I struggled choosing the gift. He’s quite mechanically inclined, as he aptly demonstrated the night he removed his own ankle bracelet, so it had to be something he could do with his hands, something that he would find engaging, but not too challenging. Hopefully, I’d find one that didn’t have a bazillion little parts, beyond his limited finger dexterity. A simple wood-working project, that would do. I got him the pirate ship and a birdhouse, small balsa wood models that would fit together simply with the tap of the harmless wooden mallet included in the package.
On the way there, we discussed the gifts; too many small nails we decided. Tiny brads no longer then half an inch each, gave us pause. I could envision them scattered on the floor, spilled into his bedclothes or worse, finding their way into his mouth. We pulled over at a Toys “R” Us on the way to find something more suitable if we could. Not really sure of what mental age we would find him in, we settled on a beautiful stuffed German Shepard, warm and soft. Someone to keep him company.
Walking down the corridor was disheartening. Broken minds and withered bodies littered the hall, many staring blankly at empty walls no more than a foot from their faces. A few were aware enough to wave to us, either mistaking us for someone they knew or begging for someone, anyone, to spend a few precious moments with them; one woman kept pointing to me and motioning to a bouquet of flowers in the middle of the barren institutional table she leaned on, as if she was proud of the gift or possibly thanking us for it.
The door to his room was partially opened and I rapped loudly, knowing there was a possibility that his hearing aids were on low. As it turns out, we woke him from a late morning nap. He stirred slowly on the bed, half startled and disoriented but smiling nonetheless. As he greeted us and slowly struggled to a sitting position, Di sat across from his uninviting hospital bed on the only chair in the room; a small folding office chair, the kind you would pull from the basement only if you ran out of decent lawn chairs. The drapes on the window behind her were tattered and worn, threadbare and barely hanging off the curtain rod that looked as if it was mere seconds shy of dropping from the wall. There was nothing in the room to describe its inhabitant; the tan and gray walls were completely barren; no paintings, pictures, frames, decorations or signs of life what so ever. Fitting décor for a place to warehouse those with broken minds.
I asked him if he knew who we were and he said of course, but he never mentioned our names. He asked us how far we had traveled, a question meant to hide the fact that he truly had no idea who we were but which masked his embarrassment that he didn’t. I told him who we were anyway and he admired my sweatshirt emblazoned with the “UNH Wildcat” logo. It pleased him greatly as he touched the raised letters on my shirt and repeated “Wildcat, that’s fantastic,” repeating the growl of a wildcat for us several times. We told him we had a gift for him and he struggled to open the gift bag; I held it on his lap and pulled the stuffed dog from it. He was positively delighted; he asked us if it had a name and we told him no, that he could name it whatever he wanted. I specifically picked the Shepard from the shelf, remembering the story of the Shepard he once had as a boy. There was no connection. He was proud to put it on the small under-sized nightstand near the other small stuffed dog already there. He kept repeating that he wished it could bark, showing us what sound he wished it would make to keep the other residents, who had a tendency to wander into his room uninvited, at bay. He turned and asked us how far we had travelled. And again, we told him.
He said he wouldn’t be there long; he couldn’t wait to go home. He assured us he was going home soon, he just didn’t know when. He never said, but it was clear from his eyes that he not only didn’t know when; he didn’t know where. Where was home? He asked us where his car was? I assured him that it was in his garage, right where he left it. He admired my shirt and asked me where we had traveled from.
The conversation went just that way; seconds of him smiling, us making him laugh, him asking where his car was and how far away we lived. He spoke of boredom (not once while we were there did any staff interact with him at all), how at times it was too loud to sleep but today was quiet because many of the residents had gone for the day, other things to do. I’m quite sure he didn’t have the capacity to realize that none of them were able to go anywhere. I asked him if he remembered our tradition of decorating my house for Christmas, as he stood on the lawn in front of the porch and directed the work. His face lit and he assured me that he remembered, and how much he enjoyed it as well. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if he was trying to fool me or himself, but I decided that I wasn’t going to let go of this memory and told him that we loved it too.
The visit was short, barely an hour. He smiled often, we made him laugh. He asked us where his car was and how long was our drive. He asked us if the dog had a name. He said he was bored; there was nothing for him to do. I wondered if he would have been more connected to others, to himself, if he had some stimulation, a least a picture on the dammed walls or possibly someone to speak to. The smell of the institutional meal was wafting down the corridor and we knew his lunch would soon be coming. We decided we needed to let him have his lunch, to keep him at least on this small schedule. We told him we had to leave and he stood and hugged us. He wanted to walk us up the corridor to the nurse’s station but no further; anything more tires him out he told us. He asked us how long we had to travel and we told him. We said goodbye and exchanged kisses on the cheek, though his hug reminded me of the cordial embrace one gives and receives from someone who was once a passing, fleeting acquaintance.
On the way home, I realized I had been sitting in hell’s waiting room. I saw the shell of a man I admire; empty, void of identity. He wakes in a strange room in a location he can’t identify. All he was, all he knew, shattered images in time, lost forever in a cloud of nothingness; no attachment, no past, nothing to remind him of who he was or who he is. I wondered if he was in emotional pain; can one long for those you never knew? Is all that’s left a daily void? Every minute of every day, surrounded by strangers, some you just met thirty minutes ago; many who tell you they’ve know you all their lives. Is it frightening to be forever surrounded by people you don’t recognize, including the one who stares back from the bathroom mirror?
So many things I wanted to tell him; so many things I wanted to say; things that would be quite startling, confusing, possibly unnerving coming from a complete stranger. I would tell you that I miss you; that we love you. That you mean so much to us, the couple you just met and will probably forget before we even reach the highway on that drive that we told you about so many times.
We are fragile. We make memories to hold, to comfort us as we get older. We reminisce fondly of those who have shaped our lives, many molding us into the person we have become. It is nothing short of utter desolation to lose all we were, all we are, and to forever be in a world where we are strangers to ourselves too.
After all; who are we if we are not the collection of moments we gather to ourselves over the span of our lives: that collection of experiences, faces and events that apparently can be easily wiped away like some useless writing on a forgotten chalkboard.