We make the decision to move my mom to Golden Age on July 1, and her move-in date is six days later. The week leading up to Mom’s move, I remind my dad that we can visit her many times a day if we wish. She needs constant care now, and we just can’t provide it.
The day before her move, I sort through my mom’s clothes and lay out piles on her bed. She sits in her wheelchair and watches me. This is a little like packing for summer camp, except she is going there to die.
My dad is not sure he can handle the stress of delivering Mom to a nursing home, so Geralynn and I make plans to take her. We dress her in a bright pink outfit and load her in the front seat. Mom hasn’t been in a car for months. She stares out the window.
Her room is about the size of a college dormitory. Her single bed is in the middle of the room, and Ger and I move it up against one wall so she is protected from falling out on one side. My mother has never slept alone in her life; she moved from a bed shared with one of her sisters to a bed with my father.
We bring in her suitcase and wheel her around the facility in her wheelchair, mostly to give us a reason to look around. My mom hasn’t spoken much in months. Still, when we introduce her to Carmel, one of the nursing aids, Mom says—plain as day— “I have to be here.”
Ger and I shoot each other a look. “Well,” Carmel says, “everyone has to be some place.” I like her immediately.
Mom is exhausted from the move. She hasn’t been out of the house in at least two months, since she came home from the hospital. We lay her in her bed, and I snuggle in next to her. Ger sits in a ratty brown recliner in the corner of the room, one left from the previous resident. When I wiped down the night stand, I found many strands of his hair in the dusty drawer. Dead guy hair.
I say to Ger, “You know he probably died in this room. Maybe in that chair.” I’m trying for funny. She gets up and moves to a chair my brother delivered here yesterday.
We call Golden Age a “nursing home” but it is really “assisted living” for up to fifteen residents in various stages of dementia and deterioration. Like my mom, many of them need complete care: diapering, feeding, bathing, dressing. There are no skilled nurses on staff, just certified nursing assistants: women who are overly kind and much underpaid for the work they do. Some have tattoos poking out from their scrubs, and some, I’d guess, have what my mom used to call “checkered pasts.”
That night we take my dad out to eat—anyplace you want, we tell him. He chooses The Lodge, a bar and burger joint that opened about a year ago, one he tells me he always wanted to visit. Thursday, it turns out, is dollar burger night and the place is packed, so we sit at the bar and wait for a table to open up. I planned this night out days ago, thinking the first night without my mom may be the hardest for my dad. After our first beer, Dad notices some old friends at a table. He walks over to talk to them. He stops at another table to talk. I look around the room. He’s got some connection to someone at each of the ten tables. A guy lives this long in a town this small, that’s bound to happen.
We drop off Dad at home, and I offer to come in for awhile. Walking into an empty house is often hard but perhaps more so tonight. “Go see your Ma,” he says.
I get to Golden Age before bedtime. I almost don’t recognize my mom in the half circle of old ladies watching TV from recliners in the living room. Mom’s in her bright pink pajamas with the goofy cartoon rabbits, sitting among the other women in more faded pajamas, a bad joke among frowns. Sandy—the youngster here at seventy or so—sits beside my mom, holding her hand.
“Are you having a good day?” Sandy asks me.
“Yes,” I say. “I am.”