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Feet, Creative Nonfiction by Maureen O'Hern


by Maureen O'Hern

I watched my feet -- left, right, left, right -- move mechanically over miles of hospital terrazzo, a sameness that I trod back and forth, not daring to look up for fear I would see how far it stretched and how it merged into the sameness of the walls.

The carpet in the hospital waiting room was green and black, evoking bright slime on fetid water, and hypnotic in a threatening, slithery sort of way. Sometimes that was the foil to my feet. Left, right, left, right. Back and forth. I hated that carpet.

Where dementia led, we followed, Dad and I. Step by numb step.

Sometimes I watched my feet go down the stairs at home. Our house was an old two-flat, and the stairs were hardwood, overlaid with a tile path bordered on both sides by ancient glassy varnish, ever evocative of the apprenticeship I served as a girl, cleaning those varnished corners with the point of an old paring knife carefully, carefully, so as not to scratch the wood. It was inevitable that I should check those same corners as I watched my slippered feet, up and down, in the night; my feet were tired, and their tiredness seeped up through me.

Then there were Dad’s feet -- long, bony and strangely colorless. Sometimes they paced next to mine. One time when he was in the hospital, I arrived at his room to find him dressed and announcing his intention to go home. He was done with that place. So there were my tennis shoes next to his Florsheims, marking the seconds, the hours, pacing like the tedium of a metronome -- left, right -- back and forth, until the doctor came that evening. Dad was angry. I was scared.

That was the night the doctor explained sundowning to me. Sundowning. What an innocuous word. It sounds like something peaceful and restoring, the prelude to sleep and renewed life. But it is rather a night-time of the mind, a destructive, exhausting, terrifying closure of consciousness and an awakening of demons and delusions that well up and command. When night came, Dad was not Dad; he became Other.

The feet of this Other moved all night. Back and forth through the house, sometimes down to the basement, sometimes to the doors, as It tried to get out. Sometimes upstairs. But never still. As the months went on, Dad’s legs became too weak and weary to support him during the day but could not be quieted at night. Left, right, up, down.

One day he told me how at night he looked for “someone in charge,” unwittingly describing his sundowning. Consistent with his love of reason, he sought someone who could explain what must have been profoundly frightening to him as his world was wrenched out of his control each night. If the mind could bleed, Dad’s would have every night. If the soul could vomit, Dad’s would have every night. Just so hellish was the sundowning.

In his last weeks, Dad could barely stand, let alone walk, and so I walked for both of us. I pushed him in his wheelchair over those same terrazzo floors, feeling suffocated by the sameness underfoot, the sameness closing in on all sides, as we searched for quiet. As doggedly as Dad had searched for “someone in charge” at home did we search for quiet at the hospital, and that quiet was the same Will-o’-the-Wisp as “someone in charge.” As there had been no one “in charge” for Dad at night, just so was there no quiet for us by day. I walked and pushed round and round -- left, right -- to find a fragment of peace, but the hospital had filled every corner, every nook with plastic sound that held neither melody nor meaning. I walked and pushed everywhere to get away from it, but I couldn’t.

Dad’s feet propped uselessly in the chair and my own useless in our quest, we looped endlessly to find the unfindable, making our way to nowhere.

Until one night I walked with the body bag into the cold clear midnight. Left, right.

Maureen O’Hern is a former English teacher, a botanical artist, a graduate of 
Purdue and a member of the Indiana Writers Center.