I hope I have been through my last dinner at Newport Rehab and Specialty Care. Tomorrow my husband moves to an adult care facility up in the hills behind the cemetery. His room will have an ocean view and beautiful grounds. I hope he’ll get the care he needs there. He has Alzheimer’s Disease and is moving rapidly into the third stage, the one where they forget everything. Three weeks ago, I could never have imagined it would be so soon, but now the wheels are turning so rapidly I’m dizzy.
As torturous as the last two weeks at Newport Rehab have been—mostly due to excruciating boredom for both of us—I’m going to miss some of the people there. I was especially touched by Vivian and Paul, a married couple both staying there, Vivian nearly deaf, eating very little, but one of the few allowed to walk, and Paul, immobile in his wheelchair, gruff, often with food coating his lips and chin. Every night Vivian would rearrange the table to make things more convenient to Paul, as she probably has for most of her life. Whatever he ordered, she had the same. When she couldn’t hear, he spoke for her.
Often Vivian’s brother, Lew, joined them, saving the leftovers for the white poodle he brought with him. Both Vivian and Lew have bright turquoise eyes and pure white hair. Lew said he and Vivian are the last of five siblings. He showed us photographs of him and his late twin brother and of him and his wife on their wedding day. She’s gone now, but she spent a year at Newport Rehab. He knows the place all too well.
These were our tablemates at one of the round tables covered with pink or green cloths. The other night, a particularly bad night for Fred, I watched Paul reach his hand across the table toward Vivian. She placed her hand on top of his and they smiled at each other.
I was undone. I barely made it outside before I started to cry. It was so sad and so sweet at the same time.
I sat near the piano, which I often played over the clack of plastic cups, the blare of the nearby TV, and the incessant talk of a character named Ricky. I don’t know what his malady is, but his arms and legs don’t seem to work right, and he has no filter on what he says. He told us he’d been in Walla Walla prison and also cooked on the Mississippi Queen. Many times I heard him say, “These are my waning years and I’ll do what I want.” He frequently asked the aides for vodka and a cigar, but he also made mean cracks about their young bodies that caused them to hurry through their chores.
Then there was Dorothy, always wrapped in layers of afghans and shawls, bent over the table. Whatever the aides told her she was getting to eat, she would say, “Oh, that sounds good.” Every night. I’m not sure she can see. The girls would explain to her what was on her plate.
There was Joanna, whom we heard coughing across the hall and could see sleeping her days away, and Ruthie, who dozed between bites.
And so many more, men that could been my father staring at their plates of overcooked, mushy meat, and canned fruits and vegetables, with plastic cups of milk and apple juice lined up in front of them. One delightful little man with suspenders seemed tickled just to have someone cooking for him.
Each night, the aides started gathering the patients at 4:00 for the 5:00 dinner, and then the patients sat there, waiting. The young workers would go around asking what they wanted to drink, and handing out silverware wrapped in green or pink napkins. The meals would come out slowly, each with a card listing the patients’ special needs or requests. The default, if you couldn’t eat or didn’t want the featured entrée, was always a grilled cheese sandwich or a hamburger.
It wasn’t great food, but the staff was so kind, putting up with Ricky’s B.S., cutting up meat for big men in wheelchairs, encouraging Dorothy or Vivian to eat a few bites, quietly wiping faces and hands, and rubbing shoulders.
Family members could eat there, too, and I did a few times. It beat cooking and I would be starving by the time I got home if I didn’t. It was the best $3 meal in town.
In between, we sat in Fred’s room, a generic hospital-type two-bed room. Luckily, he didn’t have a roommate, so we could use the other bed as a sofa or I could lie in Fred’s bed while he sat in his wheelchair. Sometimes we went to the “Fireside Room,” a big lounge with cushy sofas and a giant TV which mostly went unwatched. On Superbowl Sunday, I started a puzzle there while Fred fell asleep during the National Anthem. Over the next seven days, I got so sick of that puzzle I never want to see it again. I hope someone finishes it. I suspect it will sit there a long time before someone thinks to put it away.
Tonight as I played my last round of old tunes on the piano, Ricky talked the whole time, and Vivian applauded after every number. “They like it,” she told me.
After dinner, as we left the dining room, I leaned into her good ear and told her Fred was leaving in the morning and I probably wouldn’t see her again. Her eyes teared up, and so did mine.