“It's tragic,” my father says.
This is in response to the innocuous question, “how's it going?” I knew it was a dumb question, but I wasn't expecting “it's tragic” as a response.
“It's like a prison here,” He elaborates, “and then you have her.”
The first person in my line of vision is his wheelchair-bound lady friend, and I doubt this is who he's talking about.
“Not her,” Dad says, almost seeming to read my mind, “her.”
The subject of his ire is a petite, attractive asian nurse. Okay---about what I expected.
My father, in his old age, has problems with authority, which means we probably have more in common now than we ever did growing up. I don't want to dress that up in any kind of romantic way, though...he's always been a cantankerous, loose cannon type, especially to medical professionals and people in food service.
This is the second visit I've made to this nursing home this week. I'm back in New England for the first time in over ten years----I haven't seen my father in 16.
He and my mother---who've been divorced for well over 30 years----are both residents here. Long story----don't feel like repeating it.
My understanding is that all the residents on this floor are dealing with one or another form of dementia. In my Mom's case, that's Alzheimer's. In my Dad's case, it's the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury. He's not dealing with delusions but he's extremely forgetful. He's asked where I'm living these days several times. He's asked if I've got a girl these days...I tell him I've got a wife. We've been married nine years. But he was having trouble with these details before the head injury. In fairness and deference to the head injury.
We're waiting for my brother to come back----he went off in search of my mother in the Rec Room. We're sitting in the main hallway, which is less than comfortable, but we're in a holding pattern until then.
After what seems an interminable stretch, my brother Chris returns. We wheel Dad back to his room where he shows us around. He has pictures of various children, stepchildren and grandkids who've visited....cards from his recent birthday. It becomes apparent this particular swatch of wall means a lot to him. I make a private note to myself that I should send him pictures.
There's also a crude crayon drawing of a lighthouse that I instantly love. Chris had told me a while ago that he was doing art therapy, which I'm all about. Late in his life my left-brained engineer Dad has found some use for art and I like what he's doing. Things like this are why Outsider Art exists.
Also on the wall are pictures of Hawk Missiles, and my Dad is wearing a Hawk Missile baseball cap. The Hawk Missile was his bread and butter as a defense contractor...he worked on the guidance system. He boasts about being in the Middle East and watching a Hawk Missile take down an Iranian warplane. (I'm debating whether he means “Iranian” or “Iraqi”----no matter)
His roommate is a scared rabbit of a gentleman who sits in a corner and doesn't interact much with us.
Eventually, on Chris's suggestion, we move back toward the Rec Room. A good many of the residents are there. Some congregate at tables, others crowd around a large screen TV where the staff shows movies and other fare. My Mother is seated with a couple of other people at a far table by a big picture window that looks out onto the roof of the facility. Chris and Dad encourage me to go spend time with her.
I head over and seat myself at the far end of the table. Mom acknowledges me and she knows I'm her son...she doesn't use my name, which probably opens questions as to whether she knows which son I am. I don't feel as though those questions are necessarily that important.
She's listening intently to a white-haired woman who's talking about vague military operations and she seems bemused by the whole thing. The other person by the table is a thin, balding, dour-looking man with glasses who's taking in the whole conversation but saying nothing.
In my previous visit my Mom had spent a good chunk of the time walking around with another very animated, pleasant lady who was apparently new to the home. “I always look in on her and she always looks in on me,” she explained. “She's a Nun.”
I'm not sure whether she was actually a Nun or not....she wore an unusual headkerchief and I guessed it wasn't outside the realm of possibility.
There's no sign of her today.
The white-haired woman is very focused on what's happening outside the window (which is nothing) and is talking ragtime about the cadets who are out in the woods in the back of the facility. I remember family members relating to me a story about Mom saying one of our cousins (she wasn't sure which) lived in the woods out in back of the home and was going to high school out there. This is the first indicator to me that the residents talk and their delusions may all dovetail into one another.
The white-haired woman continues her looping, endless narrative that she always returns to, despite periodic interruptions. She talks about how “we” (whoever the undisclosed “we” are) are going out to Fort McHenry and bringing in rafts full of food to the cadets across the river. I humor her and ask questions where I think it's appropriate. My Mom listens with a gleam in her eye, occasionally shooting me a smile that seems to ask, “can you believe this?!” She occasionally latches onto something that prompts a reaction, where she'll wisecrack about being thrown in the ocean by a bunch of guys. This is a source of humor to her but it's something she seems obsessed with lately. No one seems to know where it's coming from.
During my first visit she pointed out Dad and told me, “he threw me in the ocean once. He's a nice guy.”
I was confused by that, but I played along and said, “well, it doesn't sound like a very nice thing to me!”
“Oh, it's not bad,” she said. “The other guy threw me in the ocean twice!”
It sounded like some kind of a whimsical allegory on her marriages----my Mom, of course, was never real big on allegory and I doubt she has much use for it at this point. Today it had taken great precedence in her mind. She's jovial about it, anyway.
Mom seems, at least part of the time, to be in on the joke. She seems to understand that the conversations around her are circular and deluded, although her own contributions are also circular and deluded.
The loss I feel in all of this is that my family are an incredible group of talkers and listeners, and it's not unusual, when we get together, for us to fire up a pot of coffee and yak long into the night about anything and everything. At least on this front, that's lost, now, and it's never coming back.
Somewhere around this time my youngest brother, Steve, has shown up. There was a method to this madness----I had spent the last few days in Nashua, New Hampshire with Chris and will crash with Steve and his significant other in their Boston apartment before flying back to Arkansas the next morning.
We laugh and joke and take pictures with Mom and Dad. Mom seems particularly tickled. The woman with the white hair merely pauses in her looping story to keep her vigil out the window. Chris, Steve and I laugh and reminisce with Mom. Whether she totally gets it or not, I'm not sure---she gets a kick out of our brotherly repartee.
At this point, the dour man in the corner begs my attention. “I'm a good man,” he tells me, pleadingly, almost desperately. “I'll never see my wife or my daughter again. But I'm a good man! I know I'm a good man!”
“I can tell that you are,” I tells him.
'There was something I was trying to convey in there,” he says, “but I think I've lost it.”
“I know how that goes,” I tell him and meant it sincerely. Sometimes it feels as though my whole life is endless tangients and unfinished conversations.
“Well, then, good luck to you,” he finally says. The sentiment seems to be that we were laughing off our mother's condition, which we certainly aren't.
The military woman continues her story. As she hits a pause in her conversation the dour man leans over and whispers, “I'm sorry for what you're going through. I hope it works out for you.” He softly kisses her and retreats to his corner. The military woman is undaunted and continues along her track.
Chris has left at this point and I will leave with Steve---he hangs back and gives me whatever time I need.
The staff is playing a DVD about baseball greats like DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson when a man comes through and starts dispensing little pink plastic rosaries from a box. This precipitates a change of DVDs. One is thrown on that has people praying the rosary and a number of people pray along.
I realize Mom is actually wearing one of the little pink rosaries. During lulls in the conversation I watch her absentmindedly fingering it and lapsing into the Hail Mary.
At some point a fifty-or-sixtyish lady comes in to visit with the dour man. The daughter he said he'd never see again, perhaps? He cries copiously and the two of them leave the Rec Room.
The place is genuinely starting to creep on me. Alone at one table sits a man who keeps trying to stand up from his wheelchair. Every time he does an alarm goes off and a nurse comes over to sit him back down.
At one point there's only one nurse in the room and she's very young---maybe a CNA? She's popping the rosary DVD out and popping in “Gigi”. An old woman about ten feet away is slumped over in her wheelchair, crying, “I can't take it anymore---somebody please help me!”
The young staffer is attempting, from the DVD player, to verbally address the issue, but she's addressing the wrong resident.
I'm verging on a panic attack at this point; I keep telling myself, it's a well-regarded facility. The family have dealt with them for years. My grandmother spent her last days here.
Its not the first staff to be momentarily overwhelmed. And goddammit, I certainly couldn't do the job they're doing.
Things continue, conversations go on and my Mom points out several nurses to me, telling me, “She's a hard worker---I like her.” Whereas my Father grumbled about the facility being an authoritarian prison, my Mom is perfectly at home, sees her place in a larger community and seems to believe she works there. She has a good sense of humor about the whole situation.
The sky's turning and I know it won't be too long before rush hour traffic is snarling up the Boston Area. Steve gently suggests we might head out, and so I say goodbye to my parents. I remember well over a decade ago being in some silly email argument (much of the silliness probably being mine) with most of my immediate family and imploring them that we might never see each other again. It wasn't a threat, just a statement of fact....any one of us could die at any minute, and did we really want that to be our last exchange?
My goal with the visit was to be able to see my Mother while she still had a fighting chance at knowing who I was. Mission accomplished, but I also left knowing it might be the last time I saw either one of my parents. Hopefully not----but we'll see how that goes.