My mother looks around the dining hall and sees that every table is occupied. Most of those here are sitting in wheelchairs. She'll ask, “Where did all these people come from?” Irene, who sits at the table next to ours pipes in, “We live here.”
Indeed they do, which is why we see them every day. Lunch is served at noon. Everyone wheels themselves over from their rooms, or is wheeled, to sit at the places now familiar to them. Uniformity and routine are important. For most of these people, Irene included, this is home, a rest home — a nursing home.
For my mother, it's a temporary home while she recovers from a fall in her actual home, the one she shares with my sister. I don't know what these surroundings represent to her. I know she thinks that this is a restaurant, but apart from this one room, what does she make of the rest of this building with its corridors, its bedrooms, its busy staff? She's not aware that she has a room here or that she's been sleeping here for the last month.
Without a functioning short-term memory it's tough understanding what's going on. She has at least some limited ability to understand what I'm saying, though retaining what I tell her is impossible. Still, I do get through sometimes. For a few moments she has a narrative to cling to, an explanation. Then it goes again.
The only thing she knows is that I'm with her and that's the most important fact in the world. In the absence of knowing anything else about the present, she holds tightly to this one real thing. Leaving is always tough. I tell her I have to go. I have to feed the dog. I'll be back. All that is true. Lying may be permissible in these circumstances, but I try to avoid it. Despite her demands to take her home now, I have to leave her again.
She is getting better. Her hip didn't break but her pelvis cracked at the time of her fall. The doctors told us it had to heal on its own, but it shouldn't take long. It seems to be so. She no longer feels pain when standing or walking with a walker. She's very weak, however. Physiotherapy has her walking with aid, pedaling and practicing stairs. After many ups and downs in her treatment she's finally on a steady track upward. It won't be long before she'll reach what the physiotherapist calls her plateau. Then she'll be ready to come home.
That plateau may not be as high as before the fall, but she only needs to be able to maneuver her own home again. We're fitting the house with railings and handholds and toilets she'll find easier to manage. She may be less physically able, but being home will provide an enormous psychological lift.
She certainly hasn't forgotten her home. Every day she begs me to return her there. We often talk about her cats, her dog, the birds she likes to feed on the back deck, her favorite television shows and having her children around her — all the things that matter most. She smiles when we talk about her familiar world. When life makes sense again she can get on with living. It will mean the world to her to have it back again. She has no way to make sense of life as it is now.
When this chapter is behind her it won't even be a memory. It sometimes occurs to me that she's living the reverse of the movie “Groundhog Day.” She's been living the same day over and over again but without awareness. Only those around her remember. Only they see what goes on or can sift through all the whats, whens and whys.
Irene and Patricia and Julius, who sit at the next table, know her and so does the staff in her wing. They see that she now enters the dining hall walking with some help from the physiotherapist and me. Until recently I'd bring her there from the hallway in a wheelchair. Now she sits in a regular chair while having lunch. She still thinks the dining hall is a restaurant and after lunch she thinks I'm taking her home. When her food comes she always asks why they haven't served me. When she's finished eating she insists that I put the remaining food in a doggy bag. “I'll finish this at home,” she says.
Today is Christmas. It's Christmas in the rest home, Christmas in all the rest homes, the prisons and mental institutions — all the places in America we'd rather not think about. It's a Christmas to count our blessings. You don't know how good you have it.