An elderly woman wakes up in a nursing home and discovers that what she had thought was her real life was all a fantasy — or madness.
Wanda Gersh couldn’t quite remember afterward how the nightmare started. She remembered she was in her house and the phone rang, and she picked it up and a voice on the other side said, “Your son is dead.”
After that, Wanda fell a long way and she kept falling, so far she would never hit the ground. She woke up and it was dark. There were strange noises and soft cries and the harsh smell of lye. Wanda didn’t know where she was, and she was sure the voice on the phone had told her a lie.
Later, as the sun rose, people started moving around and a kindly face bent over Wanda. “So how are we doing?” asked a sweet voice.
“Please,” whispered Wanda. “My son…What happened to my son?” The nurse checked Wanda’s IV and looked at her chart. She frowned.
“I think you’d better speak to the doctor, my dear, he’ll be on rounds in a little while.” She patted Wanda’s hand with awkward sympathy and moved on to the next bed.
When the doctor came around, he sat by Wanda’s bed, checked her pulse, and asked how she was feeling. “Better, thank you,” she said. “But what I really want is to see my son. Someone said the most awful thing…and then I fell…”
“What were you doing when this happened, Mrs. Gersh?” the doctor asked.
“I was home, getting dinner ready for my son and my daughter-in-law,” said Wanda. “I was making his favorite stew.” Just like the nurse, the doctor frowned and looked at the chart in his hand.
He said gently, “I have indications that you were brought here from Medowside Nursing Home after collapsing, Mrs. Gersh. There is no indication of any family on your chart.”
“My son!” gasped Mrs. Gersh. “Call my son, David! He’ll tell you! Call my son, I want my son!” That was when the doctor quickly administered Wanda a sedative that sent her spiraling down into darkness.
The next time they spoke, the doctor explained to Wanda that she was quite alright now, and would soon be transferred back to Medowside. This time Wanda kept her peace and resolved to sort out this confusion at this Medowside place.
Besides, this was all a nightmare, wasn’t it? The awful phone call telling her David was dead, this hospital, the story about a nursing home, it was like one of those awful horror movies David had loved so much as a teenager, films Wanda had hated.
Grief and fear can confuse our sense of reality.
Soon, Wanda was sure this strange fuzziness inside her mind would clear, she’d wake up and everything would be back to normal. Wanda was transferred into a wheelchair by a kindly woman in a blue uniform and driven to Medowside Nursing Home.
She was taken to what she was told was her ‘old room’ which displayed a few snaps of herself and her husband in her younger years, but no photos of David. Wanda allowed herself to be tucked into bed and given a pill before she asked, “Where are the photos of my son?”
The nursing aide shook her head sadly and said, “But you don’t have any children, Mrs. Gersh. Your niece told us it was your great sorrow.”
Wanda frowned. “My niece?” She didn’t remember a niece or this kind-faced nurse’s aide who was now urging her to take her pill, but she did remember David. Maybe a night’s sleep was all she needed.
The next morning, Wanda woke up refreshed and clear-headed. She knew who she was and where she was supposed to be. She got up, dressed in the clothes she found in her closet, and ventured out into the halls.
She walked until she found a door marked ADMINISTRATOR and knocked. A tall woman with very red lipstick and thick glasses opened the door. “Please,” said Wanda, “I’d like to speak to the administrator,”
The woman led her into an inner office where an older man sat behind a huge desk. “Yes,” he said. “And how may I help you?” he asked.
Wanda sat down and looked him in the eye. “I want to know what I’m doing here, and where my son is,” she said firmly. The man looked at a file on his desk, then up at Wanda again.
“Ah yes, Mrs. Gersh, you had an episode and were taken to the hospital…” he said. “Well I’m afraid you’ve been placed here by your niece after the death of your husband. She said you were suffering from delusions brought on by grief.”
“My niece?” asked Wanda. “But what about my son David, David Gersh.”
“According to your records, Mrs. Gersh, you are childless,” the administrator said kindly. “Your delusions seem to center about a whole fantasy life you created in which you had a son…”
“I did have a son!” cried Wanda angrily, and that was when the administrator called in a man in a blue uniform who gave her another shot that left her dizzy and fuzzy.
Over the next few days, Wanda lived in a half-world of distant humming voices and a desperate attempt to remember. Then one afternoon, one of the younger orderlies took Wanda in for her shower.
She helped Wanda in, turned on the showerhead, and that was when her phone rang. She turned away and left Wanda under that warm rain. Wanda ran her hands over her hair, then down the sides of her body.
Then she touched a thick twisted scar across her belly. Wanda looked down. “That was the cesarean scar from when David was born!” she said to herself. “David is real, he exists! The proof is here on my body!”
The orderly came back giggling, phone in hand. “Are you OK, Mrs. G?” she asked.
“I’m great, Shelly,” Wanda said. “But could you get me that lavender-scented shower gel in my dresser?” The girl placed the phone on the edge of the washer and drifted out.
Wanda quickly reached out and picked it up with trembling hands. Who to call? The police would think she was mad…Glenda! Wanda dialed her lawyer’s number and left her a voice message. “Glenda, it’s Wanda Gersh, they have me in a nursing home called Medowside. They say I’m mad and that David doesn’t exist. Help me!”
By the time Shelly was back with the shower gel, Wanda had the phone back on the edge of the washer. She showered and let Shelly help her out. She was cooperative and sweet, but when they gave her her pills, she put them under her tongue and spat them out later.
Wanda prayed that Glenda would hear her message soon, she wanted to believe that help was on the way. What Wanda never expected was the dramatic arrival of Glenda and half a dozen police officers.
Glenda charged Medowside with unlawful imprisonment, with proof of Wanda’s identity and of her son’s existence’ prompting the administrator to release Wanda immediately.
The niece who had left Wanda at the nursing home turned out to be her daughter-in-law Sandra. “Sandra?” gasped Wanda, shocked. “Why would she do that? She had nothing to gain!”
“No,” said Glenda sadly. “But David did. Their plan was for the Medowside psychiatrist to issue a document deeming you incompetent, and David would get his hands on your inheritance — that’s $2 million.”
“So David is alive,” whispered Wanda. “He’s alive and he did this to me?”
“Yes,” Glenda said gently. “And he’s going to jail for it Wanda.”
“He only had to ask,” whispered Wanda. “I would have given him everything! Why did he do this?…I thought he was dead…” It took Wanda a long time to come to terms with the terrible thing her son had done.
Eventually, like all mothers, she forgave him and visited him in prison where he was serving out his five-year sentence. David was deeply ashamed to face his mother, and when he was released, he went to work as a volunteer in an old age home.
What can we learn from this story?
- Grief and fear can confuse our sense of reality. David and his wife upset Wanda by telling her he was dead and taking advantage of her confusion to place her in a home.
- Greed often leads people to their own destruction. David was so eager to get his hands on his mother’s money that he was prepared to commit a crime — and he paid for it.
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