By Lacey Caskin
The human brain looks like the mysterious Himalayas, all those hills firing with the electric storms of thought and memory. At least that is how Doctor Patel describes it. Doctor Patel doesn’t know much. However I am certain the brain looks like the Appalachians of Kentucky where I was born. They are the only true mountains. If he was smart he would know that.
“Your dementia is progressing faster than I expected, and I believe you are going to lose the ability to care for yourself much more quickly than previously thought. I know your family is helping care for you now, but that may not be enough” he says in his molasses thick Indian accent. I can’t understand a thing the man says. It is not just his voice that irritates me. He looks like a crow; his nose protrudes sharply into a beak, his jet black hair feathers around his face, and his small, frail body looks as if it would take flight. He uses words like guesstimate and conversate, which no one except the backwoods hillbillies of Arkansas have the excuse to use. This is especially true for the man with a degree that says he gets to hook me up to alien-looking electrode machines and peek at my brain. His fingernails are always dirty and he drops his pen every few minutes.
“You may need to move into a nursing facility,” says Doc. That is the worst thing about him. His ridiculous notion that I can’t take care of myself and need to be put into a nursing home. Every visit I sit through the same spiel about how I’m getting worse and too much of a burden for my family and the sooner I move the better. And my family believes him. You would think they would believe me, they have known me forever after all. However the old crow has them bewitched with his years of fancy college and his gilt-framed degree. They think I’m going to be like Mrs. Hattie, our neighbor, who lost her mind at 78 and would sunbathe naked in her front yard. Now that sure was a sight to see, but I’m different. I am capable of taking care of myself. Besides I can’t leave my farm. That bit of land is all I have left. I have lived there for 47 years and I intend to stay there until I die, be buried under the peach tree and spend a lovely eternity haunting the place because I’ll never take my eyes off my farm.
A clattering distracts me; Doc dropped his pen again. He picks it up for the thousandth time while saying “Mrs. Ward, you will soon need constant care. This will be a heavy burden on your family, so for now I suggest we start having a nurse stay with you in the mornings and if that is not enough, we may need to consider moving you into a nursing facility.”
“Doc, I’m just fine where I am. There’s no sense in moving to one of those old people homes. Those are for sick people, and I’ve told you I’m not sick. Besides I can’t leave my home. It will be my son’s when I’m gone, so I have to take care of it.” I am determined I will not let this old crow kick me out of my own house.
“Well, will you at least consent to having a nurse stay with you?”
“No. I don’t want no strange woman poking around my house. I’ve heard that those nurses will steal everything you have, even your hearing aids.”
My husband Billy shifts in his seat beside me. He clears his throat and breaks the silence he has kept since we walked through the heavy green door. “It might be a good idea. I can’t keep an eye on you all the time and a nurse could be a big help.”
I look into his brown eyes briefly and then shift my gaze to the wall behind him; the wall occupied by the door to the old vault. Doc’s office used to be the old First Federal Bank before it moved across town. The old vaults and teller windows still mark the building with its past. I wonder what they keep in the vaults now. Where the wealth of an entire town once resided, is there now only sterile gloves and Scooby Doo Band-Aids. Maybe that’s what happened to my mind. It reminds me of that old Greek legend Uncle Ramsey used to tell me when I was little. He said there was a little girl who possessed a box which contained all the evil and chaos of the world. Maybe that is what happened to my mind. God sold my brain to Pandora, and now my mind is the new and improved Pandora’s box. Pandora emptied my brain of my memories and clarity, and left my family with chaos, delirium and doctor visits.
“No and that’s that.”
“I really think we should have someone come. Doc, yesterday I found her two blocks from the house lost. She kept saying she was running away, that her mama didn’t love her no more. I need help. Can you send someone to the house tomorrow?”
Doc rubs his forehead with his thumb and says “I will have Katherine start coming tomorrow, just for the morning. You are going to love her, she is an amazing nurse.”
I sit baffled as my life is planned by these two men. They throw orders over my head like a game of keep away. How dare they?
“Excuse you. I am not having this. My decision is no,” I say.
“Now Mrs. Abby, Katherine comes with great recommendations from Glencoe Health Services. She has worked with dementia patients for over twenty years. Plus, she is a very sweet lady. I know you will enjoy her company.”
“I don’t want her company,” I say folding my arms.
Zach sifts in his seat and says “Doc, don’t worry about her. She’s having a bad day. This morning she thought her legs were broken. Have the nurse come over around nine tomorrow.”
“I will. I think that’s all we needed to talk about today. Last week’s blood work was fine, so the two of you are free to go” says Doc.
I stand up using the table to balance. Billy, my husband stands behind me, his hands on my side just in case I slip. I let Billy lead me into the waiting room that smells like Lysol and cough syrup and outside. As we cross the steaming parking lot Billy walks behind me his hands on my back. The going is slow and my knees grind with every step. We look like penguins trying to do the conga dance. Finally we reach his little gold Nissan. He helps me inside and then sits himself in the driver’s seat. The afternoon sun gilts off his chocolate hair and deepens his tan. He glances at me with his big brown doe’s eyes without smiling. He rarely smiles anymore. I miss his slightly lopsided smile. There is a large gap between his two front teeth which makes him look goofy and silly to everyone but me. I love his gapped tooth smile. That smile invited me, a shy country girl say hello to the dashing stranger at the county dancehall, it had me flying up the wedding aisle, it kept me going when we lost our little girl, it was what I woke up to every morning for fifty seven years, and I never, not once, woke up on the wrong side of the bed.
“Doc is wrong, Billy. I’m fine. I’m getting old, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my marbles.”
“Mom, I’m Zach, not Dad. Dad is gone remember?”
“Oh, Billy don’t play with me. I know who you are. Zach is at school” I say laughing. Billy loves to tease me and act out his silly scenarios. He once impersonated the new preacher for a week after the poor man sneezed and sputtered through his first sermon.
“Mom, don’t do this again. I’m Zach. Can’t you just trust me?”
“Trust you? Why, I would be better off trusting a telemarketer.” I am starting to get annoyed. It is not nice of him. Billy pulls into a Burger King parking lot. He parks the car, turns his body towards me, looks me in the eyes, and says intently “Mom, look at me. Look at every detail and focus on who I am.”
“I can see the truth well enough Billy. Now enough nonsense, take me home!” Why won’t he just let his little joke go? But I look anyway just to please him. I see his chocolate hair, and brown eyes. My eyes breeze past the callused hands and teal dress shirt. “Billy, you look nothing like Zach.”
He looks away, a sad smile flitting across his face. Then I see it, that slight difference.
“Look at me again.” He looks at me, no change yet. He is still Billy. “Now smile like you did before. No, smile wider, show your teeth”. I stare. There is no gap between his teeth. That awkward, endearing little gap is gone. Replaced by perfect white teeth; teeth just like mine. It overcomes me all at once: the humiliation, the desperation, the confusion, and loss pound me from all sides. I break down crying. “Zach, I’m so sorry. How could I forget? Oh I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I cover my face with my hands, and I remember.
Last October Billy walked outside to put on his work boots and walk in his vegetable garden like he did every morning. I found him sitting in his chair on the porch, his boots beside him, his socks damp. I thought he was sleeping at first, but he would not wake up no matter how hard I shook him. There was no warning, no sickness. He was just gone.
“It’s ok mom”. Zach takes my hand. “You were just confused. And besides I don’t mind being confused with dad. He was a pretty great guy”. He puts the car in drive and holds my hand the rest of the way home. He can’t make it better, but it hurt a little less.
In 1959, Billy and I moved to Jennings, Georgia. Everything was finally coming together. Billy had healed from the bullet wound in his leg given to him by the Germans. I was able to quit working as a welder in the Jacksonville Navy shipyard. I was finally Mrs. Abby Ward not Abby Johnson, and we had bought our farm. I remember the first time I saw the farm. That piece of dirt was my every dream rolled into one and then covered with the stardust of heaven. Five hundred acres that had to be cleared, burned, plowed, and planted. A wood frame house that had to be built, and a to-do list that never ended. I was beyond happy. I was touch the stars, dance and shake, the whole world spinning into a kaleidoscope of color, anything can happen, gap tooth happy. Back then I could remember every detail of the farm. I could remember what time of year the camellias bloomed, what color each bush would be: pink, white or peppermint. I could remember Bully, our bull. I’m certain that cow thought he was a dog; the darn thing would play fetch. I could remember the way the sunrise looked over the hayfields in the wintertime, still and silent. I could remember the feel of Billy’s strong hands holding me. It’s all gone now. Pandora went into the filing cabinets of my memory and shoved my precious moments through a paper shredder. I now kneel in a white-out blizzard of shredded paper memory, desperately sifting through the disaster trying to find myself.
Zach pulls into the driveway of a small white farmhouse with pretty corn flower blue shutters and charming flower gardens. The light pink camellias are blooming; they were always my favorites.
“I thought you were taking me back home. Why are we here? Do you know the people that live here, Zach” I say impatiently wanting to get home to Billy.
“Mama, this is home. See there are your camellias and the hog barn is back there behind the orange grove, there’s your Florida Gator’s mailbox.” He spoke tiredly.
“My house has yellow shutters and I just planted my camellias. These bushes are too big. I know my own house when I see it, young man. And if it were home your daddy would be out here to help us carry in the groceries.”
“Mama, remember we painted the shuttered blue two years ago and you were so picky you drove us three hours to that specialty paint store in the middle of nowhere. And we did not go to the grocery store, we went to the doctor.”
“What? Why did we go to the doctor? Are you sick son?” I feel his forehead with back of my hand. No fever, good.
“I’m fine.” He looks down at his lap and sighs. “Don’t you see, this is why we need the nurse. She will be able to help you remember so much more than I can. Come on let’s get you inside. I have to go home and get ready. Mary and I are going on a date tonight. The girls are going to come over and take care of you.” He gets out and walks around the car to my side. He opens the door and helps me out.
As we walk towards the house I plead with him “Zach, please don’t leave me here. I…” The look of pity on his face stops me. Could he be right? Am I just confused? Maybe he is right. I look around trying to find something familiar. I’m not sure, but the little bird bath does look like mine, and I do like the color of the shutters.
Zach helps me up the porch steps and opens the front door. He ushers me into the living room.
Inside the sun shines through wall to wall windows and bounces off the light wood paneling. It fills the room with a soft, warm glow. I decide I like this room immediately. The room is quiet and simple with light blue couches and an oil painting of a little boy holding a brown puppy. Then I see the chair. It is a recliner, one of those remote controlled things, brown and gaudy. I remember this chair. Zach demanded I buy the thing because the doctor suggested it would be easier for me to get up and down in. I was confused after all. I feel the blush creeping up my neck. What has happened to me that has caused me to forget my own house?
The chair that triggered my memory is the one thing I wish I could forget. My family make me sit in it because they think I like it. They think I like looking out the windows all day at the chattering birds and watching Oprah and Pretty Woman for the thousandth time. I hate that chair. I hate sitting in it, I hate looking at it. I hate the way it creaks when I move. I hate that it is the only thing I able to do anymore: sit. I watch days and seasons fly past but I cannot fly with them. I watch my granddaughters grow up and go to high school without remembering their names. I sit, alone, and watch my farm, my beautiful dream, fall apart with every passing day. The tin falls off the barn roof and the gardens are swallowed by weeds and I can to do nothing to fix them. I sit and I wait for death to come take me back to Billy, back to my smiling gap-toothed boy. I sit in that horrid chair and wait. A hearse for all the good it does me.
“Ok mom let’s get you settled in” Zach says as he steers me toward the chair.
“Oh honey, let me sit over there on the couch by the window.”
“Are you sure? Don’t you want to sit in your chair?”
“No, I want to sit by the window.”
“Alright. Now I have to go, but Anna and Diane will be here in just a little while, ok?” he explains while guiding me gently onto the couch.
“Yes that’s fine. You know I can’t resist spending time with my granddaughters.”
“All right, goodbye mama. I love you.” He leans down and kisses my forehead.
“See you later baby. I love you too.”
He leaves through the glass screen door. I can see him walk to his car, his shoulders rounded, head down, not even noticing my beautiful camellias.
I sit for a few minutes looking out the window at the backyard garden. I call this one my fairy garden. I have brightly colored blown-glass orbs hanging from a dogwood tree that overshadows a small koi pond surrounded by lavender butterfly bushes and yellow tea roses. A small black wrought iron bench sits by the pond. The roses have grown dark and thorny. They really need to be trimmed. I should do that before the girls get here. I don’t need to give my family any more reasons to believe I can’t take care of the place.
I stand up slowly, my joints stiff, and walk outside to the garden shed. I put on my yellow work gloves and grab the trimmers. They are heavier than I last remember, but I can still handle them. Then I get to work on the roses, and before I know it I am winded, but happy that I am able to be outside working. I lower myself carefully down on the bench and I watch the coral and cream speckled koi swim mindlessly back and forth. Koi fish always look like they are smiling. I wonder what they are so happy about. That is when I see it. Stretched out under the nearest butterfly bush is a three foot long brownish black cotton mouth. I scramble to my feet and back away slowly. My breath comes in quick, short, gulping gasps. I remember the last time I saw a snake like that. My Katie had been bit on her tiny little hand. We rushed her to the hospital, but that was nothing they could do. I lost my baby to that horrid creature. I turn, stumbling to the shed to grab the garden hoe with shaking hands. I slam the hoe down on the horrible creature again and again.
“Grandma! What are you doing? Put the hoe down now” says Anna. I turn and see Anna and Diane standing horrified by the house.
“Girls stay back. Don’t move. There’s a snake, but I’m taking care of it.” I raise the hoe to strike the cotton mouth once again.
“Grandma, stop it’s just a stick” shouts Diane. She runs over to me grabs the hoe from me.
“Now girl you give that back, that ain’t no stick. That’s a cotton mouth, now you step back Katie, get back.” I push her away sobbing. I will not lose her. I am a good mother. I will not lose my baby girl.
“Just look.” Diane reaches down and picks up the cotton mouth with her bare hands.
“Put that down! Put it down before it bites!” My stomach churns in the panic, adrenalin overtakes my body. I can’t stop shaking.
“It is a stick. See?” She tries to place it in my hand but I jerk away. She grabs for my hands again, this time succeeding, pries my fingers open, and places the awful thing in my palm. It is rough to the touch, perfectly straight and hard. I squeeze the thing tighter and tighter and it breaks in half. I watch it fall to the ground and lie there. Just a dead, dirt-brown stick with bark the texture of scales. How could something dead and ordinary cause such a panic?
“Come on girls, let’s go inside” I say struggling to speak through gasping breaths.
I let the girls lead me inside. Diane walks on my right side and Anna on my left. They both keep their hands on my back and arms. I can see the worry on their faces in the wrinkles on their brows and the tightness of their mouths.
“Let’s get you to your chair grandma, so you can relax”
“I don’t want to sit down. I’m fine girls. It’s already six o’clock anyway. I need to get started on dinner” I lie. I really am worn out and my legs are shaking from my snake scare and from exhaustion, but I can’t let them see that or they will think I need to go to nursing home. I find it hard enough trying to convince Zach that I’m ok, but the girls are so young, Diane only seventeen and Anna fifteen, that they already think I am an ancient mummy.
I shrug off their arms and walk as steadily as possible through the square archway into the kitchen. The girls follow me.
“Now girls you go sit down at the breakfast table and watch what I do. I’m going to teach you how to cook real southern food.”
“Why don’t you just let Anna and I cook? We’re descent cooks, remember? Mama has been teaching us how, or we could just eat leftovers. You really shouldn’t be cooking. Grandma, might forget and blow up the microwave again” pleads Diane.
“Excuse me young lady, but I have been cooking for years before even your daddy was born. I am perfectly capable of doing this myself. Now go sit down.”
Everything in my kitchen is yellow and bright and clean; it smells like lemon Lysol and the overly sweet scent of last week’s tiger lilies decaying in a crystal vase on the round breakfast table. The walls are covered with the same wallpaper that Billy and I hung when we first built the house 47 years ago. It is faded now, the yellow and orange floral paint barely visible. Behind the breakfast table covered with its pristine white table cloth are the bay windows. The big bay windows are my favorite part of the house. The windows flood the room with the fading afternoon sunlight casting everything into a warm, sepia toned dream-state. They look out at the south pasture with its two ancient pecan trees. A large black fox squirrel with a white star on his head lives in those trees and I love to watch him hop around the field looking for last season’s pecans.
As the girls settle into the table, I decide to cook fried green tomatoes, crookneck squash, and pan-fried pork chops. I slice the tomatoes and wait until the butter starts to sizzle. Then I pat the tomatoes into the corn meal and lay it in the pan. Mama taught me how to fry green tomatoes when I was fifteen. I can still remember her standing at her cast iron stove showing me how to fix the corn meal crust with just a little salt. She would always sing old hymns when she cooked. I start singing I’ll Fly Away as the tomatoes pop in the grease.
From my place at the stove I look over to the breakfast table. Mama sits there gossiping with Aunt Clara. We all have Great Granddaddy Ernest’s strawberry blond hair and periwinkle eyes. Mama is letting me cook today because of Daddy’s birthday. I forget about what I am doing for the moment and watch them. Mama drums her fingers on the table while Aunt Clara glances from me to mama to the floor. Occasionally, they glance at me and then say something, but I can’t hear their hushed voices. Then Aunt Clara looks up and screams “Grandma the stove is on fire!”
Both of the women leap up and rush to me. Mama pulls me towards the sink the plunges my hand under the cold water. That is when the sharp, bone-deep heat floods my hand with fiery pain. The palm of my hand is red and puckered like bacon. Clutching my hand to my chest, I turn to see Mama and Aunt Clara beating the grease fire with towels. They are able to put it out quickly, but not before it ruined dinner and damages the stove and the cabinets and wall above. The acrid smell of smoke and ash causes me to sneeze. Mama and Clara catch their breath. A shrill piercing sound breaks through the air. The fire alarm finally springing into action. Aunt Clara rushes to turn to it off while Mama hurries me into the living room. She pushes me into my chair.
“Mama, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to start a fire. I’m so sorry I ruined Daddy’s dinner. I… I’m…. so…s…sorry.” I sob into her arms as she kneels in front of me.
“Shh, shhh. Grandma it’s ok. Listen I’m not your mama, I’m Diane. Remember? Your granddaughter? It’s gonna be ok. We’ll call dad and everything will be fine. Don’t worry about anything. Let me see your hand.” I give her my injured hand.
“Diane? But where did Mama go? I know she was here. Mama! Mama!” I call. Where did she go? Did she get burned? I try to stand up, but Diane pushes me back down.
“Hey, hey. Listen to me. Your mama is not here, she never was. It is just you and me and Anna, ok? Now I need you to stay here and be still while I go get some gauze and some burn cream. Your hand is not too bad, but we need to wrap it” she said looking into my eyes. Then she stood up and went into the kitchen with Anna.
“I need you to call mom and dad. Tell them what happened. Tell them they need to get here as fast as possible,” I overheard Diane say to Anna.
I hear Anna dial the phone and talk in hushed and panicked tones to Zach. I slump in my chair and stare at the patterned carpet trying to focus on something other than my throbbing hand. Soon enough Diane returns with some ointment and a bandage. She kneels in front of me and gingerly takes my hand and begins to dress it. I wince as she gently spreads on the ointment and applies the bandage.
“You okay, grandma?”
“Don’t you worry about me. I’m a tough old bird.”
Anna steps into the room and hangs up the phone her face tense. “Mom and Dad will be here soon.”
“Good, why don’t you have a seat. Try to relax,” Diane says.
Instead of taking a seat Anna paces the living room from door to windows, door to windows. Diane remains sitting at my feet, her hands folded in her lap, shaking. After a few passes, Anna grabs the remote from the coffee table, settles onto the couch, and flips on the TV. She decides on a documentary about shark attacks, and watch it until Zach and Mary burst through the front door.
“Mom, girls, what happened?” Zach races across the room to me while Mary stands by the door.
“Grandma burned herself cooking,” says Anna.
“It was an accident,” says Diane standing up.
“Let me see.” Zach takes my hand and peeks under the bandage. “I’ll take you to the doctor in the morning. Can’t do it tonight, its already past eight. How did this happen?” Zach runs his hands through his hair, his face baffled.
“You know how it happened. She was confused and she hurt herself. We’re lucky the whole house didn’t burn down,” says Mary as she steps forward.
“Mom, chill out. Everything is fine” Diane says.
“Everything is not fine. Things like this cannot keep happening. Zach, I need to speak to you in the kitchen.”
Zach stares blankly at my hand for a moment longer. Then he obediently follows his wife into the kitchen. The girls walk outside, leaving me alone. The voices in the kitchen start to rise as tempers flare.
“Zach, we cannot keep doing this. You are always over here. You keep taking time off work. What happens when you lose your job because of this? Because of her? I never see you anymore. The girls never see you—“
“She is my mother. What am I supposed to do? Neglect her?”
“Put her in a home. She will be taken care of by professionals. She will be better off there. I need you at home. When was the last time we got to spend more than an hour together? Do you realize you are about to lose your job because you keep taking off work? I’m not asking you to neglect your mother. I’m asking you to stop neglecting us.”
“I can’t do that. She loves this house. She spent her entire life taking care of me and now it’s my turn to care for her. Sure we have to make some sacrifices, but –.“
“Yes, sacrifices. But just what are you sacrificing? Your family? Your career? I won’t do this anymore Zach. How much longer do we have to live like this? Tell me. I can’t live like this for much longer. It could be years. Zach, please.”
I hear Zach take in a deep breath. He remains silent. The echoes of their raised voices fade away with the last of the day’s sunshine. The living room is dark. The lamp forgotten. Watery light seeps into the dark room from the kitchen archway. The silence seems to last for eternity. I wait for Zach to say something, anything. The tears I have fought all day break the dam of my will and fall. I knew I was a burden on Zach, but I did not know how badly I had wrecked his life. I did what I promised I would never do as I lay in that hospital bed smiling down on my newborn son. I hurt him. I just wanted him to say it wasn’t so bad. That Mary was joking or just overdramatic. I wanted her to be the big bad witch.
“Mom stays where she is,” Zach says quietly from the kitchen.
“Well, if your Mom means more to your than I do, then maybe my mom should mean more to me. I think I might stay with her for a little while.”
“Mary, don’t say that.”
I think about how Billy and I had black coffee every morning together. He liked his with sugar. I remember when we got our beagle, Peggy. Billy wanted nothing to do with dogs, but I begged until he finally let me have one. That first night Peggy crawled into Billy’s lap and fell asleep. Billy let her stay there all night and every night afterwards. Billy and I had so many adventures in this house we could never count them all. Memories are attached to every inch. Will I remember him if I leave? But then there is Zach. He deserves to have all of those adventures and memories too.
I stand up and walk into the kitchen. The bright light stings my eyes as they adjust.
“Zach, I’ll go. You have to take care of your family.”
Lacey Caskin is a junior at Flagler College studying Fine Arts with a minor in Theatre. She intends to study Architecture and Engineering after graduating from Flagler.