My mom, Dave, Julia and I traveled to Pennsylvania to visit family over the weekend. We arrived at my grandmother’s house very late on Friday night. Julia was thrilled to spend the night sleeping on a blow-up air mattress and insisted that the dog – a beagle named Bigfoot – sleep with her. Dave and I slept in a bed, just the two of us. All alone. Without Julia in between us. We embraced. We snuggled. We touched each other with actual body parts all night long.
We think we need to get Julia a dog.
The next day, we visited my Uncle Pat and Aunt Jan. My cousin Bobby and his wife Lisa came over so that Julia could play with their two-year old daughter, Paige, and I could hold the new, three month old baby, Cristen. I held her for a long time, talking softly and kissing her sweet baby-scented head. I counted her tiny fingers and tickled her bitty toes. I sang to her. I made her laugh by buzzing her tummy with my finger bee. When she seemed tired, I hugged her close and she chewed on my arm until my entertainment value had been expended. Then, her mommy scooped her up from my arms and returned to her rocking chair. Soon Paige decided she wanted her mommy, too. So, Lisa held Cristen close on one lap and pulled Paige up on the other. I guess I was staring because Lisa looked at me, gave a playful eye roll and said, “I’ve had to get used to this.”
I gave her the best smile I could muster while holding back tears. Dave put his hand on mine and whispered, “We’ll have another baby, Leslie. We will. Just give it time.”
I love my husband. Have I told you that? I do.
After that, I went outside to play with Julia and Paige. We colored with sidewalk chalk. We played hopscotch. We had a tea party. It was lots of fun.
Later that evening, we went to visit my grandfather for the first time since his move to a nursing home. My grandfather has Alzheimer’s.
I have spent a lot of time visiting nursing homes in my life. Every Sunday afternoon of my childhood was spent with my father, a minister, providing services for the residents of our local nursing homes. By the time I was a teenager, I was spending time there on my own, too. Mostly, I was there to visit Hazel. She was a wise old woman who had suffered a stroke. It had impaired her ability to speak, which made her difficult to understand if you didn’t have a little time and patience. She was unable to move the right side of her body and could no longer write. I used to come by now and then to compose letters to her family. She would dictate them to me since the nursing home staff was too busy to do it. We enjoyed each other’s company and the time we spent together left me with a warm feeling about places like that.
My mom, Dave, Julia and I arrived at the nursing home around 6:45 p.m. that evening. We signed in at the lobby desk and began the walk back to grandpa’s room. I was impressed with the dining area that boasted a courtyard view – it was actually quite elegant and I said so. My mom replied softly, “It is nice, but he doesn’t eat here.”
We continued through the cafeteria, down one corridor, then turning down another. We walked for what seemed like ages until we reached a set of thick, brown doors. My mother punched a code into the keypad and we pulled the doors open to enter the lock-down unit where my grandfather now lives. It was not elegant. It was stark white and it smelled like pee. The hallways were littered with wheelchairs, some occupied, some not. I tightened my grip on Julia’s hand as we moved slowly down the hall. She was scanning the patient pictures next to each door, looking for her great-grandpa’s face. I was scanning the open rooms, catching glimpses of the residents in their beds, coiled up and still, like they were frozen in time.
When we reached his room, the door was closed. The space where his picture belonged was empty, but his name was printed below it in black marker. We checked in at the nurse’s station to make sure it was alright to go in and visit. The nurse said, “Oh sure. Just open the door. He always has it closed.”
She walked us down the hall and opened the door, “Bob, you’ve got some company.”
That is when I saw him. He was lying on his bed, with his back to us. He sat up, quickly and turned around. His glasses were off and his hearing aid was hanging out of his ear. He looked up at us expectantly. He didn’t know who we were.
My mom walked in first, sat next to him and replaced his hearing aid as she said, “Hi Dad.”
His face softened and he smiled, “Oh, hello sweetheart.”
Julia ran up and handed him a sandwich bag with a chocolate cookie inside. I quietly sat on the bed next to his and watched as she removed the cookie and demand he eat it right away. She bounced around, talking and singing to him. He watched her closely, only looking away to ask my mom to repeat something Julia had said. She talked about piano class and t-ball and ballet. She told him that she was now three and asked him how old he was. He held up his hand and said 32. There was a bracelet around his wrist that activates an alarm if he attempts to leave the unit.
I stood up and walked around his room, noticing that all of his belongings – his clothes, shoes, pictures, cards – were stacked on his dresser. He told us that he was ready to go home. He just couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let him. As he grew more agitated, we began to hear a man out in the hallway. He was moaning and hollering, “Lord! Help me! Someone! Help me! Oh, please. Help me!”
Julia scampered across the room and glued herself to my hip. I held her close and she said, “Mom, that man out there is scary.”
My mom wisely suggested that grandpa take us down the hall to show us the community room. Dave, Julia and I filed out first in hopes of putting some space between Julia and the scary man, but the hallway was cluttered and full. I picked Julia up and we stood outside the door, waiting for the traffic to move. The scary man began to approach us calling, “Help me! Help me!”
A nurse was standing nearby. She noticed Julia and said hello. Julia replied, “That man is asking for help. No one is helping him.”
Just then, some space broke open and I moved swiftly down the hall. When we reached the community room doorway, I put Julia on her feet and took her hand. We walked in slowly. The room full of residents came to life in a wave as we moved by. They pointed and gushed, “Look at the little girl!” and “Oh, look at how beautiful!” and “It’s a baby! A baby! Do you see her? Look at her hair!”
Julia smiled and waved. She said hello. She was a very good girl. We moved to the end of the room and I released the breath I’d been holding. I turned to see my mom walk in with my grandpa. The scary man was following behind them. The room felt so tight and close, I felt light-headed, so we walked back to grandpa’s room and waited for him to return. When he did, he showed Julia his pictures and I carefully placed them on his bulletin board rather than replacing them in the pile on the dresser. I told him that pictures this beautiful should be displayed. He said he wanted to take his pictures home. When we were no longer able to change the subject, we knew it was time to leave. My mom gave him a hug and a kiss, Dave shook his hand and Julia waved bye bye. I hung behind for a moment, stood right before him so we were face to face and said, “I love you, grandpa.”
He didn’t know me. I hugged him to me and he patted my shoulders, “Alright then.”
Once we were on the other side of the big, brown doors, I took my mother’s hand and we walked down the corridor together. I told her, “You did great, mom. You did great.”
She nodded her head as tears fell from her eyes. We told each other that this was the right thing – that he needed to be there. And I know that it’s true. And even though I could tell you about the fires he set, the property he has damaged, the harm he had brought to himself and my grandma – all the things that led our family to take him to the nursing home, there is nothing that will ever make it feel alright.
My grandpa and me: