Five whole months had passed since Sally’s birthday. That sunny evening in her kitchen was the moment Penny knew something was very wrong. And so began a stressful and frightening few months.
Her GP, Dr. Douglas, was caring but old-fashioned. He didn’t have a computer in his surgery. He still wrote sick certificates and medication scripts by hand as he peered at you over his ridiculously small spectacles.
Penny took a deep breath and prepared to tell him her concerns. It felt as if her racing heart might beat out of her chest. Talking about it with a medical professional made it all too real, and Penny had been in a state of sweet denial for a while.
Apart from getting her blood pressure medication, Penny avoided going to visit the doctor. She had begrudgingly decided it was high time she bit the bullet and confronted these symptoms head on.
She could hear late mother’s voice in her head. ‘Penny darling, it’s best to know if something is wrong. I always say, it’s better the devil you know, than better the devil you don’t.’ At that very moment sitting in the waiting room, she felt far from brave, in fact she was terrified. Her level of fear was so paralysing, she could hardly speak.
‘Mrs. Wilson. The doctor will see you now. Please come through.’
Penny took another deep breath before exhaling slowly. Dr Douglas looked at her with kind wrinkled eyes and asked, ‘Now then young Penny, what seems to be the problem?’ He referred to her as young. How was it then, that Penny sat there, worried about her frequent lapses in memory?
Penny fumbled around for the crumbled piece of paper at the bottom of her handbag. ‘I um, I made some notes. Sorry, I’m a bit flustered with all of this.’ He gave Penny a reassuring nod. ‘I am forgetting things all the time. It’s a good thing Sally got a smartphone for her birthday. Poor thing has had to use it on more than one occasion to call me from the bus stop when I forgot to pick her up. What’s wrong with me, doctor? What kind of mother forgets to pick up her own child?’
Dr. Douglas leaned in closer. ‘Go on.’
Penny focussed on a piece of dust on the floor as she went on. ‘I forget about appointments I have made and can’t remember why I have walked into a room. I’ve lost my confidence in social situations. I have been avoiding teaching my cake decorating class. I feel like a fumbling fool. Four weeks ago, I muddled up the recipe, forgot to turn on the oven, and sobbed in front of the entire class. I haven’t been back since.’
Writing was another one of her passions and lately she found her words made little sense. Her sentences ceased to flow the way they used to. All her colourful journals and notebooks sat untouched, gathering dust on her bedside table.
Dr. Douglas gently placed his withered hands over her clammy forearm. ‘Penny, I am sure it’s just stress. I’ll order a few tests to put your mind at ease and prescribe you a mild sedative to help you get a good night’s sleep.’
Three weeks later, she found herself in a neurologist’s office with sweaty palms, seated opposite a ‘no nonsense looking’ man with jet black hair, a menacing jawline, and a thick moustache. He looked like he stepped out of a horror movie. He smiled, flashing perfectly straight white teeth. No fangs.
‘I’ll get straight to the point. I’m afraid your tests show you have younger onset dementia.’ Penny’s head was spinning at such an alarming rate, she felt physically sick. She heard him say the words vascular dementia. Penny had only heard of Alzheimer’s disease. The specialist explained to her that vascular dementia was more than likely attributed to her high blood pressure, and the series of mini strokes she had suffered last year.
She stripped off her cardigan. The room and all its contents felt like it was closing in around her like a boa constrictor. She found it hard to breathe as the terror of what she had just been told suffocated her. A pile of glossy pamphlets was forcefully thrust into in her hand. The doctor was talking, but for Penny, it was simply white noise.
‘I will see you again in six months for a follow up. Mrs. Wilson, do you have any questions?’
Penny’s mouth was as dry as the bottom of a birdcage and no words came out of her mouth, even though they were forming in her head. ‘Ah, call me Penny. No doctor…...um thanks.’ Lifting her numb, lifeless body from the chair, she slowly headed for the door.
She wondered why all the other people in the waiting room had come to see the neurologist. Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, a brain tumour perhaps? She could still see their faces looking back at her as she inched down the hallway towards the lift. Had their lives suddenly changed forever?
Penny had been on her own at that appointment, as Damien couldn’t get away from work to be with her. She had never felt more alone in her life. On leaving the building, she sat and cried in her car for over an hour before somehow driving home in a daze.
She arrived home with damp blood-shot eyes. Dementia. The word had resonated in her head over and over all the way home like a song you dislike coming on the radio, and you cannot change the station.
She found Damien sitting in the living room watching TV. She burst into uncontrollable sobs. Penny poured herself a glass of wine with shaking hands. ‘Can we turn off the TV for a minute? I have to talk to you.’
Buddy followed Sally into the room wearing her purple tutu. ‘Mummy, I’m teaching Buddy to dance.’
Penny turned away from her daughter, trying hard to hide her tears. ‘Sweetheart, I don’t think Buddy enjoys wearing that. Take it off and go wash your hands for dinner, please.’
Once Sally was out of earshot, she turned to her husband. ‘So, apparently, I have dementia.’ Penny choked back more tears as she continued. ‘Something called younger onset. I had no idea you could get it so young.’
Damien mumbled, ‘I’m sure it can’t be all that bad love’, and went to check his emails. Damien’s words cut like a knife, piecing their way through the shock and the empty feeling of numbness.
With legs that felt like jelly wobbling on a plate, she stumbled towards the lounge. Again, the room was spinning. She leant forward and placed her head between her legs, trying to find some sort of equilibrium. This can’t be happening. I can’t have dementia. Did he just dismiss me? Did he hear what I said? What is going on with him lately?
Once her breathing had slowed, she reached for a tissue and dabbed at her bloodshot eyes. Sally and her canine sidekick reappeared in the doorway. ‘Mummy, can I watch TV before dinner?’
‘Sure sweetie, just no junk food, OK. Mummy will be back in a minute.’
Landing at the top of the stairs, she swore she could hear a woman’s voice. The voice sounded familiar, but Penny couldn’t quite place it. Penny knocked on the study door and pushed it open slowly. Damien promptly hung up the call and placed the phone under his bum.
‘Who were you talking to?’
‘Nobody, just working through some stuff for work out loud.’
Penny tried to put her paranoia aside and sat next to him on the bed, placing her hand on his knee. He moved away, exposing his phone. The screen lit up like a Christmas tree with message after message. He placed it in his desk drawer.
Penny tried to put the phone out of her mind. ‘Damien, my diagnosis is bloody serious. Did you hear what I said? I have fucking dementia. I’m terrified, honey. Do you even give a shit?’
‘Of course, I care. I’ve been under a lot of pressure at work, that’s all. I’m sorry, love.’
An awkward silence descended upon the room at dinner, except for Sally relaying a story about a game of handball at school and Buddy’s whimpers begging for scraps of food from the table.
Penny didn’t get a single wink of sleep that night as she watched the shadows dance across her high Victorian ceilings. She hoped it was all a horrible dream and she would soon wake from the nightmare.
(c) Hayley Walsh 2023