An Excerpt from The Book of Shirley Jean

Today as I am speaking to you through the pages of my life, I am neither conscious of my surroundings nor aware of the traditional anchor points of time. The lack of consciousness is in part by choice, and in part due to the sweeping devastation that is Alzheimer’s disease. My name is Shirley Jean. This story of my life has been told to me and through me and now penned down for the world to see.  As we pull back the curtains and peer into my 82 years of existence, I am all at once frightened and taken aback by how quickly the years have passed. I guess I never really gave much thought to the end of my days when I was young; I was too busy chasing my dreams. Lately, the days and the hours and minutes seem to have less importance. It’s a funny thing since we seem to spend most of our lives chasing after those minutes and hours.  We seem to always be in a hurry for more time. And I always had a great many things to fill my time.

My existence is unnervingly different now. These days I do nothing. I lie in my bed in the throes of pain brought on by a cycle of anxiety and depression. I am restless, though I suppose that is nothing new. However, worst of all, I am bored. I am bored down to my soul. I feel it ache in my bones. The sound of the ticking clock at my bedside pounds at my brain as it drags across days and weeks of my empty calendar. Tick tock, tick tock. This boredom, this emptiness drives me to the edge of madness.

A Three Day Stay
The day began just as any other day. My nurse, Viola, tugged open the shade to reveal the soft morning light. The plastic shade bumped the cream colored drapes as it rolled up out of sight. The light beams into the room like a spotlight on the plush blue carpet. The dust particles rise and fall around the feet scurrying about my room. It is springtime, and the birds are noisily fluttering around the crape myrtle outside the window. The circular veranda of the plantation style building juts out showing off the grandeur of bright yellow siding and white trim. The stately columns and large green rocking chairs look inviting, though there is no one out.

The low-lying shrubs offer no color, and the trees are too densely planted. Cheap red mulch haphazardly mixes with even cheaper gray gravel. Landscaping should be welcoming and full of vibrancy – unfolding naturally in the surrounding space. The landscaping I see out of my window is lazy, a nod to its captive audience no doubt.

The sunlight warms my face as it streams through the window. I long to be outside in the world. If I was, the first thing I would do is fix that shitty landscaping. In actuality, I’d have my grandson fix it. He always did an excellent job of implementing my plans, and young men need things to do to keep themselves busy.  I had a genuine knack for landscape and design in my heyday, and people took notice.

As I sit quietly in my bed lost in thought, the muffled voices of the people in my room begin to intrude upon my solitude. Turning back to look at them I know they are wondering about my silent eyes that are absent from both the present and the past. The figures move about like ghosts around my body in fuzzy frames; I am looking right through them as if some strange dimension has washed over the room. There is a waltz of straightening, poking, prodding. Viola is looking at me, but she does not see me.

Screams erupt into the air. And then sobbing. The figures that surround me begin to move at a quick clip. The fuzzy outlines morph back into people. I feel myself snap back to reality. But it’s too late. This home, this existence, these people… this is not my reality.

The sound of rain pounding on the window stirs me from a drug-induced slumber. The nurse at the end of my bed is wearing crisp pale blue scrubs and a frown. She mumbles something about the doctor and breakfast while never taking her eyes off the clipboard in front of her. “Not hungry,” I say in a tone so sharp I might as well have said, “piss off.” She shot me a disdaining eyebrow as she snapped her pen shut. With a pivot so sharp it could have been another gesture, the nurse was gone.  The door whooshed behind her and ushered in some chatter from the desk facing my room.

The room is dark save for a beam of light coming from what must be the bathroom. There is green plastic poking out from the corner of the sheet at the foot of the bed. As I reach to straighten the sheet, sharp pain jolts my elbow as it makes contact with the roll bar on the bed. Not exactly sure of where I am, I find my eyes feeling heavy, and apathy turns to slumber.

A Story to Tell
At my return to my room in the home, if you can call this place my home, I am welcomed by the sight of my two grandsons, Andrew and Adam. It is a wonderful surprise. They are smiling and laughing and carrying on with each other. The two boys have grown into fine young men. Andrew, now in his late thirties has the kind eyes of his mother. He is possessed by a gentle energy, but his words have the same wit and sass that he had as a young boy. He has been running a successful computer business for 20 years and has a beautiful and smart daughter that I am proud to call my family. Adam is the son of my youngest daughter. He too has started a family and has taken well to the role of a father and family man.

After a few moments of chatter, I discover that Andrew thinks I have a story to tell. I think he’s a little crazy. After all, to me, stories are created around superheroes, not ordinary people. It is clear to me that this isn’t a love story or a tome to a hero.  The phone thrust in my face has a lady’s voice asking me questions. She tells me this story, my story, is for my great granddaughter. More people poking and prodding, this time into the recesses of my mind.

As I resign myself to the process, I settle into the fact that it’s a story about growing old. It’s about hard choices. And loving with space but with a tightness that reverberates the energy between beings. It’s about mistakes and second or even third or fourth chances to do right by others. But the memory is a funny thing. And my family has found that working through someone’s memory is like touring an old Victorian house. You never know what you are going to find locked away behind closed doors or peeking out from behind secret stairwells or passageways. And I do have a secret garden that I tend to – one that I’m not quite sure that I’m ready to unlock. So in the meanwhile, we shall talk about some of the things Andrew would like me to share (presumably before I leave this world). I assume that is his thought process – that I am dying. We are telling these stories and laughing, and I am silently wondering what has my life meant? What will it mean after I am gone?

Chapter 1, courtesy of Brandi L. Holder


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