As Ruth reverted to much earlier times, she thought of Mom and Dad. She remembered how nurturing and safe home felt. She began to cry because she longed for that security now more than any other time in her life. If only they could tell her why she was here and what these people swirling around her wanted with her. Above all, why had her parents left her here with these strange people?
No one seemed to stop long enough to answer her questions: “Where are my mom and dad? What do you want with me?”
Although mere minutes passed, they felt like long, lonely hours in Ruth’s mind. Her throat began to sting as it became dry and hoarse. No matter how many times she inquired about her parents, no one stopped to answer. They looked through her, sometimes with pity, sometimes perplexed. Other times, people touched her shoulder and moved past quickly. Ruth hung her head down in resignation when she realized that she had a baby doll in her hands. What a cute doll. I wonder who gave this to me. Let’s see, what should I name her?
Her attention was diverted, even if for a brief moment. As she held the doll closer to her, she noticed her hands and began to inspect them closely, almost as though she was noticing them for the first time. What has happened to my hands? They look so worn and frail. My veins look like they’re straining to break through my skin. They feel so cold. What’s happening to me?
She reverted to the question that she couldn’t shake, hoping someone would finally respond, although she didn’t realize she had asked just a minute ago: “Do you know where my parents are?”
Ruth wondered if something horrible had happened to them. Maybe they had been in some type of terrible accident? They would never leave me like this otherwise. She began to ask more loudly, “Where are my parents?” Still, no one answered. Could they even hear me? She began to yell, not only because she needed to know, but she now wondered why no one responded. What if they couldn’t hear me? Can they see me? Am I a ghost?
As Ruth attempted to orient herself, Sara and Adam, her children, walked onto the unit. Finally, familiar faces. They’re back. Why would they leave me here for so many days? Or at all! Thank God they’re okay. Although relieved, Ruth’s anxiety quickly transformed into anger.
She had so many questions and far more accusations for them.
So many that she could hardly get her words out. But the tears continued to fall like autumn leaves. “Where were you? Why did you leave me here? I want to go home right now. Let’s go home Mom and Dad.” Her children looked at each other quizzically but chose not to correct her. They knew it would only agitate her more. “I don’t understand. What do you mean I can’t go home because of health reasons? I’m young and healthy. I’ve never had health problems. Liars! You’re all liars. I want to go home right NOW!” she yelled with anguish.
They threw a glance at each other once again, a sad and helpless one, then abruptly looked back at her with manufactured smiles so as not to tip off that another was wrong. Ruth was always a very perceptive woman, and these days even paranoid at times. They shifted awkwardly in the clunky nursing home chairs, paralyzed by the thought of her progressive decline. No matter how much they tried to forget that it would inevitably get worse, all of those damn professionals kept insisting it would simply be a matter of time before they lost her. Though if they were honest with themselves, it sometimes felt as though they already had.
Her children sat with her for an hour. However, to Ruth, it felt like only ten minutes. But why? Why didn’t they take me with? Don’t they love me anymore? What did I do? Had I been bad? But I didn’t do anything wrong, did I? Did I do something wrong? She began to feel anxious and afraid. Again, she was alone, left with more questions than before the visit. Did I do something wrong? she continued to ask herself over and over, and then eventually out loud. Nothing seemed predictable. Everything kept changing. People who called themselves “staff” kept coming in and out of her room. Alarming beeps and rings in the hallway, the chatter of different, unfamiliar voices, everything kept changing. It felt as though she was in an alternate, twisted world.
Mockingly she reviewed what everyone was telling her: Ms. Ruth, you asked that question already. Ms. Ruth, you ate already. Ms. Ruth, don’t you remember?“No, no, no! No, I didn’t!” she yelled out harshly.
A woman in scrubs and the heavy scent of hospital hand sanitizer abruptly broke Ruth away from her thoughts and asked, “Ms. Ruth, how was your visit with your children?”
Ruth chuckled strangely. “I don’t have any children. She suspiciously added, “And who the hell are you?” Again louder, and this time she demanded, “Who the hell are you? How do you know my name? Get away from me!”
“Ruth, calm down. It’s okay. You’re safe here.” The woman again insisted Ruth had children. “Your visitors were your children, Sara and Adam. Don’t you remember? You had three but one died during the World Trade Center attacks, remember? Stevie? He was much younger than your other two. Remember? Don’t you remember, Ruth?” she pleaded.
“You’re lying. Leave me alone. You’re making up lies about me.” Ruth began to feel a heaviness in her chest. “I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m going to faint.”
The panic swarmed all around her and took hold of her voice. I can’t talk. Why can’t I talk? Why aren’t words coming out of my mouth? She couldn’t think. She began to sweat profusely as she began to feel increasingly faint. This lady who insisted Ruth had children began to call her name repeatedly but sounded as though she was at the end of a long tunnel. Ruth wanted to respond but the words wouldn’t form. All she could think of now as she fought these bizarre sensations were the names she heard earlier—Sara and Adam. She kept replaying the names in her head.
Sara and Adam. Sara and Adam. I know these names very well. In fact, these names were often said together, just like the woman said them. But who are these people?
All she knew was that those two names caused an incredibly warm feeling to come over her. And the name Stevie. It sounded faintly familiar, but it caused her to feel dread as she began to cry hysterically. Of course they weren’t her children. She was just a young girl herself. I think this woman wants to hurt me.
The panic of the unknown overtook Ruth once again and she suddenly shifted from crying to letting out a sudden piercing scream, almost as though the grip on her throat was released in one jolting motion. “You want to kill me, don’t you? You kidnapped me from my parents and you’re going to kill me.” The rest was unintelligible yet was felt intensely by everyone who heard it. This time, the panic wouldn’t cease, not for seconds or minutes. For two hours, she grasped for words that she couldn’t release..
“You came back for me. I thought you’d never come back. These people are trying to hurt me.” The tears and the unrelenting screams stopped and safety was once again restored. They brought something with them this time. It was an album with worn binding and frayed, fading photos. They began to point at pictures of people they assumed would be familiar to her, but again she lost her place in the world as they pointed to picture after picture of unfamiliar faces, those of babies, weddings, parties, the beach. Nothing stirred in her heart. Then they brought her attention to a picture of a dapper looking young man in an army uniform, hoping this would be the thing to unlock her mind. He was the man she loved deeply and to whom she dedicated her world. Yet her face was void of emotion.
Her children pressed on, pointing at several other pictures, hoping their mother would recall even just a vague sliver of her life with them. As they flicked through memory after precious memory, they wondered how she could forget all the beautiful times of their lives together.
Her daughter held back tears as she continued to explain the context of each picture more vividly and with increasing desperation.
The more furiously Sara and Adam tried to stir and dislodge the block in their mother’s memory, the more distant she appeared to become. Yet they continued on arduously as a nondescript song played faintly through the nursing facility halls.
Adam suddenly lifted his head from the pictures. “Mom, did you say something? I can’t understand.” He felt so helpless as he watched his mother struggle to string words together, especially because it was one of her favorite things to do, having been an English teacher. He felt tight knots begin to form in his stomach as he thought of how graceful she once was, how spirited her soul, how vibrant her presence. He was lost in his childhood, thinking of how Ruth was always present, eager to listen to his colorful first grade stories, hear about his struggles with his high school math teacher, and how she smiled knowingly as he described his plans to propose to his beloved.
“Shhh, listen, she’s singing,” as Sara tilted her head gently in her mother’s direction.
Ruth’s speech went from monotone and labored to effortless, glorious. Sara knew. Now Adam too remembered. His eyes began to well up as memories of his mother now jumped to the times she glided throughout the house with her invisible microphone in hand, singing of memories lasting “forevermore.” It was the same song playing in the distance, the song that spoke of the power of music to evoke memories. They watched in awe as their mother reveled in the lyrics, as she sang each word with grace.
“Sara, Adam, do you remember, my darlings? Do you remember when we used to dance to this song? Of course you do. Mmm, they’re playing the Helen Forrest version, my absolute favorite!” They were astounded and speechless by her abrupt clarity as they shared a glance of gratitude for this gift. “Oh, come on now, it’s one of my favorites. Of course, undoubtedly you must remember how we twirled around dancing until we were dizzy with silliness. How I miss those days, my sweet, sweet children.”
As the horns of “I’ve Heard that Song Before,” meandered through the small crowd gathered for their beloved mother’s funeral, Sara and Adam were enveloped in serenity. They knew their mother had never left. They tapped their feet gingerly as they thought of the bliss of dancing with her. She was indeed there even right now, with them, dancing. Of course, forevermore.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patty Johnson enjoys writing about spirituality, culture, justice and other bizarre and beautiful intricacies of life. She is a health psychologist and works with those suffering from brain disorders, which has inspired reflections and narratives of sufferers. She also runs a blog on healthy eating at www.whoneedspreservatives.com.
Patty is currently working on a memoir about traditions, acculturation and their consequences, which has been cultivated over the past twenty years. It has surely been one of her babies, minus the teenage drama. Speaking of teenage drama, Patty has two lovely daughters. Her husband is a patient man and thankful that both of their dogs are boys.