It seems like every time I visit my mother I arrive during a meal, usually dinner. My mom always asks me to pull up a chair to the table and eat, offering to share her plate of food with me, but I always feel as though I will interrupt the normal ritual with this little intrusion. There is something comforting in such daily routines, especially for people suffering from dementia, and I don’t want to throw off the carefully cultivated dynamic at the dinner table. I prefer to sit to the side and watch the scene unfold with the interplay of all the characters, both comic and tragic at the same time. It is truly dinner theatre. I have never tried to write a play, but I see these nightly meals as a never-ending dramatic production, filled with all the heartbreak and laughs of any gut wrenching performance. If, as Shakespeare wrote so many centuries ago, all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, then the Deer Hill Care Home dinner play might look something like this.
. . .
Cast of Characters
Mary . . . . . woman with Alzheimer’s, walks with a cane, early seventies but looks much older
Barbara. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . woman with a spinal injury, confined to a wheelchair, late eighties
Ted . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . man with advanced Alzheimer’s, has difficulty walking, early eighties
Foster . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . man with Parkinson’s, confined to a wheelchair, mid eighties
Bert . . . . . . . . . . . . . . man with nerve damage and palsy, confined to a wheelchair, mid eighties
Barbie . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . woman with Alzheimer’s, walks with a cane, late eighties
Mirna . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Filipino woman with strong accent, caretaker, mid thirties
Jun . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Filipino man, head caretaker, mid forties
TIME: 4:30 sharp on any given night
SETTING: The elderly residents are seated around a large dinner table, each wearing colorful matching bibs, while the caregivers bring plates filled with hot dogs, potato salad, and steamed broccoli.
MIRNA: Bert, I have a hotdog sandwich for you. [MIRNA tries to give it to BERT]
BERT: I don’t want a sandwich.
BARBARA: It’s a hotdog, Bert. [yelling across the table]
MIRNA: Bert, it is a hotdog sandwich. Here, take it. [MIRNA places it in BERT’S shaky hand]
BERT: I’d rather have a hamburger. [Begins eating with his eyes closed but looks disappointed.]
[JUN turns music on, Frank Sinatra station on Pandora. I Get A Kick Out Of You plays.]
TED: [Singing along with song.] Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all, so tell me why should it be true that I get a kick out of you?
JUN: Ted, you know all the words. [Places a plate of food in front of TED]
TED: What’s that?
JUN: You remember all the words to the song, Ted.
TED: No, what’s that? [Points at the plate of food.]
JUN: It’s your dinner, Ted.
BARBARA: Ted, you have such a nice voice, keep singing.
TED: What was that now?
BARBARA: I really enjoy your singing. Keep going.
TED: If you say so. [TED doesn’t keep singing, but stares at his plate in silence.]
JUN: Barbie, you need to eat your food.
BARBIE: But I’m not hungry.
JUN: But it’s dinner time and you need to eat. [BARBIE looks at her plate, and then at the other diners around the table, unconvinced.]
MARY: Ted, how are you getting home tonight?
TED: I don’t know.
MARY: How did you get here?
TED: I can’t remember.
MARY: I’m sure they’ll let you stay here. You should ask them.
TED: Okay. [TED continues to stare at his dinner plate.]
[FOSTER scoops potato salad into his mouth with a fork in one hand, his arm shaking with effort. His fingers are clenched into a bony fist. The fork is stuck between his thumb and the mouth of his fist like a miniature shovel. Trying to adjust the grip he drops the fork onto the ground. Unfazed, he picks up a spoon and continues shoveling food toward his mouth. There is mustard on his beard.]
BARBIE: Can you call my daughter, please? I need to tell her to come get me.
JUN: We can call her after dinner, but you need to eat something. Here’s some juice for you. [Places a glass of orange juice in front of BARBIE.]
MARY: They put mustard on here. I don’t like mustard. [Shrugs her shoulders and begins eating the hotdog anyway.]
TED: I get a kick out of you. [Picks up hotdog and opens his mouth to take a bite, then has second thoughts and puts it back on the plate.]
MARY: [Turns away from table and addresses the AUDIENCE.] Have you spoken to your sister recently? I haven’t seen her in so long.
AUDIENCE: Mom, I think she took you to the doctor yesterday.
MARY: No she didn’t.
AUDIENCE: I’m pretty sure she took you to see the spine doctor yesterday, to the Kaiser in Martinez. Remember?
MARY: No. [Visibly upset, MARY turns back to her dinner plate and spears a piece of broccoli with her fork.]
BARBARA: I remember when we first moved her from Indiana in the sixties. Everyone called Martinez MARtinez.
MARY: I remember that. MARtinez.
JUN: Ted, eat your hotdog.
TED: What is it?
JUN: Your hotdog, Ted. Eat it before it gets cold.
TED: Who told you that?
BARBIE: Please call my daughter and tell her I’ve been kidnapped. Please. I want to go home.
MIRNA: After dinner Barbie we can call. Eat your food now, OK?
[Dean Martin comes on the radio, That’s Amore.]
TED: When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.
[Foster finishes his dinner and puts his spoon down with a clank. He wipes his mouth with his napkin and removes his bib. He takes extra care to fold the bib using just his thumbs pressed against his clenched fists, and then places it next to his plate. There is still mustard on his beard. JUN delivers a small cup filled with pills to each diner, and then removes FOSTER’S empty plate from the table. MIRNA drops off a small cup of rainbow sherbet for desert. BERT seems to have fallen asleep.]
MARY: There’s too much mustard on here. [Scrunches her face up, shrugs, and takes another bite of her hotdog sandwich.]
BARBARA: [Turns to face the AUDIENCE.] So, where do you teach again?
. . .
This drama repeats every day, at every meal, in a never-ending loop where the only thing that seems to change is the food served. I don’t want to be in the audience to tell the truth, to be a witness to this daily tragicomedy that is the Deer Hill Care Home dinner theatre. But even as a reluctant audience member I keep getting pulled into the performance. I am one of the characters despite my best attempts to keep myself separate. I have become an actor in a dinner theatre production that I want no part in.
This is part of a larger creative nonfiction piece I am working on. What do you think?