“Some of these men are brilliant. I love talking to them; I am impressed with them and their ideas – they are brilliant men. But they put them here to shut them away.” Henry’s eyes began to tear up as he continued, talking low so as not to be overheard. “They have put me away too, but I can handle it. I know how to survive; I am okay. But these other men – it grieves me that nobody listens to these men or cares about them. People just put them away; brilliant men.”
Dale had just left the table when Henry made this confidential declaration. I had arrived just at the end of dinner and sat down with Henry and Dale. Dale didn’t say anything but his eyes were sad. He nodded his approval when I introduced myself. He wore a tie and had a professional demeanor, yet he seemed compassionate – not arrogant. I was certain he had been an executive of some kind, maybe a banker or a lawyer.
The dinner room attendant told me Henry had eaten all his food with no problem. This was good news as I usually had timed my weekly visits to arrive at dinner to help Henry eat. The last two weeks, Henry had been in the hospital. He had a couple seizures and seemed to have given up. His doctor wanted him in the hospital as they tried to straighten out his medicine. His wife, Harriet, told me he had not eaten for several days both times I had visited.
The first time, Harriet and the CNA looked on in amazement as Henry willingly ate the food I hand fed him. Outside the room, I explained to Harriet how I did this: I learned years ago, working with Downs Syndrome and cerebral palsy children, their brain may appear to be lacking but the mind knows if they are being treated with respect, or if they are being condescended. So, too, with Alzheimer’s disease, it may appear the mind is gone, or going, but he still seems to know if he is being treated with respect. Now, in Henry’s case, there is the old man – the one who has lived life and deserves respect. You may think, mistakenly, he is open to rational arguments. However, inside this old man there is the little boy who knows he has become dependent but desires to control his own destiny. The trick to making him eat is to make him think it is a good idea – and that it is his idea. Demanding or forcing him to eat will only make him resist. As this seems to him to be one of the few areas of his life he is able to control, he will exercise his authority.
Henry used to tell me stories of his father. After his mother died, his father just stopped eating and he died. At least, that is the short version. He told me this story many times and in many different ways. While he was in the hospital, Harriet called me. “He told you about his father, didn’t he? How he was in perfect health at age ninety-seven and quit eating?” she asked. I assured her he had – many times. “Well,” she continued, “today, he wouldn’t eat again and he told me the story of his dad and said his father committed suicide.” She went silent and I thought for a moment. Then, she asked, “Has he ever said this to you – that his father committed suicide?” Henry had never given me this version of the story, I assured her.
The last week in the hospital, it was more difficult for Henry to eat. He was under heavy medication and was not his usual, talkative self. But even for the meds, he seemed to be extra anxious. He refused to eat, saying he was afraid to swallow because he thought he would choke. I was wondering if this had anything to do with the suicide story. Several times I reminded him how God had created him with a flap in his throat that knew when to open and close. He wasn’t going to choke and he didn’t have to worry about when to open and close the flap. We read from Psalm 118 and John 15. He enjoyed Scripture and this seemed to help a lot. It took more than an hour but he finished most his food.
As Henry and I left the dinner hall we ran into a man who wore a baseball cap with an image of a Bonanza airplane and the registration number below this. I knew Henry would want to meet this man because he also owns a Bonanza aircraft. So, I introduced myself to the man with the hat. He was pleased to meet me and told me his name was Aaron. I introduced him to Henry and Henry to Aaron. Henry reached over and shook the hand of the man perpendicular to and five feet away from Aaron. I waited until Henry and his new acquaintance finished exchanging pleasantries, then I directed him toward Aaron and repeated the introductions.
As we talked about the planes, Aaron said he wasn’t sure where he had left his but thought it was in Boise. Henry said his planes were in his hanger at the airport. Aaron didn’t think his was in a hanger and thought he might be a fool for leaving it out because you never know who is going to take it. Well, that was the key to get Henry going. Time and again in our walks and talks, Henry had confided in me that people were stealing his stuff – including his airplanes. Several months ago, I made an inventory of everything in the hanger and a sketch of the layout of the four planes. After Henry began to give Aaron the rundown of all the stuff being stolen from his hanger, I interrupted and reminded Henry about the list. He remembered the list and the sketch. Then, I assured him I had been to the hanger last week and everything on the list was still there. He was relieved to know this and Aaron seemed to join him in this satisfaction.
After a little more conversation, Henry thought it would be fine to take a walk. Aaron thought he would like to join us, but he could not be long because he needed to get some parts loaded in the car. We walked down a long hall, toward the window where the sunlight was pouring in. The three of us made small talk, mostly about airplanes. Aaron was quite pleasant and always talked with a smile and ended on a chuckle.
The windows looked out to the parking lot. Aaron pointed to two of the cars and said both were his. He volunteered he did not always have cars that looked like them and he did not know how long he had owned these two, but the cars he had before looked a lot different. Nonetheless, he had to make sure he got the parts loaded tonight into the cars. These are airplane parts and can be quite large making it difficult to load. The thought did not occur to me to offer to help.
More idle chatter was dispensed as we hung around the end of the corridor where the windows were looking over the parking lot. I thought it would be good exercise to keep walking, so I suggested we travel to the opposite end of the corridor and see what was out those windows. Henry and Aaron thought this was a good idea. In the months before, when Henry still lived at home, he and I would walk in the mall. Sometimes, we would go up and down the mall several times before resting. Other times, we might only go once before resting and trying it again. But most times, we rested more than walked. We racked up a lot of small talk during those times.
As we walked the corridor, we continued our conversation. There was a wide area with several plush chairs where another corridor intersected. Dale was fast asleep in one of the chairs. Amy, one of the attendants, told me he had been an officer in a large corporation. She said whenever she tried to engage him in conversation, he would tell her, “Not now, I have to get to a meeting.” We chuckled.
The three of us soon arrived at the opposite end of the corridor and looked out the window. There wasn’t as much to see but we stood around looking anyway. Looking and talking. There was a door and Henry wanted to go outside, but I told him if he pushed on the door an alarm would sound. So, we decided to keep walking around indoors.
We looked at the beautiful pictures on the walls and made comments on several of them. The Route 66 3-D art was the favorite by far. It showed the route and had a relief of a ’56 Chevy 2-door, no-post, two-tone BelAir. Henry and Aaron made comments about those being the days. I told them I had been on this road in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and maybe part of Oklahoma. Aaron thought it was good I had been to Illinois while Henry chuckled and seconded. After all, Illinois is a lovely place if you stay out of Chicago.
After we had walked some distance and commented on several pictures, another man joined us from a side room. I introduced him to Henry and Aaron. He said nothing, but he looked at each one of us with his sad eyes. He looked a lot like my dad’s brother, Arnold. Henry and Aaron made some small conversation, to which the man gave no reply but looked at us as if trying to recall. Finishing the introduction, I asked the man his name. Once again, he looked at us as if trying to recall. “So, you can’t remember your name either?” Henry ribbed him. The man’s eyes began to water and Henry seemed to know it was his fault and offered an apology. I patted the man on the shoulder and told him not to worry and let him know he was welcome to join us. He walked with us for a while but eventually went off to another side room and sat down.
Outside each tenant room, there was a photo of the occupant with a short biography. We came across Dale’s room and I read his bio. It was impressive, indeed. He had lived an adventuresome life and he was the founder and president of a large corporation. The bio did not strip him of his title but spoke of him as still holding this position. I was impressed by the respect and compassion these people extended toward their tenants.
After walking a few more corridors, we returned to the place with the plush chairs. This had been a big walk for Henry, so I suggested he have a seat. He eagerly accepted and sat down. I offered another seat to Aaron but he declined on account that he needed to get the parts loaded in the car.
For the next five or six minutes, the three of us continued our conversation. A lady slipped into the empty seat and listened in for a while. Then, she looked up to Aaron and asked him if he was looking to take this seat. He told her she was welcome to it because he would soon be leaving to load the parts in the car. Airplane parts; they are kind of big, so he wasn’t sure how he was going to do it. But he didn’t really seem worried because he always talked with a smile and a chuckle. Once again, the thought did not occur to me to offer to help.
The conversation drew to a close and we said our good-byes. Amy told me she would release the secure door and she disappeared into a dark room. As I reached the door and began to open it, I turned to find Henry right behind me. I explained to him he could not go through the door and that I would return to see him next week. This didn’t help.
Henry didn’t want to stay. My mind went back to the weeks before the hospital stay. He was in an assisted living center. He noticed I went in and out of the doors with ease and wondered why he was not able. I jokingly told him the code is only given to CIA. We laughed. Then, using his finger to point at various places on an imaginary map, he said, “What harm will it be for me to go out that door and go here and here and here and here? I would come back from my walk and no one would have been bothered.” I assured him we would go for a walk one day.
Harriet called me one day – before the assisted living center days, “Dean, I don’t know what to do. This is the third time I have found him in the road stopping traffic. This time, he was recruiting help to find who stole his car. I found him seated in the car of a little old lady. She didn’t know what to do, so she parked by the side of the road.” It sounded funny but I knew she was under great stress. Harriet knew he was getting to be too much for her to handle but found it difficult to let go of the love of her life. I knew my walks in the mall with Henry were coming to an end.
Henry and I had become close friends in the months before nursing homes and hospitals. It grieved me to see him like this. I let the door go for a minute – Amy would have to wait just a bit. I grabbed Henry’s hand, looked into those sad eyes and gave him my solemn assurance I would return and we would walk and talk again. Then, turning, I walked through the door. Somehow, I couldn’t help but feel I was part of the conspiracy to keep Henry confined.