Visiting my parents in the nursing home has given me the chance to see all kinds of sorrow and sweetness in the lives of some of the other patients I have met.
I've already written about the woman who cries help. One morning she was sitting across from us at breakfast and she did her "Help!" cries once every few minutes as she generally does. They varied in intensity. Sometimes loud, sometimes soft, and as she cried out, she looked as if she were in a faraway land.
Then an old man came up behind her wheelchair and touched her on the shoulder. She came to herself immediately.
"Oh Edwin, the love of my life. How are you this morning, dear?"
And the two them them trundled off to the other dining room together, Edwin pushing his wife's wheelchair.
* * *
At the Thanksgiving dinner party I met a Jewish couple who are my parents' age and who both seemed so well I wondered what they were doing there. The husband told me that each came from Vienna at different times: he in 1939, and she in 1941, so I could only imagine their story. She was a nice looking old woman and I asked her about living in America, after a childhood in Vienna.
"Yes, ve've been here about vorteen years," she said. So I knew then that she was the patient.
One day, soon afterward, she sat across from my father and me at breakfast. That's how I meet most of the people in the nursing center. She was feeling well that morning and her mind was clear, so we had a nice chat.
"Why did you leave Vienna in 1941, Mrs. K?" I asked, certain the answer would be interesting.
"Ach, it vaz da Nazis," she said. "Dey took our vactory, dey took our house, dey made us lif in one room vith three other vamilies."
"But how did you get out?" I asked
"Zey didn't vant me. I vas too young. My parents they took, my mama and my papa, and dey died in von of dose camps. It vas da Nazis. It vas da Nazis." She shook her head.
I changed the subject to Vienna itself and we talked about the movie The Third Man, filmed in the rubble of post war Vienna.
"Ve've been bek many times," she said smiling. "I luf Vienna."
Later I heard her in her room, screaming at the nurses: "Don't touch me. You aren't nice." She was treating them as if they were guards in the concentration camps that had taken the lives of her loved ones. Her husband was standing outside her room looking at the floor.
I asked him how long his wife had been in the nursing center and what her illness was. She had only been there two weeks.
"It's cancer," he said. "Lung cancer. And its spread to her second lung. I'm almost blind so I can't care vor her." At ninety years of age, he stands straight and tall and you can't tell he doesn't see or hear very well. He comes every day, and when his wife is yelling, he stands outside the door of her room.
She has grown thinner and quieter by the day and is now on morphine. This morning, she sat across from us at breakfast again, and used enormous concentration to spear the fruit in the dish in front of her so she could get it to her mouth. She didn't speak when I spoke to her. But near the end of breakfast she did speak. She cried out.
"Mama!" she said in a plaintiff cry. "Mama!" At eighty-eight and near death, we still seek the things we've lost.
* * *
There is another couple I've taken note of, perhaps since they don't look too much older than I am. She must have an early-onset neurodegenerative disease, and her husband comes to see her each day, a tall, grey-haired, bearded, Silicon Valley-engineer-type. He wheels her in her wheel chair and sits with her and talks, his laptop nearby. He often smiles at her.
He isn't with her at breakfast and everything is very difficult for her then. Sometime she sobs quietly to herself in frustration. She doesn't know what she is supposed to eat, and she keeps arranging and rearranging the napkins. She asks me lots of questions about what she should do and I try to be helpful and kind.
One morning, I noticed she was wearing a sweatshirt from the Naval Graduate School in Monterey. My niece is marrying a young man who is studying there, so I asked N. about the sweatshirt and if she had attended the school.
"My husband did," she said. And then her eyes looked away from mine. "But, of course, that was a very long time ago."
I've often thought what a nice man he is, spending so much time at the nursing center with his wife. She is a plain woman, in a Palo Alto-intellectual sort of way, and she is another patient who is growing thinner by the week.
Last night, as I passed her room, I saw her husband changing her socks for her. It was an act of love most of us don't think about when we think about romance. But to me, it was one of the sweetest one's I've ever seen.
* * *
Today my father spoke again about being ill. Lately, he has noted several times that he knows he isn't well.
"I'm coming to the end of the road," he said today. "I've had a good life. I've done lots of interesting things. And I married the girl I loved. " He was looking at the ceiling as he talked. Then he looked at me. I was sitting by his bed and holding onto his hand.
"Robin? Will you stay with me during this? Will you? I need you."
And I said I would. Then we said a prayer together, and, as he closed his eyes to sleep, he spoke the name of his father, who died more than six deacades ago.