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Monday, 20 September 2010

Tales from the Nursing Home: Dan

By Mary Jamison

His name was Dan. He had a graying ponytail, a crutch under one arm and a mother bedridden with ALS.

As time went on and I became accustomed to my own mother being in the nursing home, I got to know some of the other regular visitors. Dan, it turned out, didn’t work. He’d broken his leg badly when he fell off the roof of his mother’s house. He’d been doing some repairs. I figured he was an aging hippie, employed on-again, off-again and living at home.

He was a nice guy and I thought about asking him to go out for coffee but I never did. Instead, as the years went by, I’d join him in the courtyard the nights I tucked Mom in. He’d be out there with Margaret, a patient, and an aide who accompanied Margaret outside so Margaret could smoke a few cigarettes.

Margaret spent most of her days sitting; I don’t know exactly what was wrong with her. She sat up near the nurse’s station and she was often there even when I’d leave at 11:00PM. She kept a rosary in her hands, praying soundlessly. I asked her to pray for Mom sometimes when Mom was having a bad time. It got so she’d ask me about my mother.

Those evenings out in the courtyard, though, we had fun. Dan and the aide joined Margaret in enjoying a cigarette. The conversation was unremarkable - chatter and jokes - and yet I remember those evenings with a warmth and pleasure that seems disproportionate. Maybe it’s because the shared experience of the nursing home connected us: we understood a lot that couldn’t be explained or told. We knew something about devotion and selfishness and grieving that went on and on, and dying by fractions of inches, and laughing together in the night air anyway.

Time went on. Dan’s leg got better and his mother got worse. It turned out he believed that people should care for their own parents, at home, themselves. So, when his mother got sick, he quit his job and moved in to take care of her. But when he’d broken his leg, he couldn’t do for her, so he’d had to move her to a nursing home.

There, she’d fallen out of bed and broken her leg. If memory serves, it happened twice. So her own condition worsened beyond what one person could care for at home even as Dan graduated from a crutch to a cane. Dan was a little bitter about her injuries and a little cynical about everything.

Time went on and our mothers got sicker. I saw Dan one evening and he’d had a bad visit - his mother was worse. She’d been appreciating his visits for maybe four or five years that I’d seen.

Sometimes I’d stop to see her myself with one of my dogs or just to say hello to Dan and her, and she’d always been with it enough to respond.

That night, though, Dan wasn’t sure that his mother knew him. She didn’t seem to want him there. He’d been noticing a certain impatience on her part towards his presence for a while - days, maybe weeks. The point of the evening ritual he’d observed faithfully for all those years was falling apart.

“I used to be somebody,” he told me that night. It turned out he had a master’s in social work; he’d been a counselor. “I used to be somebody.”

A few days later, I heard through the nursing home’s grapevine that he’d died. He’d suffered a fatal gunshot wound, apparently self-inflicted; there were no tracks in the snow around the house. On the dining room table, where his sister found him, she’d found coupons for restaurants clipped out. She figured he’d been planning where they’d go to eat during her visit from out of town. There was no note.

They held a memorial service for Dan at the nursing home; they rolled his mother’s bed in so she could come.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Mary - A sad and tragic tale.

Nicely written! - Sandy

Oh, Mary, what a sad story.

Poor Dan had reached the end of his tolerance and could not go on..

Count your blessings that you are the one telling the story..Not the one who the story is about.

A tragic story, but laced with love and comfort. Suicide is never easy to make any kind of piece with, but I see how you, Margaret and Dan supported each other through hard times. Most of my life I've sung in nursing homes and in the last eight years my wife and I have been deeply involved in a monthly church service, where I provide the music. Last week we were part of a memorial service for a long-time volunteer who helped out at the nursing home. He was an independent man who often clashed with the directors over the years and had been kicked out five times. But, he was also sensitive and supportive to the patients and while everybod ackowledged what a headache he often was, everyone loved him for the good he did.

Very few true stories are all "feel-good" or tragic. There is a good message in even the hardest experiences in life.

Thank you all for your comments - Jerry, I can't tell you how much it means to the families of residents when people do something like you've been doing at nursing homes. It helps so much, to know that there is something for the person they love to *do.* Even when I was visiting Mom, it was great when there was something going on that we could do together.

Mary, you told Dan's sad story so well. The part about his mother attending his memorial service almost did me in.

Thank you for sharing this story, Mary. It is so sad about Dan and so wonderful how you all came together to care for one another.

Nursing homes are hard places to visit and that you did so religiously speaks well of your devotion and of Dan's.

Sometimes life just gets too hard and the individual can no longer cope. I am sorry that Dan didn't have the support he gave his mother or his death might have been averted.

You told this very moving and ultimately sad story so well, and you have also given us a cautionary tale for all caregivers. It's so very easy to focus almost completely on the needs of the loved person, wanting to be there for them, always aware and dreading the time they will be gone from your life; and forget to nourish the self. But in this case it sounds as though Dan so thorough identified with his role of being needed by his mother that when that seemed gone his life had no meaning to him. Terribly sad.

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