February 6, 2019

Old Age: Three Vignettes by Jo St Leon

Old Age: Three Vignettes by Jo St Leon

Dementia

I can’t find the word. Somewhere, in the swirling mist of my mind, I know it’s there. Just out of reach. I chase it but it skips away from me as it laughs. It doesn’t want to be caught today.

I used to use it, the word, with such ease. It would trip off my tongue, along with a lot of other words, to make sentences, stories, jokes. A whole river of words, ever-present. Unappreciated, until now. Now, I would give anything for this one word—the perfect word—to say just what I mean. For the uncomprehending face which frowns before me to clear and shine with understanding.

Still the word prances, dances, teases me as I reach out to grab it. Always on the periphery, never centre stage. I begin to get angry. I want to shout at the word, to make it come, to tell it it has no right to do this to me. I beat my fists on the arms of my chair. It’s just a word—how did it get so important?

Frustrated, I give up. It doesn’t matter now, anyway. I can’t remember why I wanted it.

An Unintentional Cruelty

What on earth was I thinking?

Or maybe I didn’t think at all. I sit here in my chair all day, with people to wash me, feed me, toilet me, wheel me around from bedroom to dining room and back. They talk to me as if I were a child. “Well done, Marie,” they say if I manage a mouthful of soup. “Well done, Marie,” as I struggle to stand on the hoist that wheels me to the toilet. My life is reduced to an endless round of boredom and ever-increasing indignities. Parkinson’s sucks. There are no more promises.

I am waiting to die. But even that is no excuse for what I said to that child. She was happy as she skipped in and held my daughter’s hand. A smile for everyone. I saw her little face as my cruelty hit home. I saw the love and trust in her eyes slowly turn to hurt and misunderstanding. I want to tell her I didn’t mean it. That I love her. But the words won’t come. I have broken something precious.

Her world is not safe any more. I have stolen her joy and given her shame instead. A poor bargain. She will not visit me again.

Sheree

Sheree loves colour. Vivid, vibrant colour. Today she sits at the lunch table wearing a silk shirt in brilliant fuchsia. Earrings sparkle at her ears. Her fingers are without rings. She’s having an animated conversation with me. In her strong, educated voice she says, “ You haven’t got a glass.”

There’s nothing girly about this voice. It’s the voice of someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. A scientist’s voice, or maybe a philosopher’s. I can see her in the hallowed corridors of Sydney University. A student? A professor?  Maybe both. I’ll never know. Her friends have died; her family has forgotten her. If she ever had a family. There’s something about her, other than her lack of a ring, that suggests “single, independent woman.” A gallant pride cruelly mocked by her current circumstances. There’s no one left to ask. Her past is gone.

Sheree’s eyes, her voice, her bone structure, bespeak a truth long gone. The last remnants of former glory. Her finely chiseled cheekbones tell of a breathtaking youthful beauty. Intelligent blue eyes regard me over an aristocratic nose, invite me into her world with a promise of ideas to share, concepts to debate. Again she says, “You haven’t got a glass.”

There is singing at the other end of the dining-room. With scorn Sheree says, “I wish they’d stop that noise. It’s such a dreadful racket. They think they’re singing. It’s not like any music I ever heard.” She raps the table with her fork. Luckily, the singers don’t notice.

I laugh—she’s right. The singing is awful, but the singers don’t know that. Only Sheree knows. She lets the thought go, and remembers something important she needs to say: “You haven’t got a glass.” I like that she cares for my well-being. Not a selfish woman, Sheree. A woman who cares for others. “Or a knife and fork,” she adds.

Sheree shares a table in the dining room with my mother. Sometimes she knows her. “She’s a good woman, your mother,” she’ll say. Other times not. “Who’s this at my table? Could you introduce us?” They have conversations sometimes, that sound quite sensible until I realise there is no communication. Talking at each other is all that remains to them of friendship.

Occasionally Sheree gets angry; frustrated that no one seems to understand her. “But I’ve got to go,” she’ll shout. “People are waiting for me!” She’ll bang the table, upset the plastic glasses of lemonade. She’ll  struggle to her feet, and with the help of her battered wheelie-walker she’ll make her way to the front door. There she’ll sit and wait, always waiting, for someone who never comes.

Sheree is 97. Her mind is long gone. Her world has shrunk beyond all recognition. Her bedroom, the dining room, the entrance hall—all that is left of a lifetime of loving, caring, thinking, travel, conversation. Today, though, she sits peacefully at the table in her beautiful fuchsia shirt. “You haven’t got a glass,” she says.

***

Jo is a musician and aspiring author from Hobart, Tasmania. In addition to her work with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, she is studying creative writing at Southern Cross University. She writes short stories, feature articles and concert reviews, and is currently working on a series of reflections arising from her experience of living with cancer. Her short story, Georgina’s Dilemma recently won 3rd prize in The Writers’ Forum November competition, and she won 2nd prize in the Field of Words memoir competition with The Diagnosis.

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