John, Sweetie and Doris on a very good day during our visit.
Life can be so sweet and so bittersweet; all things must pass, which is hard to abide when those things are a parent – or a parent’s memory.
We baby boomers are all in it together; we’ve lost a parent, are losing a parent or know it’s coming. That’s the cycle of life.
Some situations are harder than others, and watching dementia or Alzheimer’s take a loved one someplace else is high on the list of horrible.
But you make the best of it and love the moments you get.
John and I just made a trip to his home town in Washington for what may be our last visit with his mother, sweet little Doris, who has a nonspecific dementia and failure to thrive syndrome. At this point, she’s just fading, no matter how much she eats. She can remember a few things from the 1940s, but you have to go way back to her childhood for her to really remember anything of substance.
Little Doris and her daddy await the boat to Catalina in the late 1920s. Those are the years Doris remembers these days.
Otherwise, she’s on a loop about the weather, the wind, her beloved cat, Sweetie, and the time. But occasionally she’ll throw something in that gets your attention, makes you laugh.
The long-suffering good girl, Sweetie, who was the chosen cat of three who moved from the orchard to the tiny apartment.
Doris now. You can still see a bruise from a fall a few weeks ago – but you can also see the woman behind the curtain of confusion.
My first day back in Little Rock, I saw a friend I haven’t seen in years – she popped into Esse Purse Museum & Store, where I hang out – and told me her mother-in-law died last year from nonspecific dementia and failure to thrive syndrome. She just faded away physically and mentally over about two years.
Doris has been fading longer than that – looking back, it’s hard to say when the confusion really set in, but it’s been a good long while.
As of a few weeks ago, she’s in hospice care at home, which is an assisted living facility now. Many days she thinks she’s traveling and is ready to come home; the really bad spells are when she’s frightened, doesn’t know where she is and is frantic to get home.
John’s sister, Kitty, deals with the bad spells on a sometimes several-times-a-day basis. For our trip, though, Doris rallied. She dressed most days – something she rarely does now – and even went to the dining room for a few meals, with or without John, much to everyone’s surprise.
John texted a mother and son selfie to Kitty and me, much to our delight.
Kitty and I slipped away to give Kitty some respite time and fun, while John soaked up every moment he could with his mother. We did get to visit with our niece and nephew – which is always a treat – but this was a Mom-centered visit. She doesn’t leave the facility now and most conversations are on an Abbott and Costello-style loop, but we still loved basking in her gentle and sweet presence.
The Yakima Valley is wine country, and we made the most of it this night – in the Inaba’s kitchen. That’s me, Kitty (in her Eiffel Tower apron that commemorates our trip to Paris together) and Norm.
In some ways Alzheimer’s is easier to deal with – at least that horrid disease has an anticipated trajectory. With garden-variety dementia, anything goes; somedays are horrible with short-term memory that holds for 10 seconds or so, but occasionally you get the person you miss back for a bit. Then she’s gone again. All you can do is cherish those moments.
And remember that everyone, no matter how lost, has something to say. You just have to listen for the message in the mania, the explanation in the inertia. Or meet them where they are, even if that’s in 1928.
John spent hours showing Doris photos on our phones – the same ones entertain her over and over. But here she’s explaining to us every detail of photos from her childhood. The mind is a peculiarly fascinating organ.
When it came time to say goodbye, Doris was back with the wisdom of her almost 93 years. She told us what a long and wonderful life she’s had – yet how time flies. She talked about how lucky she’s been to have such wonderful children and how pleased she is to have me as a member of the family – that John found me, as she puts it. I thanked her again for raising such a wonderful man for me to marry.
“Take care of each other,” she told us. She was 100-percent lucid in those moments.
We assured her we would. And we didn’t cry. The goodbyes were sweet and tender and strong.
All things must pass. Acceptance is hard but resistance is harder. If The Beatles are right, and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make, Doris will be a wealthy woman when she gets home from her travels.
And we’ll be poorer for her absence, even though in many ways she’s already gone.