V was sitting outside on a sun-filled patio in the late morning when I first met him. He was dressed in work pants, a shirt, and had a lunch box on the table next to him. “Let’s make it snappy,” he said, patting the lunchbox. “I gotta get to work.”
I was the hospice nurse, there to visit him for end stage dementia.
V was from New York City and had lived there all his life until his wife, “bless her soul,” fell ill. Then she fell too.
He could not care for her and himself. A relation, as he described his great niece, moved him and his wife from their tiny walk-up apartment in NYC (with a view of the building he had built) to the other side of the country. That building, his building, was where he thought he was going that day.
“There are no buildings like that out here,” V told me. “It’s a disgrace. I look at dead, dry hills and dead, dry plants, and smog. Lots of smog.”
He switched seamlessly back and forth from here-and-now to there-and-fifty-years-ago. It left me feeling a little disoriented yet he was the one with dementia.
I came to find out over a few visits that his building was the Empire States Building. V would tell me about riding the subway with the other guys. He would tell me what he packed for lunch every day. Bologna on white bread, a cup of soup, an apple, water. He lay tile in his building. There was a lot of gorgeous hand-laid tile throughout the monstrous building. He told the stories as if they were happening that day or the day before. In the present. Now. And in his mind, they were.
As I checked his vital signs, he reminded me he had to be on time to work. He could not tell me his full name or the name of “the relation” that moved him and cared for him, but he remembered precisely what time he started work. He could not tell me what state he lived in but he could tell me what street he used to live on in his city.
He knew he took pills but he did not know the names of any of them or what they were for, his relation helped with all of that. V could put on his pants and his shirt. But he could not remember how to button the pants or the shirt. Sometimes the pants would fall down because he could not quite recall how to fasten a belt either. He could put on socks most days but he could not brush his own teeth.
Eventually the dementia took V’s ability to speak and to tell the stories. But someone found him a book that had pictures of his big, beautiful building. And he would turn the pages and point to his building and smile sometimes. And even though it brought him joy to look at the pictures and he smiled, I was sad. I missed his stories. I missed V telling me to “keep it snappy” so he could get to work on his building.
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