I wonder if he’ll see me after coming all this way. How could I have allowed two whole years to pass without even a card, a phone call?
This home seems better than the last. The women at the reception desk are warm and attractive. They call his social worker, Keith, to walk me to Andy’s ward. Keith is black and strong with an incredible warmth and cheerfulness. I am immediately grateful that he is in Andy’s life.
The Dementia Ward
He unlocks the first set of doors and a woman stands hopeless in her pee-drenched pants. He cheerfully yells at her to get to the bathroom and take care of herself. Slowly she moves toward the bathroom. He explains to me that this is the dementia ward.
After the second set of locked doors we are in Andy’s ward. The familiar sense of madness: one girl screaming obscenities, one man singing like Johnny Cash, a Middle Eastern-looking man bent into some contorted position on the floor.
Keith directs me to the desk where I am to sign in. They flip to Andy’s page and I see he has had no visitors, except for his conservator back in August, a person I have never met. My heart aches. Why do I stay so busy? Why is the rest of the family so busy? Possibly it is too painful for us—and that is why we keep so busy. I am so sorry, Andy.
Keith takes me to Andy’s room, which he shares with three men. One of them is pretending to be dead. The nurse and Keith stand over him trying to get him to respond. I walk by this chaos to Andy who is standing and smiling. Keith asks Andy if he knows who I am. Cheerfully he says, “Yes, it’s my sister Cathy.”
His hair is long and greasy, he is missing some teeth, he has a pot belly; but he looks really good to me. I give him a three-breath hug and he allows it. It feels so good to hold him, I can feel our mom’s sweet essence in him. He is very quiet.
Andy opens my present to him, a pen and one of Thay’s writing journals. He puts them in his drawer. He has absolutely nothing, except his radio. I tell him he is luckier than the rest of us with all our trappings of possessions, and he smiles. Then we just sit. I tell him a little bit about what the family is doing but he seems more interested in just now. I ask Keith if he will take our picture. Andy likes it when I hold him.
I am amazed that this time he is so happy to see me. Then in that instant he says, “You have to go now, it’s time for my cigarette break.” I am happy that at least this time he has seen me, after coming all this way.
A Walk in Heaven
He walks me to the door and then he does something that he has never done before. He takes my hand and smiles, and then adjusts it to his for a perfect fit. And he starts walking slowly around the circumference of the ward. I am doing walking meditation with my Bro, and it feels as if Thich Nhat Hanh, my mother, my father, brothers, sisters, all our ancestors are with us in this moment. I am experiencing heaven on earth, a smile on my face from ear to ear, walking slowly and mindfully with my brother, hand in hand. We get to his door after this lap around heaven, and I am expecting for the gift to be over. He passes his room for a second lap of walking and smiling, then a third. Finally he says, “Okay now, I really got to have my cigarette break.” I ask if I can join him and he says no.
Keith comes to lead me out of the ward. I feel peaceful and grateful for Andy’s gift to me—to walk amongst the chaos with such ease and grace.
One of the patients is grabbing at Keith and insisting on his attention. He firmly sets his boundaries and walks on with me. I tell him he is very good at what he does. He says, “After twenty years I am getting better!” Then he laughs and says, “That lady still pushes my buttons.”
I am grateful for Keith and the people who work with the mentally ill. I say goodbye to the receptionist with a feeling it is all perfect, just the way it is.