Mom was always a fearful person. Dad worked nights several times during their 70-year marriage. She sometimes told the story of being a young bride, left alone in an isolated country house while her groom worked at the ice house every night. One evening she was awakened from a restless sleep by a terrible noise. She later described it as sounding like someone was trying to get into the house straight through the wall of her bedroom. She had no phone and no close neighbors, so she huddled in the center of the bed, trembling with fear and wondering how long she had left to live. The noise continued for a while, but when the walls didn’t splinter and the threat didn’t seem to increase, she screwed up her courage and crept outside to investigate. She slipped down the front steps and peeked around the corner, and there she saw it. An old milk cow was chewing on the grass that grew up beside the pier and beam foundation that supported the house. She laughed about it later, but she and I had a replay of sorts years later when I was in my early teens.
We lived in the city by then, but Dad worked nights at the post office, and my older brother Jim was away at college. I was sound asleep when I heard an urgent whisper.
“Linda! Come in here. Somebody’s trying to get in the window.”
I jumped up and ran into her room. She was sitting up in bed, her back pressed against the headboard with the covers drawn up to her chin.
“There,” she said pointing to the window beside her pillow. “Somebody was scratching on the screen.”
I sat on the side of the bed for a minute, staring at the window. There was a full moon, and it backlit the closed window shade with an eerie glow. Suddenly, I saw a shadow pass across the window, and I scooted under the covers and into Mom’s arms. We stayed that way for a few minutes, but when we didn’t hear or see anything else, curiosity overcame fear, and I slid out of bed and tiptoed to the window. I pulled the shade away just far enough to peek out and reported my findings.
“I don’t see anything. I’m going to call Dad.”
Without turning on a light, I went to the phone that sat in its recessed nook in the hallway wall. All the modern houses had them. Like a blind person reading Braille, I slid my fingers over the dial, counted the holes and dialed the number.
“Dad, I think somebody’s trying to get in. Mom heard scratching on the screen, and I saw a shadow… No, I peeped out and couldn’t see anyone…Okay.”
He called the police, and within minutes we heard a car pull up in front of the house and saw the beams of flashlights as Mesquite’s finest investigated. Then we heard a knock on the door.
“We didn’t find anything, Ma’am, but we’ll have a car drive by here frequently for the rest of the night.”
When Dad got home the next morning, he found us still huddled together under the covers. He immediately went out to investigate and came back in laughing.
“I didn’t find any footprints or anything, but I did find some evidence. There were rat droppings on the window sill.”
She wasn’t just afraid of things that go bump in the night. She was afraid in the daylight, too. She was afraid of making a mistake, afraid of looking foolish in front of others, of being embarrassed, of being looked down on. She had a beautiful voice and helped lead the singing in her tiny country church when she was a teenager. That was before air conditioning when church windows actually opened and the congregations fanned themselves with fans provided by the local funeral home. One Sunday morning, a fly flew in an open window and straight into Mom’s mouth as she sang. She never led the singing again.
She had other musical talents, too. She learned to play the guitar by watching her uncles, and when the kinfolks gathered on Saturday night, she played until her fingers bled. She also played the piano by ear. We had an old player piano we inherited from one relative or another. The player mechanics had been removed, Dad had refinished it, and Mom spent many happy hours playing honky-tonk tunes and old gospel favorites. But as we moved from small West Texas towns into the suburbs of Dallas, she feared that city folks would look down on her country origins, and she did her best to cover them up. Her guitar was relegated to the back of her closet, and the piano was freed up for me to practice the Old Masters favored by my piano teacher.
Mom also feared illness and physical infirmities of all kinds. She was born with “yellow jaundice,” and was sickly as a child. As an adult she endured a tonsillectomy, an appendectomy, a hysterectomy, three spinal fusions, and the removal of a deformed kidney. She feared falling victim to every epidemic and every new disease she heard and read about. When she was bitten by a tick, she was convinced she had lyme disease, and since she had several blood transfusions in the course of her many surgeries, she feared that she had AIDS. But most of all, she feared Alzheimer’s. I didn’t realize how much until I found an old photo album.
Mom and Dad lived with us for six years before they went into assisted living. By that time, neither of them was capable of making the decisions necessary in down-sizing. I went through all their personal belongings and made piles: things to go with them to their new home, things to store, things to donate, things to trash. In the bottom of one of Mom’s dresser drawers, I found an old, red photo album, the kind with a thick cardboard cover bound with braided cord. It had a rose embossed on the front, and I sat on the floor, wondering what forgotten pictures were inside. Instead of pictures, there were articles. Page after page of neatly clipped and mounted stories about dementia and Alzheimer’s. Stories of symptoms, stories of promising theories, stories with more questions than answers, stories of Mom’s first steps into the darkness.
I wonder how long she lived alone with her fear before the rest of us suspected.