by Caroline Misner
When Anna was a teenager, she would look at her mother and cringe. To Anna, her mother was ancient. She had wrinkles beginning to bloom in the corners of her eyes; her hair was permanently dyed a chestnut brown to hide the grey strands that had started to sprout at her temples; her breasts drooped a little lower each year, and her waist thickened. Anna vowed that she would rather be dead than be like her mother at the ripe old age of forty-three. She vowed to commit suicide rather than succumb to the ravages of old age. Now in her eighties, Anna would do anything to be forty-three again.
It was humiliating to be forced to rely on younger people to do the simplest tasks. Mitzi, the volunteer who drove her to weekly dialysis, was perky and bright with ripped jeans and pink hair and clattering bracelets at her wrists. She chatted about her boyfriend, about her college courses—she was studying social work. Anna remained mostly silent on the ride home. She stared out the window and lamented how much everything had changed over the years. What had once been fields and pastures dotted with small farms had burgeoned into family neighbourhoods filled with identical houses packed side by side on tiny lots.
“Here we are,” Mitzi chirped as she slowed the car in front of Anna’s house, the house she had lived in all her life, the house she had inherited from her parents shortly after marrying Sam. Mitzi left the engine running as she rounded the car to get Anna’s walker out of the trunk. She unfolded it and opened the door to help her out.
“I can do this myself,” Anna mumbled when Mitzi tried to pull her to her feet. She found it demeaning to be forced to use a walker. But her knees hurt all the time; some days she could barely hobble up the front steps to her house; and hours of dialysis left her weak. She hoped she could make it inside before anyone saw her.
Mitzi hovered around Anna, imploring her to be careful and begging Anna to let her help. A car pulled into the driveway next door. Her neighbour Gretchen stood on the front step of her house, waving excitedly. Gretchen was only a few years younger than Anna, but she was in better health. And she had family. Though on some cold and rainy days, she did require a cane to help her get around.
Gretchen’s daughter Amber stepped out of the car and sailed into her mother’s arms for a tremendous hug. Amber’s daughter, Mia, who Anna guessed was not much older than fourteen, followed slowly behind. She didn’t even lift her head to acknowledge her grandmother. Her attention was firmly rooted on whatever she was scrolling through on her cell phone. It disgusted Anna that the youth of the day were so enamored with their gadgets and computers and electronic gewgaws that they forgot basic good manners.
“Put that thing away, and say hello to your grandma!” If Anna could have lifted her walker, she would have waved it over her head. All four women turned to stare at her.
“Hello, Mrs. Warton,” Amber called across the front yard. “Don’t mind Mia. She just got a new phone. Mom doesn’t mind.”
“No, not all,” Gretchen said and hustled Amber and Mia towards the house. “How are you feeling today, Anna?”
“She’s having a good day,” Mitzi said before Anna could reply, as though she was a mental invalid who needed someone to speak for her. “Went through dialysis like a real trooper.”
A real trooper. What choice did Anna have? Her weekly treatments were tortuous and made worse by all the other patients enduring the same ritual at the clinic week after week. She shuffled up the front porch steps, brushing away Mitzi’s hand when she tried to help her. It didn’t seem that long ago when Anna could bound up those same steps two at a time.
Once inside, Mitzi settled Anna down in her big leather recliner in front of the television and made her a simple supper of fruit salad, tea, and hot buttered toast. She set the tray on the little table beside the chair and handed Anna the remote control.
“Do you remember how to use this?” she asked in a sing-song voice as though addressing a child.
“Of course, I remember,” Anna said. “I may be old, but I don’t have dementia.”
“I remember last week you had a hard time figuring out the channels,” Mitzi said.
“I’ll be alright,” Anna said. “Now go home.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m fine.” Anna waved her away with a blue-veined hand knotted with arthritis. “Now go out there and enjoy yourself. Go to the discotheque with that boyfriend of yours. Have fun while you still can.” She wanted to add that someday Mitzi would end up like her, but she held back.
“Disco?” Mitzi laughed. She planted a light kiss on Anna’s forehead and tucked a knitted afghan around her. “I guess in your day disco was the big thing. I’ll call you tomorrow morning to see how you’re doing.”
After Mitzi left, Anna turned on the television and sipped her tea, scrolling through the channels for the news station. She felt as though she was being treated like a child again. As a girl, whenever she mentioned anything insightful or meaningful to the adults in her life, she was laughed at, scoffed at—her comments promptly dismissed. They patted her curls and said how cute she was and not to worry her pretty little head with such serious grown-up matters. All except her father, the insurance salesman by day and amateur astronomer by night, who let her peer through his telescope in the back yard and marvel at the stars. He never dismissed her comments, and he encouraged her questions. Oh, how she missed him.
Anna found the news channel and nibbled her toast as she watched. Television was so complex now. There were so many channels, she couldn’t keep track of them all. And then there were the specialty channels, the streaming networks, YouTube, and on-demand services. She missed the days when there were only a handful of channels and half of them were snowy and irregular unless the antennae on top of the television was in the right position.
The woman at the news desk was interviewing that nice science fellow with the big dark eyes and bushy moustache who was always on the news lately. Anna liked him. He was so intelligent and soft spoken. He reminded her of her father; but unlike him, he was a professional astronomer.
“. . . so, what you’re saying,” the newswoman continued, “is that there has been a breach in the matter-antimatter fabric of the universe.”
The scientist chuckled, but his expression was serious.
“That’s an overly simplistic way of putting it,” he said. “We have known that the universe has been expanding for tens of billions of years. We have now discovered an anomaly in that expansion. It seems as though the universe has ceased expanding and is either remaining static or beginning to contract at an accelerated rate. We just don’t know yet. More research is needed.”
“What would have caused this?” the newswoman asked.
“We’re not sure,” the scientist replied. “But in the past few days, we have already begun to feel its effects. Take for instance the power failures in central Asia, where billions of people are without electricity . . .”
They continued on for ten more minutes, discussing things like recent natural disasters and galaxies inexplicably collapsing at the outer edges of the universe. Heady ideas that Anna couldn’t even begin to understand. She switched over to the game show channel where screaming contestants were awarded cash prizes; she fell asleep in her chair just as they swarmed their brand-new car.
Anna awoke with a start the next morning. Sunshine streamed in through the gauzy drapes in the window, and bits of dust danced in the beams. She was still in her recliner, but the afghan was gone; it must have slipped off while she slept. She was wearing an old dressing gown, one that she thought she had thrown away years ago when the buttons had popped off and the seams split. She had tried patching them, but her arthritic fingers had made it impossible. The television was still on, but the sound was off. A test pattern of coloured bars filled the screen. She hadn’t seen one of those in years, not since the stations had begun airing twenty-four hours a day.
Yawning, she stretched out her arms, expecting to feel the usual ache in her limbs. But there was none. She looked around for her walker, but it was gone. She must have gotten up in the night to change before settling back in her chair, but she had no memory of doing that. She stood up, holding the backrest for support, and was delighted that the familiar pain in her knees was gone. No wonder she hadn’t used the walker. The new medication the doctor had prescribed must finally be working. Even her sore back felt better.
On strong legs, Anna wandered to the window and peered out. Dazzling sunshine filled the front yard. Her garden bloomed full of roses and hydrangea and lilac bushes—a miracle since she hadn’t the strength or energy to tend her garden in years. The neatly mown lawn was edged by trimmed hedges. Even the fence seemed to gleam under a coat of fresh paint. The boy she hired to cut the grass once a week must have come by. But he was only fifteen and came by on Saturdays when he didn’t have school. She was sure today was Tuesday. Or perhaps Wednesday. Though she felt renewed strength in her body, her mind seemed muddled—she couldn’t remember where she kept her belongings or what she had done recently. Is this what dementia feels like? Could this be the first sign of Alzheimer’s? She dismissed the thought and stepped outside to inspect her garden.
Though it was late spring, the sun shone warmer and brighter than usual for this time of year. She recalled the scientists on the news mentioning things like global warming, but she never really understood what they meant. The flowers bloomed magnificently. Whoever had tended them had left Anna’s garden tools scattered along the path. A few fledgling weeds sprouted from the moist soil in the flower beds, and Anna knew she had to do something she hadn’t done in years.
She squatted by the flower beds and set to work, unbothered by the old aches in her joints. She had enjoyed gardening all her life, and it had broken her heart when the doctors told her years ago that she couldn’t do it anymore. She worked for hours, diligently pulling weeds and watering the peonies and geraniums that seemed to bloom so effortlessly from the soil.
Amber stepped out of Gretchen’s house next door, hauling one of those plastic baby carriers that doubled as a car seat. Her hair was longer than yesterday’s, pulled back in a loose ponytail and she looked radiant, like a schoolgirl ready to head out to college.
“Good morning!” Anna called and waved as she rose on legs no longer creaky and painful.
Gretchen stood on the porch and waved back. She also appeared younger, as though she was Amber’s older sister rather than her mother.
“Good morning, Anna!” she called. “Your garden looks great. Come over here, and see my new granddaughter.”
New granddaughter? Anna didn’t even know that Amber had been pregnant again. She rounded the fence to Gretchen’s front yard as Amber lifted the baby carrier for her to see.
“Congratulations, Amber,” Anna said. The baby lay sleeping in a nest of fluffy blankets, eyes sealed shut and tiny fingers curled into fists. “What’s the baby’s name?”
“Mia,” Amber replied. “After my great grandmother.”
“But isn’t that your older daughter’s name?” Anna asked.
“My older daughter?” Amber said. “I don’t have . . . this is my first baby.”
“No, you already have a daughter,” Anna insisted. “I just saw her yesterday playing with her new-fangled phone. Don’t you remember?”
Gretchen and Amber exchanged confused glances.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Gretchen said. “This is Amber’s first and only child. So far.”
“Mrs. Warton, are you feeling okay?” Amber asked. “You may have been working out in the sun too long. This is Mia, my first and only child. She was born last month. Don’t you remember?”
Anna did have a vague memory, so fuzzy it felt like a shredded dream, of Amber’s pregnancy and Gretchen’s excitement at the birth of her grandchild.
“Perhaps I am getting a little woozy from the sun,” she admitted.
“Yes, you should go lie down for a bit,” Gretchen said. “The garden can wait.”
“It was nice seeing you again, Mrs. Warton,” Amber said as she headed towards her car.
Anna waved to them as the car pulled from the driveway and headed down the street.
“Would you like to come in or a cup of tea?” Gretchen offered. “You look a little pale.”
“No thank you,” Anna said and bounded up the steps into her house. Something was wrong; she was certain she was losing her mind.
She headed up the stairs, expecting to find the usual mess in her bedroom because she hadn’t the strength to tidy up. The bed was neatly made, with the corners of the duvet carefully tucked in. Her dresses hung in the usual place in the closet. Old pictures of family and friends and her dear sweet Sam hung on the walls and filled the top of her dresser. Even her old wedding photo, which she thought she had packed away years ago, sat in its place on the bedside table.
Anna sat on the edge of her bed and folded her hands in her lap. She had no memory of tidying up or putting out the pictures that only served to depress her. She tried to think of her last memory before dozing off in front of the television last night. She had watched the news, then some game show. She had thought of her father and what he would make of all this nonsense going on in the world now. She tried to remember getting up and changing, and how she had managed without her walker.
She resigned herself to the fact that she was spiraling into full-blown dementia. There could be no other explanation. She had to call Mitzi. Mitzi had always emphasized that in case of any emergency, or if she needed any help whatsoever, she should call her immediately. Anna kept her phone number scrawled on a scrap of paper by the telephone. But it was gone. She searched under the bed; perhaps it had fallen off the table. She shuffled through the drawer, pushing aside empty pill bottles, rumpled tissues and coupons she used to clip from magazines that she read in bed. She couldn’t remember what she had done with it. Perhaps she had thrown it out. Panic began to seep in.
She would have to call 9-1-1. She grabbed the receiver. A high-pitched wail pierced her eardrum. She dialed anyway, hoping the phone lines weren’t down and that it was just a blip in her phone. The wail stopped dead, as though someone had pulled a plug on the line. There was no reply at the other end.
Anna dropped the phone and wondered what to do next. She would have to go out to get help. But the thought of turning to Gretchen made her cringe. Gretchen already thought she was crazy. Perhaps this is what Alzheimer’s really feels like, how it would end for her.
She lay back on the bed and tried to gather her thoughts. Though it was still only midafternoon, she was tired, so tired, right down to the marrow.
Her eyelids felt weighted with lead. She would have a brief nap, just a few minutes; and when her energy returned, she would head out and reluctantly knock on Gretchen’s door.
It was morning again when she awoke to the sound of clattering dishes. Someone was in the house, downstairs in the kitchen. She sat up in bed, fresh panic blooming in her chest. She grabbed the phone, but the line was still dead. Perhaps it was Mitzi down there, preparing breakfast for her like she sometimes did when she stopped by to check on her. But Mitzi didn’t have a key, and Anna had no recollection of letting her into the house.
She slipped out of bed and searched for a weapon. She would have to confront the intruder herself. She found an umbrella leaning against the closet door and gingerly inched down the stairs. Whoever was there was humming an old song in a voice so familiar, so nostalgic, tears pricked her eyes.
She stopped at the kitchen door and peered in.
A man stood at the stove, whisking batter in a bowl. Anna raised the umbrella over her head. The man turned and smiled at her.
“Hey, sleepy head!” It was Sam. “Thought you’d never get up. I’m making pancakes for breakfast if that’s okay.”
Anna dropped the umbrella and cried.
“Sam?” she said. “Is that you?”
“It’s me.” Sam chuckled. “Who else would it be?”
“I can’t believe this,” Anna said. She stepped towards him, afraid he would evaporate before her eyes. He looked the same as he did years before he had died—unshaven scruff on his chin, shaggy hair, broad shoulders and muscled arms. It was really him.
She threw herself into his arms, almost knocking the bowl from his grasp. He was solid and real; this was no dream.
“What’s gotten into you?” Sam said. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I think I have,” Anna replied, tears dripping down her cheeks. If this was dementia, then it wasn’t so bad.
“Hey, don’t cry.” Sam wiped the tears from her face. “Did you have a bad dream or something?”
“Perhaps,” Anna replied. “I’m not sure. My head is still a little muddled.”
Sam wrapped Anna in a warm hug; she buried her face in his shoulder, never wanting to let him go. Not this time. Not again.
“Good news,” Sam said as he rocked her in his arms. “I’ve got the day off. We can do whatever you want. Your call.”
“I just want to be here with you,” Anna said. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“It’s only been one night.” Sam’s laughter was the sweetest music she’d ever heard. “How about a nice hike through the woods with a picnic by the lake?”
“Anything you want, Sam.”
Anna turned her head and caught a glimpse of their reflection on the side of the shiny toaster on the counter. Sam was as young and strong as he had been in his early thirties, as she always remembered him. The grey was gone from Anna’s hair. Her dark curls were tied back in a loose ponytail, the way she had always worn it when she was Sam’s age. Her body was tall and lithe; the slouch in her shoulders that had threatened to develop into a hump had disappeared. She realized there were no aches in her joints, no pain anywhere in her body. She stepped away from Sam and looked at her hands. The familiar knots in her knuckles were gone; her fingers were long and smooth with carefully polished nails. She ran her hands down the side of her body. She wore a silky negligee, the blue one Sam had bought for her thirtieth birthday.
“I don’t understand what’s happening,” she said, looking up at Sam as though he could provide some simple answer. “I’m young again. And so are you. What’s happened to us?”
“That must have been some dream for you to be acting like this,” Sam said. “Don’t worry about it now. Get dressed. I’ll pack us a nice lunch, and we’ll head out to the park. The fresh air will clear your mind.”
Sam was right. After breakfast, they loaded his old Dodge truck with canteens of water and a picnic cooler before heading towards the trails in the hills. Anna stared out the window as he drove. The radio crackled with static; but between sparks, old songs about incense and peppermints and how fine he is—Doo-wop! Doo-wop!—played on and on. The neighbourhood was gone, replaced with rolling green hills and hobby farms and silos in the distance. Just as Anna remembered it had looked so many years ago. She rolled down the window and let the warm wind blow across her unlined face and lift the hair off the back of her neck.
They parked by the lake and followed their favourite trail up a crooked hill to the lookout point at its summit. It was a difficult trek, even for a seasoned hiker, but Anna found it effortless. Her legs were long and strong and muscular and carried her up the trail with barely a drop of sweat, despite the heat of the day. She wasn’t even winded by the time they reached the lookout ledge which was little more than a stone platform overlooking the lake and meandering river below. The town appeared smaller, more compact, in the distance. Many of the taller buildings had not been built yet.
They ate a light lunch—tuna sandwiches and a particular brand of cookie that Anna thought they’d stopped making years ago—washed down with water from the canteens, before heading back down the hill again. By the time they reached the truck in the parking lot, the hot swollen sun had already begun its slow decline in the east. Long shadows spread along the shores of the lake, dappling the stones and rippling water.
“Feel better now?” Sam asked.
“Much better,” Anna said.
They made love when they returned home, with Anna rejoicing in her body’s response to Sam. It had been the perfect day; just the two of them together, just as she always remembered. She didn’t want the day to end. But it did when she fell asleep, tangled in the bedsheets, in the crook of Sam’s arm.
When she awoke, she was surrounded by several eyes watching her. She sat up in bed with a start and realized the eyes belonged to her beloved long-lost toys—her teddy bear with the mismatched button eyes, her dolls with ribboned hair, and her stuffed cat with wire whiskers. Her bedroom looked just as it had when she was a little girl. Her old record player sat on a dresser against the far wall beside a stack of old 45s. It wasn’t until she slipped out of her childhood bed that she realized how small she was, how much wider the walls appeared and how long the hallway seemed.
She stood at the top of the stairs and watched a woman in the living room push an upright vacuum cleaner across the rug, a dust bag ballooning from behind its handle. Something about the woman seemed so familiar, but it wasn’t until she turned around and smiled up at Anna that she realized who it was.
“Mama?” Anna said.
“Yes, sweetheart, it’s me,” her mother said and shut off the vacuum cleaner. “What have you been doing up there all day?”
“Oh, Mama!” Anna ran down the stairs and threw herself into her mother’s arms. She smelled of the perfume Anna remembered from so long ago.
Her hair was dark and glossy, with no need for the hair dye that would become so ubiquitous in her later life. There were no creases round her eyes, no hunch in her shoulders. She wore an apron over a loose white blouse and a pair of jeans rolled up to just below her knees—the uniform of youth.
“Hey, what’s all this drama?” her mother asked and returned her hug. Anna was small now, barely reaching her shoulder.
“I’ve missed you, Mama,” Anna said.
“You’ve been up in your room all day. Would you like some chocolate milk?”
It had been so long since Anna enjoyed the taste of chocolate milk. She nodded and followed her mother into the kitchen where she watched her scoop the brown powder from a canister and swirl it into a glass of milk. Anna gulped it down, relishing the smooth sweetness on her tongue. She belched softly and wiped her lips with the back of her hand.
“Now that’s not how a lady behaves,” her mother scolded.
“Where’s Papa?” Anna asked.
Her mother cocked her head towards the window and said, “He’s out in the field with his telescope again. He says a major event is coming soon. Why don’t you go out there and join him?”
Anna ran to the porch to find her father but stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the sky. Though it was cloudless and flat, the sky glowed a burnt orange. Streaks of lightening zigzagged back and forth; a strange yellowish glow lit up the horizon. The air was still and soundless; not even a bird chirped in the distance.
Her father’s telescope stood on its tripod in the field beyond the back of the house. He kneeled behind it—a notebook filled with charts and equations in the grass beside him—and squinted into the eyepiece.
“Papa!” Anna called and ran to him. He stood at the sound of her voice.
“Anna! Come quick!” he called. “You must see this. It’s amazing.”
Her father looked just as she remembered him—tall, strong, wide-shouldered, a jovial twinkle lighting up his eyes. Anna leapt into his arms.
He spun her around until they were both dizzy, just as he had done when she was a child.
“What’s happening, Papa?” she asked when he set her down again. If anyone could explain it, he could. He was the wisest man she had ever known.
“Look,” her father said and led her to the telescope. Anna peered through the eyepiece. There were no planets, no stars, no moons, just flat orange with a pulsing glow in the centre.
“I don’t understand,” Anna said. “I see nothing.”
“It’s the universe collapsing,” her father said.
“How can the universe collapse?”
“No one knows.”
“Is that why this is happening to us?” Anna asked.
“Yes,” her father whispered and knelt beside her. Anna felt as though she had shortened by a few inches, as though she was getting smaller.
“What can we do?” she asked.
Her father shook his head and smiled. “Nothing. We can’t do anything to stop it.”
“Did you know this was going to happen?” Anna said.
He nodded and pointed to the throbbing sky.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Anna asked.
“I wanted you to have a happy life,” he replied. “I didn’t want you to spend your life worrying about how it will end. Did you have a good life, Anna?”
Anna nodded. She had to admit that she had lived a good life, despite the heartaches and losses.
“When will the universe end?” she asked.
“Any time after now,” he replied.
Her mother stepped out on the porch and called them to supper. Her father followed Anna towards the house, but she found each step more arduous, as though her bones were shrinking. Her knees wobbled, and her legs buckled beneath her. She fell into the grass and crawled on hands and knees towards her mother, but soon she couldn’t even crawl.
Her father picked the infant up in his arms and carried her the rest of the way.