Prime Number Magazine, Issue 113, Oct-Dec 2017

Kristie Letter photo.jpg

 

 

Kristie Betts Letter

Selected by Guest Editor–Chauna Craig

Followed by Bio and Q&A

 

 

 

 

Sundowning

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

—T.S. Eliot

 

Elmer Squibb, Room 341

None of us wanted to give Mr. Squibb his after-dinner medicine. Now, he wasn’t sweet the rest of the day, but once the sun started to set he was incorrigible. He didn’t talk much but his eyes shot bullets.

In the evenings, I did some hair for the women, brushing back the wisps over the pink scalps. In the room next door, Lally screamed.

“What is it?” I held the brush in the air.

Lally ran past Mr. Squibb’s roommate into the hall. “Nothing. He just grabbed me.”

“Like, grabbed you, grabbed you?”

“No, no. Put that hairbrush down,” she said. I hadn’t realized I was waving it. “Not like that. He just grabbed my scarf, like he was trying to tell what it was made of or something. It freaked me out. Usually he just sits there.”

“Lally, I thought something was wrong. Did he say anything?”

“No.”

I went back to brush old-lady gossamer.  

Alzheimer’s takes the whole of a person and chips away at one piece. The patients here in the Memory Ward lose capacities one at a time, forgetting just certain kinds of words or just certain kinds of faces. Some of them go catatonic, and others are downright chatty about wars none of us remember. I do hair, and Lally paints nails; we all listen. In the twilight, things go down. Everyone’s confusion gets thicker in the late afternoon. We keep our brights on because when twilight sinks too low, that’s the witching hour.

Even Mr. Squibb got weird.

Pleasant folks start caterwauling for long-lost spouses or become determined to walk home to where they used to live in Indiana. As for Mr. Squibb, when he narrowed his eyes we worried he might bite.

“Why did he care about my scarf?” Lally asked us. We had no answers.  

 

Mary Lou O’Reilly, Room 352

“Did you know seven soldiers proposed to me before going to war?” Ms. O’Reilly asked us.

Johnny Martin shook his head, so she started to tell him about it. We of course knew all about these proposals. Most days, Ms. O’Reilly just wanted to say the words out loud that took her back to a previous version of herself dancing before a war. Somewhere inside of the drooping old woman with watery eyes was a breathtaking heartbreaker struggling to take the reins.

But today the words weren’t enough. She kept stroking Johnny Martin’s hand when he changed the linens. Usually we sent only females in to do all the tasks, since Ms. O’Reilly could get handsy.

“I knew you wanted to dance with me, Murray,” she said to the confused young man who had just driven over from the local high school. Johnny froze with pillowcase in hand.

 On the Memory Ward, we have moderate to severe Alzheimer’s patients, with a few advanced Parkinson’s thrown in. We converse about worlds that no longer exist. I had a daylight life with Denny and the boys, full of grocery stores and softball leagues, and then a twilight world full of detailed stories from a bunch of people who couldn’t feed themselves. Both seemed equally real.

The patients too were steeped in each other’s stories. They started to enter into each other’s memories, nodding and adding in details about growing up in a place they’d never been. The card games in the common room had Byzantine rules.

Ms. O’Reilly smiled with or without her dentures, winked at the end of every other sentence and brushed her hand against several bottoms. With Johnny Martin that day, her hands wandered more than usual. Johnny’s a high school student who wants to be a doctor someday and figures volunteering in the Memory Ward will get him into Johns Hopkins. He didn’t count on this kind of physical proximity.

“Let us take over, Johnny. Go to Room 341.” I switched out with the confused boy scratching the acne on the back of his neck.

I grabbed a dark bottle from the dresser and waved it in front of Ms. Reilly. “Oh, that’s right!” Ms. O’Reilly said. “I forgot my spray.”

“Here it is, ma’am.” I handed her the old-fashioned perfume bottle. That thing was a lifesaver. She loved nothing so much as her “spray.” We’d switched out the stuff for mostly water, since she sprayed it so many times a day, but it was a sure distraction. Ms. O’Reilly wet the front of her hospital gown with the memory of roses.

We lived among the gorgeous, odiferous fragments.

Women have a higher risk. We have twice as many women as men here, sometimes three to a room. The men are just two to a room. Those with more money or better insurance get a single, much to Ms. O’Reilly’s dismay.

 

Barry Tunnhill, Room 341

We knew Johnny would be fine with Mr. Tunnhill. He was a talker, but in a harmless way. When the other patients start to turn as the sun goes down, Barry Tunnhill sings. His favorite is “Danny Boy.” He forgot the words in his stories for commonplace items and pointed to his teeth for the word “chew” but he never missed a note of his favorite songs. So while Johnny went to work, the kid enjoyed a concert of sorts from Mr. Tunnhill. Just as Johnny had all the linens switched, Mr. Tunnhill’s daughter arrived.

“Hi, Dad!” The woman kissed her father on his forehead.

“Well, hello!” he said, with the same gusto he greeted us with each time we entered the room with fresh sheets or medicine. The guy didn’t recognize her any more than he recognized us, but he knew a smile and a good intention. “See you later!” Mr. Tunnhill called after Johnny.

His daughter pulled out chocolate. The guy had worked at the Hershey factory for thirty years, so he loved the stuff, but we don’t love when he eats too much of it. Luckily, she only brought one bar, not the bag of miniatures she sometimes brings. 

“Hi, Helka.”

“Oh, hello Dora. How’s Dad today?”

“Best baritone ever. Was he ever a performer?” I asked. “He sings really well.”

“Only in the bars,” Helka answered. “Only in the bars.”

Usually, the spouses sit for hours and the children pop in for short visits. With the Tunnhills, just the opposite happened. The daughter must not have many other obligations because she came like clockwork, but the wife never showed.

 “Quite the jokester,” we answered. We often repeated to her stories he told us that day. We never knew if the story was an exaggeration, a memory blip or an Irish version of the truth. One daughter showed up every other day. The other one blew in with a big whirl of balloons, plants, holiday decorations from the Dollar store. No one who worked in a Memory Ward wanted holiday decorations from the dollar store. Limp little shamrocks wilting long past March. Did they think the patients were going to remember to take them down? Or water those cute little plants?

 

Elmer Squibb, Room 341

Mr. Squibb shared a room with Mr. Tunnhill because neither had quite the insurance coverage for a single. The two of them never spoke much. Mr. Squibb didn’t sing and never had a guest.

Exit-seeking behaviors are common. We’ve been specially trained and the Memory Ward is on virtual lockdown. No one wanders toward the highway in a nightgown, not on our watch.

Mr. Squibb can’t really move much. But every once in a while he forgets all the bones he’s broken and the arthritis that cripples him. His body forgets to receive the signals even as he crashes toward the nearest exit.

Usually he doesn’t get out of the room.

Mr. Tunnhill belted out “Dixie” whenever Mr. Squibb was on the move, so that helped us. This time, Johnny Martin ran in to tell us that an old man from 341 was clinging to the walls trying to head for the door. Mr. Squibb didn’t make it out of the room before we got him back to bed.

 

Mary Lou O’Reilly, Room 352

In our ward, most patients had trouble getting around. We wheel them for the most part, because the wall-surfing like Mr. Squibb’s leads to falls. Advanced Alzheimer’s affects motor skills, plus makes everyone more delicate. We had to watch Ms. O’Reilly. She was a social animal. She hated nothing more than being alone. Her children, who lived on the West Coast, had paid for her to have a private room to alleviate their guilt in visiting so infrequently.

That private room was a mistake. If she had been in with Ms. Lionelli, who could barely hear even with her hearing aids in, that would have been a match made in heaven. Ms. O’Reilly would have felt she had an audience.

“I was very popular at dances.”

“Did you know I’m great at golf?”

“Seven soldiers proposed before going to the war.”

“Wow. That’s a lot of proposals.”

“Seven!”

“Which one did you marry?”

“I told them I needed to see who came back.”

We weren’t actually sure which one or ones Ms. O’Reilly married. She talked of “weddings” and once a year children visited.  

 

Barry Tunnhill, Room 341

The next day, Mr. Tunnhill’s daughter Helka walked in after dinner. She visited more than any other relative, except for Ms. Caymen’s husband who might have some kind of mental issue himself because he held her hand to stare at the shopping channel together for hours upon hours. Probably, we should have charged for two, since he shared all of her meals and spent ten hours a day in our facility before taking the bus home, but no one had the heart.

We were glad to see the Tunnhill daughter wasn’t carrying a bag of chocolate. Helka greeted us all by name.

“I have a question,” she said. “My dad was quite the drinker. Does that contribute to this?”

“Oh no. Alzheimer’s isn’t really triggered by anything like that. Heart disease or high cholesterol might increase risk.” We knew to help the family with the recriminations. Not much could be done to stop the progression of this particular illness.

The woman Helka, fading from her own youth, rubbed her hand across her forehead. “He got cranky tonight, but not about anything in particular. It reminded me of his drinking.”

“That happens,” we replied. “They call it sundowning. Everyone struggles more in the evening.”

Forgetting made people angry. We became great at language, watching the patients’ faces when they want to name something and trying to offer them the word (“Wheel of Fortune? More cabbage?”) before frustration won.

Our skill approached being psychic. We could have put on a show at a carnival. Memory Ward care relied upon being able to supply words in the ever-worsening drought.

 

Greta Mueller, Room 330

Ms. Mueller had been in the war and had numbers on her wrist. I always took extra care with her thin curls and brought in colorful barrettes that she liked. Before she stopped walking on her own, she would cling to the walls when moved. She could not have the lights out at night, but she was fine during the day.

Sometimes she cried, in total silence. We’ve tried to find what comforts her, but the tears continued to slide out, even once she dropped asleep.

Her eyelids were so thin we could see through them.

 

Elmer Squibb, Room 341

For the first time in the almost four years that Mr. Squibb had been with us, he had a visitor. A slight man who walked with a cane came in to be with him. The man came with his wife, who we realized must have driven him because the man was blind.

“We’ll need you to sign in, sir,” we said. We have a lot of protections here in the Memory Ward. His wife led his finger to the correct line. His writing was bad, but his driver’s license (!) said Dimitri Georgios.

“How is that a blind man still has a valid license?” Lally asked.

“I have no idea, but remind me to walk home,” I said.

Their progress on the third floor was slow. The man kept bumping into the carts in the hallway, even when holding his wife’s hand. At the door to Room 341, his wife said, “I’ll leave you two to talk about the war. Call me when you’re done. I’ll be reading my magazines in that big room at the end of the hall.”

I was the one who led that woman back when her husband was done, but I didn’t tell her what he did.

Dimitri Georgios walked past Mr. Tunnhill, and said, “Elmer?”

A sound came from Mr. Squibb, one we hadn’t heard before. The visitor used his cane to navigate his way past Mr. Tunnhill’s bed and through the curtain to the far side of the room.

The blind Mr. Georgios was in 341 for three hours. His wife sent a message that she had to get home in time for their dinner and could we please tell her husband it was time to go? We heard voices from the room, and wondered if one of these belonged to Mr. Squibb.

I walked in to deliver the wife’s message. The blind visitor held Elmer Squibb’s skeletal hand and told him over and over again that he loved him. Mr. Squibb pulled the paired hands towards his lips and kissed the other man’s hands. His eyes leaked like Ms. Mueller’s.

I gave the message to Mr. Georgios about his wife, but the two old men kept their hands twined.

When his wife finally walked in to get him, Dimitri Georgios wiped his bad eyes, made a comment about the war, and stood to leave.

Mr. Squibb made a small sound.

 

Greta Mueller, Room 330

We speak gently to the families about the symptoms, the catatonia and the anger. We’ve all seen the images of a dark crumpled patient brain versus the pink pulsing brain of someone without Alzheimer’s. The difference looks like those blackened lungs they bring into high school to get the kids not to smoke.

Ms. Mueller spoke at times in German. She covered her mouth and gasped when it happened. I reassured her. “That’s okay, honey! We even got a few who can talk it. Paula was raised Mennonite and her family spoke German.” We wanted them to feel as comfortable as they possibly could in their darkening days.

The Memory Ward offered only comfort, never a cure.  Doctors came by, but not that often. They pronounced when a body needed pronouncing.

 

Terrence Winter, Room 335

A sign appeared in our kitchen, informing us that everyone should limit their coffee to two cups. Why sweat the price of a few cups of coffee beans when we have ten hours to put these pieces of people together?

Mr. Winter died with eleven family members in his room. We’re supposed to limit how many can go in at one time. But when the guy has six kids, several of whom bring their spouses and then a wife in a wheelchair, we can hardly keep them out. We can hardly get through them to give Mr. Winter’s roommate his sundown meds.

Ms. O’Reilly tried to wheel her way into the crowded room, to tell them about her seven proposals but we steered her away.

 

Barry Tunnhill, Room 341

As we led Ms. O’Reilly back to the day room with promises of a Bette Davis movie, she saw Mr. Tunnhill sitting in his elevated bed holding the pop-up valentine his daughter had brought.

“Hello! Hello!” Ms. O’Reilly waved so hard she almost fell from the chair. We either had to let her stop and socialize or physically restrain her. We stopped.

Usually Ms. O’Reilly just made eyes at Mr. Tunnhill and touched his hand more than necessary in the card games. We felt bad we couldn’t put our two most social patients together, but we can’t have a male/female room. Mr. Squibb never says a word, and we’ve heard Mr. Tunnhill try to start a conversation, since they lay dying in the same room and all.

This time, Ms. O’Reilly insisted on socializing. We let them have their conversation, hard to follow but mutually fulfilling.

When she finally let us wheel her away, Ms. O’Reilly held the valentine.

“Did you know seven soldiers proposed before going to war?” she asked.

 

Terrence Winter, Room 335

We declared it when he died, but we had to wait for the doctor to make her rounds for the official papers. Most of the Winter kids stayed in the room, stroking the man’s arm as he cooled.

Mr. Winter was no trouble at all, but we were not sad when his family cleared out to go plan the funeral.

 

Donna Li, Room 336

Ms. Li kept ringing for us. She coughed and sputtered. She didn’t talk well, but we’re pretty sure she was trying to tell us she was dying.

We said what we are trained to say, that everything’s gonna be alright, just like in the Bob Marley song. Don’t worry about a thing.

But of course nothing will be all right. They have begun down the slope and they will pick up speed. The best possible hope is that they forget that things were once any other way.

“I’m dying,” she said. Ms. Li didn’t have the same health issues as many other patients. She could walk unassisted and was fairly strong. Her husband however wanted her to have 24-hour care provided by someone else. If she could forget faster, that would help.

“That’s sad when they get jealous of the dead guy.”

 

Elmer Squibb, Room 341

“I love you.”

Mr. Squibb didn’t realize the blind guy was gone, or that we were back in the room trying to help with personal hygiene. But the guy finally broke his silence.

He didn’t growl or give us the stink eye that evening. But he kept talking, saying the most romantic things. We wondered about sedation.  

 

Barry Tunnhill, Room 341

The next day, Mr. Tunnhill’s wife came to visit for the very first time. The daughter Helka brought her in. She was tiny and spoke with an accent.

“I can sit here,” the white-haired woman said. She put herself in the chair in the hallway, the one that religious counselors use when we needed to change sheets and they need to leave the room.

“Mom, we’re here to visit Dad.” Helka shook her head.

The white-haired lady nodded. She wandered over to the desk. “Are those your babies?” she asked Diana.

“My grandbabies,” Diana said.

“So beautiful.”

“Do you have any grandkids?”

“No. I want the babies!”

“You better tell your daughters to get on it.”

“Get on it,” she repeated. Her smile lit up the room.

Helka wasn’t smiling.

“He’s in room 341.” Diana pointed at Mr. Tunnhill’s room. The small woman picked up a greeting card displayed on the counter. She studied the sparkly butterfly on the front of the card.

Mr. Tunnhill’s daughter gestured towards room 341. “Mom, we can’t leave until you go in. He’ll be glad to see you.”

The small woman turned towards the door but didn’t take a step.

 

Elmer Squibb, Room 341

Mr. Squibb’s blood pressure spiked so much after his visitor, I had to call in the doctor. The noises he made were puppy sounds, soft and formless.

As we walked back through the curtain towards the door of room 341, the Tunnhill daughter stood up beside her father.

“Have you seen my mom?” the woman asked.

“She was just here,” we said. How fast could a little old lady go? We had doors that were hard to open, with three checkpoints. “She can’t have gone far.”

Twilight was approaching and we needed to find her before the patients began their evening meltdowns.

 

Greta Mueller, Room 330

The sounds from Ms. Mueller’s room were unrecognizable. First, Ms. Mueller was laughing, which wasn’t something that came out of Room 330 often. Second, voices spoke in a language none of us knew. Growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, I could at least recognized the motory rumble of German.

“What’s going on in there?” Paula asked.

“I’ll check,” I said.

Barry Tunnhill’s wife sat beside the bed and held Ms. Mueller’s arm. She had one hand beneath the woman’s wrist and with the other moved across the fading numbers burned into the old woman’s arm. The five numbers lined up between her wrist and elbow, and Barry Tunnhill’s wife touched them softly. They spoke back in forth with what sounded like a fully fleshed conversation.

I’d never seen Ms. Mueller smile like that, not even when I brought the butterfly barrettes.  

 

Elmer Squibb, Room 341

In the process of finding Mr. Tunnhill’s wife, we lost his roommate. When I carried Mr. Squibb’s nightly medication in, I noticed he wasn’t in his bed. His walker was still pushed up against the far wall, so somewhere on the third floor Mr. Squibb was wall surfing.

“Shit,” I said.

Behind me Mr. Tunnhill began to sing about bringing back his Bonnie.

I sounded the alarm. The door to the common area with the elevators must be buzzed to open. Diana had been dealing with the coffeemaker’s leaky carafe, so she wasn’t at her desk. How long had the old man had stood, his face left a blur on the glass of the door when we peeled him away to take him back to his bed?

“I love you,” he said. “I love you.”

 

Barry Tunnhill, Room 341

When Barry Tunnhill’s daughter collected her mother from Ms. Mueller’s room, Helka Tunnhill couldn’t get the woman to go say goodbye to her husband. The white-haired woman smiled, but refused. On the way out, she waved at each of us. “Thank you. Beautiful babies.”

She was a sweet old lady, but I’d never seen one refuse to see the patient.

Although Ms. Mueller died just a few weeks after that visit, Mr. Tunnhill lived for another sixteen months, cheerfully allowing us to care for his needs and talking less and less although he still sang and had quite the talent for solving puzzles on Wheel of Fortune, well past the point when we thought speech had left him.

I took Helka aside to tell her when Mr. Tunnhill had only a few days left to live, since we see those end-of-life signals more clearly than the doctors. “If anyone wants to come say goodbye, now is the time,” I said to her.

His roommate Elmer Squibb never said another word and his wife never returned.

~ ~ ~

 

Kristie Betts Letter's poetry collection Under-Worldly (Editorial L’Aleph 2017) examines what lies beneath with what Cowboy Jamboree describes as “fantastic images of the subterranean grit.” The Massachusetts Review, The North Dakota Quarterly, Washington Square, Passages North, Pangolin Papers, and The Southern Humanities Review featured her writing and Best American Short Fictions and Terrain Environmental Writing have lauded it. She's also earned several teaching awards in Colorado for forcing Hamlet on high school seniors. For more please visit kristiebettsletter.com

 

Note

My inspiration for the story "Sundowning" was my great aunt. She escaped from Poland during World War II, but didn't talk about her life or decide that she didn't want to spend time with her husband until her last few years. During that time, her husband was in a memory care unit. This story sprang from watching her cheerfully interact with everyone except her husband, and is a part of my collection articulating voices from the second World War that were not a part of official histories. 

 

Q&A

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

I'd name a new planet Tralfamadore, since that was the planet Kurt Vonnegut detailed for me. My travels there made a writer. I've named every goldfish I've ever had Kilgore Trout. 

 

What is your dietary pleasure?

My favorite food is red wine.  

 

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

Fall has just a touch of decay, enough to heighten the senses and make everything so beautiful you almost can't bear it.