When my father first arrived at the nursing home, I was overwhelmed by the dismantled state of its residents. Life and limbs coiled. Minds, hearts, spirits, confused and broken.
Suffering is widespread. Pain is prevalent. Time, whether too short or too long, is against them.
Those determined to practice standing, or walking, are stupefied with medication to treat their symptoms of "agitation." With one aid per 7 residents, its too much of a liability to allow them to roam on their own. They are easy to spot - strapped into chairs armed with motion alarms - slumped over, despondent, drooling.
I focus on my father and ignore their moaning, and pleading..."Help me, somebody please help me." "Where's my MaMa?" "PLEASE take me to the bathroom!"
I arrive at the same time each day, 6: 20 pm. I go straight to the dinning-room and retrieve my father. Typically he's sleeping, draped in a soiled bib. His aid tells me "he did good" by finishing his bland, pureed, food.
Today Dad is awake, alert and happy.
"Oh here she is," he tells his dinner companion.
"This is my daughter Shannon. Shannon, say hello to Nick. Nick and I went to college together. We played football together..."
In reality "Nick" is a petite, 98 year old woman, named Grace, with snow white hair and deep, blue eyes.
"Nice to meet you Nick," I say
"Likewise," says Grace
This is how Dad copes. His mind "plays tricks on him" - blanketing the reality of his disintegration with memories from his good old days.
Grace, delighted by the attention, is a devoted listener and I am humbled by her.
I will follow Graces lead.
Beside my father, in his semi private room, is Mr. Kravitz - his mute roommate. He is paralyzed from the waist down. His legs limp, his hands clutch his bedrail. Mr. Kravitz never leaves the confines of his room.
Today, I realized that Mr. Kravits communicates with his eyes. His language coded in intense stares and blinks.
"Hello Mr. Kravitz"
Mr. Kravitz opens his eyes - wide
"How are you today Mr. Kravitz?"
Mr. Kravitz closes his eyes - hard
"It's still pretty cold outside but the crocus's are beginning to bloom. The snow has melted and there is no more morning frost."
Mr. Kravitz opens his eyes - wide.
"Spring is my favorite season"
Mr. Kravitz blinks - several times.
"Awh, you too. We have that in common"
Mr. Kravitz blinks - again and again.
Confined to a wheelchair, Ann is in constant motion - stopping (on the nurses insistence) only to eat. The outer ring of her wheels covered in sheepskin, her hands covered in calluses. Inflamed joints grip hard. With each push, she releases a deep, determined "OHHH" - as though it fuels her fire.
Lou is clearly a pervert. From the confines of his wheelchair, he chases anything under 70 down the hallway. He asks inappropriate questions. "So, are you married? Are you happily married? Do you like your husband? Do you like sex?" Lou is 92. I have no patience for Lou.
Beatrice is 103. She wants to go home. She wants her MaMa and she will not rest until she finds her. "Are you my MaMa?" she asks.
Katherine won't be here long. She broke her hip and is slow to heal. Katherine has maintained her sense of humor. Her eyes are bright. She never complains. Katherine understands that if she doesn't follow orders, she will be treated for "agitation."
Because this is a pet friendly nursing home, with a magnificent blue Macaw as its mascot, I brought Mylo, a rescue dog, with me on one of my visits. Part of an unruly pack of terriers, he was picked up on a highway in Georgia - malnourished and suffering from obvious signs of abused. He's been part of our pack for a bit more than a year. He's grateful for everything we give him, every morsel of food, and especially, of our love.
An avid hunter, I wasn't certain how Mylo's visit would go.
I enter the building with caution, sign in at the front desk, and proceed to the mid point of the circular hallway, where Calipso the Macaws is perched in the confines of a colossal cage.
The hair on Mylo's back raised and his mouth opened.
Calipso extended his wings and his eyes grew RED.
My heart raced, and my stance braced.
From down the hallway I could hear Ann's "OHHH" only this time, it was heightened with delight.
Ann stopped and starred at the sight of these unlikely friends.
And then, she laughed.
I had no idea Ann could laugh.
"Thank you," said Ann.
I had no idea Ann could talk.
Ann loves dogs. Ann remembers her german shepherd, Prince. Prince walked her to school in the mornings and would be there when she got out. Prince was her best friend.
Everyday, I make a point of looking for Katherine. If she's not in the TV room she's typically with Calipso. When I found her yesterday, she had both hands in his cage.
What are you doing Katherine" I ask.
"I want to touch him," she explains.
"Aren't you afraid he's going to bite you?" I ask
"Oh, he wouldn't dare" she assures me.
After 3 weeks of visiting, I am preparing to bring my father home and I wanted to explain our impending absence to Katherine.
"I'm taking him home on Thursday," I tell her.
"Really?" questions Katherine.
"Well, its time for him to come home. He's done all the healing he's going to do here."
"I'm going to miss him," confesses Katherine.
"Thats very sweet Katherine, I'm sure he'll miss you too."
"He never talks to me"
"He's been very shy here. He seldom talks to me either."
"I hope you have a big enough cage for him,"
"A cage - Katherine I won't put him in a cage"
"You'll let him fly around your house?" she asks.
Katherine was happy to hear that I would be bringing my father back home, and relieved to know that Calipso would be staying.
The people I've meet here have enriched my life in many ways. It has been an honor to get to know them. I also realize that my time spent with them - sitting beside them, listening, talking, following Graces lead - has benefited their emotional wellbeing.
I have been given the green light to visit my new friends on a regular basis. And I'm thinking about making a documentary about them (not that I have any idea how to go about doing that) - interviewing people 100 + years older. I find them fascinating. Imagine living in the 1920's? Imagine what it was like to experience the great depression, to have immigrated here, to be entertained by radio, heat your home with coal, refrigerate your food with blocks of ice.
Today, I remember them, fondly....
"In Dad's Mind" photo by Jim Quinn