I haven’t seen Grandpa in over ten years, though he wouldn’t know it. He lives in the Senior Care Home; I’ve driven past it many times. For months I've longed to see him and for months I’ve made excuses about why I can’t. Today I visit Grandpa.
The door to Room 13 is slightly open. I knock and hear no response. I knock again and peek in. He lays awake on his little bed looking at me, but says nothing. I smile. “Can I come in?” He stares.
His room contains only a dresser, nightstand, armoire and a bed that seems too close to the floor. “Hello.” I say, and sit on the floor by his bed, eye level with him. I take his hand and stare at the wall not knowing what to say. He doesn’t speak or move. I can feel my throat swelling. I glance at him; his brown eyes stare blankly at me as if to say, ‘I don’t know who you are but I like that you’re here.’ As my tears begin to fall I force a smile and tell Grandpa I’ll be right back. I leave in search of a washroom and Kleenex.
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 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.
I return to Grandpa’s partially opened door and knock. “Hello?” No answer. I peek in and see Grandpa is now lying propped up on one elbow, 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 as he lies in that awful position for a minute, then rocks and sways trying to sit up. Then he falls back into a crooked position. I rush inside and ask if he’d like help. “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” he yells. I heave his round body upward until he’s sitting, sort of. He leans and his arm shakes violently as he holds himself up. “I’ll get help, okay?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”
Two nurses smile at me as they enter the room with the crane. They 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.
Tears stream down my face again. 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.
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. His empty gaze barely acknowledges we’re in the same room.
A nurse in a purple uniform 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 smiles, 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. I wonder if I should leave.
The nurse brings him an ice cream cup and removes his plate. “John! What a mess you’re making!” She says and 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 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 my silly one-sided conversation with grandpa, I quietly watch the nurses feed residents at another table while they discuss work schedules and weekend plans. I can’t decide whether their conversation is rude or pleasant.
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 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 trying to justify leaving. Grandpa snores.
As I return to my car, I’m haunted by thoughts of grandpa’s life of limbo. His little room holds his last meager possessions. It is as cold and empty as his gaze. He slumps in his wheelchair forgotten, abandoned by even his own mind. I drive away knowing I won’t return soon, wondering if I’ll return at all.