It was difficult to maintain the calm, accepting demeanor with which I attempted to go through my days once I got to the still of late night, when the house was dark and silent. Faced with yet another night alone in bed, my mind replayed the day’s events and my conversations and interactions with Deloris. I didn’t focus on what I’d seen and felt or even what we’d talked about. At night I thought about what I’d lost.
I visualized Deloris sitting in a wheelchair in front of the nurses’ station outside her room, obsessively reading and rereading words that did not penetrate her mind. I saw her failure to realize she didn’t understand what she was reading. I heard her start sentences, but unable to remember what she wanted to say, let them trail off. I felt the emptiness beneath her exterior, the absence of energy, the void where there used to be ideas and passions, a sense of the absurd and of the divine. Her voice was similar, her touch somewhat the same, her joking an indistinct echo of what it once had been.
While I encountered these mental images, Deloris lay in a hospital bed thirty-five miles away, locked in neurological isolation where, blessedly, she seemed to feel little pain and only occasional anxiety. At mealtime, she ate with compulsion, licking every drop of artificially flavored ice cream, drinking pedestrian decaf coffee with non-dairy creamer, relishing canned vegetables and unidentifiable meat dishes. She enthusiastically devoured food that in times past would not have entered her journalistic food-critic mouth. This alone indicated to me how sick she was. She wrote, but the sentences made little sense. Her words and questions might have had surface meaning, but in context they were gibberish. She often did not know where she was, or why.
One day she was upset because she couldn’t remember the name of Lydia’s sister. Lydia, you may recall, is our cat. “Lydia doesn’t have a sister,” I said, “only a brother, Carlyle, who is no longer with us.”
“Yes, she does,” Deloris said. “We have three cats, Carlyle, Lydia, and one other, who is their sister. I just can’t remember the other cat’s name.”
As we talked, I remembered that years ago we’d had a white cat living with us for about four days. This was a stray our neighbor in Seattle had asked us to care for. “Are you thinking about Bullion?” I asked. Neither Lydia nor Carlyle had liked Bullion. I’m not sure we did either. Several days after we spent about two hundred dollars in vet bills on this cat (yes, the cat was named for the cost of the vet bill, not his silver color.) Bullion had peed on the carpet one time too many, and we gave him (her? I don’t remember) back to the neighbor.
“That’s her name. I remember now.” This conversation seemed to have been triggered by Deloris’s flannel pajama pants, patterned with pictures of white cats. She associated these with the cat in history whose name she could not recall.
It wasn’t my idea of a fruitful mental pursuit.
At other times Deloris wasn’t sure where she was. She couldn’t understand, for instance, why the cat wouldn’t come when called, a concern I thought was especially odd since Lydia had never responded when beckoned. But I didn’t mention that. I focused on the more obvious reason. “I think it’s because Lydia is at home on Spyglass Drive, and you are in the hospital in Everett.”
“I don’t think so.” Deloris was insistent.
“Sorry, it’s true. Look around. Does this look like our house?”
“No. I guess you’re right.” At this Deloris became contrite and gave me a little window into her experience. “It’s so hard to remember all this. I forget sometimes. I don’t think my brain is functioning that well.”
She was trying to make sense of her surroundings, a puzzle that confused her again and again.
One day, our friend Fredericka asked Deloris to describe what she felt like being sick.
“It reminds me of being in Nepal,” she said. “There’s a grayness to life. People all around me are sick and dying.”
That certainly had been true of the areas near the temples in Nepal where we encountered lepers and other desperately ill beggars. It had also been true near the funeral pyres. Mostly, however, the Nepalese we met when we visited there were healthy, smiling, seemingly happy people.
I found the image fascinating. In the hospital and the rehab facility, Deloris was around very sick people, although they weren’t necessarily dying. Perhaps this was how her subconscious was learning to deal with physical or mental deficits. I didn’t totally agree with Deloris’s description of Nepal. We both loved the country and the people we met there. I felt the analogy to her present condition was a stretch, but it was not my description that mattered. Deloris was describing her feelings, and the creativity of the analogy, however accurate, was undeniable. It was very Deloris-like, even in its being somewhat of a non sequitur. I was attracted to both aspects.
Unfortunately, my wife was not always able to be creative in her difficulties. One day when I got to Deloris’s room, she had an Everett phone book open on her table. She was frustrated not to find my number in it. I tried to explain that we didn’t live in Everett so the number wouldn’t be there. I wrote my cell number and our home phone number in black numbers and pinned it on the bulletin board across from her bed. This relieved her anxiety. Knowing where to find it and feeling she could connect with me whenever she wished to made her feel better.
I, however, became even more concerned. Deloris’s inability to negotiate even this simple task on her own left me with a sense of profound unease. I knew she had made incredible progress since being hospitalized. I understood we were poised at the beginning of a long process in which she would continue to improve, would plateau a number of times, and even regress at times. Hopefully, her arc would continue heading upward. Though I was prepared for this journey intellectually, I doubted I would ever feel ready emotionally. At night, alone in bed, I cried for my loss. Tears bathed my mental images of Deloris’s complacent, irrational self; they washed visions of her struggling to stand up, attempting—and failing—to exert independence. Even in the bathroom she needed help.
In these melancholy hours, the thought of our walking on the beach, going to movies, traveling, even sharing an evening with friends, seemed so remote it was mental self-flagellation to consider them. When I thought how those simple actions were beyond her present ability, the sadness generated by that perception of loss was excruciating.
The loss of words, her inability to complete thoughts, was especially worrying. This was not a language deficiency, since Deloris had a large and varied vocabulary. Rather it was the result of aphasia, a cognitive condition in which one cannot access, or does not remember, the desired word. Deloris had the language; she could not reach the place where it was stored. If the mind was a perfect library, as a friend had once described it, then some of Deloris’s stacks were presently inaccessible because of obstacles. The pathways needed to be reformed.
That reformation was a major objective of her therapy. It was similar to teaching a young child to think and solve problems. Except Deloris was an adult, not a small child. I couldn’t shake the feeling that adults were not supposed to have to go through this process. Again.
I had always gone to bed late at night. I knew being awake at 1:30 or 2:00 a.m. was not the healthiest idea. However, it was one way I coped with the situation I found myself in. Crying was another. Allowing my pain to surface however it chose felt therapeutic. The anguish was certainly real. I felt it more often and in greater intensity than I allowed myself to admit.
I knew it did no good to stay in that dark place. I helped neither Deloris nor myself by living in a painful fantasy of future incompetence, especially since there was no reason to believe it was the only, or even the most expected, probability. The present reality was hard enough, despite being in many ways positive.
Deloris had improved, and more progress was expected. She was happy, or at least peaceful. She lived in the present, something I strived to achieve in my spiritual practice. Of course, her present reality was not always the shared one. That was a problem, but only to me, not to her.
Many nights, I had to wipe away the tears before I could try to sleep.