After the hospital, my mother transferred to an assisted living facility that has a rehab wing with daily physical and occupational therapy for whatever injury has landed the person there. I visited for four days over this past weekend and learned the slow routines of the place.
Even on the busiest days, most of the patients spend the afternoons in their recliners, watching TV. Since I was there, I operated a CD player I’d brought for my mother and we listened to Hamilton, Spamalot, and the King’s College Choir singing Christmas Carols. I also brought her some books—whatever was available in the very thin Dover editions, because she can hold those in her one good hand. I decorated her room for Christmas/winter with a red snowflake blanket, some glittery snowflakes pinned to her bulletin board, and a gardenia plant in a red pot. The woman across the hall had a small Christmas tree in her room and a big wreath on her door, which were pretty, but I know my mom would rather look forward to spring than feel too thoroughly moved in to such a place.
She did let me go out and buy her some pillows. The ones that had been on her bed were hard and flat and in a very waterproof covering. I brought her some button-up-the-front short-sleeved shirts and one sweater from the Goodwill, since those are easiest for her to get on, and I got her some extra underwear, so the friend who has been coming in to get her laundry doesn’t have to worry about coming so often, especially since she won’t be in town during the week of Christmas.
For most meals, I wheeled her down the hallway to the dining room and got handed a plate of whatever they were having. It wasn’t bad, but as mom says, they could do a little more to make the plate look attractive to people with little appetite; many days the contents of the plate were entirely light brown/white (meatloaf with noodle salad and mashed potatoes, for instance). On the last day I spent there, a staff member came in and informed mom that she had to walk down to the dining room, which she did, with the help of a cane, a belt around her waist held by the staff member, and the wheelchair following along behind, in case she got tired. So they’re pushing her to do more, little by little.
The dining room seats twelve, and there was a rotating cast of about ten people during the four days of my visit. One day at lunch I met a man in a wheelchair who told me in great detail how he had been intending to burn some leaves, and he poured gasoline over them, tossed a lighted piece of paper into the pile, and “BOOM! I blew myself up!” he said. “Or rather down,” he then said, gesturing to the wheelchair. “Landed on my hip and busted it up.” My laughter was too loud for the very quiet room, and nobody else thought it was that funny, considering it had landed him there in the rehab unit, where clearly some of the residents would be as happy to go out feet first as go out on their own feet after the weeks of work it will take to get back to where they had been before falling or blowing themselves down or whatever.
Marianne Boruch’s poem “Hospital” captures some of the way a joke goes quiet sometimes in the face of a truth too big to be said out loud.
It seems so—
I don’t know. It seems
as if the end of the world
has never happened in here.
No smoke, no
dizzy flaring except
those candles you can light
in the chapel for a quarter.
They last maybe an hour
before burning out.
And in this room
where we wait, I see
them pass, the surgical folk—
nurses, doctors, the guy who hangs up
the blood drop—ready for lunch,
their scrubs still starched into wrinkles,
a cheerful green or pale blue,
and the end of a joke, something
about a man who thought he could be—
what? I lose it
in their brief laughter.
Unlike some hospital staff, the people who work on the rehab wing are almost all impossibly kind and patient, no matter how querulous the person gets in the middle of the night or how brusque the request for information, medicine, or ice cream, all of which they offer as often as possible.
The staff at my mother’s orthopedist’s office got me a note stating that she cannot use the plane ticket we bought her to come to my house for Christmas, so maybe I can get a refund and use it to buy a ticket to come back to see her for her birthday in early January. Eleanor has a ticket to come home on Dec. 23. Walker has the annual collegiate chess tournament to host, starting on Dec. 26. We will be at my house, my brother will be at his in-laws’, and my mother will be mostly alone in her room on Christmas Day.
She asked me not to feel guilty, saying “It’s just a day.” She’ll open the gift bags I left for her to find more books and a chocolate Santa, a shawl to pull over the injured arm when she gets cold, and a silk scarf from the Metropolitan Museum of Art so she’ll have something beautiful that feels good against her skin.
It won’t be the end of the world; it will be just a day. She’ll get help taking her gifts out of the bags, talk on the phone with us, and eat some of the homemade toffee cookies I brought her. But it will be in a place where the end of the world has already happened.