“Where Are You?”

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By J.M. Grenier

Dementia is a hard thing. 

“Where are you?” she said. 

This hurt, because she was looking right at me.

“I’m here,” I said. “ I’m right here.”

“No,” she said. “Really, where are you?”

“Right here. The same place we’ve been every day for the last three weeks.”

She looked at me like I was a brick. Six-sided and made of hardened clay, like the millions of impersonal blocks that lined the artificial canyons of this former mill town. 

“No, I mean where are you?”

I reached out and held her hand. The way she did for me when I was a child. She gripped it like a vice.

“Mom, I’m right here. Sitting with you. On the side of your bed. Look, there’s your window.” I pointed. “We’re both here, three floors up, in the city hospital.”

She looked at me. Her eyes were deep wells of worry. She wanted something from me, but I couldn’t place it.

Then I understood. 

“Metaphorically, you mean,” I said. “Well, I guess I’m in a good place, and I will stay with you here until you are in a good place, too.”

She sighed. The spider-web lines around her tired eyes softened. Her time-weathered hand relaxed in mine. 

This had all been so much for her. Too much for us both.  

In a tragic parody of one of the many books she read to me as a child, this disease had seized her in its whirlwind, tossed her ‘over the rainbow’, and into her into a wicked fairyland of the mind. A twisted place of shadows and danger, which I feared she would never be able to escape.

The worst part of her illness, for me, was in wanting to help her, but not being able to. Our roles of parent and child had reversed. She looked to me for guidance, but like the mythical Wizard of OZ, I was a guardian with no real power. 

I was afraid to speak. Most of the time I sat silent and solemn, weighing the inadequacy of words to express what was needed at this moment. I was terrified that I might say the wrong thing and that the healing words I wanted would wound instead.

I took a deep breath. Slowly, carefully, so that the very act of drawing breath would not upset her delicate equilibrium. I kept my eyes level with hers, summoned all the love I could – all the love she’d given me over the years – and found the words.

“I’m. Right. Here,” I said.

This was the right answer; she smiled.

“Oh, OK,” she said. “OK, good.”

She let me put my arm around her shoulders, then. She leaned in. We sat that way for a long time, looking out the too-wide windows of the hospital room, watching the sunset over the old factory buildings.

The end.

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