September 20, 2010

USA: Tales from the Nursing Home

PORTLAND,  Maine / TimeGoesBy / The Elder Storytelling Place / September 20, 2010

Tales from the Nursing Home: Dan

By Mary Jamison

His name was Dan. He had a graying ponytail, a crutch under one arm and a mother bedridden with ALS.

As time went on and I became accustomed to my own mother being in the nursing home, I got to know some of the other regular visitors. Dan, it turned out, didn’t work. He’d broken his leg badly when he fell off the roof of his mother’s house. He’d been doing some repairs. I figured he was an aging hippie, employed on-again, off-again and living at home.

He was a nice guy and I thought about asking him to go out for coffee but I never did. Instead, as the years went by, I’d join him in the courtyard the nights I tucked Mom in. He’d be out there with Margaret, a patient, and an aide who accompanied Margaret outside so Margaret could smoke a few cigarettes.

Margaret spent most of her days sitting; I don’t know exactly what was wrong with her. She sat up near the nurse’s station and she was often there even when I’d leave at 11:00PM. She kept a rosary in her hands, praying soundlessly. I asked her to pray for Mom sometimes when Mom was having a bad time. It got so she’d ask me about my mother.

Those evenings out in the courtyard, though, we had fun. Dan and the aide joined Margaret in enjoying a cigarette. The conversation was unremarkable - chatter and jokes - and yet I remember those evenings with a warmth and pleasure that seems disproportionate. Maybe it’s because the shared experience of the nursing home connected us: we understood a lot that couldn’t be explained or told. We knew something about devotion and selfishness and grieving that went on and on, and dying by fractions of inches, and laughing together in the night air anyway.

Time went on. Dan’s leg got better and his mother got worse. It turned out he believed that people should care for their own parents, at home, themselves. So, when his mother got sick, he quit his job and moved in to take care of her. But when he’d broken his leg, he couldn’t do for her, so he’d had to move her to a nursing home.

There, she’d fallen out of bed and broken her leg. If memory serves, it happened twice. So her own condition worsened beyond what one person could care for at home even as Dan graduated from a crutch to a cane. Dan was a little bitter about her injuries and a little cynical about everything.

Time went on and our mothers got sicker. I saw Dan one evening and he’d had a bad visit - his mother was worse. She’d been appreciating his visits for maybe four or five years that I’d seen.

Sometimes I’d stop to see her myself with one of my dogs or just to say hello to Dan and her, and she’d always been with it enough to respond.

That night, though, Dan wasn’t sure that his mother knew him. She didn’t seem to want him there. He’d been noticing a certain impatience on her part towards his presence for a while - days, maybe weeks. The point of the evening ritual he’d observed faithfully for all those years was falling apart.

“I used to be somebody,” he told me that night. It turned out he had a master’s in social work; he’d been a counselor. “I used to be somebody.”

A few days later, I heard through the nursing home’s grapevine that he’d died. He’d suffered a fatal gunshot wound, apparently self-inflicted; there were no tracks in the snow around the house. On the dining room table, where his sister found him, she’d found coupons for restaurants clipped out. She figured he’d been planning where they’d go to eat during her visit from out of town. There was no note.

They held a memorial service for Dan at the nursing home; they rolled his mother’s bed in so she could come.
© 2010 Ronni Bennett.