The good news was that we arrived well before lunch and found my dad sitting at a table with three other men in the third-floor common room of his nursing home. Small paper turkeys decorated the walls, signaling that Thanksgiving had arrived. There was a little sign on the table in front of him, a single piece of heavy blue paper folded lengthwise into a triangle, resting on one side, with his name hand-written on the side facing him: “John Lind”, it said simply.
He insists on t-shirts with pockets so that he has a place for his glasses, and Meda’s been on the prowl in the thrift stores she visits.
He was surprised to see us. We explained we were there to have lunch with him.
“Oh, lucky you found me here,” he said, as if he might have been out and about town instead of here at a table with several other men on one end of a big room with dozens of other elderly patients in various degrees of ill health.
He quickly asked if Bonnie, my sister, was also coming. We said she wasn’t expected. It didn’t sound quite as bad as “no”.
“And Helen?” he asked, referring to my mom.
I told him that her knee has been hurting and she hasn’t been getting around much. All true. I didn’t say that at age 95, she also finds visits to the nursing home to be a trial.
Then he asked if I had a pen. Nope, but Meda produced one from her purse.
“Write a 4 on the sign,” he said, pointing to the paper in front of him. Meda dutifully wrote “4” in small print next to his name, then asked what it meant.
“That’s so they won’t forget our reservation,” he said.
In his mind, we’re in a restaurant where he had a reservation.
After a few references to the holiday, we quickly figured out that he wasn’t making the mental connection to “Thanksgiving” and all it entails.
First, he told us that they was expecting an eight-course Chinese meal to be delivered.
“It’s all supposed to be arranged,” he said, a little friendly conspiracy in his voice.
“Do you like Chinese food?” Meda asked, surprised by the idea.
“Some of it,” he responded somewhat noncommittally. Actually, come to think of it, that was probably a very honest answer.
We explained that it was Thanksgiving, and that they actually would be serving a special turkey dinner. That’s why we were there, along with other residents of the third floor and a handful of their family members. Not as many visitors as I had expected. Perhaps some people took their old folks home for the occasion. We weren’t prepared for that.
I did tell him the good news that Bonnie would be cooking a pie or two.
He asked quickly: “What kind?”
“Pumpkin,” I say, realizing again that the Thanksgiving connection isn’t being made.
But, obviously, it could be a lot worse.
Then he was off about his car, a theme that returns, like the seasons but on a shorter cycle.
“I’ve lost my car again. Both cars,” he told me, somewhere between worry and anger. “I can’t find the keys. I don’t know if someone is playing games with me.”
To Meda, who was sitting over on his right: “How do I report a stolen car? Actually, I’ve got two cars that are missing.”
I don’t press for a description of the missing cars, because the last time he couldn’t remember anything specific about them, just the concept “car”, and I don’t like to lead him down the trails of dead-end memories.
“Maybe I’m better off without them,” he finally says. “I should just ride my bike.”
We encourage that line of thinking, and soon he’s forgotten that the cars were an issue.
He’s now anxious for lunch to be served, although it’s still early, only about 11 a.m.
He asks if I’ll go remind the waitress of his order.
Then he asks, “How was the weather in Waipahu when you left?”
He’s surprised when Meda says that we came from Kaaawa. Waipahu was where my mother’s parents lived when my folks were first married back around WWII. Does he think I look like my grandfather? Another chip away on the self-esteem front.
He posed for a few pictures, pleased by the attention, although he worried that he hadn’t shaved.
Somehow, in the midst of keeping small-talk going, Meda asks if he ever has trouble sleeping.
“I have trouble not sleeping,” he responds without a pause. “If I put my head down”–he acts it out, his head going down onto the table in front of him–“I’m asleep.”
Then he looks at me and asks: “Who’s paying for all this?” The bed, the “hotel room”, the food service?
“Oh, it’s covered by your insurance,” I reply, lying. “Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of.”
In fact, it’s an expense that is quickly draining the assets he built up over the past 95 years, including over 60 years in business. But he doesn’t need to hear that. He’s obviously got enough to worry about, what with missing cars, lost freedoms, unknown locations. The money part keeps me awake now. It’s our problem at this point, not his.
Luckily the food arrives. All attention goes there.
He quickly observes that we’ve got small plates of turkey and gravy, while his plate has mashed pototoes, vegetables, and ground turkey on a bed of bread stuffing. We pointed out that his ground concoction was also turkey, just easier to eat. A nibble on the first fork full from his plate seemed to do the trick. He slowly dug in.
A bite of turkey. A few vegetables. Very soon he cut into his slice of pumpkin pie and took a bite, and I thought he would just fast-forward to dessert. But, no. He ate slowly but methodically. Meda shared her little container of cranberry sauce. His fork was a little unsteady, but he managed to eat through everything on his plate, then his pie, and then he asked about the pie sitting uneaten in front of Meda. She moved it over onto his tray, and he was happy.
We asked if he wanted to go back to his room for a post-meal nap.
“No, I think I’ll go home.” He started to look for his walker, which was parked just out of reach, to start the journey.
It’s another awkward moment, repeated quite regularly, but we still haven’t gotten practiced with a graceful reply.
At this point, “home” is a jumble of memories. He usually means the modest single-wall wood frame home in Kahala where he lived for over 65 years before finding himself in a single bed in a narrow room shared with three other aged men. Sometimes it’s the house on Vista Street in Long Beach, built by his father after the family moved down from the northern part of the state. It might be his childhood home in Berkeley. It might even be the bunk on his boat at the Ala Wai harbor.
Luckily, one of the nursing assistants sees him struggling to stand and comes over to take charge, tells him to wait for her to come right back. He wants to get going before she returns, but we keep him in check. She’s back in a few seconds to help him stand, then transfer his weight to the walker, then slowly make his way out of the room. We somewhat sheepishly say our goodbyes and slip out towards the elevator as she steers him back to his bed. He’ll quickly forget that he had intended to go “home”, wherever that is now.
But, just in case, we decide not to wait for the elevator and take the stairs instead.
It’s not a graceful exit.