There's never a dull moment at Sunrise Senior Living. After you've either gotten over or come to terms with the fact that your loved one has entered this elder center as the eminent "final stop" in life, whether on or against his/her own accord, there are bountiful opportunities for the rest of us free people who visit the facility regularly to hunker down and laugh death square in the face. Once you've gotten all the weeping and pouring over family photos and nostalgia and reminiscing and boo-hoo-hooing out of your system, you really begin to appreciate how fleeting, and downright hilarious, life and its final moments can be. To be frank, if any of these people had the capacity to string together a coherent sentence, their advice to you and me would go a little something like this:
"My children, please, come close. Closer. Closer still. Ah, yes. There you are, your pretty faces. Children, it is in my final moment that I beg of you: do not take life too seriously, for you never know which day will be your last. Too many are the things we take for granted, such as the very clothes on our backs and modern orthodontics. Speaking of which, would you be a dear and fetch my dentures and personal effects from my cell? I want you to break me the hell out of here, right now. I would rather die by the side of the road than rot in this prison."
The fact is that anyone who has ever frequented a nursing home of this caliber, let's say more than once a month, has witnessed and made mental note of enough absurd material to take a crack at penning a decent anthology about people who forget their own names, are spoon fed and sleep away the better part of an afternoon drooling on themselves. People who use a variety of wheeled contraptions to traverse carpeted hallways, and who poop their pants and hide the soiled trousers where they please. People who might smile one moment, and haul off and kick a resident or pet the next, for reasons that have long since escaped them.
Before she died, our grandma had a good stint at Sunrise, sleeping somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 hours a day in her "golden years." In addition to the unopened Christmas gifts and get-well cards and dusty picture frames and baggy, old clothes that no longer fit her scaled-down, 85-pound frame, she left behind grandpa, her husband, who still bides his time, albeit unknowingly, in the lower ward of Sunrise where they quarantine residents who have mentally checked out of life altogether. It's easier that way. For them. For the staff. For all of us. To sort of corral them into one area like that so they don't wander the halls and alarm virgin visitors who are not privy to the sedated, senile underbelly of Sunrise.
Out of sight, out of mind.
When grandpa was lucid, typically in the small window between a pill wearing off and before another had been administered in one of those small paper condiment cups, he became increasingly occupied with knowing the whereabouts of his "bride." We realized we had come to a crossroads. Should we tell the man the truth, which would surely devastate him? Or should we fabricate, "with good intentions," a soft story and quickly change the subject as we wait for the next pill to kick in? We pondered this for a while before realizing that no matter what we told him, no matter how accurate or far-fetched the tale, he would not be able to remember any of it.
For all he knew, grandma was on holiday in the Alps, taking to the black-diamond slopes in the morning and, later in the afternoon, carving up the moguls and half pipes. She was giving a series of award-winning seminars to prestigious universities across the country on the implications of global warming, and how we can all do our part to better the environment by reducing our carbon footprint. She was on tour with Coldplay. She was here just a second ago, and now must be in the adjacent room, or the garden, tending to that ol' rose bush that was in desperate need of pruning...
She was running for president.
Each of these seemed viable. More viable, in fact, than the harsh truth that grandma had passed away. So we ended up alternating our approaches, as if we were holding a recurring, redundant press conference where a lone, forgetful reporter asks the same question over and over and over again, with us family members huddled behind the microphone, covering it with our hands as we consult each other before giving a smattering of responses, sometimes building and playing off the assorted stories and plots and individual bursts of creativity we enacted.
As awful as this all might seem, it's a real quandary, and can only be fully understood when you've been in the situation yourself. And grandpa's case is just one man's example of the greater struggles being featured daily at Sunrise.
Take, for instance, the man confined to a dilapidated bed on wheels, who always screams for Henry. Nobody even knows who Henry is. There is no Henry. When he is not parked in the corner of the room by himself, screaming for Henry, he is stationed by the fireplace with his visiting family members, screaming out for Henry some more. Interrupted, his family jumps back at first because of the sheer loudness of his random outbursts, giving way to a slow shaking of their heads, as they've been duped like this millions of times before, yet, somehow, after all these years, still do not have a single clue or lead as to who the hell Henry is. Given the urgency of his cries ("HENRY!") and the mumblings surrounding them, it's become obvious to me that this is some sort of military flashback. The only other words I've heard him mutter are the seldom "DUCK!" and "INCOMING!" Granted, he has also been known to rip a huge fart and laugh hysterically after these signals.
Or how about the stalker woman who cameos as a kleptomaniac? She's rather speedy for a gal her age, as none of us can ever seem to shake her. She's also ubiquitous, and has that entire lower ward down like the back of her veiny, little, thieving hand. She particularly enjoys spending time with our family, too, which is another harrowing concept I've yet to elaborate on: the simple fact that these lonely people crave attention and interaction with young, warm blood so much that they'll satisfy their urges with just about anyone, regardless of who that person may or may not be. So we see a quite a bit of her, usually when she's rifling through mom's purse directly in front of her. And this also awkward. How do you politely tell this woman not to steal from you? She's smiling the entire time she's doing it, by the way. Ear to ear. What does a person do here? Slap her wrist? No. Grab her arm and push it back toward her torso? Probably not. Quickly retract your purse? Sure. But then she looks so damn disappointed. You almost have to let this woman steal from you, and then track down the lifted items at a later time. They're not going very far anyway, and there certainly isn't a black market in the lower ward where hot objects can be pawned for dime bags. Colostomy bags, maybe.
But the piano savant is quite possibly our family's favorite. A real diamond in the rough. For knowing not what she does, she does it pretty well. We discovered this person, or rather she discovered us, last Christmas when she found us on the couches helping grandma and grandpa unwrap their gifts. The savant helped, too, which was weird, waxing on in Mad Lib form where blanks are populated with randomly selected words from the dictionary and sentences turn into one big chunk of undecipherable code. Once she was through with us, she took to the piano bench. Before we had a chance to brace ourselves for the careless clunking of keys, she launched into a chilling holiday ballad that took us all by surprise. By the time she reached the chorus, we sat with our jaws dropped, in agreement that this woman was on fire. All of this coming from someone who blinked a lot, whose hands trembled and shook with a force that would make for an excellent drummer rather than a pianist. But somehow, someway, this woman was a sage on the baby grand. Her fingers fluttered past black and white keys, her feet in Darco medical shoes steadily working the pedals. Surely the biggest surprise of 2007.
That same day, we were warmly introduced to the overly affectionate woman, who gave my dad gifts in the rare forms of hugs, kisses, shoulder massages, physical gestures and sweet-nothings whispered directly into his ear. Such unique presents. Aw, poor dad. We could tell it tickled, mostly because she is a heavy breather, and having someone breathe a hot, heavy breath into your ear is, um, tickly-ish. And straight-up creepy. From what we gathered, he somewhat resembled her deceased husband in his prime, which made bidding her adieu practically impossible. She wasn't going anywhere, and we didn't want that kind of guilt hanging over our heads on baby Jesus' birthday. So she just kind of hung out and we had ourselves a little senior mixer of sorts, trying our best to mitigate her passionate advances on my father.
Somewhere amid all the calamity, you will find at Sunrise the youngest life-form by 80 some-odd years: a lone feline named Smokey. Smokey is an overfed, overstuffed cat - gray, chunky, mean and lazy. I'm not kidding when I say she could very well be the infamous I Can Has Cheeseburger cat. Or a miniature bear with cat-ear transplants. Smokey bulked up to her plump size not by hitting the weights or raiding the medication room late at night for steroids, but by eating all the food that these poor people are unable to get into their mouths that ends up on the floor at three different points during the day. You'd think there were regular food fights considering some of the unruly residents, and vivid scenes of seniors up-ending tables and hiding behind trays and wheelchairs as they chuck handfuls of mashed potatoes and sandwiches fill every guest's head. Sadly, it's not that exciting. It's simply a case of coordination, or the lack thereof. It's also a dirty job, and some organism's got to do it. Sunrise doesn't even need a vacuum cleaner this way. They have the Smokey 5,000, and Smokey 5,000 has Sunrise. Meow.