It’s already mid-summer when I notice the sign just inside the main entrance to the nursing home. Hanging on the wall next to a telephone, it gives instructions for what to do in case of fire or medical emergency, and then, mysteriously, a third contingency:

For an Elopement

Attention Staff

Doctor Hunt, room (indicate the room of the missing resident)

Repeat 3 times

Elopement? I imagine a frail, elderly couple escaping into a starless night, having fallen in love in the dining hall or at an afternoon social. But can romantic love be so common as to warrant a sign?

Then it comes to me. This is not a sweet narrative, but a sad one. One wing of the nursing home shelters Alzheimer’s patients, who tend to wander. A resident might follow a departing visitor out the locked doors, then make her way onto the grounds of the adjacent residential community and along a country road. “Dr. Hunt” must be code: a way to initiate a search without causing alarm.

Still, I loved my mistaken reading, and until my last visit with my father—and even after his death that winter, when my brother and I cleared out his room, and later when we returned to the nursing home for a memorial service for the residents who had died in the weeks before and after Christmas—I would pause and reread the sign, just to cheer myself up.

Then I would open the next set of doors, sign the visitors’ book at the reception desk in the foyer, and walk down a small corridor through a door that clicked and locked behind me. Stepping into the light-filled atrium, I would see if I recognized any of the residents there, doing a jigsaw puzzle with the help of an aide, or sitting at the computer, or slumped in a wheelchair, waiting to be taken somewhere. Then I’d pause outside the Great Room where most mornings a group would be seated around a large table, a few asleep, while the recreation director led a discussion of current affairs or summer holidays.

Just beyond the Great Room, I’d pass by two large birdcages. Four small gray yellow-headed birds with orange patches on their cheeks fluttered about in one cage, chirping. In the other was JJ, a white umbrella cockatoo who broadcast her bad moods with an ear-piercing shriek. If she were in a calm mood, she might cock her head and regard me quizzically. I’d linger a moment, then turn into the hall that led to Cedar Wing (all the wings were named for trees), pass the nurses’ station and arrive at my father’s room.

And during this walk through the atrium and the halls, I’d have been working on transforming myself. I was becoming someone slightly fictitious, slipping into a persona—like most personas, not totally false, but not the whole story, either. In this setting, I needed to be—wanted to be—“a good daughter.” Cheerful, attentive, solicitous, a grown woman without conflicted memories or needs of her own. Like the imaginary Dr. Hunt, I was searching for a person who had gone missing. I was looking for my father, who he had been, who he was still.

 

My father entered the nursing home in April, not quite five months after his eighty-ninth birthday. I was in England at the time. My brother called me in Bristol, where my husband and I were visiting friends. There had been some kind of crisis, my brother said, and a decision had been reached. Dad couldn’t stay in the apartment in the residential community where he and his wife had been living. His hearing and vision had grown dramatically worse, as had his already unsteady balance, and everyone feared he would fall. Dad himself believed the move was necessary. He was disoriented, but my brother said that should pass once he adjusted to his new surroundings. The next afternoon I talked with him, a confused version of the father I had known. I leaned against the black cast iron fence outside our friends’ flat, holding the phone, trying to anchor myself in the reality around me—a young man pushing a crying child in a stroller, magnolias in bloom in the park across the road, a cold spring in Britain.

“I think you should come home,” Dad said to me a few days later—by then I was in Edinburgh—telling me how difficult he was finding his new life. But the ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano that had erupted in March of that year was again disrupting air traffic, so we couldn’t leave for another week. A few days after my husband and I returned to our home in Maine, I drove to the nursing home in Connecticut. When I arrived mid-afternoon, my father was sitting alone in his room. Though it was sunny, the shade was drawn down the tall window because the light hurt his eyes. The TV was on, though by this time he couldn’t see more than shadows. He looked unbearably thin and frail. But he was neatly dressed, in a plaid collared shirt and navy blue cardigan, khaki slacks held up by a brown belt, his brown leather shoes smartly polished. His face was clean-shaven, his thin white hair combed.

I pulled a chair up by his left side, next to his better ear, and because he could see only the outline of a person, I told him who I was—his daughter—and that I had come to spend a few days with him. I’d already related these plans to him on the phone, but he was having trouble remembering things. He turned toward me, his eyes unfocused, his thin hand shaking. His ears, which had always stuck out, now looked unnaturally large, perhaps because his face was so drawn.

I felt sadness rising up in me, but I shoved it aside and concentrated on our conversation. I told him about my children—his grandchildren—both of them now living out in California, about our dog, about the lectures my husband gave in England on the jazz pianist Teddy Wilson. I dredged up happy memories from my childhood. I worried I might be talking too much, but I kept dropping words into the silence, like someone fishing in a murky pond, hoping for a nibbling response.

Abruptly he told me that he wasn’t getting better: “I’ve worked with machines all my life, Sue. You can fix them for a while, but there comes a time when they’re beyond repair.” His tone was halting but insistent, as if he were expecting an argument.

“I know, Dad,” I said. And I did know—his was a downward slope. I rested my hand on his arm. “It must be hard.”

Certainly conversation was hard for him. His face appeared strained, as if he were struggling to catch my words before they flew off somewhere. He listened as if listening itself demanded all his strength, then seemed to rummage through the cluttered attic of his mind, searching for words he could bring back. And once he found them, I sensed him trying to accompany these words as they made their way from the pathways of his brain to his mouth and into speech, trying to hang onto each one before it skittered off and he lost track of it.

After a while we were quiet, and I was aware of his raspy breathing, and of the sounds from other rooms, insistent buzzers ringing, the residents calling for help, the aides’ voices, a nurse pushing a medication cart slowly down the hall, stopping at each room. I sensed the spring burgeoning outside, distant, like a memory. With the shade drawn and the window closed, the air felt close. Still, there wasn’t the sort of odor that can seem inevitable in nursing homes—not in Dad’s room, not in the hallways. It was, my brother had said, the Taj Mahal of nursing homes, a country club for the aging.

When my father drifted off, I surveyed his room, which was clean and impersonal, with bare walls and regulation furniture—a hospital bed, two sturdy chairs, a bureau, a bedside table. A white cord had been wrapped around the arm of Dad’s chair, with a red button to push whenever he needed an aide. His cane hung over the bureau, a wheelchair stood in the corner next to the window.

I read a book I’d brought, and then my father woke and told me he was thirsty. His fingers groped toward a cup that the nurse had placed next to a plastic pitcher of water on a rolling table in front of his chair. His hands were shaking, so I helped him hold it. He winced—the slightest movement caused pain—took a few sips and complained of the taste. The staff, he insisted, had been putting something in the water to make him drowsy. I poured myself a glass. It tasted fine to me.

“You wouldn’t think that way if you had to drink a whole pitcher,” he said gloomily. Where did this darkness of spirit come from? It hurt to see that dementia was leaving him suspicious and irritable, lost in frightening narratives as if he’d found himself trapped in bad dreams.

A cart stopped outside the door, and a nurse knocked and entered, introducing herself. She gave Dad his afternoon medications and put drops in his eyes, explaining to him what each medication was and what it was for. After she left, my father asked if anyone was in the room. “I need to talk with you privately,” he said and then confided that he was in serious trouble. He had been taken into the nursing home on probation, a test case. He was being observed to ascertain if a blind man could live at the nursing home, and he was failing the test. Any day he would be thrown out, and then what would we do? He’d been in the home less than a month, and already it had cost him $3 million. We would all be bankrupt.

As he talked, I tried to remember a conversation I’d had in Edinburgh with my friend Margaret, who’d worked with old people suffering from dementia. “You don’t want to contradict them,” she advised. “They desperately need to feel someone understands. Sympathize, but don’t enter into their delusions. Try to keep your part of the conversation grounded in reality.”

My brother had already told me about Dad’s paranoia, and I’d worried how I’d respond. I told my father I understood how scary it must be to fear being thrown out, but that he was in a really good place, and that abandoning residents wasn’t how this nursing home worked. “Once you are living here, they are committed to take care of you for as long as you need to be taken care of,” I said, not knowing if this was true but knowing from my brother, who had been helping Dad with his finances, that his financial situation was secure. “All your life you’ve been careful with money,” I reminded him. I assured him that my brother and I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to him.

“You don’t know anything about it, Sue,” he said. He shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe that after all these years I was still so appallingly naïve about the world.

 

This visit, with its mix of disturbing conversations and attempts at consolation, set the pattern for the rest of the summer and fall. Every two weeks, I’d drive from Maine to Connecticut, arriving at the nursing home in the late afternoon to spend the next two days with my father. In the car, I distracted myself from apprehension—how would I find him this time?—by listening to The Iliad on CD. As the battles raged and the narrator recited the long lists of those killed and their lineage, as the gods quarreled and changed sides, as Priam begged for his son’s body, as Achilles sulked in his tent, I understood that what was happening to my father—indeed to everyone in the nursing home, to the dying everywhere—was part of the cycle of life and death.

My father, though he’d once been a passionate reader, could no longer summon an interest in The Iliad, or in any other book. He dismissed a biography of George Washington that my brother had brought him on CD as “too depressing.” He couldn’t manage the CD player on his own anyway. But he still enjoyed listening to music, so each visit, after we’d talked a bit, I’d put on Brahms or Mozart or jazz from my husband’s collection, and we’d listen together in the dimness of his room.

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