White Man’s Poison
Because your face is always covered in snot and drool. Because I know you want to die but you
can’t tell me since you can’t even open your mouth enough to eat solid food. Because of all this,
I can’t stop thinking about Las Vegas.
You were sitting upright on a blue sofa, wearing a button-down shirt, slacks, and suspenders. Anyone would have thought you were a physician or chaplain or some well-put together Korean guy waiting in the lobby of a memory care facility. They’d never have guessed you were really a dementia patient there.
Silverado Encinitas was your new home. I’d moved you there two weeks prior because you were kicked out of your independent living community. Silverado claims to be the leader in memory care facilities. Their website boasts that they have specially trained caregivers to meet the needs of all dementia patients. They also claim that they are generously staffed with registered nurses, and that the place is run by a physician. It sounded promising.
Their employees may be well-trained, but it’s not really a home. It’s an institution for infirm elderly people who are waiting to die. The rent is exorbitant, so they call it a residence. Silverado’s personnel are taught to act like everything is okay. They redirect you so you forget that you want to break out of the place. “Larry, why don’t we check out the flower arranging class they’re doing in the conference room?” Like you ever cared about making floral bouquets.
I was a selfish daughter because I’d only planned to stay an hour that day. You needed to spend more time with me, but I wouldn’t have come at all if I’d planned to stay longer. Stephanie, Silverado Encinitas’s social worker, had emailed me the day before. She’d taken you out for a while, treated you like a real person, actually listened to you:
Mr. Larry did very well out and about today. We took a short cruise along the 101 where he enjoyed the breeze on his face and told stories about his surfing days.
We took the 5-highway back up to In-N-Out Burger (he told me he’s never had it before). Before we could take a good picture, he devoured his burger and fries.
My biggest concern, as we discussed before, is Mr. Larry and his depression. He said he cries every night. He stated that he was a pilot all of his life and for people to tell him he can’t go to the bank or go outside is not right. I’ll continue to work with Mr. Larry on a therapeutic level, to further explore these feelings and see if we can come to some resolve, if there is any.
If there is anything else I can do, shoot me an email, and I’m on it.
Stephanie was suddenly fired months later, no explanation given to the residents or their families. I tracked her down. She’s now in a civil rights lawsuit against Silverado. The social
worker who replaced her doesn’t even know your name.
But that day, she was squatting so she was at eye level with you on the sofa.
“I am going to Las Vegas,” you told her with certainty. You gripped the handle of your packed Rollaboard suitcase. The one you used for work when you flew planes.
“Really, Larry? When’s your ride coming?”
“I am trying to call taxi; they will not answer.” You stared at your iPhone. “Will you help me find right number?” you asked as you handed it to her.
You spotted me immediately as I walked in. Before I could even say hello, you gazed up at me and asked, “Will you take me to airport, so I don’t miss Vegas flight?”
Stephanie looked at me with similar anticipation. But I just stared at the sofa. “Um, I can’t do that, Dad. You can’t go to Las Vegas by yourself.”
“You can come with me!” Your face lit up.
“People with dementia should not have money in their possession […] The staff at Silverado repeatedly reminded me of this as I moved you to in. But you’d been stripped of your role as a productive member of society. You came to the U.S. a Korean War refugee and you retired a millionaire. You deserved access to the money you’d worked so hard for.”
Maybe as you spent those first days at Silverado, you reminisced about the annual men’s soccer tournament in Vegas. “Winning is everything!” you’d tell your teammates. And your team always won. Or maybe you thought about the time you took our family there for Thanksgiving. We ate at a Chinese food buffet for our holiday dinner. You never ate turkey or any other kind of poultry because you saw a chicken get slaughtered when you were a child in Korea. You often said, “I never eat anything that flies.”
You were ecstatic with your glimmering Mongolian beef and as much white rice as a person could eat. “Lots of rice for the Orientals,” you liked to say. You smiled as you loaded your plate.
Or perhaps you recall the time we flew there last minute, just you and I, while I was home
for Christmas break during college.
Right as the plane landed, you lit up. “This is where all the action is!” you declared, in a tone that made the garish lights, cigarette smog, and clanking of slot machines tolerable, almost beautiful.
We ate at Benihana at the Las Vegas Hilton for dinner. As the chefs swiftly chopped the heads off shrimp, their blades sparkled like the coins that fall from slot machines. “This is how kings live,” you commented, your eyes aflame.
I bet your decayed brain still thinks about betting on football at the hotel’s sportsbook. “I am a high roller,” you told the guy at the window, grinning, as you bet on the 49ers to win the 1989 Super Bowl. They did.
I could’ve gone with you again. But I’d thought to myself, “What kind of forty-seven-year-old adult travels with her daddy?”
Really, though, I didn’t want to shoulder the burden.
I’d taken you to Target a few days prior. Like I was doing you some great favor. As if shopping at Target is a cure for depression. For crying every night because you are locked up, lonely, and confused. You disappeared right after we walked through the door. I’d frantically searched the store’s aisles for what felt like hours.
Do you remember filling your cart with things you didn’t need? After the clerk paged you, you rounded the corner scuffling in your wooden flip-flops. The nine Altoid tins you grabbed and threw in your cart clanged against multiple cans of sardines, containers of Lysol, and a tangle of mismatched Teflon pans. You refused to put any of the items back. I can still hear you: “Daughter, I know exactly what I am doing.”
I thought about that day and reasoned that I wasn’t patient enough to deal with that kind of behavior traveling with you.
“I’d hoped the alcohol could squelch my overwhelming emotions. But why was I making this about me? It should’ve been about you.”
In any case, I’m sure you remember that day I visited you at Silverado. Your hair was freshly washed and combed. Your gold money clip held your printed reservation at the Four Queens Resort and Casino, as well as multiple fifty and hundred-dollar bills.
“Maybe we can go to Vegas in a few weeks, Dad.” I lied just so you’d have something to look forward to.
“But I’ve made reservation and I have plane to catch,” you told me, panicked.
I countered with, “Why don’t we go out to lunch? We can reschedule your Vegas trip. Maybe I’ll be able to get some time off work.”
I didn’t have to request any time off from work. But lying felt like what was best for both of us.
“Will you help me change flight and hotel on computer?” you asked me, still gripping your luggage.
“Of course, Dad.”
I think about how you plodded to your room. Your step had become increasingly unstable since you moved to Silverado. Could you feel that in your body? You’d always walked swiftly, your head forward, as if your nimble mind were in competition with your soccer player’s body.
In just a couple of weeks, most of your muscle tone had gone. I could hear your shoes dragging on the carpet as the smell of mop water and fish sticks followed us from the kitchen.
“I didn’t tell you where we were going. All I said was ‘Dad, trust me.’ That still haunts me.”
I logged on to your MacBook Air and canceled your Southwest Airlines reservation. I also called the Four Queens and secured a credit for a future stay.
As I was clicking away, you asked, “Did you re-book flight? I will buy you ticket so we can go together.”
“Uh, I need to check my work schedule—remember? We can re-book it next time I’m here.”
“I am really looking forward to this,” you replied as you set your money clip on your dorm-room-style nightstand.
I thought about simply saying, “Dad, let’s just go to Las Vegas right now.” It’d have made you so happy.
But instead, I dismissed you with “I know, Dad. We can plan it soon, ok?”
Your left eye twitched as you stared blankly out the small window in your room.
“Let’s go check out that new Japanese restaurant in Carlsbad!” I said, too exuberantly.
You grabbed your money clip from the nightstand. “OK, but I want to pay.”
People with dementia should not have money in their possession. They can lose their cash, others around them may steal it, they might go on unbridled shopping sprees. The staff at Silverado repeatedly reminded me of this as I moved you in. But you’d been stripped of your role as a productive member of society. You came to the US as a Korean War refugee and you retired a millionaire. You deserved access to the money you’d worked so hard for. I didn’t abide by Silverado’s advice. I’m glad.
I remember you stuffed your cash into your pockets. We drove up the North San Diego coastline. It was the second time I’d taken you out of Silverado. The administrators there informed me that new residents adapt better to life there if they don’t leave or have visitors for at least ten days after moving in. But my staying away didn’t help you at all.
Do you remember the briny, thick air blowing through the car windows? The ocean air made your eyes shine.
“There’s a happy man,” you said, pointing to a thirty-something-year-old changing into his wetsuit, his surfboard strapped to the roof of his car.
“It was fun when we used to surf together, Dad.” I weakly attempted to keep things positive.
But I don’t think you heard me. You kept staring at the surfer. “Such a good exercise. I too old to surf now,” you said, matter-of-factly, as the guy ran across the 101 holding his board.
We arrived at the new restaurant where fresh-faced millennials dined on Japanese delicacies.
“You like gook food, just like me,” you proudly proclaimed.
I laughed nervously. You considered the term “gook” a compliment to all Asians.
Even though you grew up in Korea under Japan’s occupation, you loved Japanese food and culture. Do you remember ordering nabeyaki udon, your favorite? Your eyes widened as the waiter placed the big, steaming bowl in front of you. I wanted to enjoy that moment, but all I could think about was the bland hospital-type food you had to eat every day at Silverado. I got a lump in my throat but forced myself to smile. I wanted you to savor that meal.
I think about how I ordered two pints of IPA with lunch. I’d hoped the alcohol could squelch my overwhelming emotions. But why was I making this about me? It should’ve been about you.
You enjoyed your meal so much that I figured you forgot about your desire to go to Las Vegas. I walked you back to your room, and you said, “Bye, Kell-ah. That lunch was big, good, and lot.” You labeled a meal as “big, good, and lot” whenever you really liked it. I left the place feeling like maybe you could be safe and happy there after all. It was easier to lie to myself. Why didn’t I listen to my gut?
Do you remember my visit the next day? You were sitting on the same sofa with your bag packed, hair combed, and wearing the same nice outfit. Your jaw was set, and your eyes were empty.
“What’s up, Dad?”
“I am going to Las Vegas today.” You stared straight ahead, not blinking.
Damnit, I thought. He didn’t forget about that trip.
“Weren’t we going to plan that for another day, when I can join you?”
“I did not think you were coming back, so I have decided to go on my own. I will be fine.”
I wanted to believe I could reason with you.
“Dad, you can’t go to Vegas by yourself. You won’t be safe, and…”
“I am going to Las Vegas today. They have better food. I want lobster and steak. All you can eat.”
“Please, Dad. I’ll worry about you too much.”
“You know what, Daughter? I am not happy here. I am locked in, treated like child. I used to be in charge of hundreds of people’s lives as pilot, and now I can’t even go outside when I want to.”
How could I have been so obtuse? Your despondency was palpable. What was I thinking? I hate myself for ignoring the obvious.
I suppose I rationalized your situation because you were declining rapidly. They did specialize in dementia care. But it isn’t right for a man like you to be in a place like that.
I sat next to you on the couch. “Dad, I can try to find another place for you to live if you’re unhappy here. But I don’t feel right about you traveling on your own, and I can’t go with you. Can you be patient and let me look for another residence? Somewhere where you like the food and can come and go as you like?”
“Can I see the place before moving there this time?” you asked. I remember the day I moved you to Silverado. I didn’t tell you where we were going. All I said was, “Dad, trust me.” That still haunts me. And I am so very sorry, Dad.
“Of course. This time, you’ll get to choose your new pad.” I wonder if that gave you something to look forward to, if even for a short amount of time.
“But if we go to Las Vegas now, we won’t be able to find a new place,” I reminded you.
My logic was weak. I was depending on your deteriorating brain to get me out of the Vegas dilemma.
Miraculously, you relented and allowed me to walk you upstairs to the dining room. I stayed for dinner, which was far from steak and lobster. But a couple of the kitchen employees were kind to you. Do you remember? One guy asked, “Larry, what kind of sauce would you like with your salmon? Soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, butter…”
“Butter? You know I can’t eat dairy products, honky,” you told the Caucasian server.
The guy’s laugh could be heard across the entire second floor.
“Of course, I remember now,” he said, smiling. “You call it, what, the American curse or something?”
“White man’s poison.”
A couple of other servers chuckled with you. I think you enjoyed that dinner.
Still, though, I knew you were unhappy. I thought that moving you again would solve everything.
What happened later that night is unremittingly etched on my mind. I was trying to fall asleep after an online search for other memory care communities. My phone rang.
“This is the nurse at Silverado. Your dad is having a seizure. I’m supposed to inform you.”
She was hanging up when I said, “Wait, is he going to the hospital? Should I come by?”
“We’ve called the paramedics. Whether or not you come is up to you.”
“I kept chattering as the clock on the wall ticked past three, four, five in the morning. I don’t know if you heard me. I will never know.”
When I arrived, an ambulance was parked out front. I remember the flashing red lights contrasting with the dingy off-white building. The paramedics could not get into the locked front door. Hands shaking, face numb, I buzzed the intercom, but there was no answer. I repeatedly called the facility’s general number on my cell phone. Were you wondering where I was when all this was going on?
I was furious with the nurse’s indifference and the paramedics being locked out of the building. After about ten minutes, the paramedics and I were finally buzzed in. You were in the common room, your eyes staring up at the ceiling.
“Dad, I’m here. Are you okay?” I asked as you turned your head my way. But at that moment your face and arms started jerking uncontrollably.
Did you see the paramedics rush toward you? Did their presence make you feel any better? I hope so, but how well can a person feel when having multiple seizures in a dementia facility?
“He’s having another one,” the nurse told them. “He’s had two already.”
You had four seizures that night: three at the facility and one in the ambulance. While unconscious in the hospital bed, your face pale and mouth open, the only comfort I believed I could provide for you was to describe what you’d longed for all week: “Dad, we’re in Las Vegas. We’re walking through the lobby of the Las Vegas Hilton. We have tickets to Celine Dion, and we’re eating at Benihana before the show.” I went on for hours as you lay there, machines beeping. I was hoping my talking would give you comfort. I kept talking as your skin stayed pallid. I kept chattering as the clock on the wall ticked past three, four, five in the morning. I don’t know if you heard me. I will never know.
You still live at Silverado Encinitas. It’s been two years since that incident. Now when I visit you, your head is always slumped forward in your wheelchair. You don’t know I’m there unless I touch your hand and loudly announce, “Hi Dad! I’m here!” Your bloodshot eyes look up at me as you try to smile. That’s as much as you can do now. I should be grateful you’re in a place that has people who feed you, wipe your bum, push your wheelchair down the hallways, and hoist you to bed at night.
I really should go by and visit you this weekend. I should.
Kelley Jhung’s personal essays have been published in Hawai’i Pacific Review, Reed Magazine, The Avalon Literary Review, and the “Reader’s Write” section of The Sun. She also writes for various magazines on medium.com. She has a BA in English and a MA in cross-cultural counseling & social justice. She is committed to advocating for those who are marginalized and underrepresented, and currently works with foster children in San Diego, CA.