were going so well; how can this be happening now?
I debate whether I should drive my already-packed car south back to Pittsburgh rather than east to Jersey City, but in the end I decide I’ll act on the assumption that my father will recover once again from this latest setback. This decision is an act of will—I am willing Dad to get better. It is also an act of exhaustion—I simply do not have the strength right now to return to a hospital.
Though its peace has been shattered, the day remains clear and bright—a perfect Pennsylvania summer day. No doubt a muggy haze will be hanging over Jersey City when I arrive there, and I’ll need to turn on the air conditioner in my bedroom before I go to bed tonight. But along Route 80 the air is dry, and temperatures linger in the comfortable 70s.
About 20 miles before the Snow Shoe rest stop, though, I notice something very strange. Although it’s July 1st, and although the sun hangs early-summer-high in the sky, it is early May on the mountainsides that flank the interstate highway. For roughly 10 miles, all the trees are covered in the bright, promising green of tiny spring buds, the architecture of the trees’ bark and branches still visible below the buds.
The next ten miles of mountainsides are in an even greater time warp, their branches winter-bare. It is strange to see the vertical summer sun strike naked limbs and the blank forest floor at an angle I’ve never seen before—a freaky inversion of when I used to live in Los Angeles and couldn’t reconcile the low winter sun with the leafy green of tree species that were new to me.
When I pull into the Snow Shoe rest stop to use the restroom, there’s not a leaf in sight. The landscape is barren like late November, but without the smell of a coming snowfall. In fact, there is no smell at all, and the surrounding woods are eerily quiet, not a single bird or cricket chirping in the background. It is apocalyptic.
Its brick sturdy and businesslike, the low building that houses the restrooms remains standing, with its vending machines and racks of cards hawking Pennsylvania tourist attractions. A hand-printed sign on the exterior door informs me that the gypsy moth is responsible for the devastation I am seeing. Inside, a typed statement from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is posted on a glassed-in bulletin board next to portraits of the governor and lieutenant governor.
“Lymantria dispar, the gypsy moth, is responsible for millions of acres of defoliation annually,” the statement informs me. Introduced into Massachusetts from Europe in the 1860s for silk production, the moths escaped their original site of entry and have spread across the entire Northeast. It is not the adult moths that cause the destruction, but rather the caterpillars, which hatch from last year’s eggs in April or May and proceed to eat every green leaf in their path.
While deciduous trees can usually rebound from a single year’s infestation—as I had witnessed them doing a few miles earlier—defoliated conifers often die after just one attack, and repeated infestations can kill deciduous trees as well. Of course, the many forms of wildlife that depend on the trees for their survival are devastated at the same time.
A few miles down I-80 from the rest stop, the forest mutates from bare March back to lush July, a disturbingly sharp line marking the advancing front of the deadly army of caterpillars. I think of my dad and wonder, will he come back this time or not?
David Blackmore spent the first half of his childhood in Pittsburgh and the second half three hours north in rural Kane, Pennsylvania. He received his AB in English from Harvard and his MA and PhD in English from UCLA. After teaching for many years at New Jersey City University in Jersey City, he is now associate professor of English and writing program coordinator at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Although most of David’s previous publications have been scholarly in nature, he recently published in Wordrunners eChapbooks and is hard at work on his book-length memoir Chemical Works Road.