I haven't seen grandpa in over ten years, though he wouldn't know it. He lives in a Personal Care Home right in town; I've driven past it many times. For months I've intended to visit him and for months I've made excuses about why I can't. Today I surrender my flawed argument and visit Grandpa.
Unknowingly, I park on the wrong side of the building where every door is marked "Staff Only". I decide I must enter through the adjacent hospital. Take the elevator to the basement, bumble through a maze of hallways and there I am. For a moment I wonder if entrance to visit the senile is intentionally confusing.
The hallways are identical to the ones in the hospital except for the Victorian drapery that dresses each window here. Unsure of where to go, I inspect everything as I wander. Local artists have their paintings hung here; mostly pictures of flowers, rivers and fields. They always do scenery. I spot a map hung on the wall like a picture. Beside it, on a list of 52 residents, I find Grandpa's name under "Blueberry Acres".
I follow white corridors to the double doors of Blueberry Acres. On the wall beside the doors is a keypad and instructions to not allow residents to escape. I push the doors open and step into Blueberry Acres. The large room has about five cafeteria style tables. Most of the tables have two chairs, some have none. A sign on the wall calls this room the "Café" and a white marker board has notes scrawled across it; ‘Today is July 10th. the weather is ...' and the day's menu.
A white haired woman in a wheelchair pulls herself across the floor of the café, intently staring at the floor as it passes beneath her. Another woman sits in her wheelchair watching me cross the room while a nurse feeds her
The door to Room 13 is slightly open.. Maybe he's sleeping and I should come back another time. I knock again and peek in.
Grandpa's door is partially open. I knock and hear no response, so I peek in and ask if I can come in. Grandpa is in his bed, trying desperately to climb out of it. He's lying sideways and slanted, with his legs dangling over the side of the bed and his diaper showing. He waves frantically and yells, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" I exit immediately! How I must have offended him! I stand at his door wondering what to do, only then noticing a reverse peephole in his door. I peek in and watch for a moment as he lies in that awful position for a minute, then rocks and sways trying to sit up. Then he falls back into that crooked position. I rush inside and ask if he'd like help. "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" he yells. I pull his round body upward until he's sitting, sort of. He leans on his arm which shakes violently under his weight. "I'll get help, okay?" "Yeah, yeah, yeah!"
Two nurses smile at me as they enter his room with a crane. They'll lift him from bed to wheelchair. The nurses tip him onto his back where he yells and complains at the destruction of his efforts. His plastic diaper bulges here and creases there. I turn away and wait outside of his room. I sit in a chair and watch a nurse feed a silver-haired lady from a bowl of peaches.
After ten minutes of crying in the washroom, my eyes are sufficiently red and puffy. My head is pounding and I feel a migraine coming on. On the way back to Grandpa's room I ask a nurse for an update on his condition. He's declining as expected. He can feed himself, but can not stand or even sit up on his own. He does not speak much, but seems to understand. It is quite normal.
She seems heartless. Tears start rolling again and she changes the pitch of her voice to one I've often used with babies and small children. "You know," she says, "I read an article recently about Alzheimer patients and their families. Those with Alzheimer's are mourned twice - once for the loss of the person they once were, and finally for their physical death." I'm grateful for her contribution, despite the tone.
Tears stream down my face again. I never expected any of this. I've heard the stories, ‘yes, it's so sad when they lose their memory' and ‘yes, it's terrible when they don't know who they are'. But to see a grown man in a diaper with his legs bent towards the ceiling is more than I can take right now.
I hold my head in my hands. I should have come sooner. The Grandpa I knew died years ago. I can't believe I expected I would come here and we'd sing songs or I would read to him. What a fool.
The nurses open Grandpa's door and wheel him out into the café, seating him at a table. He slouches in his wheelchair, wearing oversized jogging pants, a golf shirt and a green farmer's cap. The cap is stiff and sits awkwardly high on his small head. He breaks his gaze with the table and stares at me. His empty gaze barely acknowledges we're in the same room.
A nurse in a purple jumpsuit brings a tray to the table. She hangs a long cotton towel around grandpa's neck and attaches the tray to his wheelchair. "Lunchtime, John!" She says with a smile, and places an orange plastic bowl in front of him. He grabs the spoon and starts shoveling.
His bib is tucked under his plate and slowly becomes caked with pasta and beef. Suddenly I feel conspicuous and rude, but I watch him eat anyway. He scoops mountains of pasta and sauce onto his spoon and carries it precariously teetering to his mouth. The spoon holds more than he can fit, and some ends up on his face, table, hands and bib. I've never seen someone eat like this before and suddenly I feel even ruder for being here at all.
The nurse brings him an ice cream cup and removes his plate. "John! What a mess you're making!" She smiles at me as she walks away. Grandpa ignores her and tends to his ice cream cup. Suddenly he looks up at me with great concern in his eyes as though I just joined him and he may have to share. He finishes his ice cream in five bites. Do people normally chew ice cream? The nurse returns to remove his bib, cup and spoon and he and I sit together in silence.
Concerned someone might hear the silly one-sided conversations I have with grandpa, I quietly watch the nurses feed residents at another table while they discuss work schedules, and summer plans. I can't decide whether their conversation is rude or pleasant.
I place my hands on the table and suddenly grandpa looks up as though I just sat down to join him. He neither smiles nor frowns. I fold my hands together and begin twiddling my thumbs. He watches and soon realizes that he's doing the same thing. He raises his hands above the table to show me his twiddling thumbs and, for a moment, we have something in common. He returns his hands to his lap, his gaze to the table, and we sit in silence once more.
Another resident, a wiry man named Stephan, walks over to our table. "Hello." I offer with a smile. He looks at me as though I just interrupted a greatly important thought. He mumbles something about the many things he has to do and organize. He then stops talking and stares a hole through my hand. I smile at grandpa who looks as confused as I feel. Stephen traces a pointed index finger around a white dishcloth that lays crumpled on the table.
"So," he says softly, "I was going to have a guy go in ..." his voice trails off.
"What?" I ask. He traces the dishcloth.
"...and the guy was gonna go in and around."
He points at the dishcloth and asks, "Is that what you were going to do?"
"Is that what I should do?" He stops and looks at me blankly.
"Do about what?" he asks. Then he steps four feet away and stands, holding his chin. He seems to be thinking hard on a weighty subject.
I turn to grandpa and he looks at me with disdain. I smile. He withdraws his glare and hangs his head. I begin talking quietly to him about how yummy lunch must have been and then silently watch the nurses clean up the residents and, one by one, take them to their rooms.
Grandpa's head still hangs and his eyes are pinched closed as if trying desperately not to hear me or anyone else. Time for a nap I guess. I look up at a nurse who is now sweeping the floor under empty tables. "I guess I should let him sleep." I tell her. She smiles. I wonder if she thinks I'm making excuses. Grandpa is quietly snoring.
As I make my way to the keypad security doors, I'm enveloped in the same guilt, shame and pity that found me when I first entered his little room in Blueberry Acres. I push through the metal doors and look back through the window. Grandpa's eyes are now open and he stares at a chair; he seems to have forgotten that I was ever there. Tears stream down my face again. I don't know how these nurses work here everyday among those who don't remember them.
As I make my way to my car, I wonder about grandpa's life in limbo. His little room with his last meager possessions is as cold and empty as his gaze. He slumps in his wheelchair forgotten, abandoned by even his own mind.