Chapter 1::Part I
The days between Thanksgiving and Christmas that year were some of the worst days of my life. Daddy had moved into a nursing home the middle of September, and over the next six weeks, my mother’s health suddenly and rapidly declined. Two weeks after daddy entered the nursing home, mother began to lose her balance and needed to use a cane to walk. Just one week later she needed a walker. Twice she was hospitalized after falling, and after the second fall, her doctors advised that she enter a rehab facility for a season. So that she and daddy could be close, mother was moved into the rehab wing of his nursing home.
Thanksgiving Day, a week later, mother was discovered unresponsive in her wheelchair and was hospitalized for the third time. As she began to respond in the hospital, it was apparent that her cognitive abilities as well as her physical strength were greatly impaired. Though she recognized family and friends, she had virtually no short-term memory. Where she had been unsteady on her feet before, she was now unable to walk at all or even stand. CAT scans ruled out a stroke and though she had suffered with rheumatoid arthritis for years and early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, her team of physicians was baffled at the cause of her rapidly deteriorating condition.
It was doubtful that mother would ever be able to return to her home again, but after she was discharged from the hospital back to the rehab center therapy was continued with the hope that she would improve. As much as I longed to bring her to our home, I knew she would never choose to leave my father, and at the time we did not have room for both of them. I hated that either one of them was in a nursing home, but I was comforted that at least for the moment they would be together.
The worst day came early in December. For over a month, my daughter Emily and I had been making the three-hour drive from our home to the nursing home two to three times a week, occasionally staying overnight. On this particular day we had gathered a few Christmas decorations from my parents’ home to take with us to the nursing home, wanting to make their rooms more festive with familiar things.
We went to mother’s room first. Even if she didn’t feel well, mother always greeted us with a smile. That day was no exception. When we entered her room she was sitting in a wheelchair next to her bed, her lunch was on a table in front of her. The food tray had not been touched and when I asked, she wasn’t sure how long it had been sitting there. As far as I knew, she was still able to feed herself. She said she wanted to eat, so I prepared her plate, put a napkin in her lap, seasoned her food and told her we would return after checking on daddy. She smiled and thanked me as we headed out the door.
In the nursing home wing across the building, we found daddy asleep in his wheelchair parked outside the nurse’s station in the middle of a group of other wheelchair patients. He was bony thin and frail, slumped over in his chair. He had recently been given medications and had apparently bitten into a vitamin, and the crushed remains mixed with saliva ran down the creases of his chin. He was a mess. His clothes were rumpled, and he desperately needed a haircut and shave. His arms were covered with the bruises common in the elderly, and there was a bandage around his right forearm. I questioned a nurse about the bandage and was told that he had cut his arm falling out of bed the day before. “Didn’t someone call you about it?” she nurse asked. Obviously no one had.
We gently woke daddy up and wheeled him back to his room so I could clean his face and show him the Christmas decorations we had brought from home. It depressed me greatly to be in his room – a room he shared with strangers. Daddy had worked hard – long past retirement age – to provide comfortably for my mother, my brother and me. I was deeply grieved that his earthly rewards had been reduced to a wheelchair, a hospital bed, a bedside table, and a small closet for his baggy clothes.
I reached into the bag of decorations and placed a miniature Christmas tree on the table in front of daddy’s wheelchair. The tree had been crafted by gluing dozens of tiny decorated boxes to a styrofoam cone. It had been the centerpiece mother used most often at Christmas on the kitchen table where daddy spent most of his days after retirement – mastering numerous crossword puzzles before Alzheimer’s disease took over and his crossword puzzles were replaced with coloring books. I had hoped he would be delighted to see that shiny decorated tree in his room at the nursing home, but instead he grabbed it with both hands and began to crush it with amazing strength. Shocked, I managed to pry his fingers loose, but the tree was destroyed. “Daddy! Why did you do that?” I cried, but he groaned and stared over my shoulder not saying a word.
Something was very wrong. I asked the nurses to please put him in bed. “Maybe he just needs to rest,” I thought. “I love you, daddy,” I whispered as I kissed his forehead before leaving the room with Emily to check on mother.
My heart sank as we entered mother’s room. We found her in quite a mess. She was still in her wheelchair and food was every where. She had spilled most of her lunch in her lap or on the floor, and tomato sauce was smeared all around her lips, apparently from whatever lasagna she had managed to get on the fork and close to her mouth.
“LORD, what is happening to my mother!”
Not wanting to alarm Emily, who was only 8 at the time, I chuckled and tried to pretend nothing was wrong. I washed mother’s face, changed her nightgown, and cleaned up some of the mess off the floor. Though mother continued to smile, I noticed a hint of embarrassment. Like a little girl caught skipping through mud puddles, she knew she had made a mess.
On most days, someone from the rehab center would wheel mother to daddy’s room, or the other way around, so they could be together, but it was obvious that today was not going to be one of those days.
“How was your father?” mother asked. Amazingly, she had remembered that I had left her for a while to see him.
“I don’t think he is feeling well today,” I answered, hoping she didn’t detect the lump in my throat.
We stayed for a while in mother’s room. Emily held her grandmother’s hand and told her what she was learning in school and what she wanted for Christmas. We decorated the bulletin board on the wall by mother’s bed and placed other Christmas decorations around her room. I read the Christmas cards that had come in the mail to her, and tacked them to the newly decorated bulletin board.
Mother continued to smile.
We stayed as long as we could. We had not planned on staying overnight and needed to head back home that afternoon. With a heavy heart I kissed mother goodbye.
Before leaving, we stopped to check on daddy. The nurses had put him in bed, and he appeared to be sleeping comfortably. I grabbed the bag with the crushed Christmas tree, and we left the room without disturbing him.
I am usually rather stoic when it comes to tears in public. I tend to save my crying for when I am alone. Most of the time, I can clinch my teeth or bite my lip and do what ever it takes to hold back the tears, but this day was not like most, and as we walked out of my father’s room, I was unable to hold back the flood of tears.
To be continued…(Part II here)