The Great Christmas Detour continues its frantic and bumpy ride, as Uncle Don, almost 94, languishes unhappily in the Good Nursing Home and I struggle to cobble together a workable home-care arrangement in his hovel-like Manhattan apartment, which we will call Stable II for the purposes of this discussion. Yes, this is an actual picture of Don, a modeling gig he did for his commercial photography studio employer in the Sixties. Now do you see why I'm trying so hard?
Nothing like a quickie renovation a week before Christmas in another neighborhood far away. Don's co-op is in a sturdy middle-class high-rise development in Manhattan's Morningside Heights. When I was little, it seemed urbane and exotic; they had a statue of Buddha, a beaded curtain, a yellow cat and a canary, and a fascinating-smelling elevator that went "bing." As a suburban bridge-and-tunnel child, I was entranced by my Aunt Louie's proto-bohemian style, and looked forward to our occasional visits.
But the place went to seed in classic failing-little-old-person style. Louie was a Collier-sister pack rat. In the decade since her death, Don has taken the opposite tack (straight into Crazyville), bragging about how much clutter he has "eliminated" and giving away, basically, all his furniture and most of his household effects except a few bizarrely repaired bits, the better to display his "museum" of piles of photos, memorabilia, and random oddities. He is also obsessed with rewiring lamps and other appliances; the place was festooned with swags of crumbling and oddly spliced extension cords and other electrical terrors. (My favorite was a homemade lamp consisting of a socket, several clamps, and a Dixie cup.) We buy him new, clean, functional stuff--from clothes to light fixtures--and they disappear. Eliminated, presumably.
Getting Don home from the Good Nursing Home, unfortunately, is more complicated than just turning him loose up there again. Now there must be Discharge Plans, and oversight, and safety, and all the things he was blissfully free of before he landed on his bedroom floor. It's like pulling moss off a rock; somehow it was growing there nicely, but just try smacking it back on. What it all boils down to is: A Lady. Anyone facing the prospect of a falling-apart elder knows about The Lady. Unless you're primed and ready to be a 24-hour caregiver under your own roof, she is the critical glue that binds the entire fragile arrangement together. Don has had Ladies before; some worked out okay, some caused him to spend his days "hiding" in his room, and some inspired daring escape attempts. (One zealous guardian of the body called me from the elevated subway platform at 125th Street, having followed him there, and then called on a transit cop for mediation; Don was howling in the background about how the "maid won't obey him and go home." The cop seemed amused and worked things out and sent them both home, but it was an incident worthy of Thurber's My Life and Hard Times.)
Before a Lady could be installed on a newly ramped-up basis, his place had to be rendered halfway livable. Thus, in the past week, the Taking of Stable II:
--Spouse let off a bug-bomb in every room. The place became an instant killing field of cockroach corpses, although Don's caches of hidden cookies have permitted some sleeper cells to remain.
--I got one of his two bedrooms painted and plastered by a superb handyman in the project. (The walls hadn't been painted since they moved in 49 years ago; they were the color of, well, death itself.)
--Had same handyman replace eight (8) wall and ceiling fixtures that Don had "fixed" into stumps.
--Tore down miles of old wires and plugs.
--Had handyman toss the ancient gas stove and run wiring and outlet for a new stove with electric pilot.
--Ordered stove, and cable TV service (in the hopes that more nature and arts shows will distract Don from wiring).
--Ordered new chair on casters and thrown out his old one, which he had repaired so often that it looked like Kevin Costner's raft in Waterworld.
--Ordered new mattress set for Lady and new bed frame for Don (he had made himself a headboard out of lumber lashed to the bedframe with wires and string).
--Watered his precious plants, which he steals shamelessly from the co-op flower beds. His collection is heavy on impatiens and pachysandra.
--Left his piles of stuff untouched, so that he'd feel like it still was home when he got there.
The goal became a mystical one: Get him home by Christmas. The Good Nursing Home, a Jewish institution, is short on Christmas atmosphere (although there is plenty of Chanukah cheer in the lobby, and the other day Don, a cheerful nondenomnational Christian, was sporting a yarmulke and saying "oy-oy-oy" in PT). But we've had no luck finding a Lady to start work on Christmas weekend, not surprisingly-- so it seems he may be stuck there til the middle of next week. We'll bring him nice food; we'll try to put some decorations up in his tiny half-a-room; we'll try to explain. And then next week, God willing, we'll get him back to Stable II...and try to explain The Lady.
Meanwhile, would the stores please stop playing this?: