A voyage into the heart of misery and psychological torture in an attempt to find hope there. Twenty-four hours in the life of Henry Wilson, a man suffering through the throes of Alzheimer’s…
by: Christy Hall
“Can you hear Simon and Fiona? Will they ever stop?”
I didn’t reply to my wife, although in my head I thought, Yes, I can hear the young couple upstairs, moving from one room to another. I didn’t have the enthusiasm to respond, or the energy. I was two hours of television away from sedation. To my surprise, I found I could hear many interesting sounds besides the flat upstairs when I pressed the mute button; the continuous stream of traffic three floors below the window under which I habitually sat, the agitated dog endlessly sniffing at the front door, monitoring the smells that permeated from the corridor, the kettle rumbling to boiling point as my wife fixed me another drink. A commercial break. I turn my tongue and push it into the crevices around my teeth. I taste the rich bagels, cream cheese and salmon we ate that morning to help celebrate my daughter’s birthday. It’s appealing taste was in contrast to the bitterness of my current coffee; black, no sugar. A sensation I try to mask by turning my tongue to the roof of my mouth, where the taste of salmon had settled. This pleasure encourages me to close my eyes and they stay shut for some time.
Awake again. I am horrified to find that my nap has lasted no longer than twenty minutes, indicating the Cristal champagne hasn’t anesthetized me sufficiently. Not surprisingly, I had been disturbed by the incessant protest of the telephone; Brrrrpppp, Brrrrpppp, Brrrrpppp.
I defiantly ignore its cry, in revenge for its lack of consideration towards me. On top of this misery, I suddenly become conscious that my mouth now tastes of alcohol and coffee, a rancid mixture. This encourages me to leave the comfort of my seat and travel to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of tap water. When I eventually return to my expensive reclining double sofa, I feel thankful for its warmth, comfort and familiarity.
More commercials. Following two or three sips of my drink, I slowly turn my head to pan the entirety of the flat. I call to my wife noticing she hasn’t wandered past for a while.
“Jane, are you around?”
No reply. I presume she has taken a trip across town to see her sister, whom she visits on her days off. Now, safe in the knowledge I have the freedom of the place, I approach my stereo, also expensive, and turn the volume as near to maximum as I dare. The name of the artist or composer is irrelevant; it is the freedom that feels important to me. Within seconds of the first number, my brain comes alive and instructs my feet to tap the floor in time to the music. Without thinking, my hands begin to flutter involuntarily, reminiscent of birds, as the song’s middle eight tantalizes my senses. Before I can turn the volume up further, the piano takes control of my limbs and they glide back and forth in synchronized whirls of triumph. Is this Schubert? Mozart? Beethoven? A concerto? A sonata? The dramatic explosions of noise reach out and punch my chest. My neck jolts back and forth. The song’s crescendo is imminent; the instruments work simultaneously to control my movement. I am an astronaut, weightless and faint. Spinning now in the centre of the room, the overpowering noise reverberates from all corners of the room, channelled by my costly surround-sound speakers, back to my ears. The strings are orchestrating my entire body. The room becomes dark, my eyes blurry. I reach out with both arms to maintain balance but that only adds to my thrilling orbit. The music invades my heart. I am at the mercy of the violin’s resonance. The sickly tastes become prominent in my mouth again and I abruptly crash to the floor in a nauseating ejaculation of sweat, distorted vision and vertigo. I’m quivering on the floor, no spit in my mouth to swallow, no use of my hands to wipe my eyes clean, black rushing in over my eyes quickly.
It’s not uncommon to forgot dates or lose items, and these events may become more common as we age. But while occasional memory slippage may be a normal consequence of getting older, Alzheimer’s disease is not. If memory problems interfere with one’s day-to-day activities, it may be time to consult a doctor.
My fragile eyes flicker three or four times before opening as I try to find a reason for the prone position that I have woken up in, or indeed, where I am. The ceiling looks familiar at least, matte-white paint boarded by mild-beige skirting boards. I tentatively push myself off the ground and onto the nearest chair, woven fabric, designer I think. I pat the back of my head and feel warm liquid dripping onto my neck and shirt collar. Thinking I had accidentally split my head open on the floor, I panic, but on closer inspection of my fingertips I find spilt water, not blood. A low buzzing sound grabs my attention. To my right, the stereo is switched on but the CD has stopped. When did I last listen to music? I slide across on my backside and place my hand on top of the metallic player, still warm, almost hot. I can’t have been out for long. An irresistible smell pulls me towards the kitchen, the aroma of my wife’s cooking. Fish I think. Yes, it must be fish. I assume that it is a lobster she is preparing, this being one of the few meals we both know how to cook with any kind of culinary skill. She has always said to me, “You make this better than me. It’s the only dish you do!”
“But I could always get it wrong this time! Are we having anybody here for dinner?”
“No, it’s just me and you tonight, honey. So come and make this seafood the way I know you can.”
I should tell her how much I appreciate her cooking, even though it is distracting me at this moment and making me feel quite nauseous. Strong rays of sunlight hit my face and envelop my body as I pass by the living room window. This particular window, which is the most majestic of all in the house, overlooks the Manhattan high street. I study the outside intensely, not in awe or appreciation but in complete indifference. Always hectic, always boisterous. The continuous flow of pedestrians like a swarm of bees; fat consumer bees, and cars that appear to be an immeasurable chain on a metal-box conveyer belt. The smoggy haze is visible, inactive, opaque. My eyes are stinging in the claustrophobic wall of atmosphere, the tinge of fawn, of sepia. I slam the window shut before I have an attack of some sort. Thudddddd.
For the first time today my house is calm and silent. This is how I like it. The serenity encourages me to reflect. I glance at the television, which is facing me as I stand in the hallway, but I ignore the temptation to switch it on. Growing more tired and drowsy, I decide to enter my favorite room of the house, my secret room. It isn’t secret in the sense that I am the only person who knows it exists – it is in fact adjacent to the kitchen – but it is secret because it’s the one place that I can retreat to and feel alone; shut myself away from my wife, visitors or indeed Gruff, the dog. Gruff has followed me down the hall, but I give him a gentle nudge in the midriff with my foot and he backs off. The metal souvenir plaque I bought three or four or five years ago on a trip to Hollywood has ‘WILSON’ printed in blue capital letters on it and is nailed to the door of the secret room. I tap it twice to hear the dull sound of tin, to feel the smooth metal on the pads of my fingers. Then I open the door. The room is dark and warm and welcoming. Lying quietly in one corner, slouched in a leather beanbag, I allow my thoughts to float above my head and rebound off the ceiling, reeling in the ones I chose to contemplate further.
Sometimes I paint in the secret room. The floor is littered with canvasses and sketchbooks, splattered with acrylic and other substances: glue, sand, piles of papier-mâché, nails, string, and grit, amongst other things. My paintings usually comprise dark colors, forming brooding landscapes and dramatic sky, some of which I think are quite appealing, some are more akin to an ugly bruise. I kick aside an old canvas and a blob of wet paint slops onto my shoe. The wet painting, although layered quite generously, can’t have been completed that long ago if it’s still sticky to the touch. This baffles me. I can’t distinguish between this and any of my other attempts. I begin to add to my canvas, perched where it sits on my beautiful pinewood easel. The soft, lacquered wood has my surname written in dark brown lettering right below the support ledge. This was either a present from my daughters two or three years ago or I bought it myself at the local arts and crafts store because they had an offer on Initials Carved On For Free. I flick and throw and push and smudge paint all over the surface. Black. Green. Maroon. Vermilion. Navy. I turn sharply and pick up more tubes of paint. Abandoning the brush, I squeeze thick charcoal grey onto the surface. It oozes slowly in a vertical direction and changes the whole composition of the image. I’m getting hot and perspiring. A globule of paint splats back onto my forehead as I strike out with the tube. This makes me edgy. Sweating. Panicky almost. Paranoid too. This looks way too Pollock. Or is it Rothko? I become frustrated by its resemblance to my previous paintings or other people’s paintings. With that annoyance, I leave the secret room, dropping my painting palette on the floor and throwing wet paint brushes down on the sideboard.
A lot of time has passed since I first noticed my wife has gone out. She still hasn’t returned. The cooking may be ruined. Is it lobster with steamed asparagus or smoked salmon with hollandaise sauce? I decide that all this reflection can’t be beneficial, so I retire to the bedroom to rest. The warmth and reassuring smell of the duvet makes me grin with satisfaction. I turn and with twitching fingers, explore my wife’s side of the bed. On her bedside table there are photographs, all framed in clean titanium silver and dazzling imitation gold. I glance at a picture of our honeymoon night in Honolulu. In the foreground we are holding hands, both wearing hula-skirts. That night we twisted our hips like flush peacocks. In the background are the sea and the sunset. Nothing else. A local Hawaiian took the photo. I think he was a young man with a pencil-moustache, but it could have been a woman. In the photograph, my wife has a brown-butter tan and her hair has been bleached blonde by the sun. She looks happy and content and I can see that she loves me. Her appearance has changed since then. She has more lines running above her eyebrows, but she remains beautiful. There is a brooch resting on the bedside table. It has circles of sapphire and spots of lagoon-blue in the shape of a dolphin. I pick it up and feel the jewels and the crusty outer edge of the metallic frame. It feels warm in the palm of my hand, as if charged with body heat overnight by a servant for a princess. I run it across my cheek. It is sensual against my skin. This is my wife’s favorite brooch. I may have bought her it as an anniversary gift. I may not have. It has her name carved in miniature lettering on the inside shell, curving along the inside of the metal contours, the inscription reads, “JANE.”
One picture that stands out above all others in the collection, the one I am looking at now. It is a photograph I keep going back to since our two daughters, Cathy and Sarah, moved into their own places. They are both dressed from head to foot in Yankees kit: socks, shorts, shirts and caps. They are standing with their arms wrapped around my legs; smiling, looking as proud as punch. This is their first ever trip to a baseball game. The photograph captures a time, a day, and a moment in time perfectly. Studying the photograph helps me recall details I would usually have lost to time. I remember this day.
The old Yankee Stadium isn’t far from the site of its modern replacement which is under construction right now, in the heart of the Bronx, which isn’t too far to drive to or hop on the underground from our apartment block. Although I can’t remember how we got there that day. Before passing through high steel gates and entering the stadiums grounds, we were stopped by people handing out flyers and leaflets for McDonald’s, or maybe Starbucks, which both Cathy and Sarah took great delight in snatching at with outstretched arms. I tried to keep them moving along quickly by squeezing their hands. We arrived to the stadium early enough to allow the girls plenty of time to look around, see the sights and visit the stalls. I don’t remember how old they were exactly, but because of their three year age difference, they could have been 6 and 9, or 7 and 10.
The walk to our tier of the stadium, which was wasn’t too high up as I had spared no expense on my little girls’ first game, was up a spiraling concrete walkway. The steward at the entrance checked my ticket and pointed straight ahead and then to the left. Giggling with anticipation and excitement, and swinging on each of my arms, the girls finally were provided a look at the stadium. Barely half full, but still a glorious, a bubbling atmosphere pulsed around the periphery. Having not been to a Yankees’ game for many years, the intoxicating sights, smells and sounds of the stadium were uplifting and a childlike sense of joy stirred within me. There was a feeling of security and anonymity despite the thousands of strangers in close proximity shouting, laughing, cursing, and eating. I stopped the girls and paused just long enough to take a look around and absorb the panorama of the stadium. Cathy pulled down on my shirt and asked, ‘Can we sit down daddy? Where are our seats?’
“Daddy?” prompted Sarah, or maybe it was Cathy.
“Sorry sweetheart. Yes, our seats are right over there. Come on.”
Less than ten minutes had gone by before both of the girls were getting agitated. With so much for them to see and take-in, they naturally found it overwhelming. They saw children and their parents getting up and going to the many food and drink stalls, returning with hot dogs, burgers, popcorn, ice-cream, peanuts, candy, and corn dogs. Or men returning with ice-cold beers in big plastic cups. All overpriced. Whilst in our seats we talked.
“Why is everybody eating, Daddy?” asked Sarah.
“Didn’t their mommies and daddies fix them something before they left for the game?’” chipped in Cathy.
“Because eating and drinking is all part of coming to a game. People don’t just come here to watch the men pitching the ball or hunting down the bases, they come here to talk and eat and have fun. And to see buddies they haven’t seen for awhile. If you want something to eat or drink, then we can go for a walk and you can maybe go to the Yankees store as well.”
“Yes! Daddy. Yes!” they yelled in unison, both pulling at my arms and smiling.
“Or maybe we could check out the Yankees Museum? It has a wall full of signed baseballs?”
“No, Daddy. The store sounds good.”
Walking around the outer-channels of the stadium – the pitch no longer in sight – it was a shock for me to see just how much things had changed since I’d last been there. The state of the game, the wealth, the consumerism, the glamour, the color, the grandness of it all was so different in the 80s to what it was when I came there as a teenager. We passed steakhouses, fast food restaurants, hot dog stands, burger stands, café’s, bars and several outlet stores for Yankee’s merchandise. By the time I had managed to take all this in, we had almost walked the circumference of the field. How I would kill for a draft beer! It was a lot to take in. The girls barely spoke, besides poking me at various times and asking questions, none of which I can remember now. They wanted to eat though. I can remember what they chose, as they’d never had it before.
“Would you like to share a pretzel?”
“A giant pretzel, daddy?” one of them said.
“Yeah a giant pretzel!” And I shook my face, trying to mimic a dog, or Scooby Doo or something. Which made the two of them laugh.
“Would mommy let us have a giant pretzel?” one of them inquired.
“Well mommy isn’t here, who knows. You can share it anyway, they’re pretty big.”
“How big?” says the other.
“Why, bigger than your head. Both of your heads put together!”
A pretzel it was. A giant, savory pretzel. I don’t know why they chose savory over sweet, but they did. It wasn’t something I would personally choose, preferring personally a hotdog smeared with the works, but it was novel to my daughters, and they whispered and played with the pretzel’s sticky dough. I got myself a coffee, black, no sugar.
The game itself was a complete success, exactly as I had, unknowingly, promised the girls it would be. The first home run, sent spinning high by the batsman into the opposite stand, set off an explosion of fire-works, music and applause. The fireworks were a surprise and made the three of us jump. The music, a bombastic sonic chorus, spurred the supporters into a chant. Large sections of the crowd stood up in appreciation and punched the air. Others high-fived. The girls smiled and dropped the remains of the pretzel and were happy. Truly happy.
The vivid adventure of that memory has sent me into a semi-conscious state of daydreaming, where I’m half-sleeping in drowsiness. These “naps” that fall into are a result of my pathetic night’s sleeps. I’m in bed, the quilt thrown about. How did I get here? What happened to make me come to bed? Why are there lines of ink or paint on the palms of my hands? The secret room. I remember that much. What time is it?
The photograph of my two daughters is next to me on the bed. Face-up. I inspect it once more, wipe the smudgy fingerprints off the glass with a shirt sleeve. Both of my daughters are pretty. Cathy, the eldest, is a brunette like her mother, dark eyes, pale skin, and tall. Sarah, has pale skin also and is nearly as tall, but has streaked blonde hair covering her darker roots.
I will make a point to ring both of them either later today or tomorrow and invite them back here for dinner within the next week. If my wife doesn’t feel up to it, I can cook. Lobster or clams or prawns or swordfish or anything they want. Before today, Cathy’s birthday, the 24th or 25th, I don’t remember, we hadn’t been together for a long time. It was good. I told her she looked like her mother when she was young, with her hair long down her back and her clothes all neat and sophisticated. She just smiled.
Other possible causes include side effects of medications, certain illnesses such as small strokes, depression, fatigue, grief or alcohol use.
I’m in the bathroom. I just took a piss. The floor seems dirty. I’m sure I cleaned it yesterday, but it looks dirty, dirty enough to warrant cleaning it again. I open the white cabinet door, grip the chrome handles and take out a bunch of cleaning implements: an old rag, a wire brush, bleach, a spare toilet brush, floor cleaner, tile cleaner, mirror cleaner, all types of cleaner really, and another type of bleach. I get down on my hands and knees. The floor-tiles are small, intricate and an inch along each side, squared. They form a patterned mosaic. They color co-ordinate as well. All different shades of aqua: blues, greens, turquoise, mostly turquoise. The tiles are fitting for such a clinical looking bathroom. I don’t recall who chose the interior of this room, but that’s irrelevant now because it needs cleaning. Inspecting the hard tiles, I see minute bacteria crawling in the cracks in-between, tiny fecal matter moving within the boundaries of the bathroom, flirting with the rim of the toilet, hanging around the faucet. My vision is microscopic.
Honing in on the elemental bugs I begin to rub, firstly with an old rag, hard and fast. Feeling the contours of each small tile underneath the material as my hand wipes up and down. After a minute or so, maybe longer, my arm is aching. My right arm, sore from the elbow down to my hand. Aching so much that I have to stop and take a breath. It doesn’t seem to be doing any good either, the bacteria are still squirming their way along the surface. The wire brush will do the trick. Much more effective for this type of scrubbing, coarse and unforgiving. Up, down, across. I apply some cleaning fluid now. An expensive brand and I apply it generously. I want the job done quickly and correctly. As I move my hands with increasing rapidity, both hands now, gripped together, the fluid begins to thicken into a foamy white sponge. A natural sponge on the ocean floor. Bubbling and burning. Needing rubber gloves I find a small pair in the small cupboard. Too small. They are sized only for women’s hands. Pink as well. I squeeze them on the best I can, so tightly that it’s a struggle to push my fingers right to the end of each floppy tube. I feel what must be a collection of old skin cells crumbling on the tips of my fingers, breadcrumb-like. I guess I am wearing the skin, becoming the skin. It warms against the touch of my own and the stored energy it holds encourages me to scrub harder, with more purpose and vigor, the turquoise tiles, the whole surface of the floor and into each corner and crevice. The toxic stench of bleach is getting stronger and more intrusive. I can taste it. I cough and try to spit it out. A little dizzy from the exercise. A little dizzy from the fumes.
A blue tile. A green tile. A turquoise tile. The brightness of the light from outside. The fumes. The taste of bleach. The sweat on my forehead. The pain in my arms. The tightness of the gloves. Nipping. Fatigue. Muscle fatigue. Sore eyes.
A blue tile. A green tile. A turquoise tile. Squares. Patterns. Over and over. Shapes made by the tiles. Letters of the alphabet: L.C.E.O.P. Tiles. Tiles. Tiles. My nose is almost in the foam.
Memanthine Hydrochloride. Indications: moderate to severe dementia in Alzheimer’s disease. Side-effects: Headache, dizziness, drowsiness. Dose: Initially 5mg daily. Max. 20mg daily.
6: 13 P.M.
I’m back in bed now. Recovering from the trauma of cleaning the corridor, or was it the bathroom? Darkness is closing in on the windows, only the intense light pollution from the street-side stores and apartment buildings is keeping me semi-alert and awake. I place the photo-frame that is hidden under the sheets back in its rightful place, making sure not to disturb the order of the display, the importance of the pattern. Beside the photograph is my wife’s notebook which she uses to write reminders to herself and pin notes on the notice board; “Alan called,” “Root beer cooling” and so on. The notebook has several days, possibly weeks, worth of dust on the cover. It says her name in formal black lettering on fluffy pink material, “JANE.”
I usually don’t abuse her privacy and yet I open the book myself, noticing that she has repeated a sentence or a sequence of words several times on the page that I open on. I read across the page. The writing is in bold print, written with a thin magic marker, but it is very sloppy, to the point of illegibility. It could say “Most tough” or “Mess trough” or “Mullet trout.” Or possibly “Must get out.” Probably “Must get out.” I am interested enough to read on, but the next two pages are filled with repetitions of the same rushed, blotchy writing. There must be a serious reason for this. I frantically flip through two more pages until I finally come across a passage neat enough to decipher. I focus my eyes and concentrate, struggling, squinting. I think it reads, I’m sure it reads, “I won’t be coming home this time.” I drop the pad. My wife’s pink pad. The room engulfs me. Silence. Confusion. Despair. My shoulders tighten. I repeat the same line over in my head. I won’t be coming home this time. My mind struggles to make sense of the situation. I try to rationalize the meaning of these words and recall a time or situation in the past when these same words were spoken and I heard them. Or a time when my wife would have felt she had to write them. I’m sure I know what connotations the words hold but I can’t retrieve the information. Think harder. Recollect. I squeeze on my temples and push on my forehead. Is that it?
I feel a hand, see a person lying in bed. Not the bed I’m lying in now. A frail hand. A pale, wrinkled, disembodied hand. I’m squeezing it, not too hard. I’m looking around the room. I think it’s a hospital. There are three other beds in the room and they’re all empty. Nurse? There aren’t any. The hand is yellow, jaundice-yellow. What else? Flowers. Bright, colorful, blossoming flowers. Intense colors. What else? No fruit. The walls are pale blue, as near as you can get to white, but still within the blue spectrum. There is a pink notebook, next to a clipboard. The notebook sits on a table, still, resting next to the flowers. I’m there now. I’ve dropped the hand and instead I am wiping the notebook free of dust to uncover the letters or wipe them away, I’m not sure. I can see them clearly now. I can see it: “JANE.”
I start to sob.
I’m in Central Park now, with my wife. It is late in the fall. The sidewalk along Eighth Avenue is covered in leaves; rusty red, amber, gold, bronze, banana-yellow. We’re both wearing scarves and gloves and woolen pullovers. The children are at a puppet performance on the other side of the park. They are happy there, and their nanny, Rachel, is really great with them.
Manhattan is beautiful at this time of the year and there is nowhere better to take a walk on a weekend. Jane holds on tight to my left arm and I can see her profile out of the corner of my eye. She is wearing her hair straight and it is bobbing slightly with every step. Sometimes she squeezes my arm and smiles at me. I smile back. Her skin is perfect, pale yet strangely full of colur and life. She has rosy cheeks, almost pinkish. Over to our left is a lake. There are hundreds of birds on the lake with some flying far above our heads and there are birdwatchers studying them with interest. The birds are still on the surface. Resting mid-migration I imagine. The lake looks bleak and mysterious. Joggers pass by us, panting heavily, fighting the chill. There are kids on roller-skates and skateboards too. The trees sway and creak overhead.
Jane turns to me.
“Henry, are you happy here?”
“Yes, of course. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.”
“You look handsome with that scarf on.”
“Did you buy me this?”
“You know I did.”
We keep walking for a while longer. I see a squirrel hopping up a nearby tree, but instead of disrupting the silence, I just point its way so Jane can see. She smiles again. We’re coming up to one of the ice-skating rinks. It’s a place we’ve been to before, when we were much younger. It must have just opened for the winter months. It’s not too noisy or busy. It is lit up with fairy lights of all different colors. I think hard to the time when we were here before. We must had just met. I brought Jane here because I thought it would be romantic. Before I can think too much, she steps a pace in front of me and blocks the way. She looks into my eyes.
“Would you like to take me ice-skating?” she asks, looking up at me.
“Would you like to go?”
“Yes. Remember when we came before? All those years ago? I’d like to do that again.”
“Then let’s go.”
She reaches out and kisses me.