Tuesdays at the Nursing Home- To Have and to Hold...

Last week he arrived alone for the first time. Pushing the throttle on his electric wheelchair and advancing toward me I thought he seemed somehow smaller. I followed him down the hallway and into my office, took a seat and waited for him to speak.  Marriage counseling is at best a risky proposition. Couples usually wait to seek help until they are one breath away from divorce, out of options and seeing my office as the last depot stop before court. But when a couple has been married for 67 years, as Bill and Louise have been, the task seems even more daunting. What possible help or advice could I have to offer?

They had been squabbling, they said, and this wasn't their way. But in the past few months, as the day wore on, Louise would, without fail, begin to snipe at Bill. Bill would react by retreating into his office. Once there, he'd sit staring at his stacks of file folders, all meticulously organized to contain the facts and figures of their lives- past, present and future.

"She says she wants to move back to our old house. She doesn't like the apartment. She doesn't like the woman they send in to help her get dressed in the morning. Even worse, she wants to get her driver's license again." Bill would smile ruefully and shake his head. "She's not being logical. She's not thinking about her own safety, let alone that of the other drivers out on the road. Her memory's slipping. Since the stroke, she can barely use her right leg. I ask her how she's going to be able to manage getting in and out of the car or working the gas and brake pedals and she just tells me to mind my own business!"

Louise, when given her turn, would rail against the rules imposed upon her in their "Catered Living" facility. She talked about having raised four children while Bill worked long hours and how he just didn't seem to realize she was a strong, competent person and didn't need him or anybody else telling her what to do.

"I miss the intimacy," Bill sighed. "It's hard to hold your wife when you're both in wheelchairs or hospital beds. You probably think I'm a foolish old man but I still have feelings. I miss being touched but I don't think she misses that part of our relationship at all."

We worked for months, tweaking, adjusting, reframing, explaining and finally we arrived at a happier day-to-day atmosphere between the two of them. Shortly afterward Louise got sick and nearly died.

When she came back to their upscale retirement community, she was put into the skilled care facility and Bill was stuck going to visit her two and three times a day.

"They won't let me take my electric wheelchair in, so I have to transfer to a regular wheelchair and try and push myself down the hallways to get to her room." He smiled wistfully and pointed to the boot on his left foot. "It's kind of hard to propel yourself with a broken foot and one arm that won't work. It takes me a while to get to her but she really counts on seeing me."

I sighed inwardly and thought about the foolish regulations facilities make and rigidly maintain. I looked at Bill, seeing tears spring to his eyes as he talked about missing his wife.  It was as if the years had fallen away and the 88 year old man sitting in front of me was suddenly a small, lonely boy, grief-stricken and afraid.

"Are you sleeping?" I asked eventually, feeling inadequate and knowing there were no words adequate enough to soothe a pain 67 years in the making.

Bill shrugged and gave me his fleeting, familiar half-smile. "Oh, I sleep alright...as long as I turn my face to the wall and don't look back at the empty bed across the room."


True Love at the Five and Dime

They say you'll never find true love if you go looking for it and I'll confess, I wasn't looking. In fact, it was almost the last thing on my mind. What I needed, I thought, was a new car battery but what I found in the Auto Department of the Kernersville Walmart, was true love.

I entered the store through the grimy Customer's Entrance of the Auto Department, prepared to do battle because this is what women do when they're on unfamiliar and allegedly unfriendly turf. I was prepared to be oversold and lied to, even though this was only a battery and somewhat straightforward. I had researched the brand, the model and the price and no grease monkey type was going to con me.

The man behind the desk was a few inches shorter than me, with a three-day old stubble of white facial hair, glasses and a friendly smile. He listened politely as I told him which battery I wanted, checked his computer, walked over to the stocked shelf and returned to declare they were all out of that kind but had it's slightly less well-rated cousin.

"That's the kind I put in the car my wife drives," he said, as if knowing this would sell me. "I always make sure she drives the best car because well...because she's my wife." He shrugged and smiled at his computer screen. "She drives a Toyota now too. Took me the longest time to get her to take it too." He shook his head and chuckled. "See, she's short and we couldn't figure how to get the seat up high enough for her to see over the steering wheel. Buddy of mine showed me." He shook his head. "You know, there's a..."

"Lever on the side," I finished, because I have a bad habit of finishing other people's sentences despite my best intentions not to. I nodded wisely. "How long've you been married?"

"Gonna be 51 years next week. We got engaged on April 1st, can you believe it? April 1st!" He chuckled and shook his head.

"Did she think you were kidding?" I asked, forgetting all about the stupid battery.

"Oh, no. She says 'The joke's on you 'cause I said yes!" He smiles like he's the happiest guy on Earth. "We still get along, you know? We talk and do stuff together. We still like each other.  Got 4 kids. That part, well, if I was to do it all over again, I'd just have a cat, but we're happy."

"You look like you're happy," I say, smiling at him.

"I met her on March the 17th and proposed on April 1st.  See, I was in the Service and I wanted to make sure...So we wrote letters until I got back and we got married. People thought I was crazy, you know, getting engaged after just two weeks. My pals said, 'What're you doing? Are you crazy? You don't even know her good!' But I just said, 'Tell me somethin', you open up a bag a marbles and there's a diamond sitting in the middle of them. How long does it take you to figure out you want that diamond?"

He smiles up at me. "That shut 'em up and we've been happily married over 50 years."


Halloween Beginnings...

It's beginning to look like Halloween around here...

Tuesdays at the Nursing Home- Between and Beyond

This morning a patient I'd been seeing for the past 15 or so years didn't show up for his appointment. I can only remember one other time when he hadn't shown and it was within the past few months. He'd been struggling with poor health for several years, so I wondered if he was sick again and had forgotten.  After 15 years, you tend to know someone fairly well, especially in my business, so I just knew something was wrong. I remembered how frail he'd seemed in our last session and how I'd thought of the Indian saying about fragile people's souls being light to the ground.

I didn't want to bother him if he was sick, so I sent a brief text asking if he'd forgotten me.  When his daughter from South Carolina called back a few hours later, sounding like she had a cold and asking me to call her as soon as possible, I just knew.

Tom didn't believe in God. Didn't believe in an afterlife. "When you die, that's it, Nance. You're just dust." He said this when his father died, said his father believed the same thing. Yet a few months later, when he'd gone out for a pre-dawn walk, he'd seen his father standing at the end of the walk. "Maybe it was just a guy who looked a lot like him." But the man vanished as Tom approached and while he wouldn't admit he'd seen his father, I could tell he'd wondered.

Tom was hovering between here and there his daughter said. She said they didn't know why he was dying, only that he was.  The doctors couldn't understand what was causing him not to respond to their treatment or what had caused such a buildup of fluid. "But they know he won't come back," she said. "He's going."

She sounded so matter of fact, so composed and I listened, remembering the trials and tribulations of her adolescence, how aggravated and frightened he'd been and how proud he'd been of the woman she'd become. I felt oddly detached, as calm and removed as the voice on the other end of the phone, as if none of this were truly real and happening.

I told Tom's daughter I'd come to the hospital as soon as I could, by six at the latest. Then I hung up and returned to listening to a book by the Long Island Medium- not because I'm a fan but because I wanted to hear what a woman from Long Island who channeled dead people, sometimes in Bath and Body Works store or in Nordstroms sounded like. I thought I could use a character like her in a story...because that's just what writer's do- we steal people.

The Medium talked about how people sometimes send symbols or appear as a symbol. She told a story about a cardinal appearing to a woman who'd lost her husband.  And while I may believe this is possible or even true, something about her brash, confident manner was off-putting. Like she knew for a dead certain fact what happened and how everything worked on the other side. Like Marissa Tomei in "My Cousin Vinny," only without as much heart.

At 4:30 I saw my last patient at the house and as we spoke, Tom died.

At 5:30, as she was leaving, the woman stopped on the porch and pointed to a corner of the screen. "Oh look," she said. "There's a bird trapped on your porch. How'd he get in here?" She looked around. "The door was closed and there aren't any holes anywhere. That's weird." She shrugged. "Oh, well. See you next week."

I propped the screen door open, closed the door into the house and gently shooed the little bird out and on its way.

"There you go, Birdie," I said, watching him soar off toward the trees. "Fly on home."


Tuesdays at the Nursing Home- Kind Betrayals?

     I punch in the code to enter the locked Alzheimer's unit and hear Daisy's wails echoing down the long hallway. She's almost deaf, so communicating with her is tenuous at best. I take a seat beside her in the common room, aware of the circling patients all around me, swirling into and out of their own delusions and fleeting memories.
     I touch her arm, stroking her gently and realizing she's lost too much weight since my last visit. "Remember me?" I ask, knowing this is an impossible question, yet relieved when she looks into my eyes and nods, mouthing something that I take for acknowledgement. I look into Daisy's eyes trying my best to communicate everything I can without saying much at all. "I'm sorry," I murmur. "I'm going to do something about this."
     But really, what? I remember her from the other, unlocked, assisted living side, remember how terrified she was the time they put her over on this unit for punishment because she'd shoved her roommate in an argument over the thermostat setting in their room. I remember her eventual full-time transition to this unit and the way she'd seemed to accept the inevitability without protest. Now this, hours and hours of inconsolable crying.
     Without warning, a stout, bald man wearing a sweater vest rises up behind us, clutches the half-wall divider and peers out at the crowd before him. "I've got $104, can I get $105. $105, do I hear $105?"
     Daisy doesn't hear him. Everyone else ignores him. He turns, taps the man sitting beside him. "Come on, buddy, it's $105 to you."
     In a room down another corridor Faye sits in a rocking chair, eyes wild, mouth drawn up tight, her fingers so tight on the wooden arms the knuckles have blanched white. "Crystal's got a gun and she's gonna shoot me!" she says. I tell her I know she got "sent out" recently and put  in an unfamiliar psychiatric facility where they changed all of her medications and sent her reeling further into psychosis. "They made a mistake and sent you where the doctor didn't know you. I can get Dr. Jones to help get things right again."
     Faye glares at me. "I know what you're trying to do," she says, her words rushing at me through tightly controlled anger. "You're trying to cheer me up. Don't you dare try and cheer me up! I know who that doctor is- he's Sanford Haynes, a known Communist and a hired assassin. So don't try that on me! I'm not going to the hospital."
     I leave her for the relative sanctuary of the nurses' station and order her to be "sent out" again, this time to her usual psychiatric hospital and her familiar psychiatrist. She will hate me for this, I think, and maybe fight the police if they have to come and take her. She will wonder why she's been betrayed again and then, at some point weeks from now, she will return, cheerful and sane, to await her daughter's weekly visit and fast food sack full of bad-for-you goodies.