The main character in this story is 84 years old, and he lives in a nursing home. So you might wonder why such a tale is featured on Boundless.
The truth is, all of us are affected by aging. Right now, you may have a grandparent with Alzheimer’s Disease or other ailments. Your own parents will grow old and perhaps feeble someday. Eventually (if you live that long), so will you. Meanwhile, our society likes to ignore the elderly, and pretend they’ve lost their worth as human beings because they’re no longer “contributing.”
So although I’m 32, I thought it would be fascinating to walk around in the shoes of an older man. I figured it might help me appreciate my grandparents’ lives a bit more. Or at any rate, it might remind me of the respect due to the elderly. They’ve been on this planet more than twice as long as I have.
Besides, writing this story has helped me — at least a bit — to feel more comfortable about growing older myself. I’ve heard it said that few of us really expect to get old. In some strange sense, it comes as a surprise when we grow gray hairs and wrinkles. But considering that most of us hope to live for a few years yet, perhaps we should try to appreciate — and even enjoy — every part of the journey. —GH
* * *
“Good morning, Mr. Bradley!” Ashley sings out as she comes into my room and pulls back the blinds. “It’s time for your medication!”
This nurse has been terrorizing me with incorrigible perkiness for four years. Today I decide to have a little fun with her.
“Helen, where are the kids?” I mutter.
“Mr. Bradley, were you dreaming?” She walks over to the bed and looks at me with concern.
“Was that schoolbus late again? Where’re the kids?”
Ashley sticks her stethoscope in her ears with a worried look, already checking for signs of a stroke. I should’ve been an actor.
“Was I supposed to pick them up?” I mutter. “I better get the car … where did we park?”
“Now, Mr. Bradley, you stay right here … we need to make sure you’re all right.” Ashley lifts up my shirt — ah, the indignities of this place — and starts listening in all the usual places.
Then just when her ear is closest to my face, I say: “GOTCHA!”
Ashley bolts upright; whips off her stethoscope and sees my grinning face. “Mr. Bradley … were you pulling my leg?”
“Pulled it right off, I’d say,” I chortle.
Ashley puts her hands on her hips, not sure if she should humor this crazy old geezer. “Well, you got me,” she says. “I thought we’d be sending you to the Dementia Unit.”
“Nah, I have a few brain cells left.”
“You got me good,” she says, shaking her head and walking back to the meds cart.
I reach for my cane and sit up on the edge of the bed. “How’s everything at your house?”
“Same old, same old,” she says. “Missy still isn’t sleeping through the night; can you tell?” She points to the bags under her eyes: “Got any tips?”
“That was Helen’s department, hon,” I confess. “In my day, the Daddy worked and the Mommy stayed home.”
“You got off easy,” says Ashley, bringing me my daily pile of drugs. “Gabe gets up with her half the time — if he knows what’s good for him.”
I start swallowing pills. I’m up to six a day, and that’s just the mornings. It’s rough getting old.
“Rumor has it you and Mrs. Bradley have an anniversary tomorrow!” Ashley enthuses, while she pours out my liquid medicine (which tastes like raw sewage). “How many years now?”
Ashley looks suitably impressed. “You must have some real wisdom to pass along to those kids of yours.”
I laugh. “They don’t listen, hon,” I say. “I’m just Senile Ol’ Dad, out of touch.”
“Now that’s a shame. My folks split up; I wish they had a marriage like yours.” She hands me my raw sewage. “Do you need a drink to wash that down?”
“Are your kids coming to celebrate with you tomorrow?”
I shake my head glumly. “I’m not gettin’ my hopes up.”
Ashley knows me too well. She plops down into the chair by my bed and points her lecturing finger. “Now, Mr. Bradley,” she says. “I know you —”
“Don’t you have other patients to medicate?”
“This is when you start getting down on life, and wonder why God hasn’t taken you home yet because you’re not doing any good here —”
“— And why my boys won’t come visit their folks, don’t forget that —”
“But you never know how God is going to use you — maybe even tomorrow,” she says, shaking that lecture finger.
“All these years I thought my mother had passed on. Turns out she’s still alive and kickin’, and her name’s Ashley Hutchens, RN.” I stick out my lecture finger right back at her.
“And don’t you forget it.” She pours me a cup of water and walks back to her meds cart. “I’ll be praying for you, Mr. Bradley — praying your kids show up, and God uses you.”
“And I’ll be praying for you, Ashley,” I grin, “that Missy cries all night long. Teach you a lesson about respecting your elders.”
“Don’t you dare!” Ashley laughs. She smiles and waves as she heads out: “Have a good day, Mr. Bradley!”
I smile and wave back … but then stare down into my cup of sewage. A good day, huh? Well, I can always hope — but chances are, that was the best part of it right there.
* * *
Nobody expects to get old. Or useless.
Your whole life, people are counting on you. I still remember high school basketball — 70 years back; it’s amazing how memory works. I had the best jumpshot in our conference. Coach McFadden used to say, “You need this team, boys, and this team needs you.” He was right.
But time sure flies. High school was over in a heartbeat. I went to seminary, then pastored a little church in downstate Illinois. Some months I barely had two nickels to rub together, but I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. There’s nothing in this world like caring for hungry souls.
I got married along the way, to my wonderful Helen. Sometimes I can still see her, just like on the big day — her hair set in those big curls that were all the rage; the long white dress. Promising to love in sickness and in health. Our whole lives were ahead of us; we had forever … where’d the years go?
But this old man’s getting off track. Point is, I preached, Helen played the piano, and we raised two boys. Finally, we retired — and settled down to enjoy the empty nest with visits from the grandbabies.
But life has a way of wearing you down. One day, you wake up and realize there isn’t much left to look forward to. Your kids are long past needing you, and even the grandbabies are growing up. Your little flock finds a new shepherd and forgets all about the old one. You end up cloistered off from the world in this place, and people think you’re too out of touch to have any wisdom worth sharing.
Then when Helen started going downhill, it hit me: There’s not much more to look forward to, and nothing left to accomplish. I started telling Jesus he could get me outta here any day.
Sure, tomorrow’s my 59th wedding anniversary. But it’ll be rough if my wife doesn’t remember who I am.
* * *
Usually, I have an hour or two before Helen’s awake. Morning is when I get my thinking and praying done, and sometimes — God forgive me — I wish Helen would wake up later than she does.
We shared a room in this place at first, just like we had for 50-odd years. But then the Alzheimer’s got worse: Helen started wandering outside in the wee hours of the morning. So she’s in the “Locked Unit” now. That night the Highway Patrol found her wandering down the freeway dodging semis, I decided it was better than the alternative.
Anyway, I have a phone call to make this morning. My younger son, Peter, said he’ll be here tomorrow to celebrate our anniversary. But my older boy, Tom, never called back — as usual. I think it’s time to bother him at work.
“Cheevers, Bradley, and Chilton; how may I direct your call?” chirps a voice on the line.
“Tom Bradley, please.” My boy’s a partner in a Very Important Financial Planning Firm.
“May I say who’s calling?”
“Just a moment.”
I listen to a peppy sales pitch for barely-legal tax shelters while I’m holding. And to think Tommy wanted to be a policeman when he grew up.
The chirpy receptionist is back: “I’m sorry, sir, he’s not available. Would you like his voicemail?”
I hang up. You’d never know Helen and I changed this boy’s diapers from the way he treats us nowadays.
Well, time to call in the reinforcements. I look up Tom’s home number and dial his wife — the third one, that is.
“Amy? It’s Dad Bradley.”
“Dad! How are things?”
“More fun than a barrel of monkeys. It’s Colonoscopy Day here at the old folks’ home.”
One thing I always liked about that girl: She thinks I’m funny. “Dad, it’s good to hear your voice,” she chuckles. “I needed a laugh.”
“Everything all right, hon?”
“Oh … we’re fine. Just one of those days.”
There’s another thing I like about her: She’s a lousy liar. Tom’s an old pro. He should be, for the amount of times he practiced on me.
“Don’t lie to an old man. How can I pray for you?”
“We, ah … well, we’re not sure where Stacy is right now.”
That’s trouble — big trouble. “She’s not at school?”
“She has a long weekend — teacher training. So we told her she could sleep over at Val’s last night. But Val’s mom — well, it turns out she didn’t know anything about it …”
Depending on your point of view, Stacy’s either a little lost lamb — or a black sheep. She’s one of those leather-and-chains wearing kids; I think they call ’em “Gothics.” She thinks Senile Ol’ Gramps doesn’t know she smokes pot and failed ninth grade.
“So she’s been gone since last night?”
“And she won’t answer her phone. Dad, we’re really worried …”
“Any idea why she ran off?” I ask. It’s times like this I wish I could still drive: Somebody should be looking for that girl.
Instantly, Amy starts to cry aloud. She chokes out, “We had … it was a big fight, Dad. I shouldn’t … I should’ve let her go …”
“Hon, you can’t blame yourself when they act like teenagers,” I say. “Trust me, I raised two.”
That was supposed to make her laugh. She sobs instead.
“You want to tell me what happened?” I ask gently.
“Stacy came down … for school yesterday,” Amy manages to say. “She was wearing this tiny little dress … Dad, it showed everything. I told her to change. But she said her mom bought it for her …”
That explains a lot.
“Mom” would be Tommy’s second wife, a real winner. Her parenting skills were limited to bossing the nanny while she drank like a fish. But she was a little blonde with all the trimmings: Tom knows how to pick ’em.
“You did the right thing, hon,” I reassure Amy. “Stacy couldn’t go out like that.”
“Dad, I thought I was finally getting somewhere with her. Last week, she told me — there’s this boy at school she’s been talking to, Nolan. It sounds like she’s pretty into him. And when she actually told me about it … I thought it was a breakthrough.”
“That’s terrific, hon. But if she was wearing this dress for him … she doesn’t want that kind of attention.”
“I know … Dad, she threw everything back in my face when I made her change. Said nobody around here cares about her, but Nolan does —”
“That’s not true. You love her like she’s your own, and she’s the apple of Tommy’s eye —”
Amy laughs — a short, bitter laugh. “Really? She ran away from me, Dad.”
“You can’t blame yourself for that —”
“And as for Tom …” There’s the bitter laugh again. It’s not a pleasant sound.
“Where’s Tom? Did he actually —”
“Just … pray for us, Dad.” There’s a long pause. “Tom went into work. Don’t know how he can do it, but there he is, selling mutual funds …”
She’s crying, and I don’t know what to say. I can’t believe my boy —
“Dad, somebody’s beeping in. Might be — the police. I better go, OK?”
I hang up feeling very old … old and useless. “God,” I mutter, “please do something.” I start praying for Stacy to be found, and Amy to have peace, and Tom to actually care more about his little girl than his job.
I only kneel for prayer when it’s a really big deal — too hard to get up nowadays. But today, I shuffle over to the window and lower myself onto both decrepit old knees.
* * *
A few minutes later, Ashley sticks her cheerful head back in my room. “You have a visitor, Mr. Bradley!” she says, with breathless delight.
Behind Ashley walks my son Peter. He’s a good kid. Yes, he hit 55 last year, but I changed his diapers. I’ll call him “kid” until the day I buy the farm.
“Dad! Hey, I came to wish you a happy anniversary.”
He brings in a vase and sets it on the table: lilies, Helen’s favorite. Like I said, he’s a good boy.
“Thanks, kiddo. Your mother’s gonna love these.”
“How’s everything?” he asks.
“Not bad, not bad. Hey, you’re a day early. I didn’t think I’d see you till the party tomorrow.”
Peter shifts uncomfortably. Now I can read the signs: He’s here to assuage some guilt today, because he’s skipping out on tomorrow.
“Did something come up for you and Molly?” I ask.
“Yeah, we’re heading up to Rockford this weekend — visiting Jason and Jenna. They just had their third, y’know …”
I don’t understand why people think they need to protect old folks from the truth. We’ve had a lifetime’s worth; we can handle it. But you can’t wash your grown kids’ mouths out with soap for lying, so you have to play along to get the real story.
“Son, I thought you were there last weekend.”
“Yeah, we were …”
“You know your mother would love to see you. She’s not up yet, but tomorrow —”
“Yeah … well, I just needed to slip in and out. I’m off to work —”
“That’s why the party’s tomorrow — you know, Saturday? It would really mean a lot if —”
“Dad … you know I love to see you. Sometime soon I’m gonna bring Molly, and we’ll take you out for a nice dinner —”
“Can you can put up with your mother all the way through a ‘nice dinner’?”
Peter studies the floor tiles. I just mentioned the elephant in the room out loud.
“It’s hard … to see her like this,” he mutters.
Don’t I know it. I’ve been married to Helen for 59 years, and on bad days she doesn’t know my face. “Son, she can’t help it. She never asked for this.”
“Dad, if it made any difference to her … but half the time, she doesn’t recognize me when I visit.”
“So we bring out those pictures that Molly put together, and she remembers —”
“You know she’ll love the lilies. Come on — we can wake her a little early. Let’s give ’em to her.” I pick up my cane and get ready to hobble down the hallway.
“I need to get to work.” Peter studies the floor again. “Maybe it’s better…. She gets so upset when she realizes I’m her son, and she didn’t know … tell her the lilies are from you. Get some brownie points.” He tries to smile.
I just shake my head. We’ve already had this conversation — how he isn’t really thinking of his mother, just his own discomfort. How he doesn’t want to see her because she reminds him what he might become someday.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” he says. “I want to remember what she was like … when she was still Mom.”
He holds out his hand to shake. I push it aside. “None of that,” I say. I shuffle closer and give him a good hug. Peter’s always been like that: He thinks if he ticks me off, I don’t love him or something.
“I love you, son,” I say, looking him in the eye.
“Love you too, Dad.”
He doesn’t look back. He just steps into the hallway and he’s gone.
* * *
Our Peter is a good boy. He’s an elder in his church, and they couldn’t have found a better one. He treats Molly like gold and visits his kids all over the country twice a year. But he won’t come see Helen: It just hurts too much.
As for our other boy… well, Tom was the typical pastor’s kid, hardheaded and rebellious. It’s hard to fathom the way he is now when I remember him as a 6-year-old. Little Tommy charmed the church ladies and always knew his memory verses.
The problems came when he got a little too pleased with his charming self, and ran through two wives while selling his soul to the sales god. No wonder his daughter’s a little confused.
Tom, of course, hasn’t set foot in church since I stopped making him go. But when Helen and I offered to take Stacy, he thought it was a great idea: He’d have longer to sleep off Saturday nights. So beginning in kindergarten, we took her every week, and boy, did that girl love it.
She was a shy kid — never had little girlfriends for slumber parties and such. And Lord knows Tommy never cared for her like a father should, so church was her one chance of the week to get loved. Thankfully, her teacher, Miss Eva Greene, adored those young people. After class, she’d have one in each arm and a whole entourage following.
One day Stacy came running into the sanctuary after children’s church; didn’t even wait for the last hymn to be over. “Grampy!” she said, running up to us. “Grampy, I asked Jesus into my heart!”
I lifted her onto my lap and told her that was the best news in the world. “What made you decide to accept Jesus?” I asked. I wanted to make sure she hadn’t done it just to please Miss Greene.
Stacy was quiet for a long time, looking down at her shoes. She finally said, “Because I found out Jesus loved me.”
“That’s wonderful, hon,” I said. “Why’s that so important to you?”
More shoe-staring. “Because … I don’t know if Daddy does.”
I had to hold back tears while I choked out that Daddy does love her — but sometimes, he doesn’t know how to show it.
Stacy came every Sunday faithfully. I started trying extra-hard to be Jesus in her life, whispering I-love-yous and going to her choir concerts when Daddy was “working late.” I thought our little lamb was finally coming around. Instead of sitting by herself, she found some girlfriends in Sunday School. She seemed happier, more like a child instead of a tiny grown-up.
And every Sunday, just before we got in the car to go home, we’d make a “Hug Sandwich.” I’d stand on one side with Helen on the other, and we’d squeeze Stacy between us geezers. Then Helen — she always had a beautiful voice — would sing “Jesus Loves Me” or “It Is Well With My Soul”— really, anything about God’s love. Stacy soaked it up like a little sponge.
But not long afterwards, Helen started forgetting things. I had my big fall, and pretty soon, we landed here. As for Stacy … well. Amy doesn’t know Jesus, but I think she’d take Stacy on Sundays, except Tom’s absolutely forbidden it. “My daughter’s too old for that mythology,” he says.
Besides, Stacy hardly speaks to Amy most of the time. It must be rough when you get a new “Mom,” 20 years younger than the real one, while you’re in junior high. That’s about when our little lost sheep started hanging out with those “Gothic” kids …
They sure haven’t done her any favors.
Copyright 2009 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.