July 5th was a holiday, and we drove into Honolulu so that I could drop in for another late morning visit with my dad.
I usually get over to his nursing home in the late afternoon. He’s almost always in bed, and if awake he’ll ask me what time of day it is and, invariably, shake his head in amazement and disbelief when he hears that it’s late afternoon rather than early morning.
But on this Monday morning, his bed was empty. I returned to the large common room on the third floor, where group activities fill the period between breakfast and lunch. I didn’t see him in his usual spot at the table where the men gather for meals. I was starting to get worried when a couple of staffers pointed out where he was sitting, a spot which was hidden behind a column in the middle of the room and out of my view. He was seated in a chair about mid-way down this long table, one end facing a television set on a smaller table against the wall, a large American flag hanging from the ceiling behind it, a schedule of activities for the day hand-written on a small notice board. The other end of the table points towards the door into the hallway, where the nursing station overlooks the small lobby and elevators.
He was dressed in a light color t-shirt, long fleece pants, and his pair of dirty New Balance walking shoes with elastic runners laces that don’t need to be untied and retied.
He was surprised to see me, said hello, and asked after Meda. That was good. He knows who I am.
I asked how he had been.
“I’ve had a busy morning,” he said. Then, with a conspiratorial whisper, “but don’t ask me what I was doing!”
Then a look of confusion took over his face.
“Where am I? I don’t know where I am.”
He shifted in his chair to see a bit more of the room.
“I don’t recognize this place.”
Some months back, he sat in about the same spot and proudly told me it was the Commercial Club, a gathering spot for businessmen back in the period around WWII soon after he arrived in Honolulu to work in a downtown business. The Commercial Club was on the third floor of the McCandless Building on Bethel Street, while Dohrmann Hotel Supply Company of San Francisco, his employer, occupied the ground floor. This room is on the third floor of the Oahu Care Facility, a skilled nursing home on Beretania Street just past McCully. I don’t know if he realizes that he’s actually still on the third floor.
On that earlier day, he pointed to the piano in one corner of the room and told me about the great entertainment the Commercial Club presents, and he pointed out the window where, he recalled, one could look down Bethel Street towards the harbor.
On that day, he didn’t connect to present-day “reality”, but at least he was able to be present in some reality, whether by choice or by luck of the synapses.
But on the morning of July 5, 2010, he was simply lost and worried. This is far worse.
I reminded him that we were sitting just down the hall from the room where he’s “been bunking” (his description from another day) for a while.
That didn’t seem to click in his memory.
“Anyway, I’ve got to be going,” he abruptly announced, starting to fidget in his chair.
I asked where he was going.
“I think…,” he paused, eyes searching some unseen place. “It think it’s at the restaurant. I just got word.”
He thinks again, trying to fill me in on his situation.
“I think it has something to do with taxes.”
So I tried again to deflect his worries.
“Your taxes are all finished. They got turned in on time.”
He looked at me, the one eye clouded by a cataract looking a little cock-eyed.
I count back to April 15, and tell him that the taxes were finished and turned in nearly three months ago.
It isn’t clear if that calmed him or whether the unexplained passage of time triggered more worries.
“And you can’t leave now because lunch is coming,” I said. Meals are one of the recurring events that give lives here on the third floor their daily structure, but repetition doesn’t help if you can’t remember it.
“I didn’t order lunch,” he fires back, still squirming in his chair in anticipation of getting up and heading out to “the restaurant”.
He’s very surprised when I tell him that they have his regular lunch on order.
“They know what you want,” I explain. “And it’s all taken care of. It comes with the room.”
He looks at me again, surprise spreading across his face. Although its the same meal routine that he’s had daily since moving into this facility 18 months ago, it’s all news to him.
“What a deal,” I add, hoping that the thought of getting a room-plus-meal bargain will make this son of Scot immigrants more receptive to staying put mentally as well as physically.
He shakes his head, still surprised by the idea that they already have his lunch order. “Well, I guess you learn something every day,” he says with a hint of amazement.
The actual conversation went a lot slower, with long pauses in between sentences. Meanwhile, staff were getting other people ready for lunch, moving some in wheel chairs over to the table. We’re the only males at this particular table. It doesn’t seem to matter. No one notices.
Then the tray arrives. Plastic covers are removed to reveal the lunch. A bowl of clear broth. A cup of pear halves. A dinner plate with green peas, a scoop of rice, and something that looks like creamed chicken. A glass of milk. A small can of a high protein drink. Straws are dropped into place.
He looks up at the nursing assistant who delivered the tray.
“Is this taken care of?”
He looks around, then back at her.
“I never seem to have any money in my pocket any more,” he explains.
“Oh, Mr. Lind,” she responds brightly, “everything is free!”
The last word thrown out with a lilt as if freeing it from the rest of the sentence.
My father gets a sly tone to his voice, then quips, with a smile embedded in his voice: “Be careful how you say that!”
I sat with him as he started to taste the food, very slowly. He picks up a few peas on his fork, his hand shaking a bit but manages to reach his mouth. He chews, pauses. A few more peas. Then the tiniest taste of rice. Pause. More peas.
I can see that, at this pace, lunch will take quite a while.
Across the table, two women are being spoon fed by staff. I don’t know if my dad notices. I get the sense that much of the time, his world extends out about as far as he can reach. Anything beyond that doesn’t get processed.
I tell him that Meda and I have to go shopping now in order to get back to Kaaawa in time for an afternoon nap.
“Then you’d better get done soon,” he says with a chuckle. I think he’s looking forward to finding his room and taking his own nap. When he wakes up, he’ll assume it’s morning, although in our reality it will be late afternoon.
There’s a moment of mental whiplash every time he awakes. Luckily, after it passes, he doesn’t remember.