Love Transcends Rules

Featured<strong>Love Transcends Rules</strong>

Point Pleasant Nursing Home was a popular employer for minimum wage teenage workers.

The Jersey Shore’s borough of Point Pleasant straddles an expanded spit of land on the Atlantic Ocean between the Manasquan and Metedeconk Rivers. The 25,000 year-round residents reluctantly provide an oceanfront haven for summer visitors. Evelyn Adams, two-time winner of the New Jersey Lottery, is Point Pleasant’s most famous citizen.

An old colonial institution, Point Pleasant Nursing Home sat on the highway a mile away from the mainstreet town of shops and restaurants. Shoppers at the Brave New World Surf Shop across the road supplied a low level hum of traffic.

At my interview for the job, a clear dress code was laid out: wear a uniform, no flip flops, no make-up and no jewelry. My waitress uniforms from two previous jobs at the Asbury Park boardwalk and the Olde Mill Inn were acceptable. 

New employees trained on the night shift. On my first night I clocked in at 11:00 pm. A seasoned attendant showed me the ropes. Direct patient care, other than help feeding those who needed it, was the responsibility of the nurses. We were helpers. 

Some residents were roaming the halls though it was way past lights out. We left them alone so they wouldn’t get too agitated and scream at us, which would have cascaded into waking others. Eventually they would go to their rooms, but we had to keep an eye on them lest they fall asleep in the hallway and keel over. There’s a certain knack, instinct maybe, to knowing just the right point to steer people into bed. It might be droopy eyelids, slower walking, leaning against the walls; every patient’s body gave off a different signal. My trainer told me not to worry, that I’d pick it up fast.

When all were safely tucked into bed, we began straightening up the day room while listening for disturbances from the sleeping patients. My job was to put games like Monopoly, bingo and chess in their respective boxes and wiggle them into overstuffed cabinets. I wrote down pieces of each game that were missing so the next shift could look for them in patients’ hiding spots—pockets, drawers, purses.

A completed jigsaw puzzle of an Impressionist painting lay on its box cover under a window. I put the pieces back in the box and stuffed it into the cabinet along with art supplies, books and magazines. The maintenance crew cleaned and swept.

I was instructed to offer a simple greeting to each awakening patient before my shift ended at 7:00. One woman wandered toward the day room. I followed her. She stopped at the space where the completed jigsaw had been and looked at me panic-stricken. In a flash she grabbed my hair, shrieked I stole her art, and smacked me in the face. By the time the nurse reached us we were both screaming.

And that was the end of that job.

Twenty-five years later my mother was moved to Point Pleasant Nursing Home after assisted living facilities could no longer care for her. By that time all the people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias lived in dormitory settings on the first floor. My mother spent her time taking clothes and jewelry from others and hiding them in her closet. The nurses kept a watchful eye but said nothing. They were as relaxed with her as they were years prior when people roamed the halls until they tired out. 

Until the last, my mother did what she always loved: broke the rules.

Across the Universe with Agnes

 In May 1990 Agnes collapsed and was taken to the hospital. I was in Chicago and flew to New Jersey immediately. Therese fetched me at Newark Airport and drove straight to Point Pleasant. My mother was unconscious and attached to a breathing machine. When I caressed her hand, I noticed her freshly painted nails.

“We went for a manicure a few days ago.” Cousin Therese whispered.

Agnes had dementia the last five years of her life. Whenever I visited her, we’d have dinner, go to a movie, shop. Her lifelong carping and criticism must have died with the missing brain cells. She was softer, easier to love, without the booze. More than a few times I caught her walking out of a shop with unpaid goods. I thought she just forgot how to pay.

The official cause of death states, “Alzheimer symptoms due to alcoholic brain syndrome.” A few years earlier, alcohol and cigarettes had been removed from her life. But she didn’t know it. Her dementia had progressed to the point that she involuntarily mimicked both lighting up an imaginary Marlboro and sipping an imaginary scotch-on-the-rocks. Wet brain (formally known as Korsakoff syndrome) is caused by alcohol robbing the brain of vitamin B1. The deficiency slowly destroyed her brain cells. The damage progressed beyond the point of no return until she died. She was seventy.

When I was a young wife and mother living in married student housing at Michigan State, my mother would occasionally send me exquisite sweaters, blouses, shoes and boots. My husband was a graduate student. We had a baby. Our only expendable income came from my babysitting jobs. My mother’s part-time job selling shoes supplemented whatever she could beg, borrow or steal from relatives. I gladly accepted her gifts, never questioning how she could afford them.

Agnes taught me to shoplift when I was twelve. At the time I thought we were learning together. She was, in retrospect, more experienced than she should have been for a beginner. I became a successful petty thief until I found God in my mid-twenties and changed my ways. 

In dementia Agnes carried a small red leather clutch purse. She incessantly opened it and fingered through its only contents—lipsticks. The nursing home crew gave her their old lipsticks because the sound of them click-clacking as she rifled in her bag calmed her down. Besides, if her purse was filled with lipsticks, she was less likely to lift them from the other residents.

The day she died, Therese suggested we visit the nursing home to thank the staff. Agnes’ nondescript empty bed sat in a room with five others. Her closet and dresser overflowed with garments I’d never seen before.

“Is all this my mother’s?” I asked a nurse.

“No. We couldn’t stop her from taking other people’s clothes so we gave up and let her keep them.”

I thanked her for letting my mother make her own way across the universe.