“This hospital would be impossible for anyone with a normal brain to navigate,” Barbara says, eyes flashing anxiously. We stand arm in arm, staring at the colored squares and rectangles on the wall map that shows Building A connecting to Building C via hallways called B. I’ve never looked at a hospital floor plan before through her eyes, and the idea of connecting that diagram to reality when one’s brain is losing pieces of memory strikes me.
“We’ll take the elevator,” I say.
“But which one?”
I ask for directions twice. We go up and across. We even go down. We finally find the 5th floor optometrist office in Building D. Barbara is exhausted and needs to sit, but not before she says to the receptionist, “You have to make me a map. I will never be able to do this on my own.”
Barbara’s been diagnosed—her sons insisting on tests—information enough to send her reeling, zooming back in time to two aunts. She says they “died of Alzheimer’s.” Her eyes glitter with fear, a broken marriage, a life alone. For whose benefit is this testing, I want to know? She fell a few months before, cracking her skull open and needing twenty-three stitches. It is as if her skull has opened again and out comes tangles and plaque.
The eye appointment is before she can no longer drive or cook or teach her classes; before she forgets how to use the computer, misplaces her phone, and then, forgets how to use it. Before she puts a large calendar on the wall and begs dear ones to tell her who is coming the next day. Rides, bills, meals, laundry, medicines.
In the doctor’s office, we sit together, closer than usual, both aware that something will never be the same. She holds onto my hand, like she holds onto all those friends who’ve been with her from house to condo to apartment. She tells the man sitting nearby that she has dementia.
The technician in the optometrist’s office examines her eyes and says, “No change at all.” Barbara is sure she needs new glasses. She wanders around the optical office as if in a dream.
I tell her, “It’s time to go.”
“Don’t be impatient with me, Jean.”
The receptionist gives us the hand-made map and I put it in a folder. I remind Barbara of the many books she has published. “You’re no flash in the pan.” We go back through the maze.
A few weeks later, she calls 911, afraid she might kill herself. Is it then that her mind catapults into perpetual panic? Seven moves in eleven months. Hospitals, nursing homes. She takes her clothes off and screams through the halls. Wouldn’t anyone, I want to say, anyone who lost a life?
When I visit Barbara in the nursing home, she isn’t wearing glasses. She greets me in the hallway, smiling, holding onto fragments.
“Barbara, It’s Jean. I have flowers and pancakes.”
A manager swoops in. “Barbara, this is your friend?” She nods. “You’ve known each other a long time?”
“Yes,” we both say.
It is the manager who asks Barbara if we are like sisters, but in my mind, I see Barbara at my wedding, 1988, where she stands next to me, confides in my parents, “Jean has always been a sister to me.” I flash back to 1982, as she introduces me to the other writers sitting around her dining room table. She has taken the flowers out of my hands and placed them in a glass vase; she puts them in the center of her crisp white tablecloth. The scenes melt into each other, writers and wedding guests oohing and ahhing at the peonies and roses, the burnt orange and the green. Water spills out of the vase which overflows because it contains so much love.
Jean Trounstine is an author/editor of six published books, professor emeritá at Middlesex Community College and a prison activist. Her most recent book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice (IG, 2016). Her piece, “Meeting Karter,” won an Honorable Mention for non-fiction in Solstice’s 2010 Summer issue. She writes about justice for many publications such as Huffington Post, Commonwealth Magazine, DIGBoston, Truthout and Boston Magazine, and takes apart the criminal justice system brick by brick on Justice With Jean at www.jeantrounstine.com