I sat on the vinyl sofa across from the nurses station. I was early for the meeting. I looked through the pile of magazines on the table beside me. Nothing current, all old news. I thought about reaching for the newspaper on the nurses desk just as one of the
inmates clients who was walking past stopped to browse it. I watched the peeping canaries in their cages and I noticed that I had nothing to do with my hands and that I wanted something to occupy my mind other than thinking about what I was feeling. My facade of calm was only skin deep at best as I smiled a greeting to the bent over woman with the watering can, fetched for her by one of the women behind the counter, as she moved slowly past me to the ivy on the table further down the hallway and stuck her finger in the soil to check the dryness. Why do I have so much trouble being in this place I wondered? The social worker and the head nurse come out of the family room with another woman. I imagined that she was a relative of one of the clients and that they had just gone over the results of her family members semi annual evaluation. The social worked apologized and said that they would be 10 minutes more before starting the meeting with me. I smiled and said that would be fine. It didn't feel very fine. I rearranged myself on the squeaky sofa. The woman with the perfect white curls had finished browsing the paper, she folded it neatly, laid it on the counter top and disappeared behind a windowless door nearby. A picture of her hung just above the room number plate on the wall beside the door. I looked across the lobby at the large locked double doors with their little slits of window and the key pad with its rotating code. Always a combination of 1, 3, 7, and 9. Looking out the little windows onto the hallway I saw workers and visitors passing freely. I tried to forget the way it smelled in there. I tried to sit there on that side of the locked doors and relax. Because after all I can get up and punch in the code anytime I want and walk away into the open air. My father can not. I saw him as I came through those doors moments before, back to to me and seated at one of the dinning room tables. I didn't want him to see me. I was too far away at any rate thankfully. I felt ashamed at feeling that way. I never know what sort of uncomfortable-ness awaits every encounter with him now. Will I be his sister today? Will one of the workers ask him, "oh now who could that be coming to see you today Bob?" and will he smile shyly and say, "That could be my daughter." No, not likely. That hasn't happened since thanksgiving. I am most often his sister and he wants to know about the folks. My insides squirm when I tell him stories about their travels and that yes they are still up at the Falls. It is hard to lie to my father. But it makes him so happy to hear. I have been told that to correct him and remind him that his parents are dead these 40-50 years can take him right back to the first moment of raw grief. I have seen it and the resulting mental conflict that ensues. It's not pretty, though if anyone can handle it with grace and dignity it is my father. But I know my father and I can see the pain in his eyes. Two little tear drops from an ocean of hurt. It happened just last week on St. Patrick's day when a man at his table at dinner wanted to know how I was related to Bob. I should have said, "I'll let him tell you" But I took the chance. I said, "that's my father." My father looked at me. I knew instantly that I had been Edna Frances not Edna Leigh. The shock of anguish behind the deep brown eyes was deadened by the 50 units of insulin and the new blood pressure medicine. but I saw the stumbling confusion overcome him and for the rest of the visit he was depressed over so much missing information and not being able to make the necessary connections. I am still my fathers little girl. I still have so many old needs that are hard to set aside. I can tell my intellectual brain to grow up and I can act out every detail of how I need to be now. But there are reactions that my body feels, vibrations that resonate through my psyche and shake my core. My father is locked up and dieing. Shriveling up and bent over. He cannot find his own room anymore without assistance. They must watch him or he upsets folks by walking in unexpected. He cannot dress or wash or manage his own elimination of water. I look at the clock. Five more minutes. It seems like an hour. And then he's coming. Bowed over his walker and moving slowly. He sees a nurse coming towards him and starts to dance to the big band music coming from the dining room. Moving his shoulders to the beat he takes deliberate exaggerated steps grinning at her from ear to ear. She dances a step or two with him and hoots as she goes about her chores and he continues on to where I am sitting and waiting and getting ready to pretend that it's just a dandy day here in this smelly prison for dieing people. He smiles broadly in greeting and goes through the painfully slow maneuverings that will align him with a spot on the sofa next to me and lowers himself carefully into it. He greets me warmly always. I am always someone important to him. Why should it matter so much who that someone is? Seeing this face makes him happy. But, I grew up invisible in the shadow of my dead sister and some part of me still longs for recognition on my own behalf. When Dad was still living on his own but getting forgetful he decided to go through all his photo albums and label everyone. It was a great idea. And I should have helped him. I looked through them after he moved in with us some time later and discovered that I was labeled as my sister in every photo but one. It's too late for all that now. I want to let it go. There will be no time for chit chat this day, anyway. The locked doors burst open and suddenly there are children. My dad is blissfully pleased to see children. The woman who does the crafts hour brings her kids and they have come prepared to make Easter bunnies for each of the clients doors. Dad is all for going where ever the kids go and after some effort of rising, and giving me the kiss and hug I require, he is shuffling back towards the dining room. It's good to leave him happy. I couldn't help thinking later of those kids, the craft lady, the nurses, the staff, and the social worker. Most of them there everyday all day. They don't see it as I do. They have created a world where people like my dad can live safely, happily, and as healthfully as possible. And it is working. It is a place full of living. They see my dad as suffering ailments but they also see him as happy, and fun loving and they are glad to know him and glad that his is there with them.
I know my problem is fear. fear of ending up locked in a cage. Fear of my father dieing and never having known me at all. I hope I get over it enough to continue to find ways to enjoy my fathers company before it's too late. They told me that he is moving to the 3rd floor--full nursing care. It's a huge step in the long decline. But he'll have more freedom they say. He can wander anywhere any time he likes. I just hope there will be kids.