The Residents

seniors-1505934_1280I was sitting with my dad the other day when he pointed at my foot. To be clear, he only pointed at one of my feet; the other, due to my position at that moment, was hidden from his view.

“That your bag?” he asked me, and I wasn’t the least bit confused because by now, I am quite familiar with his new version of language.

“You mean my foot?” I asked. “Yeah, that’s mine.”

“Huh . . . it’s nice.” A pause. “You should have two of them, though.”

My mother and I had a little chuckle at that. “I do,” I told him, rearranging myself so that both feet were in his sight line. “See? There’s the other one. Two feet, right here.”

“Ah!” he said. “Good. That’s nice.”

I had to wonder right then, as I often do, what exactly was in my dad’s head. I know what my normal dad would have been thinking. Jesus Christ, Mis – 45 fucking years old and I still gotta tell you this shit? You wear both your feet when you leave the house, you asshole! Then again, my normal dad would know that I generally take both feet with me everywhere I go.

Sometimes, it seems to me that my dad’s life might be like one long, weird dream. Like things are happening and people are coming and going but it’s all off somehow, and you’re aware of it all being off, but you’re also kind of not. I sometimes imagine that when he dies, it will be like waking up for him. “Oh!” he’ll say. “I had Alzheimer’s! Jesus Christ, no wonder everything was so fucking goofy there at the end!”

There’s another guy at my dad’s nursing home, I will call him Don though that’s not really his name. I get the feeling that Don thinks he’s at work all the time. He’s always walking around looking for the next right thing to do. He asks many, many questions, none of which are in any way answerable. One day he approached me carrying a clipboard with a sweatshirt wrapped around it. “Do you know what’s supposed to go on top of this?” he asked, pointing at the clipboard/sweatshirt.

“I don’t know. Let me see what I can find out.” That’s what I said and that’s the kind of answer I always give to Don. It seems to satisfy him, though not for long. Don lives in what appears to be a permanent state of anxiety, like a person who’s just realized they have a test they forgot to study for. A test in a class that they’ve forgotten to go to at all.

Annemarie is a resident who once told me, “I don’t know what they expect me to do. I don’t even work here! I’m just a volunteer!” My first clue that Annemarie was not “just a volunteer” came one day when she became very impatient with one of the other residents. “Will you just stop it?” she said. “How many times do I have to ask you?” I remember thinking, wow. They should really train these volunteers better on dealing with people with dementia. I’d have mentioned it to one of the staff, if I could have found someone, which I couldn’t. Which just goes to show you, sometimes things work out for the better even when it seems like they’re not.

Eventually I realized that Annemarie was there every time I was, and that she had a room across the hall from my dad’s. Her name is not Annmarie but that’s what she looks like to me. She’ll tell you she’s just there to keep the patients company. “I play cards with them, color, you know. Whatever they want.” This is what she really, really believes, and I for one am happy for her.

As for my mother, well, she lives there now, too. Not in the same room as my dad. Not even on the same side of the floor, since she doesn’t have any form of dementia. Instead, she has lung cancer, and a brain that’s more or less intact. I haven’t talked about her much because, I guess it’s easier to write about a person who has Alzheimer’s and will therefore never read what you write and call you an asshole. My mom loves the food there and has a very lovely roommate who watches the same TV channels that she likes. Still, you could take a machete to her misery and never cut your way through it. Meanwhile, Annemarie is over there “getting married” to the new guy on the floor, which is surprising because he always seems very angry to me.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I look at all these situations and I wonder which is the worst, as if that makes any difference whatsoever. As if my sympathy and compassion are limited quantities, and I need to decide how to parcel them out fairly. Or, as if one day, I’ll get to take my verdict and use it to choose my own preferred exit strategy. Dear God, I guess I’ll take Alzheimer’s. But only the kind of Alzheimer’s where I become sweet and kind and people dote on me, not the kind where I walk the hallways like that one lady, telling everyone that this is hell. Also, not till I’m at least in my 80’s. And please put me in a nursing home where the food is pretty good and my false teeth won’t get stolen and the nurses give me a set of keys to carry around if it makes me feel better. Or, on second thought, let me just keep my real teeth so that dentures won’t be a concern. Thanks.

Oh, one other thing. And this is kind of important. Please make there be a patient with a kid who writes things down, and when she writes about me have him or her make me a charming character with a wardrobe full of Mrs. Roper dresses. I should be the most pleasant one on the unit, if that’s possible. And when I die suddenly one day in my sleep, everyone should feel sad, but not too sad. Because really, I’ve just woken up.

So This Is Where We Are, Now

wax-71192_1280Late night phone calls are the worst.

Everyone knows this. They don’t call you in the middle of the night to tell you you’ve gotten that big promotion or won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. It’s rarely ever a friend calling just to chat, or if it is, you should stab that friend immediately. So, right. Late night phone calls are never good.

Late night phone calls from my dad’s nursing home are even worse than that, and not because I’m worried something bad might happen to him. Quite the opposite. I mean, I worry about him in a general sense, but never once has it occurred to me that something might happen to my dad that would result in a late-night phone call. If you knew my dad, you’d know this is not how he rolls. Even at the age of 80 and in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s Disease.

It turns out, that’s still not how he rolls. Though I didn’t know it when the phone rang. Or vibrated. Either way.

So the phone rang or I guess vibrated, and I woke up. Opened my eyes, feeling slightly disoriented. You know how it is. What? You think. What time is it? Where is this? Who?

Dad’s Nursing Home, said the screen, and these are the moments where you learn that panic trumps disorientation, every time.

I picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Is this Melissa?”

“Yeah,” I said. “This is Melissa. What – ”

“This is So-And-So, from Pretend-Name-Of-Your-Dad’s-Nursing-Home,” said the person on the other end. “We’re sorry to call you so late. But we needed to let you know, your dad was found – ”

WHAT?? Found how? Found unconscious?  Found dead???

“ – eating crayons.”

“Wait,” I said. “What?”

“Your dad was found eating crayons,” she repeated.

“Oh,” I said. “Wow.”

STOP. A break in the narrative, here.

Rewind to earlier that day.

“Hey.” This was me, to my dad. He was sitting in the nursing home’s TV room when I arrived, gathered around a large central table with several other residents. Each had a coloring page in front of him. My dad’s picture was of a cartoonish puppy with polka-dots on its fur. Another guy had a butterfly. There was a cookie tin full of crayons in the middle of the table.

“Oh! Hey,” my dad said back to me, chuckling. He always chuckles when someone shows up to visit. I’m not sure why, but I suspect it’s because he finds it comically coincidental to see someone he recognizes, at this place. The same way you might kind of chuckle if you ran into a work colleague at a rib festival, or something. Oh, hey…it’s you! Haha.

“You’re coloring!” I said now. So observant of me! And if you ask me, he was doing a pretty good job, especially for a man who has probably not picked up a crayon once in his entire life. I mean this. In all of his 80 years, my father has never been the type of guy to get out the Crayolas and color a polka-dotted puppy dog.

I mean, until now.

Here’s the finished product:

Full disclosure: I helped with some of the brown.
Full disclosure: I helped with some of the brown.

It’s hard to know what to say to a grown man, in this situation. Were I dealing with a very small child, it’d be easy. “Good job!” I might say, maybe even clapping to add a little excitement. “I like all the colors you picked! And look how careful you were to keep it neat!”

These are not things one can say to one’s father without wanting to bash one’s face off a brick wall immediately after.

I think I handled it fairly decently, all things considered. “Well, that’s done,” I said briskly, brushing my hands together as if we’d just finished a complicated Pinterest project. “Looks good, right? It’s a cute puppy.”

My dad didn’t answer; he was already looking out the window at the trees. But at least, I told myself, I’d treated him like an adult. With dignity. I would be able to sleep that night without thinking too much about what my dad has been reduced to.

Fast forward to the phone call. And just like that, maybe not.

I finished up the conversation and put the phone down, wide awake. The crayons were non-toxic, they’d told me. He wasn’t sick and in fact seemed perfectly fine. I’m pretty sure the speaker did not understand that this was TOTALLY NOT THE POINT AT ALL.

I’d thought my dad had been reduced to coloring polka-dotted puppy dogs. It turns out, this was the optimistic view of things.

Here are some of the thoughts that were in my head:

o   What kind of asshole calls in the middle of the night to tell someone their dad has eaten crayons?

o   What kind of asshole considers 10:22pm “the middle of the night?”

o   Are there other, more compassionate daughters out there who care more about their father’s well-being than they do about their own interrupted REM sleep?

o   Why had no one put the crayons away, anyway?

o   But wait, of course I care about my father’s well-being. It’s just that this was hardly an emergency, right? Babies eat crayons all the time.

o   Babies eat crayons all the time.

o   Babies eat crayons all the time.

o   Babies eat crayons all the time.

I have often engaged in the very futile exercise known as “comparing parental end-of-life scenarios.” It is stupid but sometimes hard to avoid. You think, hmmm – is it better to have a slow and potentially torturous death, where at least you get to say what you want to say? Or should we hope for a quick and painless if shocking end? Maybe the best way to go is to alarm your children with late-night phone calls regarding crayon consumption? I don’t know, because there’s no good answer to this. As I said, it’s a pointless line of thinking. So here’s a different one.

Medical advances have brought us to a time where we’re living longer than ever, which is nice. We have drugs and surgeries and Slim-Fast shakes. We can take one person’s kidney and give it to another person and they can both go on to sign up for yoga classes or sing in a choir. It’s all very miraculous and amazing and I’m not saying it’s not good. I myself am hoping to live a very long time, and I fully expect that in my lifetime, we’ll find more drugs and surgeries and shakes to extend lifespans even longer.

I guess I just hope that we also find a way to make those extra years, well. You know. Worth it.

The 2016 Walk to End Alzheimer’s – Pittsburgh, PA is on October 15, 2016. Click here to donate to my family’s team. Visit the Alzheimer’s Association website for more information about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.