Yesterday I ended up visiting my Mema Ralph in the nursing home where she just moved. From what I had heard, the place was like the Taj Mahal of nursing homes. The way my relatives spoke of it, my 90 year old grandmother was living in the lap of luxury while us little people were forced to be working stiffs at the mercy of The Man who went back to their humble abodes at the end of the day.
Of course, moving Mema to assisted living had not been an easy decision. It came as a result of some health complications she had as a result of age. Also, with these health complications my Mema needed around the clock care, and she could not get that at her residence that she was living at. When she got the news she was being forced to leave her domicile, she did not give up without a fight. After moving her in, my Mema, who is wheelchair bound, tried to escape. The staff, worried, deemed her a flight risk. Meanwhile, there are only two places one can go from the nursing home. One is Lowe’s Home Improvement. The other is Kool Springs Golf Course. Both would have been incredible if she did make the escape. This flipped out my aunts and uncles, but her grandchildren thought this was amazing. So yes, my Mema is magic.
However, she has calmed down. Two weeks ago, I got news my Mema and some of the other residents of the nursing home were taken out for a day to the casino. Yes, my Mema Ralph was gambling. I know you are picturing a sweet, demure old woman. Think again. My Mema could rival a Dominican at dominos, and she would cut them if she lost. I have seen her in action. She made my cousin Jared who stands 6’2” and plays line for Case Western shake with fear. Mema was taking black jack just as seriously. So basically, now that she was in assisted living, she was shining brighter than ever.
I had seen my Mema the day before. Of course this was during my Thanksgiving Pilgrimage Marathon. I was on the road from 10:45 AM until almost 10 at night. People drove like idiots and the day was intense and had a lot of eating. However, it was also a ton of fun. I enjoyed seeing my cousins and being updated. I had also seen my Mema. However, the next day, although my Mom, Dad and I were tired, we decided to visit Mema one more time because I was travelling back the next morning. Plus we didn’t know if she had any visitors that day.
When we pulled up to the home, I saw it was more an estate than a home. There was a courtyard and fountain, a far cry from the state run nursing homes where children dream of condemning their parents everytime they piss them off. We signed in, and went to my Mema’s room. We knocked. No answer. My dad entered. When we got in, the Deadly Women Marathon was playing on Discovery ID. However, there was no Mema. Maybe one of my other concerned aunts and uncles assembled the same plan before my cousins returned to college or their perspective jobs.
Or maybe she had escaped to Lowe’s or Kool Springs. While it would shorten my father’s life span, it would be beyond words awesome if that was the case. So we went to the front desk to see what was the case. The perky looking attendant explained Mema Ralph was at Happy Hour. “Do they give them booze?” I asked my mom.
Mema Ralph could be pretty wild if she got a few in her. I had read about the STD rate in nursing homes. There was a lothario with pants up to his nipples with pick up lines and game waiting for a ride on those hot wheels she possessed. Despite what Mema Ralph says about being happily widowed, liquor is the eternal game changer no matter how old you are.
“Sometimes they do.” My mom said with a half smile, reminding me not to respond at all.
We went to the lounge, and a nice worker lady gave my dad, mom, and I chairs. Mema Ralph was sitting in a far corner enjoying the show, and we waved. She saw us and waved back. The residents were enjoying Ginger Ale and cake. Onstage, in front of the room entertaining, was a man singing to karaoke track. His hair was brown, but not a natural color one might have. Rather, it was purchased in Aisle 6 of the local drug store. His face had a tint to it, and I could tell he did a little Wayne Newton powder for one reason or another. The suit was an off blue, and his voice was somewhat off pitch and flat. However, he was engaging and seemed comfortable with the elderly crowd, a tough one to hold. I know this from experience. So aside from empathizing with him, I could appreciate that he was working his ass off.
The man sang a few songs and seemed nice enough. While I hold entertainers to a high standard, I can also appreciate someone sweating for a tough crowd like he was. The first story I heard him tell was, “When I was a young kid, I always dreamed of being in Casablanca, but I was too young to be in the movie. So it made me depressed. That is why at this moment, lets pretend we are all in the movie.” Okay, it made no sense but it was charming enough.
Then after that, the guy talked about playing in Vegas and recording an album. Was he someone of note? Hell if I knew. He kind of looked familiar. Then again, so does someone on a Most Wanted poster. So of course then he said, “Dean Martin only made a few films but he made it big with his concert appearances. He was like prune juice onstage…..he kept going.” My jaw went slack and I looked at my mother. Did this man legitimately crack a poop joke in front of a packed crowd of old people? Granted, the whole place probably had prune juice as a dietary staple but still. When the crap jokes start, there is only one direction things can go in.
The singer went into a Dean Martin standard, and the audience politely clapped. They were awake and weren’t drooling too badly. For this place he was killing, no pun intended. During his routine, some of the residents even sang along. His voice was good, but not so good that you felt intimidated to join in. I saw him working for even a muscle movement from this population. Gosh, he was pulling my heart strings.
However, seconds later that changed. Our singer friend decided to go into a tale about his time as a nursing home entertainer in between his time in Vegas. He explained, “I always love doing the senior centers and senior shows. People come and people go. There was one guy-Jimmy. Jimmy knew all the words to my songs. Jimmy is no longer with us. But sometimes you just have to move on whatever happens. Then again, someday we all have to move on.” I glanced again at my mom and dad, who glanced back at me equally as horrified. I don’t know if our singer friend realized this, but much of the population was latter 80s and early 90s. Translated, asshole, most of their spouses, friends, siblings and in some case children are no longer here. Yes, not only do they know the Angel of Death but they play cards every Tuesday.
Then after a few more songs, he said, “This is my last song.” I felt relieved. While he wasn’t doing a terrible job, I felt like if he stopped now I still might appreciate his hard work and might forgive his tactless tale. No such luck.
So after he supposed last song, he had another song. He proceeded this selection with a crazy story about how he was stationed on a battle ship. I couldn’t tell how old he was looking at him. He was either a little younger or older than my parents, and they were Vietnam era. “What war was he in?” I asked my mom. Maybe it was Persian Gulf.
“Shhh….He’s crazy and wasn’t in any war.” My mom informed me.
“Bring our boys home. Being overseas for Christmas is no fun.” The man explained. Then he went on to tell the story of White Christmas, except he got several details wrong. The rest of the room was semi-comatose. I was lucid and was tempted to correct him, but why ruin the happiness of those having a good time with dementia by being fact checker bitch?
While he promised this was his final song, the man lied again. I clapped politely like the others, but his lying was getting on my last nerve. Our singer friend decided to do some crowd work. Going over to a dude in an army hat that was older than any museum fossil, the singer asked, “Were you in a war, Sir?”
He asked the guy who looked like he was confused as to what day, month, and year it was. It made me wonder if our army vet was the local lothario, the mythical 83 year old creature they speak of in retirement communities. While this was not apparent now, perhaps during the happy hours the residents were allowed true alcoholic beverages those hot pants were pulled up and he was rocking and randy.
“Were you in the Korean War?” The man looked confused and nodded.
“He was never in a war.” A woman that I assume was his daughter said. There was that awkward moment where we all paused unsure of what to do.
“Did you like Frank Sinatra?” He asked the guy. The confused old man nodded again. Then our singer friend went over to his machine and turned on the track. A few seconds in he realized it was the wrong track but covered well. This awkward moment had turned into an awkward five minutes. Wow, this trip was becoming creative gold in ways I never expected.
The singer recovered well, and danced with the program director for a few minutes in the song. It was a lovely moment, and I could tell despite all his selfishness with encores and horrible stories he did truly have a good heart. I had seen better, but I had seen worse. This dude was alright. He was winning me back. We all clapped hoping this would be the finale like he promised.
No such luck. Then he sang Jail House Rock. His version was okay, but despite his promise, this was not the last song. Now I didn’t know what to think or feel about our singer friend who was sending my emotions in so many different directions. As he kept promising that the song selection would be the last, it felt like the last words of an idiot general in an epic battle in the Wild West against the oppressed Native Americans. The guy kept promising something, but then some Native American brave who knew the general was an idiot all along scalped him thus ending the stupidity for everyone on both sides.
Well our singer friend was now wandering into the zone of STOOPID. He told some terrible story about how he was wandering the wilderness before his wife captured him and chained him to the door so he could never escape. Granted, dementia was the normal state of mind in this place but several of the residents had a WTF look on their faces. On the bright side, he was keeping them awake. Perhaps his wife earned a stable living and had good health insurance. Yes, these were probably the missing pieces in this narrative.
After that, he told us 21 years later, he and his wife had a dog. It was his job to take the dog out at 5:30 AM to pee, and his wife wanted to sleep in, probably because he had to be at an office or something. Recently, during the snow storm he took the dog out at 5:30 am and the dog faked like it was peeing but didn’t just to mess with him. Instead, he peed on himself in the frigid cold, and locked himself out of the house. So he woke up his wife who grudgingly let him in. What this had to do with the song I don’t know, but he began singing. Now I was at a loss for words. I have lived more than many and have seen a lot, but this was one experience I have never had.
The man spoke of an album he recorded a few more times. Uttered that he was singing another song, and he did. Now he wasn’t promising it was his last song, and we had given up hoping. Maybe he had just been faking just like his dog had. But during this whole time, I had finally determined poor Jimmy’s cause of death.
Like us, Jimmy had attended the show that never ended. While we had a few more years on us, Jimmy did not. Rather than have him sit through another “final song,” the Grim Reaper too grew tired of being lied to by this nursing home lounge singer and spared poor Jimmy. The sad thing was, Jimmy’s wife was dead and she was been an insufferable wench when she lived, and his children were assholes that never visited. I don’t know. I am just making that up so that Jimmy seems sympathetic. The Grim Reaper did a good thing. This man still went on for five more songs. He would have come back to get more, but even Death can’t do nine final songs. Thus, the cause of death will never be listed and his tale has not been told until now.
Well the singer did not lie, nine songs later, this was truly his final song. After the show, we thanked him. The man might have selfishly taken three encores, but he selflessly gave himself to a difficult crowd. So while I loathe his lying, I like him as a human. He just needs better stories. And apparently he is a nursing home favorite, because he informed everyone he was booked for two more dates. Hey, he can handle the crowd. Most entertainers can’t. Points for him, even if you might die during the course of his show.
After the show ended, we visited with Mema Ralph for a bit. She showed us her new digs, and informed us she had gotten into a turf war with one other resident. We asked why she didn’t say anything. Ordinarily, my grandmother is a spitfire. Mema was tired from Thanksgiving, too tired to fight I suppose.
We got back to her room, which by the way she has a single. Yes, she has more living space than most of the NYC Metropolitan area. We arranged her furniture so living and moving would be easier. As we did this, the women who kill their husbands shows still played in the background. My parents and I were getting sucked in. Apparently, my grandmother watches them all the time. Sigh, runs in the family. Still, the women who killed their husbands were the perfect thing to do after the lounge singer. They prove the thesis that some show end faster than others, and sometimes you need to rewrite the script and kill your costar.
After that, we headed home. With age comes wisdom. So I followed the lead of the elder crowd, had some cake and pop as we say in Pittsburgh. As I chowed down on this delight, my mother popped on a movie. My parents and I celebrated by falling asleep in front of the TV.