Cathy A. E. Bell

Personal Essays and Poems by Cathy A. E. Bell

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My latest essay…

ranch

I spent a year working on my essay “Drive-by”. It started as fragmented, became a narrative, grew huge, shrunk back, and on and on. I needed this essay to be perfect. It’s my heart. It’s my baby. I’ve never loved an essay I’ve written more than this one. It chronicles a turning point in my life, a moment I could admit I missed my mother after years of no contact between us.

It’s taken a while to find the right home, but it DID find the right home at Full Grown People, a journal that that looks at “the sometimes glorious, sometimes messy, stuff that comes with adulthood.” I can’t begin to list the people who helped me workshop this piece in all its forms (thank you everyone!), but I will say thank you to Lynn Hall who has been the biggest champion of this essay since I wrote it and for her amazing editing skills to help me cut 1500 words from it. And thank you to FGP’s founder and editor Jennifer Niesslein for publishing and fine tuning it. I am so happy to have this essay birthed into the world today. I hope you’ll share in the journey (both the journey to publication and the literal drive-by of the story) with me.

“I wonder if reliving our childhood through day-long drives, as we often do, gives us insight to the ways the past intertwines with the now. Sometimes we don’t know how we really feel until we come close to the object that excites us, or haunts us, or excites and haunts us all at once, like our mother.”

http://fullgrownpeople.com/2015/09/01/drive/

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Bat Crazy

mexican-free-tailed-bat1

“Four Freaky New Bat Species Discovered” reads the headline of a recent Fox News article, portraying a large (much too large) photo of the ugliest creature ever seen. Uglier than a hairless cat, a Naked Mole Rat, or even a Proboscis Monkey with a nose that takes up a third of his face. At least the monkey has a real nose.

The new bat species are a type of horseshoe bat known for their flappy, grooved, wide-open noses called “noseleaves.” They don’t look like noses, though—more like a dog’s ear that’s been sliced a few ways, turned inside out, and glued to the front of the bat where a nose should be. Apparently, most bats emit sonar from their mouths, but these hideous creatures echolocate from their noses. Good for them. Even better is the fact that they can only be found in eastern Africa, which is far, far away from me.

Unfortunately, not all bats are that far away from me. One evening last spring, my dog and I were happily lounging on the couch, I, watching TV (recovering from too much tequila the night before), Izzy, dozing like dogs do. Suddenly, we both caught something in our peripheral vision move from the top of the floor-length curtains on the French doors to underneath the couch. Izzy and I needed no conversation on this one—we were up and off of that couch in one-tenth of a second. I thought, “What in the hell was that? ” I bet Izzy thought something very similar.

I looked down at the floor, and there, at the end of the couch was an extended brown-black bat wing sticking out.

Saying I was horrified might be an understatement.

Bats do not belong in your living space. Period. You can’t compare them to a mouse or a bird or a squirrel. Bats are bats—creepy, ugly, and dangerous if they carry rabies. It didn’t help that I had just heard a story on the radio that morning about a man who died from a bat-bite to the foot. Words. In my head. Rabies, shots in the abdomen, rabies, ten-thousand visits to the doctor for shots in the abdomen with big needles, rabies…

I used to like bats, from afar. I’d enjoy watching them at dusk, swoop out of their sleeping places and dive gracefully after the bugs. I didn’t mind the clicking noises coming from the trees at night knowing those furry, little bats were preventing countless mosquito bites (they can eat up to 1,000 mosquitos an hour), making my night more enjoyable on the patio. Bats are mysterious and intriguing and the basis of so much lore that a person can even be afraid of them and still love them the way we love graveyards, Halloween, or watching scary movies. We like to be a little afraid. The second summer after I moved into my old, Tudor house in the Park Hill neighborhood, I even saw the bats coming from behind the ivy near the peak of the roof. I didn’t care, I’m only renting, and hell, I liked the bats.

But, somehow, having one of them under your couch changes that sentiment pretty quickly.

I took Izzy down to the basement where my roommate lives and asked him to keep her in his room. “Oh, of course! Glad I can help by keeping her company!” Mike is not a manly man. He’s not the stereotypical feminine gay man either, but still, I’m more of a man than he is. Not surprising, he didn’t offer to help me get the bat out of the house.

Returning upstairs, I took a peek under the couch. Yep, still there.

So I did what I always do when I’m scared and don’t know what to do. I called my dad.  (After leaving the house and shutting the door). He wasn’t helpful, unless you call reminding me that people have to get lots and lots of shots in their abdomens for rabies helpful.

Next, I called my big boss from work. He was the man who’d know what to do. “Open all the doors,” Spero said, “and then get a broom and push him out the door.” I hung up, gathered all the bravery I could muster and started opening the doors. As I opened the last of the doors, the French doors, I moved the drapes to the side and heard a hissing noise. I looked up.  There in the folds of the brown curtains was a very well-disguised bat.

I screamed. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. I have two bats!” I ran from the house and called my dad. Again, not helpful.

Eventually, I looked under the couch and there was no bat, so I realized there was only one bat and he was back on the curtains where he’d started from. I felt like an idiot for thinking the whole house was full of bats, but I was relieved nonetheless.

I took a deep breath and grabbed the broom, trying to brush the creature towards the open door, but instead of going outside, he started flying like a maniacal killer in circles around the room not far above my head.

“Ahhh!” I screamed as I squatted on the floor ducking with the broom above me. “Shiiiittt!” I tried to open the pocket door to the kitchen (the closest exit out of there), but the door came off its rail and jammed with only an inch-wide opening. A good sized opening for a bat, but not for me. Now I’d have to go the long way around to the other door to escape.

I waddled around the couch to the stairwell door, opened it and ran down the stairs into Mike’s room. After shutting his door, I leaned against the wall, sliding all the way down until my butt hit the floor, my face buried in my hands. I cried some weird cry with no tears. This must be how you cry when you scared shitless, I thought.

I couldn’t even speak to Mike. I was annoyed. Why can’t I, just this once, have a manly-man roommate to help me get this psychotic bat out of my house? I was also peeved that my boyfriend wasn’t answering his phone, let alone on his way over to save me. Can’t a guy just save a girl from this fucked-up situation?

After five minutes, I regained some sort of composure and went back upstairs giving myself a pep talk as I went. “You can do this, you can do this. Don’t be a wimp.”

Back upstairs I found no bat. Not in the curtains, not under the couch. Since all the doors were still standing wide open, I thought he must have flown out. I looked around the room and it looked like it had been ransacked. I had no memory of trashing the place.

Slowly, I started putting everything back in order. As I was cleaning up bat guano from the floor below the curtains, I heard hissing. Near where I was kneeling, on the floor, was the ugliest, scariest creature looking up at me with his mouth wide open, baring 856 needle-sharp teeth.

“Holy shit! Are you kidding me?” Quickly, I grabbed a box and put it over the bat. He hissed some more. I collapsed on the couch.

Once I slowed my heart-rate, I tried sliding the box over the threshold of the French doors. It was too high. The gap was too big. The bat was really pissed now and I knew if I kept lifting that box over the threshold he was coming for me.

Now what? I called Dad again. This time he actually had something of value to offer. “Slide something thin and strong under the box and then you can carry him outside.” I went to the basement and found a pad used for cutting quilting squares big enough to cover the opening of the box.

Slowly, slowly, so I could give him a chance to hop on the pad, I slid it underneath the box.

I left the bat and the box alone for a while to calm myself down. I just didn’t know if I could take a chance lifting up the box, holding the pad just right so the bat couldn’t escape and carrying him outside. I needed to think on it. Maybe give myself another pep talk.

The gods must have been half-listening in when I asked for a man to come take care of the situation, because just then my (young and very boyish) step-brother called and said he was going to be over in a couple of minutes to borrow my sleeping bag. Hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Chen Mi greeted me with his typical child-like enthusiasm. I realized this might be the one and only time I am grateful for his immature bravery. Instead of eating red dirt in Sedona to see what it tasted like, or recklessly climbing pine trees while camping, I could use this to my advantage to get him to deal with the bat.

Really, I didn’t have to manipulate him at all. He “loves” bats it turns out! Fun! I tried to be grateful Chen Mi was there even when he told me that I was being silly to be so afraid of a bat. “Cathy, bats are good luck for the Chinese! It’s good to have one in your house!”

There was no use trying to express my fear to a fearless person, so I just nodded.

I was still grateful, though. Just having another human next to me felt reassuring and I knew he’d do whatever I needed him to do.

I said, “Okay, Chen Mi. Since you’re not afraid, please help me get this box outside and then YOU can lift the lid and let it go free.” We carefully picked up the mat beneath the box, gingerly holding the box in place. I felt like we were on the bomb squad. Maybe we should have protective bat suits, I thought. After stepping over the awkward threshold, we set the box down on the concrete patio very gently.

“Don’t touch that box, Chen Mi, until I’m inside with the door shut. Got it?”

He looked at me like a boy on Christmas about to open the best present ever. “Okay, Cathy! No problem!”

Quickly, I stepped inside and shut the door. Even though there was glass in the French doors, I couldn’t watch him free the bat. Nope. Done with the bat.

Chen Mi came back inside and said, “Wow, that was a cool bat!” I just hugged him. Thank God for little Chinese brothers who find all this scary shit fascinating.

In order to move past this bat-trauma I’ve tried to learn more about bats, so that maybe, just maybe, I can get rid myself of the image of the vampire-toothed creature.

Really, the only thing that makes me love bats now is the nifty fact that I may not have my high-quality tequila without them. Turns out those little bastard bats pollinate the agave plant whose seed production drops to 1/3000th of normal without them.

Good to know. So next time I’m drinking my tequila I’ll toast to the bats, but please, keep them out of my living room.

The Way He Loves Me (A Daughter’s Appreciation of Her Father’s Love)

 

Some of the most loving fathering I’ve had was not when I was a small child or a teenager.  It wasn’t when Dad said he loved me; that’s only happened a few times in my life.  It wasn’t through hugs; those are rare. He’s not that kind of guy. He’s a serious man—a retired cop who has seen a lot of rough things in his life.  Fortunately, though, he has grown a little softer through the years.  So, when I think of how my father has cared for me and sheltered me, I think back to my late 20s when I moved out-of-state to Arizona for graduate school and then moved back home a couple of years later. 

I made a neglectful mistake by not asking my father for help in driving the huge, stuffed U-Haul with my car in tow when I moved to Flagstaff.  I’m an independent person and I didn’t think to ask for help—or maybe I didn’t think he would help me.  It didn’t occur to me that I didn’t know how to drive a truck while hauling a trailer until my father asked me several times if I really knew what I was doing. 

“I wish I had known sooner when you were leaving. I could have taken time off and helped you move,” he said. 

“Oh,” I paused—the thought just occurring to me for the first time that I could have asked him.  I reassured him I’d be fine, trying to convince him and myself that I could move on my own.       

“Make sure you don’t hit anything with that trailer. Driving a trailer is not easy, Cathy,” he said with a knitted brow. I smiled faintly, looking doubtful, and told him I’d figure it out. But as I was driving away and ran over the curb with the trailer, I began to tear up, cursing myself for not thinking beyond packing the truck.  I had no idea what it was going to be like pulling a trailer.  

A couple of hours later, I nearly took out a gas pump and had to beg the attendant to pull the truck out for me.   After that incident, I made sure to only buy gas where I could pull through easily.  About 11 p.m., desperate to stop for the night, my young sister and I ended up at a motel in Albuquerque.  I pulled into the parking lot and had nowhere to pull through, but didn’t realize it until it was too late.  I was boxed in with a chain link fence ahead of me.  The next morning, it took me 30 minutes to back my way out of the lot, practically t-boning my car in the process.  Eventually, we reached Flagstaff and I immediately dropped off the trailer at U-Haul. I never wanted to see another one again.

When my two years of graduate school in Health Psychology were nearly over, my dad kindly responded to my desperate plea to come help me move home.   A few nights before he came to Arizona, I experienced an incident so frightening that I called him in the middle of the night crying. Late the night before I defended my thesis, I was watching TV because I couldn’t sleep, rehearsing my thesis defense in my mind.  To compound my stress, I was getting sick.  In a couple of days it would be bronchitis and a sinus infection. I was fidgety thinking about whether I’d be able to successfully defend my thesis the next day.   

I lived in a tiny studio apartment, less than 500 square feet.  I slept on a futon in the main room just a few feet away from the front window.  My apartment faced out to a never-ending forest on the edge of town and I had the window open. Even though the blinds were pulled down, I could still smell the pine trees outside.  The apartment was dark except for the light coming from the TV.  Suddenly, a man wearing a baseball cap was standing against my window peering down through the blind slats at me. I could hear the gravel under his feet as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.  I froze.  The gravity of the situation didn’t escape me—I knew he could rip my screen out and get to me in 3 steps. My breathing stopped.  I felt a rush of adrenaline surging from my kidneys, flooding my blood stream.  I was outside myself watching my reaction. I thought, so this is how it feels when something like this happens. 

I knew I wasn’t helping myself by freezing: I had to take action.  After what was only about 20 seconds but seemed much longer, I heard my voice say, very calmly, “You better get out of here, or I’m calling the police.”  He didn’t flinch. He stared. I thought, thank God this is the one night I didn’t put my phone on the charger across the room.  “I mean it. I’m calling,” I said louder.  He still didn’t move.  I slowly reached over and picked up the phone.  I dialed.  “Police.  Is this an emergency?” The dispatcher said.  He was so close he could hear the dispatcher’s voice.  As I replied saying quietly, “Yes, there is a man outside my window,” the man walked away.  The dispatcher told me to stay on the phone with her until an officer arrived.  Once the officer pulled up, I quickly hung up the phone, dressed, and answered the door. 

I tried to downplay the situation to the cop: “Oh, it’s just a peeping Tom. They’re harmless.”  “Oh, no they aren’t harmless,” he said.  “It always escalates. First it’s peeping, then it’s assault.”  He spent the next hour convincing me I needed to be scared by telling me stories of peeping Toms “gone violent”.  It worked and after he left, I was frightened, feeling vulnerable. 

I called my dad in Denver.  I tried to be strong; but as always, I cried as soon as my daddy—my protector—answered the phone.  Sobbing.  “What’s wrong, Cathy?” he asked.  More sobbing.  “Cathy?” he asked again.  Finally I managed a couple words in between gasps for air.  “Some—guy—was just—outside my window—peering in—at me. I called—the police.  I’m—okay.  Okay, I’m scared—but I’ll be alright.  Sorry, Dad—for waking you up.”  Slowly I regained my composure.   His reaction was soothing: “Too bad you didn’t have a gun! You could have whipped that right out in his face and scared him to death! That would teach him not to peep in windows.”   I felt better after talking to him, but still had to make it alone until graduation. 

Finally, Dad arrived. I picked him up in Phoenix and we rented a U-Haul and drove back to Flagstaff.  That night in my apartment Dad said, “I hope that guy comes back and I’ll hurl this front door open and scare the heck out of him. What do you think he’d think about that?”  He threw the front door open and looked outside, rehearsing his imaginary scene.  I laughed and felt comforted. Finally, that night I slept. Dad probably slept for the first time in days, too.  Graduation was the next day and Dad and I had a quiet dinner at my favorite restaurant and then we began packing and cleaning.  Soon we were on the road headed back to Colorado. No more peeping Toms to worry about.  I was moving in with my dad for “a while” while I looked for work. Going home. 

Not only did Dad give me a wonderful place to stay for free, he paid my bills while I looked for a job.  We gardened and fixed up his new house together. I repaid his kindness by cooking home-made meals for him and cleaning.  We were buddies, watching our favorite TV shows together and going to eat dinner in new restaurants. 

One night, we got home late from dinner.  I felt disappointed that it was dark already but was determined to get in my daily run around the townhouse complex.  Dad said, “Can’t you wait until tomorrow?  It’s just not safe to run at night, Cathy.”

                “Dad, you can’t worry about me so much! I’m 28 years old!  How do you think I’ve survived all these years without you?”  I smiled, went up to my room, changed clothes, and started jogging around the huge complex on the sidewalk.  It started to rain.  As I was coming up the last stretch, breathing hard, I thought “I bet he’s worried sick about me.”  After I cleared the last hill, I thought I saw something move under a tree.  I squinted through the darkness and rain and looked again.  There, hiding behind the tree, soaking wet, was my dad—holding a flashlight and making sure I was safe.  And that is the way he loves me.

Broken-Down Body, Beautiful Soul (A Story About a Man with Multiple Sclerosis Who Changed My Life)

I was 20 years old, a full-time college student, and minutes away from meeting Terry, one of the greatest friends I would ever have.  I pulled up to his upper middle-class suburban neighborhood nestled against the foothills on the West side of Denver and was thinking how much I needed this job—the pay was double my part-time hourly rate at the convenience store and this job sounded much more fulfilling than mopping floors, working a cash register and working for ol’ lady Myrna who was late to relieve me every night at 11 PM when my shift was over. 

I was nervous about interviewing for a job so unlike any job I’d applied for before.  All I knew from my best friend, who worked with Terry’s wife, was that he was in a wheelchair and they desperately needed help.  Terry and Penny were hiring someone who would clean, cook, take care of the yard, and do physical therapy exercises with Terry.  What did they expect from me? What was it like to work with a disabled person? I was getting my degree in Psychology and wanted to work in a helping profession someday anyway and this was a perfect chance to help someone who needed me.

As I walked to the front door, I thought about the phone conversation I had with Terry the night before; he was kind, intelligent and easy to talk to.  When I rang his doorbell, Terry came to the door riding his scooter and welcomed me in.  We sized each other up pretty quickly and knew instinctively the situation was going to work out well. 

Terry was in his early forties, balding, with a full beard and mustache sporting a bit of gray.  His voice was soft, but deep and his whole face was smiling—eyes twinkling.  Sometimes he’d laugh so softly, you’d have to listen very carefully and look in his eyes to tell if he was really laughing.  He was wearing sporty slacks and a golf shirt.  His scooter-like wheelchair had three wheels and was powered by a car-sized battery with a quiet whirr wherever he went.   On the handlebars of the scooter hung a basket with all his accessories—a portable phone, a folding multi-tool, and his wallet.  We began to get to know each other and joked around and after a half an hour, he hired me.  That day was a new beginning in my life—I spent the next 6 years by Terry’s side.

Terry was 28 years old when he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.  When Terry tried to re-enlist in the Air Force, he failed his physical.  They claimed he failed the hearing test—he knows now it was the “move your leg around in a circle” test that he really failed.  He said his leg was supposed to move smoothly, but the movement was staggered during the test.   Months later, he began falling for no reason.  Terry went to a doctor.  After many tests, they gave him the diagnosis.  Having MS meant never having full control over his body, watching his ability to walk fade away, and wondering some days whether he would have the physical strength to pull himself out of bed.  Terry lost his military career, lost his 1st marriage, and later,  his career in the auto industry, each loss a direct result of his illness—and all in the prime of his life. 

Terry had been in a wheelchair for about eight years when I met him.  I never sensed anger or bitterness about his loss of a healthy body—instead he possessed a joy for life that is rare in most people.  Part of that joy was having Penny in his life—his best friend and partner.  She really loved him and knew of his illness when she married him, but married him anyway.  They were a great team and working in this home day to day offered me a new and profound perspective on life.

Terry treated me more like a team-mate or family, and not so much like an employee.  Every day I’d get to work and say, “What are we doing today, Homey?” 

“Well, Bones,” he’d say while he pulled out his list, “Today we are going to the grocery store and then going to make Rice Krispy treats.  Tomorrow is laundry and mowing the lawn.”

One day when I asked what we were going to do.  He said, ”Going to look at a BMW I want to buy.”  So, off we’d go to buy a black M5.  He couldn’t drive, so when I’d drive it he’d say, “Step on it woman!  This car needs to be driven fast!” 

“Okay!” I’d yell over the wind blowing through the car, “But you are paying for my speeding ticket if I get one!”  I haven’t driven a fast beast of a car since, but when I drove for Terry it was to make him feel like he was driving himself.  He’d say, “Man, I miss the freedom of just getting in my car and going wherever I want. I miss driving in the New Mexico desert.”  I couldn’t give him the desert or his independence, but I gave him my youth and all the excitement and hope for the future that it brings.

Other days we spent our days working on the house, Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love pumping out Terry’s huge speakers and expensive stereo system, talking and learning about each other’s history and dreams, waiting for Penny to come home from work so that we could eat the dinner I had prepared with Terry’s guidance.  Terry was the mind and I was the body.  He verbally walked me through fixing the closet door, changing the oil in the snow blower, hooking up new stereo components, or repairing the sprinkler head in the lawn.  My favorite thing was working in the yard.  Terry would sip his iced tea on the porch and tap his foot to Robbie Robertson playing over the outside speakers while I pulled weeds or planted in the garden.     

When we weren’t working, we were philosophizing about life and love and death.  I was learning about Abraham Maslow and Peak Experiences in school and we’d talk about Maslow and Jung and any other theorists we found relevant to our emotional and spiritual growth. I read books aloud to him after doing physical therapy exercises, or we fell into a trance listening to a new CD we had discovered earlier that week—maybe Loreena McKennitt or The Blessing.  Terry introduced me, a culturally sheltered young woman, to many things in life I had never experienced.  Before Terry, the only Asian food I’d ever eaten was La Choy in a can.  He and Penny took me out for Vietnamese and I ate rice noodles and learned to love cilantro and lettuce with my egg rolls.  And he and Penny took me to my first performance, Phantom of the Opera, and later Miss Saigon.

Our Fridays were spent visiting art and nature museums, state parks, and quaint little shops looking for books, incense, or enlightenment of some sort.   We drove to Boulder and watched street performers on the Pearl Street Mall and ate cheese fondue at my favorite restaurant. Those were the happiest days in my life. Through this life I began to live in the present moment—the here and now.  I didn’t worry about school, or making ends meet—I only lived in the glorious moment of now—Terry did, too.

 Terry showed me the world—more importantly, he showed me myself.  He was the first person that ever demonstrated compassion and total acceptance of me on a daily basis.  He would tell me I was one of the most passionate people he’d ever met, that I was good-hearted, and when I felt bad about things, he’d look at me with love in his eyes and tell me he understood me and tell me I was a good person.  He had a way of pointing out the truth to me without making me feel defensive.  I became more self-aware.  He was a mirror, reflecting my true, wonderful self.  Soon, I began to see myself through Terry’s eyes and although I battled with a fragile self-esteem, each day I grew into a more loving, compassionate, aware, and self-assured person. Terry and I gave each other hope for the future and he gave me a love for life.  I had intended on helping him that day I walked up to his door.  Instead, he gave a much bigger gift to a young woman fighting so hard to figure out life—a love for the world and a love of myself.

Originally written in 1999 and years later published in The Human Touch Journal at University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus

An Essay About My Grandmother and Her Alzheimer’s called “Number One”

My earliest memory of her—rocking me in her arms, singing You are My Sunshine, patting my butt to the rhythm of the rocking—her velvety hands, smelling of Avon hand cream, caressing me, patting me, loving me.  Later, whenever I visited her, I remember her always showering me with gifts: perfect outfits she spent hours sewing, little girl jewelry, modeling clay, personalized books with me as the leading character, and a doll that crawled.  My step-mother was fed up with how many dolls I received from her, but my grandmother bought them for me anyway.  She loved me.  I was the center of her universe.  As a child, a teen, and then a young adult, I knew—when I was in her presence—the world was just right and safe and good. 

I miss her.  I miss calling her when I have news. Sometimes I make up conversations in my mind.  “Hi, Gram. Guess what? Remember how much my eyes have been bothering me?  Well, I found out that I have severe dry eye.  All these years, I never knew that’s what it was.”  She’d say, “Oh, no. That’s just horrible. You poor thing.  I hope they can figure out what to do to help your eyes.”     

Or maybe I want to tell her about someone I’m dating.  But, I really don’t date anymore, so I guess that’s one conversation I don’t have to make up in my head.  Maybe I just want to cry to her and say, “Gram, the last 6 years have been so hard…I miss having you to lean on.  I miss you taking care of me and I’m tired of taking care of you. I love you, but the burden of your house and finances and the fights trying to get you in the shower and taking care of Grandpa and getting you on Medicaid and finding a nursing home—it’s just all too much. I’m tired and I just want you to hold me and tell me everything is going to be okay, like you used to.”

I guess, technically speaking, I could drive over to the nursing home she’s in now and have any one of these conversations with her—well, maybe not the one about taking care of her. She wouldn’t understand because she doesn’t know she’s sick. But certainly we could have a chat about the dry eyes.  She’d say exactly what I know she would. Yet, somehow it’s not the same because, one minute later, she won’t remember the conversation we just had. So, the comfort I used to get, and the best friend she used to be, are gone.  But, I still tell her things anyway. It makes her happy to hear about my life and it gives me a little glimmer of how things used to be. 

They call Alzheimer’s “The Long Good-Bye”.  It’s true.  You say good-bye a little at a time.  You miss your loved one and then feel guilty because he or she is sitting in front of you.  I’m lucky, though—my Gram still knows who I am. She still lights up when I walk into the room and brags about me to her family and friends.  She’s told me the story of the day I was born more times than my mother has. She always tells the tale with her arms cradled like she’s rocking me to sleep.  “You were born and I just felt like you were mine.  I knew you were mine.  God gave you to me and I had meaning in my life like I never had before. All the nuns in the hospital thought you were my baby.  You were my angel and you were all that I thought about. I hated to leave you with your parents. “

And who’s to blame her for not wanting to leave me with my parents?  When I was born, my mom had just turned 17; my father, 19.  They were kids who had no idea what to do with a baby.  It must have been hard for Gram to leave me, knowing my life was not going to be the calm, comfortable life she’d give me if she could.  She worried about me constantly.  My parents were dreadfully poor, so Gram would try to help as much as she could.  She bought fans because our trailer was too hot and bought me clothes, toys, and blankets.  She had a way of stepping in and filling in the gaps—not just when I was a child, but for most of my life.  She protected me.  She cherished me.  I constantly felt her love. 

Gram always tells me, “You are my number one!” and holds up her index finger to punctuate the point.   I’ve never felt more loved by anyone.  Luckily, that hasn’t changed since she got sick.  Thank goodness she’s still “there” enough to know she loves me.

 

Gram is happy now in the beautiful nursing home I chose for her.  She was depressed at first and cried every day.  She wanted to go home, even though she couldn’t always articulate that sentiment.  I felt horrible guilt when I wasn’t there with her every day.  But, now she has a friend, Charlotte, who wears funny hats and hobbles around using her walker.  Charlotte doesn’t talk much, but breaks out into song in response to anything you say to her.  If Gram says to me, “Cathy, your dog is so cute!”  Charlotte starts singing, “How much is that doggie in the window?”  Then Gram lights up and starts singing, too.  When they aren’t singing, they laugh at each other’s senseless jokes for hours.  They are so crazy about each other that they aren’t even allowed to sit together at meals because they never shut up long enough to eat. 

Sometimes I visit and we hang out in her room.  I lie down across the bed while she sits in her wheelchair and we fantasize about what trips we want to take—sometimes it’s to places she’s been or sometimes places she’ll never see, like Hawaii or Europe. Instead of letting her feel sad and trapped because she can’t just hop in her car and drive, I initiate imaginary trips.  We ate lunch on the sidewalk of a French cafe, chatting and people-watching.  We drove the English countryside, looking at the rolling hills and farmers with their sheep.  We traveled across Colorado and New Mexico in a fast car—she’s driving of course, with her foot to the floor. 

Sadly, though, some days when I go visit her, she’s so enamored with Charlotte that she forgets my dog and I are even there.  Talking to me, she’ll turn her head to hear something Charlotte has said. The next thing I know, she’s rolling down the hall in her wheelchair, laughing and looking up at Charlotte as they head to Charlotte’s room to eat candy and tell their secrets to one another.  I try to tell myself that it’s wonderful she’s so happy now and that she no longer relies on me to make her happy all the time, but later I cry because it hurts to not be “number one” today.

Several months ago she told me that we were soul mates. “Yes,” I said, “I know,” with a nod and a smile.  I’m not sure how I know, but I know she and I are connected spiritually—always have been, always will be.  I know I’ll be as close to her in death as I have been in life.  I feel such a sweet comfort in that knowing.  

I don’t think I’ll have any regrets when she dies—no wishing I had done this or said that.  I’ve said everything I need to say.  I’ve loved as much as I can.  I’ve washed her hair in the sink like she used to wash mine as a child.  I’ve curled her hair hundreds of times, just the way she likes it, and told her how beautiful she is—as she did with me when I was a kid.  I’ve bathed her, cooked her favorite meals, and listened to her stories, much as she bathed me, baked my favorite cherry cheesecake, and listened to my stories about boys.  I just hope I’ve been able to return the favor and give her the sense that life is just right and safe and good.

Originally published at A Long Story Short and as “Missing Her” in The Human Touch Journal at University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus

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