Sometimes I think we made a huge mistake by moving my dad to the nursing home. It’s not like he was doing great in his own apartment, and I’m sure I’m romanticizing it now, but he could at least make his way to the bathroom from the bedroom and from the brown chair to the dining room table, right? If I brewed his coffee the day before he could microwave it in the morning for breakfast. And he had us all on speed dial and Stacy would take him for walks and his adorable neighbor would come over and pick up his TV remote when he dropped it. But remember? Remember how he couldn’t see at all and how it couldn’t go on and you couldn’t believe you were leaving him alone, each night when you left?
But now it feels like the nursing home is killing him. Like that’s their job…to usher people to their ends. Because he just keeps getting worse. He’s so weak he needs help getting up from his bed. He’s lost interest in music and books on tape. He won’t eat anything resembling real food. He doesn’t remember what day it is or if he had lunch. His world is comprised of his TV and his sweets and his call button. His final companions are people who work for minimum wage. His final companions are no one who loves him.
I keep thinking he would get better if I took him out of there, that if he just drank enough coffee (I’ve heard coffee can help stave off dementia and other maladies) or got some fresh air or lived in his own apartment again he would learn how to get from one place to another and regain his senses and he would be OK. He would start playing his piano again and maybe we’d even go out to hear music at the Jazz Showcase. Maybe we’d have brunch. And even though I know, really, that he’s not going to learn anything new, that he’s just going to keep forgetting and forgetting, I can’t help but feeling like somehow it’s the place, it’s not him.
A few weeks ago, I took him outside for a walk. It was a beautiful summer evening. A storm had been threatening earlier but the sky had cleared, and you could see a huge swath of the wide sky. His nursing home is in the suburbs but to me it feels like the country. We walked past mansions that have probably been here for a hundred years. We walked by an ugly ranch house surrounded by a rusty metal fence. There are no sidewalks so we walked in the street. You notice every crack when you’re with someone using a walker. He had to stop every few steps to pull up his pants, the belt pulled to the tightest notch. He was hunched and shuffling, gripping his walker. We started up a hill. “Isn’t this nice?” I kept asking, “Isn’t this nice?”
For me, it was nice. I’d been stuck inside all day and the air smelled clean. And for me the outdoors is where I go to get healed so I thought it might do him some good. So I signed him out like he was some sort of package and we walked up the hill in the middle of the street and we hadn’t gone far but he was winded and he was worried that he was going to miss something important back at the nursing home and I assured him that there was nothing important going on back there. He wanted to know if we’d gone on this exact same walk before. I said we’d gone on walks but not this exact walk. And he said he was feeling shaky and wanted to get back but I pushed him to walk a little longer because I really wanted him to get some exercise. And then he said he felt shaky and woozy and so I said we could turn back and suddenly I was responsible for him and he belonged in that nursing home not in the world. It was like he belonged to them and I’d made a terrible mistake, like the kind you make in your dreams, like disconnecting someone from their deathbed IV and taking them sky diving. And we were only five minutes away from the nursing home but like they say we might as well have been on the moon.
I tried to help him turn around to sit in his walker, which doubles as a chair, but his feet got kind of tangled and he couldn’t turn and he let out this helpless cry and I thought he was going to fall in the middle of the street so I got him turned back around, holding onto his walker but he said he wasn’t going to be able to make it. And just then a car was passing by and without thinking I hailed the driver and he stopped and I said “I know this is asking a lot but could you give us a ride” and of course he could. People really, really are lovely and they will help you if you ask.
And we made it back to the nursing home and I didn’t tell anyone what happened. And we got back to his room and I got him settled on his bed and after a while I left.
A friend of mine, who is a social worker, once told me, when you want to give someone a hug you have to ask yourself, is this hug for them, or is it for me? And as I sat on the train, heading back to city, I asked myself, who was this walk for, but really, I knew the answer.
Last night I went to visit my dad again. It was another gorgeous summer evening. When I got to my dad’s room, he was wearing a sweater. He asked me to turn the air conditioning off. I asked him if he wanted to go for a walk and he said he’d rather not. He said being outside tired him out. So we just stayed in his room and talked about this and that, while I tinkered with his voice-activated phone. He asked for a tissue and I gave him a tissue. He asked for a drink of water and I gave him the cup and he drank from it and I set it back on the table. Before I left I made sure the TV was set to Channel 5.
My dad will never again see the sky. Not because he’s blind, but because he’s stopped looking up. The sky is not what matters, nor the wind nor the sun. What matters is that he can reach the Kleenex box. What matters is that someone’s there to hand him his cup. And no matter how much I want him to go for a walk, I’m just gonna hand him his cup.