By Phyllis Rittner
I am greeted with a wide smile by a woman with wavy brown hair and hazel eyes. She’s fit and trim, expertly setting up the chairs as the residents file in. I’m teaching seated dance at this senior living facility and happy to have help. We both assist with walkers and wheelchairs and chat about my Motown playlist. She is in her mid-fifties, a year younger than me. I search for her name tag and ask when she started working here. “Oh, I’m a resident,” she says. “Early-Onset. Clinical trial.” Her tone suggests this isn’t the first time she’s been mistaken for staff.
Both my parents had dementia. I lie awake nights convinced I have the gene. I work with folks in their eighties and nineties, brave souls who involuntary endure the identity shift from social worker, teacher and poet to living within the confines of the present moment. Maybe by witnessing their struggle, I fool myself into thinking I can control my own destiny. Once I watched the power of a show tune lift a catatonic man out of his chair and twirl me through the Lindy Hop. But that day, watching Diedre dancing in her purple Lululemon leggings, I could barely speak.
My first thought was – she could be me.
My better thought was – she could be my muse.
Diedre and I are both the same size but she has the kind of flexibility a dancer dreams of. I’m jazzed at how she always arrives early and sits opposite me in the front row. She never balks at sharing community space with residents forty years her senior. Instead she rallies others who have drifted in and out of consciousness. Maybe I’m just desperate to hang with someone my own age, but I fantasize about sharing dinner together, confiding our love lives over a glass of wine. Impossible, I know. So I make small talk after class. She tells me her children recently came to visit. I watch her face fall and change the subject.
Sometimes Diedre misses class or shows up late. I dismiss any forgetfulness. She’s often in overlapping activities, carrying in a clay pot she’s painted or showing off her newly manicured fingernails. “Fuschia!” I shout over the music and we laugh. But as the months go by, I notice that despite Diedre’s intense focus, she can no longer correctly copy the dance movements. Her arms go up instead of side. Her leg goes to the side, instead of up. She continues sequences long after I’ve switched movements. A spark of outrage wells inside me which I mask with a joke.
I arrive one afternoon to find Diedre on the sofa, hunched over a puzzle. When she sees me she jumps up and claps her hands like a child, nearly colliding with a elderly woman with a walker, the same woman she had carefully seated almost a year ago. She drags her chair to the front of the room and plops down in her seat six inches from my face. “I’m so glad you came!” she exclaims.
When Covid arrived and canceled all my gigs, I thought a lot about Diedre. What was she doing? How was she adjusting? When I’m finally asked back to teach outdoors, I prepare myself for the worst. As expected, a few residents have passed on and a few have newly arrived. I am thrilled to see Diedre. Her hair is shorter and her face fuller. Like most of the residents, due to the quarantine, she has gained at least ten pounds. “You’re here!” she says, forgetting to pull up her mask. Then she turns to an aide and asks, “What are we here for?”
During class I notice Diedre’s lower body is almost completely still. Her arms move left and right, but minimally. Only her index fingers scope out shapes in the air. She claps after every song and the others politely follow. I pack up my things, eyes brimming, grateful to be masked.
Now, fully vaccinated, I teach indoors. The residents file in, late as usual. I wait an extra five minutes for Diedre but she doesn’t appear, so I start class without her. That’s when I notice her wandering into the room followed by an aide. I realize she’s been moved to the memory care unit upstairs. I stop the music and wait as the aide leads her to the chair closest to me. She stands for several seconds in front of the chair, searching my face for a cue as to what happens next.
“Would you like to sit down?” I ask her gently.
She nods and sits.
Together we begin.
Phyllis Rittner is a writer and mental health advocate from Watertown, Massachusetts. Her work can be found in HerStry, NAMI.org, Thisismybrave.org, and Friday Flash Fiction. She is a Grub Street Free Press Fiction Contest winner and a member of The Charles River Writer’s Collective.