The nursing home smelled of stale urine and had the wallpaper of a 1970s mental home, with calm colors and a bland boarder of flowers. An elderly lady clutched a baby doll with blue eyes and a prim smile as she rolled her wheel chair down the hall.
“The baby’s smiling at you,” my uncle Matt said, pointing to the doll with a quiet chuckle.
I smiled. Televisions droned in the background, filtering into the hall from open doors and an alarm sounded.
“What do you think that alarm is?” my dad said.
“Someone probably trying to get out,” said Matt with the same quiet chuckle.
My dad nodded.
A young nurse with blond hair pulled out of the room. Without smiling she said, “All set.”
We walked inside. My grandfather smiled as he saw us enter. He wore a blue woolen cap, khakis, and a striped blue shirt. His face looked like putty molded into a face–sunken cheeks, eyes dazed, mouth loosely hanging–and his body had skin stretched taut over thin bones. He was gray and tired. I shook his hand, a vague clasp that hung in my palm.
“Hey Grampa, nice to see you,” I said.
We stayed for an hour, my dad, my uncle, and I. Grampa whispered and choked out broken sentences, lapsing into coughs and heavy sighs. We shouted so he could hear and repeated ourselves. Still, he didn’t seem to understand. But at least he was saying words now and then.
His roommate, a man named Sam, had been there 11 years, said Matt, ever since an accident from a ladder had given him brain damage. The man had a blanket with cats staring out at you and crosses pinned to his cork board. Grampa had a few children’s drawings pinned in the corner of his.
“Get well soon!” they said. “We miss you!”
Children, in their innocence, are so ignorant of reality’s pain, I thought.
He ate lunch, each slow bite stretching time before it fell behind his parched lips, each tug of his arm a labor for a piece of cake. Matt got him straws for his juice and water.
When we had to leave, Grampa said, “We’ll I’ll just wait here.” His partner, Barb, would be there soon. I shook his hand and left with the others. I read his name as we walked out: Brett Keegan, my name.
After my dad and I dropped off Matt, we continued through Auburn and Elbridge, where he grew up.
“It’s weired to drive through a place where you grew up and see everything changed, everything broken down or closed,” he said after we passed his childhood house. He shook his head. “It’s just weird.”
We pulled onto the highway.
“Well, back to reality,” he said.
I talked to him about Heidegger. Most people see the self as a self-contained thing, something bred from “spirit” or genetics molded by upbringing and environment into a particular individual, one individual thing.
But Heidegger disagrees. He says that we are enveloping worlds that contain pieces of the environment: people, places, activities, and objects that define us and are part of our self, even though they exist beyond our bodies and psyche. You can’t know a person unless you know their full enveloping world.
“So if someone destroys your childhood home, it’s almost like they’re destroying one of your organs,” I told my dad.
And since everything is always changing, we’re bound to be hurt. Things are always fading, people are always dying, and each time a certain one does, it’s a piece of our self dying, too. People come and go, but we always want to hold on.
Perhaps there’s a redemption in there somewhere, but I don’t know it.