by Sarah Wagner
How does time go missing? How does someone we love just vanish without a trace? Living, physical bodies don’t just dematerialize, even if those inhabiting them are internally absent.
It was a bittersweet summer morning the day we had to put Mother in a home. She was only 68, but she’d been diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia and the symptoms were progressing rapidly. One day she’d be normal and the next she would suffer an acute bout of disorientation and confusion, which could last for hours or days. Hallucinations often accompanied these episodes as did frequent falls and drooling. She slipped out unnoticed a few times and wandered the neighborhood, wearing only her nightgown and socks. Once, a Silver Alert was issued. Fortunately, she turned up less than a mile away, but we got a good scolding from the police. It finally got to be too much for my siblings and me and off she went, to Compassionate Acres Health & Rehabilitation Center. We all knew there would be no rehabilitation for Mother, but the center had a four star rating and advertised updated facilities that even included a spa and a beauty salon.
At first, Mother appeared to adjust well to her new living space. Nestled in the lush bosom of the Ozarks, just outside of Hot Springs, Compassionate Acres seemed to have it all. The shiny brochure displayed picturesque shots boasting 23 acres of well-maintained grounds. The mission statement promised a high level of security. There were swimming classes and weekly events that kept her body moving and her mind active. Perhaps we were deluding ourselves. Within seven months, she started having spells more frequently and they were increasing in duration. She accused the staff of trying to poison her. Some of her personal items vanished; her dentures, a ring. She was adamant they had been pilfered by some other inmate, the ‘help’ or maybe an extraterrestrial. She soon developed tremors and urinary incontinence. I visited twice a week, when I could, but this got harder as her memory further declined and she often failed to recognize me, the eldest son.
The personnel at the center kindly assured us that this was normal for someone in her condition. They made her as comfortable as they could and provided a stable routine. It was a gentle environment, the caregivers were well trained. It appeared that she was in a safe place.
But then, early this morning, Mother escaped. She simply walked away.
She disappeared sometime very early in the morning, but it was after 9:00 am when my cell phone rang. It was Compassionate Acres calling to deliver the news that she was missing.
“She’s what?!” I almost barked with consternation, “Missing?” I worked in a cubicle at an accounting firm and I could feel my coworkers watching me. I glanced up to see my boss staring at me quizzically from across the room. I fought to lower my voice as I hissed “But how, for how long?”
“We’re not sure, sir,” the administrator on the other end replied reluctantly, “We’ve been looking. Any ideas where she might be headed? Can you come down here?”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I answered with resignation. I hung up as my boss arrived at my desk. “I have to leave, it’s my mother,” I mumbled apologetically as I turned off my computer and reached for my coat. “Just keep me informed,” she said sympathetically. It wasn’t the first time.
Usually I found the drive to Compassionate Acres relaxing. The scenic highway wound its way through the forest, a visually calming landscape. On this morning I found the heaviness of the woodlands oppressively bleak, despite the sporadic greenery of the shortleaf pines. It was almost officially autumn and the bleary grey of the skies seemed to amplify the naked branches of the scrub oaks; a stark and desolate vista. I couldn’t help ruminating about my childhood as I drove the hour trip to Hot Springs. Mother had always been difficult. She held a multitude of grudges — against the neighbors, the president, and certainly, her children. She had driven away the one man who loved her and this, coupled with her incessant complaints of government conspiracy, had further alienated her immediate family. Sure, we had birthdays and vacations, but growing up with our mother hadn’t exactly been normal. She claimed that as a young girl she had been abducted by aliens. For Mother, this was the seminal point in her life. As she endlessly recounted this tale, her eyes would glow with the fevered evangelism of the true believer. I grew up in the shadow of this delusion. Sour and paranoid, she gradually isolated herself from humanity. Me? I loved her. She was my mother, but I simply couldn’t live with her anymore. Even visiting once or twice a week for an hour, was mentally exhausting.
It was mid-morning before I arrived at the ornately gilded outer gates of Compassionate Acres. I always felt guilty when I came here and I chastised myself as I buzzed in through security. It was my responsibility to take better care of Mother, but life was a difficult balance between home and a paycheck. Even though I made good money as a CPA, the monthly bills for her care were exorbitant. True, part of the reason I paid so much for the luxury of this place was to assuage my conscience for putting her here. I wish she could have stayed with me, but she was estranged from my wife for some past, unknown grievance and she terrified our two children. It wasn’t just her cronish appearance or her persistent forgetfulness; it was the chronic, disquieting tale of her close encounter. She might have forgotten our names, but she remembered that experience like it was yesterday. Dammit! I mused as I pulled my Camry into a parking spot in the front lot, next to an empty Mustang with ‘Police’ emblazoned on its side. How could this happen? What the hell are we paying Compassionate Acres for? Maybe she has been found and this is all a mistake. It all seemed like a bad dream.
The main entrance to the facility was brightly decorated for the coming holidays, in stark contrast to the mounting, black dread of uncertainty I was feeling as I entered. Where are the police? I wondered. The director met me in the lobby and steered me quickly into his office, shutting the door.
“Look,” he said contritely, “We’ll find her. She couldn’t have gotten far. We’ve checked the whole building. We’re still checking the grounds.”
“Have you notified the police?” I asked. “Has a Silver Alert been issued?” I tried to keep my tone optimistic, but I was really starting to worry. I fought the urge to go outside and call for her, but I doubted that she would recognize my voice or even remember her own name.
“A report has been filed, they’re reviewing the security tapes,” he glanced down at his notes. “At 6:39 this morning, she went out the side door by the chapel—“
“But, what about the security doors?” I interrupted, my pulse pounding in agitation.
“Unfortunately, the alarms were turned off, due to a three month routine maintenance check,” he continued smoothly, as if absolved of all blame.
“I was here for a visit barely a week ago—“
“19 days,” He interjected.
“Yes, 19 days,” I responded robotically. 19 days? That couldn’t be right. “She seemed the same,” I covered lamely, “she just kept pleading to go home, but that’s Little Rock, almost 60 miles away. Of course, she was babbling away about alien abduction, as always, but what’s changed since my visit?” I swallowed hard. 19 days? I couldn’t account for it. How does time just disappear? I felt a sharp twinge behind my left eye as if a migraine was coming on. The air was charged with a sharp odor I couldn’t define. I was beginning to feel dizzy with anxiety, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“I reviewed her chart,” he continued authoritatively, “She’s had some trouble sleeping and she’s been hoarding food from the dining room. With these cases, it’s hard to predict.”
“What’s next then?” I asked, feeling helpless and bewildered.
“The police, they’ll want to speak with you. This way,” he motioned me out into the hall, “they’re out back, by the pond.”
Our footsteps echoed eerily along the corridor as I followed the director to the side door that led to the back grounds. Mother had been in this same hallway, just hours earlier. I had a vivid sensation of déjà vu that coincided with a sudden metallic clicking in my ears. It stopped just as abruptly as we passed through the security doors, out onto the meticulously kept lawn. In the distance, I could hear people and dogs; the search and rescue team. The dreary gloom of the clouds and the chill wind mirrored my mood. How could Mother have simply disappeared? We hurried toward the throng of S & R volunteers. I was desperate to join in the search.
The highway patrolman in charge was an older guy, with the fatherly demeanor of a country doctor. “With these situations, we usually find them,” he said impassively, “but if it’s been over 24 hours, chances are 50% that they may be injured and most likely dehydrated. The fatality rate is 25%.” He paused to let this fact sink in. “It’s amazing how some endure the experience though,” he continued. “Hell, there was that fellow over in Bentonville last month. Survived for four days in the woods. Alone. When we found him he was buck-naked and eating bark,” he declared incredulously. “They sometimes try to elude us, ya’ know? Passive evasion. ‘Cause they know we’re authority figures, scares ‘em. There’s been cases where they never turn up, but not in Arkansas,” he nodded reassuringly. “We’ll find her.” My heart sank. She had been missing for over five hours.
By the time I joined the search team, it was well after noon and there was still no sign of Mother. The authorities had thoroughly checked the acreage and had expanded the search area into the forest, which bordered the property. As I trudged through the grass and shrubs of the woods, I thought about those 19 days. I usually saw Mother at least every weekend and I was certain that I had set out to visit within the last week. The thing was – I couldn’t remember ever arriving. It was corporate tax season at work, so I’d been under more stress than usual. In fact, I had been working at least 60 to 65 hours a week for the past month. Earlier this week, I had quarreled intensely with my wife. She suspected that I was having an affair because I wouldn’t account for my whereabouts over the past weekend. The terrifying reality was that I couldn’t explain where I’d been. I had laughed in reproach, to cover my fear, pointing out that I was a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch. Who was likely to have an affair with me? The entire argument was preposterous. She was the love of my life! I had simply been visiting my mother and had also put in extra hours at the office. But had I? 19 days…I struggled with my memory, but it was all the explanation that I could muster.
As I wrestled through the cedar and wild blackberry bushes, I suddenly realized that some time had passed and I no longer heard the sounds of the rest of the team. No voices, no dogs bellowing on the scent of a fresh trail, no shrill burst of a whistle to announce she’d been found. Had I become separated? Am I lost? I wondered? Except for my thrashing, it was unnervingly quiet. I pushed on through a thicket and found myself in a clearing. Not even a bird was twittering in the brush.
My nose was bleeding. Had I bumped it against a tree? The silence felt overwhelming, as if it were a force itself. Mother, where are you? I pulled out my phone to check my coordinates on the GPS. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, it showed that I was in Reykjavik and then seconds later, in Islamabad. But I’m in Arkansas! I wanted to shout. The metallic clicking in my ears had returned as had the sharp, undefinable odor I had noticed earlier. Nauseousness rolled over me in shivery waves, making my head spin. My clothing was damp with the cold fog that was coming down off the mountain. The temperature seemed to be dropping rapidly.
“Hello?” I called out, “Hello?” My voiced boomed across the silence of the glade.
And then, this roaring sound of color and ecstasy, pain and compression descended upon me, the weight and the brightness of a jillion tiny lights pressing me down. I screamed and screamed, squeezing my eyes tightly shut against this onslaught of beautiful terror. This did nothing to shield me from the images and memories that assaulted my senses. I flashed back to my childhood, to my mother before I could have known her and these images swirled across my eyelids in a barrage of strange and vibrant impressions.
I don’t know how long this lasted, seconds? Hours? It seemed like forever, but when I opened my eyes Mother was there. She cradled my head in her lap, wiping my tears and blood away on the hem of her nightgown with those strong, compassionate hands I knew from my childhood. Mother, my eyes said. Did you see that? My mind was in a state of rebellion.
“Yes, son,” she answered, as though reading my thoughts. Her grey eyes held mine for a long moment with an unwavering clarity I hadn’t seen in years. She knew me.
“But how?” I asked weakly as I sat up. The normal sounds of the forest washed in gently, birds chirped, the wind rattled the skeletons of the trees. In the distance I heard dogs barking, the sounds of men.
“Shush,” she answered sweetly, soothingly, as she reached for my trembling hands. “They’ll be coming soon.”