Even with the vast flurry of things we worried about when Dad entered the nursing home on January 2, it didn't occur to us that roommates of all kinds would come and go. It's hard enough for college kids to deal with that when they're young and healthy and resilient. When you're old and sick and confused, the whole scenario is jarring at best.
I wrote about Dad's first roommate, Marvin, who moved out in less than a week because he was awakened many times during the night when Dad had to use the bathroom. Very nice man, who was then moved down the hall to stay with Herbert, equally nice old guy. But Herbert started to have hallucinations and terrible fear, some from his medications, some from his dementia, some from his near-blindness and Marvin has now been moved around the corner and way down the hall to a third roommate I haven't met. Marvin's doing OK, still playing bingo, still going to the dining hall for meals in his dapper cardigans.
Meanwhile, Dad had the luxury of a "private" room for a few days. An actual private room isn't available. There are only 6 of those at Shiny Meadows, and we are third on the waiting list for one. (This has created many family jokes about which of those six residents we could "off," focusing on a 104-year-old woman named Marzo. But after I saw Marzo rapidly doing her leg and arm exercises in the physical therapy room, I knew she'd have me on the floor in a headlock before I could successfully sneak into her private room to smother her with a pillow.)
During the brief no-roommate stage, Mom enjoyed the slightly lowered stress level of not having Dad continually asking "Who's that over there?" They also had a bathroom to themselves, and could sit and watch "Wheel of Fortune" in the evening without a dueling TV 6 feet away.
Vernon is a former local bank executive, tall, thin, outgoing, friendly, and almost totally deaf without his hearing aids, which always contain dead batteries. When he speaks, he bellows. Bellowing startles a lot of old people, unless they are bellowers themselves, as some of the Shiny Meadows residents are. But not all. My dad, for example, can hear just fine.
Here is what happened: The very first night that Vernon and Dad stayed in the same room, things changed with Dad. He yet again had to get up and hobble to the bathroom several times. He can't help it. Vernon yelled at Dad for waking him up. Or maybe he just spoke at his normal skull-cracking decibel level. Which seems like yelling. (The night nurses told us this, since they are automatically summoned to Dad's room when he stands up. His bed alarm goes off.) As far as we can tell, Vernon's yelling made Dad too scared to get up and walk past Vernon's bed to get to the bathroom. So Dad didn't get up anymore. And he has not walked since that night.
Vernon was moved down the hall to room with a guy who wasn't spooked by his bellow.
By the time I got to Indiana for my latest visit, 5 weeks since the visit before that, I couldn't believe how Dad had gone downhill. He became deadweight. Unable to walk to the bathroom anymore, unable to stand unassisted, unable to even scoot himself far enough back onto the bed to lie down.
On that same visit, Roommate Number Three appeared. On the day he was to arrive, I waited and waited, staying with Dad late into the evening so he wouldn't be alone when yet another person moved in to the bed next to his. I was about to give up and go back to Mom's, when I saw an ambulance backing into the driveway of Shiny Meadows.
The new roommate's daughter stood in the doorway of our room, just a silhouette with the light of the hallway behind her. She introduced herself to me. Linda. I introduced myself and Dad. "Oh, I know your dad." (Almost everyone in town over the age of 40 knows him. He held public office and was often in the newspaper, in addition to being very, very outgoing.) I got up and went into the hallway to talk to her. The paramedics were bringing her father into the building, after transporting him from a hospital.
"I never thought I'd see my father like this," she said. "He's in agony and he keeps calling out 'Help me, help me.'"
I said, without thinking, "Oh, man. That'll upset my dad."
[Let me step in here and say that I know that was a selfish way to respond. I'm realizing just how protective and bristly I can get, inside this new world of the nursing home. When some circumstance presents itself that will cause Dad's experience to register even a tenth of a notch higher on the Unpleasantness Scale, I become a mother warthog, trying to ram the offending interloper against the nearest jagged-barked tree. Even so, normally "Warthog Candy" has a little more tact.]
Linda's father, Corvin, is wheeled in. He is very yellow. Very jaundiced, miserable, in pain, on oxygen, moaning with every movement the stretcher makes. I am amazed that any hospital in a developed country could have released this poor old man. As the paramedics move Corvin from the stretcher to the bed, and he cries out in pain, they tell the Shiny Meadows nurse that when they found Corvin in his room at the hospital, waiting for transport, his oxygen tube was wrapped tightly around his neck. Very comforting to hear.
When Linda is alone with her father, behind the curtain separating us, I hear her dad begging for help, and I hear Linda crying, trying to soothe him. I don't know what is proper to do, but I go over and put my arms around her and she holds onto me. We are total strangers suddenly thrown into the most personal of moments. I tell her how sorry I am that they are both in agony. I apologize for being selfish before. "It is your dad's right to call out for help," I say. "It is his right to make noise."
All this time I have been rubbing Dad's head, telling him there is nothing to worry about. That the man in the next bed is just not feeling well, but he is being taken care of. Dad relaxes as I continue to smooth his hair down and smile at him. He asks, several times before beginning to doze, one of his frequent questions: "Am I a good boy?" Yes, I tell him. "The very best."
Even above the whirr of Corvin's oxygen machine, I hear him crying out. "Please, please." Linda speaks gently to him, telling him God will take him when it's time, and that it'll be OK. "Please," he says. "Tell Him to hurry."
It is Tuesday night. The theme from "American Idol" plays on a TV a few rooms away. Corvin will die Thursday at 3:45 a.m.
The Shiny Meadows CNA's will clean out Corvin's side of the room Thursday afternoon, and prepare it for Roommate #4.