33, 34, 35, 36…
It is my thirty-third day walking through these doors at the nursing home. The weather is quite warm and I’m desperate for cool, but there is little relief inside. My elderly father is napping when I reach his room. With his pallid complexion he is almost completely lost against the thin white sheet that covers him. He shivers in his sleep. I pull the heavier blanket over him and tuck it around his shoulders. Then I go straight into my afternoon routine of setting his half-eaten lunch tray aside for pick up; sorting through the papers that litter his bedside table, tossing notices of extracurricular activities and keeping the trivia questions for later; finding the cart in the hallway for a pitcher of fresh water and ice; and checking his closet to make sure the three shirts I bought him for his stay here have made it back from the laundry this time. Then I sit down in the wheelchair beside his bed – I learned weeks ago that it’s ten times more comfortable than the stiff visitor chairs – and I pull out my book and begin to read.
A few minutes later a nurse comes in for her routine and tries to remove his blanket and wants to open the windows to create a breeze. I reply firmly: “No, he is cold,” and wipe beads of sweat off my own forehead. She leaves in a huff of impatience. I don’t care. I have fought with someone on the staff – nurses, CNAs, physical therapists, social service reps – every. single. day over issues ranging from missing laundry to wrong medications to unattended catheters. We have come to an uneasy respect for each other.
I reach over to Dad and push back the snowy lock of hair that falls across his forehead. I remember when his hair was jet black; when his frame was lean, tall, strong, not almost skeletal and huddled in a hospital bed. I remember how he would come home from work in the evening and before he even took off his jacket, he would swoop me up to piggyback and we would gallop out to the backyard toward his beloved pigeon coop. As we neared it, he would let loose his unique five-note whistle, and the birds would dive and glide back to their home from housetops, trees, and telephone wires. Dad would release me to the ground and turn his attention to the scruffling of gray-blue feathers that followed him into the coop for the feed he would scoop into the trough on the floor. I would stand at the doorway watching but unwilling to enter. As they nibbled, he would close and lock the pen doors so the birds could rest for the night safe from the reach of predators. Then he and I would walk side by side back to the house.
I am shaken back to the present by Dad’s weak voice, “Hi there.”
“Hello,” I respond, “Do you know who I am?”
It completely shook me the first time he didn’t recognize me. But now I am used to it and have come to expect anything from “No” to a reprimanding “Of course I do, why wouldn’t I know my own daughter?”
Tonight it is a quiet, sort of insecure, “Yes.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“The hospital I think.”
“Yes, you’re in a convalescent and rehabilitation center.”
“Yes, you are recovering from breaking your hip.”
“How long have I been here?”
“33 days. You do physical therapy every day and you’re doing very well. Nothing to be worried about, you’ll remember everything tomorrow.”
He asks me if I am going to stay overnight with him. I explain I am going to have dinner with him and then stay until he falls asleep. He begs me to stay until morning. I decline, but assure him that I’ve been here every day and I promise I’ll be back again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, until he is out of here.
He looks out the window and comments on how pretty it is, and that he feels a little cold. I grab another thin blanket, unfold it, and with a huge flourish throw the ends up in the air and guide it as it floats down over him. He watches in fascination. I smooth it down all around him and ask, “How’s that?” Instead of answering, he brings his hand out and grabs hold of mine and smiles at me. I sit down beside him and smile into his crinkly blue eyes.
When dinner is delivered, it’s time for the evening routine. He sits up on the edge of the mattress. I pull up a chair to share the over-the-bed table with him. We eat and chat. He tells me what he can remember about his morning and I tell him the latest world news. A nursing assistant comes in to help him into the wheelchair for a spin down the halls. (“It’s warm in here,” she says. “He has no fat on his body,” I reply.) When we return it’s time for pajamas, settling in for the night, and solving the saved trivia questions. Finally he reclines back and falls asleep. I tuck him in, kiss his head, close the curtains, tape a note to the temperature controls – “DON’T TURN DOWN. HE IS COLD,” gather my things, and leave.
As I walk to my car, I think about tomorrow, day 34, and day 35, and day 36… and wonder how much longer the chain will grow before things start to improve. A trace of guilt about wanting change for my own sake tries to wedge into me along with the impatience and frustration towards the circumstances that are already there.
I lift my eyes up to the clear sky and say aloud, “God, please, let things change.”
A cool breeze stirs and a flurry of pigeons bursts into flight across the parking lot.