His girlfriend's mother had Alzheimer's; visiting her allowed him to comfort them both.
Her eyes stared in listless reverie at the tiled floor of her room as a nursing assistant stopped in to empty the wastebasket. He chatted brightly with the silent woman as he straightened the bed; her glance never left the floor. Refilling her water pitcher, he left the room, saying he'd be back to bring her to dinner in an hour.
Her daughter Anne, my girlfriend, released the gentle grasp she had on her mother's hand, and fumbled inside her purse for the CD she had brought with her: a collection of songs that she and her mother had listened to years ago while making the weekly two-hour drive from the Twin Cities to Anne's father's home in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
This was the second time I had met Anne's mother, Roxie. The first was the previous weekend when she, her daughter and I had dinner together in the cafeteria of the nursing home. Anne inserted the disc and the old woman's eyes sparkled as the music began.
"Dale!" She smiled, looking directly at me. "Dale, you always had such funny hair!"
I had learned the weekend before that "Dale" was the name of Roxie's brother, who had passed away in 2007. Anne told me that in her more lucid moments her mother often mistook people for loved ones from her past. She encouraged me to go along with it, as there was no changing Roxie's mind, and it seemed to please Roxie that her brother had come to visit.Read about a wife who allowed her sick husband to believe he was having an affair
"Hi Roxie, I love your hair today!" I smiled back, not exactly sure what to say.
Roxie shot a surprised glance at her daughter, her eyes wide as if I had just said something terribly funny. Brushing a wayward strand of hair back behind her ear, her gaze slowly fell back to the floor, stopping when it reached the green tile she had been studying earlier.
This was how visits with Roxie went: sudden bursts of recollection or random observations dotting long periods of silence. Anne took it all in stride. She knew the prognosis, and she made the 45-mile trip to the home every weekend and most Wednesdays. As the only child of divorced parents, she felt that it was her duty to visit her mother as often as she could.
Until I met Roxie I had only a passing knowledge of Alzheimer's disease. I thought it was simply forgetting people's names, eventually no longer recognizing their faces. I had no idea how painful it was to watch a loved one's personality evaporate, to watch as shared memories and experiences disappear until there's nothing left to do but accept it, to smile when you are mistaken for someone from the past, thankful even for that hint of memory. In all the time I was there Roxie never called Anne by her name, although there was always a flash of recognition when she heard her daughter's voice.
When Anne first asked me to join her on one of her weekly visits I agreed, thinking that we would pop in and say "Hi" to a confused old woman, chat for a few minutes and be on our way. Instead, I witnessed the change in the relationship between parent and child, set to the music that an attentive mother had played for her daughter to shorten a long, boring car rides 30 years earlier. I watched as daughter became caregiver, and mother became child. Watch: True Love: Caring For My Sick Husband
Participating in these visits plumbed the depths of my own compassion and gave me a glimpse into Anne's temperament and personality in a way that would have been difficult to duplicate. When Roxie angrily insisted that her nurse was the daughter of a man down the hall who, she believed, had stolen her favorite pair of shoes, Anne gently held her mother's hand and spoke to her patiently until she calmed down. The three of us shared these moments together, though only two of us would remember them. Rather than putting a strain on our relationship, it brought us closer, revealing untested reservoirs of patience and understanding.
I've heard that love is not something we feel, it's something we do. In spite of being barely recognized bt her own mother and knowing that she would never remember their brief conversations, Anne spoke to her mother in an easy, conversational tone that revealed the comfort and history they shared together. Even if her mother never remembered, Anne always would, and Roxie's sporadic flashes of recognition proved that their bond could, however briefly, penetrate the shroud of confusion that was slowly taking the woman from herself.
These visits with Roxie showed me firsthand how gently and evenly Anne dealt with adversity, in this case the lingering tragedy of her mother's illness. Being present while someone deals with the impending death of a loved one is an intimate, uncomfortable position. I wanted to be a comfort to Anne while she comforted her mother. Eventually I realized that showing patient kindness to Roxie, assuming the role of brother Dale and letting Roxie comb my hair to the other side of my head made me a part of Anne's relationship with her mother, both of us gently escorting a dying woman through her fading memories.