“The more you know of any aspect, the better you can handle it. This goes for yourself too. When you know everything that is to know, it is called Realization.” — Sadhguru
What I know about myself is that I am a horrible person. I discover this on November 19, 2018, the day I go to the nursing home to take my ex-husband back to his house. In fact, I will get to experience this aspect of myself over and over throughout this whole caretaking adventure.
This day I walk down the hallway through the stink of shit and institution food, through the gauntlet of nurses and CNA’s calling out to each other and very old people crying out for attention, past the large man in the wheelchair with no leg, past the tiny hook-nosed old woman who called me “deah” when I picked up a pencil for her, past the portable stations with monitors and trays of pills and the metal racks each bearing a tray on which sits a black, plastic covered dish and a small glass bowl of applesauce. I’m thinking the whole time, thank God, this is the last time, the last time in this place — though I don’t know that for sure. What if he has to come back here? This might be a good time to get that DNR signed.
At the end of the hallway, I turn into his dark narrow room and find him in his bed, holding his phone, looking at me accusingly. “Where were you? You said you’d be here at eleven.” His speech is thick and garbled, but his outrage is crystal clear.
“I said I’d be here at eleven-thirty, and that’s precisely what time it is.” I drop my bag onto the chair in the corner.
“I need to know how they’re taking me home! No one will tell me anything. These people are idiots. Call the medic and find out how they’re taking me home. I need to get dressed. Get me in the wheelchair. I need some water.”
“God damn it, give me a second. They aren’t even coming until two o’clock.”
“How are they going to transport me? In a gurney? In the chair?”
“I don’t know, but I’m sure they know what they’re doing.”
“No, I need to know. Call them!”
I turn and stare at him. He looks like Mad-eye Moody, glaring at me from his cocoon of gray comforter.
“I don’t have the number,” I say, flatly. “And you have to give me a few minutes. My grades are due at noon and there’s a problem with one of them.” I get him some water, then sit down, open my laptop and go to the school website. I’ve got two students harrassing me over grades. One of them missed five classes and is furious she is getting a B instead of an A. She says she wants to get me fired.
Another one plagiarized 75 percent of her final exam and has sent me a screaming email demanding to know where her assignments are. This is the most recent unintelligible email I got from her: “Did the assignments I definitely sent them to you and you said okay to my e-mail.” Truthfully, I have no idea what she’s talking about. There are no missing “assignments” — just a couple of online tests that she didn’t take. I warn the chair of my department that he might be getting an email from a disgruntled B student (who, I promise you, did not even deserve this, especially after this email from her: “Good afternoon proffesor. Why did I only get 14 points for my discussions? I feel I didn’t deserve that grade.”) This is the young woman who had no idea where to put a paragraph break, but because I’m teaching creative writing and it’s an elective for people with no intention of every becoming writers, I let it slide — for the passion she put into her little poems when she was there. Creative writing, creative spelling, whatever. Then I send an email to the other student, whose garbled writing suddenly became so clear-headed and erudite in her final exam, explaining the perils of plagiarism and why she will be failing the course. I also suggest that in the future, should she have a problem in one of her courses that she address her professor in a respectful and professional manner. That done, I close my laptop. It’s a few minutes before noon.
I dress him in a pair of sweat pants since it may be chilly when he leaves, and get a couple of CNAs in there to help him into a wheelchair. His face is so gaunt now, his scraggly gray goatee, his cheeks covered with gray stubble, but those eyes — those deep brown eyes contain a will as powerful as a train engine barreling down the tracks at a hundred miles an hour. Two months ago he was round-faced and could pass for Santa. He even had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. There’s no longer any trace of humor in him.
I begin loading up my car with the things that have accumulated in the room over the past twenty days — the total length of time that Medicare Part A would cover a hundred percent. If we stay any longer, it’s $167 a day. But I don’t think I could keep him here another day even if we didn’t have to pay for it. And I can’t say I blame him. This place is a preview of hell. They all are. It’s the nature of the institution.
“They don’t care whether I live or die,” he says. Why should they, really? Old, broken people cycle in and out of this place every day. And he’s been grumpy, borderline abusive, and spectacularly uncooperative. They do their jobs and most of them do their jobs fairly well even if they don’t respond quite as promptly as one might wish.
He starts wheeling himself to the door of the facility. He doesn’t care if he has to wait two hours. Then I lose my keys and spend the next half hour scouring the room, the parking lot and the hallway for them.
Jon, my daughter’s boyfriend, is in town for Thanksgiving. He’s heading over to bring a few things I’ve requested and to help with the transfer back home. I try to figure out who among my friends has an extra key to my house. If I could get in my house, Jon could take me home to get my extra car key. But that would mean coming back here — something I never, ever want to do again. Then the medic transport calls me on my cell phone and asks to speak to the nurse about Herb’s discharge.
“Why didn’t they just call the facility?” Kendra asks.
I shrug. When she gives me the phone back, I ask how they are going to transport him. By gurney, they tell me. There’s no other way, really, since the ramp won’t be installed until later in the week. So he needs to be back in his bed.
I find him in the hallway and tell him he needs to get back in the bed so they can transfer him into the gurney. He rolls his eyes and says with disgust, “See! I told you!”
“What are you talking about? I told you I didn’t know,” I respond angrily.
“Push me,” he barks.
“You can do it yourself.”
“No, it’s too slow.”
Bitterly I push him to his room and the CNAs move him back to the bed while I sit in the front section of the room behind a curtain where he can’t see me.
“I’m being shunned for being right!” he yells out.
I don’t say a word.
When Jon arrives, it’s like Sir Galahad has arrived on a white steed. I meet him outside and hug him hard. He’s tall and handsome and brainy. My girl’s good boy. As we’re going inside, the transport medics pull up. Jon hands me the gift card I had requested from Target and I give it to Kendra, my favorite nurse (though Herb hates her), while she’s sitting in the nurse’s room with a mouthful of what looks like a sloppy joe.
“Thanks for helping me keep my sanity,” I tell her and dash off. As the medics move Herb, I notice something that was hidden under his foot. My keys.