Eagle View Haven
N. West Moss
Dad was pretty far gone already, before he fell down the stairs in the front hall. He fell with such vigor that he ripped the banister right out of the floor, then lay at the bottom of the stairs while Mom tried to talk him into letting her call an ambulance. “What for?” he asked her. “Let’s just lie here a while, shall we?” She called me that night from the emergency room. I could hear Dad in the background singing something from HMS Pinafore. “Can you hear him?” she asked. “They gave him some joy juice and every time someone touches him, he sings.” I heard a nurse say to my mother, “He has a nice voice,” and Mom replied, “Yes, well, he was an announcer, you know, on the radio.” I could picture him in his hospital gown, singing with an arm in the air for dramatic effect.
“He’s fine mostly,” she said to me, “he just can’t stand on his own, so they’re sending him to a nursing home for a few days, to Eagle View Haven.”
“How are you?” I asked Mom, who’s eighty and skinny as a sparrow.
“I’m fine,” she said, “I wish they’d give me some joy juice. Oh, one other thing. They’ve screwed up his meds and he’s hallucinating just the tiniest bit.”
She paused, and sniffled a little. “He thinks I’m a Nazi,” she said.
Dad was singing loudly in the background, then stopped.
Mom said, “Hold on,” and put her hand over the phone. I heard her say, “Well, that’s not very nice,” and then I heard him say,
“You’re right, of course you’re right. I know you’re not.”
“He just apologized,” she said to me, “for calling me a Nazi again, but listen, you have to visit him this weekend, starting Friday. I’m out of town with Aunt Gladys for her hysterectomy. They’re taking him to Eagle View in the morning.” Dad said something I couldn’t hear and Mom snapped at him, “Oh for Christ’s sake, I am NOT.” Then to me she added, “Friday, Saturday and Sunday, ok? Stay at our house so you don’t have that long drive.”
My husband took my impending absence in stride. “Your mother will have fun with Aunt Gladys,” he said without looking up from his puzzle. I admitted that Mom and Gladys might have a martini or two prior to the hysterectomy. I asked if he’d miss me and he said yes he would. I asked if he loved me and he said he did, but added, “It’s a good weekend for you to be away. The hockey playoffs are on.” I hated it when he shouted at the TV.
“Don’t forget to feed Louie,” I said. After a recent business trip, I returned to find our parakeet without any food in his dish. Louie had seemed skinnier than usual, and had looked at me accusatorially for weeks after that.
“I fed him when you were away,” my husband said, “It isn’t like I didn’t feed him.”
I left the next morning late enough to miss rush hour traffic over the Tappan Zee Bridge. I stopped for a pedicure to kill time and handed the girl a bottle of Jelly Apple Red polish as though I were headed for a beach vacation instead of a nursing home. I took a stack of People magazines and fell asleep in the massage chair while she did my toes.
At my parents’ house, I dropped off my bags and picked up the copy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that Dad and I had been reading. Dad used to read to me every night before bed, but our childhood ritual had been flipped. Dad couldn’t read to himself anymore, could hardly hold a book, so I read to him, looking up often to see if he understood, to see if he was still awake. Already diminished before the fall, I didn’t know what to expect now that he was in a nursing home hallucinating. How much worse could he be?
Eagle View Haven, a nursing home for the well-heeled of Westchester County, sits perched on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River, a precarious spot, I thought, for old people who tend to fall off of things regularly and with gusto. In the lobby was a floor-to-ceiling bird cage filled with a dozen Rainbow Finches the pastel colors of Jordan almonds. They preened and perched and feathered their nests while I waited for the elevator, trying not to make eye contact with the woman standing next to me who smelled of Lysol. I tapped on the glass of the cage and noticed how full their food bowls were, how the bottom of their cage was covered with empty seed hulls. Up on the fifth floor, the doors opened onto a panoramic view of the Hudson becoming more distinct as the sun rose above the pale blue hills and burned away the haze.
Next to the elevator was a woman in a wheelchair. Her face came to a point at the tip of her nose and she held a stuffed dog with large, floppy ears. She petted it and whispered to it, her lips moving silently. She had on a bright red sweatshirt with a reindeer on the front. I said, “Hello,” which caused her to whisper furiously to her stuffed dog, and then rub his ears to calm him down.
When I got to Dad’s room, he was agitated, “You’re here, thank God. They were supposed to take me to the nursing home.”
“You’re here, Dad. You’re in the nursing home.” A little green teddy bear sat on his nightstand wrapped in cellophane. It had a festive Mylar balloon tied to it which read, “Welcome to Eagle View Haven.”
“No,” he said, “they were supposed to take me to the nursing home.” He was staring into the middle distance, and I sat down on the edge of the bed and patted his leg. His fingers moved across the top of the sheet, back and forth like he was playing the piano. “They don’t know what they’re doing. I was supposed to go to the nursing home.” His forehead felt warm to me and his toes, which stuck out from the bottom of the sheet, looked bony and enormously vulnerable.
I tried to get him to understand and then just said, “We’re going to the nursing home later,” and he calmed down.
“You’re mother’s a Nazi,” he said, finally, shaking his head in disgust.
“And there is a Croat following me.” He pronounced it Kro-At.
“A Croat?” I asked, surprised.
“A dirty Croat,” he said, emphasizing the word ‘dirty.’
“Duly noted,” I said. We sat there for a while, him silently worrying about his Croat, me wondering when he had developed a disdain for Croatian people. I tried to open the window for some fresh air, but it had been soldered shut.
A little later the aide got Dad into a wheelchair, and I rolled him down the hall to the common area, where the giant TV was blaring the local weather. Dad suddenly froze and grabbed my hand. “That’s him,” he said out of the side of his mouth, too loudly as always. “That’s the dirty Croat.” He pointed with his elbow at a guy in a wheelchair who was propelling himself around the room using his feet. The guy spotted us and hurtled our way. Dad squeezed my hand hard.
“This,” the Croat said, pointing at my dad, “is a wonderful man.” My dad refused to even look in his direction. “Is he your father?” he asked me, his accent thick. I nodded. “Your father is a great man,” he said, smiling broadly so that the wide spaces between every single tooth in his mouth were visible.
Dad whispered loudly and with great indignation, “Take me back to my room right now.” As soon as we got into the hallway, he said, “He’s not even supposed to be here. Did you see that? Did you?”
“I sure did see that,” I said, hoping the bad meds would leach away soon. I wanted a normal conversation with my father.
That evening, after the aide got Dad into his pajamas, we read a few pages of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. He began to snore softly and I put the book down. “Don’t stop,” he whispered, half asleep. “How will they know where to find me?”
I pushed a thin wisp of white hair off of his forehead and wondered who he was referring to. “I’ll tell them where you are,” I said, “I’ll leave them a note.” He used to leave notes by my bed when he came home too late to read to me. They said things like, “I was here but didn’t want to wake you.”
He began to snore again, and I whispered, “Dad?” I wanted to say something to him, I didn’t know what. I gripped the rail on the bottom of the bed and whispered as quietly as possible, so as not to wake him, “I’m sorry.”
“You should be,” he said, his eyes closed, his snoring resuming again almost immediately.
The woman in the red sweatshirt with the reindeer on it was still by the elevator when I left. She was eating ice cream with a little plastic spoon and trying to feed it to her stuffed dog. I told her, “Good night,” and she leaned over to whisper to her dog, still watching me.
Back at my mother’s house, I showered for almost an hour, watching the soapy water swirl around my Jelly Apple Red toenails.
On Saturday, I got to Eagle View in time for lunch. All of the patients had been wheeled into the TV room. They had bibs around their necks, and CNN was so loud that no one tried to talk. Nurses in candy-colored scrubs, the shades of the Rainbow Finches in the lobby, flitted around the room, cheerfully doling out medication. The sun poured in the window and reflected brightly off of the river below. I stood in the doorway, and watched. The patients looked like white-haired birds, perched in their wheelchairs, their mouths wide open, waiting for food and pills to be dropped in.
I spotted the dirty Croat across the room and waved, and he waved back. The lady with the dog was in red again, and sat at one of the tables moving her lips silently. As I walked past, she grabbed my sleeve. I looked down and she was grinning at my red coat. “Hello,” I said. She let go and leaned over her lunch tray to whisper something to her milk carton.
“Thank God you’re here,” my dad said. “They’re giving me the wrong food. I specifically signed up for chicken and mashed potatoes.” He pointed at the tray in front of him with disgust. “This is all wrong.”
“It looks like chicken and mashed potatoes to me, Dad.”
“It’s the wrong order,” he insisted so I picked it up and carried it over to the nurse’s station and said hello to the woman in pink who was standing there. I read her name tag.
“Hi Janice,” I said, “I’m pretending to get my father a different meal.”
“Gotcha,” she said, winking at me.
A minute later I brought the tray back to Dad and put it down. “Here’s the right meal,” I said. “It’s all straightened out.”
“Thank God you’re here,” he said, and dug in. I pulled over a chair and tried not to take in the calamity of him eating.
“Where’s Mom?” he asked.
“She’s with Aunt Gladys for the weekend,” I said, “Remember? Aunt Gladys is getting a hysterectomy?” Dad looked confused.
“Is Mom ever coming back?” he asked, with a sudden, deep sadness in his eyes. He put his fork down, waiting to hear.
“Yes,” I said, “Mom’s coming back.”
“How will she know where to find me?” He reached for my hand and I thought he was going to cry.
“I’ll tell her where you are.” I said. “I’ll leave her a note.”
“I thought she was a Nazi,” he said, “I have to apologize.”
“That would be nice, but she isn’t mad.”
“Yes, but I think I called her a Nazi.”
“You probably should apologize then, when she gets back.”
We went to his room after lunch and the aide kicked me out so she could bathe Dad. I visited the Rainbow Finches in the lobby and tapped on the side of their enormous cage. Then I meandered through the cafeteria and out to a large veranda that looked down through the trees and onto the wide, gray river. Three people on separate benches were smoking. I leaned over the brick wall and looked at the water flowing past. It was cold and sunny, and spring was arriving. The local paper said that there were bald eagles up on this part of the river, but I didn’t see any. One of the smokers was an angry looking old woman with thin, tightly curled white hair. As I walked past her she said,
“Go fuck yourself,” and I said, “I know exactly how you feel.”
When I arrived at Dad’s room on Sunday, he announced, “They’re having a cocktail party later. Wine and cheese.”
He said, “Hut how will they know where to find me for the party?”
“Well Dad,” I sighed, “they know you’re in Room 501, so they’ll probably look for you here.”
At three they came for us. Dad seemed to be emerging a little from the hallucinations and he was very excited about the cheese. We made our way to the TV room, which was packed with weekend visitors. A nurse with a gigantic rear-end was lumbering from patient to patient. “Red wine or white?” she screamed into the face of an inert man strapped into his wheel chair. An orderly was handing out Styrofoam plates of cubed cheese. The employees were acting festive.
I got Dad set up with his back to the window and pulled a chair next to him. We watched everyone get served and when the orderly handed us our plate of cheese, Dad said, imperiously I thought, “Take it back. I want more cheese.” I felt I should apologize, but the orderly didn’t seem flustered. He came back with a heap of white and orange cheese cubes on the plate. Dad smiled at me. I could tell he really felt he was getting his money’s worth.
A nurse wheeled the lady in red to a table. She didn’t have any visitors with her, but someone had put an enormous red bow in her hair for the party, making her head look tiny. The nurse handed us each a cup with an inch of wine in the bottom. Dad and I clicked ours together and said, “Cheers!”
The dirty Croat wheeled up next to me and said hello. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Dad purposefully turn his head away. “Hello,” I shouted over the TV. “So, you’re from Croatia!”
“No,” he said, “I’m from Rome.”
“Really? You’re not from Croatia?” Perhaps he was mistaken.
“I’m from Rome,” he said with a big grin, “but I’ve been here for a long time. Your father, he is a great man.”
“He’s alright,” I conceded.
“No. No, he is a great man. I was a pianist in Rome, a professional pianist, and when I moved to America, I listened to him on the radio for twenty years. I learned my English from listening to his show every afternoon! He is a great man.”
“Oh,” I said. “Right.” I was finding it hard to remember who Dad had been before all of this, before old age had begun to pluck his identity away. I recited to myself what I had known to be true about him. He had been a radio personality. He had read to me at night. He had played jazz trombone, had told raucous dirty jokes, spoke Italian to waiters. But the actual memories of what he was like were slipping away from me. This list of what I remembered seemed to be about someone else entirely. The person in front of me now, hoarding his processed cheese cubes, was the only father I could imagine anymore.
“He’s a great man, your father,” the man from Rome repeated, spitting as he talked so that bits of cheese flew through the spaces between his teeth and into my cup of wine.
We were interrupted by the lady in red, who was sobbing loudly and holding her dog very hard around the neck.
“For your dog,” I said, going up to her and holding out a little red napkin I’d found at my mother’s house. “I thought you could tie it around his neck like a scarf.” She looked up at me, her mouth wide open, paused mid-sob. Her scalp was visible under the big red bow. She whispered something to the dog out of the side of her mouth, then snatched the napkin from my hand like a thief.
When I got back to Dad, he wanted to know why I had been speaking to the Croatian guy. “Get this!” I said, “He’s not Croatian! He’s from Rome, and he used to listen to you on the radio.”
“He’s a fan?” Dad asked, straightening up a little in his wheelchair, posing.
“Yes, I suppose he is. He’s a fan.”
“He’s Italian?” Dad had been fluent in Italian, had been to Venice and Rome. He loved Italy. “So,” Dad said, “he’s a dirty Italian.”
“Yes,” I said, “my point exactly.”
When it was time for bed, I read the last few pages of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde out loud. Dad seemed perfectly lucid as I closed the book.
“So Mr. Hyde,” he said, “never turns back to Dr. Jekyl in the end, I guess. Is that what we’re supposed to understand?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“So he’s just a monster then, forever?”
“Not a very happy ending,” I admitted.
“Yes, well. Robert Louis Stevenson certainly is a depressing fellow.” We sat there for a while thinking about the book, as the room darkened around us.
“Mom’s coming back tomorrow.”
“How will she know where to find me?” he asked.
“Nazis have a great sense of direction,” I said.
He laughed, which was a relief. “I have to remember to apologize to her about that.”
“She’s isn’t mad, but it’s probably a good idea anyway. Dad?” I asked, standing at the foot of his bed, shifting from one foot to the other. I looked down at my hands. “I don’t know, I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t look at him. “I don’t know. For you being here. For fighting with you so much. For never having kids. You know. I’m just sorry for everything.”
He smiled and shook his head. “You should be sorry for everything,” he said. “I know I am.” We looked out the window at the wide river just a shade lighter than the sky now. Dad turned to me and said quietly, “Some people died in the park.” He leaned forward from his bed to tell me, as though it were urgent news, his eyebrows knit together in concern.
“Bryant Park, just outside of my apartment.” He used to have an apartment there on 40th Street in New York City.
“How did they die?” I asked, confused about whether this was a real story he’d seen on TV or something he’d hallucinated.
“There was a tsunami,” he said, his eyes enormous and sad, “and all of the people watching the Monday night movie in the park got washed away.” He looked so crushed by the news that I just sat down on the edge of his bed. We sat like that, quiet for a while, together.
I finally said, “It must be awful to be washed away by a tsunami.”
“Believe me,” he said turning my way, “it is.”
As Dad was falling asleep, I peeked into the hallway. The woman in red was still next to the elevator. She had tied the napkin I gave her around the dog’s neck. She touched her nose to his and then looked tenderly into his eyes before tucking him into her lap for the night. I left a note for Dad on his bedside table. It read, “Mom will be here for breakfast. I gave her your room number so she’ll know where to find you.”