My dad is the Shecky Greene of the nursing home
Well technically, he’s my stepfather. My bio-dad died of leukemia when I was three. Mom finally remarried the summer after I graduated from high school. I remember thinking, “geesh, she’s 40, why bother?” What a punk I was!
Although my siblings called our new dad by his first name, I thought that seemed disrespectful. He did, after all, proudly introduce us as his kids. This was his first marriage and we were the only children he’d ever have. I couldn’t call him “Dad” because that conjured up a headstone. My mom dragged all four of us to our father’s grave every Memorial Day, Father’s Day and whenever she felt sad (which was often). So I called my mother’s new husband “Pops.”
I left for college shortly after Pops joined our family and got to know him over the years on holidays and visits home. He was kind, funny and sweet. A farmer in a long line of farmers. He’d tell stories of a cow born without a rectum that could only pee and eventually “died of constipation.” And a “two-faced lamb” (actually born with two heads) that lived for a week. He enjoyed shocking city folks with his tales. Pops raised corn, soybeans and hay until he was diagnosed with MS and could no longer drive his red International Harvester tractor.
Just a week before their 19th wedding anniversary my mother died of a stroke. She was only 59, Pops was 52. He stayed alone at the farm until the MS (and the lingering effects from a horrific car accident when he was 17) took away his balance and strength to walk.
Pops is now 75 and has lived in a care facility in his small hometown in Southwestern Michigan for four years. He’s in a wheelchair, has short term memory loss, occasional tremors, fatigue and various degrees of slurred speech. Like all of us, he has good days and bad. But he didn’t go to this place to die.
No, he’s there to entertain. He was always witty. But now he gets constant validation from the staff and fellow residents that he is really funny. His new-found purpose is to make people feel good. Many of his fellow residents have various degrees of dementia, depression and age-related health issues. But he’s on the younger side of the spectrum and is sharp as a tack. Pops is no longer the most disabled guy in the room. In fact, he’s one of the more able.
And this place isn’t your father’s nursing home. The staff is caring and attentive. A nearby nursing college rotates young, perky nurses-to-be. The dedicated activity staff keeps everybody engaged with bingo, dominoes, wii bowling, word games, karaoke and weekly current events classes. The residents are treated with respect and love. They select their meals and the food is good. The cognizant residents choose their own bedtimes and decide how often they bathe. My dad washes up every day but, for some reason, won’t take the whirlpool tub more than once a week. He tells me the “enzymes” build up on his skin as a “protective seal.” Was he modest about the aide accompanying him on his baths? “I don’t mind them in there,” he said. “They’ll even wash my butt if I want ’em too.” I wonder how that came up.
During one of my first visits, his nurse came in with a clipboard and Pops said “Hey I’m on Pat’s sh*t list.” I asked him what he’d done to get on her bad side. He said “No, it’s a real list. They keep track of my bowel movements!” He got such a kick out of that, he decided he’d offer more than a simple “yes” or “no.” Pops started naming his stools. Superman, Batman & Robin and Little Richard are some of my favorites.
When they administer his medications, he knows what every pill is and what it does. He likes to ask for male birth control and when they tell him it’s not on his chart he says, “Well then don’t blame me if I get somebody pregnant.”
During bingo he likes to say, under his breath, “ah, close enough” after a number is called. Whenever “B-9” comes up, he shouts “tumor!” A fellow resident once admonished him and he reminded her that was the “good kind of tumor.”
My dad compliments all female residents on their outfits and hair, even when he knows they don’t understand. He praises the staff as well. During one evening phone conversation he said, “Deborah Norville just came on TV. She’s wearing a really pretty blouse.” Pops is also friendly with the smattering of male residents and shakes all their hands as they roll by.
His next door neighbor is not well and often lies in bed calling out for his mama. Pops said it sounded like he was cheering for our president. And so when the neighbor cries “Mama” my dad answers with “Barack.” It actually does sound like together they are saying Barack Obama.
His humor can also get him into a little trouble. Turns out whenever Pops found himself in a traffic jam of wheelchairs heading to the dining room he’d yell “fire” to get people moving. He agreed to stop doing that.
I live 50 miles north of him, so on the days I can’t be there we talk on the phone. He sometimes mentions he has a woman in his room so he may have to cut it short. It’s usually Sophia Loren or Marilyn Monroe. One day he said Eartha Kitt was there. He asked, “Is she black?” Before I could answer he said, “It doesn’t matter, we’re all the same color on the inside.”
My Pops is such a gift! He not only cracks me up, he builds me up. I never really got that from my mother. So at the ripe old age of 60, I finally know what unconditional parental love is. And it’s spectacular.
He’ll be here all week, folks. Be sure to try the veal.