It seemed like a good idea at the time, if not a little bizarre; things were getting worse with Mother.
When we wheeled her to the park, the only thing that made Mom smile was the sight of children, especially babies. Her caregiver and I always gravitated to the same bench facing the sailboat pond. I liked it because of the plaque: “In loving memory of my mother, Betty Krause, who loved this park.”
My mother might have known Betty Krause. She might have met her at her art class or her writing group, or maybe when she volunteered with children at the Met.
I felt so welcome on this bench. Maria and I just sat there saying nothing. Maria was careful; she made sure my mother wore her baseball cap so she wouldn’t get sunburned. It was the one Mom used to wear when she played golf. It said “Number 1 Pro” on the brim. We faced her wheelchair toward the pond where she could watch the children and the remote-controlled sailboats. She chuckled and mumbled to herself whenever a little one was near.
At home she was becoming more and more agitated, afraid that the devoted Maria was stealing her valuables. Her medication became stronger as her paranoia increased. I didn’t know what to do; Maria wasn’t getting any sleep. I was desperate not to lose Maria. She was saving my life.
In late July when it became clear that it would probably be her last visit, my daughter flew in from San Francisco with her 10-month-old baby. She wanted Janie to meet her great-grandmother. This meeting was an amazing thing to watch.
With the baby in her arms, my mother seemed, for a few moments, like her old self. She sang “The Eensy Weensy Spider,” she laughed and gave the baby a bottle.
Mom and Maria ventured over to my apartment whenever they could so she could hold the baby. When she held Janie her face lit up; she lost that vacant look; she became my mother again. We took pictures; it was such a joyous visit.
After they left, my mother began to hallucinate. She thought that the baby was still there, hiding behind the TV. “Stop hiding; come out at once,” she kept repeating. She started to move her chair closer to the TV; she couldn’t sleep.
Maria was frightened that she’d try to get out of her bed, which now had a rail — that she’d fall in an attempt to find Janie. In fact, she did. My husband and I were called in the middle of the night. Maria found Mother bruised and dehydrated. She had been on the floor all night long. Poor Maria must have fallen asleep on the living room couch and forgotten to raise the rail that kept my mother a prisoner in her own bed.
I hadn’t heard of data mining at the time, but someone was on to me. I was sent unsolicited, by email, every article about Alzheimer’s that was ever written.
I read every story and post online relating to Alzheimer’s, so it was no wonder. I knew each of its vicious stages by heart and guessed that Mom was somewhere in the middle. The data spies sent me more mail and I kept on reading. One ad caught my eye; it was the weirdness that got to me, and yet I read on.
The ad was for something called doll therapy. “Reborn therapy works very well, especially for our female patients,” said one testimonial. “It takes them back to a time when they felt secure and in control.”
I couldn’t stop reading; it seemed so frightening. I was scared that my mother might not know that a doll wasn’t real. And yet it made sense because nothing she was saying or doing seemed real anymore.
Before I placed my order for a “reborn” little girl, I noticed the “quick tip” underlined in a yellow box at the foot of the ad: “Always use a doll whose eyes are open. Often Alzheimer’s/dementia patients interpret closed eyes as being ‘dead,’ and this can cause them undue distress and concern.”
At first I thought I might name the baby Janie after my granddaughter, but I became anxious at that thought. I didn’t sleep that night and had terrible dreams. Too painful to tell you about, but you can guess.
The doll arrived a week later; I hadn’t told Maria about her yet. It was spooky, like that old “Chucky” movie. Everything matched, all in pink. Since naming her Janie would be a bad omen, I decided upon Henrietta.
The doll looked so real, so lifelike in a deathly sort of way. Her blue eyes seemed to follow me as I moved around the room. Truthfully, I couldn’t wait to get her out of my apartment and into Mother’s.
I made sure Mom was napping when I arrived. Lately, she napped entire days away and woke up to talk all night long. Maria was sleeping when I arrived with Henrietta in a shopping bag. I didn’t want to wake her, so I placed the doll in a chair at the dining table where Mother had her applesauce and Ensure each night, masking the bitter taste of all her medications.
Maria called me the next morning: “That doll gave me quite a fright. Is she a gift for baby Janie?”
“No, it’s for Mother. Has she discovered her yet?”
“She has. She’s cradling it now and singing.”
“So, she’s happy. It worked. I’m so glad.”
“Are you?” said Maria.
“See you later,” I said. “Tell her the doll is called Henrietta.”
Each day that was fine, Maria wheeled Mom to the park and I usually met them there in our spot by the sailboat pond on the Krause bench. Park visits were becoming more complicated as time went by. Lately when Mom was returned to her apartment, she’d forget where she lived.
“This isn’t my place, where have you taken me?” she screamed.
But with Henrietta in her arms, Mother seemed calmer and happy to return to her apartment. The days were getting hotter; Mother and Maria went to the park every day. They sat in the shade near the pond on Mrs. Krause’s bench. People looked at my mother strangely; children pointed, but we didn’t care. Nights were more peaceful; Mother even slept occasionally.
One day in midsummer Maria called; her voice was trembling. I could hear Mother wailing in the background.
“Oh my God, we left the doll in the park. Your mom fell asleep. She must have dropped her. She’s going crazy.” I ran as fast as I could to the sailboat pond and the Krause bench. Thank God, I thought, as I ran panting and coughing toward a child I saw standing near the pond, holding the doll.
I ran over to the child.
“That’s my mother’s doll. Give it to me. She needs it!”
“Finders keepers,” said the child.
“I said give it to me,” I said, my voice getting shrill and loud. I then tried to grab it from the girl’s arms. “Give it up, it’s mine!”
“Loretta!” yelled the child.
Her nanny, a black woman from one of the islands, came running toward me.
“What are you doing to this child, you crazy old bitch,” she yelled. “I’m calling the police!”
But at this point I wrested the doll away from the child’s arms, turned away, and ran like hell.
Joan Colen lives in New York City and studies at the Hunter College Writing Center with Grace Edwards.