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Mom and the Doctor
October 1999

The doctor's appointment was looming for her. Every time she thought of it, she groped for a reason why she didn't need to go. "I feel great," she'd say, trying to persuade me that it was crazy to take her to the doctor.

"I'm glad to hear that, Mom. You've done a great job taking care of yourself." "Yes," she'd agree enthusiastically. "I get my exercise. I'm great."

"But you need to go to the doctor for your checkup. That's how you stay healthy, you get your checkups. Remember how you used to take Grandma to her checkup?"

"I feel great."

"Okay, mom."

I had flow in on Wednesday night, after two other business stops - one in Colorado, and one in New Jersey. I rented a car at the Indianapolis airport so they wouldn't have to pick me up so late at night or take me back to the airport at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning. For years Mom had been having real trouble leaving the house. She just couldn't get ready. She would be a blur of activity in the bathroom, doing her hair, her makeup, loading her purse. She was always late. And then there would be an excruciating scene at the door, trying to get her to come to the car while she fussed over the dog. "He'll be lonely. He'll be cold. Poor little feller, I hate to leave him." I didn't want her to have to go through that at 6 a.m. on Saturday when I had to leave. She'd drag her feet even more, unconsciously, trying to delay something she didn't want to happen. From the minute I arrive every time, she starts saying how sad she'll be that I have to leave.

"Can't you stay a little while longer?" she'll say, with a face so sad it's almost clownish.

"I'm here now," I always say. "I'm here right now, Mom."

I told her and my stepfather Ray that I'd be getting to their house about midnight. I pulled up into the driveway and lugged my suitcase to the front door a little before 12 and rang the bell. The dog started barking. No one answered. After a minute I rang the bell again. I saw Mom peek around the corner of the hallway, her face a mask. It reminded me of the way she looked when she walked down the aisle with Ray seven years before, a smile frozen with fear in a white, childlike face. Another minute passed. She ducked out of sight and Ray came around the corner, his hair all rumpled from sleeping. He let me in and there was a flurry of dog barking, jumping, talk. Mother was quiet. She followed me into my room.

"Who are you? I don't know who you are." She was smiling, her voice filled with confusion and surprise.

"I'm your daughter, Mom."

"She gets like this," Ray said. "She goes real deep asleep and then it takes her a long time to wake up. She'll be okay in a while."

"I can't believe it," she said. "Who are you?"

"I'm Brenda, your daughter."

"Well, oh my, well... I'd never have known you. You look so different."

"You came to see me two months ago in California, Mom. Do you remember?"

"Oh, it's so good to see you. Did you cut your hair?"

The disjointed chatter continued. Mom and I sat on my bed. Ray was hanging around my bedroom door. He wanted to plan the next few days. "Your going to take her to the doctor, and if you want to go to the Indian museum you can do that on Friday on your way to Brown County." Brown County, Indiana and the little town of Nashville are the place where Mom and I most like to go, especially in the fall. We walk in the woods and eat at the Nashville House, where they make luscious fried biscuits and apple butter. "It's been dry," Ray said, "and there'll be some color in the leaves already. But you shouldn't go tomorrow, because she has to go to the doctor. Maybe you should take her shopping tomorrow. She needs underwear."

"Ray! Don't talk like that! You make me feel . . . I don't know," she fumed.

"Now honey," he said, raising his voice in an excited way that could be mistaken for anger if you didn't know him, "you always say you don't have enough underwear. I can't help you shop. She needs underwear," he continued to tell me. "And pants. She can't find any pants. And she broke the zipper on her white ones."

"Ray, I have pants."

"Rosemary, you broke the zipper on those white ones. Remember? You wore them unzipped with a long shirt the other day."

"Ray! Don't say that! I wouldn't do that!"

"And she needs shoes. She lost one of every pair. She doesn't have a pair of shoes."

"Stop it, Ray!"

"Okay, we'll go shopping," I said, trying to calm the situation down. I addressed Mother. "We love to shop, don't we, Mom? We'll go shopping. I need some underwear, too."

Mom was looking at Ray. "I can't believe you. Talking about underwear."

"Well, it's late, we should all get some sleep," I said, but Mom was wide awake now and she was boiling. When he talked about her in the third person, it made her furious. Even though her memory was going fast, she felt that she was being treated like a child. My father treated her like a child, or worse, an idiot, whenever he was having one of his frequent temper fits. And her father, she said, had treated her like a second-class citizen all her life, because she was a girl, and that was just how it went in Indiana farm families. Ray couldn't see what he was doing to make her mad. I couldn't explain that it wasn't about underwear.

It was, however, somewhat about the doctor. She was scared to death. A few weeks before she had said to me on the phone, "I see the future coming too fast." She's so bad with words now, few of her sentences make total sense, but that one did.

We went shopping. We bought her underwear, pants, a shirt, new shoes, powder, a lipstick brush. We shopped like a whirlwind. She wouldn't have bought stuff for herself before she got sick. One of the few advantages to having her this way was that she couldn't sustain a thought long enough to put up her usual fight. The Indiana way, of course, is to deny oneself until the other person gives in. She would as me, "what's that," pointing to a rack of bras or slacks. She has always refused her glasses and I'm sure that her fugue is exacerbated by poor vision.

"Why don't you put on your glasses?" She just shrugged.

It got to be about an hour before her doctor's appointment. I reminded her. She said, "Oh, no, I have to go home. I have to brush my teeth and wash." We hurried out to the car and got her home. After fifteen minutes of fussing with the dog I got her to go to the bathroom and get started on her teeth. "We have to leave in ten minutes, Mom."

"Oh, I can't get ready by then. Why are you always rushing me?" She had misplaced her wallet twice by that time, and had dropped two open tubes of bright red lipstick into her white purse. The dog was gnawing on a third tube on the bathroom floor. The bathroom looked like something out of a nightmare - filthy, messy, nothing like my mother would have kept it. Another fifteen minutes passed. "We have to go, Mom," I called through the bathroom door.

"I have to use the toilet."

"Okay, Mom. I took the dog out. I'm all ready. Let's go pretty soon."

Another ten minutes. I knocked on the door. "We gotta go, Mom."

"Oh, damn." She started throwing things and kicking the cabinets. Her makeup mirror hit the floor. The wallet was out of her purse again, on the counter. She stormed out of the bathroom with a final kick at the flotsam on the floor. Ten more minutes of dog-fussing and I got her into the car. It was a fifteen-minute drive to the doctor's office. She rambled on about this and that, sometimes making no sense at all, but always returning to the fact that she felt great and didn't really need to go to the doctor. As we approached the office, she said hesitatingly, "what is your full name? I want to introduce you right."

"Brenda Laurel," I said. She repeated it a couple of times and wrote it down.

"I'm embarrassed to ask this, but you were my child with . . .?"

"Wayne," I said. "Wayne Depew was my daddy."

"Oh, yes," she said, frustrated with herself. "Your dad."

"I'll come in with you, okay, Mom?"

"I don't need to go to the doctor."

"We'll get your check-up, Mom."

We parked and walked up to the third floor, only a few minutes late for the appointment. "Oh, I have to go to the bathroom, I can't go in there yet."

"I'll wait for you out here in the hall." Another five minutes. But she came out. She was pale. I took her arm and we walked to the end of the hall, to the doctor's office. The waiting room was full, mostly old folks. I checked her in and we sat down to wait.

She leaned over to my ear and said in a loud stage whisper, "They're all old. And fat. Am I old? Is this just for old people?" I started to explain to her but when I looked in her eyes I could see she was trying to make a joke. We both laughed.

The nurse finally came to the door and called her. They recognized each other and hugged. I was torn about whether to go in with her or not. I knew she was trying so hard to keep her pride. But it was too important, I thought. I had to go through with it, even if it made her uncomfortable. I slipped in through the door with them. She didn't seem to mind. The nurse weighed her and took her blood pressure then led her into the examining room and put her in a gown.

"You look fetching," I joked.

"Oh, yes," she giggled, fluffing the gown and batting her eyes. We had a good laugh.

Doctor Tetrick came in. He had hardly aged in the twelve years since my father died in that very same hospital, of respiratory disease and heart failure. The doctor's hair had silvered a bit and his manner seemed warmer. "I remember you," I said. "You took care of my dad. Nice to see you again." We shook hands and he sat down with his clipboard. His tone and manner with Mother were extremely kind. After a few preliminaries, he said, "Well, we all know you've been having trouble with your memory."

"Well, yes," she said; "I have trouble finding, oh, you know. . . "

"Words," I supplied.

"Yes. Trouble, you know."

The doctor smiled and held up his pen. "What's this?" he asked, a warm smile in his clear blue eyes.

"A pencil?" she said. "Oh," with a frustrated gesture, "a . . . pen. It's a pencil, a pen."

"Okay," he said, smiling. They talked a bit more about other things. Then he said, "I'm going to ask you a few questions, all right? Who is the president?"

"Clinton," she said, vehemently. A lifelong Republican, she loathed Clinton and you could hear it in her voice.

"What year is it now?"

"Nineteen ninety-nine," she said proudly.

"What day is it?"

Her eyes darted around. "Oh, I don't know. . . "

"Day of the week?"

She shrugged. "I don't notice. . . "

"What month is it? What time of the year?"

A silence. "I don't work any more. I don't notice without a, you know," she said, making a square in the air with her hands.

"Calendar," I supplied.

"I don't look at a calendar."

The doctor smiled. "That's okay," he said. "I'm going to mention three words to you now, and I'm going to ask you to remember them in about five minutes, all right?"

"Sure," she said with false bravado.

"Dog, ball, and card."

"Dog, ball, and card," she repeated deliberately.

They chatted some more, then a rap at the door interrupted us and the doctor stepped out into the hall, saying he'd be right back.

"Dog, ball. . ." she paused, groping. "What was that other one?" She looked to me for help. "Pen. Pencil, that's it. Dog, pen. Oh, now I've forgotten. What was it?" Her eyes and voice were pleading.

"I wasn't paying attention, Mom."

"Well. I forgot. Dog, pencil . . . " She gave a helpless shrug, eyes downcast, her raised brows clown-like with heavy eyebrow pencil. The doctor came back in.

"Now, Rosemary, can you tell me those three words I asked you to remember?" His manner was kind and patient.

"Dog. Pencil?" She looked helplessly at me, then back at the doctor. "I got it wrong, didn't I?"

"It's all right, Rosemary. It was dog, ball, and card."

"I just can't remember . . ."

"Do you still drive?" She said yes. "Do you ever get lost?"

"No, not in a long time."

The doctor looked at me. I looked at Mom. "Remember, you got lost about a month ago, Mom? You were driving and you got lost."

"Oh, yes. I was going, well, I don't know where. I got turned around. I made a wrong turn. So I stopped at one of those, you know . . ."

"Gas station?" I said.

"Cars, where they sell cars. The men were real nice. I called Ray. He came and got me."

"Rosemary," the doctor said, "I don't think you should drive for a while."

"I just don't know why I can't remember. Everybody gets lost. You make a wrong turn."

The doctor turned to me. "Has your mother been depressed?"

"Well, she's been sad." I looked at her and tried to figure out how to talk about her without using the third person. "Mom, you've lost a lot of people pretty close together." She nodded. I turned back to the doctor. "First, my dad died. Then my grandmother."

Mom started to cry. "First, my father." Her father had died in 1967; I think she meant her husband, my father when she said it. "Then my mother died. Then my, oh . . ." She was fighting to find the word.

"Your brother."

"My brother." Tears were flowing freely now. "All with cancer. I sat with all of them. I sat by Mother's bed . . . "

"It's been one goddam thing after another," I said to the doctor, immediately regretting the allusion to Gahan Wilson's famous cartoon.

"She didn't have time to get back on her feet, did she?" the doctor asked me.

"No, it's been too much. If anybody ever had a reason to be depressed, my mom sure has one."

"I sat with my mother," she said.

"And we went to see her, and you went to see her every Sunday all my life. You took care of her. She was a big part of your life."

The doctor told her that depression can cause memory trouble. He suggested an antidepressant. She asked, "Would that bring my memory back?"

"It might help," he said. "If you are less sad, you will have more energy to give to remembering things."

"It's not bad, Mom," I said, "I've taken them. They make you less sad."

"You did?" she said, with that look of accusation and shock. "Why? Why didn't you tell me?"

"I did, Mom. It was when Rob and I were having trouble. I was too sad to get over it. I needed to be less sad to do some work."

"What work?"

"I had to work on myself, on my heart." She nodded, seeming to understand.

"What did you take?" the doctor asked me.

I couldn't remember. "Damn, I can't remember." I gave a dry laugh. "Mom and I always forget names." She smiled through her distress. "It starts with and L. I'll think of it."

So the doctor gave Mom a prescription for Prozac. Then he said he'd set up an appointment for her with a neurologist. We explained what a neurologist is. Then he talked a little about Alzheimer's. She started to cry again.

"I didn't want to hear that word. Do I have it?"

"We don't know yet. But we're going to help you."

"I have Alzheimer's?" She started to cry again. "I'm so stupid. How did I get so stupid? How did I do this?"

"You didn't do this," he said forcefully. "It's happening to you but you didn't do it. And we are all going to help. We're going to do all that we can do. And you are not stupid. This isn't about your intelligence. Ronald Reagan isn't stupid, is he?"

"No," Mom said. She admired Reagan and the thought helped.

"I don't want you to drive for a while. I don't want you to drive until I see you again, in about six weeks." He made sure that Ray could take her to her regular appointments.

"It's so hard," she said. "I was a woman in a big company. I had, I was . . . There were people working for me. I was good."

"You were a great manager," I said.

"You are strong and smart and that's what's going to help you get through this, just like you've gotten through everything else. You're brave and strong and smart and we are going to work on this together. As a team."

"I have Alzheimer's."

"We don't know that for sure yet. We're going to work on it."

"I don't want people to know."

"Tell your friends and your family, Rosemary," the doctor advised. "They can't help you unless they know what you need."

"Everybody will think I am stupid."

"You can keep your privacy, Mom. You don't have to tell anyone you don't want to know about it."

We talked more about privacy, about support, about how there will be good days and bad days. The doctor gave me advice to give to Ray. We talked about teamwork.

"I don't want to end up in a hospital with old people."

Dr. Tetrick was firm. "We are never going to do anything that would rob you of you dignity, Rosemary. I promise you that." She was comforted.

When the appointment was over, Mom grabbed Dr. Tetrick's hand. "Thank you so much," she said tearfully. "You've been so good. So kind."

By the time we got to the car, she was chattering again about this and that, looking for words, remembering the long past in a garbled way, but with stories I could recognize. The cloud would come every now and then when she thought about the doctor. "Will I get better?"

"We'll work on it, Mom." I didn't want to give the standard Hoosier bullshit answer that everything would be all right. But I wanted to tell the truth. "We'll do our best."

Before I left, I scrubbed the hell out of the bathroom.