“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.