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The ladies of the North Valley Care Home are propped in wheelchairs and La-Z-Boy-style recliners, blankly watching the Todayshow's summer concert series on a recent Friday morning. The volume on the big-screen TV is set for the hearing-impaired, but even so, the women nod off as hip-hop queen Mary J. Blige struts and croons.
With its row of comfy chairs and colorful fish tank, the den is perfect for the slipper-clad ladies, who aren't going much of anyplace today, or any day. They are grounded by Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia and neurological disabilities clearly unable to provide for themselves in even the tiniest ways. They are bathed, fed, and helped to sit and stand, constantly needing to be reminded of what day it is and where they are.
Down the hall from the television, across from the handicapped-accessible bathroom where the women get assistance relieving themselves, is Paul Hewitson's bedroom. He is the only male in this houseful of demented, mindless women.
Hewitson needs no reminder about where he is. It's all he thinks about.
At 67, Hewitson appears to be at least 20 years junior to many of his housemates. Lanky with a headful of straw-colored hair, he looks a little bit like John Wayne.
Each morning, he smoothes the peach blanket over his twin bed, grooms and dresses himself, and reads the newspaper. Instead of bedroom slippers, he wears running shoes.
When he talks on the phone, Hewitson apologizes for his scratchy throat. "You have to excuse my voice, because I don't talk much here," he says.
This morning, he is watching the Phoenix government cable channel on his small television set, which isn't easy with the sounds of Mary J. Blige blaring through the wall. He eats his meal s at the dining table with the ladies, but otherwise, Hewitson figures, he spends about 90 percent of his time in this tiny, neat room, which holds all of his earthly possessions: a desk, an armchair, some mismatched dressers and bookcases. A small window looks out onto the side of the house next door.
A little more than two years ago, Paul Hewitson was very ill. His wife died suddenly of cancer. A lifetime of drinking caught up with him. Doctors said he couldn't care for himself, and his daughter convinced the courts to give her custody of her father.
Against his wishes and the protestations of government advocates, Hewitson's daughter exiled him to a group home with constant supervision, then sold his house and almost all of his possessions. Years later, he is sober, his health improved, but his daughter continues to control his fate, and Hewitson's court-appointed attorney spends more time talking and listening to daughter than father.
The daughter, Steacey Roy, did not return calls for comment for this story. She lives in Canada, and Hewitson says he hasn't seen her in months. In letters to the court over the past two and a half years, she has repeatedly expressed concern for her father's health and safety. In the court record, she's remained adamant that her father requires constant supervision.
Technically, Hewitson can come and go as he pleases, but with $2 in his wallet, where would he go, he asks. The owners of the North Valley Care Home watch him carefully when he steps out onto the front walk, and his daughter has forbidden visits from the one friend who has tried to take Hewitson out for a meal at his favorite restaurant, Red Lobster. When the friend showed up to take Hewitson to a court hearing several months ago, the police were called. The friend hasn't been back since.
And so Hewitson spends his time in his room, rereading his books or rewatching his videos. But mostly he spends his days angry.
He is angry with his daughter for forcing him to live here, angry with his attorney and with the courts for not intervening. Angry that he never got his day in court to tell the judge why he should have some control over his life.
Perched on the edge of his bed, Hewitson pulls a sheet from a white tablet and reads from his notes, written earlier this morning. He raises his voice to be heard over the television as the Today show ends and Kelly Ripa takes over. His notes are like poetry.
"I exist in the future without freedom or things to remind me of good and bad times.
"Just what it might be like in 10 20 30 years.
"Senility, wetting yourself, can't dress or clean. Sit and stare. Mumbling, hardly hearing, having things, even horses, crawling all over you. Don't know anyone hardly. Shake. Can't walk....
"It's not pleasant living to see what will be worth death."
Paul Hewitson spent his career facing death.
He estimates that he worked on more than 6,000 autopsies over several decades, first as a technician for the Maricopa County Medical Examiner and later at Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix. Forgetting names and faces was a survival tactic.
"In that business, you don't remember a thing," Hewitson says. "You just forget the circumstances afterward, so you can shut things out of your mind."