Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Cold autumn nights

Maria Magdalena Geanovu
Stroesti, Romania


Veronica Geanovu, on the right, with her grandson, Alexandru, on the left. One of the last walks in the park, enjoying, as it is, the mild weather and remembering her youthful past.

It is said that balance exists, that for every misery an equal amount of happiness is about to come . . .

Sometimes I wonder . . . when you see death every day of your life, those random strains of thought begin to gravitate around one single, simple question: WHY? Why the pain, the loss, the feeling of being powerless, the struggle to invoke that force which, at times, creates miracles? Is there anyone up there or is it all up to chance?

I had been feeling powerless for over a year while we were struggling with different problems with my mother’s health. It began in one brief moment . . . “That darn cat is so pretentious! The tomcat is so much nicer than her!” I laughed a little. “What tomcat, Mom? We only have one cat.” “No, we have two. The cat wants to drink water from the tap and the tomcat always sits on the bed.”  Shivers rushed down my spine and a dark feeling began to crawl inside my heart. I knew it was too early for such a decay in her mental state; but I still had hope until the doctor told us she had Alzheimer’s disease.

There are times when you know about all the evils in the world but you cannot imagine that something could ever happen to you or to one of your loved ones. I knew about the disease but the truth is that nothing I could have ever imagined had been even close to the dark pits of reality. If I had to describe it, I would say that it is like cutting off parts of the person you love every day and scattering them across time. You still fight, you try to find these parts, but they can never be whole again. You find yourself collecting a bag of memories, finding out things that once you thought were meaningless, treasuring stories that you had heard a hundred times just because now you know you might never hear them again.

She felt lost most of the time; lost, confused, angry, and scared. She was trapped somewhere between her past and the present world, sometimes emerging to reach out to us like a drowning person holding her breath until reaching the surface, trying to hold on to something but having nothing to grab. We did not know what to do, making decisions and then questioning them. I refused the idea of a nursing home each and every time, although I was always thinking, questioning, and struggling to think about what was best for her. I realized I was thinking about a person I knew in the past, a person I knew would rather live a shorter life at home, with her family, seeing them in rare moments of lucidity, rather than having some weeks longer in a home, living only in her imaginary world.

Most of the time I felt guilt . . . for not noticing earlier, for not being able to take care of her better, for not having enough time with her, for not being able to find a cure, or at least something that would bring her back to us. This guilt grew until I became angry all the time. I had come to hate my life, not because I had to take care of someone who was mostly in bed, but because I was so powerless, so small. I felt like a child again, and that child had to make decisions not only without her mother, but for her.

We thought our prayers had been heard when, after six months of medication, she experienced more moments of clearness. In one of those moments she said to me, “Magda, am I insane?” I was shocked and tried to lift her spirit. “No, Mom, you just have a problem with your memory. But we’re going to fix that, you’re getting better.” She looked at me with her eyes watering: “Why are you so angry all the time? I haven’t hurt anyone, have I?” “No, Mom, you couldn’t. We’re sorry.” I took her in my arms and realized how selfish we had been, how the changes in our lives had us gravitating around our own insignificant problems when she could not find herself.

I guess that was the moment when I realized that she was still in there, that I had been too wrapped up in what I had to do and forgotten about what was most important: that I had to have faith. For the next few weeks I began to feel better and things regained a sense of normalcy.

One Sunday morning she had a stroke. I found her in bed, unable to move or speak, with tears running down her cheeks. The person who always solved our problems was a prisoner of her own body. I called the ambulance, unable to see any improvement in her condition. For two weeks I watched her disappear before my eyes; in the first week she seemed to understand me but she looked upset. As the hospital became my second home, I had time to think about many things, to try to understand her better, to think about her needs. Something inside me told me that she did not want to live anymore, at least not like this. She did not want to take her oral medication and the nurses thought, at first, that she could not swallow. But one night a younger nurse came and talked to her; something about her made my mother listen and take her medication. I knew she was upset with us because she barely looked at us.

In the first week she was able to move her arms a little; one night, with a sense of deep despair, I began talking to her . . . a hurting monologue, because the other recipient was a pair of empty eyes. But when she put her hand on top of mine, I knew she was still in there. And I was on the outside, unable to help her in any important way. Random thoughts like “Is she better off dead?” began to cross my mind. My actual questions were directed towards the nurses and the doctors; before asking anything, not wanting to sound oblivious to reality, I began with, “I know she is old, weak, and that she has Alzheimer’s, but . .. ” They all looked at me trying to find their words: “The problem is that she does not want to live anymore.”

Despair makes you do things you do not normally imagine. I wanted her to get better, but not against her will. I threatened her that if she did not eat, I would leave. Even though she could not move much anymore, she looked at me and shrugged her shoulders as if  to say, “So what?” I learned a few things during those cold autumn nights. I saw people dying. I saw families having faith even when there were no signs of recovery for their loved one. And I thought that, if she wanted to, she had a real chance of recovery because the CT scan showed no lesions on her brain.

We took her home after three weeks and fed her artificially. Even though it was a dramatic sight, in my mind it was better for her because she was home, surrounded by her family. She even smiled when she saw her nephew after a long time . . . she was still in there. Hope was something we did not dare to touch, because after only one week we had to take her back with serious breathing problems. I had never wished for anyone to die, but seeing her in that hospital bed, where we were only allowed to see her in the isolation room one hour a day, barely breathing, with her eyes almost closed, lost and cold, I had the urge to tell her that she could let go and stop fighting for us. But when I got there, all I could say was that she was going to get better, that the cough would pass and we would take her home. She widened her eyes, tried to smile and then lost her way one last time.

As promised, we took her home to the place she grew up, among her family. I had a month and a half to understand that we are mere humans and that most fights have no winner in the physical plane. We should not hang on just because it means the world to us; creation comes from destruction, and life from death. One cycle must end in order to evolve to the next one. Life is about moving on, one way or another.



MARIA MAGDALENA GEANOVU is a primary school English teacher. She is passionate about writing and sharing experiences that may connect people affected by Alzheimer’s disease.


Winter 2018  |  Sections  |  End of Life

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