Four hours up, four hours back, if the traffic gods wished us well. I looked at Phil as we walked toward the entrance and asked, “Which Dad do you think we’ll find today?”
He shrugged, smiled, and replied that hopefully Dad would be somewhat aware, but we both knew it’d be foolish to place bets on the matter, since so many days found dad locked in silence or sleeping.
The low slung red bricked building sprawled across the grounds. We stopped for a minute, to catch our breath at what might be to come, and to rest our eyes on the aged trees which seemed to stand guard.
I winced just a bit; my dad would most likely never see those trees. I don’t remember the last time he got outside, this man that loved being in the open air. Tucked away in this nursing home, confined to a wheelchair, he lives in his imagination and memories now.
A receptionist buzzed us inside into the brightly lit lobby, huge glass windows allowing the light to stream in and offering a tantalizing peek at the outdoors. Despite the scattered easy chairs, brightly colored artwork, and the piano, no one could deny that this was a nursing home.
Wrinkled faces of every nationality stared at us. A few souls smiled their greeting; another few stared in curiosity, watching our every move, hoping to escape to the outside world. Others swayed softly in their wheelchairs, humming to themselves, locked in a world we could only begin to imagine. Visitors wore a mix of worried, sad faces and their best game day smiles, determined to be cheerful.
We signed in – names, times, and destination. Grabbing our visitors’ badges and punching in the elevator code, we waited for the doors to open, and for the car that would carry us to a place where dementia reigned. Making idle conversation and trying to avoid the heaviness in our stomachs, not knowing what our visit would bring.
The elevator bell chimed; the car shuddered to a stop and we entered along with a few aides and staff. In silence, the car ascended heavily and slowly, seeming to not want to make this journey either. Another chime and the doors creaked open in protest.
Phil and I exited to an overwhelming smell of disinfectant, medicines, and elderly bodies. Most had a smile for us; some waited eagerly for the elevator doors to open, headed for the lobby and companionship.
We walked a short distance, and then Phil hit the buzzer to signal our arrival on 2 North. Pushing the door open, we slid through it quickly, knowing that almost always, someone waited to flee the ward.
Stopping for a minute, we scanned the area, not sure where we’d find Dad. By the desk? In his room? Maybe in the dining room. Just another puzzle to be solved.
“There he is,” I whispered. “Over there, around the corner from the desk.” Somewhere nearby, a voice shrieked over and over again in protest, as an aide gently tried to remove her “baby,” a dilapidated stuffed animal, no longer recognizable. Another raised voice urged Bill to please sit down. Nurses engaged in conversation with concerned adult children.
We made our way over, skirting around walkers and in between wheelchairs. By now, some of 2N’s residents recognized us; others never would, no matter how often we visited. I bent over, touched Dad’s silver hair, said hello, hoping to bring him into now.
“Hi, Dad, how goes it?”
Slowly raising his head, soft brown eyes blank, he stared at us for a moment. Then, with a bit of a smile, he answered, “Oh, pretty good., pretty good.”
“That’s great, Dad. We’re doing pretty well ourselves.”
Silence. It would be the first of many periods of silence as I’d struggle with what to say to him. How do you make conversation with someone you love when that someone really isn’t present?
So, I just begin to talk, catching him up on what I’ve been doing. I chat away about Alex and Dominic, maybe tell him how the garden is doing.
The words really didn’t matter, and Dad often stares off into the distance. I’m not sure he even hears me, but I plow on any way, hoping that maybe a small snippet reaches him somehow.
Phil finds two empty chairs and pulls them over. I grabbed Dad’s hand, and hold it, stroking gently. He may not process the words, but touch remains a pleasure. I think he longs to be touched.
Dementia both gives and takes. He’s lost the gift of stories and laughter, but he’s able to say “I love you,” now, something he never could do when the world would pronounce him sane.
Today is a good day, dad being aware enough to make conversation, loony as it might be with stories of him and his brother walking the family cow a distance of 60 miles or so, and then back home again. He then threw in a story of six children. Whoops! As far as I knew, only 4 of us existed.
A passing aide grinned and remarked that my father seemed to have been quite something in his youth, and that he really got around. Uh, could we skip those stories, please?
No matter, I know he loves us well. By today’s standards, he could almost be considered an absentee father. He worked hard to provide, because that’s what his generation did, work. Rarely less than two jobs, sometimes three, he was determined to give what we needed.
He made sure to show us the world, because as he explained it, there was just so much to see. We’d get to the beach several times a summer, the six of us crammed into a tiny travel trailer, dining on hot dogs and chicken noodle soup. Each Sunday, we’d pile into the car, and he’d laughing call out that he got a window, and off we’d go, exploring.
I’m grateful today is a good day, because there are so many bad days – when his sleep and stillness make me catch my breath in dread. I hesitantly touch him, fearing I’ve lost him forever.
Dad’s rambling now, his voice softly slurred amid the cacophony of 2N’s staff and patients. He fidgets in his wheelchair a bit, trying to get comfortable.
Suddenly, his eyes brighten and he whispers, “They’re at it again.”
I look up, trying to figure out who “they” are. Are they even real or just living in Dad’s mind? And, if they are real, what are they up to?
Suddenly, all 3 of us grin, even as Phil and I scoot our chairs back, along with dad’s wheelchair. We need to clear a path, because they’re coming, hell bent for leather as Dad would say.
Two wizened and very elderly frail women, slumped over in wheelchairs, each propelling herself down the corridor, jockeying to be first. They roll along at a pace which could never be called speedy, but quickly enough to do some damage. Neither means to give an inch.
“You bitch!” one screams. “I was first. Now, get the hell out of my way.”
“Take that,” yells her antagonist while inching her chair over close enough to land a punch. The intent is clear; the execution poor.
Today’s featherweight match has begun.
“Damn you, bitch. I’m gonna call my lawyer.”
“Go right ahead, slut. I’m first and that’s that.”
Dad’s grinning, and Phil and I bend our heads to hide our laughter. We’re fighting to give these feisty women the respect we owe them, determined never to mock any of this floor’s inhabitants.
Two aides rushed over to separate the combatants, whose wheelchairs are locked together. The furious patients continue to rain feeble blows on and hurl insults at each other.
Trying to calm them down, the aides make sure to move the ladies in such a way that neither can claim victory.
I spin in my chair, grinning at Dad, who grins back.
Suddenly, I hear Phil telling me to grab my purse. Uh-oh, the resident klepto is streaking down the corridor, heading my way with her eyes firmly fixed on my purse. As I kick it under my chair, I hear an aide’s voice imploring Bill to please sit down before he hurts himself.
Still grinning at Dad, I block a very lovely and very determined sari clad Indian woman from her spoils. She begins to hurl insults at me, making it clear that she does not take defeat lightly.
All the while, our two prize fighters’ voices clearly carry the length of their corridor, each protesting that the other started it, and to please let her at her nemesis.
Phil looks at me, silently laughing, and whispers that this would make a terrific reality show, but that no one would ever buy that these things truly happen. I nod my agreement, noticing that dad’s eyes are closing and his breathing is deepening. Nap time seems to be in order.
Letting the aides know, we wheel him into his room, and for a few minutes we just sit. I rub his hands and whisper that I love him. He nods his head, and whispers back “I love you, too.”
2N seems quieter now; even the warring old ladies’ voices silent. Bill must have finally sat down to his aide’s relief. I can see the klepto disappearing into her room with a few pieces of treasure, an aide close behind to reclaim the loot. Her “baby” back in her arms, another old woman croons a lullaby.
Phil bends over the desk and whispers a request for the code needed to exit the locked doors. An aide walks over with us, distracting a lurking resident with conversation.
We exit without the resident making her planned escape. As the door closes behind us, I hear her informing the aide that “This place is nothing but a prison.” I send a silent thank you upwards that Dad didn’t understand just where he lived now.
Once again, we hit the code for the elevator and then ride it down to the lobby. Turning in our passes and signing out, we say our good-byes and thank yous. The desk attendant unlocks the doors.
Outside, I gulp in the fresh air and let go of the insanity still lurking inside.
I can hear my dad telling me over and over that he wants to die in the house in which he was born. I hear him tell me that he hopes to never be one of those poor souls locked inside a nursing home, saying that he’d rather be dead, thank you.
I try to take comfort in the fact that he’s safe and well taken care of. He’s treated with respect and dignity, even when he explodes in anger, not understanding what’s happening at the moment. In his mind, he’s somewhere else completely, living a life he’ll tell you is “pretty good,” and that he’s doing “pretty well for an old fart.”
So, these visits evoke so much inside me – fear, helplessness, and longings for the dad I once knew.
They’re difficult, but I make them because I love him. I will always love this man who gave me life, gave me belief in myself, and reinforced in me over and over again, that I had a brain in my head, and I could do almost anything I wanted to do.
Four hours up, four hours back for a visit that lasted just under an hour. I can tell you that each and every minute was worth it.