Dad has been in Southwind Nursing Home for just over two weeks now for rehabilitation — and he’s getting stronger every day, which is wonderful to see. He’s also getting cranky, another measure by which I gauge his recovery. For weeks he’d been too weak even to be cranky, just lying around helpless and in pain, sleeping a lot. Cranky is good: he’s thinking, he’s judging, and he’s got opinions again. I like that.
His sense of humor has never left, another bright spot. It’s a sly sense of humor, usually presaged by a cut of those sharply blue eyes and a slight twinkling in them that warns us something is coming. Combined with his crankiness, the humor now emerges as he makes cracks to me about whether I’m leaving any money, whether he’ll recognize his own house — and just when someone might think he’s serious, he grins.
Our relationship has always been a close one. I was and am that very Southern thing, a Daddy’s girl. But our relationship also been one marked by humor. My choices for his birthday cards and Father’s Day cards always are funny ones, not the sentimental ones that mark my sister’s (or indeed our late brother’s) sensibility. And even through these months as his health has declined, it’s been important for me to keep that humor going, trying to balance the role-shifting we’re experiencing. The humor marks our large comfort zone, our closeness, and our normality.
Even as I was driving him to Crowley to admit him to Southwind, as weak and in pain as he was, Dad managed to surprise me with humor. Out of nowhere, he announced, “They’re going to auction us off.” Totally lost, I asked (so eloquently), “Huh?” And he answered, “At that place. Us old people. They’re going to auction us off.” As I glanced over to look at him (briefly, because I was, after all, driving), I knew he wasn’t serious — he cut those eyes at me. So I cracked back, “And what do you think they’re going to get?” He quickly responded “Not much,” and we both laughed.
Even in the pain, he was able to laugh. Such reassurance and comfort for me with that joke and that laughter, at that moment. After all, I was driving my father to put him in a nursing home. All the guilt about abandoning him and the fears that he would believe that we were abandoning him lightened — we still had that known territory of humor.
Daily when I visit him, I hear him and observe his interactions with others, as well as with me and Kay and our friends who visit. Some days he’s exhausted from dialysis and PT, in pain from the arthritis that pains him now nearly constantly. If he’s too tired to joke, I take that as a cue. I sit quietly and talk when he wants, or sit and read while he naps. Right now, while the house is undergoing renovations, I don’t manage to spend as much time with him as I’d like. I’m too busy at the house. But I always make it there for dinnertime — “supper” as we downhome Southerners call it. Right now they still bring him a tray to his room. He’s not quite up to going to the dining room — that’s a goal we’re working toward. We talk about the food, and we talk about his teeth. Why, you wonder, might we talk about his teeth?
Another complicating factor in his recovery (and there would be one, wouldn’t there?) is that Dad managed to lose his bottom dentures at some point. We only realized in when he was being prepped for the kyphoplasty, when I was putting his dentures in the cup provided. I put in the top plate, asked for the bottom dentures, and realized he didn’t have them in. At first, I figured that he’d taken them out. They are relatively new, and they haven’t really fit comfortably. Consequently, Dad developed the habit of taking them out when they bothered him. He might put them in a shirt pocket. Or leave them in the bed. Or put them on his nightstand. Sometimes, I found them on the floor.
So at first, I didn’t worry. When we got home from that two-day stay in the hospital, I looked for them. They were nowhere to be found. Our friend Billie helped me look; she couldn’t find them either. So besides having to get him ready for the nursing home, I had to take him to our dentist to get fitted for a new bottom plate. He had two visits in a few days, the first one on the very day he entered Southwind.
All this is to explain one of the problems of his two weeks at Southwind so far. He can’t eat much. He eats better some days, but always asks me when his teeth are coming. Yesterday I could tell him that they’d come in and that I had an appointment for next Tuesday morning. Soon, he’d have a full set of dentures. He looks forward to that. It’s not fun, he tells me, to gum your food to death. (Humor again, even in adversity, marks both of us.) When the nurses weighed him one day last week while I was there, he weighed 150 pounds. I knew he’d lost weight, but that surprised me — and concerned me. I mean, food is important in Southern (and Cajun) life; we like our food. It’s part of our lives, our social interactions. We talk about food a lot. We trade recipes. So when Dad doesn’t enjoy food, it’s a problem. And he is a Texan, too — a real carnivore who likes meat. It’s hard enough to eat steak or a pork chop or even chicken when your dentures don’t fit right; even chopping food finely doesn’t always help. But it’s nearly impossible to eat meat when you only have your top dentures. Defaulting to mashed potatoes, soup, and soft food really reduces your choices. It also reduces (if not nearly destroys) one of your pleasures in life.
But when I think about it, he hadn’t been eating much other than soft food for a while. When we talked about it, neither of us could really remember just when he’d last had his bottom teeth. And maybe it also explained something else I’d noticed for a couple of weeks — his speech had changed a bit, thickened at times. I attributed it to aging, perhaps even to a small stroke.
It’s too easy, and perhaps too convenient, to attribute changes in aging parents to strokes, small or large. Perhaps in some cases, the changes result from medications.
In our case, it had a very different reason: lost dentures.
Now I tell him I’m going to glue the damned new dentures into his mouth if they don’t fit right. He laughs. We have that relief once more, the comfort of humor. And plan for new dietary choices after next Tuesday when he gets the new bottom dentures at last.
Oh, and one of the discoveries as the contractor moved furniture two days ago out of Dad’s room? The lost dentures — from underneath his chest of drawers. Just how they got there, we can’t figure out. The dentures would have to first get behind the chest of drawers and then get pushed under from there.
I tell him our little friends the mice that have decided to co-habit with us this winter, coming in from the field near our house, must have moved them.
Maybe I’ll take them with me today when I go to see him. Tied with a red ribbon, so he can’t lose these.