Entering the automatic sliding double glass doors of the Corn Heritage Village retirement home is like entering a grocery store that no one has been in for several years. I say this because of the large doors, and then the stale, warm smell that breaks out into the fresh air as if it were a breath held in. When you first step inside there’s a sofa table against the wall straight ahead, with a centered painting or mirror above, some dried flowers in a vase, maybe a chair or two. The hallway goes left to a wing of rooms or right to the massive nurse’s desk, sitting area, and lunch room. I am certain that I can smell coffee, eggs, spaghetti, chicken, cherry Jello, coffee again – a conglomeration of meals from not just today but the last week. The air is thick and heavy. The fluorescent lights sharp and white.
When you make it to the grand center room flat with linoleum you know you are in death’s waiting room. Some folks sit comatose in wheel chairs, others look up from knitting with both a hopeful and resigned gaze, their eyes glassine and parched. A few are on a careful trajectory with their walkers, fluorescent felt tennis balls cut open and placed over the front two supports for easy gliding across the waxed floor. Straight ahead, in the east wing behind closed swing doors, is the alzheimers and dementia ward. Even with the doors shut you hear the screaming, the yells, the cries, the loud mumbling. The north wing is where my grandma picked her room, the first one on the right side that overlooked the parking area and front door so she could keep an eye out for visitors.
|Age 8, in the middle|
At the nursing home Dad has us all wait outside the door, a bit down the hall—he wants to surprise his mom. So he goes in first, and I hear him saying he’s brought someone with him, and I hear her exclaim, “Oh?” Dad comes out and ushers us in like a traffic cop. There’s my grandmother just inside and to the left of the door, sitting in her plush La-Z-Boy rocker, lamp on the end table giving her face a yellow glow, and her smile, in slow motion, growing wider than I’d ever seen it. My sisters and I take turns bending down to hug her as she kisses us each on the cheek. My mom hugs her, too, and we stand around the small room awkwardly until my dad fetches folding chairs out of the closet, then balances himself on the edge of the elevated hospital bed.
The TV is on TBN or home shopping. “Well, Mom,” my Dad will begin, “How have you been?” or “Are you surprised to see your grandkids?”
“Oh my, well yes,” she’ll say, looking at each one of us in turn with longing eyes, still refocusing from staring at the humming tv that Dad has muted with the remote control. “When did you all get here?”
“Last night, Mom. We thought we’d surprise you.” Grandma smiles, asks if we want something to drink, which there’s no way in the world we do. My youngest sister is about 13, and leans forward in her chair already bored—living in Minnesota, she never knew grandma like her older sister and I did. She’s maybe still wearing a baseball cap, I can’t remember when she quit, but Grandma always gave her a hard time about that, asking if she wasn’t worried people would think she was a boy. I imagine she had similar conversations with my other sister.
“I’m so surprised. I’m so happy to see you all. It’s been so long, I think.” She’ll pause look at the clock then my dad, “How long has it been?”
I’m not sure what we talked about, but I’m sure it was a potpourri of school, work, the trip, how long we’ll stay, where are we staying—she doesn’t at all seem concerned we’re staying in her house, maybe it’s a relief to know that someone is using it, giving it life again if even for a time. But that house is so empty. I want to tell her how her house feels like a museum after hours, how it seems to echo constantly with some subsonic pulse, how it’s nothing without her. I want to say how the house smells richer than I ever remember, like it’s grown finer and denser without anyone living in it, like some aged wine or cheese. It penetrates me deeply. It's hard to sleep there.
Whatever we say, it’s often interrupted by the speakers in the hallway announcing a page for a nurse or doctor. After twenty minutes most of us are bored and weighted down by the place, a hotel and a hospital, each room with an open door like a zoo exhibit, a spider web or venus fly trap. I look out the doorway into the hall to extend my view—grandma’s room has a warmer light since she just has lamps on, in the hallway it’s a purple white. Slowly, a rocker appears in the frame from the left—the tennis balls like headlights, the shiny metal legs, the rubber handles, shuffling feet in black slippers, then half a woman hunched over with a plastic hair net over a perm she maybe just received. She’ll look in, likely drawn by the energy, the electric sense of more bodies humming like some cosmic string imperceptible to the naked eye. The woman will pause in the middle of the doorway, still looking in.
“Mrs. Schmidt,” my Grandma might say, “This is my son and his family from Minnesota. They’ve come to visit me.” And then Mrs. Schmidt or whoever she is might say, “Oh, how nice” and linger as if she wants to stay, or move on, seemingly unsure if we are real or not. This event happens enough times that I came to know many a Mrs. Schmidt, some more energetic and able-bodied than others, some more indifferent and some that overstayed their welcome.
|Age 20, a few days after her wedding|
“Do you have any plans for today,” Grandma asks my dad.
“Not yet,” he begins, and maybe Mom looks over and he quickly recovers, “but I think we’ll go have lunch and then visit with Gaylon.” That really was the extent of the area’s attractions, besides taking my little sister to the park her older siblings once played in. We wouldn’t go to the homeplace, at the time not even a location I was entirely sure of or even remembered having visited long ago. I think we’d mostly eat, watch tv, pass the few days as well as we could as if holding our breath. “Can I bring you anything, Mom? Is there anything I can get from town?” We all know he’ll bring her some tacos from a restaurant or a chocolate shake from Brahm’s, whatever little thing he can that’s different and from out there. It’s the least that can be done.
“Oh, I don’t know what I’d want.” And as I see her thinking I know her mind is still sharp; she is not old, she is only 81. She could keep up with us no problem if her heart surgery hadn’t been botched, if the nearly guaranteed bypass had worked as the doctors said it would and how it did for countless others. Instead, she sits in a downy rocker all day long, keeping still, shifting her crossed ankles one over the other than back one over the other. Her perm is flat in the back from leaning against the cushion. Her phone and water glass are within reach, the remote, some magazines, a checkbook, a pen. Out the window is the front door, a bevy of coming and going (a few people every hour). Maybe I remember a hummingbird feeder someone put outside for her, hanging from the eave, but no one ever fills it. I remember the red feeders she had out her back porch in Weatherford, the honeysuckles, the magnets and plates and bookends and photos and spoons and glasses and statues.
Today I was 26 and I was 10—I could not wait to get out of there. I hated myself for it. I still do. I think my dad lives with a searing guilt of not visiting her more often. It was never a matter of money, or even of time—he didn’t want to go alone, he didn’t want to see his mom like that, maybe he didn’t want to be reminded of what he left and of who he was—not for bad things, but good, a life he surely romanticizes because, in part, everyone was younger and closer. When he was a boy there was still the tradition of visiting people during the week and on Sundays—you loaded up the family in the 1954 Bel Air and saw aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents. You ate well, you shared stories, you knew others and where you were and who you were by the sound of another’s voice and the presence of their body. Without that nearness you were far away from everything, maybe existence itself, a planet on the outer edge of the solar system looking in from the darkness of infinity.
And maybe that’s how my Dad saw his Mom and himself, maybe that’s all how we saw ourselves here in the nursing home—celestial bodies so far apart and unable to effect each other’s orbit in meaningful ways anymore, except for the times when our elliptical paths got close, say, every 5-10 years; when Dad gathered us all for a trip to Oklahoma.
|Age 33, with my dad in front of a Chevy Bel Air|
On another trip, the last one before she passed away three years later, I had brought the bundle of pictures I’d scavenged from her daughter in laws after cleaning out her house. I’d selected a manageable dozen or so that intrigued me the most—I didn’t know who anyone was or where they were. I had a suspicion that, in a few years, maybe longer, I’d want to know, maybe write about them. It was the first time I ever showed a genuine interest in my family there, that I really wanted to learn from my grandmother.
So I pulled up one of the black chairs that had been at the kitchen table in her house, and rested my left elbow on a cushion of her rocker as I handed her one image at a time. I don’t remember what she said. I didn’t write anything down. I should have, I’d intended to, but suddenly that didn’t seem the point. In that half hour or hour where I slid her photos and she held them in her now boney, shaking hand, it was her voice I wanted, the smell of her perfume she still wore, defiant to her condition and the colostomy bag.
Oh how she lit up like someone pricked her with a pin. She remembered every face, every location, retelling the circumstances around the image—a boy being pulled on a sled through the street, a man hanging on a metal clothesline, an upside down truck in a field, a photo of her by a waterfall. Her breath, the perfume, the warm light of the lamp, the cushion of the chair, the loud beeping of some resident’s room calling for a nurse—it was all somehow a raw sweetness, a terrible love, an ocean of memories crashing on a deserted island’s shore.
When she was done she’d linger then hand me the photo, fold her hands, seeming to catch her breath. Soon she’d say, “Do you have another one,” as if each were a rich candy to be savored and overcome, her stomach full but the echo of the last piece so strong she wanted another and another. So I hand her a picture, she pinching a corner on the left, me a corner on the right. We hold the small 3x5” image, both of our hearts rippling through our arms and hands out into the black and white middle where we found who we were together.