“It sure is,” agreed the attendant behind the wheelchair. Quite charitably, I might add, because this particular hallway of the local VA hospital was not what I or anyone else could realistically call “beautiful.” The lobby, now, that was a different story – all glass and sunlight and super-modern check-in terminals. The lobby was bright and if not beautiful, at least relatively appealing. The lobby made you feel better about coming to a hospital, like it just might be a halfway pleasant experience. As if only the best and most cutting-edge medical procedures would be offered here. As if everyone, in the end, would come out alive.
My dad, on this day, would almost certainly come out alive, and thanks to his Alzheimer’s Disease, no worse for the wear. The reason for this particular ER visit isn’t really important; suffice it to say that whatever it was, my dad had forgotten about it halfway between home and hospital. Also, that through powers well beyond my control, I had arrived carrying a vial of his urine in my purse. Which also isn’t really important, and yet I find myself trying to work it into conversations every chance I get. Believe me when I tell you that I don’t get many.
So we’d arrived at the hospital via ambulance, they’d done the normal things, and now, we were on our way to get a CT scan of my dad’s bladder. Or kidneys. Or probably both. It was a bit of a hike from the ER to the imaging department, so my dad had plenty of time to remark upon the beauty of his surroundings; at the moment said surroundings included worn tile floors and closed doors, some featuring skull-and-crossbones-style DANGER signs. Scuffed white walls, a utilitarian brown handrail running the length. Every fifty feet or so, you might come across a large framed photo of nature at close range: blades of grass as tall as my hand, a butterfly the size of an average pigeon. Maybe it was those photos that my dad found beautiful, and maybe they actually were. To my eyes, they were little more than a try and fail to cheer the place up: fancy pillows thrown on a threadbare couch. I guess it could have also been that my dad was simply being nice, but I doubted that. His faculty for pretending had been among the first to go.
“How long you been working here?” he asked the attendant now. We’d just turned our third corner or maybe our fourth, each hallway having been indistinguishable from the last. I really hoped someone would be around to lead us out of here.
“Long enough,” the attendant said with a chuckle.
My dad chuckled too. “Long enough, huh? That’s good. Nice place, you got here. Very nice. Beautiful.”
“He has dementia,” I said, as if I needed to say anything at all. It’s not like my dad had embarrassed himself, or said or done something inappropriate. Still. I don’t know. I guess I felt like I needed to explain, to let him know that my normal dad would not remark so enthusiastically on the loveliness of this barren and institutional corridor. My normal dad was like us, is what I really meant. My normal dad knew better.
What I wanted, I know now, was to retrieve my dad’s dignity for him, since he couldn’t do it himself. Like it was nothing more than a lost contact lens. And failing that, I at least wanted people to know that he once had it. Not that it was especially undignified to call a hallway ‘beautiful.’ And not that my dad was ever particularly dignified in the first place. But I wanted people to know what he was really like.
Because this wasn’t it.
“Just shoot me,” my dad’s sister once said, in a conversation in which she worried she might end up like her older brother. “Better yet, dress me up in a fur coat and send me out into the woods. Let the bears get me. Just do not let me live like that. Whatever happens, my God, please don’t let me live like that.”
Not surprisingly, most people seem to agree with her. Most people hope mightily that the reality of Alzheimer’s Disease will never become their own, and not without good cause. I often wonder what it must be like for my father, living with a brain set on permanent auto-erase. The older I get, the more my brain becomes the one aspect of my physical self which I can appreciate unconditionally. How would it be, for example, if I could no longer read a book because I couldn’t remember what it said from one paragraph to the next? How would it be to not be able to follow along with your favorite TV series or sports teams or, I don’t know, political figures? To not even know you once had favorites? My dad can’t look back with misty nostalgia on his wedding day, or the days he brought home my sister or me, or, for that matter, yesterday. He no longer knows what he likes to eat. Nor does he know not to walk into a restaurant in flannel pajamas. And underneath it all there’s a nervousness, a sense of fearful desperation that comes through strongest when he’s confronted with something he’s not familiar with. Which, these days, is almost everything.
Still, I’m not entirely sure I’d rather be sent into the woods in a bear costume.
Anyway. By the time we were finally able to leave the hospital, my mother was a bundle of anxiety. Tired from a long day of waiting. Tired of being the only real adult in a household that used to include two. Worrying who’d be able to take them back to the VA hospital to see the urologist, wondering if my dad would really be okay.
My father, on the other hand, did not appear to be worried about a thing.
On the way out of the hospital, he agreed with someone who guessed he’d been in Korea – he had not – and then waved and said very pleasant good-byes to everyone we passed, including doctors and nurses, patients in wheelchairs, sad spouses there to visit their own sick veterans. Most said good-bye in return, a few did not. Almost all looked confused. None of it made any difference to my father, who rolled along in his wheelchair as if he was the parade, the rest of us merely spectators.
And now we were in the car, weaving our way through the back streets of Oakland, a Pittsburgh neighborhood that houses several hospitals and a few universities, Carnegie Mellon and Pitt among them. “Nice neighborhood,” said my dad, glancing around as we waited at a red light. “What do they call this place, anyway? Was I ever here before?”
“It’s called Oakland,” I told him. “I’m sure you were here sometime . . . probably a long time ago.”
“Boy, look at all those beautiful new houses, huh? You see that, Maureen? Look at that! Man, beautiful. Really nice.”
My mom, sitting in the back seat, did not seem impressed. I glanced around myself, taking in the ramshackle brick buildings, most occupied by students, all with some less-than-beautiful defining characteristic. A badly tie-dyed sheet covering a picture window, crushed beer cans overflowing a recycling container, a battered recliner in a front yard. From one second-story window, I could see Ronald McDonald smiling out at me, though whether it was the man himself or just a life-sized cardboard cutout was difficult to determine. Granted, the buildings were big old brownstone types which, with some landscaping and help from several renovation crews, could certainly be beautiful again. As it stood, however, they were a bit past their prime. To put it politely.
“When did they build all these homes, do you know?” he asked me. “Man, these are beautiful new homes, huh? Big. I just wonder when they built all this. It’s a beautiful display.”
Even though “display” sort of made sense here, I was pretty sure it wasn’t the word he was going for. I let it go, as you tend to learn to do. “Yeah, I don’t know how new it is,” I told him. “But I guess . . . I mean, it’s nice. Was nice. Is nice.”
“Huh,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
The light we’d been waiting at turned green; we managed to advance maybe five or six car lengths before it was red again. Now to my right was a front yard featuring a dirt-filled kiddie pool, clearly meant as a flower bed but whose contents had long since gone to seed. There were cigarette butts scattered throughout the rest of the yard, and the house itself had a screen door that, in defiance of any and all laws of nature, appeared to be attached with nothing but duct tape.
“Look at that,” said my dad, clearly in awe. “Beautiful!”
The light was still red. I looked over at my dad. He was smiling, or at least forming the lip configuration that passes for his smile these days. His shirt was tucked in, his thinning hair neatly combed. And he was sitting up very straight in his seat – actually, he was leaning forward a bit, apparently anxious to see what new beautiful thing might lay around the bend.
From the backseat, my mother sighed. “I don’t know what he sees, anymore,” she said tiredly.
“It’s the houses, Maureen,” he told her. “Can’t you see the houses?”
“Yeah. I see the houses,” she said.
And then the light turned green, and we moved on, neither my mother nor I able to see what he saw.
And, most likely, hoping we never would.