In honor of Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month and The Longest Day tomorrow, I thought that it might be a good time to share a story that I wrote several years ago with all of you. This story is an account of a childhood memory that has stuck with me for years because it was the first time that I really realized what diseases like Alzheimer’s really meant. This is a story about my childhood neighbors, who lived across the road from me until they passed away, on the same day, several years ago.
Mrs. Johnson was outside in the snow bank. On our side of the road. She did not have her walker and she wasn’t wearing a coat. She was down on her knees with her bare hands and wrists buried in the snow bank, trying to push her frail body back up off the ground. She was yelling out “Help! Somebody help me!” and frantically trying to will her body to do things that it could no longer do.
She could not.
How she had made it across the road was a mystery. She could have been hit by a car. But that’s what a mind full of fear can do. It can make a body do the impossible.
My parents were already running outside to help her. I stood at the window, horrified. I saw the old woman, Mrs. Johnson, my neighbor, and realized just how scared she really must be. How cold her bare skin must feel in the deep snow. How terrified she would have had to be to make her legs carry her out the door and across the road when she usually couldn’t make a move without her walker.
I wanted to be alone. Away from that window.
I climbed up the stairs and to an empty room of the house that was under construction, and sat by the window that looked out over the porch roof. I had seen Mrs. Johnson. And now I knew. She was not crazy. She was just an old woman whose mind was failing.
I remembered her that day on the deck, before she had Alzheimer’s, and how our cat had rubbed against her legs. Mom had made a motion to take the cat away, keep it from bothering her, but she smiled and said “No, that’s okay. I like cats.”
After Alzheimer’s I had also seen her. I had seen her yelling at her husband out in the middle of the yard. Telling him to get away from her because she didn’t recognize him and thought that he was a stranger. I had changed my bicycle route so that she wouldn’t be able to see me when she stood by the door, because I knew that if she saw me she would start yelling out to me to help her. To save her from this strange man. This man who was her husband. I knew that my parents had said that she was sick, but I secretly thought that she was crazy. I was afraid of her.
I started to cry on the floor of the empty room.
Mrs. Johnson in the snow without a coat, not able to walk.
Mrs. Johnson sitting in a lawn chair with the cat rubbing against her legs, smiling.
Mrs. Johnson in the snow needing help.
I knew. And I was sorry.