Sunday, March 18, 2012


 Oh Zoom
I'd like to fly far away from here
Where my mind is fresh and clear
And I'd find the love that I long to see
Where everybody can be what they wanna be

~ The Commodores "Zoom"


"Tell Patrick to shut that screen door!"

I nervously rearranged the covers over Ms. Abner since I couldn't meet that request. First of all, there was no screen door in this hospital room. And second of all, I wasn't fully certain who Patrick was.

"Hi Ms. Abner. It's me, Dr. Manning. I'm just here to see about you and check on your bladder infection, okay?"

"Somebody told y'all to come over here and I didn't want all that. I still got to write out bills."

I stared into Ms.Abner's eyes and searched for something, anything that would even our playing field. A glimmer or flicker to let me know we were in the same place. But we weren't.

You see, Ms. Abner had been robbed. Slowly and ruthlessly robbed. Not in that way where someone kicks in your door and ransacks the place for everything at once but in that way that takes some time to realize. A piece of jewelry here. A couple of dollars there. Until one day you look up and realize that just about everything you really cared about is gone. With the exception of the heavy furniture.

And yeah. Technically, robbery suggests that something is being taken by force. But in my mind, any time someone loses their precious memories and cognitive abilities, it has to be by force. Even if it seems sneaky like a pick pocket, no matter what anyone says, it's still brutal like robbery.


So, Ms. Abner had been robbed. Over and over in broad daylight with everybody at home.

Her eyes were so vacant. Off in some far away land with people named Patrick and swinging screen doors. And the hardest part was that she wasn't even seventy years old yet.

"You're looking a little better today, Ms. Abner. Your blood pressure is better and your fever seems to have broken."

"Do she know how to get there? Somebody need to give her directions, don't they?"

"Beg pardon, Ms. Abner?" I reflexively asked.


Just like that, that idea was gone, too. Now it seemed like the heavy furniture was being lifted right along with the silverware.

I looked down at the blanket dutifully strewn over her shoulders. A lovely leopard-printed fleece that clearly wasn't a Grady issued item. Her face had been scrubbed clean and covered with what looked like Vaseline. The thinning gray hair on her head was tightly plaited into cornrows. It was obvious that someone loved her.

Next I saw a note taped to the bedrail:

"My mother Ms. Lola Abner is very cold-natured. Please keep cover on her shoulders even when it seem like the room is warm. Also if you take off her socks you need to put them back on her feet because she get cold. ~ Signed, Angela Campbell (her daughter)."

Written in careful cursive with love in every swirl. Followed by two phone numbers in big block letters, just in case that note wasn't clear. And so, I did exactly as that meticulous note suggested. I checked to make certain that her body was fully covered with her blanket and that her socks were on both of her feet. One was off so I replaced it.

She stared out of the window speaking in disconnected sentences. I watched her, trying my hardest to see the person that I am sure she once was. The one before the thievery and the vacancy.

"Ms. Lola." I spoke her name quietly while patting her cheek. She turned her head in the direction of my voice. I repeated myself. "Ms. Lola, Ms. Lola, Ms. Lola."  

And that seemed to be something that the robbers couldn't move. Her name, Lola.

So I just stood there saying her name. And each time that I did she responded. She even smiled--at me. Not just in my general vicinity but truly at me, this person who was speaking her name. I wanted to see who she was so badly. This was the closest I could get.

And so. For the rest of her hospitalization this is what I did. I talked to her doting daughter about the details of her condition. Then I told Ms. Abner the plan -- whether she could hear me or not. And last, I just rubbed her dewy skin with the back of my hand and murmured her name.

"Ms. Lola."

And that always seemed to even the playing field.

On the day she was being discharged, I stopped by the room to see her. Ms. Abner's daughter, Ms. Campbell, was there fussing around her bed getting things ready. Once she had everything packed up in the plastic bags she sat on the chair and sighed.

"Did Patrick get what I told him to pick up from the store?"

Ms.Campbell reached down and tightened the draw string on the bag. She didn't look the least big fazed. "Mama, Patrick is gone, remember baby? But I got all the stuff you like at home from the store, okay?"

"It's weeds all out in that flower bed. I don't know why nobody don't just pull 'em up. A little bit every day so they don't get overgrown."

"Mmm hmmm, okay Mama. We gon' get you out the hospital today, okay baby? You doing better, Mama so we gon' get you on home." She looked over at me and pressed her lips together for a moment before speaking. "A nurse is going to get us discharged, right?"

"Yes, ma'am," I answered.

"Okay, good. Thanks, hear?"

I smiled and just sort of stood there thinking of what to say next. Ms. Campbell was on to the next thing and barely seemed to notice the pregnant pause.

"Umm, Ms. Campbell? What questions do you have for me about your mother?"

"Oh, huh?" She looked up from her pocketbook. She had already moved on to throwing out the old receipts and scraps of paper cluttering her bag. "Questions? None, sweetheart. We okay."

"Oh, okay."

I waited a few more seconds and then spoke again. I hoped I wouldn't regret that next question, but I just had to know.

"Ms. Campbell?"

Without glancing up from her purse she answered me. "Ma'am?"

"Who is Patrick?"

This time she stopped what she was doing altogether. She smiled and let her ample chest rise again with a big breath inward. "Patrick? Patrick was her baby brother. She loved him so much."

"He passed on?"

"Yeah. . . .an accident on the job when he was only in his twenties or so. I was just a little girl when he went home but I swear I feel like I know him. She always speak of him."

I nodded and kept my eyes fixed on her daughter. "Wow."

"She loved Patrick so much. Mmm, mm, mmm. That was her heart."

"You can tell," I responded. Then I chuckled and added, "Even if he left the screen door open."

Ms. Campbell threw her head back and laughed out loud. She glanced over at her mother and said, "Mama, you still on that screen door? Lord have mercy!"

And that laugh was easy and gentle but laced with some pain. I think I sensed it because right after she said that the room fell awkwardly silent. I bit the inside of my cheek and watched this woman who could not have been even ten years older than me. I imagined my own parents and loved ones and siblings and tried to get my mind around that laugh laced with angst.

I couldn't.

"Do you . . .miss her?"

Ms. Campbell squeezed her eyes together tight, almost like she was trying to literally create a dam to hold back tears. She shook her head and sighed again. That same big, bosom-raising sigh. "Every day," she finally said. "I miss my mama every single day."

"Mmmm." That was my response. It wasn't much but it conveyed a lot I hoped. Like, I bet you do miss her, or I don't know how you do it, or I bet you she misses you, too.

"It's hard because sometime she look at me dead in my eyes and seem so much like herself. And she say something that sound just like the mama that raised me and I do everything I can to keep her in that moment. But then just like that, she gone again. This almost worse than having her gone altogether. I think that sometimes. One minute she here, then she gone."

Zoom. Just like that.

"I'm sorry."

"Sometimes I am, too. But not for myself. She still my mama. It's still her. Deep inside I know that."

"Yeah," I said back, almost under my breath. Then I spoke up. "What was. . .she like? I mean before?"

Ms. Campbell's eyes lit up and then floated away into another time and place for a moment. "My mama was bossy. And opinionated. And a cook? Girl, what you talkin' 'bout! But she was a mean cook. She wouldn't give nobody her secrets and didn't like nobody in her kitchen when she was cookin' neither. And she didn't like nobody swingin' no screen doors in her kitchen letting flies in. Wheeewww, you want to see her mad? Open that screen while she cooking." She laughed again. But this time without the pain. "And she was a good mother to us. She took good care of us. It's six of us and she treated us all like we was the only one."


And after that, there wasn't much more to say. I moved toward the bed and studied Ms. Abner's face. I searched her for that person that her daughter had just painted. Instead of her frail and atrophied body, I imagined her able-bodied wiping her hands on an apron in her kitchen. I pictured her scolding children for swinging screen doors and seating them at a wooden table to say grace in unison over food she'd prepared with love. I even let that image include a young Patrick, strong and muscular, wolfing down a plate that she'd placed warming in the stove for him, her beloved younger brother.

"Ms. Lola, Ms. Lola, Ms. Lola," I whispered to her one last time.

Again she turned toward my voice and gazed right at me.

And for the first time, I think I truly saw her, too.

Happy Sunday.

Now playing on my mental iPod. . . .Zoom. Damn, I love to hear the young Lionel Ritchie! 


  1. I have a strong feeling that if I am robbed of everything but the heavy furniture, my speech will be much the same as this lady's. "Close the door." "Pull the weeds." "Supper's ready. Y'all come eat."
    And so forth.
    Of course there will be, "Did you shut up the chickens for the night?"
    I just hope that my children still look for me so intensely in there. That maybe one doctor will care enough to call me by my name, stroke my skin.

  2. This is so amazingly beautiful. I hope I have a chance to learn from a doctor like you sometime in my training.

  3. My grandma was 66 when she died. By that point her Alzheimer's was so bad she had no idea who I was. I was only 7 so I guess she only knew me for a little while. My grandfather's cousin who was like a sister to him had it, too. She would ask for people over and over again. She'd only remember having that conversation for 10 minutes or so then start the same refrain. I saw the pain on my family's faces remembering grandma in that state. Remembering who Lil Lizzie used to be. Both of them so vibrant!

    When Lil Lizzie died, one of her sons read a poem about how he raged at God for taking his mom away from him like that. Piece by piece. Then he felt grateful that he only had to lose her a little at a time because it would've been more than he could bear to lose her all at once. It was so poignant. It's been at least 7 years and I think about that poem every time someone talks about Alzheimer's. Even through his pain at losing her, there was some comfort for him as well that she was finally at peace. She doesn't have to ask about anybody anymore.

  4. Dr. Manning, You make me cry. I haven't even had to deal with dementia in my loved ones. They are sharp until the end and then go so fast. But this makes me feel so much empathy for the daughter who loves her mother so very much.

  5. This is so beautiful. To tell you the truth, you've described a bit of what Sophie's seizures have done to her -- stolen nearly everything but her essence. I, too, cling to those moments when that essence is startlingly clear.

  6. You are a woman of many talents. I really enjoy your writings- don't stop!!


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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