locked gates, open road & Harriet Tubman’s Home for the Aged

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part 2 of 3 in the series “Dementia Summer” /  (part 1  & part 3)

It turns out that the final stage of Harriet Tubman’s revolutionary life was dedicated to building and running a “Home for the Aged”, a nursing home, just outside of her own house in Auburn, NY.

We were struck by this just today, when we finally made the trip there. Going to see Harriet Tubman’s home was a pilgrimage planned long ago by my mother and my children, who were then in preschool, one morning when they’d looked up to see a 13’ bronze Harriet Tubman gliding on the end of a crane, over the pedestal of a new monument being built to her.  It seemed from below like she was running across the sky, toward the North Star itself.  My daughter was awe-struck, and ever since obsessed with anything related to Harriet Tubman’s life.  As she’s Afro-Latina and adopted, my daughter is keenly aware of her stake in this legacy and we’ve been keen to keep that connection strong.  We knew that the house was 5 hours northwest of us and we planned to see it, as soon as possible; we didn’t make it, however, for years.  Due to my father’s worsening dementia, my mother hadn’t been free to go anywhere, let alone to undertake this important trip. When he was recently moved into his own nursing home, a residential facility for Alzheimer’s, my mother, in many ways, regained her freedom.  The first thing she did was to put a date on the calendar to travel with us to Harriet Tubman’s house.

I knew that our ability to go on this long-delayed trip was finally made possible by my father’s loss of his freedom. A tall gate now kept him permanently inside a fenced perimeter, and only by buzzing for help could we get in and out of the place. He of course didn’t get out at all.  As we prepared to head off on our journey, we had our last morning in this new home.  We’d been there for weeks, hours each day, and now my son asked, “Do you remember that we’re leaving for New York?”  My father was silent.  He’d normally have sung or given jokey non-answers, but today, his answer was to look away.

There is Freedom and then there’s freedom.  Respect for Freedom, the liberation from the kind of brutal enslavement that African Americans are still fighting for, is what had us poring over maps and plotting paths to upstate NY.  Mundane freedom — which happens, for example, when caregivers relinquish the care of loved ones who’ve been the center of their lives — is pronounced as the same word, but isn’t the same.  It’s more about choices, and often privileges, dilemmas presented. Humbled by Harriet Tubman, we’d aspired to spend this trip thinking hard about Freedom.  We knew that it would coincide with the anniversary of Ferguson and a steady stream of similar cases, and that timing could work to teach us all kinds of lessons. We found ourselves also distracted, though, with details of my father’s new locked-down environment around us.  Ideas about Freedom and small-f freedom bumped into each other in confusing ways.  When we were inside the gate planning our journey, a website flashed Harriet Tubman quotes at us as my daughter read aloud over my shoulder, clear words about the choice between liberty and death.  My kids hadn’t thought about this dichotomy so directly before, and as we tried to keep focused on the singular history at hand, to make sure that ideas weren’t confused, they asked more than once about whether my father and these other residents minded not being able to leave. “I hope not,” I’d said, though we knew that many wouldn’t have the words to say if they did.  It occurred to us that these residents had neither true liberty nor true death in their foreseeable futures.  Their brains had left them in-between, short of both destinations.

In such a case, the alternative destination is community.  By surrounding dementia patients with one another, the idea is to create safety and camaraderie.  I saw flashes of this in my father’s new home, and seized on those flashes to prove that a sealed system doesn’t only mean restriction.  One woman who can’t remember much of anything did remember to sing to my father when she saw him.  Another tried daily to sell nonexistent car insurance for nonexistent cars, as other residents played along. There was common understanding that illogic is logical.  My father was able to see that his pictures were hung crookedly in his new room, but couldn’t remember how to say so.  He tapped my arm and told me, “The pictures… are yecking.”  We all knew what he meant.  The residents, seeking meaning and trust, adapted to one another’s quirks, and the more time we spent with them, we adapted too.  Within the walls, we taught our kids to be part of this community, not to fear it.  They played games, made themselves at home, and yet —

“Restrictions can be necessary. When people need help, they aren’t independent.”  I said that to my kids, and they said they understood, (even if I still had questions).  My father’s new neighbor, a beautiful Italian woman near 90, invited us to her room, grabbing our hands, offering candy and photos of her village. She asked us, “Do you know the first thing I say when I wake up each day?”  I thought it would be a Mediterranean meditation, some secret from her youth. “No, what do you say?”  She put her hand on my face.  “I say —‘Shit!!! I’m still here.'”  I didn’t know for sure whether “here” meant behind the gate, or just alive here on earth, but I hurried the kids out before she told us which.  They already knew, though, that she meant the former. The weight of her loss was obvious. “If you’d read my life in a book,” she said, “you wouldn’t believe it.”  My father too had often asked for me to make a book of his life before it vanished.  I’d had no interest, always most concerned with stories of capital-F Freedom.  I’ve realized lately, through watching it happen, that this very different story is essential too.  The struggle to hang on to dignity and self-determination is profound and universal.

My kids asked whether he understood that we were headed for the airport without him. “I think so!,” I said, trying to downplay the contrast between us going and him staying.  But as I spoke, another resident screeeeeeeeched out of nowhere, frantic to get out to the street.  She was pleading for someone to show her how to open the gate. “They’re holding me hostage!” she shouted, and convincingly too, waving her hands at us, staring in shock.  We’d read out loud that when Harriet Tubman crossed into Pennsylvania, she said: “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now that I was free.”  Maybe something like the reverse of that was happening, not to this woman’s body but in her mind.  Maybe it happens daily, brand new and terrifying each time.  Maybe her circumstances are so unfamiliar that she’s left trying to recognize simple parts of herself.  Her desperation was not in any way about Freedom, but it was about something fundamental, maybe some kind of freedom that doesn’t have a name yet.

I knew that my kids already clued into the uncertainties I’d been trying to hide when we were here.  I knew from the way they told this woman, “Sorry, we can’t get you out.”  We signaled instead to an employee, who took her back inside.  I sat with my father on a double swing, trying to create the illusion of forward motion.  “We’re leaving for New York.” I skipped the details about hills and lakes and Freedom and freedom.  Looking at the Cayuga Valley now that we’ve arrived, though, I know that he and the others must remember plenty about those things.  Our need for freedom is interwoven with our dignity and encoded in our DNA.  I roll down my window and inhale, understanding that, one day, at the end of the road might be my own locked gate.  For now, while I can, I drive in the opposite direction.

It turns out that the interior of Harriet Tubman’s house is closed for renovation. President Obama signed an order in 2014 to turn her estate into a National Historic Park, and all parts therein will be restored. “That’s okay,” my kids and my mother agree.  We’ll come again when it’s reopened; today we can touch the exterior of her house, and these beautiful grounds. Best of all, what is open today, lovingly furnished and recreated, is the separate building we just learned about, the culmination of her vision — The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged.  We’d come to learn from this abolitionist and suffragist, Union spy and only woman to lead a unit into battle during the Civil War.  We didn’t know that after all of those awe-inspiring feats, she poured her energy into the 12-resident nursing home in her yard. There was no locked gate around it, but it was a place for those who could no longer make their journeys.  Their ultimate destination too was community.  She’d also built a hospital on the property, named for her fallen friend John Brown, where she herself wound up living out the last years of her long and amazing life.  My kids joke that we could have brought my father along with us after all, to this very old nursing home that stands next to the house we’d traveled to see.  For a moment, we picture him and all of the other residents living here. “Too many stairs!”, my daughter says.  So instead, we think of them where they are, behind the gate that offers safety as it prohibits freedom, restricts liberty as it provides comrades.  My son says that he misses them, not just his grandfather but also the others whose illogical world we’d briefly shared.  We smile, but agree that we couldn’t have missed this magical sunset on the shiny lake off the rolling highway that once was the home at the end of the journeys of Harriet Tubman.  We are finally here.