Mom and the Doctor
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."
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
"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
"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
"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,
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"Sure," she said with false bravado.
"Dog, ball, and card."
"Dog, ball, and card," she repeated
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
The doctor told her that depression can cause
memory trouble. He suggested an antidepressant.
She asked, "Would that bring my memory
"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."
"I had to work on myself, on my heart."
She nodded, seeming to understand.
"What did you take?" the doctor
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
"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
"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
"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
"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