You finish your dinner and watch a little TV with your wife. Then you get in the car and drive over to the nursing home to spend thirty minutes with your Dad. It’s only ten minutes from your house and in a situation that has rendered you powerless; it’s the one thing that you can actually do. Two months ago it was an agonizing ordeal. But over time it has become routine. You don’t smell the urine anymore. You don’t become nauseous upon encountering an accident cleanup crew in action. All you care about now is seeing your Dad for a while before he goes to bed. All of the nurses know you now and that helps. Most of them are angels.
When you first put your Dad in this place, deep in your heart you thought that he wasn’t like the rest of the patients. He was just too weak to care for adequately at home, that’s all. He wasn’t at all like everyone else there, all of whom seemed to fall into one of four categories.
The Chanters. These are the lost souls who sit for hours repeating the same words over and over.
The Screamers. These are the tortured ones who sit silently for long periods of time but then randomly begin screaming their discontent.
The Mumblers. These are largely sweet hearted folks who are constantly carrying on animated conversations with themselves or sometimes pieces of furniture or an occasional potted plant.
The Announcers. These folks sometime scare you to death with the abrupt nature of their pronouncements. Out of nowhere one of them will announce with great seriousness and energy, “When in the Sam Hill is somebody going to ring the bell for the dogs tonight?”
When your Dad first arrives it becomes your silent mission to protect him from these people. They all seem so terribly troubled and you don’t want your father to be negatively affected.
One Tuesday night you arrive at the usual time but can’t find your Dad. You talk to the head nurse and she informs you that he is in the “diversion room” a place so named by someone clearly unaware of the power of language. You hear “diversion room” and immediately ask, “Wait, what the heck is a diversion room? What is he being diverted from?”
“Oh no, that’s just a room where we take them to do activities and eat lunch and what not,” she explains.
“Then, why not call it the “activity room” for God’s sakes?!” She looks at you like you’ve got two heads.
You find your Dad sitting at a large round table in a room filled with 20 or so patients and four pink-shirted nurses’ aids. There is a huge flat screen TV hanging from the ceiling showing a DVD about Niagara Falls. You sit next to your Dad, and on this night he doesn’t ask you to immediately take him back to his room. He’s actually watching the movie. So you sit with him taking in the sights. There are two Chanters across the way, one constantly repeating the words, “thank you,” the other oddly stuck on the number “182.” You notice that your Dad is one of only three men in the room. One of the other men is a Mumbler. Luckily, the Screamers are silent.
Suddenly, a lady sitting at your table stands up and demands to be taken back to her room. The aid quickly sits her down and reminds her that the movie will be over in 15 minutes. However, this demonstration serves as a catalyst for all of the nascent Screamers in the room who proceed to chime in with full-throated hysteria. Above the roar, you hear a deeper voice, the voice of a man, clear and commanding, “Is everybody here? If we aren’t all here we’re going to miss the bus and then where will we be? The room becomes still. You hear only his voice. Your Dad is an Announcer.
In a season of disappointment, this is a particularly painful revelation. It occurs to you as you pour his juice later that night that he really does belong here. You listen to him tell of his plans to drive the van into town tomorrow. But first he has to go put some gas in it, since there’s no gas in the two gas cans in the carport.
“Why do you need to go into town Dad?” You ask.
“Betty needs to sign up for that class in New Orleans.”
It’s the first time you have heard him say your Mother’s name in months. It makes you smile. You run a comb through his hair trying to correct the damage done by whomever it is that gets him up in the morning. They always part in on the wrong side, making him look like Adolph Hitler, had he lived to be 89. You assure him that you won’t forget to gas up the van before you come on Wednesday. He smiles at you and thanks you for coming.
You’ll never hear about the class in New Orleans again, because it’s not really your Dad who is doing the talking in any real sense. You’ll come back Wednesday and it will be something else. Against the ebbing tide of his sanity, you are powerless. There is only one thing that you can do. You can make sure that every night before he goes to sleep he sees his youngest, most rebellious child sitting at his bedside.