I finally got to connect with my father yesterday, a little more than three weeks after my last visit.
First there was our absence, a brief trip to the east coast, then the nursing home implemented a quarantine on his floor because of an outbreak of an intestinal flu that lasted over a week, and just as they were authorizing visits again I caught a cold and stayed away to avoid sharing those germs with him.
I was feeling more than a little guilty, especially with Fathers Day around the corner and no special plans. I’m still coughing a little, but it’s been several days since I’ve felt any active cold symptoms, so I stopped in yesterday afternoon.
He was awake and laying in bed, dressed in a bright t-shirt, hands behind his head, and relatively alert. He greeted me warmly. As I started to apologize for my lengthy absence, I could see that he wasn’t aware of how much time had passed. So I switched gears from an apology to a report on what’s been happening in which our trip, the quarantine, and my cold were parts of my own saga, and he could follow them as part of my narrative.
I’ve noticed that he has different modes. There are days when he seems very tired, his voice thin, reactions slow, and he’s confused about where he is. There are days when he is quite alert, recognizes family and staff, carries his end of a limited conversation, and the question of location, mental or physical, doesn’t come up. Then there are days like yesterday, where he seemed alert, his voice strong, he recognized me when I arrived and made the mental connection to asking about Meda, but some synapses were just misfiring and our conversation became disjointed and, well, humorous.
But first he had something to say. His voice low, just above a whisper.
“Somebody was injured,” he said, his eyes signaling to the right, beyond the curtain that separates his bed from the other three in the room. “I think they wrote it all down, take a look.” His face said, “what happened?”
Now my dad, who often complained about the television or other sounds from the other side of the curtain being too loud, now is worried about the silence.
I did look. The next bed was freshly made up, its former occupant gone, along with his television set, the stack of DVDs that his family supplied, the little tray of snacks from recent visitors. No notes, no indication of what happened.
I said I would check. Later.
I tried to tell him about my purchase of a new laptop computer, a factory reconditioned 15″ MacBook Pro to replace my aging and, by today’s standards, much slower model. I tried to describe the anxiety produced by the process of transferring all the programs and files from the old computer to the new one. I described it as being like moving to a new desk, and having to move all your files, books, papers, pens, pencils, typewriter, supplies, and everything else from one to the other. I could tell that he was a little vague on the computer images, but the idea of moving things in the office and tidying up a new desk seemed to get through. He nodded as I tried to embellish my telling side of the story. I wrapped up by telling him that I thought I had succeeded in moving everything over to the new computer and was already enjoying working on it.
He thought about it. Then he asked: “Are you going to throw all your papers away?”
I thought fleetingly about trying to explain, these were computer files and not paper files, but then thought better of it. “No,” I said, “I hope not.”
Then I mentioned what I paid for the computer. As I mentioned, it’s factory reconditioned and comes with a full Apple warranty, and sells for several hundred dollars off, even well below the “education” discount that Meda qualifies for. But it was quite obvious that the price tag, which sounded so reasonable to me, broke the bank from his 96 year old perspective. During most of his life, prices were obviously a lot lower than today.
He looked at me, a sense of wonder or surprise reflected in his expression, and let a comment about the price slip out.
“Does your mother know that?”
I laughed, mostly because I couldn’t tell if, in his mind, “mother” referred to my mother, his mother, or my wife, and I didn’t want to spoil the little joke by trying to clarify.
At some point I mentioned my sister, Bonnie. She is there to see him every couple of days, but my mention of her name started him going.
“Bonnie…Bonnie…there’s a name of someone….” He paused, rubbed his eyes, then looked long and hard at his fingers, their age showing. “Bonnie. That’s someone who can’t visit me.” At least I think that’s what he said. He might have said, “can’t see me”. Either way, I wasn’t sure what he meant. I’m guessing his mind was going back to the recent quarantine when she was able to make a quick stop to deliver clean clothes but wasn’t allowed to really visit. I told him that, according to the log at the desk, she had been to see him just a day or two before, and recalled that she mentioned he had been asleep and didn’t wake up during one or two of her recent visits. Maybe she also explained that he had slept through a visit or two. But he didn’t seem to connect to any of my explanations, so I just let it go.
Then my phone rang. It was someone wanting to get together to talk about a new web site “coming soon”. When the call was finished, I commented that these fancy computer phones mean that work follows you everywhere.
He put his hands back behind his head, relaxing.
“What time is it? What time of day?”
I tell him that it’s around 4 p.m., and dinner will be coming in about an hour. “Still time for a short nap before you eat,” I tell him.
He just settles into his pillow.
“Wouldn’t you like to have my schedule?”
He looked pleased with himself, and totally comfortable. Usually I’m never quite clear on what his schedule looks like in his own mind. He has often imagined that he had been out doing business, traveling the islands to visit customers or make sales calls. Now, though, it was different. He looked like someone on vacation. At ease.
Now he knows that he sleeps, he gets up late, gets to eat three meals a day, and there’s always someone nearby if he needs assistance. He used to be anxious much of the time. Now he seems to be accepting it as it comes.
But it wasn’t too long before he had started to fidget. “I don’t want to take too much of your time,” he said, as if he had dropped in on me unexpectedly. He fiddled with his shirt, pulled on the bed sheets, reached under to feel whether he had shorts on.
I thought he seemed to be preparing to use the plastic bottle, usually somewhere within reach, that he can use to relieve himself without all the struggle of getting out of bed and across to the bathroom. I spotted it hanging on the railing at one side of the bed and set it on the rolling table within easy reach.
He looked up at me, surprised but smiling. “Oh, you want to use the bottle?” He reached out to hand it to me.
I think he was aware and was making a joke, which, it seems to me, requires a degree of self-awareness that he doesn’t always seem to possess. So I took it as a good sign.
In any case, it became my exit line. On my way out, I told him that I would see if I could find out what had happened in his room.
I asked one of the nursing assistants out in the hall, pointing to the small series of photos just outside the door which contain pictures of the men assigned to each bed in the room. There was no photo in the place reserved for the man in the next bed.
“Did we lose one?” I ask, my question unintentionally ambiguous.
“Oh, he went home,” she replied, then moved on with a meal tray in hand, heading into a room across the hall.
I don’t know if that was the sanitized answer authorized for the families of other paying guests, or whether it was the factual answer. I can imagine it either way. But I’ll take it at face value and tell my dad that the other man went home. On second thought, I worry that this line of thought will get him back fixating on finding where he parked his car, locating his keys, which he knows have been “missing”, and driving himself home. So maybe mentions of “going home” are not a good idea.
Perhaps it’s best to just kick the can down the road, as they say, like Gov. Lingle with the state budget. “I’m haven’t gotten a good answer yet,” I’ll say if he asks. That’s one of the tricks. Defer, delay, stall, and in a few minutes he usually won’t remember what he had been worrying about. And it will be a couple of days before I get back to see him. A lot depends on his schedule.