Friday, May 21, 2010
“Dorothy, where are you?” O. J. ws calling me.
The thin hand above the hospital bed rail was reaching as if to catch someone rushing by.
“Here I am” I wiped my hands on the bottom of my faded oversized tee-shirt. The antibacterial hand cleaner I’d hurriedly squirted on before wringing my hands under running water was probably not enough to go from putting weeds in the overgrown beds to patient care, but maybe few toxic microbes remained.
The frail figure looked in my direction as I approached the shiny metal hospital bed raised to its maximum height. The cheekbones were like our youngest daughter who prided herself on maintaining her bridal weight of fifteen years before.
I said, “ Did you have a nice nap?
“Who are you?” my husband asked.
“You just called me, Do you want some breakfast now?’ It looks like one of those days. Yesterday he had been lucid much of the morning.
“ I don’t know you. Where’s Dorothy? I want to go home.” The thin fingers jerked at the brightly printed sheet chosen to help his distorted sight.
“I am Dorothy and this is home.” I left the rail down and lowered the bed
O. J.’s head turned slightly in my direction.. Obviously he was both unconvinced and annoyed at this intruder. This daily reorientation was not what one expects from the handbooks and instructions sheets. To the general population, Alzheimer’s is a byword for silly behavior or slight confusion. The grim reality is a juggernaut that grinds down patient and caregivers with its slow steady stealing of memory, of awareness, of sense of place and time. At least he knows my name today. I put my hand on his wrist to reassure him.
He pulled away. “You’re not Dorothy’” He twisted his head to the side and squinted at me. The ophthalmologist had explained that both eyes were good, just as they had been right after the cataract surgery. It was the receptors in the brain that had been damaged in the last stroke. The doctor had said, “He can only see a sliver of color and image, about what you’d see through spaces between you fingers if they were in front of your face.”
It seemed so terribly unfair. For eighteen years he had suffered stokes of varying intensity, much like the one that had killed two of his sisters and crippled a brother. When the confusion began, one neurologist had said multi-infarct dementia or “hardening of the arteries” another had scrawled “Alzheimer’s” across the top of the chart. The dozens of doctors, more tests, and many consultations simply meant ‘ live with it’.
Thank God and David Bronner for early retirement. O. J.’s BFGOODRICH/ UNIROYAL/MICHILIN pension and my teacher retirement benefits meant that we wouldn’t starve. His insurance had flipped over to Medicare when he turned 65. The move from the small frame house where we’d raised our children into a nearby mobile home provided an opportunity to create an intensive care facility near family and friends..
A door cut though the bedroom wall into the bathroom made a way to get the wheelchair near the tub, although it meant all privacy was gone. A bath bench inside the new larger steel bathtub had replaced the flimsy garden spa peculiar to mobile homes.. Bars had been installed vertically and horizontally so he could help pull himself into the tub and stay upright while someone lathered his shrunken limbs with baby soap on a large soft sponge.
Finally he located my face in his narrow range of vision. “ You’re not Dorothy . What are you doing here?”
“Honey, it is me” ‘or I or … whatever’ I pressed the button raising his head. ‘Why argue, he’ll have forgotten in five minutes.’ Some days he would wake up alert and normal as if the 5 years of mental disintegration had been a horrible nightmare.
Once the fog had disappeared for almost a week and we’d celebrated a return to sanity.
I tried my cheerful nonsubjective nurse’s voice. “ How about some orange juice? We’ll have breakfast after the home health nurse comes.”
“Why can’t I go home? Why are you keeping me here? I don’t like this place.”
His hands moved over bed. frame. and pajamas in small jerky movements..
“O. J. we are home . Remember when we moved down to Missy’s trailer, so we could have a wheelchair ramp. There’s your chest of drawer that you’ve kept clothes in for fifty years. And your mirror is over there. All of your stuff’s here.” I patted the mahogany chest making a trail in the dust.
“Get Dorothy, take me home now.” Echoes of the drill sargeant fifty years ago were in his voice.
“ I am Dorothy and it’s time for you to get up .” I put my left arm around his bony shoulder and the right hand under his knees and pivoted him to a sitting position on the side of the bad. I placed his right hand on the bed rail to keep him safe until I could pull the wheelchair closer just enough space to move him.
“Are you ready for a ride in your wheelchair?” I placed my knees flanking his, reached under his arms, and hugged him into a semistanding position. His grip on the back of my shirt was surprisingly strong. Another pivot like a clumsy dance step, had him in front of the wheelchair. and I bent my knees slowly lowering him into the chair. He grabbed the armrests like a novice on a bumpy place ride. I pulled the footrests to the front, locked them in position and guided his feet in place.
As I straightened up it seemed that his eyes were a little brighter. Sometimes activity made him lucid . The face I’d known for 38 years was unfamiliar in its thin emptiness but the eyes were searching for something to focus on.
. O. J. tilted his head as his eyes focused on me.
“Are you somebody I know?’ Plaintively.
My image in the mirror grimaced back at me with the dirty smudge across my check from the flower I had just planted. Just keep it steady. He can’t help it.
“I am your wife, your best friend, and your housekeeper, and your cook and your private duty nurse and your own true love. I’m David’s mother and Missy’s mother and Ryan’s grandmother, and Zac’s great grandmother,” I sing-songed as I rolled him to the table and locked the wheel. “ We’ve have six kids, 13 grandchildren, and soon we’ll have 5 great grandsons. And David’s going to be a grandfather.” Just the sound of my voice seemed to stop the fidgeting, even if he didn’t understand all the words.
He turned toward the sound of my voice. “I know David. Where’s David?”
“He’s gone to work. He came by early this morning to help me change you before he went to the river. He’ll come back tonight after he sells the mussel shells. That trip to Clanton always makes him late.” The last time O. J. had made that trip alone to help David he lost his way and went to Selma, and Montgomery before finding his way up highway 82 to Tuscaloosa, then Romulus and me. It had taken 14 hours and I was frantic. After that I drove him wherever we had to go.
“How about some eggs and ham and biscuits with your orange juice?” I spread a bath towel over his chest and lap. He fingered the towel and explored the hard surface of the table above it. His eyes searched the sun warmed kitchen until they focused on me again like an anchor to his world.
“Are you kin to me or something?’
“No, this is not Mississippi. You couldn’t have married me if we were kin’”
“Honey, your orange juice will have to wait. It’s the nurse who gives you your bath.”
“Come on in,” I said loud enough for the nurse to hear from outside.
The slender blonde in a brightly figured knit nurse uniform entered, put down her large navy medical bag and said, “Good morning, Miss Dorothy . How are you feeling, Mr. O. J.?”
The bald head turned toward the voice. A crooked grin spread across this face.
“How are you, Linda?”