Men can pee while sitting on the toilet.
This is one of the things Anne learned while caring for her father,
who had Alzheimer’s. “I love you more than I know,”
he told her.
“Let me take this opportunity to wish you Happy Visit,” he said. “We’ve had a little back-set here at the office. A little up-mix.”
“I have more places than usual to sleep,” he said. “I take naps on the Baltimore Orioles field. At first I thought it would be a problem. They like to play baseball more than anything, and I can understand that, I’m that way, too. I don’t know what I’ll do if they throw the ball to me; I have only fifty cents in my pocket. I’m so mixed up, I won’t be much help. I’m trying to do so many things, and I can’t do right, and I want to do well.”
Anne’s family had been making fun of her father for years before he was diagnosed. It was too late to apologize.
“The newspapers are full of the most horrible things,” he said. “How did we let this happen?”
Anne asked her mother how she coped. “I try to remember
how, when I married your father, everyone told me I got the prize.
And I did, I got the prize.” Her arms were black and blue
where he held her.
Anne’s father’s best friend had died. She removed his number from the telephone Speed Dial, and fingered the paperweight on her father’s cherry desk: “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” Her mother sat at her own desk forging her husband’s signature on birthday cards for the grandchildren.
Anne stood abruptly and went to her parents’ bathroom, which had a hand-painted “Bathroom” sign on the door with a drawing of a toilet. She pushed the stack of diapers and her mother’s heart medicine aside to reach the kleenex.
She spoke in hushed tones with her mother about her father’s move to a nursing home.
“What did you say?” he asked. He sat at the dining room table wearing a body-length bib. The oriental rug under his chair was covered with plastic.
It was raining nonstop.
Anne lay on a sleeping bag on the floor next to her father’s
bed on his first night in the Alzheimer’s ward. She’d
made a nuisance of herself all day accosting people in the hall
shrieking about her father’s likes and dislikes. The history
channel, tapioca pudding, the Orioles, car keys in his pocket. Mashed
potatoes because they were “flexible.” Vanilla ice cream
with chocolate sauce, holding hands.
A white-haired woman walked into the room and closed the door behind her.
“I’m sorry, I believe you have the wrong room,” Anne said. All of the rooms had “memory boxes” outside of them, with pictures of the resident’s family, to assist with room identification.
“I’m going to grandmother’s,” the woman said.
Anne escorted her into the hall, where another woman waited. She was stout, with stubbly gray hair and a sack-like dress, no attempt at style. “I told you so,” the waiting woman said to the first woman.
“They ought to have a better system,” the first woman said.
Anne returned to the room and lay down on the sleeping bag again. She’d removed a picture of someone else’s grandchildren from her father’s pocket when she’d undressed him.
A tall, elderly man with a large, shiny forehead pushed the door open.
“This isn’t your room,” Anne said.
“Yes it is! I own all the rooms on this floor and the one above!”
A pink-uniformed female aide took him out, warning Anne to be careful as the man had a tendency to hit people. Anne tried not to think about the implications of the mostly white resident population and the mostly ethnic, female, minimum wage aides who served them; she was worn out from politics.
She listened to her father thrashing about, his knees bent on the short bed, the
“Do Not Resuscitate” bracelet banging against the headboard.
“Where is the one who ordinarily sleeps with me?” he asked.
Anne sat on the floor at her father’s feet holding his hand
during the Trivia Game. The residents sat on chairs or sofas arranged
in a circle in front of wallpaper that had drawings of plants and
herbs with their names underneath. Mrs. Barnard slept, while Dr.
Hodgkins leaned her head back on the sofa and stared at the ceiling.
A nicely dressed and coiffed, be-jeweled Mrs. Taylor smiled pleasantly
as if she were at a tea. She smelled faintly of urine.
General Harper looked at Anne intently. She’d been told he couldn’t speak. Every night his eighty-year-old wife fed, bathed and put him to bed before taking his dirty clothes home to wash.
Anne nodded at Mr. Danovitch, wearing a suit and tie, his hat balanced carefully on his lap. She’d mistaken the tall, brown-haired man for a visitor yesterday after a lengthy, stimulating chat. He wore a pin on his lapel with the logo of the Fortune 500 company for which he’d been vice-president, and had given her his business card. He’d been born in Zagreb, and told Anne how much he loved his wife of 50 years. Their relationship was built around classical music, he’d said. His grandson was very smart and played the violin, and his son worked for a government agency “which must remain unnamed.” Later Anne had seen Mr. Danovitch banging on the locked exit door. “Do you know how to open this?” he’d asked. “There’s a button you push somewhere . . .”
“What was President Harry Truman’s wife’s name?” The Activities Director was a slim blonde, in her twenties.
“Bess,” Mr. Goldberg said. Mr. Goldberg had survived a concentration camp.
“Good for you, Mr. Goldberg! In what state is the Statue of Liberty located?”
Anne tensed every time a question was asked, afraid she wouldn’t know the answer. An attendant took a large container of juice from the padlocked refrigerator, and Anne realized how thirsty she was.
“New York,” Mr. Goldberg said. Everyone else was silent. The attendant poured herself a glass of juice, then returned the container to the refrigerator and replaced the lock.
Anne looked up at her frail, thin father, trying to gauge interest, confusion, humiliation. His eyes were opaque. She squeezed his hand; he squeezed back.
“What is half woman and half fish?”
“Why would you combine them?” Dr. Hodgkins asked. Her daughter didn’t visit because she said it gave her the creeps.
“What is the last name of the World War II general whose first name was Douglas?”
“MacArthur,” Gen. Harper said.
“I knew Gen. MacArthur.”
“What animal has an ivory tusk?”
The room was silent.
“Elephant,” Mr. Goldberg said, sticking out his legs to block the path of the attendant walking past in her nurse shoes.
“We’re a long way from home,” Anne’s father said.
Anne led her father by the hand down the hall, where handrails
disguised as chair rails lined the walls, and antique reproductions
were placed at aesthetically pleasing intervals on the soft mauve
carpeting. They passed a bulletin board with an activities calendar
and photographs of residents and their keepers, including one of
Gen. Harper saluting. Fences enclosed the thatched cottages on the
“Please knock and enter slowly,” Anne’s father said; there was a sign on every resident’s door. Staff literature referred to residents as “the loved one.” The loved one should wear pants with an elastic waistband, no belts. The loved one’s name should be printed on clothing with large black letters.
Anne was navigating the corridor in a straight, vertical direction, but her father angled toward a woman sitting on a Queen Anne sofa. They passed Mr. Danovitch. “Have you seen my wife?” he asked.
Anne and her father arrived at the sofa where the thin woman with tight, white permed curls sat smiling at the three-foot Raggedy Anne doll on her lap. Anne’s father smiled broadly, but said nothing. “I think my father wants to say hello,” Anne said.
The woman looked up at her, then back at the doll. “She’s very good!” she said in a Tidewater Virginia accent, the smile lines deepening around her eyes. “I had only boys the first time.”
The woman rubbed her hand over the doll’s red hair. “She’s just been to her first party,” she said triumphantly. “The boys just liked her up!”
Anne’s father had been smiling, trying to think up something appropriate to say.
“Did you have supper?” he asked pleasantly. It was 11 a.m.
Anne sat next to her father at the Sing-Along with Jerry. Jerry wore a blue cardigan sweater and had gray hair and large black glasses. He played the piano in the center of the Common Room, which had wallpaper of a beautiful meadow at sunset. The attendants were enthusiastic.
Anne studied the well-worn song book. Most of the songs were Irish, and she’d never realized how sad they were. “Blowing bubbles which fade like my dreams,” everyone sang cheerfully. Anne tried to sing.
An attractive, high-cheekboned woman across the room sat silently, head tilted up with a haughty expression that had outlived its appropriateness, watching the proceedings with alarm. A woman in a wheelchair started screaming. The last time this had happened Anne’s father had turned to Anne and whispered “let’s leave,” but now he seemed to tolerate the disturbance. A woman in a soft, baby blue bathrobe with matching bedroom slippers turned to the woman in the wheelchair and shouted “Oh, shut up!”
Jerry played the Star Spangled Banner, and Anne’s father struggled to stand, but couldn’t. Anne looked at the scar on her father’s left cheek where the Japanese bullet had emerged. “Do you remember World War II?” she’d asked him yesterday. “Of course.” “What do you remember?” “Horrible.” Why wasn’t everyone screaming?
The woman in the baby blue bathrobe sang vigorously off-key. Anne broke the large cookie into small pieces, and handed them to her toothless father one by one. The Activities Director led the applause when Jerry had finished playing a song, and Anne’s father would, very carefully, methodically, as had always been his way, place the cookie piece down on the napkin, and begin to clap just as everyone else had finished. He wore the red plastic lei he’d been given, and struggled with the red plastic hat, which didn’t fit. He sang Edelweiss.
A couple of loved ones were dancing. Anne turned to her father suddenly. “Would you like to dance?”
“Okay,” he said, which could have meant “the sun is out” or, “I have an itch on my left calf.”
She helped him to his feet, and was pleased that he remembered where to put his hands. They leaned to the right, then to the left. Her father moved precisely on beat, which thrilled her beyond measure. She brushed a cookie crumb from his beige cardigan sweater, and tried to pull a protective psychological shield around them: I’ll never see these people again, who cares what they think. She rocked in her father’s arms, the peace of a newborn sucking at the breast.
Her father looked over her shoulder, scanning the room for more interesting partners.
Anne and her father returned from their walk, and she shook rain
from the umbrella and removed his yellow slicker, which had a brown
oak leaf plastered to the back. “Why are we always getting
lost?” he asked.
She took her pass to the Alzheimer’s ward out of her purse as they approached the entrance, where two faces pressed against the glass window of the door from the other side, women waiting for opportunity. Anne slowed down, hoping the women would leave. They knew what they were doing.
She positioned her father at the door, and instructed him. “The minute I say ‘go’, push on the door and enter as fast as you can. I’ll be right behind you.” He nodded.
Anne slipped her pass over the electric eye, shouted “Go!” and shoved her father through the door with her right hand, while holding up her left arm to fend off the women who were trying to push out from the other side. Her father, ever the gentleman, held the door open for the escaping ladies.
One of the women who camped out at the exit was the woman in the
wheelchair who’d screamed at the sing-along. She had hazel
eyes, like Anne’s, and the same wide jaw, hair held back and
up with a barrette. There were more wrinkles and sags, more white
in the hair. The woman had spotted Anne’s pass, and rolled
silently behind her wherever she went, stopping when Anne stopped,
starting up again when Anne moved.
Anne held her father’s hand as they walked down the hall toward his room.
“Please knock and enter slowly,” he said.
“Is my wife here yet?” Mr. Danovitch asked.
Anne nodded at Mr. Hasegawa, who’d been interned in a camp on the west coast during the war, and watched as two uniformed policemen escorted the man who hit people out of the ward strapped to a stretcher. Mrs. Bernard had assembled everyone’s dentures in a pile on the floor in the middle of the hall. “And so forth,” Mr. Reynolds said, which is what he said when he got halfway through a sentence and couldn’t remember the rest.
Anne’s father slid his hand over the strand of hair on his forehead and edged toward the doll lady, sitting on a rose Victorian loveseat in front of her room, sans Raggedy Ann this time. As they approached, the wheelchair lady right behind them, the doll lady looked up at Anne’s father and began to weep soundlessly, tears streaming down her face. They arrived in front of her, and Anne’s father held out his hand to her. She took it, and pulled herself up from her seat. Very slowly, she put both of her arms around him. He put his free arm around her, and they embraced silently, Anne still holding his other hand. Anne tried to process frantically; was she being disloyal to her mother, what was this? The wheelchair lady watched and waited.
The doll lady regained her composure, stood back slightly, and began to speak. “I need little kisses.”
“Eve . . .” Anne’s father said. “Even . . .”
Anne followed his gaze to the creased paper napkin the woman held in her left hand, which had “Evensong,” the name of the nursing home, printed on it in red letters.
Anne and her father returned to his room, where Mr. Danovitch slept in her father’s bed. Anne woke him and took him out.
“I see you still like the ladies,” she said to her
father when she returned.
She cleaned up the bathroom floor.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
He grasped her arm and looked her in the eye. “There’s
a man here who’s cruel to me and the others.”
I cannot protect this child. Anymore than he could have protected me.
Old people make things up. Besides, all of the attendants are female.
She fingered the pass in her pocket.
She put on a videotape of her brother’s young children; her father waved at them. They watched a tape of his 80th birthday party. “Who’s that?” he asked, pointing at himself. The wheelchair squeaked in the hallway.
Her father’s history books, none of them written after 1960, filled the bookshelves under a small painting of blue forget-me-nots. His wedding picture stood on the dresser, along with a “Get Well Soon!” card from his five-year-old granddaughter; other family members populated the top of the shelf and the window sill. The Papa chair had survived the move from her parents’ apartment, as had the enlarged, detailed, framed map of Alabama hanging above the bed; a stuffed dog wearing a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap slept on his pillow. His prayer book and bible rested on the bedside table, and someone had underlined: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
“Bosnian peace elusive,” her father said, staring at the newspaper beside Anne’s purse.
“Do you know who I am?” she asked.
His face contorted with the terrible struggle of trying to pass another test he was doomed to fail. A translucent, tear-shaped drop of maple syrup hung from his blue cotton shirt.
“Are we related?” she said helpfully.
Anne kissed him on the forehead, and released his hand. She turned
to gather her things.
“You’re not coming back, are you?” he said.
The night shift was coming on; a male attendant appeared. Anne
nodded at the large, sullen man, and held the door open for him.
The building was airtight. You couldn’t open a window, or hear the rain.
Perrin Ireland has an MFA from Bennington College. The excerpt “Night Shift” is from her novel, Ana Imagined. She lives in Cambridge, MA. (1999)