Dad had an “episode” a couple of weeks ago Friday and wound up in the ambulance on the way to St. Thomas about five thirty in the morning. He and Mom got some sort of stomach virus a few days earlier; Dad was ill first and we thought he was getting better, but sometime after midnight he started vomiting blood. Turns out he had a severely infected stomach and esophagus and the repeated vomiting had made a tear in the lower esophagus. The kind ER nurses started a Nexium drip the minute they got their hands on him and the tear was repaired medically on Saturday—no stitches.
I think it’s quite remarkable that he has not had even a moment’s indigestion since.
Now, what has become a problem—or maybe there are several—is that he’s having some rather severe balance issues along with being weak to the point that he could not get out of the hospital bed unaided until the following Wednesday. He also has a frozen shoulder that is giving him a fit. We were on our way to see an orthopedist when he and Mom came down with the virus.
We moved Dad to rehab at Woodcrest, a very nice skilled nursing facility at The Blakeford, a large progressive-care place about seven miles away, last Wednesday or Thursday—I’ve lost track of days here. He gets a lot of intense physical therapy on both his balance and his shoulder. These sessions are independent of each other; Dad’s favorite therapist advised me that “these are really two different disciplines.”
Dad honed his description of his rehab prescription and filled me in. “My main job is to work hard on my therapy so that I can plant my garden this spring.”
And then the next problem developed: Bowels. He finally got them going again (after seven days) and then couldn’t get them stopped, that sort of thing. The nurses told me that the whole experience is quite common. One day I left Mom with Dad to visit and went on a Wal-Mart run to lay in a supply of the fleece pants he’s wearing over there. Three changes of clothing weren’t enough, so I increased the stack to six.
I’ve spent a little time “doing battle,” too.
When he was at St. Thomas, I took Dad three bold-stroke, ball roller pens to stand in for the fine old pen he writes with at home; the man cannot live without a notebook and some pens. When he got to Woodcrest, I put two of the pens in the top drawer of his nightstand and left the third on top of his notebook on the bedside table.
Saturday morning, almost as soon as I walked into his room, Dad furnished several pieces of information, in answer to my probing, that toyed with my happiness. He was supposed to have a shower on Friday and didn’t, even after he had a soiling incident. His breakfast, every day, was a big plate of sausage, bacon, and eggs, in spite of his request for “a bowl of Cheerios or cream of wheat or oatmeal.” Then they brought him cereal but he got no milk, even after a second request, so he didn’t eat his Rice Krispies. Another time he couldn’t get anyone to go look for Splenda even though they said they would, and they wouldn’t bring him coffee, even decaf, except for breakfast.
And every damn pen was GONE!!!
It was the pens that sent me over the edge. Just after Dad asked me to look for his pens, the physical therapist came to take him downstairs for his afternoon session.
“Mom,” I said, “Let’s go down to the activity room until Dad gets back.”
The spacious activity room is a warm, cheerful gathering spot with honey-colored leather couches, gliding rockers in front of a fireplace, and flat-screen TV’s. In another area, heavy tables with rolling chairs flank bookcases with inviting titles and large print. Three staff members were moving couches against the wall, said they were getting ready for “the sing-along,” and invited Mom to join them.
“You’ll love it,” one promised.
“Oh, I’m sure I will. We love music,” Mom said.
I strolled down the hall to the nurses’ station and asked for a talk with the wing nurse, the nurse in charge of Dad’s wing of the floor.
I started by saying, “Britney, there’s this one little thing that is just bugging the snot out of me and I want to get that out of the way first.” (Britney is not her real name, but it is something jazzy like that.) Then I unloaded about the pens. Britney said that the nurses might mistake his pens for their pens.
“I don’t think so. Britney, Dad’s are better pens than those Bic stick pens, not that I blame the nurses for wanting better pens.” (Dad and I like our “school supplies.”)
“Let me get him some pens,” Britney said. “We have lots of pens.”
“Okay,” I said. “But they have to be like the ones he just lost. He can’t write with a Bic stick pen.”
Actually, Britney was pretty good. She declared that she was as disgusted by the rest of my complaints as I was and that she was happy to note that he will drink a glass of skim milk any old time and that he will eat ice cream at the drop of a hat, hood, or scarf. She thanked me for bringing my dad’s needs to her attention.
After I had covered the topics of pens, eating, pooping, laundry, and personal cleanliness to my satisfaction, I found Mom sitting at a table in the activity room—alone—grinning, and singing—along. Forty or so residents, mostly in wheelchairs, some with tambourines and some with shakers, made a large semi-circle audience.
The pretty young woman with the guitar finished singing “Hey, Good Lookin’” just as Dad eased in the door with his walker. He rolled over to our table. She called out to him, “What’s your name?”
Dad stopped and proclaimed, loud and clear, “Ernest. Blair.”
“Well,” she said, “I hear you’re a hillbilly and a guitar picker and banjo plucker!” (Mom must have been sharing before I got there.)
“Oh, yeah?” Dad paused and grinned. “Yes to all the above.”
“Will you come up here and sing with me?” she asked.
“Let me sit here and rest a while,” he said.
After a couple more songs, she turned to Dad. “Do you know On Top of Old Smoky? Come up here and sing it with me.”
“Okay, I guess I can do that.” Dad eased to the front of the group of forty or so residents, let go of his walker, stood straight as an arrow and waited for her intro.
She just didn’t know what she was in for. He started traditionally enough but then he began to sing verses that he had made up. The residents howled and clapped. So now he’s a stand-up comedian? He was clearly in his glory.
“Old top of Old Smoky, underneath the blue sky, If you don’t say you love me, I’ll just sit down and cry.” And then there was “On top of Old Smoky, all covered with frost, I found my dear sweetheart, a-flirtin’ with her boss.”
Through the glass doors, I saw some blue scrubs whizzing into Dad’s room. I excused myself. No, she was with Dad’s roommate. But somebody had placed a Bic stick pen on the bedside table…
When I got back to the activity room, Dad and Mom were leaving (Mom whispered that Dad was tired) but I heard the guitar lady say, “Is this who you’re talking about?”
Dad said, “Yes. She’ll play for you.”
And that’s how I wound up at the piano. I told her I would just play along with whatever she played while they sang. It was great fun. We did all sorts of stuff; she quit playing the guitar and just led them in the singing. A few brave residents got out of their chairs to dance to “Five Foot Two.” I wanted to sop up the joy.
When it was time to end, she said, “Usually, when our time is up, I put on a CD while they make their way to the dining room. Would you just play something while they leave?”
I played “That’s All I Ask of You” and they sang. I played “The Sound of Music”—and they sang again. I played “Red River Valley” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” They sang. The three staff members sang, too, as they pulled sweaters tight, tucked wraps over laps, and reminded each resident, “I’ll see you later” or “Don’t forget we’ll be here Tuesday afternoon.”
I started “Claire de Lune.” A song with no words, that’s what I need. I motioned to the leader with my left hand to come closer to the piano.
“They’re not leaving,” I said. “I think I may have to quit, and then they’ll go.”
“Probably so,” she said. “They love to listen to music. They don’t get the piano very often. Will you come back?”
I zig-zagged around the wheelchairs while the women extended their hands. I took each one; sometimes I held two at a time.
I understood when the first lady said, “That was just beautiful. I hope you’ll come again.” I didn’t understand what the second lady said to me, but her hand was cold and I cupped it in both palms.
The third lady said, “Your hands are so warm.”
Four frail hugs and some more handshakes later, I found the door and held it open for the expected migration until one of the staff members relieved me. I was hanging on to my emotions by a thin thread; I felt tears coming on. I’ve played so many times for retirement places, assisted living, and nursing homes, and every time, it feels like the first time. This first time was really a first time; it was the first time I’d played for my dad’s nursing home.
I walked into Dad’s room, hoping he wouldn’t notice my shaky demeanor. He laughed out loud when he saw me.
“See what I got you into?” he said, and slapped his hands together.
Dad loves to go to the dining room, even if he doesn’t like to eat, because he meets such interesting characters. His favorite so far is a ninety-year-old retired Vanderbilt professor who requires an assistant to wheel him in and feed him. Dad says he would love to feed him himself if he could hold the spoon.
I asked Dad, “Does he talk?”
“A little,” Dad said. “His voice is real weak, but if I strain, sometimes I can make it out.”
Britney told me that Dad regales the staff and the other residents with stories. She said, “He’s the kind of man that would rather tell a story than to ask for what he wants, or needs.”
Later I wished I’d stood there longer to take in Britney’s compassion and to appreciate her insight.
“Dad,” I said, at the end of that problem-solving day, “If you don’t get your Splenda, or they don’t bring you milk, just press your call light. They’ll get it for you.”
“Oh, I’m not going to hound them,” he said. “My main job is to be a sparkle. Their jobs are difficult enough.”