On November 25th. 2016, the day after Thanksgiving, while leaving Powell’s Bookstore with our family from Connecticut, I lost my footing on the front stairs. While falling through the air and landing on my side on the sidewalk, numerous half-formed fears were whipping around inside my head. As excruciating hip pain took over and the fears became more palpable and intense, my now conscious mantra became “not a broken hip, not a broken hip, please not a broken hip.”
There were crowds of people, some of whom offered to help. My doctor daughter-in-law, Bis, was telling me, “Don’t move; don’t try to stand.” As the situation was assessed, we decided I needed to go to an urgent care facility. Husband John and son Bill carefully got me to my right foot, it having taken only an instant for me to know not to put weight on the left one. John googled and called two nearby care facilities and the recommendation from both was, “go to the nearest emergency room.” John parked in the nearby hospital’s driveway and transported me in a wheelchair.
After the intake, I was moved to a bed, where attendants moved me, painfully, this way and that and then plunged into my hip the most brutally painful injection I have ever had (John said the needle was at least six inches long. I never look at needles, but I am sure it was at least that long.) Next came x-rays. The injected drug had not worked sufficiently to prevent my undergoing more agony as the staff transferred me to an x-ray table and got me in the right positions on it. Alas, alas, it was a break. This was serious trouble. It was a holiday booby prize that has kept on giving.
I was upset as much at the timing as I was about the hip. My son, his wife Bis, Asha, 6, and Maya, 4, had come for Thanksgiving, their first visit here in four years. The children saw me, their grandmommy, fall, then lie on the sidewalk suffering. And then we had the difficult transfer to the car with me calling out to the little girls, “I’m okay! I’ll be fine.” Asha was very affected. She cried and cried. Through tears she told her mommy, “Grandmothers shouldn’t get hurt.” Later Bill told me that, just a week before, the girls had seen their maternal grandfather fall backward into some bushes in their yard. Too many grandparents getting hurt.
They arrived the afternoon before Thanksgiving, so that meant a few hours that day, a very busy Thanksgiving Day, and the next morning I fell. Their return flight was the following Monday. I was sad about having had such limited time with the precious little girls. I’d planned and dreamed and bought supplies for projects and games for us to do together, and we had done some of them, but….
Surgery was on Saturday afternoon. By that evening I was being wrestled to my feet to see if I could hobble a bit. I was in the hospital a total of three days. There was plenty of pain but, also, plenty of drugs. At times I felt great.
I had terrific visitors, including, of course, John’s daughter, Clare, her husband, Cris, and two-year-old Everett, Bill and his family, and many friends. Bis spoke soothingly to me, assuring me that I am strong and would survive this very well. The darling little granddaughters gave me get-well cards they had made. They had fun looking around the room, making the bed go up and down, and telling me lots of things. When they got restless, their dad would swung them around in the air, let them climb him, and talk with them, pointing out things in the room they hadn’t noticed. This was very similar to what Cris did when Everett got restless. It was wonderfully fun to watch.
After the hospital, I spent just over three weeks a rehabilitation center. This was unlike any experience I’d ever had, and I was fascinated. I’d visited my mother in a rehab facility. Because of her back injury, she’d been forced to stay in bed most of the time. I was mobile. I could scoot around in my wheelchair any time I wanted to. With some intensive physical therapy work, I learned to use a walker properly, too. I got to know the whole main floor and many of the employees. I spent a fair amount of time in an easy chair by the warm, cheery, fireplace in the lobby. I knew where the locked doors to the “memory care unit” were. I had my hair washed and styled in the salon. I joined some get-togethers for group singing, where, with few exceptions, the only attendees were memory care patients. I wished I’d had sheet music and a pitch pipe. I know the singing would have gone much better if we’d all started on the same note.
There was a section, managed by a delightful young woman named Shelley, where books and magazines, some art supplies, puzzles, and games were available to borrow. I chatted with a few patients who were coloring in what were called “adult coloring books.” That sounds risqué, but they were quite innocent. I hadn’t known there were coloring books for adults and was intrigued that people like them so much. I didn’t have the patience to color in them but did do some drawing and watercolor painting. Shelley was so taken with my work that I gave her a little painting. She was very pleased.
Shelley often brought her Great Dane to work with her. He had a sweet disposition and was much-loved by the patients and staff. In one conversation with Shelley, she told me of a recent upsetting event in her life. Although they already had a huge dog, when they heard about a shelter dog that really needed a home they felt sorry and decided to adopt him. They went through several weeks of interviews and “getting acquainted with the adoptee sessions” and then came a home visit where the two dogs could get to know each other. They and an employee from the shelter went together into their home with the new dog. He instantly and viciously attacked their dog and, in the ensuing melee, the shelter dog bit off the end of her husband’s index finger! “Did you take the finger piece with you to the doctor” “No, we couldn’t find it. The dog must have swallowed it.”
The staff was good and I can’t think of one of them that I could say wasn’t doing a good-to-excellent job. (Well, maybe the chef.) In our section was a Charge Nurse, under whom Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA’s) worked. The building had a resident Nurse Practitioner, and a doctor was often there to check records, have meetings, and write orders. Lee, who was our Charge Nurse five days a week from 5:00 in the morning to 2:00 in the afternoon was a crackerjack. She was efficient, smart, friendly, and funny. I liked her so much that I was actually glad to see her when would wake me just after 5 a.m. to give me my thyroid pill AND my shot in the stomach. Who doesn’t like to start the day with a good shot in the stomach?
Happily, I had lots of visitors. Sometimes they came for lunch. If it was one person, we ate in the dining room, but, if it was a group, we were served by the staff in a well-appointed little private room. My art critique group, knowing I couldn’t come to them, came to me. We had a lovely session where we sat on a window seat and chatted and critiqued paintings members had brought.
John visited every day but two, those being days when icy conditions made the roads impassable. So that means he visited me twenty-one times! At least nineteen of those times he brought our little dog, Holly, with him. Everyone, residents, employees, employees’ children, visitors, made a fuss over Holly. Several residents I’d never seen change their fixed expressions or speak lit up at the sight of her and reached out to make contact.
The door to my room opened onto the dining area. Meals were served at seven a.m., 1:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m. Breakfast was reliably mediocre. The kitchen overcooked eggs, and the toast was never hot or crisp. Both oatmeal and cream of wheat were watery and tasteless. I could cook hot cereal when I was seven years old–it’s not hard! Lunch was a large main course and soup, salad, and dessert, if one ordered all of it. Dinner, also huge, arrived just three hours after we finished lunch. “Burp.”
At my first meal there, I ate at a table alone while noticing the group of women at the largest table, a round one that could fit six to eight chairs. The next meal, I rolled out of my room and zipped over to that table, the happening table.
Right away I realized that one woman, Ruth, who was eighty-three but looked younger, and was there for help with strengthening her problem back, was an instigator. I found her funny, but often I’d be blindsided by an outrageous remark she would casually let drop, like, as the expression goes, a turd in the punchbowl.
Annoyingly, she had a strong racist streak, saying she disliked anyone who was not white, and that this is her country and immigrants ought to go home. This was particularly odd coming from a woman who could pass for Italian and whose husband seemed to be Hispanic. One time she said she hated the Obamas. Taken aback, I asked why. “They should go back to Africa, they’re ruining the country.” I said I couldn’t possibly disagree more, and she changed subject. Another time she got off on a rant about “foreign half-breed kids.” I told her my granddaughters are darling little girls whose mother is Indian, and, once again I couldn’t disagree more. The battle lines were drawn, and she blinked first. After that, I could just enjoy her. Generally she was pretty funny.
I missed her when she went home. She was the person I could look at across the table and exchange a raised eyebrow when someone said something that didn’t ring true. She was with-it and vital. She said she’d been diagnosed with dementia, and I was sad that her wit would probably dim before long.
There were other sombre tales at the table. One woman, Joyce, eighty-four, was on oxygen and legally blind. She was so cheerful and talkative that I simply could not remember her blindness. Every evening I helped her fill out her choices for the meals the next day, and still I kept forgetting that she was blind.
One tablemate, Helen, though ninety-seven, was bright-eyed, had a good sense of humor, and was fun to talk to. Another, Beverly, an elegant woman with a splendid wardrobe of colorful robes, jackets, and soft, beautiful casual wear, had had a stroke and then a bad fall. She was learning to speak clearly, to feed herself, and so many other things. She was intelligent, insightful, well-spoken, and pleasant company.
Another live wire at our table was Gloria, eighty-seven. She had a terrific wardrobe. Every time I’d compliment her on a garment, it would turn out to have been purchased for her by her son. “He knows what I like, knows my size, and knows that I prefer boutique clothes. Whenever he’s on a trip he picks out something perfect for me.” “What a guy,” I told her, “let me give you my size for him.” We had a good laugh almost every meal because we could not for the life of us remember what we had ordered the day before and that seemed hilarious to us. No one else could remember their order either, but they didn’t find it funny.
Mila, was dignified, seemed “well-bred” and tended to be quiet except when Ruth got to her. Then Mila would laugh and banter with her. They sometimes watched game shows together.
Mila’s son and his wife visited one day and, since my room adjoined the “living-room” end of the dining room where they were, I could hear much of what they said. I quickly realized that she did not want to hear what her daughter-in-law said. From then on, her son generally showed up alone. Whether alone or with his wife, he loudly extolled the “new home” (an apartment in assisted living) they’d found for her when she left rehab. I was uneasy thinking he was piling it on too thick, but Mila seemed unperturbed. Another time I heard her tell her son that the conversations of the residents were “so banal.” “Mother,” he said, “remember, you are keeping a positive attitude.”
Ruth’s roommate, Suzanne, who rounded out our table of six, was chatty and pleasant. Their room was off the dining room, too, and they left the television on at all times, whether in the room or not. That was tiresome, but Suzanne was likable and really impressed me when she showed herself to be good at Scrabble.
Hugh, a man in his mid-eighties, who was friendly but who almost always ate alone unless his wife joined him, had somehow, while asleep, fallen out of his recliner and “broken his back.” He said he was in pain most of the time. One day when John was there for lunch, he and I, instead of eating alone, ate at the ladies table. Hugh called out loudly to him teasing him about “sitting with ladies” and “not getting a word in edgewise.” John jovially re-joined that it was the place to be and that he should join all of us. He did. He had a great time.
A new woman at the table, Carol, said she was not yet retired from her career as a carpenter. She had had a stroke seven years before and had been given an office job as a manager of carpenters. Her left leg is partially crippled and her left hand was in a sling. Then a fall damaged her right shoulder. She was making good progress and was going to be able to return to her job. Interestingly, she lived with her brother. Her spouse and his spouse were deceased, and one day he made Carol an offer she couldn’t refuse. If she let him live with her in her condo, he would not only pay rent but completely take over the shopping and the meal preparation. Apparently he is an excellent cook, and they enjoy each other’s company.
Then we had a mysterious newcomer in the room next to Ruth and Suzanne’s. His door at first had warning signs indicating that the room was occupied by someone with a contagious condition. CNAs and Nurses put on protective outfits before entering. It was scary. After some days, he emerged. He had light brown skin and was bald but for a long white pony tail. He had an intelligent, dignified look. John said he looked like a guru. The walker they’d issued him emitted really loud squeaks that set one’s teeth on edge. The combination of being worried about catching something from him, the loud grating noise of his every move, and his exotic looks made it seem there was little chance of anyone befriending him. Eventually the staff took the “hazard” signs off his door and issued him a better walker. Things were looking up. Still he sat alone at meals or ate in his room. He spent lots of time on his cell phone.
One day he came out before breakfast. I happened to be out there, too, working on a task I had set myself of making enough aluminum foil chains to bring some life and sparkle to our Christmas tree. The mystery man asked the CNA for a cracker, saying he badly needed to eat something. She told him there were none, so I spoke up saying I had some graham crackers in my room that my husband had just brought for a treat for the residents. I went and got him one. He was very pleased. Others had arrived by then, so I gave every resident in the room a yummy graham cracker too. At breakfast time, I passed near his table as I headed toward mine and had a thought which I spoke out loud to him, “Why don’t I just sit here with you?” He was most welcoming. To my great surprise, he told me that he “so admired me and wished he were more like me!” He said he “noticed I was always busy and cheerful and talking with people.”
I found him fascinating as he described his former career as a scientist. The filter that keeps the Hubble Telescope lens clear is his invention. Now he is retired from that and owns, of all things, two Subway sandwich shops. He has a son and a daughter, both of whom are highly educated and in careers in the sciences. I was actively wondering about, but didn’t think it polite to ask, his country of origin. In my next breath I told him “I have an Indian daughter-in-law who is an Endocrinologist, and her father is a trauma surgeon with the wonderful first name, I love his first name, love to say it, of Brajendra.” “Oh,” he said, “I am Indian and my name is Tejendra!” I couldn’t believe it. I sat with him several more times and, once, when John was visiting, we both sat with him. He is the only person from rehab with whom I still keep in touch. John and I met him for coffee the other day and I finally asked him about the hazard signs. “That was a mistake made by the staff. They had my case mixed up with someone else’s.”
Tejendra and I were the only residents in our dining hall who were electronically in the twenty-first century. Probably it was because we were younger than many, he sixty-seven, and I seventy-seven. It wasn’t that a mobile phone wouldn’t have been useful for them. Once Ruth described an incident, “I got lost. I thought I was at our apartment complex but I was a block away at another one. I even jumped in the pool there thinking it was ours. I came close to drowning as it was too deep. When I got out, I realized I had my clothes on. I wanted to call my daughter for help, but I didn’t have any way to do so. Finally someone helped me get home.” It was at her doctor’s appointment following this incident that she was diagnosed with dementia.
Another example, this also from Ruth: One very icy day, her daughter was to drive her husband to his cataract surgery appointment. Ruth fretted and worried about their safety. “Why not call your daughter from your room phone and see how it’s going?” I asked. “I don’t know her cell phone number,” she said. This sort of circumstance was not unique to a resident with dementia, to a man or woman, they either “didn’t believe a cell phone would be useful” or had one only for emergencies, but generally didn’t have it with them when they had an emergency.
There was a therapy gym where both occupational and physical therapy took place. I learned exercises I could do from a chair, I learned to climb a few stairs, and I learned to use a walker in such a way that I moved smoothly along but never put more than fifty percent of my weight on my left foot. The occupational therapist gave me lessons in cooking while using a walker. One day John’s lunch was a hot pasta meal I had cooked! She taught me to use a device that helped me put on my socks, she introduced me to elastic shoe laces and even gave me a pair. She taught me to get into a bathtub shower safely, and how to get into a car from a wheelchair.
Although I missed John and home, I was happy in rehab, very happy. At the time John and I thought it might have been the effect of the drugs. But, looking back, I see they probably helped but, also, it was a time of reprieve. I’d had the miserable fall, the pain, the surgery, and then it was time to learn to function again. Going straight home would have been way too big and early a dose of how inconvenient is being handicapped in a regular setting. The rehab facility is totally ADA approved. Therapy was right down the hall, no car ride needed. The shower was a walk-in one. Being in the rehab facility gave me help, but also lots of quiet time-out. Except for therapy sessions, there was nothing I had to do. I could sit by the window in my room, I could spend time looking at Facebook or reading a novel. If I wanted to talk with someone, there was no shortage of people. I could go to bed early–one day John arrived at 6:00 in the evening to find me happily already in bed for the night.
Home has put reality directly in front of me. It’s not ADA-approved here. I have painfully scuffed my knuckles numerous times while bumping over thresholds and through narrow doorways. I have to have help to get into our tub shower because I can’t handle and place the transfer bench. I have no long, smooth hallway to practice walker walking. There are meals to consider, bills to pay. I realize, though, how hugely fortunate I am to have a strong, loving husband to help me adapt to real life and I am moving forward.