Tommy’s face, hovering over me, blocking out a beautiful blue summer sky, disrupts the serenity of the morning. Tommy is the newspaper delivery boy from across the street.
“Mrs. Ferns! Mrs. Ferns!” he cries frantically. “Are you alright?”
He leans over me; a deep frown furrowing his young brow.
“Yes, Tommy, of course I’m alright. I’m just resting,” I respond.
“Um, you’re resting out here on the ground?” he asks, in a perplexed tone.
I clutch a handful of dirt from underneath me and realize I am lying on the soft, muddy ground of my garden amid my colorful dahlias. I experience the vague feeling of disorientation that had been dogging me recently, and I am overcome by an inexplicable sense of panic.
Tommy’s eyes cloud as he gazes at me.
“Oh, Tommy, I’m fine,” I assure him again, somewhat unsure now. Why am I on the ground? I wonder in confusion.
“Well, you probably tripped that hose and took a spill,” Tommy announces, nodding knowingly, obviously satisfied with this deduction.
Had I fallen? Oh, goodness! “Well, I guess I must have tripped,” I say, not really remembering having tripped or having fallen. It sounded like a plausible explanation, however, or why else would I be lying in the dirt?
“Can I help you up?” asks Tommy kindly.
“Thank you, Tommy, but I believe I can get up just fine.”
Somehow, I stand, dust myself off, and go back into the house.
A nice, hot shower restores my sense of wellbeing, so I quickly dress and head out to the market, suffering no ill effects from the supposed fall. I seem to have blanked out on the events of the morning. Oh well, perhaps it wasn’t a big deal, after all. Hardly worth worrying over, I assure myself. If only I could remember, was the thought that niggled my brain, however.
It is such a beautiful day that I decide to walk to the market. The exercise will certainly do me good. The store is almost empty when I get there, which allows me the ability to browse and pick up the few items I need without being hurried. I have a friendly chat with Mary-Lou, the cashier, before heading back home.
When I realize that I’ve been walking a lot longer than I should have been, I am seized by a sense of panic. It should have taken me a mere ten minutes to get from the market to my house. I become concerned when the street I am on looks unfamiliar, and the houses are all unrecognizable. I have a strange feeling of being in a mental vacuum.
This is not my street, I think worriedly. I gaze at the freshly painted white bungalow facing me, and my confusion mounts. Where is my house with its green shutters in the front bay window? Where am I? I retrace my steps to the top of the street and look at the sign. I don’t recognize this name. What I know for certain is this is not my street. My panic increases as I retrace my steps to the market. I am impatient and frightened at the same time. With immeasurable relief for a familiar place, I enter the store and seek Mary-Lou. I nervously explain that I am having a slight problem, probably because of the fall I’d taken earlier. I admit to feeling a trifle disoriented and tell her I can’t find my street. Mary-Lou kindly sends one of her helpers to drive me home.
A few days later, when my daughter, Lizzie, calls as she always does after supper, we chat for a while when she suddenly says, “Mom, Mary-Lou at the market tells me she had her store help drive you home the other day. Did you not feel well?”
“She certainly didn’t,” I protest heatedly. “Why would I need to be driven home?”
“She mentioned something about a fall. Did you have a fall?”
“Nonsense!” I exclaim. “Why would she say such a thing?”
“Did you not have a fall, then?” Lizzie asks me in her mother-to-child voice.
“No, I didn’t! Wouldn’t I have remembered if I’d had a fall?”
“Okay,” Lizzie says, sounding skeptical. After a momentary pause, she adds, “Mom, you’ve repeated the same question about my work three times in the last five minutes. Are you sure you are alright?”
I grunt my displeasure at her tone and replace the receiver. When did she become the boss of me? I wonder irritably.
Sitting by the window for a while, I notice that dusk is setting in. The drapes need to be closed. I move forward, but my legs feel like rubber, and my knees buckle. I reach for the phone and dial Lizzie’s number. Then everything goes blank.
When I open my eyes, Lizzie is leaning over me, shaking my shoulder. “Mom, what happened to you? Are you hurt?”
“What time is it? I must have fallen asleep.” I stretch uncomfortably.
“On the floor?”
“The floor?” I repeat. “Why am I on the floor?”
“I don’t know, Mom, but that’s where you are.” Now Lizzie sounds impatient.
“Ha! I wondered why my bed felt so hard.” I try to laugh, although I experience a sense of helplessness.
“Right,” responds Lizzie. “Let’s get you up.”
I try to raise myself, but my legs feel like rubber. I dig my heels into the carpeted floor, but can’t seem to gain any traction. “I guess I need help.”
With one hand under my shoulders and the other around my waist, she tries to help me up. She fails.
“What’s wrong with you, Lizzie?” I demand in frustration. “I’m not so heavy that you cannot raise me.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” snaps Lizzie. “I just don’t think it’s safe to move you. I’m calling an ambulance.”
Resistance seems useless; Lizzie isn’t listening. Why is it that daughters grow up and suddenly have a role reversal epiphany? She is my daughter, not my mother!
When the door opens a little while later, my heart flutters in my chest. I smile and hold out my hands in welcome.
“Donny!” I cry joyously. “I knew you’d be back. Where have you been?”
They said he was gone, but I knew my young, handsome husband would return. I don’t understand why he is wearing those strange clothes, however, but I don’t care. I am just happy that my beloved Donny is back.
“Mom,” Lizzie is whispering urgently. “This gentleman is not Dad. He’s a paramedic.”
“Don’t be silly, Lizzie,” I respond dismissively. “Come, Donny, help me up.”
It irritates me to hear Lizzie mumbling to Donny as if I wasn’t there. “I’m so sorry,” she was saying. “My mother seems to think you are her husband, probably because of your dark skin.”
“No worries,” Donny assures her. “Let’s have a look.”
He bends over me, and I raise my palm to touch his face. It is such a beautiful face. “I knew you’d be back,” I whisper.
He doesn’t respond. Instead, he applies a blood pressure cuff to my upper arm and places the end of a stethoscope against my chest.
“What are you doing?” I ask in consternation.
He shakes his head as he removes the cuff and the stethoscope. When he lifts me up into his arms, I smile happily. He is so strong. He places me on a soft surface while Lizzie opens the front door. I notice an ambulance parked on the street. It’s probably there for old Mrs. Morgan from next door, the neighborhood busybody, I think uncharitably. I am taken aback when I realize they are wheeling me into the ambulance instead. “Why am I in this ambulance? There’s nothing wrong with me,” I protest in extreme agitation.
Neither of them responds. Donny secures the gurney while Lizzie sits by my side. I tense when I hear the siren and feel the roll of the ambulance as it races away from my home. I have a sinking feeling but cannot put my finger on its cause. Are they taking me away because I fell asleep on the floor? I wasn’t hurt. I just felt disoriented on waking up.
The ambulance finally comes to a screeching halt.
“Why am I here?” I ask when they roll me out, and I see the neon Emergency sign, blinking its blue light. A shaft of fear goes through me.
“How do you feel, Maam?” Donny is wheeling me down a long hallway.
“I feel fine,” I respond sharply. I wish he would stop calling me Maam. “Why am I here?” I repeat.
No one answers. Even the ever-vociferous Lizzie has suddenly turned mute.
I hate the hospital. My Donny is gone again, and I miss him terribly. Doctors and nurses keep waltzing in and out, poking, prodding, and turning me over like I am a sausage on the grill. I wish the thin, white-coated woman would stop shaking her head as she makes entries on her clipboard. She looks like Cruella with her surly, puckered lips.
“She has no symptoms nor prognosis of stroke or any cardiac episode,” she is saying to Lizzie, who stands by mutely, nodding her head and listening as if she were in the throes of hypnosis. “I recommend calling in our geriatrician for an assessment.”
“Why does she need a geriatrician?” Lizzie finally seems to find her voice.
“I don’t need to see a Patrician!” I exclaim in irritation. Either they were both deaf, or they were deliberately ignoring me. And what was a patrician, anyway? “I don’t need to see anyone,” I repeat more forcefully. They pay me no heed.
Later, I realize they were keeping me in the hospital when a nurse comes to transfer me to the ward. When I question him, he tells me they need to run more tests. Although I am relieved to be out of the Emergency room, I am fearful of what they might find on their tests. I wonder aloud what tests they needed to run, but the nurse won’t say. Lizzie has left, and I feel abandoned and afraid.
The following day Lizzie returns with another doctor who keeps smiling at me like I am the village idiot, needing to be patronized.
“Mrs. Ferns,” greets the woman, through a pseudo smile. “How are you?”
I shrug, deigning not to answer. I am angry and nervous about what was happening to me. I know something is amiss, but no one will tell me anything.
“Your daughter tells me you’ve been experiencing some cognitive setbacks.”
What? Cognitive setbacks? Of course, I’m not suffering setbacks of any kind! I remain silent, continuing to stare out the window. The woman persists. Now she is talking to Lizzie once again, like I wasn’t even there. What was it with these white coats who acted like they were God?
“Has she been having frequent falls?” she asks.
“Well,” responds Lizzie hesitantly. “A few days ago, she was weeding in the garden. According to a neighbor, she appeared to have tripped and fallen. We didn’t think anything of it, imagining she had just got her foot caught on something.”
Of course, I did. How else would I have fallen? If indeed I fell!
The interrogation continues. “What about cognitive issues? Disorientation? Comprehension, memory distortion, mood changes? Anything different?”
Lizzie will castigate the woman for sure. What sort of questions are those? But Lizzie doesn’t push back on the questioning. Rather, she is now relating incidents she has supposedly noticed. Why is Lizzie lying so?
“Mrs. Ferns,” the woman turns to me. “I’m going to have you do a few simple tests, okay?”
Since Lizzie seems to have lost the will to object on my behalf, I shrug. Best to do what the woman asks and get rid of her. The doctor lady pulls the over-bed table to where I am sitting up and adjusts it across my lap. She places a pen and paper in front of me on which she draws a large circle.
“Now,” she instructs, like she is talking to a child. “Can you fill this in with the numbers on an analog clock?”
Of course, I can! I’m not senile! My annoyance is clear as I pick up the pen and look at the drawing. I insert a 12 and a 6 on the blank page, and then I stop, unable to fathom the rest. My mind is as blank as the paper. What is wrong with me?
“Okay,” the Doctor lady says presently, turning the paper over. “I’m going to ask you a couple of simple math questions. Please write the answers on the paper.”
I cannot concentrate anymore, and I know I have failed the test when she removes the paper and leads Lizzie out of the room.
A few days later, Lizzie walks into my room. I can detect the tears through the brightness of her smile. “It’s time to go, Mom,” she announces.
“Where are we going?”
“Um, home,” she mumbles incoherently, busying herself with my belongings.
My home seemed to have changed, and my confusion mounts. There are so many people around. There is a lady behind a desk, but I’m not in a hospital. They tell me this is my new home, and my bedroom is the last one down the hall. I look around the small space that is supposedly my bedroom. Where is my dresser? My closet with our clothes? Donny’s and mine? This is not my home.
“Lizzie, what is this place? I want to go home,” I cry, panic-stricken.
“This is your home now, Mom,” Lizzie says, with tears in her eyes. “They will look after you here.”
“Why do ‘they’ need to look after me? Who are ‘they’?” I ask. “And why are you crying?’
Fresh tears slip down her face. “Mom, you’ve been placed in a lovely nursing home.” Lizzie seems to struggle with the tears that have now morphed into a deluge.
My heart drops. A nursing home? “You mean I’m not going to my house?”
“You can’t live on your own anymore, Mom.”
“Why not, Lizzie? I don’t want to be here.”
But Lizzie remains adamant. She doesn’t take me home.
I try to be patient, thinking I would get better, but it appears I wasn’t making any progress as the days passed. I couldn’t remember things. I would walk out into the hallway and not know where I was going or how to find my way back to my room. Someone needs to tell me what to do or where I am supposed to go.
Mealtimes are the worst. I hate the restaurant they take me to. It is full of elderly people, many looking half dead. The old man seated across from me drools over his plate and grosses me out. It makes me lose my appetite.
The only thing I enjoy about this place is the garden, so beautiful and peaceful, and full of fragrantly colorful flowers. I sit there dozing, watching Lizzie playing in the yard. She is such a lovely child, so petite and gentle with her head of dark curls framing her face and an irresistible pixie smile curling her lips. I try to call out to her to sit in my lap, but she is so elusive, waving at me and laughing as she runs away until I cannot see her anymore. I love the days when it is just my beautiful little girl and me.
Today I am sitting under a shady trellis, enjoying the sunny day, when I see a lovely woman step out of a car and wave at me. She looks familiar, but I don’t know her. She enters the garden and comes towards me, smiling warmly. She leans down and kisses my cheek. Her lips are warm, and I like the feel of them against my skin.
“Hello, Mom,” the lady says brightly.
Oh, she thinks I’m her mother. “Your mother’s not here, dear,” I tell her gently. “She was here, but she’s probably gone inside now to do her wash.”
“Mom, it’s me, Lizzie,” she announces through a flow of tears.
“Ah, Lizzie, yes,” I say in faint recognition. This is the Church lady, probably come for donations. Why is she always crying, though? Perhaps because I don’t give enough, I think with a wicked smile. Serve her right, for always wanting to gouge poor seniors like me. She probably uses my money to purchase all the fancy clothes she wears!
She sits by me for a while and then leaves, wiping away tears on a wet tissue.
As I watch her leave, her high heels tapping against the paved path of the yard, I am suddenly overcome by a stabbing loneliness. I wish my Donny were here. I keep looking for him, but I can’t find him. It’s all so perplexing. Everywhere I look, all I see is empty, billowing white clouds. Donny is somewhere in that white vacuum, and I’ll just have to keep looking until I find him. I know he’ll be home soon, and we’ll be together again. Often, I don’t even remember who I am. I feel helpless. I am in an inexplicable state to total oblivion, and I can’t seem to do anything about it.
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Ah Joan… this is a such a sad read. You must have experience with this dreadful disease… if not you must have done some good research. It comes across very real and plausible to how it must actually be. I won’t say I ENJOYED it because don’t we all love happy endings … but that’s not how real life is all the time is it :(. Well written from a flow perspective - it felt like I was being carried along on your lady’s journey and in her head. I didn’t like Lizzie! But maybe she was so worried and frustrated that she couldn’t help her reactions. ...
Thank you Andrea for reading my story, and for your comments. Yes, this was a sad story, and one I lived through for 4 long years. It is, in fact, my Mom's story and when I saw the prompt, I just had to run with it. I think writing this was more cathartic for me than anything else. The pain of watching her deteriorate is still fresh. Also, I believe that anyone going through this with family members might find some traction with what one goes through, from the patient's perspective and the loved one's. Your comments are most appreciated. ...
Dimentia is a disease that rips us all of way to much time with our loved ones. Thank you for sharing your story. This is so well written and can help so many people with early detection for their loved ones.
Thank you, Nicole, for taking the time to read and comment on my story. Having watched the toll this disease takes on the victim and their loved ones, I couldn’t agree with you more.
A very compelling story, and so well-written that I sacrificed some of my writing time to finish reading it and write this comment (I started it while I was on a tea break). Having family with dementia, I can see that you have compressed the time it takes from going from the first fall to the state of oblivion, which may be disconcerting to a reader who is new to dementia. But you have explained the seemingly irrational anger and contentiousness of the dementia patient very well, showing how it is perfectly rational from inside their heads...
Thank you Dawn, for taking the time to read my story and for posting a heartwarming comment. It was hard to encapsulate 4 years of pain into 3000 words, and at best I’d hoped to touch someone who, like me, had lived through this awful disease. The story is my mothers. It took about 6 months from the first fall to admission into the nursing home. I was fortunate to have had a placement close to my home so I was able to see her every day. I experienced the horror of watching a once vibrant and active brain become a vacuous organ of emptines...