My father is in a gorgeous facility, up above Los Altos Hills, that includes villas for independent living, apartments for those needing assistance, and the skilled nursing center where he is now installed. I have to admit that there are times, lately, when the place reminds me of the Noel Coward play Waiting in the Wings, which I saw in a revival on Broadway a few years ago, starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris.
That play is about a nursing home for actresses in which stars fade but old rivalries never die.
Or, to put it another way, Coward points out that people are just as petty and dysfunctional when they are old and sick as they are when they are young and healthy. Only more so.
The place where my father in ensconced proudly announces on its gate that it is a "Smoke Free Facility." And it makes me laugh when I see that, because almost every day I see this cadaverous old man sitting in his car in the parking lot, smoking away, his car door open and his head ducked down beneath the door. In spite of what he imagines, he is not invisible.
There is the old woman I'll call Mrs. Anglo, down the hall from my father, who has only recently taken to speaking in Spanish, with a very bad accent. It seems she learned Spanish as a child from a maid, didn't speak it at all during the next eight decades and now, seeing the international cast staffing all the jobs at the nursing home, has suddenly begun speaking to all of them in Spanish. Fortunately, some members of the staff can usually understand her.
She has another odd habit I forgot to mention to my sister the first night she came to dinner with my Dad and me at the nursing home. About mid-asparagus, my sister got a funny look on her face and I turned and saw Mrs. Anglo shaking her finger at my sister. She never said anything, not even in Spanish.
"I forgot to tell you about that," I said. "She scolds people."
There is another woman who always goes to the dining room alone. I suspect no one will sit with her. Every five minutes or so she calls out, "Help!" and then sits quietly for another four minutes and fifty-nine seconds until out pops "Help!" again. One night she did it a lot more than usual and they had to call a security guard.
My father's doctors have told us that his time is very limited, but the amazing thing about him is that he looks robust, says he has no pain, and is eating everything that isn't nailed down.
Today, however, when the physical therapists tried to get him to stand, he told them he just didn't want to. He was clearly able to do it. He said he felt we didn't understand how sick he was. Believe me, we understand. I've been up there for hours every single day, understanding.
"We know," I said. "We just want to see if you can get going a little. It will be good for you." But he just kept complaining and we finally took him back to his room.
It has been a contest, for the past couple of weeks, between my father and my mother as to which one of them is the most ill. Even last year, when my father was in the hospital with a broken vertebrae, my mother came down with pneumonia. I'm not saying she intended it, but there you are.
This last month, now that my father is in nursing care and getting tons of attention, my mother has had various illnesses that have kept her from visiting. She had nearly fatal stomach flu for a while and now her back is giving her nearly terminal pain. I hate to make fun of it, but the coincidence is worth noting.
Sometimes I can't decide which of them is the more spoiled.
Which brings me, I suppose, to the famous five stages of grief, first delineated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. To wit: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
I think we can fairly say I'm in the anger stage, and usually that brings me to try to see the funny side of things, in order to dissipate my anger. Which reminds of me of a line Lauren Bacall says in Waiting in the Wings: "I'm just bristling with olive branches."
Its hard to be a good daughter-caregiver when you're bristling. With anything. And that is part of the process, too, I guess. Like the old guy smoking in the parking lot, we bring all our baggage with us to aging and dying and caregiving and sometimes, carrying it around is a very heavy load.
Makes me understand, completely, why that lady cries "help" every five minutes. I only wonder she pauses so long between cries.