Monday, August 1, 2011

The Disappearance of John Ross

This is something a bit sad to share. It was a short I wrote earlier this summer for my grandmother. She was the inspiration, and some of the things that happen are based on real events, but this is mostly a work of fiction. Aside from being the inspiration for this story, this is also dedicated to my grandmother. She suffered from Parkinsons Disease Dementia for several years until she succumbed to the illness and the assorted heath problems that came with it, last week. She was a great woman, who helped me become who I am today. I will miss her terribly, but she will live on in my memory, the memories of my family members and her friends, and in this story. Thank you for reading.

Virginia Isabel Snell
November 12, 1925 - July 26, 2011

The Disapperance of John Ross

It all started out fairly innocently. My father had retired from the force a few years prior, encouraged by his deteriorating health. He was still in good shape but the stress of years on the job and poor eating habits had worn his body down. John would proclaim proudly that while his body may be wearing out, his mind was quite solid.

Now, I realize that claim was a bit pre-mature.

When he was approaching retirement, I had worried about what he would do to fill his time, afraid that he would get depressed at not being the chief anymore. He took it all in stride. Sure, he still checked in at the station to see what was going on, but he took to the change in his life calmly. It may have helped that the new chief was someone he knew very well, his best friend’s son and my good friend, Ryan Walker, who still made John feel like an integral member of the department.

For awhile, everything was fine and I didn’t worry about him as much as I used to do. John went about his retirement as most people do. He enjoyed having time off and doing projects around the house, all the things he had always said he wanted to do over the years: the squeaky front step, the split in the screen door, redoing the old kitchen cabinets. Some of the jobs he needed help with, like the kitchen cabinets and some of the painting. Martin and I gladly pitched in to help when we could. John seemed more at ease and happier than he had been in a long time. I worried less and was happy that he was enjoying himself so much.

Slowly, just slow enough that we didn’t realize that there may be a problem, he began to forget things ... seemingly innocuous things like where he put his car keys, a doctor’s appointment, a person’s name. We just shrugged it off because who hadn’t forgotten where they put their car keys last, or forgotten an appointment?

It wasn’t until I stopped by John’s house after running some errands that I realized that there might be a problem. He was sitting in his car in the driveway with the engine off. Just sitting there. I parked my Chevy and quickly walked up to his car, concerned. My immediate thoughts were that he had a heart attack or a stroke. As soon as I saw that he was awake and seemingly unimpaired, I felt better.

I knocked on the glass of the driver’s side window and John jumped. He looked quickly over to me in surprise, his eyes a bit dazed.

“Kim? What are you doing here, sweetheart?” he asked, his voice confused after he rolled the window down.

“Dad, what are you doing sitting in your car?”

He looked around like he’s surprised he’s in the car. “I don’t remember,” he said softly.

“How long have you been out here?”

“Just for a minute.” John glanced at his watch. “I thought, anyway.”

“Dad?” I asked.

“I...I’ve been out here for two hours.”

My stomach dropped as what he said sank in, and what it could mean. I plastered on a smile as not to worry him and held my hand out to him.

“Come on, Dad. Let’s go inside and I’ll make you something to eat.”

John sighed and took my hand, stepping out of the car. He looked the same, but something was different. I wasn’t sure if this was good or not. We walked into the house and John settled into his usual spot in the Lazyboy recliner in front of the big screen television. I hadn’t even gotten into the kitchen yet before I heard the familiar sounds of ESPN coming from the TV.

I opened up John’s fridge and found it rather empty. There was some cheese, milk, and some expired eggs. However, the freezer was full of fish from his numerous trips to the local fishing hole with Billy Walker. What John lacked in fruit and vegetables in his fridge, he made up for in fish. While I scrounged through his cabinets to find something to feed him with, I caught something written on his calendar.

“Dad?” I called.

“Yeah?”

“Did you have an appointment with Dr. Patel earlier today?” The time of the appointment was at 3:30pm, an hour and a half ago.

“Damn, that must’ve been where I was on my way to go to.”

I sighed and found a jar of peanut butter and some bread and made a peanut butter sandwich. As I grabbed a glass to fill up with water, I saw his answering machine blinking with a message.

“Dad, you have a message on your answering machine,” I hollered, as I finished making his snack.

“Can you check it?”

I hit the play button and it crackled for a second before the message started. “Hi, Mr. Ross,” a cheerful woman’s voice said. “This is Marilyn from Dr. Patel’s office, just calling about your missed appointment today. Please call the office to reschedule at your nearest convenience.”

Before I walked into the living room, I texted Martin that we needed to talk when he got home from work. The little things were starting to add up and I was afraid of what the sum might mean.

“Here you go, Dad,” I said softly, as I brought him the sandwich and water. “I’m going to call Dr. Patel tomorrow to reschedule your appointment, okay? Then I’m going to make sure either myself or Martin take you.”

“Aw, Kiki, you don’t have to do all that. I can drive myself.”

“I know you can, but have at least let one of us go with you, okay?”

He nodded but he didn’t seem happy about it as he took a bite from his sandwich.

“Dad, I need to ask you something.”

He looked up and nodded as he chewed.

“Has this happened before?”

John stiffened and refused to look me in the eye.

“Please, Dad, I need to know.”

He huffed one final time before he nodded. “Yeah, twice.”

“Dad!” I exclaimed. “Why haven’t you said anything?”

John put his sandwich down and glared at me. “And just would I say, Kim? The first time I didn’t think anything of it. The second time I got a little concerned, which is why I called my doctor. And here it happens again.”

I sighed and sat next to him on the couch. “I’m sorry, Dad. I’m just worried.”

“Well, I am too,” he replied gruffly.

Reaching over, I squeezed his free hand. “We’ll get it straightened out. I’m sure it’s nothing.” The lie sounded false even to my lips but I don’t think either one of us were willing to admit what the truth could be. “I need to get home and start working on dinner before Martin gets home. I’ll call you tomorrow when we have your appointment rescheduled. Call me if you need anything tonight.”

“Will do,” John said, as he polished off his sandwich.

I smiled and gave my father’s hand another squeeze before I headed for home. My mind whirled over what this could mean for my father. I tried to remember what my Nana had passed away from and if there was anything strange in our family medical history.

Later that night, after Martin and I talked about what happened, he said he was going to talk to Lucas, Martin’s father, about what his professional opinion was about John’s condition. He and I both thought that John was starting to suffer from dementia ... a word that was very difficult for me to even think of much less admit. But we were withholding final judgment until after Martin spoke with his father, and after Dad had spoken to Dr. Patel.

A week later, we were in Dr. Patel’s office. I was sitting patiently in the waiting room while John was in his appointment. I wanted to be in there with John so I could ask Dr. Patel certain questions, after being prepped by Lucas on what to ask, but when John was called back, he made it clear he did not want me to follow him. There would have to be another way I could get to talk to Dr. Patel before we left.

The method came in a way I did not expect. Before John’s appointment was over, Dr. Patel called me back to the patient room himself.

As I walked into the room after Dr. Patel, I saw my father sitting on the examination table, thankfully fully clothed, looking concerned but aloof, a combination that only my father could manage. I sat down on a chair against the far wall. Dr. Patel leaned against the counter.

“Mrs. Larsen, I asked you to come back here because there are things that John’s family needs to be aware of. John has agreed and understands why this is important.”

I nodded and smiled encouragingly at my father. He stared at his hands.

“Based on what John has told me, I believe he may be suffering from the early signs of dementia, but I will not be certain until I perform a series of cognitive tests. These will need to be done over a period of time, not long, only a few weeks. I also want to run MRI on John at each time. Through these tests, I will be able to determine if his memory loss is just from aging or something else entirely. This will also rule out any other possible illness such as cancer, Parkinsons, or transient ischemic attacks that could be affecting his brain.”

I nodded again, trying not to panic over the words ‘cancer’, ‘transient ischemic attacks’ –basically mini strokes— and mostly ‘dementia.’ I smiled politely and kept my hands tightly in my lap.

“There is no reason to panic now, not until I get the results back. John has asked me to keep you in the loop about the progress so please give your contact information to the receptionist before you leave.

“John, you will also need to sign a release form allowing us to give your daughter access to your medical information. Just for general purposes, you may also want to consider naming someone your medical power of attorney. I advise all of my patients to do this, regardless of age. It can make bad situations a little easier to deal with.”

John’s eyes got wide when Dr. Patel mentioned the power of attorney. If John’s thoughts were anything like mine, than I could understand why. It was definitely not encouraging; no matter how Dr. Patel tried to phrase it.

We left the appointment, our minds full. Neither John nor I spoke much on the way back to his house. As soon as he was safely in his house, I sat in my car and bawled. I tried not to think the worst but I couldn’t help it.

Over the next several weeks, John went to his appoints with Dr. Patel. I tried to make most of them but I wasn’t always able to do so. However, Dr. Patel was true to his word and made sure I was made aware of anything important.

It was a week after John’s last appointment that I got the call I had been dreading. I brought John into the doctor’s office once more where Dr. Patel confirmed that John was suffering from the early signs of dementia. It could take years before anything worsened, but it was only a matter of time. However, it wasn’t just his mind we would have to be concerned about. As his cognitive functions failed, he would also forget how to do certain things, and even become clumsy. The degradation of his mind would also affect his spatial abilities and it could be quite likely that he could fall or hurt himself in some way. John was given a prescription for Aricept and scheduled more appointments for follow ups in six months.

Martin and I tried to talk John into selling his house and moving into a one floor apartment or ranch house, something where we wouldn’t have to worry about stairs and him falling. John, still with a somewhat firm grasp of his mind, stubbornly refused. He stated that he wasn’t that bad yet and he was going to be damned if he was going to sell the house that he raised me in.

Knowing that he wasn’t going to budge, Martin and I backed off and make sure we stopped by his house every day to check on him. When the kids were home from college, we also encouraged them to stop by and see Pops, not telling them why, but making sure at least someone was there every day. That whole summer while Vanessa and Anthony were home, John didn’t have any more episodes. We think the medication that John was on was helping. If it wasn’t, we were just glad to have John, the whole John back.

In the beginning of the school year, after Vanessa and Anthony were safely away back at college, what I had feared would happen did happen. John fell down the stairs coming from his bedroom to the living room. He was lucky he didn’t break his neck. However, his hip was not so lucky.

Martin had stopped by his house to check on John and had found his father-in-law at the base of the stairs, howling in pain. My husband quickly called Dr. Patel and myself, and I rushed to the hospital to meet John and Martin. Thankfully the break wasn’t worse, but because it was his hip, he had to remain immobile for a considerable period of time.

He was transferred to a nursing home for physical therapy and rehabilitation. I offered to let him stay with us, since our house was pretty empty with the kids at school but John refused. I couldn’t imagine the idea of living in a nursing home was that pleasant but he was too damn stubborn to lean on his family for help.

John stayed at the nursing home for a month while he worked with an occupational therapist to build his muscles back up and to relearn how to do certain things. When he first went into the home, I was afraid he’d never come back out. He was resilient, however, and bounced back eager to go back to his home. Before he was discharged, John was given a cane and a walker to help him get around, but he adamantly refused the walker. John claimed he was far too young to be using a walker, while a cane only made him look distinguished. Martin and I hid our smiles behind our hands as my father strutted around his living room with a fancy wooden cane.

For awhile, things were going well. Sure he forgot about a few things here and there, and sometimes had trouble remembering people he had met recently, but overall he seemed like the old John. A least until he fell again. This time he broke his shoulder. While it was relatively mild, the fall seemed to shake something lose in my father’s head. Dr. Patel couldn’t explain it but there was a notable decline in his cognitive abilities after that second fall, no matter the medication that John was on.

We tried to keep him in his home as long as we could, but after he was picked up by the police, wandering the streets in his pajamas and slippers, disoriented and argumentative; we knew we had to do something. With tears in my eyes, we admitted my father into the same home where he had his occupational therapy only a few short years before. This time the nursing home was going to be his home.

What made it worse was my father was having a good day that day when he was admitted. He was completely aware of what we were doing. He argued and begged for Martin and I not take him to the nursing home, to let him live in dignity. I almost buckled several times but Martin stayed strong, knowing that it was what we had to do. A part of me wanted to hate him for this, but this was a decision that Martin and I both had come to, under the advice of Dr. Patel and Lucas.

For awhile, John seemed to flourish at the nursing home. John flirted with all the nurses and really seemed to find his place. When I would visit him, which was several times a week, he would be in the general room talking amiably with whoever was around him. John was never this chatty, and while this change in his personality concerned me, I was glad he was doing okay.

Around Christmas, John introduced me to Sue Howard, his favorite nurse. She was young, maybe only ten years older than Vanessa, but very pretty and very kind. She blushed frequently at his blatant flirting, smiled and doing what she could to make him comfortable. The genuine affection in her face was quite obvious. I was very happy that he had found a friend, and someone I could trust to treat my father with dignity and respect.

It was around Valentine’s Day the following year when John tried to introduce me to Sue again. She smiled at him but when she looked at me, I could see the sadness in her eyes. While he was off playing a game of checkers with another resident, I asked her how he was doing.

“It’s starting, Kim,” she said softly. “This is the fifth time he’s tried to introduce me to someone that I’ve already met. I’m not sure what triggered it, but shortly after New Years, I started noticing things. I’m so sorry.”

I nodded and pressed my lips together. “Thank you for being his friend, Sue. I was afraid he would be so unhappy here.”

Sue looked away, tears pricking her eyes. “He is a good man, Kim.”

John came back over to where we were talking, his wheelchair squeaking along the linoleum tile floor. He didn’t always need a wheelchair, but it made it easier for him to move around in the common room as his motor skills deteriorated. My father looked up at me happily and looked over at Sue with interest.

“Hey Kiki, glad you could make it.” My smile froze on my face. I had been here for a couple of hours already. “Who’s your friend?”

I pushed down the feeling of my breaking heart as I turned to Sue, who was also trying to keep her smile on her face. “This is Sue, Dad. She’s a nurse here at the home.”

----

“Hi Daddy,” I said softly, as I walked into my father’s room. The place smelled medicinal and of dirty diapers, except my father’s room. I made sure the offending odors of the nursing home did not intrude into John’s space, no matter how long he had been here.

John was sitting on his bed and looking out the window. His eyes flicked at me but he did not say anything. The nurses said that he didn’t talk much anymore. I wondered if he recognized me. The look he gave me didn’t seem like he did. I tried to keep the tears back, knowing as I did that this day was coming, but still totally unprepared. Quickly, I wiped away my tears and sat down near my father.

“How are you today, Dad?” I asked softly.

He looks at me again but doesn’t say anything. He returns to gazing out the window.

“You look good,” I comment. “Looks like Phyllis gave you a bath today, eh?”

John continued to ignore me. I began to hum as I pulled some new photos out of my bag to put in his room. They were pictures of Vanessa and Anthony from when they were in high school. I added them to the collection of pictures of myself and Martin, and more recent pictures of the kids from Vanessa’s wedding last year. My father watched what I was doing but didn’t say a word. When I had all the new pictures put up, John shuffled slowly over to the new things in his room. He hummed and his face scrunched up like he was deep in thought. With one shaking finger, he touched the picture of Vanessa.

“Kiki,” he whispered.

“Dad?” I asked softly. “That’s Vanessa. I’m Kiki.”

John shook his head slowly and poked the picture, knocking it over. “Kiki,” he stated firmly.

I sighed and realized that arguing with him was useless. People had often commented on how alike my daughter and I appeared, especially when pictures of us from the same age were placed together. I righted the picture and returned to my seat by his bed. John had made his way over to the window and stared blankly as leaves twisted in the wind.

He didn’t say another word to me the rest of the time I was there.

Over the following months and visits twice a week, John said not another word to me. His nurse, Phyllis, told me that the last word he had said was when he said my name while pointing at Vanessa’s picture. She said it wasn’t uncommon as the dementia worked its way through a person’s mind and their memory continued to erode. Dr. Patel confirmed my fear that he most likely had no idea who I was anymore.

I cried in Martin’s arms that night, knowing that while John was still technically alive, my father was gone. His memories of my adulthood had disappeared, memories of him and I dancing at my wedding, of him holding Anthony for the first time following his birth, then Vanessa when she was born a few years later, of birthday parties, dinners, everything. He was a shell. John Ross had disappeared and all I had left was a face I loved with nothing behind it.

I still had my memories, as did Martin, the kids, and John’s friends, but that was all that was left. John Ross was loved and respected and would remain in the hearts of the people he touched, even if he didn’t remember them.

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