What I Learned on “Animal Planet”

One day at lunch time, it occurs to me that I might be praying for the wrong thing for Delores-Number-One, who is now simply Delores since Number Two died.  I listen to Delores ask over and over, “Can I go to my room now and go to sleep?”  When I got here she pestered the staff about when lunch would be ready and how hungry she was.   Each time she sounds as desperate as a liberated prisoner, but when her plate arrives, she just moves the food around her mouth and spits it out.  She is starving.

This is the same day that Pearl comes late for lunch and works her way to the dining room table with her walker.  She smiles a big, dopey smile as I wave at her.  Her hearing aids don’t quite allow her to hear me from a table away, but she knows my wave and my smile.  Her wig is always slightly off, and one time I swear it’s actually on backwards.  She sits at the head of the table, one over from my mom and me.  When she’s seated on her wooden dining chair, her slippered feet can’t touch the ground.  She is a picky eater, so her meal is often Campbell’s soup and a slice of bread with a dessert the size of my fist.  Carmel calls her “The Princess,” but Pearl doesn’t seem to hear or care.  For the first time since I’ve been coming here—eight months now—I notice that she folds her hands and prays before her meal. Her lips move for a good thirty seconds.

My eyes well.  That anyone at this stage in her life could bow her head and pray over a meager lunch—and in the midst of what some would say is a declining, meager life—amazes me.  I say quietly, “Let me figure out what I’m supposed to do for Delores.”

After lunch I walk Delores back to her room.  She clomps behind me on her walker.  I wheel my mom into Delores’s room and put on “Animal Planet” for them.  Delores is in her chair, beside an end-table full of battered Word Finds, a few Rosaries, and crumbs from gingerbread cookies I brought for her last weekend.  I bake cookies that can be easily gummed, given her one remaining tooth.   I sit in her other easy chair.

Delores in her room.

Both women doze.  My mom is in her wheelchair, nodding into her chest.  This is how we interact with Mom now: just let her be a part of whatever we’re doing, no matter that she can’t communicate with us.  She’s part of the pack, the way she always was.

Delores can’t follow a plot anymore, but she likes to see whatever animals might be on TV.  Today we watch spotted hyenas attacking a zebra in the Serengeti.  “That’s somethin’” she says a number of times.  She watches a pair of hyenas separate a zebra—old or wounded—from the herd.  I think this might be too violent for her, but Delores seems to be entertained.  The voice-over tells us that spotted hyenas have a matriarchal society, mostly because females are larger and able to dominate males.

When I was searching for her TV remote, I noticed Delores’s high school yearbooks in a drawer under the television.  While the two ladies sit in front of the TV, I flip through her yearbook.  After a few pages, I spot Delores: a skinny sophomore in a choir photo.   Is it an invasion of privacy if Delores doesn’t even know this yearbook is hers?  My curiosity gets the best of me.  I have to read what her classmates wrote to her seven decades ago.  Not a chance I could stop myself.  Some of the hand-written inscriptions are predictable and timeless:  “Loved having history with you” or “Have a great summer.” They could have been written by a fifteen-year-old girl in 1984 when I was a sophomore or in 1942, when Delores was, or even today.  One line gives me pause—“To a peculiar girl.  I hope to get to know you better next year.”  I’m still piecing Delores’s past together.  I gaze at these few black and white yearbook photos of her and then speed-read comments her classmates have written to her almost seventy years ago.

A stack of three more yearbooks waits for me in her drawer.  Perhaps it’s my own sadness that makes me close the one I’m on and slide it in with the others.  Peculiar girl.  Did she outgrow that or was she always an outsider?  Or maybe this is simply one classmate’s perception of Delores’s unique personality.

In Delores’s room. The portrait is her as a young woman.

Would I want someone to imagine my life based on my high school yearbooks, especially someone like me—an amateur profiler who thinks she knows it all after watching a few TV shows about beautiful FBI agents profiling criminals?  God, no.  I turn my attention to the television.  Mom is asleep in her wheelchair.  Delores and I watch female spotted hyenas tear apart a zebra.  She is still a mystery to me.

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About Our Long Goodbye

I am a college teacher, tutor program coordinator, kidney donor, and dumpster diver / recycler extraordinaire. My stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Salon Magazine, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Journal of Developmental Education, The Wisconsin Academy Review, The Southwest Review, HipMama, Inside HigherEd, as well as other magazines and anthologies. I am the co-author (with Bruce Taylor) of Higher Learning: Reading and Writing About College, 3rd edition (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2011) and a poetry collection, Love’s Bluff (Plainview Press, 2006). You can reach me at seepk@uwec.edu.
This entry was posted in Aging Parents, Alzheimer's Disease, Caregiving, Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Family, Generation X, Mothers and daughters, Nursing Home, Sandwich Generation, Terminal Illness. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What I Learned on “Animal Planet”

  1. tersiaburger says:

    Thank you for sharing Delores with us. You are indeed a lovely person and a wonderful, gifted author.

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