83: We’re All Family Here

83: We’re All Family Here

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

We’re All Family Here

The charity that is a trifle to us can be precious to others.

~Homer, The Odyssey

My father spent the last three years of his life in the secured ward of a memory care unit. In December 2011, he lost the ability to swallow and my family and I cared for him during his final days. But this story isn’t about my dad’s departure; it’s about those he left behind on the second floor, and two men who have convinced me that angels come in the strangest shapes and sizes.

My brothers, Russ and Reed, are both in their sixties. They have worked for decades in a family business that requires physical strength, creative thinking, and people skills. They are hunters and fishermen; they love bicycles and motorcycles, an occasional cigar, and Maker’s Mark. They revered my dad and visited him often. In fact, the director of the memory care unit, which typically cares for about twenty-five residents, told us that our family paid more visits to my father than all of the other residents’ families combined.

But my brothers went far, far beyond the call of duty. Over time they got to know virtually everyone on the second floor — staff members and residents alike. During my father’s last week, I got to know many of them through my brothers’ eyes.

“That’s Dora,” Russ said, pointing to a petite Latino woman. “She’s from Managua and used to own several beauty salons. Very astute businesswoman in her day.”

Dora looked around with a puzzled expression. “Why am I here?” she asked.

My brother shook his head. “The fact that she asks the question answers her question, don’t you think?”

A slender, dapper gentleman sat at a table. Kenny was a Royal Air Force mechanic. He grew up in Portsmouth, England, and his family owned a toy store. Often he would relive his World War II experience.

“At the rat tat tat tat tat we would have to scurry into the trenches to avoid being injured,” he recounted in his proper British accent.

At other times Kenny asked Russ if he’d seen his wife.

“No I haven’t,” Russ always said. “But if I see her I’ll let her know you’re looking for her.” Kenny’s wife had been dead since 1994.

Peter came prancing by. He was German and full of energy. He loved to sing and dance. He carried a flashlight wherever he went, and on this occasion he was worried because it wasn’t working. My brother Reed promised Peter he’d bring him batteries next time — and he did.

Peter was in the German army, and one day Russ sat him down with my dad, whose liberty ship was sunk by a German U-boat in the Atlantic in 1945. “Peter, your country’s navy sunk my dad’s ship in the war.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” Peter replied, contrite.

My father waved his hand. “All is forgiven.” And in the world of the second floor, where the most reliable memories are more than half a century old, that said a lot.

I was walking down the hall with Reed and a head popped out of a room — at floor level. It was Monroe, a P-51 mechanic in World War II and now a Dallas Cowboys fan. He forgets he can’t walk and often slips out of his wheelchair. I panicked, ready to call for help.

“Hello Monroe,” Reed greeted him, helping him back into his chair before continuing down the hall. “Happens all the time,” he told me. “No biggie.”

During that final week I spent a lot of time on the second floor. My brothers, their wives, my mother, and other family members would come and go. At lunchtime someone would run out for sandwiches; we’d eat them in a small common room at the end of the hall. Sometimes Wanda would join us. Once a sergeant in the Air Force, Wanda was friendly, engaging and seemed quite “with it,” except that she remembered very little about herself. Still, she was welcome to share our meal and often did.

One evening as we sat with my dad, a resident named Donna, who was wheelchair-bound, rolled into the room. Normally very loving and clear-eyed, she was obviously upset.

“What’s wrong, Donna?” Russ asked, putting his arm around her. “Are you lost?”

She nodded tearfully.

“I’ll take you back where you belong,” he said. “Don’t worry.” The compassion in my brother’s voice made me want to weep.

Over several days my dad grew weaker. “He is actively dying,” the hospice workers told us. On one of his last nights, Toni wandered into the room. She was wraithlike, much too slender, with long gray hair; dementia had her securely in its clutches. She would often take Russ’s face in her hands and say “Panos? Panos?” which was the name of her son. My brother would nod and she would coo lovingly to him in Greek.

Russ tells the story of one day when he noticed Toni walking with a man who could be her son. “Are you Panos?” my brother asked him.

The man looked surprised. “Yes, I am.”

“So am I,” Russ said with a grin. The man began to apologize for his mother, but my brother stopped him.

“We’re in this together,” Russ said. “We’re all family here.”

When Toni wandered in that evening, the atmosphere was subdued. We were playing one of Dad’s favorite CDs softly and the lights were low. We were all somber because we knew our vigil was coming to an end. Toni said nothing, but looked at all of us and gave the sign of the cross. And just as quietly she left.

The next evening my father died. Many of the staff members cried, but Rolando, the maintenance man, was serene. Days before, at my brothers’ request, he had given my dad a blessing. They have been around Rolando long enough to believe he’s a holy man.

“You do not need to worry,” Rolando told me. “Your papa is in good hands.”

Alzheimer’s is an insidious disease that stealthily robs us of what we value most: our sense of who we are. But to the end, every person with dementia remains a person with a story — an individual who worked, and loved, and lived a worthwhile life. The number of people with Alzheimer’s is growing, and we need more “angels” like my brothers, individuals who are willing to say to people who will never truly know them, “You matter to me, even now.”

The funny part is, Russ and Reed will tell you angels have nothing to do with it. “They’re my friends,” Russ would say. And Reed would just roll his eyes, as if to say, “What’s the big deal?”

My dad is gone and there’s no reason for my brothers to visit the second floor anymore. But they do. The other day Russ met a new woman, Aileen. She had an accent and he asked her where she was from.

“France,” she replied. “Bordeaux.”

“Ah,” my brother said. “Wine-making country.”

“Oui,” she said, her eyes lighting up. “Delicious wines.”

“So, Aileen, will you be my friend?” Russ asked.

“Oui, Certainement,” she said.

It’s as easy — and as awe-inspiring — as that.

~Louise Harris Berlin

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