On a recent morning I arrived at a New Jersey nursing home to visit my dad’s elder brother. I’d been told that soon after he moved in, a nurse asked, “Who are you here to see?” That he was upright, dressed immaculately and walking, fooled the staff at first. But that was before he began asking for his ex-wife every 12 seconds.
Truth is, he’s a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Or, in geriatric jargon, “in and out.”
Why would anyone expect more? He recently celebrated his 97th birthday. Hell, he walks, talks, and takes nothing stronger than baby aspirin. Golda Meier used to be my role model. Now it’s Uncle Buddy.
We had last seen each other several years ago in his stylish Scottsdale condo. Back then, I had dark hair and a waistline. Back then, he knew what day of the week it was and performed a short ballet d’occasion in his long johns.
I knew he’d lost some cognitive abilities before moving East last summer and—take your pick—had Alzheimer’s or senile dementia. I fretted. What if he doesn’t know me?
I queried my cousin. “Should I call before visiting?”
Her reply was terse. “Just show up. He’s going nowhere.”
I’ll admit to being a tad nervous. It didn’t ease my anxiety when I couldn’t get into the building through what looked like the one-and-only entrance. In frustration, I rang the emergency bell. Over the intercom, a high-pitched voice instructed me to “go to the next door.” I looked around and wondered, Where?
“Turn around so your back is to the building and walk to the right.” She enunciated every syllable as if I were the village idiot. God on my side, I found the door and let myself in. Holding my breath because relatives had described graphically the snake pit’s urine stench, I was pleasantly surprised to inhale without losing my breakfast.
A middle-aged woman sat hunched over a newspaper. “Ahem, I’m looking for my Uncle Buddy.”
“Buddy is in 209. Just take the elevator,” she said without looking up.
Imagine entering the Pentagon for the first time and receiving the same sketchy information.
After 10 minutes of dead ends, I returned to the welcome(?) desk. “How do you get to the elevator?”
“Just take a right.” She gestured toward the ceiling. “Then two lefts. You can’t miss it.”
I did as I was told and landed in a day room with a minion of wheelchair-bound seniors. “Have you seen Buddy?” Gazes glued to the floor, they tongued spittle sliding from the corners of their mouths.
“Thanks, y’all. Merry Chri … , I mean, Happy Chanukah,” I said on my way out.
I returned to the front desk. “Um, I can’t find the elevator. Do you have a map?”
This time she stood up to deliver the directions. I listened intently.
Eureka! I found his room. Perhaps I had a few good months before checking myself in.
The door was closed. Not wishing to catch my uncle in bed with an obese dietician with a nose ring, I knocked softly while calling his name. Nada. I cracked the door, stepped into the room and landed in the lap of an African American. He wore a windbreaker with the Harvard emblem. Two things I knew: 1) My uncle had Irish-white skin, and 2) he went to Penn. Nobody had mentioned a roommate. Harvard suggested trying the room next door.
“But his name is on this door,” I wailed. He looked at me blankly.
Roaming the halls, I called, “Buddy, Buddy … ”
Then I began to worry. My uncle might be in danger. Or lost. Maybe he’d escaped in a laundry cart then caught a bus for Rockefeller Center. Or thumbed a ride to the Jersey Shore for a hot dog at Max’s.
I scampered back to the cheery receptionist. In a futile attempt to reassure me, she said my uncle “could be anywhere.” Picturing him in a dumpster under a pile of damp Depends and half-eaten latkes, I asked if he might be at lunch.
We’d reached the tipping point. “He doesn’t eat now. He eats later” [you nincompoop]. She commandeered a muscle-bound attendant with abstract forearm tattoos. Or maybe they were knife wounds. “Take this woman around until you find Buddy.”
Tweedledum and Tweedledee entered a room where a symposium on Judaism for Dummies was in full swing. “Nope, I haven’t seen Buddy,” said the leader.
We got the same response at Elementary Origami and How to Eat With a Plastic Fork And Not Put Out Your Eye. The attendant’s sorrowful expression said he was running on empty.
At that very moment, we rounded a corner. There, looking spiffy in pressed khakis, an oxford shirt and tasseled loafers, sat my Uncle Buddy in a club chair.
“It’s your little niece, Beth,” I squealed as I approached.
I might as well have declared myself Lady Gaga. Or Vladimir Putin. I pointed to my silver hair. “It used to be brown.”
His face lit up. He stood and shuffled toward me. “Oh, Beth! How are you, sweetie?”
We hugged and moved to a green sofa to chat side by side.
“I’m so happy to see you, Uncle Buddy.”
“And I’m thrilled to see you. What did you say your name was?”