Friday, December 21, 2007

Dad's New Room

After two weeks of snowstorms, flu symptoms, deadlines, new home inspections, retrieving Max from college, and several upset apple carts at home and at work, I finally made the trip to visit Dad's new room.

To begin with, it's a private room. Unlike the room he left--with two-men-in-a-cubicle (with two TVs going at once)--Dad now has his own space, with a private bathroom and shower and a beautiful view. "It feels like home, doesn't it?" Dad asked, sounding proud.

His room is located at the far end of a hushed, carpeted hotel-like lobby space, divided into four or six distinct living room areas, each furnished with beautiful sofas and armchairs, shelves lined with books, warm lighting and big picture windows overlooking the Hudson River.

On the new floor, nurses pad silently through the spaces, knocking on closed doors, speaking softly and warmly, distributing meds, making up the residents' beds, helping them with their walkers and so forth. The same activities are going on but it feels so completely different we might as well have changed planets.

And I know that for Dad, a quiet guy who has always cherished his privacy, this planet is where he belongs.

I found him in an alcove set off from one of the community spaces, sitting in his wheelchair by a window, reading Chaim Potok. "They have wonderful books here," he marveled. "And you don't even have to sign them out. You just take what you want and leave it anywhere you want when you're done with it."

Driving his own power wheelchair, Dad led me to his beautiful room, showing me the bed from where, he told me, "I watch for the stars each night over the river. But so far, it's been such bad weather that there's only airplanes. But the planes are nice to watch too."

He asked me to punch holes in some papers he'd collected to put in his blue notebook. As I did, he asked me, "When the social worker called about this room... what did she tell you?"
What do you mean?"
"I mean, why did I get this room? I never said anything... never complained."
"I did," I confess.
"Oh," he laughs. "Oh. I knew I hadn't said anything... to anyone... at all. I was still figuring out what to do when she came by and gave me this room."
"I thought you'd be mad at me, actually," I tell him. "You asked me not to call anyone. But I had to."
He laughed, joking, "I think I'm growing out of that phase. Im glad you called."

The only drawback, it seemed to me, was that next door to Dad, there is a man who basically shouts or barks all day long. "Does that bother you?" I asked.

"It did," he said. "But I can close the door or go down where you found me reading."
"I taked to him today for the first time and when you talk to him, he stops doing that. I asked him, 'Why are you shouting? And you know what he said?"
No, what?
"He said, 'What do you mean?' I don't think he knows he's doing it."
"That's wild," I laughed. "How could you not know?"
Dad shrugged. "I didn't talk to him at first. I don't necessarily need to take on another person like I did before so I gave it some time... but," he smiled, all crinkly eyes. "I really can't help it. I wanted to know what would happen, you know, if I talked to him."

"Have you seen Ronald?"
Dad shook his head.
"Was he upset when you left?"
I don't know. He was pretty out of it when I moved
He didn't say anything?
Not a word
Was he maybe giving you the silent treatement?
I dont think so. He was pretty out of it

I was surprised Dad hadn't visited Ronald yet. It made me realize, even more, how trapped he must have felt there. Still, I was kind of disappointed. I missed Ronald. I love the way he lights up a room with life, even from a hospital bed. In fact, I think I fell a little in love with him.

I've been doing that a lot lately, falling in love with the wonderful men I seem to be meeting everywhere. I know this has something to do with re-connecting with Dad, and knowing that, not too long from now, I'll be saying goodbye to him again. But Im not sure how it all fits together and forms this overwhelming burst of love I keep feeling.

Do you want anything to make the room more homey? I ask, noticing empty shelves, blank walls.
LIke what? he asked.
Oh, plants, pictures. A poster of a supermodel in a bikini. Max has one in his dorm!"
No, Dad laughed. Just pictures of the family--you and matt and the kids, jenny and cerulean...
We call him Sassafras now, I remind him
Oh, yeah, he said. (I guess Jenny told him that her five year old had recently renamed himself.)
Tell Beth I want pictures of her and she can send one that Emily's in, too. I like that girl
Tell Jenny I want now and before pictures. I'd like a picture of Rosy, if she doesn't mind.
I don't think she'll mind, I said.

Before I left, he asked me to unwrap some more candies and leave them in his little cup. Then, we called Beth on my cell phone which I held to Dad's good ear, the one with the hearing aid and he got to thank Beth for the TV she sent, which meant alot to him... and he choked up quite abit while talking with her... after about ten minutes, he lost all his energy and his voice kind of died back and he couldn't talk much so we hung up.

I talked for awhile, telling him about the ups and downs of buying a new house: falling in love with it, discovering its flaws, factoring that in, choosing it again. "Kind of like a marriage," he said.

I told him about the project I'd like to try at the nursing home to help residents get more related to each other, to build new connections. "I would visit each resident one at a time talk about their lives, taking down their stories. Then, we'd gather into small groups of 4 or 5 people and read the stories aloud--or they could read their own. And later, the small groups would gather with other groups, forming a larger group and listen to each other's stories, too."

"Include the staff in that," Dad suggested. "That's a great idea, by the way. Youre talking about high-level group social work."

"I am?" I said. "Now where did I ever learn to do that?"

Dad told me about his idea. He's excited about working with the residents' council and he's requested copies of the administrative structure and all the promotional literature the home distributes.

"You know this place sells itself as a place where staff and residents work in partnership. That's the first thing I noticed. They don't work in partnership. They don't know how to. The staff come and go, and like most institutions like this, there's an us and them quality to the interactions between staff and residents.

"I can change that," he said, blue eyes winking with light. "I know just what to do."

As I left, Dad reached up to hug me, saying, "I'm so glad you turned out this way."
"Me, too," I said, and now I was the one blinking back tears. "Thanks." And I meant, thanks for everything... for being my dad, for driving me places, for the money, for loving me, for all the dad things he'd done. And he knew I meant that...

Then, he walked me to the elevator, powering his own wheelchair himself. As the elevator doors closed, he smiled, content.

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