To Tame A Monster

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I had wanted to flee, and I hadn’t even made it past the parking lot. I can’t remember the first time I was at one of these places, my mind has probably suppressed the memory. I was here though, in this “Assisted Living Facility”, feeling as if I had been drug by my ankles as I fought an inner battle to not run and hide in the car, nearing a panic attack, and I had to muster the courage to walk down the hallways in a calm, collected, manner as one is often trained to do.

I said the three rules in my head to the point of ad nauseum.



The first two were from my father, the ones he repeated as soon as we walked through the doors of doctors’ offices, hospitals, and in this case, nursing homes:
1.
Don’t. Touch. ANYTHING.
2.
If its death or putting me here? Let me die.
The third I had added myself after the first visit:
3.
Don’t breathe.
These rules are simple enough, but they’re hard to hang onto once you walk in with germ phobia accompanied with an over-active imagination like mine. Each sense is assaulted with a different form of tragedy, but the worst sense?
Smell.
It’s the first thing to hit. The smell of decrepit bodies, unable to function if left to their own devices, mixed with the scent of food that one only associates with hospitals and day old school lunches.
This time isn’t any different and I try to balance between breathing through my mouth, and then remembering that I possibly breathe in the disease and snapping my jaw shut to decide which is worse.
My aunts have dragged me here to see my grandfather with Alzheimer’s and I can’t help but grit my teeth in annoyance as they try to find the room, hoping that maybe they’ve moved him to another facility, or by some odd chance he can no longer accept visitors, and they force us to leave. I try to mimic Tante Ghyslaine’s falsetto voice as she says hello, identical polite smiles plastered on our faces, following Dana, who is hurrying from nurse to nurse, trying to locate just one room in this maze.

We reach a doorway, with Don Caldwell posted on the name plate. The first half is over, I calm for a moment, at least I know the decaying form lying here.
My grandfather sits in bed with the sheet pulled up to his chest, and arms sitting limp at his side. He’s not stout and healthy as I remember. Under the sheet I could make out the outline what looks like the last two matches sitting in an almost empty matchbox, a horrible contrast to the legs of a hard working tobacco farmer. His face is sunken in and his eyes never seem to really focus. Folds of skin hang from his chin, and his hair is almost completely gone.
There’s a greeting from Dana and Ghyslaine as I hang in the background, trying to avoid being called over for a hug and a kiss like they had just given.
I would have vomited on his face.
“Daddy, do you know who this is?” My aunt motions to me, and I straighten, trying to make an expression that might seem more familiar than the grimace my face has twisted into.
My grandfather holds up a few fingers, trying to point to me, all strength in him gone.
“Come on, Daddy you remember her!”
His gapping mouth opens and closes, like a dying fish in the hot sun. His teeth are gone and a few short croaks escape his throat, none of them loud enough to be able to decode what he’s trying to say. He gives up, and slumps against his pillow, his mouth still hanging open in half sentence.
One nod.
That was all it took for Dana to break into a grin, so happy he had remembered something.
There is more small talk, literally.
It’s Dana talking, giving my Grandfather small updates on the family and town gossip.
Its only five minutes until we leave; years, in my mindset.
We repeat the same process we had coming in;
Falsetto Voice
Polite Smile
Holding my breath
Touching Nothing
We reach the car finally and my hands itch, my throat burns.
I need Germ-X,
Or to bathe in bleach.
Something!
I cringe and push myself farther into the seat when I learn that what I had just witnessed was a good day.
He would die the next.






***
That was years ago, in the summer of seventh grade. I can still picture it clearly.
Time passed without word of a visit to an assisted living facility in sight. Sure, there were visits to hospitals and mental health facilities, but neither could make me want to wither and die as much as five minutes in that place could. They contained hope, they weren’t desolate and decaying, and, people got better.
Then the call came from my grandmother asking if we could go visit her dying cousin in the Nursing Home.
It was in the car on the way there, my father and I had a conversation running like a broken record.
“But. We. Don’t. Know. Him.”
“I know.”
“So then why do we have to go visit him?!”
“Because your grandmother asked us to.”
“We had plans! We have things to do! Important things.”
“Look, I hate this just as much as you, we’re doing what your granny can’t while she’s back home. We’ll just go in, say hello, and get this the hell over with.”
“I still don’t want to go.”
And repeat.

We arrived, and my father and I moved in identical motions, only difference is that he actually spoke.
Hands shoved in my pockets, face grim, jaw clenched, I didn’t even try to look pleased, I was far from it. If I avoided eye contact with anyone I wouldn’t even have to use my façade.
The Rules repeated in my head, and I held onto that like a final piece of sanity.
It was my mantra in a place like this, something to keep my mind off the fact that if I breathed I could feel the disease crawling into my lungs, that it hung in the air and latched to my clothes, to keep myself from shaking uncontrollably. To stop what seemed like an inevitable panic attack.
Asking nurses left and right for a small direction, we moved steadily toward our goal, hoping the sooner we arrived the sooner it would be over with and I could do something that didn’t make my skin crawl.
The room we arrived in was small, with only one light in the corner pooling in a small space, leaving the rest of the room in shadows.
Please be asleep. Please be asleep.
My father and I were called over, my father was much better at taking on and off his mask. I would watch him shift in amazement. His back was straight, his face was pleasant and polite, he grinned at the old man in the bed, when I knew only moments before he had looked like me, uncomfortable and ready to run. I wondered if his eyes shifted too, behind the sunglasses he wore so often.
I found a distaste for the old man almost instantly. I had ideas he was just as nosey as most hermits, and blamed him more-so than my grandmother for dragging me here, ruining my seemingly-perfect day. I shot daggers through his chest with my eyes, mentally telling him he had better hope there wouldn’t be many more days like this, the less, the better for him. My hand twitched in my pocket and in my crazed panic I had to control myself to not smother one of us with the nearest pillow.
As he droned on, I became increasingly irritable, I nit-picked at every little thing. The way he smelled, the way his jaw moved when he talked, how he shook with every breath, how worn he looked. I wanted to scream every time he began to cry, his voice cracked at every fond memory.
Your sister was the most beautiful girl I ever saw.
My wife was very smart.
And on, and on.
The conversation was unnervingly repetitious, and I was happy he asked few questions. I didn’t want him to know me.
He’s going to die in a few days anyway, why does it matter if he sees people he doesn’t know. It’s his fault he doesn’t know us, he’s the one who declined our invitation to dinner.
What did it matter if he knew me now?
I began sliding my feet across the floor, toward the extra pillow, toward some cords; it soothed me, just knowing they were there.
What? Are you mad?! You won’t do it; you can’t ruin your life over some sobbing nuisance.
But just knowing they’re there…
My eyes shot wide when the conversation finally began rounding to a close, and my desperation simmered. I could see my father taking steps toward the door, slowly edging to the escape.
“Well, Max, we’ll see you later.”
I glare at my father, ‘We better not.’
“Have to go run some errands.”
I give a simple wave and a smile, much more than what I feel he deserves.
The car is safe, and I see a glimpse of myself in my father as he reaches greedily for the hand sanitizer in my hand, but it’s only a glimpse before the mask is back on.
We travel in mostly silence, I only choose to speak only to gripe about the visit, and there is a dark haze when I begin the small list of errands I had happily made before.
It ends too soon, and my day feels wasted.









***
Any time my gran brings up Max I feel bitter, he didn’t die like I had expected, or get better like everyone –not including me- had hoped.
The visits have become more frequent, and I still have yet to conquer the growing monster in my chest. The one that only sleeps when I can escape from the polite smiles, and the sweet and innocent façade, he roars to life in these places though, and I feel myself more disgusted with the ones living like the dead. It’s cruel, I admit, and the latest time wasn’t any different.
It was this passing weekend, when my grandmother had informed me that the next day we would be visiting Max.
I was enraged.
I felt unimportant and pushed aside. I had plans, as usual.
‘Why can’t she just drive herself? Why am I never informed?’
I spent the drive seething in secret; I acted kind, and mentally attempted to convince myself it wasn’t her fault we were going here.
But it was.
We pulled the car into the lot, as I sent amusing jabs at my father and his sense of direction. I stood at the door, refusing to even use my clothing as a barrier to push it open.
As I strode through the entrance, Papa stopped to tweet at the birds in the large cage that adorned the small lounge.
“I don’t think they can hear you.” I snapped irritably.
“Sure they can!” he smiled and turned to tweet again.
I knew they could probably hear, but the monster was growing and I knew the more time spent here would mean less ability to tame it.





***
The hallway was devoid of any happiness.
A woman, frail, with papery, translucent skin pulled herself along in a wheelchair, socked feet barely giving her any progress. Her eyes were fixed on the baseboard along the wall, as if studying it for flaws. Her eyes were hidden, and chances were likely that even if her eyes weren’t they would be unfocused and distant. I rushed passed her, thinking that what was around the corner couldn't be more pathetic.

I came upon the hallway usually crowded with happy, fat women, was instead occupied by one man, shaking his head and rocking. I could hear him muttering to himself, seeming to have an argument with someone who wasn't there.
I quickened my pace, wanting to hurry and get this over with.
I reached the end of the hall, still unable to find the room.
'This place is a ridiculous maze, a labyrinth.'
We retraced our steps, turning down the hall we'd missed.
The small group of women occupied here, all talking and laughing, but as I listened closer I realized they were all the same as the man before. The only difference is they were happy and the overlapping conversations masked the madness that was actually occurring.
The door to Max's room was shut tight, and I once again held on to the hope he was sleeping and not to be bothered.
My grandmother pushed open the door and called out to her cousin. My father and I remained hanging in the doorway, not caring to visit the dying man we never really knew.
Granny kept referring to the two of us, and looking up expectantly, waiting for my father and I to shuffle in. It wasn't until she waved us in with an irritated hand that we dared to make any move toward the hospital bed.
"Hey, Corporal!" Max greeted, "or have you been promoted?"
Time to put on the mask again,
I offered a bright smile and a fake laugh, "No, I'm retired."
At this he seemed to lose interest for a moment as my father and grandmother's words mixed forming a jumbled explanation of how I wasn't in ROTC.
He asked trivial questions, about school, and I responded as if I had rehearsed. Polite, kind, reciting my grades in a bright and cheery voice.
"I'm not shocked, we Hyder’s have brains."
I wanted to disagree with every word he said, just because I could.
Still the mask remained firmly in place, and I nodded with seriousness, as if I truly believed every word.
I could feel the mask slipping though, as he continued to tell about his opinions, and trivial matters, once again tearing up at the most minor provocation.
My grandmother's shrill voice broke through his recollections, shooing my father and I out so she could visit with Max alone.
I barely gave a convincing goodbye before I bolted from the room, practically running down the hall, by myself, my father falling behind.
I passed the mutterer
"No, no, I- I couldn't do that, I'm just a country boy."
And the woman still pulling along.
She had moved three feet.
I pushed through the doors, gasping at the clean, crisp air. I dashed to the car, pulling open the door, and turning to my father, who had been closer behind than I thought. I poured the Germ-X on his outstretched palms, and then repeated the process with my own.
We rounded the car and leaned against the hood.
Papa pulled out a pack of cigarettes, a habit he secretly hadn't quit, and flicked the lighter a few times before the cancer took light.
I had become accustomed to this, the smell of smoke in the air and the soft breeze that always seemed to blow at the base of these mountains. I was accustomed to the talk of phobias and what parts were the most horrifying, I could easily open up and talk freely to someone who understood without the slightest hint of judgment.
He lit another cigarette, and took a drag.
"You know, I hate the title 'assisted living facility'," he took another drag, "when really it should be called 'assisted dying facility', all you do is come here to die."
It was the best definition I'd ever heard.













***
I'm sure it would be ideal for me to say that the life lesson I learned was to live life to the fullest, never take anything for granted, or something sugary like that, but I was raised with that mind and all this experience had left me with was a goal and a fiery anger.
I had to control my mask better, flip like a switch so no one can watch me try to tame the monster.
In the times I've gone I've let my voice get sweeter, my smile a little brighter, but I haven't stopped cringing at the thought of these homes, nor does it no longer feel like a contagious disease is playing hacky-sack with my tongue.
I haven't stopped my façade, I've just gotten better at it.





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