When only one out of three marriages makes it these days, I can’t fathom the skills it takes to stay bound to the same person for 70 years. Yet my mother and father did it. They married young; had family young. They both worked…sometimes two and three jobs. Our life as a family lacked drama. As a teenager it seemed rather boring compared to my friends’ dysfunctional lives. I’m sure my parents had disagreements, but they were not evident to my brother or to me.
Two days after their recent anniversary my phone rang. It was an aide from the retirement community where they now live. Dad had fallen during the night, put an inch-long gash in his head and had some nasty rug burns on one cheek. She said he didn’t break any bones, seemed okay at the time, and was joking with them while they were getting him cleaned up and back to bed. She said he had walked to breakfast this morning without incident and was back in his apartment now, reading.
Dad’s 91. The head nurse told me since Dad sleeps most of the day, Mom, who is 89, gets bored. She takes walks and sometimes gets involved with projects in the activity room. Last week Dad awoke to an empty apartment. The head nurse saw him inching down the long hallway toward the main entrance with his walker. When he saw Mom working on a project in the activity room he yelled out, “Donna, where the hell have you been?”
She told me Mom still gets confused about which Bill she is addressing…the helpful older man who sometimes stays with her in their apartment, or her husband Bill who rarely shows up, and then, only when the older man is missing. As far as we know, both Bill and the older man inhabit the same body but are distinctly different people in Mom’s mind. “So your mother yelled right back at him,” ‘Bill, where the hell have you been?’”
“Sometimes your Dad leaves from the back door of the dining room after meals and your Mom walks out the front door,” the nurse said.” It takes you father longer to get back to their apartment because he uses his walker. Your mother walks fast. I saw her turn around to check on your father. When he wasn’t behind her she flagged an aid and reported him lost.”
I drive in to the retirement center to see them after the call about the fall. By now it is 10 A.M., eight hours after the incident. I find Dad sitting at a table in their small apartment.
“Hi Dad,” I say. “A nurse called and said you took a dive in the middle of the night. Wow! That’s quite a gash you have on your head. You all right?”
“Sure.” He smiles.
He sets his “National Geographic “down and waits while I take a chair. “I got up to go to the bathroom,” he says. “I turned my head, got a little dizzy and the next thing I know my head is in a pail, the pail is wedged between the bed and the dresser and I’m on the floor, face down, butt naked and stuck. I can’t move.”
“You keep a pail beside your bed?”
“He means the waste basket,” Mom says.
“Donna, shut up. It’s my story.”
Dad was always at his best telling stories around the dinner table as my brother and I grew. My favorite was the water torture during the Spanish Inquisition. It is clear Dad’s will squeeze every drop of moisture from this incident and even embellish it for Elaine and Jack, the couple who share their dining table. I’ll bet it wasn’t much fun for either Dad or Mom last night.
“Dad, please don’t talk to my mother like that. Were you scared?”
“No. But I scared your mother. She must have heard me fall because she got out of bed right away and turned on the light. She tried to help, tried to lift me by my shoulders, tried to pull me out of the pail by my legs. She told me my head was bleeding. I told her to get some help, but she gave me a wet wash rag and tried pulling on my legs again. When that didn’t work she got excited.”
“I did not.”
“I told you to pull the cord.”
“And I said, ‘what cord?’ because I couldn’t hear what you said.”
“So I had to explain to your mother while my head was face down in that pail that the cord was on the wall.”
“I couldn’t understand what you wanted me to do. You were mumbling. I just wanted to be sure I pulled the right cord, so I kneeled down by you to ask if it was the cord on the bedroom wall, or the cord on the bathroom wall or the cord on the living room wall? That’s when you got testy.”
“I was calm when I told you I couldn’t see which cord because my head was in a pail. I told you if the cord was the one we were told to pull in an emergency, yes, then that was the one to pull.”
“‘Just a minute,’ was all I said and you started yelling at me again,” Mom said.
“I asked politely, ‘Will you pull the damn cord now?’ And, I wasn’t yelling at you.”
“You weren’t very nice, and I was trying to help,” Mom said. “I pulled it, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did, and it wasn’t long before two aides were in the room. One got down on her knees beside the pail. She took my blood pressure and checked my pulse before they even tried to pull my head out. I don’t know why she didn’t just help me stand, I told her I was okay. The other aide pulled on my legs, but couldn’t budge me because my head was still in the pail and the pail was wedged between the bed and the dresser. I heard her radio for help.
“A couple of buddies of mine came into the room a few minutes later. These are the aides that stop by during the day to check the score of the ball game I’m watching…big guys. It took both men to lift me straight up and then tip me to on my feet. They were holding me by both arms and asking me questions. We were all laughing because I had this pail stuck on my head. I told them what had happened, but I was embarrassed because I only had on my t-shirt, so I made a little joke. We always joke around. When they pulled the pail off I asked them, “What the hell happened to that bastard who knocked me down?’
Back home the same afternoon the phone rang again. This time the head nurse said she wanted to set a date for a care conference with me and my brother. Mickey joined us for the meeting a few days later. We learn both Mom and Dad will be moved to the next level of care. Their monthly rent will increase by $500, but they will be able to stay together in their same apartment.
“What happens if one of them gets real sick…bed ridden?” my brother asks. “Will you move them to separate rooms or another location?”
“I wouldn’t advise they be separated,” the head nurse says.” They would spend all their time looking for one another.”