Going home ... next week

Ralph Bryant, a 74-year-old Navy-sailor-turned-preacher, has lived at Linda Vista Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for the last few months. Though his visitors are few and far between, he has a smile ready should any walk through his door.

At first glance, it looks as though Ralph may be living out his last days at the nursing home. He spends most of his time in his room, either in his hospital style bed or in the extra large wheelchair beside it.

But Ralph is just undergoing rehabilitation for a bad back, and anticipates that he will go home "next week."

It seems most of the residents at Linda Vista think they are going home sometime "next week." But in the past month, only one person has left, and they didn't go home.

It is impossible not to believe Ralph though. His deep brown eyes, magnified by his round glasses, seem only capable of truth.

Most afternoons you can find Ralph sitting in an upright position in his bed wearing navy blue sweat pants, a red T-shirt and soft brown leather shoes.

If he's not there, he's in his wheelchair, chuckling over a television program.

Often, he's holding one of his beloved books.

Today, he lies at a slight angle, or propped up, since the bed doesn't accommodate his stretched out frame. The simple gold bands adorning each of his ring fingers glint in the sun shining in his window as his long, pale fingers clasp over his belly.

Asked about the book he's reading, Ralph is shy at first, then warms up real fast. More than likely he'll tell you the twisty plot of a romance novel, for that is what the preacher usually reads.

Or, if he isn't reading, he is listening to classical music on public access channels. He'll even sing along in his drawling baritone.

"I had a young dog and his name was Blue. And I betcha five dollars he's a good one too. And when I get to heaven the first thing I'll do is look around heaven and call for old Blue."

He keeps to himself for the most part, but that suits him just fine.

After all, he has plenty of memories to sustain him through these slow times.

Meeting Vala

One of Ralph's favorite memories is the story of how he met his wife, Vala.

She was a teller at a Bank of America branch in San Jose, Calif., where Ralph was stationed in the Navy. While depositing checks one day he forgot to sign them. She called him up to tell him that he would save $3 a check if he came back down.

"I didn't know it would cost me the rest of my life," Ralph says.

They started "going together" in December of 1966, but kept it a secret from their church as long as they could.

"A divorce and remarriage was really frowned upon then," says Ralph.

So was the age difference.

At the time Ralph was 33. His not-yet-wife was 44 &

plus she had a child.

The way he tells it, he and Vala thought they were being very sneaky, but the church had known about the relationship all along. Even sitting at opposite ends of the church pew didn't fool the parishioners. Once the couple realized they were supported, they got married in August of 1967 and they have been together ever since.

This August they will celebrate 40 years of marriage. They might get to celebrate together.

The last few months have been difficult on them both, especially Vala. She suffers from dementia and becomes disoriented. Ralph's absence exacerbates the problem.

According to Ralph, the condition forced them to move to a assited living home because he was falling often and couldn't get to a phone for help. He had to leave her behind when his back gave out and they moved him to Linda Vista.

For now they have to settle for talking to each other on the phone every day, but without him there as her anchor, she has trouble remembering.

If the physical therapists give him the go ahead, he can then join Vala at the assisted living home. That is the gift he hopes to give her for their anniversary.

Childhood pranks

Ralph has cheerful memories too.

In his youth, Ralph was quite the prankster, although, if asked about it, he'll say he "wasn't a wild child, but more of a black sheep."

But this "black sheep" didn't confine himself to the usual short sheeting of beds &

although he did that too.

As a teenager, Ralph and some buddies stripped down a car called a "Willy" until nothing but the frame and steering wheel were left. Then they would ride around the neighbor's pastures.

Once his male friends were a little older, he would sneak tampons into their shopping carts, just to embarrass them at the check out line. A couple times he went for the big time prank and managed to stow away $25 hams in their carts.

Ralph's first job was milking cows. His dad kept cows and sold them off. Ralph kept the calves, and when they grew up he milked them and sold their milk. It was a profitable industry that put him through two years of college.

He volunteered for active duty in the Navy in 1955 because, he says, he was about to be drafted into the Army and he wanted to pick where he went.

Ralph was sent to San Francisco, and then &

five days before the Korean War ended &

to Hawaii for two years.

Ralph enjoyed island life. Since he only worked every fourth night, he was free to explore. He bought a motorcycle to avoid Oahu's exorbitant gas prices and to get to his favorite spot: Waikiki Beach.

"Ah expect it's much different there now though," Ralph drawls.

Once his two-year duty was fulfilled he went to get his discharge but was told, "We're gonna have to keep you a couple more months, son," he recalls.

What else could he do but wait?

He went home to Springfield, Mo., to find a recession waiting for him. He ended up working as a specialist in the Navy reserve.

The next 20 years were a blur of cities for Ralph: St. Louis, Hawaii, Reno, Santa Maria, San Jose, the Great Lakes area. He pauses for a moment to tally up all of his previous homes. Oh yes, and Baltimore too.

"You think of the Navy as being on a ship, but I was only on a ship for two weeks out of 22 years," he says.

No sea legs for this sailor.

Here and now

Life at Linda Vista isn't just a walk down memory lane. As one of the resident's daughters says, "Life gets very real here."

The rooms are very similar to dorm rooms. The close quarters can make residents fast friends, or fast enemies.

On one particular afternoon Ralph and his roommate John Kennedy have a hankering for something sweet. John bargains with a visitor, "Bring us some milkshakes, won't ya?"

He says he'd like his strawberry-flavored. Ralph takes a moment to consider before deciding on butterscotch.

"A butterscotch milkshake?" John says. "Who's ever heard of a butterscotch milkshake?"

Ralph is dejected to learn of the scarcity of butterscotch milkshakes around here, and decides on strawberry instead.

The visitor makes it no further than the hallway before running into the charge nurse, Tim. She asks if it's against policy to bring treats to the residents.

"That wouldn't be a problem except both John and Ralph are diabetic," Tim says.

Since the likelihood of finding sugar-free milkshakes is slim, she returns to their room. "Sorry fellas, the milkshake plan was vetoed."

"Too bad," John replies. "We were hoping for a bad girl to bring in contraband."

A close call

A few days later the mood in Room 34 is less boisterous.

As John described it, Ralph was coming out of the bathroom when he fell to the floor. John called for the medics.

Ralph's heart had stopped and he wasn't breathing.

The medics worked hard on him for four minutes before taking him across the street to Ashland Community Hospital. He began breathing again, but was unconscious for the next 12 hours. The doctors determined he had had an allergic reaction to the morphine he takes for the back pain.

After a few days in the ICU, Ralph was admitted back into Linda Vista. He doesn't remember any of it.

"Ah was about ready to go home before this happened," he drawls. Now, "it will be another week or two."

At the very least.

It's not an unusual story at Linda Vista. It seems like just as most patients are ready to go home they fall or get injured again. It often extends their stay another few weeks or months.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the incident elevated Ralph and John's friendship to a whole new level.

As Ralph puts it, "He saved my life."

A new roommate

the middle of June, Ralph is still at Linda Vista. He has not been given the go-ahead to return home although he is recovering nicely from his allergic reaction.

He has a new roommate"" John became well enough to go home. His new roommate prefers to watch the food network morning and night instead of conspiring to obtain contraband milkshakes.

This wears on Ralph, but he is hopeful.

With each passing day, he gets stronger and more independent. Maybe tomorrow he will be reunited with his wife. Or the next day. Or the day after that.

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