11A. I turned the small gold key in the lock and tucked it into my jeans pocket. Phone, keys, bags – everything had to be stored in a locker before entering the ward. Everything but my little gold key and photo ID. We signed in and followed the nurse down the maze.
The geriatrics section of the behavioral health floor was tucked back into a small right-hand corner of the sprawling structure. Some rooms were closed, just offering those little vertical glass window strips like you see in the movies. Other doors were open and it took all I had not to automatically turn my head to peer in. In single file behind the nurse, we walked these halls for days within a span of three minutes.
Our journey led us to a small tv room by the nurse’s station occupied by a gigantic orderly, a very patient healthcare worker and my grandmother. She looked up and smiled at my mom. It was the smile of knowing you like something but not really knowing why, or humming a tune by habit without actually recalling the words. Blank face when she looked up at me, but I was ok with that.
We sat down for our 5:30 to 6:30 (exactly) visiting hour.She was sweet, seemingly in a good mood, but her hands were fidgeting and scratching, pulling her shirt down off her shoulders so she could get at more skin to itch. “How do I get these out?” she kept asking us. We didn’t have an answer.
It was a comedy of conversation, what she could hear she didn’t understand. What she understood, she immediately forgot. She put most of her energy towards trying to get a fix on where people were, countlessly asking about people from the past. It was interesting how the letters in names would flip-flop as they tumbled off her lips. Like converting an address book to pig latin. “Where was Leo?” she would ask. “That’s his name, right? Leo?””Leroy” my mom would correct her.
My grandmother met Leroy in an assisted living facility in Ventura, Ca. She was mostly deaf, and he mostly blind, but they would take his little gold Mercedes convertible all over the 805 for dinner and golf dates. After many fights, many car crashes and my grandmother’s deteriorating mental health, they were split up into two separate facilities. She doesn’t remember her grandkids, but she remembers ‘Leo’. “How do I get in touch with him? Does he know I’m looking for him?”
The location of loved ones seemed to be a theme in behavioral health. A woman in a red floral nightgown was going table to table with a napkin on which she had printed lists of names. She was holding it out in front of her for everyone to see, hoping we would recognize them maybe? At one point she held a shouting match with the staff about getting her all her family’s cell phone numbers. I sat there with my little gold key and picture ID understanding at that second it was all I had to prove our roles were not reversed. If I didn’t have my phone on me, would I know anyone’s number? If I was trapped here by misunderstanding, that’s what I would do.
Scratching, Pulling at her gigantic blue, blood-speckled hospital gown. Scratching.
During our visit it was all we could do to keep my grandmother from scratching off her own skin. My mother kept handing her a colored pencil to draw with. My grandmother was an amazing artist. Today she looked at the pencil as if it was a foreign object dropped in from an extraterrestrial world.
At one point she had pulled her gown down so far off her right shoulder, a sticker on her skin was visible. I thought it was a ID sticker incase she wandeed off. She kept pulling at it, trying to take it off, when the care aid caught sight of it and said it was a nicotine patch. My grandmother doesn’t smoke. Chaos ensued as my mother and I demanded to know why she would be wearing one and who made that call. Someone had checked the ‘smoker’ box on her intake documents. One stray tick mark on a form and my grandmother had apparently been wearing a nicotine patch since 8:30 that morning.
Of course that wasn’t the only chaos in that 60 minute visit. My grandmother is a very – lets say opinionated – person. At one point she told us (and not in her indoor voice) “I just don’t know what kind of place this is. They’re all blacks and Italians”. The orderly and health care aid in the room were both black. “Holy cannoli! What the hell are we going to do?!” I exclaimed. I’m Italian. She heartily agreed. I guess they don’t get much sarcasm in the psych ward
I held her hand and blew her kisses from across the table. The nurse asked if she wanted help taking a shower tomorrow. She replied that, yes, she did like the salads here.
6:30 came fast, faster than I thought it would. The announcement was made that it was time to pack up and all visitors needed to leave. We gave hugs and backtracked through the maze of corridors to our lockers with the other visitors we walked in with. 11A. Somehow with my bag over my shoulder and my phone on my person, I was safe. My phone numbers were simply locked in a iPhone instead of scrawled on a napkin – is there really much difference? I vow to pretend there is.
Our band of visitors departs as a group down the elevators, through the rest of the hospital maze and out the front hospital doors, saying good evening to each other and exchanging a bittersweet “see you tomorrow” when the 5:30 club meets again.