By the time we moved outside, the leaves were on fire. Or that’s how it felt as the fall sun blasted through the golden yellow maple leaves, falling to the ground like snowflakes. I slipped my sunglasses to block the sun and reality. After my admission, I lost track of time. What day was it? I could ask my mom, but I didn’t want to hear her voice. I needed the fresh air, not the stale words.
A ladybug landed on my hospital wristband. I held back a scream. I felt like I was sinking into quicksand, frozen in movement. It must have been the anti-depression medications they had given me,
I counted the ladybug dots, seeing how old it was. I wondered if that was true; the number of dots was the age of the ladybug. Grandpa Pete taught me that. It was probably a myth like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, the accepted lies of our childhood. Mom never allowed us to have pets. I can’t be picky. I have named my new pet bug, Lucky.
The crunch of the leaves under the weight of my crutches reminded me of when my brother and I would jump in the leaves after spending an hour raking them into the biggest pile in the neighborhood. Papa, my mom’s dad, would jump in after us. I hope he hasn’t heard about what happened. He can’t know.
“How’s papa doing?” I asked mom, trying to talk about something besides my car accident.
Her brown eyes glassed over. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to bring him up. Ever since his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s five years ago, mom worried about every little change in her father. He didn’t seem any different to me until a year ago. “We moved him to a nursing home that specializes in helping Alzheimer patients. He’s having a hard time adjusting,” she said.
The guilt trips. I will never be good enough.
We settled down to a table in view of a flower garden. The fallen leaves buried the dead flowers with one single orange flower hanging onto dear life. I signaled with my left hand to Lucky sitting on my hospital wristband, “Look, Mom, it’s good luck, right? Isn’t that what Papa would say?” She nodded in agreement.
“I thought you may like this,” she said as she pulled out an aged brown box from her purse – Papa’s silver pocket watch. When I was little, I would sit on his lap mesmerized by that watch, opening and closing it over and over. I glazed over the foreign symbols. “Those are Roman numerals silly,” he said as he taught me how to read time “the old-fashioned way.” He didn’t understand why I couldn’t tell time, “What are they teaching you in school?”
“Papa, everyone has a cell phone that tells us the time,” I smiled as I looked into his sea-green eyes.
“And what do you do when you don’t have a cell phone?” he smiled back.
I questioned my mom about Papa’s watch, “Why do you have this? He should have it with him. “He’s never without it.” She had no right to take that from him.
“Tieryn, he’s at a hospice nursing home. I didn’t want him to lose it,” my mom said, looking down at the watch in defeat.
I needed to protect him, “He needs it with him. He said it was what kept him safe when he was in the Navy. It’s so typical of you not to understand what something means to someone else?” I argued back, needing to win this battle.
“I don’t understand why you have always hated me. Every discussion is a fight. Take the gift or don’t. I need to go.” She grabbed her purse and walked off, leaving me alone with Lucky until the wind snatched him away. Being alone with my medicated thoughts led me to want to call my boyfriend. I know I shouldn’t. I deserve better.
Another two days passed in this bleach-infested hole. My mother never returned. I kept replaying the night of the accident. My thoughts drifted to that moment of waking up in a neck brace on a hospital gurney. A policewoman asked me questions. My mom stormed in, “Her boyfriend dumped her. I know she did this on purpose. She hasn’t uttered a word to me in days, moping around the house.”
I remember feeling the most tired I’ve ever felt. The words “I didn’t try to kill myself” stuck in my throat.
Then nothing. No memory until a male nurse informed me, “We’re getting you ready for surgery; you’re not going to feel anything soon, okay? Yes, please make me feel nothing.
Once I was transferred to the psychiatric ward for an evaluation, I pushed the feelings to the surface. “Did you do this on purpose,” a man in a white coat holding a clipboard asked.
“No, I did not. Yes, I was down about my boyfriend. The accident was an accident. Nothing more.”
I conceived enough white-coated people I could resume my life. Still, in charge behind the scenes, mom decided I should stay with my aunt Carrie. I left with a new fashion accessory, a walking boot, and an appointment slip for outpatient counseling.
When my aunt picked me up, she handed me my cell phone. I hesitated. I took a deep breath as I turned it on. After seeing the endless stream of texts from my boyfriend, I powered it back off.
“Do you want to go visit him?” she asked me as I threw the paper bag of my belongings I had on me that night on her back seat.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” I felt butterflies at the thought. My aunt understood me better than my own mom.
“I can drop you off for an hour and come back and get you. I need to finish getting my guest room ready for you.”
My aunt dropped me off at the front door. I maneuvered my way down the deserted hallway to Papa’s room, passing residents alone in their rooms. The sound of my shoes squeaking against the polished white floor blasted down the corridor.
As I approached his room, I could hear my mother’s voice traveling through his ajar door. I stopped to listen, feeling Papa’s watch in my windbreaker pocket. I must give it back to him where it belonged.
“Daddy, it’s me. Your daughter. Theresa,” my mother pleaded in a voice I didn’t recognize, like a child begging for cookies before dinner.
“Please leave my room. I don’t know you,” an agitated Papa said.
Silence. What should I do?
I heard my mother’s sobs. My mother. The person I have been fighting with for years. Why? She expects too much from me. I expect too much from her.
I fumbled my way into the sunlit room filled with flowers and cards from all who love my Papa Pete. Instead of engaging in battle, I gave my mother a hug. Not a side hug. Not a pat on the back hug. An embrace. I closed my eyes and held her like she used to do when my best friend in high school stopped talking to me for no reason. “I love you, mom.”
“Oh, Tieryn, I love you too. What is this for? Are you okay?”
I understood her confusion.
Papa Pete was watching our exchange in the corner of the room. As our hug ended, he spoke. “Theresa, you are such a beautiful woman. Your mom was always so proud of you.”
Papa got up from his chair and walked over to us. “I know we weren’t always good about telling you kids how much we loved you. That’s how things were then,” he said as he bear-hugged me. He thought I was my mom. I interrupted their coherent moment. Over the years, dementia stole pockets of reality. I felt guilty aiding in that crime. He kissed me on the forehead and looked over to his daughter. “Are you new here? You look familiar.”
“Yes. Yes, I am. You will see me around. It’s nice to meet you. I’m a hugger. Can I have a hug?” my mom asked. I could imagine her as a little girl stepping on her father’s toes to dance with her hero in the living room.
“Oh, sure, yes. This is my oldest, Theresa, but we call her Tessa.” As my mom and Papa embraced, I tried to erase the tears from my face. “Are you okay?” Papa asked.
“I’m great. You know how bad allergies this time of the year. I love fall, but my sinuses do not,” I joked, trying to break the tension.
“Oh, yes, I have that problem too. I used to jump in a mountain of leaves with my grandkids and sneeze for days. Do you know if they will visit soon?”
Confusion glazed over his eyes as he second-guessed himself. “Daddy, why don’t you sit down here at your puzzle table and work on this corner here.”
I found relief when his nurse came into the room, breaking the dementia spell. “It’s time for your medication and a snack, Peter. Let’s go down to the dining hall. Do you ladies want to join us?” she asked us.
I looked over to my mother now in the corner staring out the window. At that moment, I saw her as Papa’s daughter, not my mother. The pain etched on her face. She was a daughter losing her best friend and father. She was a mother losing her daughter. Why have I been running away from someone who has loved me from the day I was born?
“Can we meet down there in a few minutes? Mom, can we go outside?” I asked.
As we approached the outdoor patio space, I could smell a bonfire in the distance. I wanted to turn back the hands of time – the days filled with laughter in a leaf pile in an attempt to hold onto the warmth of fall before the chill of winter arrived. “I’m sorry for interrupting you and Papa. I’m sorry for being a brat.” We collapsed into each other, holding on as if we needed to save each other from time slipping away.
I stepped out of our embrace, feeling for Papa’s pocket watch. “Mom, you should have this. Not me,” I said as I placed the watch in her hand.
“Thank you. I’m lucky to be your mom. And I’m sorry too, Tieryn. I know how hard it is being a teenager. Having your first boyfriend, how everything is about him, spending every moment together. You don’t want to understand what I’m going through right now, Tieryn. It is the single most painful thing you will ever experience. Losing your parent. He’s still breathing, but he’s not himself. I cringe every time my phone rings. When I got a call at midnight the night of your accident, I thought he died. But it was about you. I wanted to get to you and smack some sense into you. I was angry that you still went out with him after how he treated you. I should have hugged you first, not attacked.” A ladybug landed on mom’s right shoulder as she spoke.
“Mom, don’t move. Lucky is back.” I tried to guide the ladybug onto my hand. “Can we start over?”
“We will move forward. I will take dad’s watch but remember Tieryn, we don’t need luck. We have each other, “she said, taking my hand with her father’s watch tight in our grasp together.
Lucky flew off. “Papa would tell me it wasn’t about luck and prayers but signs from the universe to let you know everything will be okay. Let’s not waste any more time fighting, Mom.” I failed to move Lucky to my hand, but I held something better.
Featured image by Charlotte Descamps, courtesy of Unsplash