Pushing eighty, Mrs. Mattison reclines on the lounge chair on the mossy concrete patio while her husband clips the naked remnant of rose bulbs from the bushes, and I attend to distributing mulch. I live in a shed behind his house, a gift from Mr. Mattison to put a roof over my head and keep me off the homeless list.
“Everyone calls it dead-heading,” he says, “but I call if live-heading. See, the stem lives, and it is the only way the stem can produce more. Same way in life. My wife and I need to move on and let more vigorous flowers bloom. We don’t wish to die,” he says, casually continuing his work, “but our attachment to life has been robbed by this Alzheimer’s. And our children are scattered across the globe.”
Who will come for them, when the last petal falls, I wonder. And if Mr. Mattison falls first, will Mrs. Mattison even know? And who will care for her, then?
“You might wonder why the Mrs. wears the same dress every day. She gets very disturbed if she does not wear it.”
The dress is white with a wide lapel and peaches dotting the skirt, and a collar that can stand stiff and raised no matter the turbulence of her tossing in the chair.
“She believes it is the same dress every day,” Mr. Mattison says, “and I don’t have the heart to tell her that I bought three additional dresses, same size, same print, so that I can manage the laundry. Can’t be washing the same dress every single day.
Sunday’s dress she wears on Thursday, Monday’s dress on Friday, Tuesday’s dress on Saturday, Wednesday’s dress is only for Wednesday. Panties and bras I don’t keep track of. Too much bother. Socks are socks, you know what I mean,” he tells me.
“I bathe her every night. She loves the warm water and likes to play in the water, swirling her hand all around, and talks about her father and mother playing with her at a lake when she was little. Just three or four memories. Her mind goes round and round like a carousel,” he says, “but without the music.” He laughs at his joke.
“Isn’t it hard for you to care for her twenty-four/seven?” I ask.
He nods. “Could be worse, though. She’s a sweet woman, always has been.”
“Yes, a good companion,” I say.
“Oh, she’s not a companion any more, not in any sense of correspondence, or fifty-fifty back and forth. She’s a dependent. I recognize that.”
“Then why not give yourself a break once in a while?”
“You looking for a job?” he says suspiciously. “You’re a good handyman, good with fixing a ladder, good with the roses and the peonies, but you’re pushin’ it.”
“I just thought you might like to do more than go to the store once in a while.”
He drops his clippers and sits by his wife, patting her ankles, taking off her tennis shoes and socks and then massaging her feet.
“I tried having help, hired my own help, a young man, actually. He was bright, Filipino, kind, married to another Filipino gal that did home care, two people just trying to make their way out of poverty, you know. He was good with my wife, tender, trustworthy.
He was sick one day and the agency sent over a woman I shouldn’t have trusted. She said yes, of course to everything I said, which should have told me she wasn’t listening to anything. I had a Wednesday morning book reader’s club, we were studying Teddy Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War. I had second thoughts about leaving the house but I was leading the discussion. Pride called out to me and compelled me to go despite the concern I had for my wife. I listened to the wrong voice in my head. You know how sometimes people say they hear God but it’s actually the devil, or vice versa. I believe the mind is capable of generating all kinds of voices, and the people who stay sane listen to just one or two moderate voices, but sometimes even the most sane people listen to a more strident voice that leads them into error. That’s what pride did to me, led me into error. That’s when Amelia got lost, that morning, and for the next three days.
The woman hired to watch her every second watched television and Amelia went out the back door all dressed and with her purse and with a wad of cash in it, over five hundred dollars, that she had put away without my knowledge over the years. The dress you see her in is the dress she was wearing. She was addled already by then. She didn’t even know what town she lived in, barely could remember her children’s names, sometimes said when I or the Filipino Bernard undressed her that we were raping her.
She got on a bus right down the street. She was apparently trying to read the sign like Braille, running her spindly fingers up and down and across the sign trying to comprehend the incomprehensible by touch. Amelia got downtown to the central terminal, walked over to Greyhound, bought a ticket for Los Angeles, and boarded the bus not more than twenty minutes after leaving the house.
I led my discussion on Roosevelt and called home to see if everything was okay. The woman said things were fine, everything was quiet. So I went to an early lunch with some of the group and didn’t get home until about one, and then hell didn’t break loose, I broke it, I broke hell over that woman’s head, I broke hell walking around the neighborhood, I broke hell with the police. I think of how ugly I must have been. I was angry. With everyone, even if they were trying to help. I had to get posters up, a current picture. That was a hoot. Who has a current picture of a seventy-nine year old woman skinny as a rail in dementia? The picture showed her in a red sweater before our church’s Christmas tree seven years before. It’s all I had.
Amelia made it to Los Angeles, then got on a bus for Austin, Texas, with an overnight delay, and then had a ticket already to get to Iowa City, Iowa, where she had gone to college. Imagine that. A woman who can’t put on her shoes because anything past her hands she can’t distinguish between left and right, with the sense to buy a ticket to Iowa City. Senile. Can’t even butter her toast, puts on the butter first and then toasts, knowing how to get to Los Angeles and then Austin and then Iowa City.
When we found out she had made it out of town, it was pretty easy for the police to trace her, and they were able to find her in Austin. She was at the bus station waiting for a big black limo to pick her up and take her to her hotel for the night. But she didn’t have a reservation, she was just remembering what happened the last time we had traveled to Nashville to see our boy and his kids probably fifteen years ago.
They flew her back, and when she landed she didn’t know a thing. She was exhausted. She was underfed and under-watered. I use those words like she’s not human, I know, but that’s the kind of care you have to think about, to deliver, to keep them going. Not force feeding, but forceful. She didn’t recognize me for days. I’ve never let anyone care for her since.
So now it’s that awful dress day after day, reciting the names of her dorm mates and calling them her children, praying every meal for the limo to come.
You probably think I’m stupid. My kids do.”
“No, noble perhaps. Disciplined,” I say.
“Till death do us part. That’s what I vowed. I didn’t vow until something else comes along, like all these modern marriages. You think her senility isn’t an irreconcilable difference? But that’s now what I vowed. And I’m still strong, still capable. What else would I do?”
“Lead book discussions?”
“At the cost of my wife? At the cost of my vow? She still knows me, knows we are married. Even though she no longer has the emotions of love, you don’t think she knows the emotions of betrayal, of abandonment?”
Mr. Mattison looks up into the trees and does a panoramic view of the sky, stands, gathers his clippers, and begins to clean up the deadheads. I help pick up the last several, he drops them into the green recycling bin, and Amelia stands and smiles and calls me William, thanks me for dropping by, and pats her husband on the shoulder, squeezes his hand for a few seconds, holding it until tears welled up, and she smiles up at his stern, matter-of-fact expression. She walks up the steps to the back door and Mr. Mattison locks it, grabs his clippers and goes around to finish the roses in the front of the house.
She is locked in, safe in the house, locked out of the world outside, her mind and soul locked in a small number of rooms of the past that had no relation to the present, locked out of imagination and emotions. She squeezes his hand, and he squeezes back, even if only for five seconds.
Banner photograph: By Ajmint (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons