I have been spending a good chunk of my day time hours with a woman who is in the later stages of Alzheimers. Her home has been sold, her husband died a few years ago, she lives with her daughter and son-in-law for these last months or even weeks while that is still possible. While my presence allows her daughter to leave for work, to have a few hours of respite, I am really the one benefitting from this time. My lack of patience and quick anger dissipate as I drive up and exit my car. I know exactly what we will be talking about, four basic conversations on a loop that occur between her frequent naps. My responses are mostly set now, I know how to prompt her to better memories as she vers toward paranoia and her confusion about current moments threatens to overtake her. But more than the fact that these interactions are not taxing on me emotionally or mentally, I am learning a great deal from her.
Much could be said about the sadness surrounding the situation yet I feel blessed to be trusted with her, to keep her safe and drive her to get a hamburger and a Coke each day. With determination I seek out her laughter, a pathway to travel back to old pets and various employments, to find her smile and watch her mostly vacant eyes light up. Remembering also that her daughter has quietly stood with our family, has supported my Arrow for many many years behind the scenes, how he benefited from grace during his vulnerable times, I am grateful for the chance to be with her mom while she is most vulnerable. Rather than sad, I find myself energized when I get in my car and leave the house, a purpose ahead of me rather than long days of ruminating and crying. Giving back to a friend who has never needed anything I could offer, this feels like closing a circle. Even more though, I am learning the danger when one begins to question the motives of those around, to forget the kindnesses of family and friends, to lose touch with all the good you have done in a lifetime. I see how lost she is when scary thoughts cloud out the current reality. A warning to me, I grasp that I could easily forget where I am, who I am, all the joy I have experienced if I stay in the darkness.
We look at old pictures and recall better days, she doesn’t recognize herself in her wedding picture or one from when she was a teen, yet there are some middle years that she can still recall and that is where we find our most laughs, when she can add bits of detail to stories each day. I feel at ease with her, I too have lost much of my history and struggle to recall details that add joyful color to my life. These current days are fraught with pain and second-guessing that push away the memories of my children as children, before they became adults with difficult choices and missteps of their own. Watching old home videos I am reminded of hugs and silliness and laughter, so much laughter and giggles and sweet sweet smiles. Those images remind me that our lives were love filled also, that darkness didn’t always have the edge. Being with my new friend reminds me to look back a bit further, to seek out the details of our lives and not fixate on the confusion that comes when I question why or how. Even more though I am aware that each day I have the choice to add more light, to see more light. Alzheimer’s may have taken this choice away for her, one of the many tragedies of this disease, she may not be able to so readily access happier times but I still have a chance. Thus I steer our talks away from why her sister doesn’t call (she does) and toward times when she was young and followed her sister around everywhere. We are focusing on her joy moments and she finds peace again. This is my roadway back to my own peace.
When I am older, when my faculties are strained, if I am blessed with someone who will visit me, who will listen to me reminisce, I pray I am brimming with stories of delight and not regrets, that I am able to settle into times when my purpose and worth are evident, when I was following my calling and who laughter surrounded me. Darkness will always seek to overwhelm the light, I will never be whole again, the loss is just too great. Yet I have today and another chance to create a memory worth celebrating, one that I can look to when all feels heavy and scary. The sun is shining, the coffee is hot, I slept most of the night. I can find blessings if only I remember to look. God has placed me with a teacher who may never know that she saved me by her example and the easy acceptance she offers as we chat and drive and walk outside, but I know and I will remember.