Doors that Open Shut by Lydie Raschka

young female hands clasping an older man's hands

"Dad was under the impression he’d been hired to work as a doctor again, although Mom had explained to him, many times, that he would be living here now."

“Why is there a bed?”

Dad was under the impression he’d been hired to work as a doctor again, although Mom had explained to him, many times, that he would be living here now. Obviously he’s unable to accept that this could really be happening to him. Or maybe he’s confused because his former colleague, Frank, lives at Huron Woods, too. They were ear, nose, and throat doctors together for over two decades. Frank, the out-going Catholic, always ribbed Dad, the big, quiet Lutheran of Norwegian descent. Frank looks dapper, as always, in black-and-white checked pants and sits in a wheelchair with his slim legs crossed. He tells funny, off-color jokes—just like I remember when I used to visit Dad’s office. But Frank’s words come out as almost unintelligible gibberish now because he, like Dad, is losing his memory.

“What work did we do together?” Dad asks him, searching his face, trying to figure it out.

 

The brochure I found in the guest bedroom back at my parent’s house suggests we use the word “move” to describe what we’ve done with Dad, rather than “put” or “place” or “force” – the word closest to reality, a word not even mentioned in the glossy pages.

My brother drove to Ann Arbor from his home in Milwaukee and stayed with Dad the first night. Jon had to restrain him when Mom left so he wouldn’t follow her out the door.

“What’s going on?” Dad said, frantic, angry and perfectly lucid in that moment. “Is this what you were planning?!”

He and Jon went round and round for an hour and a half trying to talk it through and, just at the point where Jon was ready to give up, Dad lay down on the bed, said, “I’m so tired,” and fell fast asleep in his clothes.

It would be convenient to blame the brochure for not telling it like it is, for attempting to mitigate a horror; or to blame poor William, the beguiling, friendly director of Huron Woods, who wooed us with beef stroganoff and cappuccino in the visitor’s lounge. It’s easier to blame them than Mom or my siblings or myself. Alzheimer’s is costly in every way; it takes a social, psychological, physical and economic toll. Mom has lost all spring in her step and speaks in a monotone these days. Her heart is giving out and now she needs surgery to replace a valve. Her depression has been the largest cost of all, yet my three siblings and I were still not easily persuaded about moving Dad to an institution.

“Will she be as hard to convince as the others?” William had asked Mom, referring to my youngest sister, Kari, who made her first visit to Huron Woods after Jon, Siri and I had all been there to check it out.

“Isn’t there another way?” a friend asks me back in New York City when I tell her about our family’s decision. I hear it as blame; she wouldn’t force her Dad into a place like this but I contemplated her words for days.

Isn’t there another way?

Kari wants to bring our parents to New York. She says she’ll find an apartment in her building. “Let’s surround them with children and grandchildren until their dying day,” she argues. It feels bold and crazy and right and we actually consider this option – for about three days. “It’s too late for me to start over in a new place,” Mom says firmly, with deep resignation in her voice.

At Huron Woods the professional veneer seems designed to numb our reality. Mom is able to cry but I can’t. I’m on my guard. When I step through the wide automatic doors of Huron Woods I instantly judge the pastel, waterproof cushions on white wicker and the dark green plastic houseplants. I am no fan of plastic houseplants. We sought Huron Woods for professional help, and were told it’s the best around, but once inside the building I must stop for a moment to compose myself. This is my first visit to Dad in his new home.

 

Mom leads the way. She’s made many visits by now, even before moving him, with each of her four children. He has only slept here for three days. She opens the door to the Pines, the name of the family-style unit where residents live in private rooms around a central living area. The door is locked from the inside but can be opened from the outside so family members can come and go with a key. The entire building is set-up this way and is exclusively for Alzheimer’s patients.

We are startled to find Dad standing right inside the entrance to his unit, his arms filled with photos and hats and picture albums. He’s packed and ready to go home. His dirty clothes hamper, stuffed with his belongings, is on the floor next to him. It’s so heavy he can hardly lift it and now he drags it over to the door.

“I’m so happy to see you!” he says, extremely anxious, his face lined with worry, but now visibly relieved. He looks exhausted and thin. How long has he been standing there? An hour? Two hours? Since breakfast, three hours ago?

“Stop it!” Mom says, taking things from his arms. “Put those back!” She is shaky and near tears.

He was doing this at home, too. It’s a symptom of the disease she finds hard to accept. She has tried to create a feeling of familiarity in his room but he works against her; he takes down the family pictures from the wall and drags his clothes and shoes and picture albums to the locked door and waits.

“Don’t do this anymore,” she cries. “It upsets me!”

We coax him away from the door and help him put things away. Mom crawls into his bed and instantly falls asleep. I help my tall, dignified Dad remove his blue and white Norwegian sweater and the brown one he’s put on underneath that. “I’ve got to get out of here,” he pleads, quietly, so as not to wake her. His sensitivity to others in the midst of his terror breaks my heart.

“I can’t find my car,” he whispers.

“C’mon, Dad.” I will spring him from this prison if only for an hour. “Let’s go for a walk.”

We head back through the living room where thin, white-haired ladies lounge like zombies on stuffed chairs covered up to their chins in afghans on an 80 degree day. I sign him out on the clipboard in the kitchen as instructed by Cindy, the ridiculously cheery nurse. Obituaries are taped on the kitchen cabinets with the words “We remember…” and I wonder how Dad likes being reminded at every meal that death is the only way out, but this is too minor a detail for him to grasp at the moment.

“It doesn’t work,” Dad warns as we approach the door to the Pines. But I unlock it easily with Mom’s key and he is astounded that I can get it open after he’s tried and failed so many times.

“People can do things,” he says, eyes wide in amazement.

He can still do things too. He plays ping-pong and golf and Scrabble. He can shoot hoops and run a mile. But he can’t count backwards by fives or remember the month or the day or my name. His brain is no longer a plump, pink series of coils. It’s a wasted map, a pickled cauliflower. The furrows are too deep to be fully functional yet he knows we are family: “Where have you been?” he asks. “Where are you sleeping? Why can’t I be with all of you?” It upsets me and confuses me that he remembers so much and so little at the same time.

Huron Woods is a large medical complex on a parcel of land composed of many buildings on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, where shops, schools, sidewalks and intergenerational family life do not exist. It’s as artificial as the plastic plants, with one stab at normalcy, the so-called “bike path,” a cracked slab of asphalt that snakes randomly around the buildings. “I’ve got to find my car,” Dad repeats when we are outside standing, his dear, bald head unprotected in the scorching heat. He searches the lot for his silvery-blue van. It’s no wonder he’s fixated on his car; it’s the only way one could leave the hospital grounds. Parking lots are connected by a huge drive that rings the complex like an ancient fortress wall. It’s nowhere and anywhere, like Walmart.

I walk a little ahead to distract him from his focus on cars and search for a path into a small wood that abuts the property. He follows me in a docile manner.

“I’ve been here before,” Dad says as we enter the woods

“Yeah? You like it?” I say.

“It’s nothing much,” he responds. His wry, dead-on remark gets a chuckle out of me since the short path ends with a dam and a single swan floating in the water.

“Soon… we need to go… to the place where we… swim.” His voice fades as he loses the thread of this hard-won thought. But I pick it up and his eyes light up. He’s talking about our house on Lake Michigan, the place where we bike and swim and shop at the farmer’s market. It’s where his old wooden boat sits in the garage unused because Mom can’t bring herself to sell it. I am suddenly filled with uncontainable sorrow that he’s living in a place where no one will understand the memories connected to these rag-tag fragments of speech. The staff knows nothing of the boater, the father, the hard-working doctor he was and still thinks he is.

“There’s nothing to do here,” he complains. He believes he has secured the world’s most boring job. “This isn’t the right kind of work for me. They never give me any time off.”

Run away! I think irrationally, as we stand on the bridge above the dam watching water spill down. But he has no idea where he is.

“How do we get to Michigan?” he asks worriedly as we walk back through the Michigan woods.

“Mary seems…. tired,” he comments, amazingly remembering Mom’s tirade when we arrived – and her name! – a skill that comes and goes.

“She’s worried about you,” I say.

“Me?” he looks surprised. “I can quit this job. There’s nothing to do here anyway.”

Even as I distract him from plotting his escape – “C’mon, Dad, let’s get a Dairy Queen” – I secretly long for him to succeed, at least in convincing us that what we are doing is wrong.

And what then? How could we manage the care at home or in New York any better? Would we find another Huron Woods, where they keep track of every bowel movement on a clipboard by the sink? His wandering and packing and knocking on the neighbor’s door had become intolerable for Mom at home. Maybe we could hire caregivers again, as Mom had been doing for several months, but it was expensive, and caregivers were not always reliable. Did we really want to revert to that again?

In the late afternoon back at the Pines Mom is awake and calmer. The gaunt, faceless women in the living room begin to sort themselves into Betty, Greta and Faye. Peggy, a member of the staff, plays her accordion. We sing along to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and other old standards. Peggy then gets up and dances with Greta, who is wheelchair-bound.

“Can I help you?” Dad says, stepping behind the wheelchair into his doctor role.

“We’re dancing!” Peggy says, moving Greta’s hands back and forth in a little waltz. Dad breaks into a rare, unworried smile and Peggy beams at him. I feel my resolve weakening. My eyelids grow heavy with boredom, fatigue and stress. Like Mom, I’m longing for a nap.

The next morning I visit Dad one more time before returning to New York. Mom and her friend Val will arrive soon and Val will take me to the airport.

“When are you leaving?” he asks.

“Today.”

“Aw, shucks,” he says, hanging his head. I give him a hug, the only language he consistently understands.

“I’ll come back,” I promise. “You know I always come back.”

 

Outside my airplane window, a sliver of slim amber light stretches across the horizon. Soon it will be totally dark. Finally, tears fall. My sister’s determination was not strong enough to marshal us. Dad’s protests have not been vociferous enough to change our minds. The move has been deemed successful. I thought, at this juncture, that I would be bolder. That I would uproot my own family of three, if that’s what it took, move to Michigan, and take care of my parents in their final years. I thought I could stave off this final separation – or at least make the transition easier for them. I feel humbled and diminished and defeated. I have capitulated to the urgency I feel for the quickening pace of my own life. Unbelievably, I left him there, gathering up his pictures and his clothes, behind the locked door.

Lydie Raschka is a freelance writer and a part-time Montessori teacher-trainer. She has published essays and opinion pieces in Salon, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Christian Century. She profiles public schools for Insideschools.org and was a finalist in the 2010 non-fiction essay contest held by Arts & Letters Journal.
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  • Moving piece!

  • Moving piece. Thanks.

  • This was heartbreakingly beautiful.

  • NJB

    This essay perfectly captures one of the true sorrows of our time, the dilemma of watching aging parents decline, often in inhospitable “homes” while we are distant from them. The little details, captured so perfectly here, are what make this piece so moving and strong and keep it from being “sentimental.” Wonderful piece.

  • Devastating, vivid,
    so well done.

  • FranYo

    This is a thought-provoking piece that reminds me to always enjoy the beautiful lucid moments of each day, for any one of us could be the next resident of Huron Woods. Each time I panic because I’ve lost my keys, I’ll remember this piece and be glad I still know what keys are for…

    Thank you for sharing your private concerns, pain, and insights, Lydie.

  • An eloquent and moving essay. Beautifully done.

  • Robyn Breiman

    It’s a beautifully written piece, and so honest. 

  • I echo Robyn’s comments- this is a beautifully written piece. I remember your father….he was kind and smart and a jock!  You captured the brutality of watching a parent fade away…..I’m sorry for you, your siblings and your Mom.