The ride to Prairie View nursing home was not that long, less than half an hour. Mike arrived about five minutes before ten, the time that Miss Landon had requested. He considered waiting outside but figured what difference did a few minutes make. When he walked through the double sliding glass doors, he wished he had. Pandemonium reigned.
A half dozen or so older people, most still in their pajamas, milled about the area with a couple of old couches and a television. He was not sure which was louder, the TV or the people, who all seemed to be speaking at once. He sympathized with the man sitting alone on the couch with both hands covering his ears. Mike thought he might have the right idea. As he approached the reception desk to ask for Maude Landon, he noticed no one was around. At least no one he felt capable of giving directions.
A small woman whose shoulders slumped over a walker approached him. “Joe! Joe, why did it take you so long? I have been waiting here with all these crazy people for hours. You know better than to leave me alone like this, sweetie.” She saddled up to him and batted her fading blue eyes that were half-hidden behind thick bifocals. He was not sure whether to be flattered or frightened of her misplaced advances.
He tried to extricate himself from the death grip that her frail and bruised hands had on his forearm. He was surprised at how strong she was. “Ma’am, I’m truly sorry, but I’m not your Joe. My name is Mike, Mike O’Malley.”
The woman let go of his arm then, but only to begin pulling at her short white curly hair that already seemed a tangled mess. “No! No! Joe! You’re my Joe. I’ve been waiting so long for you, honey. I’d know you anywhere.” She screamed as she leaned up and tried to kiss Mike right on the lips. Only the quick reflexes he had developed in the Marines saved him from the embarrassing situation.
Mike was at a complete loss as to what to do next. A woman a few years older than he appeared out of a doorway down the corridor to the right. She shook her head as she quickly assessed the situation and walked towards them, “Mary, Mary,” she called in a soothing voice that you might use with a toddler.
The older woman turned and looked at her for a long moment. Then as if something clicked in her head, she smiled in greeting. “Maude, come meet my husband, Joe. See, I told you he would come back for me.” The woman beamed as she once more latched onto Mike’s forearm.
The newcomer smiled apologetically at him as she tried to pry the woman’s hands away. “Mary, Joe is dead. Remember, he died in Vietnam. You have all of his mementos in your room.” She tried to turn the elderly patient down the other corridor.
That only agitated the situation more as Mary’s grip on Mike tightened to the point that her nails began to bite into his flesh. She shook her head and stared up at him with big, pleading eyes. “No,” she cried. “No, tell her, Joe. Tell her that you came back for me. Just like you said, you would. Tell her, Joe.”
Mike looked to the woman for guidance. Likely this was the Maude he had come to see for very different reasons. She shrugged and shook her head, looking almost as pleading as the woman.
He nodded his head and patted the thin, purplish hand on his arm. “It’ll be fine, Mary. I came back,” his voice cracked at the words as he thought of the long-dead Joe. And of all the other Joes.
This woman was another reminder of the high price of freedom…those loved ones left behind. Almost fifty years, the man had probably been dead longer than he had been alive, but still, this fragile creature clung to his memory as tightly as she did his arm. He wanted to feel sorry for the man but could not. How must it have felt to be loved so deeply? It was something Mike had never known, not since he was seven years old.
He watched as the woman’s face was transformed. It lit from within as the years melted away. Beneath the wrinkled skin and mussed, thin grey hair, he saw her. The beauty that this woman once had been. His throat tightened at the pain she must have felt all those years ago. A hurt so deep that even after all these years, she still could not face its finality.
Maude nodded, and her smile turned to one of gratitude as the woman instantly became more pliable. “Mary, let me help you back to your room. We need to get you dressed and ready. Frank will be here soon. You remember him, don’t you? Your husband. Frank.”
Mary shook her head, “No, not Frank. Joe. Joe is my husband.” She protested as she laced her arm through his and pressed her diminutive body against his side. “Joe,” she exclaimed in the same voice that a toddler would use to get its way.
Mike inhaled deeply and wished he had not. The place smelled. Worse than some battlefields. While the smell of fresh gunpowder was missing, the other familiar smell of death, urine, and fecal matter mixed with morning breakfast odors. He noticed the institutional plastic trays stacked on a cart down the hallway that Maude was still trying to pull the woman towards.
“Mary, let’s go with the woman. You can freshen up. Then we can talk. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” He suggested with a smile as he too turned in the direction that Maude led.
Once more, the older woman shone, beamed like a bright summer sun, as she leaned her head against her shoulder. “Yes, Joe. Yes, I’d like that so much. I’ve been waiting for you for so long.”
She lifted her eyes as if something suddenly occurred to her. “Where have you been? What took you so long? You said it would only be a few months. No more than a year, and you would come home to me. Why did it take you so long?” She pleaded like that child.
The tightness in his throat threatened to cut off his air at the pain in the woman’s faded eyes. Thankfully the arrival of a younger woman dressed in bright pink scrubs saved him from answers that he did not have.
“Miss Mary, I’ve been looking for you. I ran your bath and have everything laid out for you. You want to look your best when Frank and your daughter get here, don’t you?”
The woman again shook her head and held more tightly to Mike’s arm. “No! Not Frank. My husband is Joe. See, he came back for me.”
Mike smiled weakly at the nurse as she continued speaking. “Yes, Mary, I see, but you still want your bath, don’t you? So, you can get all dolled up for him, right?”
“Yes, yes, of course. What was I thinking?” smiled the elderly patient as she turned back to him. “You’ll wait here for me, won’t you, dear? Just like I’ve waited for you.”
She leaned in then and whispered, “I promise it will be worth it. I bought a nice sexy black lace thing just for your homecoming.”
Mike wanted to laugh at the thought of this woman in her seventies in a black lace nightie. But in her mind, she was not. She was still that young bride, wife, girlfriend that she had once been, waiting for her lover to return from war. His chest tightened at the reminder of Rachel and of the woman he had met again this morning after all these years. Was this their fate too? Trapped in some cruel time warp of memories too painful to remember and too sweet to forget.
“I’ll wait. I promise,” he assured her. She stood on tiptoes and kissed his cheek. He watched as the nurse led her down the corridor. They chatted away like best friends in high school, conspiring on the big Friday night date.
He turned when the other woman exhaled loudly. She held out her hand, “Thank you, Mike. I’m assuming you are Master Sergeant O’Malley?”
He took the hand she offered and shook it firmly as he assessed the woman. Her greying hair was cut in a functional pixie style. She was on the short side and carried a few extra pounds under her slightly wrinkled blue polyester business suit. Her makeup was minimal and tastefully done. Competent and yes, very functional were words he would use to describe her. It was very much in keeping with his few brief encounters with the woman over the phone and her weekly email updates.
“Just Mike is fine, Miss Landon.”
She smiled, but it did nothing to soften her austere appearance. “Maude, then, Serg…” She caught herself as she turned back towards the hallway in the opposite direction that the nurse and Mary had disappeared. The one from which she had come.
“Would you care to follow me, Mike? We can talk in my office. Then I’ll take you to see Mister Hall.”
Mike nodded and fell into step behind the woman. Her office was every bit as functional as the woman. Only a few certifications graced the white walls, not a family portrait or personal item in sight. Even the coffee mug on the corner of her desk was embossed with the logo and words Prairie View Assisted Living.
“Have a seat.” She waved her hands towards a chair across from the overly large, dark wooden desk that dwarfed her. She pulled out a brown leather chair and sat down behind it, nervously shuffling some papers.
“Thank you for your help with Mary. I am sorry you had to see that. I am afraid we are a bit short-staffed with it being the end of summer. Labor Day being next weekend and all.”
Mike nodded as if he understood fully though the concept was utterly foreign to him. In the military, you soon lost track of things such as holidays. You had a job to be done, the same as any other day. Of course, some major ones like Thanksgiving and Christmas might have some big Hollywood star or country music singer show up for the publicity. Maybe a special dinner even, but that was about it. And since he had never been much of a country music fan, holidays were indeed nothing special to him. Give him classic rock any day.
The woman did not meet his eyes as she began to speak again. “Anyway, I know that was not what brought you here. And I do thank you for coming. Family involvement can make all the difference, especially in…”
She paused again and finally lifted her eyes to meet his gaze, “Especially in the final days. While I know that you aren’t exactly family, well, frankly, you have always been more conscientious in responding to my emails and calls than Mister Hall’s daughter.”
She blushed and looked down again as if perhaps she had said something that she should not have. She shuffled more of those papers on her desk nervously before clearing her throat and looking up, “What do you know of dementia, Alzheimer’s?”
“Honestly, Miss Landon,” he paused at the firm look she gave him. “Maude,” he started again, “Not a damned thing. Only the little bit that I learned in the brochure that Mister Clyde gave me when he first told me about the diagnosis.”
“Most people don’t. In a society with an aging population, it is this nation’s dirty little secret. It seems that we, as a nation and often even the families themselves, want to simply lock them away and forget as surely as those afflicted with the illness.”
“I know it was an unpleasant experience, but Mary is an excellent example of the illness. Though her second husband, Frank, and their daughter are almost daily visitors, she rarely remembers them. Instead, she pines for the man she lost almost half a century ago.”
She sighed heavily and shook her head, “I admire Frank. To come every day to visit a wife that not only does not remember you but talks incessantly about another man she loves must be a harrowing experience.”
Mike nodded, trying even to fathom how that must be for this other, unknown man. But it was a mind-boggling endeavor. He shook his head slowly as the woman continued.
“Of course, as the disease progresses, things become even worse. The illness makes even the most basic bodily functions like eating, drinking, or relieving oneself impossible. These once vibrant people become children and eventually babies once more. Unable to see to even their most basic needs on their own.” She met his eyes, “That I am afraid is where Mister Hall has gotten to at this point.”
“I am saying all this now so that when you do see him, you are prepared. The man that you knew is gone already. Although he might have a few more good moments, that is unlikely. Mister Hall will not recognize you. He may not even respond when you call his name. He often just sits staring out the window all day silently. His mind is locked someplace that we can never understand, and his body is failing now, too.”
“Just as the mind slowly wastes away into nothing, so too do their bodies over time. Feeding becomes increasingly problematic. As a result, they lose weight, muscle mass, vitality. Until their bodies simply give out.”
Mike nodded as he tried to prepare himself for the reality that this woman spoke of. He asked the one question that plagued him most, “How long? How long does he have?”
“That I cannot tell you. These things are so variable. I simply don’t know. Not even the doctors do. But Mister Hall is clearly in the final stages of the disease progression. Days or maybe a few weeks.”
“I called you when I did because I know how much you wanted to be here…if you could, that is. Of course, I understand with your job and all that you may only be able to stay a short time, so I wanted to call you early.”
“Thank you for that, Maude. The truth is that I am here for the duration. I retired from the Marines last week,” his throat squeezed out the words of truth, but just barely. “No place else I have to go or be anymore.”
The woman nodded as if she could understand that completely. “Yes, yes, now I remember you mentioning that on the phone. Well, normally visiting hours here are ten in the morning until three in the afternoon. That allows my staff to get the patients up and ready in the morning and settle them each evening. Routine is crucial to maintaining their emotional and physical wellbeing. And often, the patients themselves tire very easily.”
“But, especially as the disease progresses, we bend those rules a bit. Allow extra time for families to say their goodbyes.” Her shoulders slumped, “And honestly, Mike, my staff is stretched thin. We run this place on a shoestring budget. My nurses often have ten, sometimes even fifteen patients, to care for each day. So, any help they get from families is greatly appreciated. Because as I said, too many of those families simply bring their loved ones here and leave them.”
Mike could hear the anger and bitterness in the woman’s voice. Although he did not know her job, her burdens, it was a frustration he could understand all too easily. He always struggled with orders that made no logical sense, with a command that was so out of touch that they made decisions that could cost men their lives, good men. He had often found it difficult to obey such orders, commands that he knew placed his men in more peril than was sometimes necessary. So, on some visceral level, he could empathize with this woman’s righteous indignation at those who should have cared but did not.
“I’ll do whatever I can for Mister Clyde,” he promised. This man had been more a father to him over the years than the sperm donor, who had impregnated his mother, beat her, and him every chance he got, and ultimately… Mike did not want to go down that road at the moment. Those other demons would wait. Wait until his final few missions were accomplished.
And right now, this mission was to care for his best friend’s dying father as his own. “Can you take me to him, please?”
The woman nodded her head as she stood up. “Of course, Ser…, of course, Mike.”
She stood, walked to the door, and waited, motioning for him to go first. They turned down the hall, and he followed her deeper into the maze of corridors and rooms.
At the end of the hall, she stopped. “As I said, Mike, Mister Hall is not the man whom you remember.”
But nothing she could say would have prepared Mike for the skeleton that sat motionless in an over-sized chair facing the open window. Nothing.