Good life of hard work

Inside the cafeteria at Linda Vista Rehabilitation Center, seated in his wheelchair at the first table on the left, Robert Norton recalls and revisits moments in his life.

"Bob," as he's known to the residents and employees, has a lot of things to think about. His memories are the treasure of a simple life.

"It's been a great life," he says. "It's good to have worked hard to have things, and to have learned things. The world is a big place with its own crazy system. The only thing you can do is enjoy it."

He looks like a typical grandfather, although he never fathered any children of his own. Strap-on sandals cover black socks emerging from navy blue dress pants. Bob's green shirt stretches to cover a basketball-sized belly.

His brow clamps down and he squeezes his eyes shut as he tries to recall bits and pieces of his past. Sometimes, when he's really stumped, his left hand swipes his gray fedora off his balding head, then quickly replaces it once ample thought has been given.

Although he has his silent time to sit and think, Bob is also a socialite of sorts at Linda Vista. He's always happy to talk about current events or reminisce about the past, but eventually, the two become one in the same.

Although he's conscious and active, Bob has a hard time keeping things straight in his head. He's been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and its slowly erasing the boundaries between memory and reality.

Robert Paul Norton was born June 21, 1922 and raised by Earl and Nelly Hinds, in Battle Creek, Mich. On his 18th birthday, after serving as a farm hand for most of his life, Bob's reality began falling apart.

Earl and Nelly told Bob he had been adopted. The parents he had loved were suddenly strangers to him. They also told him that he was out of the inheritance; the farm, they said, had to stay in the family.

With nowhere to go, Bob signed up for the only stability he could find. He enlisted in the Air Force, serving out of Battle Creek. The Fighting 172nd squad provided Bob the opportunity to create a new family.

"There was a closeness you had to have to fly a plane," he remembers. His job as a flight engineer required him to keep the planes in top shape. "I could get those suckers humming and running so good, other guys would take me up with 'em."

Later on in life Bob moved out to the west coast and settled in Yreka, Calif. He worked as a painter, landscape designer and on a farm. The long days and nights spent earning a living gave him pride.

"It's good to look back and know I've earned what I got. There's nothing more fulfilling than a life that's been good. And it's been a real good life."

Social scene

An influx of patients into the cafeteria signals the beginning of the afternoon activity. Patients begin to line two rectangular tables pushed together. Two residents sit in wheelchairs. The other five sit in the benches. A makeshift boardgame, drawn on a sheet, rests across the table.

A nurse sets down a white laundry basket and pulls out various "horse" game pieces. Two horses, a stegosaurus and a giraffe along with several other animals are passed from the head of the table on down the line.

The residents take turns rolling a dice to see how many spaces they will move up the board. The object is to get one's "horse" across the table and across the finish line.

Bob's bony hands clasp the green dice and scoop it into a yellow cup. Without much of a shake, Bob turns the cup over and hits it down on the table. Tentatively he draws back his hand, revealing his score: Four.

Reaching out, the small, long-haired woman sitting to Bob's right takes the dice and cup from him. Bob interrupts.

"Hey, isn't it my turn?"

"You just rolled," replies the woman. "It's my turn now."

"I did," asks Bob, he squints hard down his nose, peering through his glasses. His head dips. In a sad moment of self-reflection, he asks himself, "Where the hell was I?"

The activities at Linda Vista help keep Bob involved with the residents around him, but there is no slowing the damage to his brain. The events that happen around him slowly integrate into the memories of his past or disappear altogether.

Sometimes the aches and pains of afternoon exercise are confused with the aches and pains that accompanied working on the farm, unloading trucks.

"There's a lot of work to be done around these places," says Bob, as he tells his dining partner about his "work day." "My arms are sore from loadin' the trucks this morning."

The larger woman, sitting across from Bob, looks around in minor confusion. She wipes a hand through her graying hair as she contemplates the claims Bob makes. Every night, another ache is a day spent in the field, the soreness in his arm is from wrenching on airplane engines.

The empty, quiet time spent by himself is silently replaced with the memories of his friends in the Air Force, or his time in the fields, or with his either of his two wives.

Bob's condition may infringe on his memories, but his emotions never waver. Tears well up in Bob's eyes as he tries to remember his first wife's name. Seconds feel like minutes as he rubs his legs and grinds his teeth.

After what seems like an eternity, Bob regretfully admits he can't remember his first wife's name. No one at Linda Vista knows either. Time and lapses in paperwork have erased all traces of her &

except for Bob's gradually fading memories.

Married late

Bob met his second wife, Ruby, as a resident at Shepherd of God assisted living outside of Yreka. They were both "new admins," a term for newly administered residents.

Ruby was terminally ill with cancer and Bob was just entering the early stages of Alzheimer's. They began dating and a short while later, he proposed. Barely months after their first meeting, they married.

Some time later Ruby took a vacation to Florida with her family. It was meant to be a last trip together due to Ruby's failing health, and indeed it was. Somewhere along the way she fell, hit her head and died. Her family called Shepherd of God and informed the staff of the accident, opting not to return to California for any funeral service. Bob, they decided, did not need to see her again.

The staff at Shepherd of God told him the news, and Bob slipped into a mild depression. He sat in his room, not leaving for days at a time. Eventually he developed leg ulcers from not moving. His worsened condition ultimately led to his transfer to Linda Vista in February.

Upon first arriving, Bob had fits of spatial disorientation. Wandering the hallways, Bob would lose himself in his thoughts. Eventually when it was time to eat, use the bathroom or go to bed, Bob would look around and realize he had no clue where he was.

He was disoriented for weeks. His mood soured and he sometimes got in trouble when he confused residents at Linda Vista for his old friends at Shepherd of God.

Bob was moved to his current room, number 19, at the very center of Linda Vista. It kept him equal distances away from everything, and made it easier for him to find his way back.

Now Bob navigates the hallways with ease. He can go quickly from the cafeteria to the bathroom and to the television room without stopping to ask for directions. The nurses know him by name, and he greets each one in a unique way. To one he sings, "Here she comes &

Miss America!" He asks another if she's an angel.

Bob's eyes reflect a spark of life. Each moment, each person and each encounter reminds him of another moment, another person, another encounter. The past becomes the present, and the present becomes the past.

And there he sits, by himself, at the first table on the left in the cafeteria. He stares out the window, watching and waiting.

It's a good life. It's a good day. Bob is back on the farm.

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