I am an only child and, even though I had an unpleasant childhood for a variety of reasons that are not relevant to this post, I still loved them and when their health foundered, I did the best I could to ameliorate their suffering.
My dad succumbed to Alzheimer’s and my mother had a stroke after she returned home from dropping him off in the locked Alzheimer’s Unit of a nursing home. She laid on the floor in the garage for 7 days before a neighbor found her. She only partially recovered her mental faculties.
He lived another six years and she lived another seven.
I was living in Seattle at the time and when I got the news from an officer with the Fire & Rescue Department, I got on the first available flight to Myrtle Beach, SC.
He did not know where my father was and I did not find out until I arrived at the hospital and, in one of her lucid moments, my mother told me what she had done.
I knew his forgetfulness had been getting worse, but I did not know how bad it had gotten. We did not talk much because of the poisoned past. She told me that he slapped her and shoved her to the floor after she criticized him for forgetting something she regarded as important.
That was the first and only time that he hit her in their 50+ year marriage and it would be the last time. She dropped him off at the Alzheimer’s Unit later that day.
I went to see him. It was like a jail and I had to be admitted to the unit by a security guard, who unlocked the heavy steel door and admitted me to a large hellish visiting area.
Many patients wearing soiled clothes were strapped in wheelchairs. Unable to hold their heads erect and focus on a blaring television set in a corner of the room, their heads lolled from side to side as drool dripped from their mouths and unintelligible sounds emitted from their throats. The place smelled like shit.
I saw my father at the opposite end of the room talking to an unresponsive man about something. I walked up to him not knowing what to say. He noticed me approaching. He stopped in mid-sentence and faced me.
He smiled in recognition and relief. He said, “Frank, thank God you’re here. Let’s get out of here.” He put his arms around me and hugged me tight. When he let me go and stepped back still holding my hands, I saw that his eyes were moist with tears.
My name isn’t Frank. Frank was his older brother and he died 26 years ago.
My father did not know he had a son.
We chatted for awhile as I tried to fit into the conversation. I don’t recall what I said, what we talked about, or how long we talked. I remember being overwhelmed by the horror of the place and the stranger whom I used to call “Dad.”
Suddenly, I couldn’t take another minute. I released his hands and said, “I have to go the bathroom. I’ll be right back.”
I turned and walked away. I spotted the security guard and struggled to keep from running toward him and the door over which he presided.
“Let me out,” I said. “I can’t take it anymore.”
He laughed and said, “You’ll get used to it after awhile.”
I never did.
I did, however, arrange to place my mother and my father in the nursing unit of a retirement home that was a much better facility and I visited them as often as I could over the next several years as inch-by-stubborn inch they declined and briefly rallied, declined and briefly rallied, until they were no more.
My father never spoke my name and never knew who I was.
My mother criticized him for it, but he soon forgot who she was and spent the last year of his life strapped into a bed that they used to transport him back and forth between his room and the day-room.
Sometimes they left him in the hall across from the nursing station so they could keep an eye on him as they came and went.
They called me one day and told me that he died peacefully.
I buried him and then I went home.
I was there a year later when my mother passed.
I held her in my arms and kissed her goodbye when she stopped breathing.
I buried her and then I went home.