January 17, 2014
Uncle Arnold is in a lot of trouble and it’s not his fault. He has been diagnosed as being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The family is trying to convince Arnold’s wife Bea to put him in an institution and she may be leaning that way.
Right now Uncle Arnold and Aunt Bea, as well as my parents, are living in an apartment complex called Chestnut Arms, in the suburbs of Hartford. For two thousand five hundred dollars a month the residents get a two-bedroom apartment with weekly maid service, beautiful grounds, a barely used gym, a well stocked library, a movie theater, a real bar with a real happy hour, two meals a day (breakfast and dinner, served on china and with cloth napkins), a bus to take them to doctor appointments, shopping and sight seeing excursions, plus Bingo on Wednesday and Saturday nights. There is also paid entertainment, resident talent shows and a free snack bar open from one until three in the afternoon. The dining room offers three entrees per night and a choice of first or second seating. There is a doorman, a concierge, security guards, plus security alarms in every apartment and a nurse on staff and a doctor on call. There is the main social hall of the complex called the lobby, where ten couches and a dozen over-stuffed chairs offer the residents a place to gather so as to engage in their two favorite pastimes, griping about the food and gossiping about whoever is not there.
Chestnut Arms is the type of place where a son or daughter can put his parent and not feel guilty. There is something for everyone. Almost. The women love it and the smattering of men hate it for the most part. Chestnut Arms, like other similar complexes, is composed of eighty percent women and twenty percent men. Of the men, at least half are droolers and another quarter are borderline something and usually anti-social. The women love it and what’s not to love. Someone else cooks and cleans and they have company all day long. Always someone to talk with – not just a snoring chair in front of a tv.
The women look around and see companionship and social intercourse for the rest of their lives. Their husbands, on the other hand, having been plucked from the sanctity of their homes, see their future in front of them and it’s a future of incapacitation, senility, boredom and death waiting for them head on.
Uncle Arnold didn’t know that he was miserable until Aunt Bea told him. He thought that life was good for them both. Grown children, visiting grandchildren, an early morning walk around the neighborhood and then a visit with his cronies at the coffee shop and back home where lunch was waiting. After lunch, a little nap, a stroll to his old shoe store, some pinochle in the back room, a walk back home with dinner on the table; a seat on the lounger in front of the tv, a doze, a shake and up to bed. Who could want more?
Bea could, and for the next six months all she talked about was Chestnut Arms. Uncle Arnold, in a moment of weakness, finally gave in and they sold their home of forty years.
I knew that my Uncle Arnold was eccentric; but he was also lovable and I believed it when I was told that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. I saw how much it pained him when he couldn’t remember things, but I also saw the fun loving side of him I’d always known. Usually I’d end up sitting on one of the lobby couches with him, not talking much, just enjoying the closeness, when Uncle Arnold, without looking at me would say, “Nice legs huh?” Sometimes he’d say, “Nice tush, huh?” Once he even said, “Check the bosoms, huh.” And that woman was in a wheel chair. I took these comments as positive signs and responded with the appropriate man-to-man lingo and ended up by saying, “You haven’t lost the old eye Uncle Arnold.”
“Huh,” he responded. I never shared these conversations with anyone else. When the family told me the reason that he had to be institutionalized I was incredulous.
They told me that Uncle Arnold was fine in the morning and as the day wore on he became more than forgetful, frightened and morose. By evening he could only stay in the apartment when Aunt Bea did the Bingo thing, or the movie thing, or watched some entertainment. By the time she got back to the apartment which was no later than nine-thirty, Uncle Arnold was in a state and was so overwrought with worry and so glad to see her that he continually accused her of having an affair. Aunt Bea was eighty-two years old, stooped over, and sharp as a tack. She almost had a spring in her step, and always a sparkle in her eye; but her loyalty was never in question. Uncle Arnold couldn’t help himself. No matter how much he forgot, he never managed to forget to accuse her nightly of having an affair. Bea shared this with her sister, my mother Fern, who of course shared it with everyone she came in contact with, including the mailman, the doorman, and the security guard as well as her fellow apartment dwellers and family.
Mom called to tell me that Arnold had used up his last straw. This eighty-five year old man had gone over the edge, she told me. “What now?” I wondered aloud.
“He used the word with her,” she said. “And now there’s no choice but to have him put away.”
“It must have been one strong word,” I chided her.
“You don’t know the half of it,” she told me in no uncertain terms.
She told me. The other evening when Aunt Bea finished Bingo (she won $4.25) and walked into her apartment she expected the usual tirade about having an affair but instead she found Arnold lying in bed in his pajamas. She changed into her nightgown and when she walked into the bedroom Arnold asked her very politely if she would do him a favor. Aunt Bea was so relieved that he was civil and non-accusatory that she said, “Certainly honey; what can I do for you?”
“This is where he used up his last straw,” my mother said.
“How?” I asked.
“Please fondle me,” Arnold asked as nice as could be.
“What?” Bea said. “What did you say?”
“Please fondle me,” he repeated.
“You pervert! You pig!” Bea managed to spit out as she put on her coat and ran to my mother’s apartment where she stayed for the night.
The fondle request had been going on for weeks until my mother and Bea had everyone convinced that Arnold was one sick and perverted puppy. I wanted to know why she didn’t just fondle him as requested and get it over with instead of making such a big deal. My father made believe that he didn’t hear me and kept reading his paper and my mother reminded me of their age and I said so what and she said that I was as sick as Arnold.
Last week I visited my parents after staying away for a while because I was so angry at their reactions. Of course, without my asking, my mother brought me up to date on the Bea and Arnold saga. They were still talking institution but it didn’t seem as immediate a concern right now. It seems that after returning from Bingo Aunt Bea walked into the apartment to find Uncle Arnold sitting up in the kitchen at the table in front of a set-up checkerboard. Bea changed into her nightgown and bathrobe and walked back into the kitchen and Uncle Arnold looked at her wide-eyed and simply said “Checkers?” She said yes and told my mother that it reminded her of her early days of marriage when she and Arnold would stay up until the wee hours talking and playing checkers. Bea asked Arnold if he’d like some milk and cookies while they played. Arnold said, “Huh?” and Bea brought them out anyway and they started playing. After three moves each, all in silence, Uncle Arnold stated matter-of-factly, without looking up, “Winner gets a kiss.”
Bea feeling warm and comfortable and just a little crustily, “That seems fair enough.”
“Huh,” said Uncle Arnold.