A nice, older woman walks me through the hospital. I quip that I have never been inside this place before. She tells me that the place is a “nice little hospital.” I smell disinfectant and feel uneasy by the bleach whiteness. We turn left, then left, then right. We pass by a garden, something living and beautiful. A giant sign: ABSOLUTELY NO SMOKING IN GARDEN.
We turn right again. I see people laying in beds, we pass a family walking the opposite direction. We pass a nurse lazing behind the desk. Then a conference room of some sort, and a room for dirty linens. We finally reach my destination, the Renewal Center: sealed wooden doors that the older woman has to grant me access through. She presses a button, and an electric voice calls out a challenge. The older woman says “visitor,” and the doors swing open.
There is a hallway, and more open doors. More white, more low ceilings, more disinfectant. A woman behind a desk peers out at me, smiles. I think she finds me attractive. I follow the nice older woman to another desk, and a large observation window looking into another sitting area. I tell the woman behind the desk my name, and I tell her I want to see my grandfather. I sign a sheet of paper. I ask again which room is my grandfather’s, and she points into the sitting area. I turn and walk in, finding him seated in the corner.
My grandfather is so tiny. He’s bizarre, he doesn’t look at all the same. He looks up at me and I can tell he doesn’t recognize me at first. He mumbles what I guess to be a hello. I sit next to him. The chairs a stiff and uncomfortable. He is in a wheelchair.
My grandfather is crying. I feel uncomfortable, I feel confused, I feel ashamed. He tells me he hasn’t seen anyone in a few days. I try and make small talk, I try and say something, I try and smile. I don’t want to smile, I want to cry.
My grandfather now begins to tell me how he is only allowed visitors for one hour a day. He has no radio, the only television is set to soap operas. When his dialogue is broken up by crying I alternate between looking at the wall clock and the soap opera. I recognize the character Hope from Days of Our Lives. I feel ashamed that I am already looking at the wall clock, that I am registering that less than 5 minutes have passed.
My grandfather seems to compose himself, and begins to talk about his brother and a few others visiting him recently. He repeats several phrases and doesn’t realize it. He asks about my girlfriend, about my mother and father. I lie and tell him they are doing fine, when I have no idea what they are doing.
Grandfather begins to introduce me to the other people in the Renewal Center: there are two other patients in the sitting area, both are asleep. A middle aged, dumpy nurse is sitting close-by, but doesn’t seem to be paying attention to anything in particular. She is microwaving something that smells like shit. Grandpa tells me how nice she is, bringing him popsicles when he gets to go outside.
He cries again, and I feel ashamed to look at the wall clock. Fifteen minutes have passed.
My grandfather begins to tell me how much he loves me, and how he trusts me. He thanks me for taking care of him, for being there when others weren’t. There were hundreds of times I sat at home instead of seeing him. This is the first time I had seen him since he was admitted two weeks ago. Maybe that is why he cries after he tells me.
He now begins to tell me about the walls melting, of my grandmother not being there. He tells me that he has done bad things in his life, I interrupt, assuring him that we all make mistakes. My grandfather tells me he now knows what he thought at the time was real was not real, and I am now confused. He talks about a knife, and how he didn’t mean any harm but when it happened it felt so real. I hope that when he looks at me he doesn’t see the tears that I feel rimming my eyes, blurring my vision.
An older man returns from the restroom, he wheels over to us. His name is Charlie. His speech is hard to understand, but his eyes seem clearer, his build seems more healthy. My grandfather attempts to converse with Charlie. I become interpreter. Charlie has a hearing aid, but the batteries seem to be dying. I check the machine to see it takes AAA batteries. I ask the nurse with the shitty food if they have batteries. The nurse says they don’t have those type batteries the hearing aid takes. I ask her if she even knows what batteries the machine takes. She doesn’t know, excuses herself from the sitting room. She doesn’t come back.
My grandfather seems better composed now; he hasn’t cried in a long time. I look at the wall clock and realize it is time to go. I hug my grandfather: he couldn’t weigh more than 100 pounds, he feels so brittle. I walk to the desk to talk about his condition.
I recognize that the head nurse was an old neighbor of mine. She is much older now, and while her features were the same as my memories the face and the eyes are different. Harder.
I ask her when he can be moved out of Renewal. She begins by telling me that when people the age of my grandfather have dementia they have to be monitored to see if there is a chance for him to be allowed into society again. She tells me about the fragility of his mind, of every change in his environment being like steps backwards and forwards.
Noticing my face for the first time, she asks if I am immediate family. After confirming so, she tells me my grandfather tried to attack someone with a knife. She softens her words and tries to talk to me like a human. I smile and I nod, and I feel like someone has punched me in the stomach.
She walks to a wall file that contains ten differently-colored pamphlets, and walks back with one for me. It has DEMENTIA in block letters, and a childish drawing of two people with question marks around them. Because they’re confused. Ha ha.
She continues to reassure me, going through the process as if I am unaware of what madness is. I find this whole exchange empty and monstrous. How is this reading material supposed to answer why my grandfather is the shriveled alien in a wheelchair? How does this explain why my grandfather cannot listen to a radio, why he has to lay in a bed whether he is sleepy or not, has to say hello to his wife through a plate glass window because she cannot get off work early enough to make visitation?
I smile and nod and respond to the gaps in my old neighbor’s words, I attempt to show her that I am not flummoxed or upset with her. I can tell she is used to people taking their sorrows out on her. I feel sorry for my old neighbor the nurse, and I hate myself for it.
I go back and hug my grandfather again, and he does not cry. I tell him I love him and I walk out of the Renewal Center. I get lost and have to ask for directions out. The hospital is small, and the lady looks at me like I am stupid. I walk past the table where the nice older lady who guided me says goodbye and God bless. I wish her the same, and I don’t think I sounded choked up. I walk into my car, where I finally sit down and cry.