July 17, 2004
Today we visited my father at the nursing home. He's been there since we realized last month he couldn’t take care of himself any longer. Marsha, my wife, remembered he's fond of these cookies she makes, and figured she could coax him into eating something fattening, so she baked a large batch for him. Pop has Alzheimer's and hasn't been eating. It's like a wrestling match to get food into him. All he wants to do is sleep. He weighs around 100 pounds or so-- he's emaciated. Every bit of sustenance we can get into him is a major victory.
She baked them, cooled them, cut them into bite-size squares and stacked them in little plastic containers. When I saw them in the kitchen, I smiled because she's just so damn thoughtful. She's a deeply caring soul; a real giver. After I shower and shave, we head out on our 45-minute drive. We get about a mile from our destination, and I glance into the back seat. "Where'd you put the cookies?" I ask.
"OH, I CAN'T BELIEVE I FORGOT THE COOKIES! OH, FOR GOD'S SAKE! THE COOKIES ARE ON THE TABLE IN THOSE LITTLE PLASTIC BOXES! I CUT THEM ALL UP SO NEATLY! DAMMIT! I'M AN IDIOT!!"...and so on for several minutes until we arrive at the nursing home. She tells me to go inside while she parks.
Pop is wearing brown pants, a yellow shirt and a green pajama top. The shirt and pajama top are buttoned to one another in a fashion that's hard to explain. Both are tucked into his pants. His hair looks like he combed it with an eggbeater, and he smiles broadly when I enter the room. The effect is both alarming and comical--like he's clowning for me. I realize he has no idea how he looks. Not long ago he'd have been mortified to be seen in any condition other than carefully dressed, clean-shaven and neatly barbered. He’s a man in whom old habits and disciplines are deeply ingrained. A neat, regimented --dare I say fussy? -- man.
I adjust his clothing for him and I discover his pants are wet. The nursing assistant comes in and we lift Pop off the bed while he changes his sheets. We get him washed, into clean pajamas, and re-install him in the bed.
My cell phone rings. It's Marsha, calling from Pop's apartment. She’s gone to the store to get the ingredients to make another batch of cookies. Pop has nothing remotely resembling food -- or cookware -- at his apartment.
I chat with Pop about his days as a paratrooper and his combat jumps into Belgium with the 17th Airborne. He reminisces about the Ardennes, and the most ferocious engagements of the Battle of the Bulge. He described how he burned anything flammable to fight the cold. It was so hard to picture him scrambling through waist-high snow, fighting Nazis. How’d he survive that, only to wind up in a nursing home in Maryland with wet pants? God's little jokes are surreal and baffling. I await an epiphany that--maddeningly-- fails to come.
We talk about my mother, the Army nurse who was the first person to shampoo his hair for him after he'd been severely wounded and evacuated from the combat zone. He spent 27 months in Army hospitals when he was less than half my age.
Through the afternoon he dozes and wakes and apologizes. I tell him he doesn't need to entertain me; it's O.K. if he's tired.
No, he doesn't want to go for a walk in the hallway.
No, I can't get him a candy bar from the hallway machine…
No, he doesn't want a glass of water!
AND WILL I STOP TALKING TO HIM LIKE HE'S A GODDAM BABY!?
He nods off and wakes up.
He asks how Debbie is.
"Who's Debbie?" I ask.
"Your wife!" he says.
"That's Marsha, Pop." I say. "My wife is named Marsha."
"Oh, for Christ's sake! I am one goddam, falling apart old man!" he says.
"It's O.K." I say.
"I'm getting... sort of... wispy!" he says.
I think it’s a fine description of the process he's undergoing.
"Wispiness" overtakes him and he sort of fades away as I watch him nod off again.
I wander down to the Activities room where, amidst an obscene number of crappy romance novels, I spy a paperback copy of Norman Mailer's TOUGH GUYS DON'T DANCE. I snag it, return to Pop's room and sit quietly and read for a while. Mailer rambles on about his wife leaving him, tourists in Provincetown, how hard it is to quit smoking. I wish he'd just move the damned story along. Where are the fucking tough guys? Why aren't they dancing, goddammit? I want to punch Norman in the face for no good reason except that he's just not distracting me today.
Pop wakes up. He says he misses the Army, and the food they served. Can I get him anything to eat? No, he doesn't want anything to eat. He's tired and having trouble staying focused on what we're talking about. He laughs at the memory of devouring almost an entire lemon meringue pie my mother baked, and then trying to blame it on our beagle when Mom discovered it.
Marsha (did I mention she's a giver?) returns to the room. She has brought him a huge pan of warm, freshly baked cookies, and his radio from home. We kiss him goodbye. He asks Marsha for another kiss, and grinning like a kid, kisses her on both cheeks. “I’m not afraid of anything”, he tells me. His eyes are closed before we step out of the room.
We drive downtown for dinner. It is our wedding anniversary today. We celebrate quietly. I count my blessings. I am healthy enough; I can communicate appropriately; my wife is a giver. I miss my father terribly, already-- and he’s not even gone yet.