We walked into the care facility not really knowing what to expect. This was my first time here, and while Jack had previously visited (only once), he didn’t know whether Art would be able to see us. Jack’s wife, Jill, was also there, though she’d never before met Art and only once, accidentally, met me.
After getting past the front desk the place began to resemble a hospital, with its decorative laminate flooring, extra wide hallways, and sterile air. We were looking for room 114. “First hall to the right of the nurses’ station, then to the end of that hall. On the right.” The nurse front desk greeter had paused then added, “Oh, that’s a room with a window.” By the sound of it, that was a special thing to have. I would call it a necessity in a place like this.
At the end of the hall we found the nurses’ station, an administrative island where nurses shot to when they worked on the paperwork they had to complete before heading back to the rooms of the patients they cared for. It was busy, and the nurses looked like bees around a beehive: having gathered the nectar of information from their flowers, they returned to the hive to make the honey that feeds the medical infrastructure, be they care takers or bill payers.
I’ve been in places like these more than a few times. My grandmother spent most of her last years in hospitals, so the zipping nurses, wheelchairs and mechanized beds lining the hallways weren’t anything new. Her stroke was devastating: it took away her intelligence and her ability to talk. She went from being 63 to being four again.
Lucky for Art, his stroke didn’t take away his intelligence or ability to talk. It only took away the left side of his body — sight, and movement, anyway — and his ability to read. Most importantly, it didn’t take away his sense of humor.
“You know, when they put me in the wheel chair, I started doing this…” He leaned forward on his wheel chair, then with his right hand pushed himself back as he continued, “… and then they pushed me back. Then I started doing this…” He leaned to the left and pulled himself back with his right hand, “… and they pushed me back. Then I started doing this…” He leaned to the right and pushed himself back, “… and they pushed me back. When my son got here he asked me, ‘How are they treating you?’ So I told him, ‘They’re treating me great, but they won’t let me fart.'” Ruckus laughter broke out. His wife, both amused and embarrassed, told him to stop, but the laughter coming out of Jack, Jill, and I drowned her out. Yeah, Art was still Art.
When I first walked into the room, Art looked… well, like a man who just had a stroke not all that long before: disheveled hair; thin, pursed lips; and pale. He sat on his wheelchair, with his left-rear flank facing us, looking at something behind his curtain and with a smiling nurse at his side when Jack let out a greeting. I say “Let out” because in my almost-year of knowing Jack, I’d never thought him capable of speaking that loudly. But Art’s hard of hearing and wasn’t wearing his hearing-aid at the time. Jack introduced his wife (whose hand Art took as he told her “My condolences”), and then added “Look who I brought with me,” pulling me toward the front, so Art’s right eye could see who it was.
I met Art at a writer’s group run by Jack. From the outset you could tell he was a consummate performer with the experience that only comes after advancing in years with a great attitude. Obviously this hadn’t changed, although for the first few minutes, I wasn’t too sure about how to act. Jack took care of the conversation at first, and Art quickly set the tone, one that in no uncertain terms said, “I may be 83, have an artificial knee and a pacemaker, but don’t you dare even think about eulogizing me yet.” My pleasure, Art.
We spent the rest of the time talking (and laughing) about writing and Art’s new-found challenges. His limp left hand rested on a clear plastic surface strapped to the arm of the wheelchair, and his body was supported by a thick reinforcement strap just under his chest which was, I guess, used to keep him from slouching forward on the chair. (I’m sure the strap has an official, technical name, and perhaps a totally different purpose, but I don’t know what it is.) The shoe on his left leg, the one with the artificial knee, said “LIFT FROM TOE”, since trying to move the leg any other way would cause him to belt out Pagliacci. “In falsetto!” he emphatically added. But none of this kept him from telling stories, cracking jokes, or pointing out that Jack had just sat on a bed with a “Do Not Sit” sign on it. Jack, of course, hadn’t seen it, since he sat on the sign.
Art told us about how he slept with the window curtain open, to watch the birds at night, and about his therapy sessions. He also gave us a few pieces of advice for life, the most important of which, according to him, was to “Give [my] wife power of attorney, and do it now.” And here I was thinking it would be something like “love your wife.” Then again, I guess nothing says “I love you” like the power of attorney.
An hour and a half after we started it was time for diner. “So, do you guys want to watch me try to eat? It’s a lot of fun. We just sit there and watch each other drool.” We decided to pass on the drool watching at the “trough”, as Art called it, and said our goodbyes. We found out Art was being moved to an assisted living facility on the 9th (or the 9th-ish, as it may be the 10th or 11th), so this was probably the last we’d see of him at this facility. With both Jack and I moving out of the area soon, there aren’t likely to be many other visits. Still, what visits there are will likely be filled with laughter and stories, as both Jack and I have agreed to bring him the writing group one day, now that he can’t come to it.
Despite the tragedy of the stroke, Art’s still the same person all of us came to enjoy and admire. Good to see that. A big thank you goes out to Jack for visiting along with me. I’m not sure I could have done it alone, mostly because this type of situation usually leaves me in deep thought, revisiting my own existential quandaries and insecurities. Still, it was good to see Art again.