Cathy A. E. Bell

Personal Essays and Poems by Cathy A. E. Bell

Category: Non-Fiction

Dereliction of Duties

I met the nicest criminal today. He wore a bright green and white horizontal striped polo shirt—not a black hoody like a normal criminal would. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a meth addict. Just a guy in his early 30’s, who ate real well, with his hair pulled back in a pony-tail.

I was at work, rushing to meet Ursula for lunch, but first I needed to mail a card. The fastest way for me to get to the mailroom is to cut through the break-room from the outside of the building to the inner hallway.

I swung the door open to the break-room, walked past the Pepsi machine, noting out of the corner of my eye a guy standing very close to the side of the machine. I thought it was odd—maybe he was loading it with bottles of soda? Even in that quick glimpse though, I knew he wasn’t wearing a uniform and thought it strange.

As I headed to the interior break-room door, I saw it was closed. It was never closed. I knew something was up for sure. “Shit,” I thought. “I don’t want to know what creepy stuff’s going on. I just want my lunch. I’m starving.” I almost walked out of the room, feigning ignorance. But, I thought that would be irresponsible, so I turned around to look at him.

He was hugged up tight against the vending machine. At first I thought he might be humping it, but then I saw the crow bar in his hands. He was prying open the seam near where the contraption sucks in the dollar bills. Hmm. Did the beast eat his money? No, no, Cathy! People don’t carry around crow bars when they buy soda!

The assulted Pepsi machine

Then I understood. He looked at me apologetically like he had just cut me off in traffic and felt really, really bad. He snatched a dollar bill out of the machine. He looked at me again, then back to his little gold mine to grab another. After he had a few bills accumulated, he shoved them into his shirt.

Why isn’t he running out the door? He could have escaped without me even getting a good look at him. Damn. Why is he forcing me to confront him? I don’t want to. He should be running out the door. What sort of criminal is he anyway for God’s sake?

“What the hell are you doing?” I finally say, trying to sound intimidating. But really, I sound as casual as if I’d asked the barista at Starbucks, “Can I get a tall two pump white chocolate mocha, please?”

“Sorry,” he replies. He makes no move though—just keeps filling his shirt with dollar bills, now one at time.

This time, I decide, I’m going to sound stern: “I think you better get out of here,” I say. But instead the words come out like I’m his accomplice. More like: “Hurry, Dude! Get outta here before someone really mean walks through that door and you’re busted for real!”

“Okay,” he pleads. “Sorry. I’m sorry.” He says “Okay,” but he’s not moving. Instead he looks at me as if I just caught him taking a piss in the trash can and he was doing his best to hurry even though he was mid-stream.

I’m still perplexed by the apology: Sorry for what? “Sorry I’m interrupting your lunch when it’s 47 minutes past the time you normally eat.” Or maybe, “Sorry for stealing, but I only need three more dollars before I have enough to buy my dog a pretty collar with rhinestones. Bear with me here.”

Admittedly, I didn’t know what I was going to do next if he didn’t leave. He was being so polite. Who was I to be rude? Finally, satisfied he’d held me at bay longer than I could stand, or maybe satisfied he could now buy his dog a pretty collar, he walks to the door. But, instead of just walking out and not looking back, he is looking back. At me.

It was a weird moment, but the cop’s daughter in me said, “Quick, memorize his face and clothes!” So, I did. I took it all in. Every detail. Possibly Hispanic, hasn’t shaved, but isn’t that hairy anyway, could lose a few pounds, and wearing a really ugly shirt. Done.

At last he leaves. I open the other door to the hall. I don’t want to call the cops. I’ll be late. And I told Ursula to meet me at the car and I won’t be at my car because I’m here, dealing with shit I don’t want to be dealing with.  Why bother? I don’t care about the pop machine. That shittin’ machine takes a buck-fifty from my pocket every time I buy a soda. A rip off! Let him have the money—the soda monster deserves being robbed in return.

But then our building administrator’s voice is in my head: “You what? You didn’t call the police?”

Okay, okay. While I’m looking around for a phone, I remember I have my cell phone. But, do I have campus 911 number programed in my phone? I check. Yes, I do, because I’m a former cop’s daughter and these are the things you do to be prepared—you know, just in case.

I dial and walk outside to see if I can see the guy. Nope, he’s gone. Oh, well. Time to get lunch. I’m beyond starving now.

I look around for Ursula, afraid I’m going to miss her.

The dispatcher in my ear is very serious: Where is he now? Which way did he go? What did he look like? I’m sending an officer right now.

“Look,” I say, “I’m on my way off-campus. I have to meet someone. Can you just have the cop meet me in an hour?”

“Oh, no. You’re the witness. You have to stay to talk to the officer.” I just roll my eyes.  

Now I’m looking out for Ursula more than I am the courteous thief.

The cop comes. He says he has other cops looking for the guy.  I explain what happened. We laugh because the guy was so sorry. Then I spot Ursula walking out and I open the door and scream, “Ursula! I’m in here!” She comes in and when I tell her what happened she laughs, too, but really Ursula laughs at everything. I love that.

I describe the guy to the cop like a good witness, over and over. No, he didn’t have a Spanish accent even though he looked Hispanic. No, I didn’t really notice his pants. Yes, he was really sorry. Super polite guy. Yeah, real nice.

I write down everything about myself on a card for him. “Do you really need my social security number?” I ask?

“No,” he says, “Just your work information is fine…and your driver’s license info. Oh, and your phone numbers.”

The irony doesn’t escape me that I’m the one being treated like a criminal here. That dude is off buying his dog collar and now it’s 72 minutes past my lunch time, and I’m impatient and bitchy and really fucking hungry.

“Can I leave now,” I ask?

“I’m running this all through my head trying to see if I got everything—trying to decide just that,” he says, flipping through the pages of his nifty little notebook full of crime-fighting details.

I grab my stuff. I’m headed to the door nodding to Ursula to follow me out. “Okay?” I ask.

“Sure. You can go.”

Finally. Food.

Later, back from lunch, I told a co-worker what happened. He said, “I would have told him to put all the money on the table and if he didn’t do it I would have tackled him!”

“Really?” I was puzzled. “Over $10 from the Pepsi machine?”

My dad’s response was similar: “See, Cathy, if you had your concealed weapons permit, you could have pulled your pistol from your purse and held him at gun point until the police got there.”

After hearing everyone else’s version of how things should have gone down, I could see how neither my polite new friend, nor I, acted the way we should have. He wasn’t a typical psychopath and I’m no Charlie’s Angel. But so what? I think in the end he and I did just fine. After all, he just wanted a few bucks, and I… Well, I just wanted to eat my lunch.


Ramblings from Taos… (Thoughts on a Weekend Away Alone and Writing)

The 1850s adobe schoolhouse where I stayed

 October, 2010

This morning I walked out of the little 1850’s adobe schoolhouse where I slept last night, into the expansive courtyard, and remembered something I didn’t even know I knew—Georgia O’Keefe made a comment once about the quality of light in New Mexico being different than anywhere else. Yes, I can see that. Yes, I can feel that.

Driving here to Taos from Denver, over and down La Veta pass, I was bathed in copper and gold light.  I breathed the metallic colors into my lungs, hoping I could prolong the experience just a little longer.  Even spring cannot compare to the luminosity of color autumn creates. 

I did a little research and found O’Keefe’s first visit to Taos was in 1919.  Drawn to the “clear desert light” and the mountains (and after a longer stay in 1929), she went back to Taos once a year to paint. She often came to stay at the Mabel Dodge Luhan home that is right next door to where I am staying—not far from the square, but at the end of a long dirt road and butted up against miles of open native Pueblo land. I can feel O’ Keefe’s presence as I tour the Luhan home and that of D.H. Lawrence, Carl Jung, Ansel Adams, and all the other historic guests of Mabel’s.


Bell over the gate of the Mabel Luhan home

Taos is so full of old and new art.  And it’s delightfully historic as well—a lovely history of passionate artists and writers. I feel creativity oozing out of everything. Being here makes me want to create: paint, photograph, write, sculpt…  I haven’t felt this artistic for a long time. I wouldn’t have necessarily considered myself an artist before now, but I know I am because I can’t help but to create and that desire is what defines an artist.

And it’s so incredibly beautiful here. I just feel inspired–even just to breath and exist.  If I added up all the beautiful art I’ve seen my whole life it would fill up a dinner plate compared to the Olympic sized pool of art here. How can so much God-made beauty and man-made beauty exist all at the same place?  I keep overhearing conversations around town that last year at this time all the leaves were blown off the trees from high winds.  Nature politely waited for me this time and I do not take it for granted.

I’ve traveled alone when I’ve had to get from point A to B. I’ve planned lots of small weekend trips not knowing if I’d bring someone or not, but then usually at the last minute I bring someone with me. I always thought traveling alone would be a waste because I couldn’t stand next to someone and have them witness the sights with me.  There would be no one to breathe in sharply with me when they looked at the landscape or fall in love with a painting or taste the most amazing baba ghanoush that has ever touched my tongue.   But, I’ve discovered that even alone, those experiences aren’t diminished at all. If I need to share them, I can use that desire to help me write.  Read my words, see my photographs, feel the lightness in my step and hear the deep breaths I take after I’ve been healed and rejuvenated through the beauty I’ve seen here.

When you travel alone you don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone. Are they too tired to keep looking through the galleries? Are they in awe like I am?  Especially for a people-pleaser like me—I constantly worry about everyone else’s happiness.  But, traveling alone is a gift of selfishness and self-indulgence.  Bookstores, museums, historic homes. Lingering strolls through beautiful gardens and galleries that leave your heart stopping every two feet.


A flower, fence, and field near downtown Taos

Now I indulge in two hours of massage and energy work from Mari, who lives a block over from where I am staying.  She counsels me as she baths my body in love and her light…she rids me of energy blocks and tells me that my relationship is good and a gift rather than telling me what others perceive.  Because I know it’s a gift and I know I’m learning and he’s learning. We are learning more together than we have in all the years we combined of dating other people.  And it’s not easy lessons in which we are being schooled. For me, it’s a lesson on how to let go, all the while holding on… For him it’s about opening up, trusting, and accepting the love and compassion he needs so badly. It’s about both of us letting go of the fear that has paralyzed us for so long.  It’s about laughing and playing like children. It’s about adventure and discovery.  We’ve both learned and have grown and I can’t articulate that to my friends and family, but this healer woman–she knows.  

I look around this place I’m staying and absorb all I see, writing it down.  Exposed logs in an adobe ceiling.  Wide wood planks in the floor…my dog curled up into a semi-circle on the futon.  A beautiful tin punched Mexican mirror above the sink in the kitchenette.  Rugs and other hand-made things I purchased earlier in the day from a fair-trade shop—just waiting to be opened and touched again. My new books sit on the table, waiting to inspire me to write. 

I’m wondering why sound comes through this old adobe schoolhouse so differently from other buildings. I’m wondering if it’s wind I hear?  I heard the adobe keeps in the heat once it gets hot. I’m just wishing now it was warm. Izzy and I both get pee breaks when I go outside and walk around the portal to the private, but disconnected bathroom.  When I come back and look into the slanted windows and see the cozy browns and reds of the bed and the warm wood, I am happy that the cozy scene I’m looking at includes Izzy and me.

The next morning, I sit at the desk, looking out the eye-level window in front of me with dog in lap.  The adobe window frames a perfect painting outside. I see it all in layers…just outside the window, a low, curved adobe wall. Behind that low, pink earth wall is a barbed-wire fence marking the boundary of the vast Pueblo reservation. Beyond the fence a bit, a row of yellowed-leaf trees providing yet another layer—and further past those trees, miles of brush and pine, green and gold.  And finally the last layer: the low Taos mountains. A perfectly warm, colorful Indian summer day.

I’m proud that I came here to write and I followed through.  I’ve realized that writing it down is like bottling the magic I feel here. I can open that bottle anytime I need to feel the gold light from the autumn trees on my face or see the hues of red and copper in the adobe, land, and textiles.   I’m sad I must leave tomorrow to go home. I love this land with its mysterious air and light. I’ll be back though, to see more, write more, and live more. And until I come back, I’ll have my bottle of words to remind me.


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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