A quote attributed to Joan Rivers:
I mean, really – if I didn’t love her before reading that, I certainly did after. It’s perfect. It’s wonderful. It might be the best thing I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately it is also hard to keep in mind when you are walking into a nursing home to visit your Alzheimer’s-stricken dad on his 79th birthday.
I don’t know. Maybe it would have been different if we were used to the whole thing; if we were seasoned veterans on the dementia unit circuit. Maybe if my dad had gotten used to his new home, even just a little. As it stood, he’d only been there for a week, and it was pretty much horrible. And terrible. As life situations go, this one was distinctly NOT FUNNY AT ALL.
“Look, Dad – I brought cupcakes,” I said, as if this were any other birthday. As if all it took was a little frosting to turn this into a real celebration.
“What for?” he asked, looking at the cupcakes suspiciously.
“Because it’s your birthday,” I told him. For possibly the sixth or seventh time.
“Huh,” he said. “When am I going home, do you think?”
He did not want a cupcake, and seemed confused by the gifts. After a certain point in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, gift-giving becomes little more than a selfish attempt at making ourselves feel better. As if we haven’t quite given up. Because gaily wrapped boxes and bright gift bags are no longer the harbingers of cheer they once were; instead, these days, you hand my dad a gift and you immediately see him thinking: What is this? What am I supposed to do? Why is this even happening?
“In the bag, Eddie,” my mother said. “There’s stuff for you, in the bag.”
“For me? Why?” he said.
“Because it’s your birthday,” I told him.
I will say now that I was quite proud of myself for having found a good and useful gift for him – a blanket for his nursing home bed, soft cotton and just the right weight, plain black with a large yellow letter ‘P’ in the middle. The logo of his very favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kind of like this, if only it were a pillow instead of a blanket:
I hope I remember to look for it when it comes time for estate-pillaging. Until then, I thought he’d really like it, and I was right.
“Oh . . . that’s nice!” said my dad upon opening it. “What’s the ‘P’ stand for . . . prick?”
“Oh, my God,” said I, while my mother choked.
“What?” said my dad. “What’s so funny?”
“It stands for Pirates, Dad! ‘P’ for Pirates. You know.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I watch them . . . huh. The Pirates.”
“Right,” I said.
“Or prick,” said my elderly and very Catholic mother. “Prick is good, too.”
We nearly collapsed from the hysteria. My dad chuckled, and though it was clear he didn’t know why, it was good to see him try.
A nurse looked in on us, obviously attracted by the noise.
“They brought me a blanket,” my dad told him.
Let me tell you, I haven’t laughed so hard in a nursing home, well, ever.
So maybe it’s not all funny. It’s definitely not all funny. But even in the bleak and heartbreaking hell that is a parent’s birthday party in the dementia unit, you really do have to keep your eyes open.
And, to quote another famous person – this time James Belushi as Bernie in About Last Night – “Don’t ever lose your sense of humor, Dan. Don’t – EVER – lose your sense of humor.”