Just about every weekend, I make the 45-minute drive up toward the White Mountains to visit my father at his nursing home. I stop at the front desk to sign the official log—just my name and his, and the date and time. The volunteer stops reading Judith Krantz long enough to give me a label that says “VISITOR” that I stick on my sweater. I then push the elevator button and head up to his room, trying to imagine what it is like to live there. The days must blend into each other, even with coffee time and Afternoon Stretch, even with Jimmy the nurse joyfully dispensing meds and the LNAs pouring mid-day ginger ale. When I walk into my dad’s room, his face lights up. He’s in his leather recliner, legs propped on a pillow—he can’t straighten them because of contraction in his knees from all that time in a wheelchair. This morning, he’s drinking orange juice, coughing because he’s had a cold all week. I ask him if they gave him any throat lozenges or cough syrup, and he says “No,” and I realize that’s a stupid question—they’re not CVS, they give what they are ordered to by the MD. I ask him if he’s been outside at all, and he says “No”—it’s getting too chilly for that anyway. I tell him everything about our family I can think of, and he asks me about work and his grandson. At 11:52, two girls outfitted in scrubs bring in an electric lift to move him to his wheelchair so he can head to the dining room for lunch. I kiss him on the cheek, tell him I’ll see him on Thanksgiving, and head out the door.
How do I do this every weekend, leave him behind in his tiny, hot room? How do I manage to speed back down the highway to my charmed life at the other end? I sometimes have to remind myself that he is 81, that he has had a very full, rich life, and that he is learning to allow others to care for him. It’s opening his heart in a way that I can’t begin to understand. I can’t explain why we go through what we do, why life is riddled with pain, why the joys are so high and the lows are so low. Why do people have accidents and end up in nursing homes, and why are people taken from us when we aren’t ready? A friend of mine once told me her minister has a simple answer to this: he says, “Alleluia anyway.” No matter how tough it seems at times, no matter how much we wish things were different or that people we love weren’t suffering, it’s not our place to change their paths. All we can do is to love them—in the best way we know how—and remember to whisper to ourselves periodically, Alleluia anyway.