It seems like every day I see an ad someplace on facebook appealing to the white-headed to live longer, somebody has a secret to tell about living a long time. I've seen inside enough nursing homes to get the understanding long life is not necessarily desirable. I've seen enough that if Social Services commits me to one, I'll quit taking medications and/or starve myself to death. They let you do that. I call a nursing home a lumberyard, the place they stack inert boards. In the past I swore I could never live in a trailer. By this time in the life, I could live happily in one. Simple maintenance. Everything I'd need in a pod. Only problem, they're tornado targets. It was arrogance that said I couldn't live in one. Low status. Not that my status is above a trailer. It never has been. There was a time I didn't want it to show so much. Had to come down from city mind. It took a long time. I sound like Jr in his decline saying, "I aint goin to no nursin home. I'll kill myself first." I said, "No you won't. They'll drive up in an ambulance, take you out of bed, strap you down and drive you to the nursing home. You won't have a chance to kill yourself." I'm the same. If SS set out to put me in one, I couldn't stop them. Let me have my laptop and wifi. I could write a nursing home chronicle and call it Grumpy Old Bastard. Of course, it's probably not allowed. Television only. I could have friends bring me books. No, I'd be too far gone for books. Maybe the Carl children's books, pictures without words, Carl the black and tan rottweiler baby-sits baby while mama goes out shopping. Dog and baby have adventures. Baby rides Carl's back to the park. They go through the refrigerator and have snacks. Mama comes home, Carl and baby are back in place, Carl had cleaned up their mess, baby and Carl are happy to see her. She thanks good-dog Carl for keeping her baby safe. No words. You make up your own words. I could enjoy that kind of nursing home reading. In art class where we would cut out flowers from construction paper, I'd be unable to cut the paper. I'd have a sheet of orange paper and think it's beautiful as it is. I can't cut it and can't improve it. My contribution on the walls would be a sheet of orange paper, or turquoise, or yellow, whichever was put before me. I'm afraid the activities director would lose patience.
The time Jr was elder-napped and put in the nursing home for physical therapy, I went to see him every day to keep him aware he was not abandoned. His mind was feeble. I didn't want him to worry that he'd been sent off to die. During his first week, activities director, Ms New Age feel-good all the time, so happy she's dancing on air, came to the room wanting him to go to art class where they cut out flowers with construction paper. She said he'll love it. I told her he won't love it. She knew he would. I told her I know the man. He will not love it. He will not do it. He has not lost his wits and his wits have no place for cutting flowers out of construction paper. This is a mountain man. Give him a gun and a target and watch him go. You can talk to him all you want, but he won't do it. One day Wayne Henderson played in the entertainment room. I told him about it, suggested I wheel him there to see Wayne. He and Wayne made music together years before. No. "I'm not like them people." He meant he did not want Wayne to see him in a wheelchair among a bunch of old people bent over in wheelchairs. It shamed him. He wasn't that bad off and he knew it. I knew it. I did not push him beyond his decision. I understood by knowing him. He lost so much mind over the two months he was incarcerated, entering the doorway at home, he said, "Is this where I live?" He stood leaning on the walker, looked around and said, "This ain't bad. I like it." He wanted to die at home and I wanted it for him. In my way of seeing, he was too honorable a man to cast into the human landfill. In my mind's eye, it was the same as piles of dead Jews from concentration camp photographs. The old people in the place didn't make me feel as bad as the people working there did. Deceptive and indifferent on all levels from room service to management. They was just doin their jobs. My sense of it was, not hardly. They counted the minutes from the time they went on shift to the time they left. I could not let Jr lie in the bed looking at the ceiling any longer than the first minute I could get him out.
His roommate was a sad old thing nobody came to visit, incapable of taking care of himself, but had his wits about him. He hated it in there. He occupied the tv with round the clock auction channels. Jr was not interested in anything on the television. It was merely a flickering light and noise to him. I took a xerox of a Flatt & Scruggs photograph with Art Wooten, Jr's fiddler friend, and taped it to the bathroom door opposite his pillow. The bathroom door was his view. I thought the picture might be a catalyst for memories of the music, playing Foggy Mountain Breakdown on bluegrass banjo, and making music with Art Wooten playing fiddle in his band, The Green Mountain Boys. Art was Jr's favorite fiddler to pick banjo with. They were in the same league, their music flowed, they played mountain bluegrass at weekend dances. They liked playing for dancers. The dancers became part of the music. It beat the hell out of looking at a dreary old bathroom door all day. This morning on NPR I heard somebody talking about geriatrics. He said only seventeen percent of Americans die in their own beds. I was surprised at the small number. The nursing home was, indeed, Jr's destiny had I not stepped in. I moved in to take care of him because he wanted to die in his home, and I could not watch the only wise man I've ever known waste away in the lumberyard waiting to die. I wanted him to have a life, encouraged his friends to drop in and visit. I'm happy to say he left this world from his own bed asleep. A little after seven in the morning I heard from the next room his death rattle. It sounded like a straw pulling on the last of milk shake. I recognized it, though it was the only one I'd heard. I wanted him to go in peace. I wanted to keep my energy quiet and let him proceed. I wanted to get a Tibetan shaman to come in and do prayer over him for a few days. This isn't Tibet. We do things the American way. I went back to sleep to get out of his way and not distract his spirit. I woke after a couple hours. I wanted to give the spirit plenty of time to leave the body. I went into the room and sat in his wheelchair beside the bed and prayed while he was exiting the body. I said, Go, don't look back. There's nothing back here for you, your body's give out, it can't go no more. Go forward.
I dreaded making the phone call to hospice. I wanted to sit with him all day, but knew it was a dramatic fantasy. I sat with him for an hour or so, him still and permanently asleep. I wanted him to have some time. I supposed three hours was plenty. Called the hospice number. The Sunday nurse on duty, one I didn't know, came right away. I thought about staying with her and watching the procedure, but a moment came right away I realized did not want to see it. I left the room and just a few feet into the next room I turned around for a last look. She had just picked him up from the bed in the diaper he was sleeping in, his head hanging back. I saw the Pieta. I looked away moved to the core and never looked again until the rescue squad or whatever it was backed the big truck up to the door. Three of them got out with a gurney that goes up and down, this way and that. They picked him up and strapped him onto it like lumber. I thought, Oh Lord, where is the respect? We think we're so much better than the old way, but in the old way they knew about respect. I was idealizing, not allowing that these are people at work doing what they do. They were good at it. They left, the nurse left, and there I stood on the floor gaping about in an empty house. That's it, cat shit. I was convinced God sent me to Jr for a teacher, I served him the same as serving the Master. I received him as such and he turned out to be a great teacher. He didn't know it. I learned by paying attention to him, listening to memories from his life over five years. I suspected a possibility of wisdom in him for some time and then saw it. It wasn't wisdom like he had the answers to cosmic questions. It was in his humility, his patience, his attention in the present moment, his peace with his neighbors and everyone around him. I asked him one day who he looked up to. He said, "I look up to everybody." At first I took it for a figure of speech. Knowing him for several years I saw he meant it as he said it. He did look up to everybody. It doesn't mean he looked up from a pit. He looked up to everyone with respect, basic human respect, received them for who they were devoid of judgment.
anish kapoor himself