June 25, 2014: We start halfway down the long side of the sun porch, and inch our way west toward the stone’s-throw-away village center and the lake not far beyond, both of which may as well be part of another solar system. In her heyday Mom knew the village population and the length of the lake as well as the price per linear foot for property directly on its shore. She could quote in a heartbeat what might be got or paid for a house in the countryside beyond.
“What’s your budget?” she would ask potential clients soon into telephone conversations generated by her newspaper ads. It was a quick way to separate the wheat from the chaff.
This afternoon our world is contained by the elbow-high white metal fence around The Home’s 20 meter by 15 meter sun porch, which in turn is surrounded by a mix of deciduous and fir trees. A little like Noah’s ark, the porch is populated by things in twos: the two of us, two tables and their shading umbrellas, and an assortment of two dozen or so chairs, some around the tables, others scattered about in pairs.
Mom is able to get up from her wheelchair on her own today. From her clearer eyes, more alert demeanor and ability to “walk” I feel she must be getting less anti-psychotic medication lately. We make the most of the opportunity. She puts her right hand in my left. At first she holds it firmly, her fingers wound around my own; I keep mine open, light and responsive. I notice how soft and cool her skin is, like the breeze on my cheek.
I guide her to the fence. She reaches her left hand toward it, as someone would feel for something in the dark when they know it’s there but aren’t quite sure exactly where. It’s one of the signs the way she “sees” things is changing. She focuses on moving forward. I focus on her. This is our universe. I listen with my hand for the barely noticeable changes in pressure that indicate what she needs from me. I close my fingers a little around hers when she squeezes mine, then loosen them again when hers relax. It’s important that she feel as competent, capable and independent as possible. She takes a step. And then another.
“You’re doing great Mom,” I say.
“I hope so,” she replies. A pause and then: “I wish I could do better.”
“You’re doing great Mom,” I repeat.
“Thank you,” she says. I’m amazed and grateful when these thoughts and sentences emerge fully formed from her Alzheimer’s fog. It reminds me she’s still in there, hidden most of the time, but in there nevertheless. I uncurl my fingers again when hers lighten, lift and float just above my open palm. She walks alone for a few steps, leading herself down the metal railing with her left hand. Fat plastic planters alive with colour interrupt the relatively thin line of the fence every few feet. I enclose her hand gently as we approach the first one.
“Aren’t those beautiful flowers in the planter Mom?” It’s an “obstacle-ahead” warning disguised as a question so she doesn’t falter when her hand arrives at the planter.
“Yes, beautiful flowers,” she repeats. Her eyes are fixed and angled toward the ground nowhere near the blooms. Parroting is her way of carrying on a conversation. Whether she actually sees or understands is irrelevant. The fact that she’s engaged with life is what counts.
“These purple ones are lovely,” I say when we get there. “And look, here’s a pink geranium. Your favourite.”
“A pink geranium,” she echoes. We’re stopped now.
“I can’t remember the name of this mauve one Mom. You have them in your garden, but I can’t remember the name…” I search my own faltering memory.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“Cosmos.” It comes back to me. “It’s a Cosmos. I wonder if it smells?” She’s very close to the edge of the planter; a single Cosmos stretches toward her. She bends into the flower’s center and sniffs.
“Yes, it smells nice.” When she pulls back she has a dusting of yellow pollen on the end of her nose. I laugh and blow it off. She squinches her eyes a bit. I forgot to warn her.
“You’re nose was yellow Mom!”
“Yeah!” I laugh. I smell the Cosmos too. It doesn’t smell of anything to me.
We continue our expedition, punctuating it with stops at each of the planters where we replay variations of the same conversation over and over again. When we walk Mom is intent on putting one foot in front of the other. Just as we all are in different ways at different stages in our lives. At this time, for her, each step is a marathon requiring her full attention. I espy a black cat sunning on the lawn below. I point him out.
“He’s not doing much of anything,” she says. I wonder if she has really seen the cat or if it’s a random good guess. She’s pretty good at good guesses despite her dementia. She’s also great at filling in the blanks once I supply her with the words to do so. Eventually we get to the wooden birdhouse in which chickadees have been nesting. Last week I watched the parents fly back and forth with food, and heard the youngsters make hungry noises inside. Now the house is quiet. There’s no flutter of parental wings or youthful chirping to be enjoyed. The family has flown the coop.
“The chickadees are gone Mom. There were babies in the birdhouse, but they’re gone now.”
“It’s okay Mom, they learned how to fly. Now they’re out exploring.”
We’re almost back to where we started halfway down the long side of the porch’s perimeter. The sky remains infinitely blue and cloudless. The trees, the fence and the flowers create a border around a world that expands and contracts like we do as we breathe it in and out. This is our universe today. It’s taken us twenty-five joyful minutes and two roller coaster lifetimes to come full circle.