When I walk down Witherspoon Street away from the iconic FitzRandolph Gate that shelters Princeton University students from the town around them, my feet head toward the place that feels most like home. If it is a beautiful sunny day such as this one, my steps are slow and purposeful. I bypass the bank and the cash-only independent Small World coffee shop, which, with its disheveled twenty-something patrons smoking in front, seems a refuge for carefree youth. I light my own cigarette. If I run into a professor of mine, maneuvering with some difficulty a double stroller, I smile lightly and pass on. Turning left on Paul Robeson Place, the unofficial barrier between college town and low-income housing, I walk along a no man’s land of empty, uneven sidewalk towards the YMCA, its playground packed with children. The parking lot connects with an inconspicuous dirt path shrouded by trees, a shortcut that I take almost every other day to reach the Merwick Care Center.
Two floors of red brick make an awkward addition connected to the half-timber Tudor mansion which originally constituted Merwick’s. The building resembles a gingerbread house. Marta the receptionist’s pregnant belly has gotten bigger. She smiles and says hello, but not warmly enough to encourage me to ask her—yellow skin, almond eyes, and long, dry brown hair—for a complimentary cup of tea or a slice of freshly baked bread, though a sign posted at the welcome desk indicates that she would be the person to ask. Today, my eyes settle on something else on display: “The History of Merwick Care Center,” a stack at the edge of the desk which avoids immediate detection.
As I sign my name on the sheet in front of me, I skim the history. Before Merwick took on the old and invalided, it was simply an “abode,” which translates to Old English as -wick. Built and christened by a Princeton professor at the end of the 19th Century, the building acquired the “mer” in its name from his wife’s initials M.E.R. I muse about the days after it was first sold to the university in 1905, when graduate students temporarily housed here would have walked through a dining hall and breakfast bar now sectioned into offices. Recently the only students I’ve seen at Merwick were Emergency Medical Technicians returning a gurney. After the New Graduate College was built, Merwick was sold to a minister, whose son eventually turned it into a nursing home in memory of his mother. The Center came under the jurisdiction of what is now called the Princeton HealthCare System, a place where students no longer belong.
I go to the stairs. First floor patients are transitional—three out one day, four in the next, as fractures heal and tears mend; acute rehabilitation patients never stay too long. They ride the elevator from first floor to third, where straps and bars and platforms and balls for physical therapy await their improving conditions. The third and first floor patients carefully avoid the second, where those whose health only worsens with age spend their last years. On Easter this year I saw a first floor patient from a second floor window. His leg was bound from hip to metatarsal, and the women I assumed were his wife and daughter pushed his wheelchair around the parking lot below. “Do you want to go outside, Dad?” I asked the man sitting next to me. My father nodded his head, and I maneuvered his La-Z-Boy on wheels to the elevator down the hall, carefully pushing past the familiar wrinkled faces and feet of his hall mates. Shortly after my father and I were seated on Merwick’s front porch, the sun massaging our backs, and I noticed that the first floor patient had been taken inside by his family.
My father lives in room 230, next to the “Casino Corner,” an ironic locale for the reformed gambler. But it is a relief to be nearing it. Marie is in with my father, talking to him. I know the nurses are Marie’s superiors, but I respect Marie more—she changes him, feeds him; Dad always takes his meds from her small, dark, papery old hand. When my older brother takes a break from his job and family to visit, Marie talks to him in a round, Haitian French, which he understands. Too embarrassed by my French to join, I always think, “Marie, vous êtes un ange.” Today I say, “I’ve got it from here. Thanks, Marie.”
Now I am the child. Once in my father’s room, I leave my shoes on the floor and tuck my feet under his sheets, leaning back in a chair as we watch “I Love Lucy.” A favorite of ours, we used to watch the show at home in Baltimore before the millennium, before my parents’ divorce, and before the stroke. The stroke came two years ago. It left my father’s right side limp and his tongue mute. A cellist and storyteller before, he is now a good listener. We communicate what we feel by watching funny programming or listening to sad, sad music. Though comedy always feels a bit inappropriate, it helps the silent hours pass. For “I Love Lucy,” he is turned on his side, pillows under each arm, under his back and head, and one between his legs, which have become so thin his knees knock. What’s left of his hair is white and sweaty. A bald spot reveals a blotchy scalp. He emits low moans, while Lucy and Ricky ruin a play in front of a talent scout. There is a sparkle in his eyes, hard to distinguish from tears because of the deep blue of his irises, until he smiles an uncomplicated half-moon of a grin at Lucy’s antics. It strikes me how much he looks like a child, curled into a fetal position, gripping my hand with the unrestrained strength of a newborn. He even has stuffed animals, along with the scattering of photographs of friends and family, cards, and remnants from home.
He hasn’t lived in our house in Baltimore since the stroke, but it’s his house nonetheless, and Medicaid and mortgages demand it goes. Merwick takes its place. I squeeze my father’s hand and untuck my feet. I hug and kiss him, say, “I love you. See you tomorrow,” and descend the carpeted grand staircase into the foyer. Before I pass through the sliding doors, back to being a student, thinking about internship applications and apartments for the summer, I hear a tinkling piano in the living room beyond. I smile, sigh, and step outside, remembering the music that wafted to my bedroom at nights, as a child, growing up in my father’s house.
Note: This piece was written in Spring 2008. Since then, Mihaly Virizlay, the author’s father, has passed away.