She’s Awake

by Dawn Downey

There are days when the elders speak directly to the heart.

A hospice assignment led me to a suburban ranch house. Nothing in its appearance distinguished it from the others that lined the block.

Squinting into the August glare, I climbed the front stairs and rang the bell. When Mr. Murphy answered, the sun danced across his smiling face. It spilled into the entry hall behind him. I would sit with his wife, who was bedridden and lost to Alzheimer’s, while he ran errands.

He glanced over his shoulder toward the rear of the house. “She’s awake today.”

I followed him into the den. Picture windows on three of its walls framed a manicured back yard. The brilliant day poured in. Cushions printed in violet and lime plumped up a white wicker couch and ottoman. Better Homes and Gardens lay on a glass-topped table.

The furniture was pushed aside to accommodate Mrs. Murphy’s hospital bed. It faced a television set tuned to a country music video station. When I leaned over to say hello, she smiled up at me. Her unlined face and pixie haircut belied the degeneration reflected in her toothless grin.

“Are you going to do my hair?”
“She thinks you’re the beautician,” Mr. Murphy said.
I played along. “I’d love to.”
“Expensive?” she asked.
“Nope, I’m free.”

Mr. Murphy pushed the controls that raised the head of the bed. The motor whirred until his wife sat upright. He reached for a cup on the nightstand. “Want some water, Honey?” Leaning down to her, he touched a plastic straw to her thin, cracked lips.

After replacing the cup, he returned the bed to horizontal, gave me instructions and headed off to the grocery store.

I straightened the blankets, searching her face for signs of distress. But there was no strain in her expression. No worry lines creased her forehead.

The television blared a beer commercial. I switched it off, pulled up a stool and sat down next to the bed. Mrs. Murphy seemed to study the ceiling. We chatted our way through an Alzheimer’s banter, a duet sung with two different sets of lyrics.

“I’m happy I get to visit you today,” I said.
She lay still as a corpse. “Where’s my coat? I’m going home.”
I patted her leg, which was barely discernible among the pillows and blankets. “Where are you in there?”

We both chuckled, sharing the cosmic joke.

The sun streamed through the windows, warming me as I sat beside her. When hunger rumbled through my stomach, I reached into my bag. “Do you mind if I eat my apple?”

“We used to have a big back yard,” she said.
I nodded. “We did, too, with roses and oranges and avocados. And apples so sour, only Mother and I liked them.”

“Did you make pie?”
I crunched the Granny Smith. Its tartness bit my tongue. “Gosh no. She wasn’t great in the kitchen.”

Mrs. Murphy drifted off to sleep.

I curled up on the couch to meditate. A river of silence wound through intermittent thoughts. When the dark behind my eyelids grew brilliant, I checked to see if the sun had emerged from behind a cloud. The sky, however, was clear as glass. I closed my eyes and once more, the darkness brightened. A second peek revealed that the light in the room remained unchanged. I returned to meditation. The radiance reappeared as though the shades had been raised, but calm stayed my curiosity and lulled me into a nap.

I woke with a sense of remembering, without knowing what had been forgotten.

My companion had also awakened, but her eyes were vacant.
“Did you have a good nap?” I asked.
She replied without missing a beat. “We both did.”

Her erratic clarity enchanted me. I yearned to follow wherever she led, but the front door opened and Mr. Murphy brought in the groceries.

I met him in the kitchen, heard about the prices on soup and baby food, and then returned to her bed.

She startled me with a gaze as deep as Einstein’s. Her eyes reflected mine, and mine hers, back and back through the ages.
“Thanks for keeping me company,” I whispered.
She said … nothing. Off to play in other realms. Her absence was no less gratifying than her presence. I stroked her translucent cheek, said goodbye to her husband and stepped into the afternoon sun. A surge of energy quickened my pace --- the satisfaction that descends when I turn the last page of a perfectly crafted novel.

Copyright © Dawn Downey. All rights reserved.

First published 2007 in Alzheimer’s Anthology of Unconditional Love, by the Mid-Missouri Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association

Dawn Downey is the author of “Stumbling Toward the Buddha, Tripping Over my Principles on the Road to Transformation.
Dawn’s writing has also been published in The Christian Science Monitor,, Kansas City Voices Magazine, Ink Byte and The Best Times newspaper. Her work has earned honors at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, Oklahoma Writers Federation and the Missouri Writers Guild.

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