I visit Mom the day she enters the nursing home. The facility is off a main street in Melrose down a narrow road called Nursing Home Lane. A dozen small houses painted in pastel colors line the street. The houses are poorly maintained: chipping paint, sagging front porches or missing front steps. An unfortunate metaphor for the facility at the end of the street. The nursing home, painted dark green with cream trim, dwarfs the houses it overlooks. Visitors park their cars on both sides of the road. Behind the building, a small parking lot is crowded with weekend visitors.
The receptionist gives me Mom’s room number and I take the elevator to the second floor. Her room is opposite the back door to the parking lot. I make a note to use that door in the future. When I enter the room, the only person I find is Mom’s roommate, sitting in a wheelchair, looking out the window. Hearing me, she wheels the chair around, squinting her eyes. I nod and smile. She looks away. Apparently, I’m not interesting enough for a second glance. She grunts when I say, “Hello.” Dressed in her nightgown, she wears a flat hat that a dock hand might wear.
Mom’s half-empty suitcase lies open on her bed. The second drawer of her bureau is open and filled with jerseys and sweaters.
“There you are.” Leslie enters behind me.
“She and Dad are meeting with the Rehab specialist. She’s watching Mom walk and perform simple tasks before deciding on a plan.”
“I hope they can get her active again. She sat around the apartment too much.”
“That’s Dad’s fault. He’s never pushed her to do anything. Hasn’t the patience.” Leslie finishes unpacking the suitcase and closes the bureau drawer. “Easier to do everything himself.”
“I blame the pills. They scatter her thoughts. She can’t concentrate.”
“Frankly, she’s gotten lazy and it will be a job getting her going again. Maybe they’ll figure out what the problem is. They better, considering Dad’s forking over $5,000 a month.”
“Good God.” I’m shocked. I knew it was expensive but had no idea it was that much.
“You didn’t know?” Leslie is amused at my naiveté. “Imagine the cost when we’ll need one.” She pushes the suitcase under the bed with her foot. “Before they get back, will you carry in your old bookcase from Dad’s car? I have more of Mom’s clothes to carry in.”
We go to the back door. “Park behind the building and use this door.” She pushes a series of buttons. “Saves taking the elevator.” The door unlocks with a snap.
“What’s the code?”
“9-7-5-3-1. The only barrier between the grannies and freedom.”
Leslie unlocks Dad’s car with her key. “By the way, be prepared if Mom starts complaining about her room.”
Leslie explains that her roommate, Mrs. Gaskell, is vigilant in protecting her space on the window-side of the room. “When Mom walked over to look outside, Gaskell told her to stop ‘encroaching on her territory.’ When Mom heard that…” Leslie lowers her voice. “You know Mom. Tell her to stay away and she’ll be rubber-necking out the window all day.”
“I wasn’t there, but Dad said the floor nurse came and spoke to both of them. She told Mom that the area by the window is part of Gaskell’s sitting area for visitors. And she told Mrs. Gaskell that Mom can look out the window when Gaskell doesn’t have visitors.” Leslie shakes her head. “There’ll always be one issue or another.” She brushes her hands on her jeans. “Okay, carry in the bookcase and I’ll meet you back inside.”
I pull the bookcase out of Dad’s car. “Do I use the code to get back in?”
“No, it’s easy to get in. You just can’t get out.”
When Leslie and I return, we see our parents walking down the corridor. We wait for them outside the room. I give Mom a kiss and help her to her chair. “Getting settled in?” I ask. She looks annoyed and jerks her head in her roommate’s direction.
Dad speaks before Mom has time to put her thoughts into words. “We had a good session with Emily, the Rehab Director.”
“What did she have you do?” I address Mom hoping to steer her onto this new topic.
“That’s all you did?” I wait for more details.
Dad speaks up. “They have a kitchen in rehab. The director asked her to pretend she’s making breakfast.”
“Why do I have to make breakfast? They’ll bring me breakfast in the dining room.”
“They want to see how they can help you,” Leslie says.
“To make sure you can cook something to eat when you get home,” I add.
Mom sighs with an annoyed puff of air. “I told her George gets my breakfast at home.”
“Oh, boy.” Leslie groans through her teeth.
“Hat, are you warm enough? Do you need a sweater?”
She waves away Dad’s offer. “Whew, I’m worn out.”
“Let me explain where I’ve stored everything.” Leslie shows Mom what’s in the closet and the layout of the bureau. Dad and I adjust the shelves in the bookcase and move it between the bureau and the bedside table. I arrange photographs on the top shelf.
An aide pokes her head in to tell us that dinner will be served in five minutes.
“Dinner already?” I look at my watch.
“Dinner’s served at five o’clock.” The aide smiles at Mom. “Ready, Harriet? We’ll walk you down and get you settled at your table.”
“I need a wheelchair.”
“I’ll bring a walker.” The aide leaves the room.
Mom throws up her hands as if to say, “See what I mean.”
“Mom, you’ve got to build up strength in your legs,” Leslie says.
From Dad’s expression, I can tell he’s already had this discussion with Mom.
Despite the rocky start, Mom thrives in the nursing home. Within three months, her roommate problem is resolved: Gaskell dies. Mom promptly claims her space beside the window before the dead woman’s bed has had a chance to cool.
She makes several friends on her floor and spends most of the day with them. I especially like Kay. She looks younger than Mom, has bright red hair, and always wears a scarf around her neck. She doesn’t use a walker and I hope that seeing her, Mom will work harder to gain the strength and balance to walk without one.
Mom wholeheartedly enjoys the intrigues and feuds between residents. For many years, my parents rarely invited friends to their home or apartment and their lives became uneventful and lonely. Now, surrounded by other patients, she takes an interest in what’s happening around her. These friends, along with Dad’s daily visits, keep Mom from focusing on her physical problems. During the first months, she rarely speaks about going home.
When I visit, I often wonder if she’s more interested in her friends than in me. She responds to news about her grandkids but never follows up with a question about them. Instead, she’ll wait for me to toss her another morsel of news. I ask her about Dad: what is he up to? do you sit together outside on the patio or take part in a group activity? Her answers state the facts, unadorned with details. She then returns to the conversations around her. Occasionally she tells me she’s making progress. If she mentions going home, she never asks when that might happen. Meanwhile, Dad is more relaxed no longer having to care for her twenty-four hours a day.
One day after a dentist appointment in Arlington, I walk to my car parked on Mass Avenue. Starting my car, I wait for the traffic to stop for the light. To my surprise, I see my parents in the car next to mine. They don’t notice me. What are they doing here? I hesitate to blow my horn not wanting to alarm Dad. The light changes and I follow them, curious about where they’re going.
We continue down Mass Avenue, past the library, the fire house, and the parking lot in front of Walgreen’s. At Lake Street, Dad takes a right toward Spy Pond. He pulls into the lot next to the playground. I park beside them. Mom is halfway out of the front seat when she recognizes me.
I roll down the window, laughing. “Surprise! I followed you from Arlington Center.”
They’re delighted to see me, especially Dad who acts relieved at the change in routine. His expression makes my effort worthwhile.
“What brings you to Arlington?”
“I take Mom out one or twice a week. We had lunch at the new restaurant where the Suffolk Five used to be.”
“We asked to sit in the vault.” This is the first time I’ve seen Mom outside the nursing home. She appears more alert and her speaking is more understandable. Having friends around her all day seems to have had a positive effect.
“Less noise in the vault than in the main dining room. Everything echoes.” Dad presses his ear. “I couldn’t adjust my hearing aid in the main room.”
I help him steer Mom to a bench where the grass meets the sand. Her feet don’t reach the ground. The ducks resting nearby on the grass mutter at the inconvenience and waddle to the water. With a soft plop, they swim a few feet offshore where the other ducks are floating.
“George, you should have brought some bread—oh, you did!” Mom takes the bag from him.
“The bread fell behind the microwave. It’s stale, but the ducks won’t complain.”
“I haven’t been here in I don’t know how many years.” Mom tears the bread into small pieces. “Your father and I used to come here after school.” She throws a handful of bread at the ducks, but she doesn’t have the strength and most falls at her feet. “I didn’t do that very well, did I?”
I pick up the bread. Walking to the edge of the water, I throw a handful among the ducks. They fight for the food, stirring up the water, quacking angrily when outwitted. Several ducks dive underwater to retrieve the bread sinking to the bottom.
“I played baseball where those restrooms are. They weren’t there in those days.”
“When we started dating, I came and watched him.”
“Was he good?” I ask as if I don’t know the answer.
“Oh, yes. Everyone wanted him on their team.”
Another apple that fell far from the tree. I remember being chosen last for a team at recess.
I look across the lake. When I was a teenager, the town cut down the one-hundred-year-old willow trees on the opposite bank to widen Route 2. After construction, the cars were no longer a soft rumble hidden behind a tangle of branches. Instead, they roared by, picking up speed under the Pleasant St bridge to climb the hill. The pond, still beautiful, is no longer an oasis amid a hectic civilization – another loss in their lifetime. And mine, too. A reminder of my advancing years.
Dad points to a group of drakes congregating on the grass a short distance from the females. The iridescent colors of their feathers shift in the sunlight filtering through the leaves. “They look like a men’s club, quacking and preening, pretending they’re bachelors again.”
When I was in high school, I once came down to the lake with friends after a dance. Brian Wilkes drove his parents’ car, and we cruised up and down behind the cars facing the water. “Everybody’s down here watching the submarine races,” he joked. When he saw a car he recognized, he maneuvered his car to illuminate the fogged-up windows with his high beams. Then he’d stick a light on the top of his car. It flashed red and blue giving the occupants a scare. Two people can untangle themselves and arrange their clothes fast when necessary. How we laughed.
“At the end of the game, your mother and I cut through those backyards over there to Pleasant Street.”
“We climbed Grey Street. That was tough. At the top, we still had a ways to go.”
Their words create a vision of my grandmother’s house with Mom and Dad approaching on the sidewalk. I lean on the railing, watching them from the end of the front porch. They’re holding hands, and Mom is tired. I imagine them as two high school kids, but can’t picture their hairstyles, the clothes they wore in the 1930s, or what they talked about.
Is Dad aware that Grandma would disapprove if she knew her daughter was dating a Catholic? I see them stop two houses away and part. Ahh, so he has been told. Dad waits until she is on the porch before he walks away. Mom opens the front door only feet away from me. “I’m home,” she shouts entering the house. She seems real enough to touch, and yet, I can’t believe she’s a teenager. I see them only as elderly parents recalling a moment in their youth.
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