71 / 365 – With the old folks

SHANNON BURCKHARD

Mr. Vanek is of the nicer ones. There are a couple of people on the staff who avoid him, but that turns out to be because of his daughter. She stomps in here every week or so, very gruff with everyone, complains about things, says he is terrible to her. Someone who has known her from before said she is usually very nice. She may be different since her son died in that terrible accident. She works at the plant, and I guess there’s trouble brewing over there.

He is very polite. That’s why I call him “Mister,” because his manner is so nice and polite. He ran the welding and repair shop for all the years I was growing up. I never knew him then but I can’t imagine a man in a repair shop being so nice. He told me once that he grew up in Czechoslovakia. Once when I was in his room he was talking in a different language. I guess that’s Czech. He has early-stage dementia and sometimes he thinks he is in other places. Finn Tillary, who comes and visits him often, says he is just remembering things. He got into an argument once with the doctor, when he happened to come in while Finn was visiting. The doctor talked to Finn a little about his dementia and Finn interrupted and said, “It’s not dementia. He’s not crazy. He’s just remembering things.” The doctor started to explain that there’s a difference between dementia and reliving memories, and that Mr. Vanek wasn’t aware of the difference. Finn said, “What do you know about what he’s aware of? I spend hours with him every week, and I don’t think you do. He’s more lucid than you.” He was getting really worked up. Then he said, “If being stuck in your memories and not knowing the difference between that and the present is dementia, then this whole town has dementia. Everyone here is stuck in this delusion that things are great and we’re re-living the good-old days. Like a Twilight Zone episode.” The doctor made some comment about Finn not understanding the precise medical diagnosis, but that was just getting Finn worked up even more and he started to interrupt when the doctor said “Have a good day!” and walked out. Finn was cursing under his breath — I won’t repeat that. I don’t like that doctor much either. He thinks he’s smarter than anyone in town. Mr. Vanek never said anything the whole time, but he was smiling when the doctor left.

I think he looks forward to those visits from Finn. These days, with the afternoons getting longer and the sun shining more, they sometimes go sit in the living room by the window. There are two chairs there, and Finn always gets Mr. Vanek sat in whichever one is getting more sun. They sit there and talk for hours. Mr. Vanek does most of the talking, which is really unusual because most of the rest of the time he is so quiet.

He never talked much until Finn came. I was there the first day Finn was there and he didn’t seem to even notice him. Mr. Vanek was lying on his bed and he hardly moved. He never looked up when Finn talked. I felt bad for him, that he had come all the way to visit but Mr. Vanek was ignoring him. He didn’t seem to mind. The next time he came he brought a big radio, one of those big ugly things everybody carried around on their shoulders ten or twenty years ago, so you could blast out your music wherever you went. Finn didn’t blast it, but he turned on some nice classical music. He said it was something from Czechoslovakia, something Mr. Vanek used to play a lot while they worked in the repair shop. I don’t know how he knew, but the next time I stopped by the room, the music was playing and Mr. Vanek was lying there, smiling. The next time I saw them they were talking, quietly, so nice, just like he is.

People think my job must be horrible, dealing with all these old people, some of whom are losing their minds, or they’re cranky all the time and complaining and yelling at your, or they’re wetting their beds and worse and we have to help clean them up, just like a young baby. It’s not so bad. Even when they’re yelling at you, they’re nice people inside. You just have to remember that. They’re just scared at what’s happening to themselves. Just think of how you might be if you couldn’t manage anymore, if you couldn’t even get yourself to the bathroom. You’d probably forget to be nice, too. And then there are the people like Mr. Vanek, who somehow seem to come back to life again, and they are just the nicest people you ever want to meet. I didn’t know him all these years he ran that shop, and now I get a hello from him every day. Not everyone gets that when they go to work.

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