I felt a little left out when I saw the pictures in the Gazette a couple of weeks ago of Vineyarders together watching the Presidential inauguration. A world away in Westchester, N.Y., I had spent that morning moving my father into an Alzheimer’s lock-down unit, euphemistically known as an “assisted-living residence for the memory impaired.”
In December my father was kicked out of his assisted-living place in Watertown because he started wandering around in the middle of the night, and unfortunately one time into an old lady’s early-morning shower, forgetting to wear his clothes. He was embarrassed and confused because he could never remember his naked nighttime wanderings and didn’t know why everybody was making such a fuss over them.
On Jan. 20 as we drove from my house to his new facility, he was extremely nervous. He kept asking where we were going but as soon as I would tell him, he’d forget and ask again. Finally I said just to study the car’s GPS, which he finds fascinating. My father has never lived more than 15 miles outside Boston but he and my mother used to drive regularly to New York city to go the opera, and he has always had an uncanny memory for directions. When he saw that we were getting on Route 287 in Rye, he said, “This is the Cross-County Expressway that goes to the Tappan Zee Bridge.”
We were greeted by a pretty blonde receptionist who exclaimed, “You must be Mr. Hodder! We have so been looking forward to meeting you . . .” at which point I exhaled a deep breath of stress and felt my shoulders relax from around my ears, the way they do when I pull onto the ferry in Woods Hole. My father smiled and kissed the receptionist’s hand. “I like you,” he said.
My husband and I had already brought over two chairs and a few pictures from my parents’ old house in an effort to make the room look familiar, and I think my father was at first under the impression he’d somehow been in this room before. In keeping with the profound inconsistencies of this disease, however, he was suspicious when he read his name plate on the door. “How do they know my name? Have they been expecting me?”
He didn’t want to unpack but said he’d rather go out and make some friends, which I knew was code for “check out the ladies,” so we went to the main living area where the 20 residents, 17 women and 3 men, were sitting in a large circle. A couple of them were sound asleep and one or two gazed absently out the window, but everyone else was concentrating on a basketball game an amiable activities lady was coordinating. This consisted of her holding a plastic net in front of each resident and their attempting to toss a ball through it. Depending on their particular skill level, she held the net no more than 24 inches away.
I was sure my father would hate this game and be insulted, and therefore hate the whole facility and cause a scene, because up until only a few years ago he boasted a seven golf handicap and still played ice hockey twice a week. But he watched everyone with zeal and clapped his hands with glee each time someone actually managed to make a basket. When it was his turn, try as he might, he could not aim the ball; in fact, he missed each throw by a long shot. I was stunned, and I think it finally started to sink in that he really did have Alzheimer’s — and he really did belong in a place like this.
It was almost noon and I was dying to ask the coordinator lady if I could turn on the television to watch Obama’s swearing-in, but I didn’t. They had other things to do here. Besides, I was covered: that morning I had texted my 14-year-old in her carpool to see if she could teach me how to TiVo in order to record the inauguration. I am baffled by many aspects of our television, not to mention camera and computer, and without the forbearance of my children I would probably never have made any technological adjustments to the 21st century. It took my daughter’s whole long ride to school but she patiently walked me through the TiVo-ing steps, which entailed her visualizing about a dozen different screens and me navigating three different remote controls, and she didn’t make fun of the several attempts it took before I got it right.
The basketball game lasted an hour. I wasn’t sure how long I was supposed to hang around, but every time I motioned to get up my father would nervously search my face and put his hand on my arm and say “Stay,” just as, cuddled next to me on the floor his first day of nursery school, my son the college freshman had once taken his thumb out of his mouth with his blankie just long enough to say the same thing, and with the same beseeching eyes. Somehow I trusted then, as I did now, that it would eventually be okay for me to leave him alone.
After lunch I took my dad back to his room to show him again where it was. This time he noticed his bed, which was made up with flannel sheets that looked like ones my mother used to put on their bed but actually had been my daughter’s (until she’d decided they were too babyish). He sat down and stroked the flannel and smiled at me. “I’m home now,” he said. “You can go.”
Thanks to my daughter, that night I was able to watch the crowds and the musicians and the poet and Chief Justice Roberts botch the oath of office and President Obama give his rousing speech — weeping with joy and amazement but alone on the sofa with only our dog for company, since everybody else had watched during the day.
I felt a little lonely until it occurred to me that having my father feel at home, after only a couple of hours in a new nursing home in a new state, was a kind of victorious beginning, too.
Holly Hodder Eger lives in Rye, N.Y., and West Tisbury and contrbutes occasionally to the Gazette.