Old people can suprise you. My father sure did. At age 86, newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and unable to care for himself, he agreed to go to Peru to live with me and my husband. He boarded a plane in Orlando and said goodbye to his house, his dog, his country — every trace of the person he had been. From the moment his plane touched down in Jorge Chavez Airport, his life was never the same. Alzheimer’s + a foreign country + a completely unknown language (Spanish). His new reality was, to say the least, disorienting.
Some elderly people might have wanted to kick the bucket right then and there. And at first, my father did. “Why are you feeding me?” he asked. “Go away. I’m dead.” He went on a hunger strike. He barely drank. For days this went on, then we hooked him up to an IV and pumped some fluids into him. An intelligent doctor prescribed an appetite enhancer, an antidepressant. One day my father showed up at the dinner table: “What’s to eat? I’m starving.”
My father had nursing aides to care for him at our house. They were sweet-tempered, patient souls who didn’t speak a word of English. When he took off all his clothes and threw them in the corner, they calmly picked them up and held them out. “Mister John, put them on, please,” they said in Spanish. Take your pastillas [pills]. Drink your jugo [juice]. Day after day after day. Thank god for the language barrier. They had no idea he called one of them “the fat one” and thought that the small, androgynous aide with glasses was a man.
Fast forward six months: My father is sitting side by side with his nurse, on the couch, watching a telenovela. A drop of mucus hangs from his nose. She glances over, reaches into her sweater sleeve, and wipes the drop off with a tissue that she keeps there for for that purpose. Then she checks her wristwatch.
“Meester John, sus pastillas.”
“Quieres algo a tomar?”
“Si,” he says.
“Jugo de manzana?”
We all thought his story was over. But as he continued to show us, right up to the end, a new chapter was writing itself. The true wine of astonishment, indeed.