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The Awful Thing

Christina Robertson

My mother, Liz Carthage, was used to looking great. She’s an ex-dancer, married for forty years to a successful art dealer. She had always adopted a kind of chic built upon exposure to interesting shapes and ideas. Elastic-waist pants and cotton/poly sweatshirts were not part of her wardrobe as they are now. Not that she’d notice the difference, but I decided to bring her stockings and a new blouse today, and after searching her drawers, managed to track down a pair of earrings that matched.

She tries to put her hands in the stockings now, thinking they’re gloves, but she holds perfectly still while I comb back her hair and pin it, and apply a dab of color to her dispirited lips. Despite her general confusion, she seems to have a deeply embedded recognition of what we are doing. That is to say, she nods and seems pleased. The woman who attends the holiday party today won’t be the cosmopolitan of yore, no, not the head-turner she once was, but will be, without doubt, the most attractive woman in the Day Room.

I remember her dressed to go out with my father to an opening, smelling powdery and lovely, in a bottle-green hourglass dress, her dark hair swept back in a sleek chignon. I think of her even before that, before she was Lizzy to my father Peter. I like to think of her as the woman who wanted to be prima ballerina, but was to become my mother; a young dancer with aspirations and flaws, who likely didn’t look or smell so perfect after six hours in the studio, her feet bleeding through nearly shredded pointe shoes. That woman was separate from me. She was a heartbroken woman of twenty-one seated in an orthopedic surgeon’s office, a woman bewildered as to what to do next if she could no longer dance. She was the woman who, soon after, found the rabbit had died and came to the realization that she was in possession of the seed for another sort of creative life. Now she knows herself only in fragmented refractions. Left to her own devices, she’s a mess, adrift on a sea of holes. She’s the product of neurological devastation and, in a cruel ironic twist, my salvage. I have become the mother.

As we approach the Day Room, I feel pride at what remains of her dancer’s posture. That quickly fades into the sad reality before us. Surveying the gathering, I see that my mother is just another entry in the turtle races, the only difference being that I’d painted her shell. Gentlemen, such as Harmon, are wearing crooked bow ties and have their hair plastered down as if they are in first grade, circa 1935. Ladies’ hair has been sculpted into virtual helmets in shades of peach and beige and ice blue. They are wearing their best faux pearls, their least stained shirts, their old leisure suits. All in safe heels or dismal slippers, all at a loss for what they are celebrating.

My mother had been living on 4 West for nearly a year when the Reverend Harmon Triplett arrived. She didn’t (and still doesn’t) know anybody on the unit, not the staff nor the other residents, but this is because she has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Most of her “neighbors” on 4 West don’t know her either. Frequently they reintroduce themselves as they pass each other in their never ending loops of the hallway. The formality is touching, as if they are forever trying to make a good impression.

The day Harmon Triplett was brought to the unit, I had just finished combing my mother’s hair, which I often find limp at her shoulders. She still insists on dying it black, though she hasn’t fooled anyone in decades with that. Still, if we don’t keep coloring her hair, don’t take care of those white roots, she has been known to attempt to do it herself—with mascara, eyebrow pencil, even pen. Blue pen. I helped her choose a top to go with her brown polyester pants and a necklace that probably belongs to someone else here, and put a smudge of lipstick on those thinning lips. The makeup thing is more for myself than for her. It is similar to putting candles on a cake, a hopeful contrivance, a fantastical effort toward making a wish come true.

The Reverend Triplett was to be moved into Room 18 on the Green Wing. My mother is in 2 Yellow, just across from the elevators. When the doors opened, and the Tripletts stepped tentatively out, a familiar aroma came wafting up through the elevator shaft. If ever an odor can make you feel as though you are swimming with rocks in your pockets, it’s nursing home turkey loaf and creamed corn. The family still smelled of the autumn world outside. I wished I could bottle it for them.

Belle, the charge nurse, employed her well-rehearsed congeniality in greeting the Tripletts. She was all warmth and breeziness as she had been with us a year ago, and dispersed assurances all around like air freshener. The Reverend was a big man, more than six feet, and had retained the sturdy bones and musculature of his younger days, though it was apparent gravity and illness were conspiring against him. He stammered in an effort to reply and seemed embarrassed that he couldn’t say what he sensed he was supposed to. He shook his head and laughed, handing the whole exchange off to his adult daughter to navigate.

I’d liked the look of them, Triplett and his daughter. They were unexpectedly earthy. I don’t know why I automatically assign stereotypical attributes to ministers. Like they all use Ivory soap and sing hymns in the shower, and display exemplary moderation in their approach to everything. As if they are thoroughly benign beings, plain donuts. Reverend Triplett’s Birkenstocks and faded shirt were retro-hip, and the small paunch resting on his belt looked as though it came from drinking good beer. He had a boyish, almost mischievous, smile and prominent cheekbones, evident in his carelessly beautiful daughter as well. His heavy thatch of hair was snow white. All in all, his appearance was that of a kindly king in humble disguise, a hero out of a storybook. I was instantly fond of him without knowing anything about him.

If his presence had that effect on me, it seemed to awaken an even stronger response in my mother. She approached the group, staring up at the Reverend from her height a good foot below him and quietly took hold of my hand, an expression of what appeared to be dismay and relief on her face, as if she had been waiting for him.

“This, him, it’s upping. I am going up. I have haunting in here,” she said to me and pointed at her heart.

Belle reached out for my mother, drawing her petite body into the fold. As she did, the Reverend’s wife appeared out of nowhere or maybe from his shadow. She was also small, with a broad, concerned face and arthritic hands. Her wiry hair was growing out from years of dark brown dye and her hastily applied rouge deepened the creases in her cheeks. She was introduced to us as Gail. She acknowledged us graciously and grasped her husband’s arm.

“This here is Ms. Carthage. But we call her Liz, don’t we?” Belle gave my mother’s shoulder a squeeze. She responded like an eager child. “Ms. Liz, this is Reverend Triplett. He’s joining our community here.” 

Everyone was cordial, except perhaps Mrs. Triplett whose smile began to tremble. She was, after all, about to leave her husband on a locked dementia ward, hardly the “community” she’d been dreaming of for their retirement. Of course, it could have been due to the fact that my mother and Harmon Triplett were looking at each other like Maria and Tony at the dance in West Side Story.

The Reverend had enveloped my mother’s hand in both of his huge bear paws. He was a man well past his prime, but the strength in his hands was definitely still pulsing. Neither spoke beyond a polite murmur. Still, if this wasn’t my eighty-year-old mother who had tried to put socks on over shoes, I would have said there was electricity between her and Harmon Triplett.

His daughter Laurel and I introduced ourselves to break the ridiculous tension. I wasn’t sure if she was reading things the same way I was, but the arch in her eyebrows told me she was. I created a quick diversion, ushering my mother around the corner into the Day Room where, I had insisted, she had wanted to join the others watching a Sing Along With Mitch video. I could feel Gail Triplett’s eyes on us as we left. Facing the opposite direction, my mother had already forgotten the Reverend, but Mrs. Triplett likely hadn’t forgotten my mother.

That night about nine o’clock I received a call at home from the evening nurse, Carin. After lights out, she reported, my mother must have gotten up and wandered out into the hallway, seeking God knows what. Harmon Triplett was also awake, also anxious over his inexplicable surroundings. They were found sitting side by side on the glider at the end of the Blue Wing under the moonlit window. They were holding hands, my mother’s head on his shoulder.

Seeing my mother and Harmon Triplett over the next several visits, receiving the obligatory notifications from staff that she and he had had to be separated, that they had found him missing from his room in the middle of the night and discovered asleep in the vacant second bed in my mother’s room, that she trailed along like a stray dog, distressing Mrs. Triplett during her visits, began to make sense in a primitive sort of way. Their affinity, despite the inability to communicate coherently with each other, had taken on substance. I’d begun to get it. There was something compelling in Harmon Triplett that reminded me of a fairy tale hero, but also, unaccountably, of my father. 

Alzheimer’s disease is the Ash Borer of the human experience. Slowly, determinedly, its toxic plaques wind in and disrupt the flow of neurological signals, all that informs people about their own lives. They are gradually hollowed. Sapped of what they know in order to thrive, then even to survive in the world, each of these people becomes a shell. The shell is affected too; shapes and contours distorting, falling prey to repetitive pacing, lost teeth that they hadn’t realized were decaying, then lost dentures, poor eating habits, fractures from falls or walking into things. All forms of mysterious bruises and lumps, mirroring the scratches and dents, pre-4 West, they had been shocked to “discover” in their cars, dents they hadn’t any idea about. I am finding the experience terrifyingly similar to what I imagine it would be like to witness my mother drown. I stand on the shore and throw ropes to her, but she has no idea what to do with them. I try to swim to her, but she only moves farther away.

I bring in family photo albums and we go over and over the old faces. Sometimes they set a spark off in her darkening mind, and she smiles. Other times she shakes her head forlornly, or in utter consternation, pointing at a pink-faded picture of my dapper father and asks, “What is that doing?” I opt then for the answer that might give her momentary peace of mind, He’s coming later, after the gallery closes.

There was a day, after Harmon had settled in, that I came toting the albums, but she wasn’t in her room. After a quick sweep of the Day Room and the nurses’ office, I went in search of Belle. And there I found my mother. She was in a chair in Mr. Klein’s room, blocked by the Nurse’s ample hips, looking slightly annoyed.

“I’m keeping her with me,” Belle said. I had come to read nuances in Belle’s tone. There was a problem. “She’s helping me make my med rounds. It seemed like a better idea than spoiling the Reverend’s visit with his wife.” She raised an eyebrow, then chuckled off the whole state of affairs while dosing Mr. Klein with Aricept. My mother looked cross.

  “Oh boy…again?” I said.

“It’s nice to go to vote out there.” My mother tensed her jaw and gazed out into the hall.

“Honey, she loves that man! It’s gonna come to no good I think.” Belle shook her head.

I wasn’t surprised. I’d caught her myself, two days before, in the Green Wing, ten paces behind the Tripletts, her hands relaxed behind her back as she strolled, not particularly focused upon Harmon or his wife, simply enjoying a parrot’s constitutional. She’d gazed up at the banal, nostalgic prints fixed to the walls, as if they were flowering trees along a parkway. If someone else passed, she nodded politely. If the Tripletts stopped, she stopped as well, evidently satisfied just to follow in his wake.

I took my mother from Belle’s supervision back to her room. The plastic mattress cover made a crunching sound as we sat on her bed. She had no interest in the photo album or the chocolate I brought. Instead she was turning over my hand, examining my nails, saying, “Those cans are floosh.” I pulled a book from her bedside shelf, a book of Brancusi sculptures that had been one of her favorites back in her real life. Just then there was a gentle knock at the door.

I looked up to see the medical director, Dr. Voss, edging her way into the room. Behind her, Harmon was maneuvering to gain entry and Joyce, an aide, was trying to entice him away. It had to be something important to bring Dr. Voss up here outside her monthly round of the unit. Of course, I had a hunch.

The doctor was a smallish woman in big heels, besieged by freckles she tried to hide with makeup. She clutched a stack of files against herself like a shield and smiled politely at Harmon before closing the door on him. Joining us for some together time on the plastic bed, she tilted her head sympathetically. I felt my back molars ache.

“Can we talk?” 

I nodded. “Of course.”

“It’s come to my attention that your mom has been a little more…agitated…lately,” Dr. Voss began, setting her files on her lap. “The fact is the Triplett family is a little concerned.” Her credentials swayed on her lanyard as she gave my mother’s shoulder a folksy rub. “I think hearing that the Reverend had pulled his pants down in her room last night might have done it.” 

Until then I had been distracted by the way she held her foot, flexed, when she crossed her legs, the heel of her shoe spiking out menacingly. Suddenly we were staring at each other in an accord of alarm and suppressed laughter. 

“What?” How could I not have heard about this one?

“The staff report says that when Joyce came in to do her eleven o’clock wellbeing check, your mother was asleep, and the Reverend was in the room taking off his pajamas. This wasn’t the first time they’ve been caught.”

“Wait a minute, ‘caught’?” It took effort to tamp down irritation. “I doubt very much that either are capable of anything premeditated.” I tried to take any sharp edges out of my voice. 

A moment of silence followed. I looked at my mother. There was no reasoning with her about this. She wasn’t following the conversation. She looked at me, politely smiling as if I were a slightly boring guest. 

“What do we do now?” I said. 

“I need your permission. I’d like to tweak her meds,” Voss said. Tweak always meant add.

“Really? She’s not hurting anyone. She’s definitely not any more confused. In fact, on some level she seems pretty clear. It’s… almost like an improvement,” I shot back, forcing a little levity. 

She smiled weakly. “I have an obligation here. Gail Triplett has asked me to intervene.” 

“I guess I can imagine that. My mom is giving her a run for her money.”

More silence, though I’m convinced Dr. Voss wanted to laugh. I kept my eyes on her. 

“What about Harmon? Will he be prescribed a little saltpeter with his meals?” I knew I’d officially stepped out of line with that one, but the doctor let it go. “I would really like to avoid loading her up with more drugs,” I said. “She’s already taking enough medication to sideline a football player.” 

This elicited a cautious, but respectful nod. The nursing home had rules and standards, but I had Power of Attorney and the checkbook.

My mother was trying to eat a wadded up Kleenex. When I took it from her, I realized there was a cookie wrapped inside. She looked sublimely happy when I gave it to her. 

“I like quickies!” she said taking a bite.

It was decided that, when at all possible, a staff member would sit outside both my mother’s and Harmon’s rooms at night, and my mother would spend the Triplett visits in the nurses’ office with Belle or Carin or whomever was available. This, we agreed, would carry us through the holiday, and with luck, would disrupt the pattern enough to end the “affair.”

And, for a while it worked.


This afternoon’s New Year’s Eve party is in the Day Room. Occasions here are typically observed with shiny cardboard decorations, theme cookies, and Blue Cow ice cream cups. However, today the Day Room is particularly festive. They are serving non-alcoholic champagne, fruit punch out of a crystalline bowl, and pizza. Awkwardly draped “Happy New Year!” crepe paper banners, silver plastic ware, streamers, and white balloons force a kind of undeniable, if manufactured, cheer upon us. Many have donned glittery party hats and hold onto noise makers. The gala began at four, making us fashionably late. Adherence to a schedule is ironic since the staff and visitors are the only ones with any concept of time.

The staff are good humored, loose and giddy, the music an amicable compromise of golden oldies—the likes of Glenn Miller and The Andrews Sisters—and the best of Earth, Wind & Fire. Carin and Beatrice from Housekeeping are dancing with each other and any of the spit-shined residents they can coax up out of a chair. Visiting family members coax as well or sit dutifully beside their vacant mother, father, sister, brother, or spouse, trying to share the mock excitement, or perhaps just trying not to cry.

I can’t bear to look at the sallow faces of those residents who are totally lost, are petrified wood with beating hearts. Instead I paste on a smile and step aside, allowing my mother to make her entrance with the dramatic flair of her youth. It’s been two weeks since the pants incident, and a full week since any “improprieties” have been filed by the staff. As far as I know, equilibrium—as defined by no one dropping their pants—has been restored on 4 West. All we have to contend with is…everything else. My mother glances at me, then toddles into the sea of dithering revelers, a twig wearing red lipstick.

In his aged, graying body with its slight jowls and sags, Harmon’s eyes shine like polished onyx when he sees my mother. He is sitting in the circle of chairs with his wife who holds onto his hand. Laurel is standing nearby, talking with the nurse’s assistant Joyce and nibbling at a square of waxen-looking pizza. Quivering and quaking, he suddenly makes an effort to rise. They are playing “Moonlight Serenade.” 

Observing her father’s sudden effort to stand, Laurel reaches for him, helping him up into a dance. She hasn’t noticed my mother’s arrival, and Harmon seems to have promptly forgotten it. He looks down at his daughter with a warm, slightly vacant expression. Gail watches them together, her face frozen in better times, her knobby hands folded pleasantly in the lap of her burgundy tweed skirt. She declines a party hat, and the stretch of silver roots at her part gleams beneath the fluorescent ceiling lights. It underscores a vulnerability, her irreversible journey. At the same time, I can’t help noticing a strangely threatening flicker in her gaze as it eventually comes to rest on her rival. My mother is, of course, oblivious.

A change in rhythm introduces the “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and Davis, the young, enthusiastic activities coordinator, charms my mother onto the dance floor. She grins as she is led in, and her confused mind is reunited with this familiar tune. She picks up the beat and, leaning to and fro, jazzing it up, she shows him the correct steps as they come back to her. 

It is a known phenomenon that people with dementia seem to recall and respond to music—especially of their youth—with mysterious clarity not available to them otherwise. I watch Gail watching her. The envy is unmistakable. As the music downshifts to Nat King Cole’s “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” her husband begins making his way from Laurel to my mother. Gail gets up from her chair.

I walk nervously toward my mother. It’s painfully obvious she’s on the path to certain conflict. But Davis grabs me, whirls me, then snaps me back in, apparently determined to show off what my mother and a few of the other ambulatory ladies have taught him. Meanwhile, I watch Harmon take my mother in his big, shaky arms, her little head barely coming to the center of his chest. He doesn’t look clean, but she burrows her cheek into him. They couldn’t have been more besotted had they been seventeen. Joyce looks at Laurel, Laurel looks at me. Before I can free myself, Davis dips me, and I almost end up on the floor. Feeling annoyed and more than a little ridiculous, I get a tilted view of Gail attempting to pry the id-driven lovers apart. 

“No! Go…there!” my mother protests.

“This is my husband,” Gail Triplett tries to say with patience. “My husband,” she repeats, pressing her hands to her heart. 

“No,” my mother says, shaking her head slowly, as if Gail is the deluded one. “This is the one for me.” More coherency than I’ve heard from her in months. Harmon smiles at her with idiotic devotion. The tape leaps into a groove by Earth, Wind and Fire, and he bobs clumsily in time.

Say that you remember dancing in September…

“Harmon, sit down,” Gail instructs. 

Harmon blinks, trying to figure out what is happening. Then, cooperative as a spaniel, he complies, taking my mother with him. 

“Let go of her hand, honey,” Gail says, patience diminishing.

“I want my wife,” he answers, clearly concerned that this woman with the silver streak is trying to pull a fast one. 

“I’m your wife, Harmon…I am.” 

He doesn’t look convinced.

Love was changing the mind of pretenders…chasing the clouds away…

My mother is on fire now. She is in Gail’s face. “This, you…it’s a bad cookie!” Everyone freezes. I shake Davis off. 

Remember how we knew love…

“You don’t even know what you are saying. Get away—shoo!” Gail flicks her hand. “You’re sick!”

Laurel swoops in, her smile desperate, trying to de-escalate things. With extra-drippy deference, she asks my mother to show her some of those dance steps. My mother, adrenaline pulsing, musters the presence of mind to be disgusted. She ignores Laurel and turns away. There is a collective exhale from the staff. Then, abruptly, she swings around and slaps Mrs. Triplett across the face.

“Shuume!” she says in a voice quivering with rage. No one insults my mother’s intelligence and escapes unscathed.

Ba duda, ba duda…

Without realizing it, Laurel and I have grabbed onto each other. There is a throbbing heat in my face, a rapid sinking in my heart. Shaken, Gail falls into her chair. Laurel rushes to her. Joyce goes to get an ice pack. Belle lures my mother away with the offer of ice cream and an extra dose of Ativan written all over her face. The unit social worker appears as if summoned from a magic lamp and officiates damage control. Daughter of the damned, I stand by wordlessly, like another balloon.

Not able to track all this, poor, addled Harmon appears only mildly stunned. He pets his wife’s head as she begins to weep. “Good,” he says. 

The party is over for my mother. She’s served a tranquilizer with a cup of Hawaiian Punch in her room. I’m frightened, baffled, outraged, mortified, and proud. This emotional cacophony is the Alzheimer’s theme song. I know I owe the Triplett family an apology, but can’t really hang my hat on why. Blame seems pointless, like blaming two goldfish for swimming in the same direction in their bowl. I sit at my mother’s bedside in my party hat, watching her fall asleep, knowing when she wakes it will be a new year. It will always be the same year for her. 

Before she closes her eyes she says, “You are a swede baby.” 

My tears rise.

Later, and with the profound sadness that can only exist on a holiday, I punch in the pass code for the elevator down to the lobby. I’m retreating, deserting, going home. As usual, shame lurks just behind the relief. My grief tonight is a dark heat though, the dying embers of a forest fire. Strains of an old Lawrence Welk show from the television in the Day Room don’t help.

Just as I am settling into a deep loneliness, Laurel startles me, poking her head around the corner. She walks toward me and flashes an impish grin. Her eyes are like her father’s. “I’ve been waiting for you,” she says. 

Mournfully I surrender. “You probably want a piece of me…” I answer, mostly in jest. 

She laughs. 

I’ve gotten good at diversions. “I truly apologize. It’s crazy. I don’t know why this is happening.” I am lying only a little. “Please tell me your mother is doing better.” I wince, embarrassed by the inadequacy of my words.

“She’s alright. Really,” Laurel reassures me. “Yours?” 

“Wow. Kind of you to ask. She’s asleep…Ativan.”

Her eyes fill with tears, as if she, herself, has shot my mother with elephant tranquilizer.

“It had to be,” I concede, though I can’t deny my emotions around this are still raw.

“You know,” Laurel begins, “I’ve been thinking and, well, I guess I’m not feeling like it’s an awful thing… that your mother is drawn to my dad, and he…” She paused. “To her.” 

We are both silent as we mull this over, blind acceptance being our only shot at adapting. 

“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “I mean, does it? So my mom thinks he’s Gregory Peck. That isn’t so terrible.” Our limp smiles surrender to the miserable humor of it all.

“Exactly,” she says. “I don’t care. I’m glad, in fact.”

I can’t help but think of poor Mrs. Triplett. “But what about…” I say. 

“My mom?” Laurel says. “I’ll get her to understand. Or I won’t.” 

There is a ding, and the elevator door slides open. A catatonic resident, crusty with spilled food, is wheeled out by a clearly depleted family member. 

We make our way past them, and at that moment we both know the awful thing here isn’t love.   

The call I get later from the evening shift is to alert me to the fact that Harmon and my mother have been “caught” together trying to figure out the elevator pass code. They were trying numbers and naming saints. Then, the staff reports, they kissed and wandered away into the Blue Wing in search of, well, something. Maybe the moon.