I have two uncles that are not well. I don't mean "not well," as in they have chronic colds or something. I mean "not well" as in everything seems to be wrong wrong with them. Uncle Joe has struggled with Schiziphrenia for most of his adult life. My mom always explained his condition as a switch, like one day his brain just flipped to "off" and stopped working correctly. His brother, Uncle Gerard was born with some developmental delays and had he been born at different time, his life might have tracked completely differently. Even so, he's had a rather remarkable life giving his mental limitations, traveling the world and holding a job as messenger for twenty something years. Sadly, Gerard's health has been in steady decline since 9/11 and Joe's body has been ravaged recently by the long-term use of anti-psychotic drugs, confining him to a wheelchair.
I hate visiting them. I know that I should be a better person. Neither one of them are geographically close to me, and toting a precocious toddler anywhere isn't easy. I know I should go. Often visiting them falls to the bottom of my To-Do list and gets pushed back and back and back until that To-Do list is a crumpled-up piece of paper tossed to the floor with the letters barely visible. I want to visit them, mostly to allay my guilt. Because when I do go see them, I don't feel happy or relieved. I feel sad. I feel depressed. I feel demoralized. They live in nursing homes, and though they each entered the system relatively young, they've aged severely while in it. They are both now old men, fading away into the bland carpet and grey covered couches.
I struggle with seeing them too because although my mom has been dead a long time, seeing her brothers makes her death feel raw again, like someone just picked at the scab again. I think to myself how much their health deteriorated after her passing, and I wonder if it's because she was their advocate or if this would have happened anyway? Did her prayers and constant nagging of the social worker keep her brothers' ill health at bay? Or was it inevitable?
I'm left with this constant guilty feeling that I should do more, a toddler and a husband whose never known my uncles to be anything other than wards of the state. Today, the stars aligned and I pulled up to Uncle Joe's nursing home. I had Bean with me and told her cautiously that she might be scared in there, but to just hold my hand and we'd say a quick hello and then leave. We walked in, and already I felt nauseous. That mix of disinfectant and stale air burned my throat. The guard gave us a visitor sticker, and Bean was thrilled. "Sticker! Sticker!" she shouted while peeling it off my shirt and putting in her belly. It was plain white rectangular with the word "Visitor" printed on in small caps. And yet, this sticker seemed to amaze her. As we walked further in, there were patients lined up just sitting in the hallway. They all smiled at her and seemed to enjoy seeing this petite little thing with her crazy hair flopping all over the place prancing in her ladybug rain boots. We found the rec room, which might be the third most depressing place on earth. Tables were splayed about haphazardly around a flat screen TV with a scrambled picture that almost gave me a migraine from looking at it. It was here that I found my uncle, slumped in wheelchair, facing away from the TV. He appeared thinner than the last time I saw him. His legs, in particular looked like they would break if he tried to stand up. He had a stained towel that he was methodically running up and down his left arm, rubbing the hair off with each pass.
When I saw him, I wanted to turn around and run. Bean entered the room holding my hand, and only saw pumpkins. She pointed at the the Halloween decorations excitedly counting each one aloud. We found Uncle Joe and he gave us a big hello. Bean gave him a hug and blew him a kiss and then she let go of my hand, and explored the place. She said hello to everyone there. She danced in circles. She shook her butt. She showed off her counting skills. She didn't see this place as I did. She saw it with fresh eyes, filled with people that just needed to smile. And Bean helped them to smile.
I told my husband early in our journey as parents that I wanted to take Bean to visit my uncles regularly because I wanted her to grow up to be kind and empathetic. I always felt that my family was more sensitive to various hardships because my mom took care of her brothers and we were taught early about life's frailty. Similarly, I wanted to expose Bean so that she too would grow to be kind and compassionate to everyone, not just the ones she was used to seeing in school, but to the homeless person on the NYC street or to the cashier having a tough day at StopNShop. What I learned today, is that Bean already has that kindness in her. She's not afraid of nursing homes. She doesn't see Uncle Joe a faded copy of my mom; she just sees him as Uncle Joe.
So today, my two-year old daughter taught me that Uncle Joe is still Uncle Joe. He's not an unmarked box on a To-Do list, he's a person who very much enjoyed visiting with his niece and great niece. And that will get me in the car to see him again.