It is the remarkable uniformity – the sameness – that slaps me in the face.
Pleasant. Clean. Spacious. Orderly. Middle class. Nice. A place you walk into and believe that your dad, mom or grandpa will be safe and taken care of, that everything will be okay, that you’re doing The Right Thing.
These buildings, like clusters of townhomes, neatly clad in grey and blue vinyl siding with generous windows and covered walkways through courtyard gardens filled with low-maintenance shrubberies and perennials, could be anywhere in Canada. If I didn’t feel the wicked midday dry-heat or see the summer-brown hills, I could be anywhere but where I am. I could be standing in my own father’s care facility.
“So you haven’t seen her for awhile?” the front desk administrator asks/comments. I think she is preparing me for what to expect. “It’s okay,” I say, to put her at ease, to prepare myself. “I lost my father to Alzheimer’s a year and a half ago. I know how this works.”
I’m prepared for the frequent napping, the dull eyes, the slack jaw, the searching hands, the low, slow speech and the beautiful flashes of momentary recognition I saw with my dad. Watch, listen carefully and stay in the moment, I remind myself. I’m not required to do anything except be present, to witness, to hold her hand, to stroke her face, to be. Hard, it is to do so little, to do so much.
But for all my imprinted memory, there are a couple of key things I’ve forgotten: How much my Auntie and my father look alike and the volume of kleenex required for a visit. Tomorrow I will bring the whole box.
In a family of 10 children my Auntie is next in line to my father and, for the first time, I realize how much they look alike. I gasp when I see her asleep in the oversized recliner. She is as gorgeous as ever with her thick, stylishly-cut hair, girlish figure and red-striped Gallic boatman’s shirt. It is equally the eyes, the round nose, and distinctive mouth that contain my father and traces of our entire genetic pool. I see him before me even more profoundly than I see him in my youngest child.
I will bring my kids along tomorrow, to these buildings of kind strangers. I want them to see their Auntie and the vestiges of their grandfather and to learn the rituals. We will scoop ice cream (her diet permitting) and walk around the gardens. We will hold her hand and then we will kiss her good-bye knowing we live far away and that this will likely be the last time we meet.
It is a blessing to be here, a gift not a punishment. There is the inevitability of loss but it is nothing compared to our extraordinary gain.