Fred was waiting in his wheelchair at 9 a.m. as I entered Room 11 at Newport Rehab and Specialty Care, my nose running, my head hurting so bad I wanted to amputate my right temple. The stress of the past two weeks had finally overcome my immune system.
Underwear, socks and toothbrush lay on the bed, and he was eager to go, so eager he teared up every time he thought about escaping Newport Rehab. It didn’t seem like such a bad place to me, but I could walk, amuse myself with puzzles, books, and the piano, and leave whenever I wanted to. I didn’t have to call an aide every time I wanted to pee. I could snub the bland canned dinner and take myself to Quiznos for a big submarine sandwich and real coffee.
So he was being sprung. They didn’t offer a new suit and a fistful of cash, just a pink spit basin and a ratty toothbrush, which he declined.
As I packed the suitcase, glancing warily out the window at the snow coming down harder by the minute, various women hurried in with pills and forms to sign. I barely read them, but I did get the impression that if they didn’t approve of where I was taking my husband, they’d sic the Department of Human Services on me in a heartbeat. In their eyes, I was no longer capable of caring for my own husband. Perhaps they were right, but many hours later, lying in bed alone, I had huge doubts. Have I done enough?
Fred, however, couldn’t wait to get to Graceland, no, not the Elvis place, but a care home up the hill behind the Eureka Cemetery where he would live with Grace, Rick, their son Li, Lucy the dog and several other gentlemen with disabilities.
Nurses and aides showered him with hugs and goodbyes. One congratulated him for going home while I shook my head and told her he wasn’t going “home.” Then Fred rolled out the door to freedom. The alarm squealed until someone inside shut it off.
Rick, who came from Graceland to help us, slung the suitcase into his truck. He helped Fred into our car and off we went, my windshield wipers pushing big snow patties back and forth.
That four miles was probably the most frightening drive of my life. I’m from San Jose. I don’t do snow. The road to Graceland is narrow and tightly curved, and I have yet to learn its ups and downs. The higher we went, the thicker the snow, until everything was white, the road, the ground, the trees, the houses. Even a tabby cat beside the road wore a snow hat and mustache.
Driving in first gear, holding my breath, I made it to Graceland. His new wheelchair had not arrived, so Fred walked across the snow, Grace and I each holding one of his hands. I doubt that he heard the subtle alarm of the open door. Soon he was settled on the sofa next to Li, a Newport High School student enjoying a snow day off. As they watched a Jurassic park movie with subtitles, I set up Fred’s new bedroom, plugging in the clock, arranging photographs on the dresser, hanging his clothes in the closet. When we brought him in, he seemed to like it.
Grace showed him the ocean due west out the window, the vast open space where a family of deer often come to graze, a red barn, a doublewide mobile home with a car out front, the houses and streets of Newport. Somewhere out there, if I had binoculars, I could see my church and Abbey’s pizza. The snow fell hard and thick and fluffy, like a picture on a Christmas card.
Then came the paperwork. A million questions along the lines of: Eating: Is he independent, needs assistance or totally dependent? Over and over. Then the contract and the writing of the big check, bigger than the down payment for our car, the gray Honda Element that mounted that hill like a sure-footed mule. Fred joined us at the big oval dining room table, eating from a bowl of orange wedges, sipping coffee from the green mug I had brought from home, as I signed my name repeatedly. At one point, Rick offered Fred a chance to sign, but he got stuck on the letter F. His back is better, but his Alzheimer’s is worse.
If I felt better and weren’t so worried about the drive home in my snow-covered car, I would have loved to stick around, take pictures and join Rick and his son snowboarding down the hill. But I had to go.
Fred, finally standing on his own two feet, hugging me good-bye, seemed surprisingly calm as I went off to what used to be the home we shared and left him at his new home. Perhaps it’s okay. During a moment when we were alone, he whispered tearfully, “You have done so much.”
Back in the snow, I let out my breath as I drove past the cemetery and moved into Newport proper. It was snowing hard there, too, the roads mushy and slick, criss-crossed with tire trails. But as soon as I crossed the Yaquina Bridge into South Beach, the snow turned to rain. As I greeted my muddy dogs at home, I looked for signs of snow and saw none. In fact, as I settled in at my desk, amazed to have a whole afternoon and evening to myself, the sun came out.
Except for puddles under the car and the head cold which is in full bloom today, was it all a dream?