Redfern Jon Barrett

I lost my father in pieces. That’s the worst way to lose someone: bit by bit.

I even miss his jokes. I’m ready for the prom, he used to declare, back in the early stages. Even though he was in his eighties, he’d dance around in his hospital gown—waltzing with thin air.

See! See, Palmer? I’m more woman than you are.

Then he would curtsy as I rolled my eyes; he would laugh at my irritation. Dad had always liked to tease, poking fun at my short hair, at my stereotypical butchness. But that was all before the dementia gnawed away at his memories, before it gobbled up his cognitive functions.

Now, there’s no dancing. There are no jokes. He looks small and frail as we await his turn in the sleek white facility, and more than anything I wish for my old dad back. Not this transition from human to skeleton.

“We’re ready for Joe Nibley,” they announce.

My wife Claire and I help him up from his seat. He’s light and dry as papier-mâché as we guide him through the high, wide doors. He doesn’t even look at us when we say goodbye.

“Honey.” Claire takes my hand, once we’re outside. She’s shorter than I am, and peers up into my eyes, like she’s trying to see my thoughts. “It’s going to be all right. It’s going to work.”

I hope so; Dad hocked everything for this procedure, drained every bank account, even borrowed from old friends. All so they could rejuvenate his aging cells, all thirty trillion of them—even regenerating dead and damaged nerve cells. They’ll return his body to twenty years old.

If this works, then my dad will be younger than I am. If it works. They’ve never done this on someone so far along; someone so far gone.

The call comes early in the morning, while we’re still in bed.

The therapy has been a success, an automated voice informs me, one so good it almost sounds real. Please collect Joe Nibley between the hours of ten and fifteen.

Did it work? Claire mouths.

I nod. Yes.

She hugs me, accidentally knocking the phone from my hand. We scramble about the sheets until she finds it, and hands it over.

…the patient may be disoriented and will need transit accommodations. A representative will guide you upon arrival. We thank you for choosing Omnicare—More Life Than Life.

Claire scrabbles about our little house, getting everything ready for his return. I must be pleased, but as I put fresh sheets on his bed I can’t help thinking of my mother; and then again as I take the ladder outside to hang the welcome banner. As I clean the kitchen counters all I can think about is Mom, and how this is the second chance she never had.

I can still see her bed-bound, and I still mouth that bland-sounding name that turned out so devastating: classical Hodgkin lymphoma. I even hear her trembling voice, the last thing she ever said to me:

I wanted more.

But it’s Dad who gets her dying wish.

I remember when Maisy was all over the news—a cute little lamb who galloped about an Astroturf playpen, as pictures of an old sheep flashed up onscreen. Scientists in long coats toasted with champagne, but it hadn’t really seemed real: It could have been any lamb; it could have been any sheep.

We park the car and are greeted at the entrance by the most perfect woman I’ve ever met. She’s a monstrous kind of perfect; her smile is the pristine smile of an advertisement.

“Hello there, my name is Amber!” The young woman says. “You must be Ms. Palmer Nibley and Ms. Claire Divjak. I understand you’re here to collect your rejuvenated father, and father-in-law, Joe Nibley.”

“Yes,” is all I can say; Amber seems to have covered everything else. Claire grins, which means she’s taken an immediate dislike to the immaculate stranger.

“Please follow me,” Amber beckons, leading us through the lobby of the facility, toward the private rooms. Omnicare is written on the walls in soft pink lights, like a spa. We stop outside a door with Joe Nibley written in the same font.

“I’ll give you some time alone,” Amber says. “Just call if you need me.”

Inside the small bright room there’s a young man, asleep in a bed. He’s a stranger.

“That’s not him,” I whisper. “It’s not him.”

“Honey,” Claire replies, squeezing my hand. “Can’t you see it? That is him. That’s your dad right there.”

But my dad was bald, and the twenty-year-old lying in the bed has shimmery copper hair. His pale skin is impossibly smooth; there are no wrinkles, and hardly any freckles. He has a proud, firm jawline.

“Fuck.” Claire doesn’t usually curse; she releases the word in a small puff of air. “Palmer, he could be your son.”

“That’s exactly the wrong thing to say,” I tell her.

But it’s true. Slowly, slowly I can see it; as his nose slips into recognition, as his eyes and ears fade into familiarity. That’s my nose on the young man in the bed. My eyes, my ears.

“Do you think he’ll be different?” she whispers. Neither of us can take our eyes off him.

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Image by Sammy-Sander from Pixabay