I was nearly asleep when I heard footsteps and glanced up to see my mother standing at the doorway of her bedroom. She looked annoyed, shaking her head in irritation.

“Would you please come take this elderly woman out of my room,” she said.

I shuddered and pushed myself to my feet, then followed my mother into her room. It was semi-dark, a splash of light from the adjoining bathroom spilling across the floor and across her bed. As usual, the room was immaculate.

Two matching night stands with huge lamps, adorned with oriental designs, were on either side of the bed, a bed my mother had been restlessly tossing on for at least two hours but, magically, seemed untouched. Only a slight wrinkle, puckering the middle of the mauve comforter atop a plain white sheet, hinted that someone had been lying there only minutes before.

A bookcase, crammed with hardback novels, arranged by size and color, filled one corner of the room, and a sitting area — two chairs, a small table, more books, some oriental vases filled with plastic flowers and a portable radio / CD player — dominated another side.

A grouping of perfume bottles cast tiny shadows across the top of her bureau, shadows lost in larger shadows from a nearby jewelry box and picture frame holding a black and white portrait of my mother and father from the 1940s. The picture was taken just weeks before they were married. My father was in uniform, sporting a fitted battle blouse that flared at the shoulders and tightly hugged his chest. My mother was wearing something soft and delicate. They both stared into the camera, unsmiling, perhaps uncertain about their futures. After all, they had only known one another a few weeks.

“Please,” my mother said. “Take this elderly woman out.”

For an instant I was confused, thinking that in some bizarre fashion she was speaking of herself in the third person and was asking me to take her out — perhaps somewhere light and bright and young and alive. But then she slowly lifted her arm, and stretched out a wrinkled finger, tipped with a perfectly polished nail — mauve, the same color as her comforter — and pointed to the far corner of the room. Shadows played across the area, a monochromatic mixture of blacks and grays and I could see something swaying ever so slightly in the darkness.

My mother didn’t move, standing as straight and tall as she could muster while gravity continued to tug heavily at her 85-year-old body. A tangle of teased hair was about the only part of her managing to hold a vertical angle. Everything else sagged — her eyelids, cheeks and mouth, folds of skin under her chin and arms, her bust and back. But her outstretched arm and finger remained true, if slightly tremulous.

“Please get her out,” she repeated.

I took a step forward into the darkness, feeling a bit shaken, falling under the spell of my mother’s madness. And for an instant the shadows gave way to a glimpse of something odd — faint and amorphous, the sort of thing you generally spot only in your peripheral vision before it disappears. And then, surprisingly, it began to take form. And I laughed a relieved sort of giggle. The elderly lady haunting my mother’s bedroom was a dress hanging from her closet door. It was the dress she had worn the previous Sunday at my daughter’s wedding. It was soft and delicate and mauve and swayed lightly in the dark, brought briefly to life by a burst of hot air pouring from a nearby heating vent.

I approached the gown and began negotiations.

“Excuse me, but you need to leave. My mom would like you to leave.”

I took hold of the hanger and held the dress high and turned to my mother who continued to stare, her arm still raised and pointing the way.

“I’ll take her out,” I said.

When I returned, my mother had taken to her bed again. She lay with her back against the headboard, her hands in her lap, and stared straight ahead now at the armoire against the far wall. She nodded and smiled.

“Oh look,” she said and began to clap her hands. “Oh look, it’s the magicians.”

I moved to her side and she began to chuckle. Then she began to laugh, a frightening, creepy sort of laugh that echoed around the room. And the weirdest image popped into my mind of Noah and his sons. The thought was brief and painful, a quick memory of the ancient story about the biblical character getting drunk and falling asleep naked in his tent. One of his sons, Ham, enters the tent and sees Noah naked. The tale only takes up a few sentences in the Torah and biblical scholars have argued the meaning for centuries.

Standing next to my mother, hearing her laughter, I understood the sin of Ham. I turned away, wanting to flee, hoping she could hold onto a bit of her dignity for another day, another hour, another moment. And then her laughter morphed into sobs and I turned back to see my mother crying, the tears washing away the vacant look that had slowly spread across her face throughout the evening.

She was back, at least for a moment, and she took my hands. Still crying, she looked up at me and spoke the truth, words she had feared were her destiny.

“I’m losing my mind,” she said.

Middle photo shows the author’s mother in the late 1930s; bottom photo shows the author with her about a year ago. She is wearing the dress that plays a prominent role in this story.

Ron Feinberg

Ron Feinberg

Ron Feinberg is a veteran journalist who has worked for daily newspapers across the Southeast, including the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla. and the Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, N.C. He recently retired from The Atlanta Journal Constitution where he had been an editor since 1979. He was the news editor for The Atlanta Journal before it was folded into The Atlanta Constitution in the mid-1980s, then news editor for The Constitution. In the mid-1990s he helped create the AJC's Faith & Values section and served as its first editor

  1. Beautifully written and gives new meaning to the word poignant. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Ron the only way I kept my sanity under somewhat the same experience you have described was to remember back when she ran the monsters from under my bed.
    It’s tough when the parent becomes the child.

  3. Your story pulled me in from the title and held me throughout. I agree, it was beautifully written. I thought it lovely and so sensitive that you took “her” (the dress) away instead of trying to convince your mom that it wasn’t a person. Thank you for a lovely story.

  4. Frank Povah

    Thanks for this, Ron. I hope the sharing has eased the burden, even if just a little.

    The Maori people of New Zealand sometimes use the word “mokopuna” to describe people in your mother’s situation – it is the word also used for grandchildren.

  5. My late husband had Alzheimer’s and I am familiar with these experiences. I now am a volunteer in the same facility where he lived for twenty months. The residents there have the same experiences as described. They often have no one who comes to see them anymore, but they love a hug, a pat, a few words of reassurance. Their conversations don’t always make sense but they still love someone to hold their hand and tell them they are loved. Volunteers are needed everywhere to make their lives less lonesome.

  6. Terri Evans

    Ron, this is at once so beautiful and so sad, yet clearly, your mother is blessed to have you as her son. I painfully recall the first – and only time – I ever saw deep fear in either of my parent’s faces. These were separate instances with each and the vision is indelibly burned in to my mind’s eye. The fear of losing one’s mind must be among the most frightening of the human existence. Wishing you and your mother well.

  7. So very beautiful and heartbreakingly honest. Thank you for sharing it.

  8. This piece is as moving today as when I first read it… not least because I know your mother and can remember when she was able to live on her own. You have written a heartbreaking account of what so many of us have faced – or will be facing – as our parents age, and then, later, as we eventually follow in their footsteps. Thank you for sharing it.

  9. Beautifully and poignantly written, Ron. Thanks for this.

  10. Ron,
    Your story brought tears to my eyes. It’s so sad, but so wonderful in a way. If I were your Mom, I’d want a son like you who has the wisdom to understand.
    Take care

  11. Your story sticks in my mind. It is one of the most poignant I have read in a long time. You’ve got the heart of a great novel or non-fiction work. I hope you do more with it.

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