IN THE DEMENTIA WARD
by Dianne Moritz
Seeing my step-father, Bert, in the hospital, for the first time, gave me a shock. I’d visited my parents, in Sun City, Arizona, a year before, and although Bert slept a lot, refused walks, and had lost some memory, he seemed hale and hearty for a man in his eighties, fixing cocktails, telling old stories, joking and laughing. So it was upsetting when my mother phoned me in New York and asked me to come out immediately.
When my plane landed, I headed straight to the hospital. Once there, I was directed to an area with rooms occupied by patients in various stages of decline. "The dementia ward," someone said. Mother and my two sisters hovered near Bert's bedside.
His deterioration was disturbing. He looked as frail and fragile as a baby bird, cloudy eyes, thin wisps of hair, bony hands clutching the bed-covers. Bert recognized me, which was a good sign, asked where I was living, which wasn’t, then said, “Something’s wrong with my brain.”
“I know, Bert. That’s why we’re all here. How are you feeling otherwise?”
"Fine, fine," he answered.
As we chatted, I studied the surroundings.
The place was pleasant, clean and cheerfully decorated, yet, I found it depressing. I remembered when Bert once told me that he would never want to spend his last days in "an old folks' home." I wondered if he truly understood his condition. I consoled myself with the thought that, if he could vocalize any sort of awareness, he couldn’t be that bad, could he? Could he?
Across the way, a pretty woman, with high-cheek bones and rosy skin, screamed like a baby as a nurse fed her tomato soup.
Then, two older ladies walked over from down the hall. Dressed in thick wool coats, pocket-books dangling from their linked arms, they whispered and giggled.
“Lunch was delicious,” said one, “too bad we forgot to pay.”
“Oh well,” said the other. “No one seemed to mind. We’ll take care of it next time.”
They greeted my dad, then approached me. “We need to tell you something,” one announced. The other added: “Yes! We want to go home. Can you take us home?”
“Oh, dear,” I said, “I'm not allowed to take you home. I don’t have a car and I don’t know where you live.”
“We'll show you,” said one. "Yes," said the other, pointing out a window. “We could grab a cab. Look! There’re lots of cabs around this place.”
“I wish I could help you,” I muttered…and, for one moment, fantasized scooting them out the door, hustling them into the nearest taxi, and driving with them anywhere but there.
When we visited Bert the next day, he, too, wanted to leave. We assured him that he would be home the minute he felt better.
I saw the two ladies again. They implored me with their previous request. Pain seared my heart. I laughed to stifle my tears and they wandered off arm-in-arm.
Bert was tired, so we didn’t stay long. We wished him well and said good-bye. In the elevator, I had a sudden urge to rush back to hug him, but I didn’t. Tomorrow, I thought, tomorrow.
Both sisters left the next morning and Mother said. "No hospital for me today. Take my Prius.”
Not eager to go alone, I climbed in the car anyway. Traffic was bumper to bumper up and down the main highway. At the first stop-light, I panicked. Heart pounding, hands trembling, I turned back. I never saw Bert again. Guilt haunts me still.
* * * * *
Dianne Moritz writes poetry and picture books for children. Memoir pieces have been published in The LA Times, NY Times, Des Moines Register, Romantic Homes, East Hampton Star and online in Drabblez. Adult poetry has appeared in several print journals and online in Adelaide Literary, The Haiku Foundation, Haiku Universe, and The Drabble. A piece is forthcoming in The Thread.