A child’s memories are such an odd thing. Something that seems so obvious to someone older is completely skewed in the eyes of a child. That was how a majority of my childhood was spent with my grandma. I would pretend a far-away stare that looked like she couldn’t remember where she was, was just her being reflective. I’d imagine that when she called me Joe, she really meant to call me by my name and not my father’s. I’d assume that she was just being whimsical or fanciful when she would forget to do the simplest of tasks like forgetting to turn off the oven or leaving the water running in the bathroom.
I wouldn’t realize that Rita was suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s until I was in my teens. From the time I was five to when I was about fifteen, I just assumed that that was how she acted and I adjusted to meet her idiosyncrasies. I left home when I was eighteen. Fifteen years later, I would return to the home I grew up in to bury her.
Rita had taken a tumble down the stairs of her house. She had broken multiple bones and was bleeding on the ground in her foyer for three hours before finally succumbing to her injuries. She had tried to drag herself into the kitchen to reach the phone, but only made it halfway. Police responding to a call by concerned neighbors found her corpse a few days later in a small pool of dried blood with her nails broken and torn off as she tried to pull herself along the hardwood floor to the phone.
One of the paramedics at the scene mentioned that she had a chair pulled up to the front door as if she had been waiting for the mail or for a long forgotten visitor to return to her. I told myself at the time that she had been waiting for my father, Joe to return to her; unaware that he had died decades ago, a few years after I was born. The mental image of her sitting in that chair, looking out over her lawn, waiting for someone to visit and keep her company has stuck with me.
It was around that time the nightmares started. I would wake up from them to find her inches away staring at me with a distant stare that betrayed her confusion before I woke up again. It was a nightmare within a nightmare. It unnerved me more than anything. It took a few weeks of this before I decided that I needed to find some form of resolution.
While cleaning out her house in preparation to sell it, I came across an old diary in her bedroom. As much as it seemed like it would be a violation of her privacy, I decided that this was how I would put an end to my reoccurring nightmares. I think I started reading her entries in an effort to get a better understanding of her, of who she was in the years I had been absent. I also did it to find out if she was at least happy in the end. Was she content? Had she forgotten about me? I hoped she did.
Before I begin, I feel I should mention a few things about the diary she had on her nightstand. First off, it was gigantic and more like a tome than a diary. She must have been writing in it for decades. It started around the time of my father’s birth and went up to around the time of her death, I think. I can’t be certain because she had the odd habit of writing titles to her entries instead of dates. For example, the title on my father’s birth was “A Beautiful Boy is Born Today”. There is no mention of dates.
I decided to transcribe a few for the sake of posterity that are most likely to help me understand more about Rita and her descent into dementia.
The first entry I am putting down is about me. It happened around the time that my mother passed away and Child Protective Services took me to live under the care of my grandmother.
Diary entry: Jon (my name) Comes Home.
After a week with CPS, Jon is finally coming to live with me. The poor thing. He doesn’t remember much about what happened to his mother. I knew she had been having a tough time raising a five year old on her own, but I never knew it was that bad. I can only hope that he is young enough that he forgets what happened. I pray he forgets that he even had a mother. I know I sound like a horrible person, but it’s better that he can’t remember what happened.
My grandmother was wrong. Either time is cruel or the filter I had that protected me from that memory has eroded away. I don’t remember the whole thing, just bits and pieces. I remember my mom was having an argument with someone on the phone. I watched her from behind the corner, afraid she was yelling about me. She slammed the phone onto the receiver after shouting something about not being able to do it alone. She broke the phone on the receiver and she wept for a few moments. I was too afraid to try and comfort her. I still thought it was about me.
I watched her rifle through a cabinet and pull out something small and orange. It rattled in her hand like one of my toys. She noticed me watching her and she picked me up and took me onto the couch. She shook the orange canister in front of my face, eliciting a rattle. She was still crying but she tried to hide it. She opened the top and poured a handful of small white mint-looking things into her hand.
She told me, “It’s candy.” She ate a handful and gave me a few. I put it in my mouth, but it tasted bitter so I spat it out when she wasn’t looking. I didn’t want to offend her. She whispered to me a few moments later, “I love you Jonathan.”
I whispered back, “I love you mommy.” I went to sleep in her warm arms under her watchful gaze.
When I woke up, she had gone cold. I remember climbing down from the couch and turning around to face her. I shouldn’t have done that. Her eyes were wide-open and her mouth hung open as if in a scream. There was sick on her shirt and face and she was pale. It looked like she was staring right at me. I think that scared me more than anything. I remember scurrying out of the room and hiding in a closet, terrified that the next sound I would hear would be the thing that had replaced my mother coming down off the couch and dragging me to where she had been to see what she had seen that gave her that perpetually scared look. Police responding to the smell of decay found me in that closet a few days later.
Jesus, I don’t know if this is such a good idea. I’m trying to find some form of catharsis, but I only seem to be unearthing unpleasant memories. Maybe I should just stop. I can’t- I need- Ah Christ, I don’t know what I need. I only know that if I don’t finish reading through her diary then those dreams won’t stop. I have to keep going.
After the incident with my mother, I went to live with my grandmother, Rita. My mother and grandmother didn’t get along very well when she was alive. I think it had something to do with my father’s passing when I was around one or two years old. I didn’t know a lot about her and I was nervous at first, but she did her best to be as comforting as possible. She baked cookies and told me stories about my father, Joe.
It began to slide downhill when I was about six or seven years old. I had just run into the house after playing with some friends. My shoes were muddy and I left footprints in the kitchen. When she saw this, she shouted at me, but she messed up my name. At the time, I just assumed it was because she was so angry, but I know the truth now. She had called me Joe because Alzheimer’s was beginning to blur the lines between the past and the present.
Diary Entry: Joe’s Being Difficult
I have had it up to about here with Joe. I need his help with some of the day-to-day chores around here. It’s hard with Jonathan (My grandfather who died when my father was a teenager.) gone. He’s fifteen years old for God’s sake! (I was around ten years old then.) I can’t do everything by myself.
Soon that was all Rita called me. I was Joe, her son. She would forget how old I was and would try to send me out on errands. I was too young to try and go into the city myself. I tried to tell her this, but it only confused her. She would always turn to me with this look in her eyes like she knew something was off about all of this but she couldn’t tell what it was. It is that look that haunts me late at night. She looks at me like she doesn’t know who I am.
I would cover for her. I would make up excuses why she couldn’t attend parent-teacher conferences. I would make the check-in calls every couple of months to CPS to inquire about my my welfare. It was a big burden for a child to take on, but the alternative of being taken away scared me more.
Diary Entry: Joe’s Accident
I took my eyes off of Joe for just one second. How could something like this happen? I always told him to be careful when trying to cook something. Oh God, he’s going to be scarred for life. Can he ever forgive me?
I remember the incident; I still trace the swirling and spattered scars that line my right arm when I think about it. She had woken up before me one morning and had set about making bacon in a cast iron skillet. She must have wandered off with the food cooking because when I came downstairs, the stove had transformed into a hissing, grease-spitting monstrosity.
I remember running forward to turn the stove off, but I couldn’t reach the dial through the splattering oil. Without thinking, I grabbed the cast iron skillet by the handle to try and move it away from the stove-eye. The metal seared a bar across my hand. I jumped back, pulling the skillet with me and slipped on the oil that had coated the floor. I landed on my back and dumped the pan’s contents onto my right arm. The next few hours were the most painful of my life and have left a permanent mark on my flesh as a reminder.
I was afraid they would take me away. I didn’t want to be alone again so I lied about my accident. The pink and red scars were from a horrible accident in which I tried to cook breakfast for my grandmother. While at class, I would sometimes catch the teacher casting sideways glances at my arm. Was it pity in her eyes or macabre fascination? I’ll never know as I started wearing long-sleeve shirts as soon as having something touch my skin didn’t double me over in agony.
Diary: A Day at the Park.
I had the most wonderful birthday today. Joe and I went to the park and fed the birds. We then took a walk around the park and Joe told me he loved me and gave me the biggest hug. I think this was the first time in years that he’s called me mom. Look at me, getting all teary-eyed by the simplest gesture. I better wrap this up before I weep tears of joy all over the page.
I am not Joe, but for that one day I was. She had done so much for me and that was the only way I knew how to repay her. For her birthday I gave her what she had always wanted - commiseration in her lie. I didn’t try to correct her, I responded when she called me Joe. At the end of the day, I hugged her and said, “Mom, I love you.”
I can’t believe I’m fucking crying right now. I’m glad my wife isn’t around to see me typing this with tears running down my face like a silly child. I know why I am crying, it isn't from remembering that moment in the park where I sacrificed my identity to bring her a moment of happiness, it's over what followed a few months later around my eighteenth birthday.
We had gotten into an argument. To be completely truthful, I can’t even remember what had started it. I can only tell you my state of mind. I was tired of the lie. Tired of pretending to be my father. Tired of forfeiting my identity. I was just tired. She called me Joe once again and I lost it. I remember grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her.
I screamed in her face, “My name is Jonathan!” She was too shocked to react. “My name is Jonathan!” My fingers turned white as I gripped her shoulders so hard, hard enough to leave a bruise. “My name is Jonathan!” Tears were pouring down my face. “My name is Jonathan.” I sank to my knees, unable to stop crying. I had a complete mental breakdown. She left the room as deep sobs wracked my body.
Diary entry: A Tiff with Joe.
I had a fight with Joe today. I don’t even know what it was about. He was shouting and making such a racket. Honestly, it scared me. He left in a huff, but I’m sure that he’ll be back soon. He’s my son after all.
I never returned though. I left my home that night and I didn’t look back. I didn’t send letters, I didn’t call, I tried to forget her. I tried to lead my life. I got a nice job and settled down. I found a good woman and raised kids. I didn’t announce my wife’s pregnancy to her. She never knew I had kids. I told myself that it would only confuse her, but that’s not the truth. I was selfish. I didn’t want to be put back under the shadow of my father.
Diary entry: Living Alone
A year has passed since Joe left home. I miss him dearly, but I know he is happy. I can feel it in my heart of hearts. The neighbors check in on me every now and then and invite me to spend holidays with them. I turn them down of course, I don’t want to put them out. They are even helping me fill out my application to receive “Meals on Wheels” service. When Joe comes back, I’m going to introduce them to him.
Did she ever look through these entries and wonder what was wrong? Who Jonathan was, or did she assume that she was writing about her late husband? Did I even exist to her? Jesus, I need a drink.
Diary entry: Joe is Back!
Joe came back last night. It’s like we never had that fight. We talked a while and he promised he’d come back in a few days to visit. I’m so happy I could cry.
I read that entry a few times trying to piece it together. Had she mistaken a meals-on-wheels person visiting to drop off food for me returning? If so, was the volunteer just playing along so as to not confuse her?
Diary entry: Joe and I.
Joe visits every day now. We have dinner together. We don’t talk much, but he always calls me mom. I’m so glad to have him back. He asked for a little bit of money for gas today. I knew I don’t have much, but what I do have is his. He told me that he is thinking of moving back in with me until he gets his feet back on the ground. The economy has been rough on him. He has some stuff with him. I told him he could stay for as long as he likes. I hope he does.
Something was wrong with all of this. I kept reading that entry over and over as if I could change the words. Who the Hell was this person? What was he doing at my grandmother’s house? This created way too many questions and I didn’t want to accept any of the answers I came up with.
Diary entry: Joe
Joe died a long time ago. Who-
That was as far as the diary went. The next page was torn out and there were no further entries.
Pieces of her death began to come back to me. The only chair that could have made those scuff marks in the foyer was a massive recliner chair that weighed damn near one hundred pounds. There was no way my grandmother could have moved it into the foyer and since there were no drag marks which meant it must have been carried. The pantry was cleaned out of food and I noticed some jewelry she used to wear on special occasions was also gone.
What were her last moments like, as she backed away from the strange man in her house that kept trying to assure her that he was Joe in one of her fleeting moments of clarity? Were they at the top of the stairs when this happened and she didn’t see the edge approaching? Or did he push her? Did he carry the chair out into the foyer and watch her as she struggled to crawl away? Were her final moments spent feeling his stare burning into her back as she tried to crawl towards the phone with broken bones and fractured fingernails?
There isn’t sufficient evidence to suggest that someone had been living with her. The police told me as much. Neighbors told me that she had become quite the recluse the last few weeks of her life, but they saw no one going in or out of her house. How long had he been living with her before she went down the stairs? I started this to try and find some form of catharsis, but I know now that I have only made the nightmares worse.
Now I dream of the man sitting in her chair, watching her struggle to drag herself away from him. Sometimes he’s a shadowy figure, other times it is me sitting in the chair watching her die. I still dream of her eyes staring into me, I don’t think I will ever stop dreaming about those eyes. Those staring eyes. Forgive me mom. Please forgive me.
Written by EmpyrealInvective