The Last Epic Journey of Jonathan
Ellen sat motionless for several hours, staring out the window. It was the first snow of winter, but I doubted that she noticed it. The last six months had seen a major decline in her condition. I sat in the chair beside her, holding her hand in one hand and reading a novel in the other. This had been our daily routine for several weeks. Most days she remembered me but little else. Some days, she would look at me with sad eyes and ask when our son, John, would come visit. I would have to explain to her that John died many years ago and that he would not be visiting. Sometimes she would accuse me of lying to her, but most times she would sit quietly and cry to herself. I didn’t know if she was crying for his death or for her condition. Late at night, I cried for both.
I finished the novel, “The call of the Wild”, and closed the book. I had read the novel many times since I was a child. I read it more out of habit than of interest. It was a way for me to connect with my father. He had left when I was four to explore the depths of the wilderness and his soul in Alaska. It was a journey that would claim his life. He was supposed to be gone for three months, but when he didn’t return before the winter freeze, my mother knew he was gone. Search parties found his camp the next spring. His body was never recovered and being a hopeful child, I believed he was still alive, hunting and fishing and breathing. They recovered his journal from his camp. He wrote in it every day while he traveled. Inside was a detailed map with his route marked with each campsite documented. In his journal were ramblings about God and love and life. My mother kept the journal on her nightstand and gave it to me when I left for Vietnam. I spent my nights in the jungle, accompanying my father on his trip through the tundra. It was the only way I got to know the man who left me so young. By his writings, I realized for the first time that he didn’t leave because he didn’t love me and my mom. Instead, he left because he didn’t feel that he could really be with us until he was truly himself. He had hoped the primitive travels through the wilderness would connect him to his most basic self. It was a belief that was followed by many during the 50’s, but had been lost to most since. I didn’t understand the logic, but alone in the wilderness of Cambodia, I felt a connection to him and, to no one’s knowledge but my own, I forgave him.
None of what I just explained is meaningless digressions, though I tend to digress often. Rather, it is the core of the snowball that has spent years growing and building speed. Finally smashing into me on the day I described, with Ellen staring out the window. I had decided to read “The Call of the Wild” to Ellen because I had begun feeling the pull that my father must have felt. It came later for me, after I had lost all else; a son to the Gulf War and my wife to the catacombs of her own mind.
I closed the book and squeezed her hand. “Would you like to go for a walk?”
“Where would we go?”
“We could walk down to the park. The migratory birds have arrived. We could feed them.”
She didn’t reply. I went and got her jacket from the front closet. When I returned she gave me a look I hadn’t seen before. Wide eyed and fearful, she seemed to shrink in her chair.
“Are you ready to go?” She sat, mouth open. “Ellen?” She looked around confused.
“Who are you?” Tears filled the corners of her eyes. “Please take me home. I don’t want to be here.”
I didn’t know what to say. “You are home, Ellen. I’m your husband. It’s me, Jonathan.” I walked toward her.
“No!” she yelled, turning her head and putting her hands up as a shield “stay away from me. Whoever you are, take me home!”
“O.K., Ellen. I’ll be in the next room if you need me.”
“Who told you my name? How did I get here?” Lost for action, I said nothing and backed out of the room. The pain of seeing her tormented by her lack of grasp on reality was too much. I knew I couldn’t handle her alone. I sat on the couch and sobbed. About twenty minutes went by when I heard her call my name. I ran into the bedroom to find her sitting in the same chair as before. Her shaking hand was reaching to me and she was crying. “What’s happening to me?” I held her hand and cradled her head against my shoulder. “I’m not sure.” I could think of nothing else to say. Later, when she fell asleep, I began researching nursing homes. It was something I had closed my mind to before. That night I truly became aware that my time with Ellen, as I knew her, would be over soon. I spent the night, in her chair, watching the snow fall through the streetlights outside, and watching her sleep. She had an uneasy rest, periodically waking and looking around the room obviously disoriented, then closing her eyes and fading into the rhythmic breathing of sleep.In January, I moved Ellen into a nursing home. Her condition had deteriorated to a point that I could no longer leave the home for fear of what would happen. The tipping point came one night about three weeks after the episode I detailed earlier. After she went to sleep, I decided to take a walk down the street. It was a beautiful night. Slight flurries filled the air and the street was just beginning to accumulate. I left our house at the mouth of the cul de sac and headed south to the loop at the end. I had only been gone for twenty minutes. As I rounded the loop, I noticed emergency lights reflecting on the trees and homes. I ran until I was in sight of our house. Two police cars were sitting in my drive. I ran to the yard. It appears that while I was gone, Ellen had awakened, confused and unaware of where she was. She had called 911 claiming that she had been kidnapped and that she was hiding in the bedroom. She told the operator that one of her kidnappers was peeking into the window. It was her first delusional attack. The next day, we visited her doctor. He explained that she was suffering from dementia, as well as, the previously diagnosed Alzheimer’s. He explained to me that the episodes would increase in frequency and intensity. I was left with no option but to move her somewhere that could handle any situation.
Ellen passed two months after entering The Home. The doctors said it was due to the progression of the diseases. I wondered if she would have lasted longer out of that place. Her last two months were tortuous for her. I was there everyday. I watched helplessly as she moaned with terror, claiming that snakes were in her wheelchair. She had lost the ability to walk and held her hands curled in her lap. With her eyes, by that time drooping and all but empty of awareness, she would stare at me. Her lower lip quivered as she mumbled her words, her mouth unable to be articulate. “Get them away!” She said. I pretended to scrape the animals from around her and tried to convince her that they were gone. I caught myself speaking to her as a child who was sure that a monster was waiting under the bed. I also prayed that she would find peace, somehow.
On the day she died. I brought photos from home. She stared at the ceiling as I held each photo in front of her. I held up a black and white photo of John and her at the beach in Fort Myers. John was three years old and was sitting behind his first sand castle. She was young, beautiful, and lively. Her brown hair hung to her shoulders and blew gently across her face. She was smiling, kneeling beside John. “I’ll never forget that day,” I told her, stroking her hair, “We stayed at this little cabin, right there on the beach. The dining room had these big double sliding doors that opened up onto a small patio, then the beach. John loved it. He sat in the sand all morning, playing with his dump trucks. We walked down to a seafood shop just down the road and I cooked crab on the patio grill. That night it rained. We put John to bed and sat on the patio, holding each other, soaking wet. You were so beautiful and happy. We’ll be that way again soon.” I choked back tears for her sake, but she was already gone. I described two other photos before finally letting the shoebox of photos fall to the floor. I spent another hour holding her hand and stroking her face. I then waited outside while they transferred her to the funeral home. My life with Ellen had ended.
After the funeral I returned home. The dimensions of the home were the same as always, but it felt smaller, more compact . . . suffocating. In each room, I could not shake the images of Ellen. Sitting at the table, standing at the stove, walking in the back yard; she was everywhere, yet nowhere. At night I sat by candle light. The low glow reached only feet around me, secluding me from the ghosts of my memory. It was those nights that I began to read my father’s journal. He wrote of things that I had often felt, a feeling that many before us had experienced, an intuitive knowing that something was not right in the lives of man. My mind, still numb from my loss, was unable to grasp much of his journal, but I felt I understood more of what my father was searching for. After losing all the components of a life I loved, my own existence felt meaningless. I had no place in society. I decided to leave it.