Grandma lives in what people in our area of the country call an “old folks home.” It is also variously called a nursing home, a senior care facility, or just “the home.” When she was forced to leave the farm, she lived in an assisted living facility until several falls made her a candidate to move on to the nursing home next door. Grandma worked as a farm wife for the majority of her adult life, before the days of milking machines and the many other mechanical devices that took the tough toil out of farm work. Her gnarled hands and feet show the effect of arthritis, begun before the day of drugs to ward off the disease’s effects. “Rheumatism,” was something to live with, not something to treat seriously.
She will be 88 years old next month.
She is not my grandma. She is my mother-in-law, but at her age, everyone in the family calls her Grandma, even her own children. She’s also a great-grandmother, but nobody calls her that.
“Do you know who this is?” My wife shows her snapshots of our kids, her grandchildren, all met with no response.
“How about this one? You should know who this is.”
Again, no response.
“It’s Megan.” Megan often visited Grandma when she still lived on the farm, washing her clothes and helping with simple chores.
Another pause, then, “Oh, Megan.”
My wife presses her. “Do you know who I am?”
A blank stare and long pause.
“Well, I should,” said Grandma.
“Who am I, then?”
Ten second pause.
Grandma recognized her youngest daughter, a small victory.
THE JAMAICAN CNA
He was the happiest person I’ve ever seen, but as out of place in this locale as a Lutheran at a bris. We’d seen him in previous visits, but today he wasn’t there. He swirled around the room like a butterfly on a bed of wilting wisteria, bribing smiles with Kit Kat Bars. His musical voice offered a delightful counterpoint to the flat Germanic accents all around him. He oozed happiness, from his talk to his smile to his walk. If you couldn’t feel good around him, you couldn’t feel good, period. Whatever nursing skills he had were magnified by his personality.
Grandma was about a four out of ten on the With-It-Meter. To be fair, she may have been sleeping before we came in. She lay nearly horizontal in a large, gray, vinyl recliner, a white hospital blanket tucked around her from toes to neck. Her furiously white hair had been cut and styled. It looked good, not flat on her head like usual. Her face contained a mixed look of weariness and confusion, her speech weaker than the last time.
“What did you have for lunch?”
“Are you thinking?”
Another long pause.
“Yes, I’m thinking.”
“So what did you have?”
No response, so we let it go.
Men in the commons area of the home were outnumbered by women four to one. This ratio would have been a great boon for them 70 years ago. Now they were the survivors who hadn’t yet rusted away from the tears falling on the inside. To a man they had the appearance of stoic Romans perched on their chariots, some with their feet wrapped in blue foam booties.
Rudy wore a seed corn cap and seemed restless, rolling himself from place to place, never stopping to talk to anyone.
THE LADY IN GRAY
Her hair was not white like most of the other women’s in the home, nor did it appear artificially colored. It looked to be originally dark, now with a mix of gray fixed in a perfectly designed bouffant. She was not asleep, nor was she totally awake. She had the look of a stern high school English teacher, the kind who would look at a kid condescendingly and think, “I know your type. Nothing will ever come of you.”
She sat, regal, in an upholstered arm chair. The chair’s twin stood next to hers, but no one dared occupy it. The chill coming off the lady in gray guaranteed privacy.
Her most striking feature was here fingers, long and extremely thin, with perfectly manicured nails. The tip of her right index finger pointed at the corner of her right eye, her middle finger curled next to her lip, her thumb supported her jaw. Her left arm rested languidly in her lap, her left hand at her right hip.
She undoubtedly had interesting stories in her, but I didn’t approach her. She was obviously out of my league.
“What are you wearing today?” Hanna lifted the blanket to see a beige sweatshirt and blue pants. The skin on her left hand was maroon, her knuckle swollen, her fingers curled into her palm. Hanna lifted Grandma’s shaking arm. Dr. O’Brien says it’s not Parkinson’s. Under her sweatshirt, an orange cloth sleeve covered her wrist, anchored between her thumb and index finger like a stirrup. To prevent bleeding, we are told, should she rub her thin skin on her bed.
“Thanksgiving is coming up. What would you like to eat?”
Millie rolled freely in her chair, looking sideways out of thick glasses.
“How are you today?” she asked.
“Fine. How are you?”
“Say hello to Andy for me.”
“OK, I will.” I had no idea who Andy was. To ask for clarification or correct her assumption would have been counterproductive.
She rolled away but was back in five minutes.
“Say hello to Andy for me,” she said.
“I will, the next time I see him.”
“Would you like turkey for Thanksgiving?”
A pause, then “Turkey.”
“What kind of pie would you like?”
“What kind would you like? Pumpkin? Apple?”
“Are you thinking?”
“Yes, I’m thinking.”
Another long pause, any response lost. How much was age, how much was medication. We didn’t ask.
PAT AND GERRI
The large woman with the four-point cane knows everyone in the home, but she does not live here. She lives 20 miles away. Patricia, “Pat”, comes here to visit her friend, Gerri. I’d found my way to a piano bench next to Pat’s chair, not daring to sit in any of the other chairs in the commons area lest I take someone’s customary spot. It happens, even among the residents, and the accompanying confrontation, like a kindergartener insisting on her space, isn’t worth it.
Pat grew up on a farm. We discussed our backgrounds in agriculture and gardening and how the snow was deeper back then.
“My mom would mix sweet corn and onions and tomatoes into a kind of salsa,” said Pat.” We would cut the eyes out of the potatoes for next year.”
Pat is extremely lucid, an island of normalcy in this place. I asked if she was planning to vote in the upcoming election.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “at the school. I’m still trying to find a way to get my friend there. They don’t have any wheelchairs at the school, though.”
Before we could discuss politics, a nurse in dark blue scrubs turned on the flat screen TV above the fireplace.
“What channel would you like?” she asked the semicircle of six residents, waiting in their wheelchairs for something, or nothing, to happen.
“Channel seven,” someone said.
On channel seven, Dr. Phil encouraged another sad soul to get professional help. The young woman said she might; obviously she won’t.
Channel seven is the CBS affiliate, the area’s most-watched station for decades, thanks to crossover loyalty to its sister radio station. These people grew up listening to radio in the day before television. Radio provided everything they needed to know, from school closings in the winter to storm warnings in the summer. These people, along with most folks of their age, would watch channel seven if all it ran was a test pattern.
The nurse in the blue scrubs wheeled a crabby, spritely woman in green slacks and a thin, light green flowered sweater to a stop in front of Pat and me.
“Gerri’s crabby today,” said Pat. “We’ve been together a long time.” Her tone left me to wonder if she and Gerri were more than just friends, but I respected her generation’s custom of not discussing such things.
The nurse leaned over and whispered something into Gerri’s ear. Gerri glanced over her shoulder at the departing nurse and muttered something below the audible level. The look on her face was reminiscent of Don Rickles on a bad day.
“You don’t take any guff from anyone, do you?” I said.
“Not from her,” said Gerri, sneering.
Suppertime was near. Two nurses wheeled a hoist up to Grandma’s feet and lifted her chair so she was in a sitting position.
“Put your hands here, Marie,” said the nurse in the dark blue scrubs, guiding Grandma’s hands onto the padded handles of the patient lift.
THE SINGING LADY
The kind of loud song a two-year-old might sing blared from the east hallway.
“She’s blind, and singing makes her happy, so they let her sing,” someone said.
“Singing makes her happy,” said someone else.
The heartfelt, vowel-heavy chant with only a hint of articulation to distinguish the unintelligible words sounded at times happy, at times angry. Rudy parked his wheelchair in the hall outside her room. I approached cautiously as the song continued loud and strong. As soon as I peeked in the singing lady’s door, the music stopped.
She definitely appeared blind, but why did she stop singing? I had not made a sound. Could she sense me? Was she suddenly embarrassed by a stranger’s visit? I immediately retreated, but the damage was done, the concert over.
The machine lifted Grandma enough so a wheelchair could be positioned beneath her. She would be taken to the bathroom and then a salad, bread stick, and chocolate brownie supper. She’d be fed like an infant, undoubtedly about the same amount.Is she ready to die? Probably. Undoubtedly. But the decision is God’s, not hers. For now, she is a mirror of our probable future.
She sat quietly at a table right behind me the whole time I stood next to Hanna and Grandma. I knew she was there, busy with something, but I’d been too uncomfortable to approach someone so apparently frail.
Now it was time to go, so I looked at the table top out of curiosity. It contained sheets torn from a child’s coloring book. Flora had been working with colored pencils on three kittens.
“You’re quite the artist,” I said, not expecting a response. All I’d seen of her was long, thinning gray hair, so I was unprepared for the sweetness of her face when she turned to look up at me.
“Oh, I’m not an artist,” she said. “I just like to color. I can still stay in the lines.”
“I loved to dance, but after my husband died, I stopped,” she said. “Sometimes after dances our friends would drink too much. I never understood why someone would make themselves sick on purpose.”
Flora was a ten on the meter. I would have liked to stay and chat longer with someone so pleasantly talkative, but the time had come to leave the home.
I would look her up next time, if there would be a next time.