Alzheimers- a Story
Alzheimer’s is an insidious affliction. I have personally watched the slow demise of two people from this disease and one of them, a friend’s father Harry, prompted me to write this short story. Medical advances have come a long way and hopefully in the not too distant future there will be a cure. It is not just the patients themselves who are affected by this illness but their entire family. I hope you enjoy my story.
‘That Damned Chair’
By Tony DeLorger © 2010
Harry sat steadfast in his favourite armchair, looking determinedly out across the courtyard, his grey stubbled chin jutting out like chiselled marble, his lips pursed tightly together. He nervously rubbed his hands back and forth across the floral linen fabric on the arm of the chair. It was barely holding together, the piping on the edges somehow clinging to the last remaining strands of fibre. Holes erupted from the worn linen like tiny explosions, revealing tufts of soiled white padding that had been so masterfully applied some time back in ’47. It was more than threadbare- this familiar purveyor of comfort, but Harry loved that chair and remembered Eleanor choosing it all those years ago. It was their first joint purchase.
Old Harry had an impressive physique in his youth and was inherently muscular and broad shouldered. But age had not been all that kind to him. His once engaging stature was now fragile, merely holding together what was left of him, turned inward and receding. Harry’s dark eyes were once deep endless pools, but now appeared like pale brown earth. The white rings that now edged them were like leaching salt from the soil extremities. Harry’s tanned skin, although still olive was now a patchwork quilt of discolourations and displayed the deeply etched lines of a weathered life. But still, within this failing mortal shell survived a pride and determination that not even time could temper.
The front door suddenly opened wide with a high-pitched creak and Terry burst through carrying an old cardboard box filled with dusty LP’s. He looked furtively down the empty hallway, then poked his head around the bedroom door, but Harry was nowhere to be seen. Terry then made his way through the stacked boxes and eclectic memorabilia in the loungeroom toward the sunroom at the rear of the flat. There was Harry, glued to that chair as always. Terry ambled over and crouched down beside him but Harry didn’t flinch, he simply remained staring through the glass doors with stubborn eyes, looking at nothing in particular.
‘Dad?’ said Terry, softly. ‘What do you want to do with these old records?’
Harry didn’t turn nor speak. He simply stuck out his chin defiantly, just a little further than before, wiggling it from side to side as he gnashed his few remaining teeth together. Terry lowered his head and sighed for a moment, then peered into his Dad’s lost expression. With the box resting precariously on his knee, he placed his hand over Harry’s forearm and squeezed it reassuringly.
‘Everything’s going to be alright, Dad.’
Harry snorted indignantly in response, his expression unyielding. Terry relinquished his vain attempt at communication, rescued the box from his knee and rose slowly to his feet, looking down on his dad with sorrow in his eyes. He felt completely helpless but worse, he felt a gnawing, insidious guilt deep down inside.
‘I’ll take care of everything. You don’t have to worry about a thing,’ said Terry, sadly returning to the garage.
Val, his sister met him on the way out. ‘Is he OK?’
Terry shrugged and looked soulfully into her rather matron-like eyes. They were clear and resolute but as always appeared a little cold and hard.
‘He won’t utter a word.’ Val just returned a scathing look and put both hands on her hips, fed up with all the drama.
‘He’s just being stubborn. We’re doing this for him, for God’s sake! If he’s going to act like a bloody child, then we’ll just have to treat him like one,’ she finished, storming into the house to start cleaning the kitchen.
Harry had heard them talking and although he couldn’t quite make out all of the words, he certainly felt their intent.
‘Eighty three isn’t a bad age for a bloke,’ he thought. ‘Life’s been fair- had the good with the bad, but when your own kids turn on ya. Well....there’s not much point livin after that.’
Harry felt a tear welling in his eye and quickly wiped it away, looking fleetingly over his shoulder to make sure that no one was there. The last thing he needed was Valerie’s condescending sentiments. He tried to clear his head.
Next to him, on a small oak side table, over an intricately embroidered doily was a picture of Eleanor, taken not long after they were married. It had always been one of Harry’s favourites. She was such a beauty when she was young, so photogenic. He carefully picked it up and ran his withered fingers over the image of her young, vital face. ‘We made quite a couple,’ thought Harry wistfully.
He was straightening his bow tie in the bathroom mirror, but as usual was all thumbs. Eleanor as always came to his rescue, her slender brown arms suddenly reaching over his shoulders from behind, her delicate but dexterous fingers quickly finishing the job. She poked her head around and smiled playfully at him in the mirror. Harry kissed her exuberantly on the arm and she bounced out of the bathroom, her luscious blonde wavy hair flowing behind her. Harry then resumed his morning inspection. ‘Not bad,’ he said. ‘Not bad at all.’
His dark straight hair was combed back and all glossy with hair cream, his complexion clear and tanned. Harry was a good-looking man; dark piercing eyes, a straight nose and a pleasing smile.
‘Don’t forget Harry, our appointment is at twelve,’ Eleanor shouted from the bedroom.
‘How could I possibly forget signing the papers for our first home,’ he replied with a smile. Eleanor suddenly barged into the bathroom and teasingly bumped him out of the way with her hip. He looked back at her indignantly.
‘I’ve got to put my make up on, I’ll be late,’ she quipped, beginning to apply her lipstick. Harry wrapped himself around her from behind, kissing her softly on the side of her slender smooth neck.
‘So what does it feel like to be a property owner?’ he whispered, gently nibbling her soft skin.
‘Harry! I’ll be late,’ she said, squirming to get free, but not trying too hard.
‘Dad, are you hungry? I’m going to make some sandwiches for lunch,’ bellowed Val from the kitchen. Harry didn’t respond so Val, close to a tantrum, huffed and walked around the bench stopping directly in front of him.
‘Food?’ she spat in frustration, signing the suggestion as if trying to communicate with a toddler. Harry suddenly turned and looked up at her, raised his hand and smiled. ‘More champagne!’ he voiced exuberantly. ‘For everyone!’
Eleanor landed none to delicately onto Harry’s lap, the crystal clear champagne from his glass swishing out onto the lapel of his dinner jacket. She squealed with delight as Harry tussled with her in retaliation, their table erupting into rapturous laughter and the constant clinking of glasses. Harry was so happy his heart was soaring. Here he sat with all of his closest friends, about to marry the love of his life. Could life possibly get better than this?
Val just sighed and closed her eyes with frustration, leaving her father to his delusions and storming back into the kitchen.
Valerie was only a year and a half older than Terry, but she had always assumed the dominant somewhat matriarchal role in the family, especially since their Mum had passed. Val was only small but feisty; the mother of all contention and singularly the most self-focussed human being that Terry had ever met.
She was a great boss in her well-paid job, but somewhat inept on most emotional levels. She looked a lot like Harry, certainly not unattractive but the blind determination in her eyes was all too familiar, a family failing if you will. However there was a coldness within Val that many instinctively drew back from, and Terry being the image of his Mum and the emotional opposite of his sister, could take just so much, before trying to escape from her petty gripes, knee-jerk responses, and whirlwind life. His resolve was simply, ‘It’s nice to see her for a short visit, but he sure as hell couldn’t live with her.’
Val made Harry a sandwich anyway and placed it rather carelessly on the right arm of his beloved chair. As far as she was concerned, he could do what he liked with it- she’d done the right thing.
Harry was famished, and as soon as Val had left, he grabbed the sandwich and took a large bite. ‘Damn!’ he snapped, having left his dentures in the bathroom. He considered getting them, but then decided that he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. He would just have to gum it. He’d done it before, but why did the sandwich have to be stringy roast beef? Why not cream cheese or tomato?
He tried to masticate the rather grainy beef with his few remaining teeth, but it was a slow process. Harry began to feel like a cow, grazing on a rolling green hill.
‘Harry, come on!’ cried Eleanor, racing ahead as always. She finally reached the top of the grassy knoll and with her arms stretched out wide spun around like a top, her spotted summer dress whisking up in the gentle breeze. Harry struggled up the last few metres and stood upright, panting but wearing a broad smile. She was right- the view was absolutely spectacular, rolling hills and picturesque valleys as far as the eye could see.
‘Right here,’ said Eleanor, pointing to a very particular area of grass. Harry grinned and spread out the blanket, just where she was pointing.
‘Oh, I love it up here,’ she said softly, nestling into Harry’s muscular chest. ‘I wish this day would never end.’
Eleanor edged back and looked at Harry with those sparkling, ‘never say die’ eyes of hers. ‘Let’s go exploring before lunch,’ she said, grabbing him by the hand and taking off down the hill.
Terry strolled into the back room, but Harry’s chair was ominously empty. ‘Shit!’ he snapped- his mouth half-filled with sandwich. He quickly placed the remainder of his sandwich on the kitchen bench and raced into the bedroom. ‘Dad? Where are you?’
‘Val!’ he shouted in a panic, dashing through the flat, checking every room, but Harry was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly the toilet flushed and Terry stopped dead, his heart still pounding. ‘Oh, thank God,’ he murmured, leaning over with his hands on his knees.
Then Val came nonchalantly out of the toilet, adjusting her hair. Terry’s jaw dropped. ‘What?’ she asked
‘Dad!’ he screamed, returning to his panic and heading for the front door. ‘Did you lock the side gate?’ he shrieked over his shoulder, as he flung open the door. Val looked down not completely sure, then with a lost sort of expression on her face, headed outside.
Terry skidded to a halt on the front verandah; his eyes wide open, like two plates. There was Harry, in the middle of the road, waving his arms about and laughing boisterously. Terry, with not a second to lose, leapt over the metal railing and dashed down the drive toward Harry. As he got to the curb, a pristine red sports car turned around the corner and entered the street at great speed, its back tyres squealing as the young driver tried to compensate for his lead-footed entry. As the car drew closer, swerving sideways from over correction, Terry finally reached his Dad. With the car only feet away, all that he could do was grab Harry around the middle and swing him around, both of them flying through the air and landing none too gently on the grass strip on the other side of the road. The sports car screeched to an uncoordinated stop, its back wheel collecting the gutter on the opposite side of the road, with a thud.
Terry frantically got off his Dad and sat up nervously, carefully running his hands over him to see if anything was broken. Harry looked up a little bewildered.
‘What are you doing here?’ he asked, not quite sure what was happening. ‘Where’s Mum?’
‘Are you OK, Dad?’
Harry looked at him with confusion. ‘I’m as fit as a fiddle. I’ll be sixty next birthday,’ he whispered. ‘I don’t look it.’ Harry then smiled a rather endearing but gummy smile.
Terry fell back onto his haunches and sighed with relief as the frazzled Val arrived. ‘Is he OK?’ she spat, completely rattled.
‘I told you, I’m fine,’ replied Harry, wondering what all the fuss was about. He slowly sat up and groaned, clutching his back and looking up at Terry. ‘My back’s a bit sore though. Pulled a muscle yesterday at the foundry.’
After checking Harry as much as was possible, Terry helped his dad to his feet. He appeared to be fine. ‘You’re a tough old bugger,’ Terry mumbled to himself.
The young driver suddenly appeared, totally panic-stricken. ‘Is everyone alright?’ he asked, looking worriedly at shrivelled up old Harry.
‘You ought to learn to slow down son. You’ll kill yourself, or someone else,’ said Terry. ‘Go on, get out of here!’
The boy, wide eyed and no more than eighteen at a glance, gladly raced back to his father’s car and quickly left, having escaped a far greater complication than the ding on the car’s rear wheel-rim.
Harry squinted in the bright sunlight, his nose all wrinkled up, and his top lip arched revealing a few rather discoloured front teeth. ‘What brings you here Val? Are you coming on the picnic too?’
Val couldn’t respond, she was simply too distraught. Terry gave her a despondent glance and then helped Harry back across the road to the flat and into his chair in the back room. For the moment Harry seemed to be brighter at least, having momentarily forgotten about his silent vendetta.
He stayed in his chair all afternoon, reminiscing and chatting incessantly, while Terry and Val finished the cleaning. But by 5 o’clock as the sun was setting, Harry, like an ebbing tide, returned to a state of melancholia. His eyes suddenly hardened, his chin became set like concrete and his expression returned to one of defiance and bitterness.
With all the boxes stacked in the loungeroom and everything spotlessly clean, it was time to leave. Terry, with considerable trepidation, approached his father. Crouching down close to him, Terry placed his hand over Harry’s.
‘I know this is hard Dad, but we just have to do this. The removal truck will be here first thing in the morning to take all your things to your new home; you’ll love it there. Tonight, you can stay with us. You haven’t seen Kate and the kids for ages. Come on Dad?’ he said, standing up and taking Harry by the arm. But Harry wouldn’t move- he wasn’t going anywhere.
‘Dad, we really have to go. It’s time, mate,’ added Terry, firmly grabbing Harry’s arm and trying to move him forward. Harry leaned back in the chair, his chin stuck out determinedly.
For a moment there was a brief child-like struggle, with Harry holding on with every fibre of his being. Then Terry let go, not wanting to bruise Harry’s wasted arm. Harry let out a relieved grunt, then took a deep breath. His old heart was thumping frantically in his chest, but his eyes remained focussed.
Terry looked up at Val who was getting more incensed by the second. She was about to let fly, when Terry intervened and dragged her forcefully into the loungeroom.
‘If you yell at him, he’ll just try even harder,’ explained Terry, in a hushed tone.
Val sat down angrily on a large box with her arms folded in front of her. ‘So what do you suggest, genius?’
Terry stood there rubbing his chin and peering down pensively to the floor. Then it struck him. ‘That damned chair- that’ll do it,’ he thought.
He returned to the back room and walked casually over to Harry, whose eyes were now like steel, fixed firmly on the rear courtyard.
‘Dad?’ he asked with an indifferent tone. ‘Can you give me a hand with your chair? Then we can go,’ he added confidently. Harry immediately turned around and looked at Terry with a scrutinising frown.
‘Ya have to be careful, though,’ replied Harry, wanting some sort of reassurance. Terry smiled broadly. ‘Anything you want, Dad.’
Harry got up wearily from the chair and looked at the doorway. ‘Maybe take it round the side, can’t be too careful,’ he suggested, contemplating the narrow hallway.
‘It’ll be OK, I promise,’ assured Terry.
Val just looked up and shook her head. ‘I give in,’ she mumbled, sauntering outside to wait on the verandah.
Terry carefully picked up the chair and began to back up towards the front door, with old Harry doddering behind with one hand on a tuft of loose fabric. As they alighted onto the verandah, Val greeted them with a particularly sour look on her face.
‘I suppose I have to take the bloody thing?’ she spat, not happy about any of this.
‘You’ve got the damned station wagon, for God sake,’ said Terry grumpily, and as quietly as he could.
Val let her shoulders drop most pointedly and looked up angrily. ‘I have to pick up Max,’ she said, through gritted teeth.
‘Just drop it here Dad, that’s it,’ said Terry, smiling pleasantly. Harry dislodged his tuft of linen and checked to make sure the chair was still in one piece. Terry then turned toward his sister and roughly moved her to the end of the verandah, his nose no more than an inch from her face.
‘Look, he’s your father too. The least you can do is take his damned chair to my place. Please? Max can wait.’
Val simply rolled her eyes and stormed out to the car, opening the hatch then standing there with her arms folded.
So the disgruntled trio packed the infamous chair into Val’s wagon, under Harry’s directions of course, and they all set of to Terry’s. Harry as expected, rode with his chair just to make sure that this was no trick, and Terry followed closely behind, completely stressed and hunched over the wheel like an expectant father.
With the chair safely placed in Terry’s modern loungeroom, Harry quickly resumed his position and all was well, for the moment.
Kate had still not arrived home from work and the girls were out shopping as always. At least this gave Terry some time to let Harry settle in before the usual evening mayhem began. He’d spent a fair bit of time at the house so the transition was a little less stressful, although this time he wasn’t going home, at least not to the home he knew.
‘Honey, when did we get the new television? We can’t possibly afford it. You should wait ‘til that foreman’s job comes through,’ said Harry, scrutinising the slim lines of this never before seen technology.
Terry walked in, picked up the remote and turned the TV on, then bent over and showed Harry how to change the channels.
‘Struth,’ said Harry, hardly understanding the mass of buttons. ‘Where’s Mum, son?’
Terry rubbed Harry’s back comfortingly and smiled. ‘Just watch some TV Dad. We’ll have some dinner when Kate and the kids get home.’
Harry remained more than confused the entire evening and Terry and Kate worried incessantly about him. He mentally bounced back and forth between his youth and middle age, never quite sure where he was nor whom he was with. The stress of this monumental move seemed to be peaking somehow. Several times he addressed Sarah, Terry and Kate’s youngest, as Val and at times looking at Terry sent him into a quandary, his soulful eyes lost in the memories of nearly a century of living.
Safely tucked into bed at 9.30pm, Harry had returned to some level of cognizance, having suddenly remembered why he was there. He lay in bed, peering up at the ceiling with his lips clenched tightly together and his eyes once again hardened. ‘They’re just gettin rid of me, like a piece of garbage into the rubbish bin,’ he mumbled.
Tears began to well in Harry’s eyes, suddenly relinquishing the hardness and replacing it with a lost and lonely expression. Terry edged the door open and wandered over and sat down next to the bed. Harry turned his head away, trying to control himself and remain defiant.
Terry leaned forward in his chair with both elbows on his knees, and peered down sadly to the floor.
‘I know you don’t understand this Dad, but we’re doing this to protect you, to keep you safe. I’m sure you’ll get to like the home, they can look after you there.’
‘It’ll never be my home,’ said Harry softly. ‘Not without Mum.’
‘Mum’s gone, Dad. Has been for nearly five years.’
Harry’s face slowly began to melt, the tears welling in his aged eyes and then running down his blemished skin onto the pillowcase. ‘I miss her,’ he sobbed. ‘I miss my Eleanor.’
Terry, unable to stave off his own wave of emotion, clenched his eyes tightly, feeling every bit of his dad’s pain and loss. He looked sadly down at Harry, his chin trembling ever so slightly, and placed his hand gently on Harry’s shoulder to comfort him.
‘We all miss her Dad. Sometimes I just don’t realise how much,’ said Terry, the tears now running down his face. Harry turned his head and looked at his son, his delicate face pale and wet, his withered mouth slightly parted. Terry looked soulfully into his father’s eyes and realised what he was enduring.
He laid his head down onto the pillow next to Harry and held him tightly, quietly sharing his own pent-up grief. Terry was trying to come to terms with what lay before both of them, as well as so many things in his own life.
‘I love you Dad,’ he whispered softly, squeezing Harry’s shoulder, trying to console him as well as himself.
For a fleeting moment Harry somehow understood what was going on and placed his slender bony hand on Terry’s, to reassure him. Harry’s eyes suddenly became focussed and resolute and he turned his head toward Terry. Terry sat up and wiped his nose and eyes, and tried to smile at his Dad. It was a rather pathetic attempt, but Harry could feel its intent and grinned warmly in response. ‘Can you get me Mum’s photo? You know the one,’ he asked, completely lucid.
Terry pulled himself together and got up. ‘OK,’ he said, leaving the room. Moments later he returned with the framed photo and handed it to Harry. He immediately placed it facedown onto his chest and looked up at Terry with a serious expression.
‘You’ve been a good son, Terry. Always have been,’ he said wearily. ‘Turn off the light mate, I’m tired.’
Terry leaned over and kissed his father gently on the forehead, then turned off the lamp by the bed. Harry sighed deeply and holding tightly onto Eleanor’s picture slowly closed his eyes. Pulling the door to, Terry joined Kate in the loungeroom and snuggled up on the sofa. Kate lovingly ran her fingers through his hair, trying to ease his apprehension.
‘He’s just so old,’ said Terry quietly, feeling completely helpless.
‘Shhh!’ she said. ‘Everything will work out.’
Harry drifted aimlessly through his memories, not focussing on anything in particular but rather letting them unfold before him. As he held onto Eleanor’s picture he could suddenly feel her warm soft flesh against his and he immediately longed for her. Her beautiful face, her eyes and the gentle way she spoke, drifted in and out of his consciousness like a summer breeze. He loved her so much, everything about her and couldn’t imagine life without her by his side.
When she first became ill, Eleanor encouraged Harry to get on with life after she was gone- that was typical of her attitude toward life. But for Harry that wasn’t so easy and he’d given the idea a good go, if for no other reason than Eleanor having wanted it. Now, things were just too hard, they seemed different somehow, being apart was simply too much to bear.
Eleanor was wearing that new dress he’d bought for her twenty-fifth birthday. It was strapless and full-pleated, the cream floral fabric a mass of vibrant colour. She was standing over by a huge Morton Bay fig, looking thoughtfully out across the still water. The air was fresh and salty, the sunlight filtering down through the leaves created tiny spots of light all over her slender body.
Harry meandered over and slowly slid his hands around her tiny waist. ‘Harry,’ she groaned, with mischief in her voice.
Harry gently turned her toward him and looked into her beautiful pale eyes. ‘Marry me?’ he whispered, his soulful expression begging resolution. Eleanor looked lovingly into his eyes and with her hands either side of his face, kissed him passionately. She then nestled into the nape of his neck and whispered ‘Yes. Of course yes.’
Harry blissfully closed his eyes, his heart exploding like fireworks within him. With that, Harry felt complete and as the warmth of that experience saturated his being, Harry slipped carelessly into a silent, comforting sleep.
It was another glorious sunny day and Terry was up early, a little worried how Harry was going to deal with this potentially difficult sojourn. He’d let Harry sleep ‘til nine- the more rested he was, the better. But now with Kate and the kids already having left for work, it was time to face the music.
Terry gently opened the door to the guestroom and went to part the curtains. ‘Time to get up, Dad,’ he said softly.
Harry lay on his back with the photo still in his hands, a contented expression on his aged face. Terry smiled in response and walked over to the bed.
‘Come on mate,’ he said, gently touching Harry’s hand.
Terry lurched back. Harry was cold, very cold. Terry bit his lip nervously and with trepidation, leant over to check for a pulse. After a brief moment he gently placed Harry’s bony hand back over the picture frame, then looked down on this fragile old man and suddenly couldn’t recognise him. Harry was different, he was gone. It seemed age had finally won the long battle...or perhaps Harry had wanted it so.
Harry now lies beside his beloved wife, Eleanor, high up on a grassy plot overlooking rolling hills and picturesque valleys. Harry’s favourite chair hasn’t moved from Terry’s loungeroom, although it has been recovered. That damned chair always reminds Terry of his Dad, as wilful and determined as he was, and brings an affectionate smile to his face. But it’s strange how comfortable that old chair has become. To Terry, sitting in it just seems right somehow.
Perhaps in his old age, he’ll sit warm and cosy in that big old chair and watch the world go by, reminiscing about his fleeting youth and becoming lost in the painless oblivion of sweet memory.
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