by Michael Ley
After a blonde nurse with bright blue eyes took Gramps’s blood pressure and reviewed his medications she announced, “The doctor will be with you soon.”
She exited the room, closing the door behind her, leaving Gramps and Gran to wait in a tiny exam room that smelled of rubbing alcohol.
“I’m not so sure about knee surgery,” Gramps said. “My knee’s killing me, but once I’m in the OR I can’t leave if I want to.”
“Don’t be grumpy,” Gran said. “It needs to be done now… we’re out of options. You can’t wait another six months for the VA to do it.”
Gramps scratched one side of his bald head and complained, “I hoped the chicken shots would help, but they didn’t.”
“No. And the VA won’t help either.”
The doctor had tried a series of hyaluronic acid shots to help lubricate the knee joint. These shots are often called chicken shots because the fluid injected into the knee is taken from the combs on chicken heads.
There was a light rap on the door, and it opened before either could say, “Come in.” The surgeon, a tall thin man, entered the room. Dressed in green scrubs, he carried x-rays and wore a yellow rubber chicken as a hat. The chicken dipped and bobbed.
He said, “Sorry to keep you waiting… I’m running behind today.” He clipped the x-rays to a wall light box and said over his shoulder, “How’ve you been?”
“Not so good,” Gramps replied.
“In that case, let’s get right to it.”
The surgeon explained two x-rays and then turned to face Gramps and Gran. The chicken on the surgeon’s head bobbled as if it were pecking for insects.
“You need to have the knee replaced. The pain will progress until you can’t walk,” the surgeon said.
Gramps changed the subject. “I see you’ve been giving chicken shots,” he chuckled.
“Oh yes. I forgot to take my chicken hat off,” the surgeon said. He laughed, removed the hat, and tossed it on the examining table.
“My knee’s pretty bad…very painful when I walk,” Gramps said. He sat with his cane between his knees, holding the cane handle with both hands. “I hoped the VA would do it, but they tell me it’ll be four to six months…can’t wait that long.”
“I heard there was a long wait time,” the surgeon said.
Gran, a small, pear-shaped woman with a short haircut, asked, “We’ll make up the Medicare co-pay ourselves. He has a lot of pain. How long is the recovery time?”
The doctor, fortyish and graying at the temples, was evasive. He said, “It depends.”
“Depends on what?” Gran shot back.
“The patient, of course. Some walk without a cane in as little as six weeks…some are using a cane for four months.” He sat down on the wheeled stool he used when conferring with patients.
“Oh, I get it. It depends on how much the patient wants to walk and how soon.” Unsure if this prediction made her feel better or worse, she frowned and looked up at the ceiling.
The doctor nodded and crossed his legs, revealing a pair of scuffed black shoes. The stool moved a few inches.
“Well Gramps might walk quickly because he’ll be eager to play golf again…he hasn’t played in over a year and he loves to play with his buddies and his oldest grandson, Biff.”
“I’m ready to play right now,” Gramps said, slapping his good knee. “You see, I wanna buy this new Ping driver that–”
The surgeon interrupted, “The sooner the better. At sixty-seven you’ll heal fast.”
No one spoke for a short time.
“Okay. Let’s do it!” Gramps said. “I can get by without Wild Turkey for a few weeks.” Thoughts of pars and bogies danced in his head.
“Great, let me see when we can schedule the procedure.” The surgeon looked at his computer screen. “Two weeks from today? The twenty first? At 7AM?”
“That sounds fine,” Gramps said, looking at Gran for confirmation. She checked her cell and said, “That’s a good date.”
“It’s settled then. The twenty first at 7AM” the surgeon said. He paused and added, “I should mention one thing… the procedure is routine… I’ve done over two thousand without a problem.” He waved a hand and continued, “The only complication has been that some…a few patients… have a reaction to the pain killer we use. But, not to worry. I don’t expect any problems in your case.” He looked reassuringly at them and then smiled. “Everything will be fine.”
That settled the question of knee surgery but did not decide the question of moving into a senior assisted living facility to make life easier. A more relax life was appealing, so Gramps checked out several facilities. The full-color brochures of each made living there seem like paradise. The private rooms were professionally decorated and looked like expensive hotel rooms. There were fabulous facilities and amenities with skilled nurses always available, but he was skeptical about the quality of life.
If assisted living was wonderful, Gramps thought, why does everybody wait until there is no other choice?
The pressure to sell the house and move started three years ago, when his left knee hurt as he walked. Over time, it became more and more painful. The pain interfered with his golf game, which helped him forget, for a time, Vietnam, with its jungles, rice paddies, and anguished cries for help. Wild Turkey was only a temporary cure. He missed golf with his buddies. He needed to get back on the course, so he consulted an orthopedic surgeon who recommended a knee replacement, but Gramps, sixty-seven, wanted to avoid the bright lights of the OR. It was not the surgery he feared – it was the helplessness of rehab that followed.
Finally, the intense pain had forced Gramps to consult the doctor again.
Two weeks later Gramps slowly opened his eyes, blinked, and found himself in a hospital room with Gran and a plump nurse. He had been dreaming about being surrounded by scantily-clad, beautiful Swedish women. In the dream he was twenty again.
“Where am I?” he groaned.
“North Central Hospital. You’ve had knee surgery,” Gran said. “Everything went fine.”
The nurse agreed. “There were no problems in the OR.”
“You will be able to walk normally again,” Gran said.
“Why am I in Sweden?” Gramps demanded. “And where the hell are the blonde and blue-eyed women?” He frowned. “They’re supposed to be unbuttoning their blouses and unhooking their little silk bras by now.”
“Women? You don’t need any women…you’ve got me.”
“They were here a minute ago. I saw them.”
“The only women here are me and a nurse. I don’t think she’s from Sweden… She has jet black hair,” Gran said.
“But all the women in Sweden are eager to swap body heat,” Gramps exclaimed, “It’s free love!”
“I need to check your vitals,” the nurse said.
“Where’d the women go?”
“You’re not in Sweden. We’re in Fort Worth,” Gran said to Gramps. “Aren’t we?” she asked the nurse.
“Yes. We’re in Fort Worth.”
“You can’t fool me,” Gramps fumed. “Look at all this modern furniture. We have to be in Sweden… we have to be.” He grimaced. “Why does my knee hurt?”
“I’ll give him more pain medication,” the nurse said as she finished taking his blood pressure.
The next day Gramps stirred in the hospital bed, rustling the bed covers. His eyes popped open, but he seemed confused. He looked around, closed his eyes, and reopened them. His forehead furrowed, and he blinked rapidly. Gran stood and came to his bedside.
Gramps stared at her blankly.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah… think so… not sure,” he stammered. “We escaped! You see, I’ve been in this Mexican prison… me and six other girls. Filthy place.” He swallowed hard. His mouth was dry as a cotton ball. “We were terrified of the fat, ugly guards. Couldn’t talk to them… they all spoke Spanish. They were smelly brutes with bad teeth. But we discovered the adobe walls were only an inch thick, so using a few plastic spoons we were able to tunnel out in one night. We ended up in the desert wearing only little cotton dresses… It was so cold.”
“It was a dream, baby. Just a dream.” Gran sighed. She patted his hand and pressed the nurse call button.
“We could see them behind us, carrying torches, and riding burros. They were closing in. We ran as fast as we could, but the posse was gaining on us and we were about to be caught… “
A tall nurse appeared by Gramps’s bed. She interrupted him and said to Gran, “I’ll give him more medication.”
Wide-eyed, Gran frantically stabbed the call button for the nurse.
Gramps thrashed around on the bed, mumbling incoherently.
The night-shift nurse, a short woman, entered the room and adjusted Gramps’ pain medication. He became still and slowly opened his eyes.
“I robbed the bank—”
Alarmed again, Gran interrupted, “What?”
“I robbed the bank… got all the damn money,” Gramps said, his voice rising shrilly. “I drove up in front of the bank in a candy-apple-red hot rod. Engine rumbling. I went into the bank to make a withdrawal. Lobby was packed with customers… must have been payday. A feeble security guard made a crooked smile and said cheerfully, ‘Welcome to First National.’”
Gramps eyes were bright and focused somewhere else.
“The guy was stupid… I was gonna rob the bank, anyway. I waved my pistol and made everyone hit the deck, except for this blonde bombshell wearing a low-cut pink blouse. I took her with me. Maybe she’d be useful with the money and… other things later.” Gramps giggled like a five-year-old. “Let’s go, sweetie,” I said. “We went out the door dragging big bags of money.”
Gran was beside herself. The calm, gentle man she married years ago had disappeared. In his place was a violent man giggling about robbing the First National.
“Oh, baby… it was a dream. It wasn’t real.”
This comment broke Gramps concentration, and he blurted, “Seemed real. Seemed even more real than real. We threw the bags in the trunk, got in the hot rod, and roared down a boulevard lit with neon lights of palm trees that blinked at us… leading us to the beach in Hawaii. The cops were in hot pursuit… shooting at us with pump shotguns. I was laughing because we were out of shotgun range. It was hysterical! I laughed so hard I side-swiped a green Buick sedan.” Gramps giggled again.
“It was another crazy dream. You’re in the hospital, sedated with pain meds, but you’ll be discharged tomorrow to go to a skilled nursing facility – Oak Springs – for rehab. It’ll give us a chance to find out what living there is like.”
The nurse said, “I will report this. I think increasing the pain med is making his dreams worse. I’m sure the doctor will make a change to stop these wild dreams.”
At noon the next day, they discharged Gramps. Gran tried to make arrangements at the Oak Springs facility, reputed to be the best in the city, as the nurse had told her to do. They had no availability. Worried there would be no place for Gramps to undergo rehab, she did a Google search on her cell for other facilities. After several phone calls she found an opening at the Frederick Creek Assisted Living Facility.
“Hey, baby,” she said. “Look at this place.”
She explored images on her cell phone with Gramps, scrolling through scenes of the different rooms in the facility. The cafeteria was large with round tables topped with white tablecloths. A common room contained seating areas with elegant upholstered chairs and large screen TVs. A game room contained a pool table, two ping pong tables, and four card tables. The heated indoor swimming pool was large and surrounded by lounge chairs. Each scene contained one or more smiling or laughing seniors. The last image was the friendly staff beaming under a Frederick Creek Senior Living Facility sign.
Gramps still groggy, muttered, “Looks like paradise…I’d like to go there.” He sighed and closed his eyes.
With help, she plopped Gramps into a wheelchair to load him into the car to take him to the Frederick Creek facility. He did not fit with his leg extended. So, she had to arrange for an ambulance. While she waited to follow it, she called Biff. He was her oldest grandson and had served a combat tour in Iraq.
Biff met them at the Frederick Creek facility. He dismissed the ambulance attendants and piloted the wheelchair into the main entry. A staff person met them. She was young, blonde, and smiled a lot, flashing white teeth. She looked Swedish.
“He’ll love it here,” she gushed. “We have lots of activities, the cafeteria food is terrific, and we have a fine physical therapist.” She paused and thrust both hands forward for emphasis. “And our staff is caring.” She did not sound Swedish.
“Hmm,” Gran mused. “The place looks good.” She surveyed several residents sitting in chairs nearby. Two old men were playing cards. Others stared into nothing.
“Let me take you to his room,” the blonde said. “I’m sure you’ll be impressed.”
There were two beds in the room, one occupied by a sleeping gray-headed man. It smelled of ammonia.
Biff lifted Gramps onto the bed and pushed the wheelchair aside.
“Rest now,” Gran said. “I’ll be back soon.” She kissed him on his forehead.
The sound of someone crying out woke Gramps. The man in the other bed snored loudly. Gramps looked at his watch. It was midnight. His room and the hallway were dark.
“Daddy,” a frail female voice called out. A minute later, the voice called out again, “Daddy.”
The snores of the gray-headed man reverberated off the bare walls. It annoyed Gramps who remembered how difficult it was to sleep in a barracks occupied by several loud snorers.
Maybe, Gramps thought, the night sounds were a big reason people put off moving into one of these places.
The voice went on and on. It forced him back into the jungle in ‘Nam to remember guys calling out for their mommas, not their daddies, when they were hit during a fire-fight. Soaking wet in the heat and humidity, he listened and waited for a medic to find them. He was powerless to help, but, terrified, crawled toward the voice in the dark.
He left ‘Nam when an attendant entered the room and turned on the light. She was small with short, dark hair.
“I need some pain meds,” Gramps groaned. “My knee is killing me.”
The attendant looked at his chart.
“Daddy,” the frail voice called out over the snoring in the next bed.
“No pain meds prescribed. The doctor stopped them. They were causing violent dreams,” she said. She spoke clearly but with a foreign accent he could not identify.
“But… I had knee surgery five days ago. I need pain meds.”
“None authorized. Think pain away.”
“What?” Gramps rose up on his elbows.
“Think pain away. We do that in the Philippines. Ignore pain. It go away.”
The attendant turned out the light and left. The voice cried out for her daddy again.
Before he was forced back into the jungle again, Gramps plucked his smart phone from the night table, turned it on, and called Gran.
“Hello,” a sleepy voice answered.
“Hey, honey… I’ve gotta get outa here,” Gramps stammered. “Get Biff as early in the morning as you can. We need his double cab. You guys have got to come get me … these people are crazy… they want me to think my pain away.”
Shortly after eight the next morning, Biff wheeled Gramps toward the main entrance.
“Hey, where are you going?” the blonde staff woman asked.
“I’m checking myself out,” Gramps said, raising a fist.
“But your doctor has to check you out. You can’t discharge yourself.”
Gramps snorted, “Is that so?”
“Yes. There are rules. We have a responsibility to take care of our patients in accordance with the doctor’s instructions.”
“I’m over twenty-one…I don’t need anybody’s permission to fly this chicken coop.”
“But that’s unnecessary. Whatever the problem is, I can fix it,” the blonde staff woman said, following them.
“Keep rollin’,” Gramps told Biff.
The electric door opened, and they raced out onto the drive. Gran opened the rear passenger door of Biff’s truck, a double cab Dodge. Biff lifted Gramps out of the wheelchair and put him in the back seat of the truck. Gramps scooted in so he sat lengthwise on the seat with his leg extended. Biff then lifted the wheelchair into the truck bed and jumped in behind the wheel. Gran got in the truck.
“Get me the hell outta here,” Gramps said.
The powerful V-8 roared, and the tires burned rubber. Biff yelled over the noise, “The getaway car is rolling right now.”
Gramps thought, Now I know why no one is in a hurry to go to the old folks’ home.
“Where’s the Wild Turkey?”
Biff passed a pint bottle to Gramps, who took a deep long swig.
“You’ve escaped, Gramps.”
“So, I have. And I’m never goin’ back to the think-your-pain-away place… It’s no paradise.”