Earl lived in the nursing home for more than 18 months, though home is wrong. Bellewood is not a home. When he arrived, Earl understood it was a temporarily rented room, a dorm. The first day, going down the long hall in a wheelchair he glanced back at Ruby, his wife, and told her, “I guess I’ll die here.” She looked aside, towards the wall and told him to, “…not say such things.” He guessed to me privately that he should be thankful such places existed.
In the following months this idea turned into an ebbing mantra and thinned to a frail line like his own silver spit that would leak down his chin, spoken finally without conviction and trailing off beyond purpose. Many here don’t even know the particular name of the place they live.
Of course, the residents see things from the inside out. That’s obvious but I don’t think outsiders appreciate that. What it’s like full time, a visitor can only guess. Residents smell the halls all day and all night, like working in a bakery only without the sweet; colostomy and urine, liquefied foods and sterile lemon bleach cleansers mix oddly.
Some are in their second or third home. Families, forces beyond their control, gauged care, shuffle the remaining parent to the place they think best. Betrayed by health and suspicious progeny their powers of attorney get talked out of them or surreptitious court orders are obtained or living wills presented. Somehow or another they end here. Those yet in their right minds understand too well what is going on.
The grandchildren with their often illegitimate offspring were more frequent before this. They used to visit “ma and pa”. They were there for meals and a place to stay and money. That was before all this, when everyone was relatively well and when they needed help. But now, extended family rarely visits and when they do they don’t stay long. These are the same children who can’t stand to be alone on a Friday night. They desperately try for mom or grandma to watch their children for the evening so they can go out and try to make another one. They are too young to understand how history repeats. There’s a whole level of abandon they have yet to consider.
And when they visit there isn’t much to say. There isn’t much to note or discuss. Somehow, “What did you do today?” is ridiculous to someone bound to a wheelchair, stalled in a room, and checked every two hours by a CNA. Current events don’t fit in a place where televisions and most other forms of private property aren’t allowed, but for the common rooms. Even the weather loses relevance to those who never get outside. Simply because there is a construction paper cutout of a Christmas tree or a rainbow or an Easter egg with a man’s name on it doesn’t make it a pleasant place. The mumbling of the bedfast roommate doesn’t help either.
These homes are without personal phone calls. They are out of the question because the logistics and costs of having a separate phone in each room, to be shared between two roommates, are confusing and potentially litigious. The cords would be a treachery and the receivers would offer bludgeoning opportunities for the unruly. There would also be bickering between families about who used whose phone. Besides all that, in late-stage dementia, when the hand cannot be trusted with a cup of coffee, the voice on the other end would just be meaningless.
In these homes things also tend to disappear: spare pajama tops, toothpaste, perfume, slippers, gold framed wind up alarm clocks, even walkers and wheelchairs sometimes get away. And not to be sinister, but in a place where the residents can’t walk and have nowhere to walk to and where the rooms are barren and where nothing is stored even under the beds, one has to consider the alternatives. These homes have caretakers, attendants, wing nurses and orderlies. Lots of things sometimes get lost.
So that’s where Earl lived for over eighteen months and some days it didn’t even register with him as to where he was. He had late stage Parkinson’s, marginalized in his thinking in all but the most jagged realizations. He was left alone with his thoughts and yet somehow unable to consider them. I don’t believe in purgatory, but understand where the idea comes from.
I am writing you this letter because I want to know why it takes so long for some men to die. I don’t think you have the answer and I doubt you will ever read this. Your Parkinson’s will not allow you to be clear long enough for you to understand. In this sense I suppose it isn’t really to you, as much as it is about you. I hope you would understand.
In World War II you were a heavy machine gunner assigned to a tank unit. German and Italian shells crashed around you at places like Agheila and
. My apologies, but I can’t picture you then, buttoned up in your green suit, pulling levers and squinting through slots to find your bearings in some hellishly hot metal box, pointing the end of your fifty-caliber towards the twinkles of enemy fire. It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just such a remove from where you are today. Anzio
You told me once you got to see Patton, the man, not the movie. Another time you said you were strafed and snuggled under a supply truck with an anonymous Italian woman you pulled out of harm’s way. You whispered this story to me while Ruby was downstairs. There were late night supply runs and roads you had to back down because of German choke points. So you’re not new to this; men dying quickly around you and I do have the sense that your youth was fast forwarded by the war and those late teen years must have prepared you for this.
I’m trying not to be morbid. I don’t want you to die. But seeing you like this, it’s not good. You barely respond. You don’t look out the window so much as you are pointed towards the glass. The open shades don’t draw a focus. You blink hard in the sharp light. What do you see out there, staring at things I can’t? Your hand doesn’t squeeze mine back when I ask.
Others come here and die within weeks or months. What is this, your fifth or sixth roommate? You remind me of Jonah, 18 months in the fish’s belly, no dry land in sight. I want to know why it’s taking so long. I want to know so I can have something to tell you and your wife and the people who ask. For my own walking to and fro through the earth, I want to know for myself. Maybe I shouldn’t be asking you.
On good days we visit. We talk. We pray and hold hands. I go early in the morning because that’s when he’s most likely to be awake. I have my best chance of catching him aware in the mornings. By the time I arrive he’s been fed, though not yet cleaned. Trickles of a yellow orange drink called Nectar are almost always coagulated on his chin and shirt. I know the name of the stuff because the wax and cardboard box it comes in is usually still on the table. It doesn’t matter. In the morning we can still enjoy one another’s company. One time I mentioned to him that we don’t have much to talk about. He agreed and it was quiet again. He knew I was there, and I wanted to stay longer than I did but he tends to drift off.
The hard thing to say, that both Earl and his wife said to me, was that he was ready to go. The difficult admission for many nursing home residents is that they are dying. Earl got past that early on. He knew it was coming and he grew impatient for it. Barring a quick accident, it’s something we’ll all face – not the dying, but the admission that death is on the way, personally, for us. But knowing death is coming and being impatient for it to arrive, outside some imbalance or anguish found in a young life, are two separate things. It’s like the sour old smell that lingers, just an hour or so beyond any bath or shower. Once it’s there you can’t shake it. While it may be easier for a young man to say that he will not go gently into that good night, it’s more courageous for an old man to become impatient and wish it to hurry.
Not to be heavy handed, but you should know that before I was born Earl accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. I cannot imagine the hopeless doom offered by the alternative. The other side will be peaceful and rewarding for him. It’s just that getting there seems to be taking such a long time. It’s like being in the house waiting for an overdue guest to arrive; only the guest never said when they would arrive, only that they would be coming sometimes, perhaps in a day or so. Waiting by the window a long time even small things can become advanced announcements; rain, first frosts, and reemerged memories of Tennessee rivers are mentioned like prophecy.
On the drive home I have to decide how to deal with it and what to pray for. I struggle to remember it’s not really about me. The Habakkuk in me comes out swinging. He was the one demanding immediate answers. His situation was grim, more so than mine and Earl’s put together. His cries required exclamation points from the translators. The Jamesians even gave him a few. Habakkuk’s complaints weren’t questions. He saw violence against God’s people on a daily basis and he wanted to know why he had to see it. The land promised to
was overrun by an unjust and ungodly group. The golden accumulation of Solomon’s better days was trotted away, packed into the trunks of unbelieving men, the conquerors of his progeny. Israel
The lives of peace promised in the 29th Psalm don’t seem to be happening either. Is this causing the ringing in my ears or is it just the whine of tires on the interstate? It’s the same stitching I see after every visit, the highway yellow rectangles dividing the coming from the going.
I want to challenge the suffering on behalf of a man who has life and Christian experience I cannot, and may never fully appreciate. I squint through the late morning sun and it doesn’t seem right. I demand that a man of God I have known for ten years deserves better. He’s been a faithful member of one church for about as long as I have been alive. He’s served his country, raised his family, and loved his wife. The unfairness is orange hot. The tide of thoughts turns my questions into demands. Like Habakkuk, I start to accuse. I’m wondering why I get to see this. Something warns me to back off.
A curve in the road reminds me to back off. When I cross the Illinois River I am reminded also of Zechariah. He lived with much of what Habakkuk lived with. He saw the same unjust things. His first vision was of a man on a horse at night, among Myrtle trees; evergreens with white flowers and dark berries, followed by speckled horses. When I exit the highway I roll down the windows and can almost smell the damp loam of the river bottom. It must have been an incredibly peaceful place to visit, in his dream. Zechariah waits, watches, and then lets the Spirit ask, “How long will you not have mercy…?” It’s a good point to make at the end of captivity.
There is patience, and then there is patience; there are ways to approach the Lord, and then there are ways to approach the Lord. My anger management issues threaten this message. But the patient dreamer is soothed by night visions. Earl and I and the family that still cares have all run up to God demanding to be saved, when we have already been saved. It’s just a matter of time. Why is that so easy to forget?