the smell of my desperation has become a stench

This village of ours

On Thursday nights I let Leta sleep with me as a way to reward her for the hours of homework and piano practice she’s accomplished over the course of the week. We chose Thursdays because that’s the night of her piano lesson, and it commemorates that weekly milestone. I know I have talked extensively about dreading the tiny arms and knees and elbows that will eventually end up smacking me directly in the face when my children sleep with me, but then I finally figured out that I could avoid that by erecting a pillow barrier between me and their ammo:

You are over there. I am over here. Do not cross this line. Are we clear. Where’s my hot dog.

This only works if they get into my bed before they go to sleep. If they wake up in the middle of the night and climb into bed with me it’s usually because of a nightmare, and I will spend the rest of the night with four skinny limbs wrapped so tightly around my body that I lie awake counting down the seconds until the circulation is cut off from my brain.

Last Thursday night Leta crawled under the covers waaaay over on her side of my bed, and after reading for about 40 minutes took of her glasses and said goodnight. I climbed over the four pillows lined up between us, kissed her forehead and stroked her hair like I do every night. I then traveled back over to my quadrant and continued reading for, oh, two seconds and then turned off my lamp to go to sleep. At 9 PM.

QUICK TANGENT: I don’t have time and am too tired to read or watch anything anymore. After kissing Leta goodnight every night I’m like, where is the nearest horizontal surface so that I may fall over. This makes for odd urges when I travel because I so desperately want to share with someone, anyone on a plane that holy shit I get to read a book.

On a recent flight there were screens on the back of every headrest, and I couldn’t help myself. I had to share my excitement with another human being, so I turned to the older couple sitting next to me and shout-whispered, “I GET TO WATCH A MOVIE!” all while violently pointing to the screen in front of me. They were so happy they chose seats 14B and 14C next to the lady who every ten minutes would take out her earphones, point again to the screen and say, “I”m watching a movie!” And then I’d give a thumbs up with both of my hands.

Both Leta and I were fast asleep when suddenly we heard furious banging going on underneath us. The banging continued while a voice I did not recognize started yelling something I couldn’t understand. I looked at my phone to find out that it was about 4:30 AM when Leta sat straight up and said, “What’s going on? What is that? Mom, what is that?

I told her to sit tight, and after I pulled on a pair of pants I headed downstairs to see what was going on. Yes, I am that woman you scream at in the movies who walks into the dark tunnel straight toward danger. RUN AWAY! Except no, I can’t run away. I need to get a good look at what is about to maim me.

I immediately noticed through the vertical windows flanking my front door that someone was standing outside, and he continued to hammer at my door with his fist. As I got closer to the door I realized that it was an old man who lives in the neighborhood, an old man who takes long walks every day and waves and smiles at every single pedestrian and every passing car. So I approached the door and cracked it just to enough to say, “Hi there. Are you okay?”

“OBAMA!” he yelled. “Obama is coming to get me!”

I mean him no disrespect with what I’m about to say, but in the haze of sleep and darkness my first thought was, “Oh, god. Facebook has shown up at my door.”

My second thought was, “Maybe I should turn on the TV? Has something happened?”

He interrupted my second thought with, “I escaped the camps, and now Obama is coming to get me! If he gets me he will kill me!” His accent was thick and jarring.

Leta had at that point found her way out of my bed and was standing at my side, tugging on my shirt and asking what was going on. I physically shook my head to straighten out my thoughts and whispered to her, “He’s our neighbor and he’s disoriented. He doesn’t know where he is.”

“Do you know where your house is?” I asked him.

“No! And I need to hide! Obama is coming to get me,” he answered. “I escaped the camps! I escaped the camps!”

He was fully dressed as he usually is in the daytime, as if he was going somewhere, maybe for one of his long walks. I stepped out onto the porch and pointed in the direction of his house. “Your house is right over there,” I said.

“No, it can’t be! He is going to kill me! I have to hide!” he continued.

I turned toward Leta and told her that I was going to show him where his house was, but apparently she did not hear me and ran back up to my room. As he and I stepped off the porch I realized that I was going to have to walk him home, he was just too confused. I knew I couldn’t call the police because that would frighten him even more, and so the quickest and best solution for everyone involved was to get him inside his house. If I didn’t he would continue wandering around, potentially into harm’s way.

I didn’t even realize that I didn’t have any shoes on. Or that I was still in a t-shirt. I wasn’t even aware that it was 32 degrees outside.

I steadied him out of my driveway and down the sidewalk toward his house as he continued to talk about escaping the camps and being afraid. I assured him that everything would be okay, and that he’d be safe in his home. We both walked up to his door, and once he was safely inside I felt good enough about everything to walk away. I’d check on him later in the day.

Right then I heard a piercing scream. It continued for several seconds, and out from my driveway came running my long-limbed Leta.

“WHERE IS HE TAKING YOU?!” she shrieked when she saw me walking toward her.

She was barefoot and, of course, still in her pajamas, so I ran toward her and scooped her into my arms. She was shaking and crying hysterically.

“He didn’t take me anywhere, sweetie,” I assured her. “I told you I had to show him where his house is. I had to make sure that he got into his house.”

“I thought he was kidnapping you!” she spoke through sobs. I stroked her hair and continued to assure her as we walked back to the house. It wasn’t until I closed the front door behind us that the cold suddenly hit me. My feet were frozen inside my socks.

When we got back to bed I disassembled the pillow fort dividing the bed in two and pulled her shivering body close. I explained again what had happened, and then we hugged and took long deep breaths together to calm down. After about a half hour I felt her fall limp into sleep. I wouldn’t ever get back to sleep, not with “escaped the camps” bouncing off of every corner of my brain.

The following day Tyrant volunteered to walk over and knock on his door to check up on him. Tyrant has had a few friendly conversations with him over the last couple of years and was sad to learn that this had all happened. The man’s brother answered the door and confirmed that this neighbor was experiencing symptoms of dementia. He also said that he was indeed a young boy when he survived and escaped a death camp.

I was holding out hope that those words had been spoken to me out of confusion, but no…. All the neighbors that I am friendly with have stories about feeling uplifted when he waves and smiles. He’s turned my day around more than once by waving at me with both hands, a grin spanning his entire face. He transmits light and joy. I have so much to learn from that alone.

That afternoon a technician was troubleshooting some security hardware I had installed on the house after Coco busted a teenager trying to break into my garage. Out of nowhere he found me at my desk and asked, “Did you have a visitor early this morning?”

The whole thing is on tape.

That is some incredible bedhead I’m sporting at 4:33 AM, and Leta was able to laugh four days later when she saw herself running toward the sidewalk.

“I’m all arms and legs!” she giggled. I’ve helped her work through her fears about that night, and I’m glad she’s not experiencing any ongoing distress. But this has served as the perfect opportunity to talk to her about what happened during World War II. And what this incredible man teaches us through his actions every single day. She finally understands why I had to walk him home that night and even said to me that she’s glad he knocked on our door.

So am I.

  • Beth

    2014/11/18 at 2:54 pm

    You’re a good soul, Heather Armstrong.

  • Heidi

    2014/11/18 at 2:59 pm

    Wow. How terrifying for Leta – but what a brave girl she was to run after her mama. I’m so glad everything turned out ok.

  • Jen

    2014/11/18 at 3:00 pm

    Wow Heather! Holy shit.
    I’m glad you opened the door. My mother has the beginning stages of dementia. I hope if I am not around and she has an episode, someone is kind to her — they same way you were to him. It’s a bittersweet story. BTW, I also build a wall b/w me and the kids, but they always climb over it 😉

  • Kristan

    2014/11/18 at 3:00 pm

    Oh, Heather! My thoughts in no particular order:

    – I am so so glad there was video. It’s kind of hilarious.
    – How do you find pajamas long enough for you? You’re like a million feet tall!
    – Poor Leta! Darling thing, I can totally understand why she was scared.
    – My heart aches (and yes, I did cry a little) for that man. Thank you for taking care of him in the middle of the night.

  • Suebob

    2014/11/18 at 3:01 pm

    Made me cry.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/11/18 at 3:07 pm

    I hate admitting that the video is kind of hilarious, but oh my god my hair. And Leta breaking the sound barrier running to the sidewalk. I am tall and have a lot of difficulty finding anything that fits. Always have to opt for the “tall” when that is an option in pants.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/11/18 at 3:09 pm

    Yeah, my grandmother had dementia, and I hope people were kind to her in these kinds of moments. I hope people will be kind to me because I know it’s coming.

  • Amy G

    2014/11/18 at 3:12 pm

    OH MY GOD this made me cry.

  • Melissa

    2014/11/18 at 3:15 pm

    This post is lovely and amazing for lots of reasons, but I’ve got to say – this line is definitely one of them: “Oh, God. Facebook has shown up at my door.”

  • Jos

    2014/11/18 at 3:17 pm

    This literally brought tears to my eyes. Dementia & Alzheimer’s are awful in any situation, but when it makes the person flashback to such awful memories and times in their lives? Ugh, heartbreaking. I’m glad you were there to get him home safely…

  • Jared Robinson

    2014/11/18 at 3:18 pm

    Personally, I liked the hair. Under control enough to seems as though you did it that way on purpose but just chaotic enough to be in a Twister Sister music video.

    I’m glad everything is OK. You are definitely the bees knees.

  • sybann

    2014/11/18 at 3:28 pm

    Oh my, honey – thank goodness you were there.

  • Mindy Williams

    2014/11/18 at 3:31 pm

    Tears, tears. So glad it was your door, and so glad you had your wits about you and were able to show him incredible grace and love.

  • Carrie B

    2014/11/18 at 3:45 pm

    Dang it! Your video made me tear up over my lentil soup! Nothing quite as sweet as the comforting arms of a mother..

  • Erin Jones

    2014/11/18 at 3:45 pm

    We should all be so lucky to choose a door as well as he did. That poor, sweet man. You handled that with far more humor and grace than many would. (Where the heck was Coco in all of this?)

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/11/18 at 3:46 pm

    She sleeps in a crate in the basement (cue the crate-haters). Otherwise she’d bark all night long.

  • heather walpole

    2014/11/18 at 3:54 pm

    After a traumatic brain injury my dad has started signs of dementia not far from this man’s. I fear for the day that he wanders away from their home and is out in the cold. Thank you for taking care of this poor man.

  • Ms. Cheevious

    2014/11/18 at 4:01 pm

    Nice job. I may not have been so nice, or had the presence of mind to realize he was confused.

  • Ms. Cheevious

    2014/11/18 at 4:03 pm

    Also – apparently like mother like daughter (in the facing what is going to maim you department…) she bolted out there! LOL)

  • nervrom

    2014/11/18 at 4:18 pm

    This is a really great post.

  • EducatingJackie

    2014/11/18 at 4:20 pm

    My grandmother (Oma) lived in Germany during WWII. Although never in a camp, she experienced a great deal of trauma. I remember as a girl getting woken up by 3am phone calls checking if we had enough food, and that everyone was safe.
    I’m so glad that man choose your door to knock on. Compassion wins, every time.

  • Teal

    2014/11/18 at 4:35 pm

    Gawd, how terrifying, and how sad. My 85 year old grandmother was just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s this fall. She has wandered off more than once. She’s slipping away more every day.

    That man might not remember what you did for him that night, but his family will. You put good out into the Universe. You will get it back.

  • mom_interrupted

    2014/11/18 at 4:38 pm

    Great mom – and neighbor

  • Nora

    2014/11/18 at 4:45 pm

    Wow, what a crazy night! You were brave to open that door… How come Marlo didn’t wake up?

  • Michael Mathews

    2014/11/18 at 5:09 pm

    I don’t think I would have been able to do that. I’m teary eyed at the compassion shown to the man, and saddened that he has dementia.

  • Jill Mansfield

    2014/11/18 at 5:10 pm

    Ooph. That punched me in the feels a little.

  • Anon

    2014/11/18 at 5:19 pm

    I think she’d like to read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

  • Ella

    2014/11/18 at 5:20 pm

    I read the whole thing and agree, it’s kind of hilarious there’s a video! Hahahaha! Thanks for sharing, glad he was in good hands that night. Good job keeping a cool head.

  • Bobbie

    2014/11/18 at 5:23 pm

    Heather – I am dealing with late stage dementia with my mom and am so happy anytime I hear of someone helping someone with this horrible condition. Even in their fear and confusion they want to be treated with respect and dignity. Thank you for respecting him.

  • KimFunk

    2014/11/18 at 5:27 pm

    Leta was so BRAVE running for you! And you were as I expected you would be. Very present and very there to know what needed to be done.

  • Erin Jones

    2014/11/18 at 5:32 pm

    Oh man.. She’s gonna be pissed that she missed out on an adventure 😉
    Crates saved my home, my furniture, and my underwear from certain destruction. I also have a cattle dog. No hate here.

  • Marie McDowell

    2014/11/18 at 5:57 pm

    Heather, you have such a warm heart. And Dang, Leta, is a brave girl going after her mama!

  • Susan

    2014/11/18 at 6:18 pm

    Thank you on so many levels.

  • Denise Webber

    2014/11/18 at 6:22 pm

    That made me tear up,I’m so glad that he picked YOUR door to knock on, there was potential there for things to go so horribly wrong. When I was in hospital I shared a ward with a lovely old lady with mid stage dementia, sadly her dementia fixated on the still birth of her daughter some 60 years before, and it was heart wrenching listening to her re enact the birth and then the realisation that her daughter was dead. Her screams and tears are still something I can hear today.

  • Micaela

    2014/11/18 at 6:23 pm

    Wow – you are the best..

  • Tish

    2014/11/18 at 6:43 pm

    This warmed my heart and made me snort laugh simultaneously… Hugs to you all!

  • Leslie GrubStreetNM

    2014/11/18 at 7:27 pm

    When you’ve had time to think it over, I wonder if you’ll regret outing him (your neighbors at least all know who he is) and making public — even to video — his private agony.

  • Kristine Clinton

    2014/11/18 at 8:10 pm

    I just bawled. My coworkers think I’m nuts.

  • Kristine Clinton

    2014/11/18 at 8:10 pm

    Ok, maybe I am just a little bit…

  • Dutchsneaker

    2014/11/18 at 9:01 pm

    Video is awesome. Also, wanted to echo the sentiment that Leta was incredibly brave to run after you when she thought he was kidnapping you! She’s got moxie. It was so kind of you to walk him home; my Dad had dementia — why is it never about happy memories, or happy hallucinations? Seems so unfair that you get haunted by the horrible stuff. if I go crazy, I want to go to the big rock candy mountain, not back to some hell I experienced in my youth.

  • Michelle Boehm

    2014/11/18 at 10:24 pm

    I’ll admit I cringed a bit at first when I saw him on the video, thinking “Hmm, maybe cutting him out would have been better?” But then I had the following thoughts:
    1. “Outing” him does imply that his actions were something to be ashamed of. They aren’t.
    2. Anyone who could recognize him from this grainy footage already knows or will soon know because they too will have an interaction similar, though likely less dramatic, than the one described here.
    3. Speaking from experience here on this last one, it’s probably best that the neighbors know if he’s to remain in the neighborhood. I myself, in an attempt to be a do-gooder, upset a neighbor of my grandmother’s when I took a request to help her find her husband as coming from a place sans dementia. Turns out he’d been dead for years and I inadvertently upset her while trying to help her, and I wouldn’t have done so if I had known prior.

    Besides, I bet none of the neighbors read Mommy blogs 🙂

  • Meg

    2014/11/18 at 11:15 pm

    Ah, bedhead. Most impressive when a child or dog has commandeered the pillow and tangled up the hair even worse.

    You carrying Leta back inside — so beautiful. That’s love.

  • shuggilippo

    2014/11/19 at 1:55 am

    This knocked me right off my chair. So powerful. And thank god it wasn’t Facebook at your door.

  • Shosh

    2014/11/19 at 2:50 am

    You’re a good person.

  • Gretchen

    2014/11/19 at 6:04 am

    You done good. People with dementia feel such intense fear and anxiety. Their lives are a walking nightmare. Any time you can help a person through those terrible moments, you’re a hero.

  • kmpinkel

    2014/11/19 at 6:25 am

    This is great! even though the story is a bit sad, it is still beautiful. And the video is hilarious! It looks like you sped up the video when Leta comes running out! And seriously, is he a very short man or are you over 6 feet tall? You are very lucky this hapened to you. There are not many survivors left in the world and I worry that the world will eventually forget about it all.

  • Megan

    2014/11/19 at 6:36 am

    This is just so sad. I am glad that you were there to help him and I truly hope that his dementia does not take him back to the terror of his youth again.

  • Matilda

    2014/11/19 at 7:34 am

    I’m laughing at all there is to laugh about, but I have to agree with you- I’m so glad he showed up at your door. We need more compassion. <3

  • theboldsoul

    2014/11/19 at 8:23 am

    That is one incredible story, and to get it all on video. I’m humbled just thinking about it. My mom has early-stage dementia and memory loss and I hope that if she is ever having those sorts of delusions, someone will be as kind to her as you were to your neighbor.

  • Kristen

    2014/11/19 at 9:09 am

    How awful! for her and for you.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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