July 15, 2014: Despite Mom’s ongoing decline, meals at my place with her and her friend Gaby remain bright spots on this Alzheimer’s journey. They give me an opportunity to witness and be inspired by unconditional love in action. It’s a miracle of sorts. One for which I’m profoundly grateful.
With the help of a friend, I fashioned a temporary plywood ramp over the three small steps to the front door of the house I rent so I can wheel Mom’s chair up when she’s unable to walk. So far I’ve only had to do that twice. Otherwise she’s been able to shuffle up with me holding her hands. The ramp makes it easier for ninety-seven-year-old Gaby too.
When we arrive, I leave Mom safely belted in the car while I guide Gaby up the gentle slope and into the house, then settle her in “her” chair–the blue one closer to the kitchen.
“Gaby, you stay here while I get Mom, OK?”
Gaby does what I ask. Mostly. Last time she and Mom came for lunch I took them out together when it was time to go. I asked Gaby to wait at the top of the ramp until I came back for her. I maneuvered Mom down and into the car, which I had parked a foot or so from the bottom of the ramp. As I fastened Mom’s seat belt, I heard the sound of rubber soles on plywood behind me. I turned around to find Gaby teetering down the ramp arms waving, a smile as big as the sky on her face.
“Gaby!” My heart leapt into my throat.
“Oh! That was fun!” She winked at me. Gaby may be an angel, but there’s a healthy dose of the devil in her too. That episode is partly why I now take them in and out of the house one by one.
I repeat my please-stay-put-in-the-chair request to Gaby. I hope she won’t move. Leaving Mom like this is out of the question. She cannot be relied upon to sit still for a nano second unless she’s immobilized. Which is one of the reasons they medicate her at the “The Home,” which I have come to call Elder Jail. Another reason is anxiety, some of which is evident today. Once I get her in the house and into her blue chair–the one closer to the solarium–Gaby and I tag-team to calm the waters. The conversation goes something like this:
“Did…did…did…did…did…did… Dad know about this cigar, because he didn’t tell what’s his name?” Mom says.
“That’s all good Mom. It’s all arranged.”
“I thought I might have said the wrong thing you know,” Mom says.
“You said the right thing Mom; don’t worry,” I respond.
Gaby and Mom sit about a meter apart in their respective blue chairs with an antique pine side table between them. Mom fiddles with the buttons on her blouse.
“You can button that and unbutton it, snap it or whatever,” Gaby says.
“But the snap it is usually look. Look eh Sue,” Mom says.
“That’s a very pretty golf shirt you have on Mom,” I say.
“Yes, and that skirt. Look at that skirt. Look at the hem–all flowers! Very nice,” Gaby chimes in helpfully.
“I don’t know how we got in all the flowers, but anyway,” Mom continues to try buttoning without success.
“Do you want me to help you with that Mom?”
“Yeah it’s a… a… a… a…a…a…a Laura Secord.*
“A Laura Secord!”
“Yeah,” Mom says
“Imagine.” I help her button it, and then go into the kitchen, which is open to the living room, to put dinner together.
“Well, it’s a rainy day,” Gaby picks up where I left off.
“It’s a rainy day. What can you do?” Mom agrees.
“How does that song go?” I ask. “Raindrops keep falling on my head…” I start to sing.
Mom joins in immediately: “…keep falling on my head…soon be turning red! Crying’s not for me…”
We sing as far into the tune as I can remember. When she forgets the words, Mom fills in with meaningless sounds but keeps with the melody. Her eyes open a little wider, her face flushes a bit, there’s a hint of smile around her lips. She looks more like the woman she used to be.
Dinner is simple fare: tuna salad, carrot sticks which I’ve partially cooked to make them easier on elderly teeth, fresh tomatoes, farmers’-market-bought lettuce, brown toast with butter.
Afterwards, I retire Mom and Gaby to the screened-in porch at the side of the house. It looks out onto a large expanse of lawn guarded by big fir trees. While I clean up the kitchen and fix desert, I catch snippets of their girl talk.
“I’m tired out. Are you tired Patti?” Gaby asks.
“Yeah, I am a bit tired,” Mom answers. “There were 10 of us you see. There were 10 of us.”
“Yes. The more tired we get, the worse we get,” Gaby gazes out onto the grass. “Oh those birds are all coming on this lawn. Making a great big show for us.”
“We want a show. A great big show,” Mom parrots.
I can see and hear them from the kitchen, but I pop out to the porch every few minutes to physically touch base because they can’t see and hear me unless I’m right there with them.
“I’m just doing the dishes girls,” I say when I come out to check on them.
“I can dry them,” Gaby says. She’s so sweet.
“It’s OK Gaby. You don’t have to dry them. They dry themselves.” I notice Gaby and Mom are holding hands. More seagulls land on the lawn, perhaps searching for juicy earthworms in the drizzle. I go back to the kitchen, leaving Gaby and Mom to themselves and their feathered friends.
“Look at all the birds over there. Nice. They come to your place,” Gaby says, being accustomed to making conversation about nothing at all.
“They come to my place,” Mom says.
“They like it here. They like us. We like it here too,” she pauses for a moment, “with Sue.”
“And the baby birds are nice,” Mom says.
“Yes they are,” Gaby agrees. There’s a longish lull in their conversation. I clatter around as I clear up.
“And the blue birds are all out,” Mom says.
“Yes,” Gaby says. Another long pause. A cardinal sings. It’s joined by a sparrow. The rain falls gently; it creates a background hush.
“And that doesn’t mean to say anything does it?” Mom asks.
“Because they don’t see anything.”
“No. They don’t.” More silence. The clock near the front door strikes the hour. Mom used to love counting the strikes silently in her head, then announcing the total aloud at the end.
“Seven!” She would have said a year ago. Not anymore. Not for months.
“Are you ready to go to bed now?” Gaby asks.
“I guess we’d better go to bed,” Mom says.
“You too eh?”
“Yeah, I’m tired.”
“So am I. You go to your little room and I’ll go to my little room and we’ll go to the bathroom and we’ll be ready for bed. And we’ll jump in,” Gaby says. I can hear the smile in her voice.
“Yeah,” Mom agrees again
Another pause. They don’t mind sitting alone in silence. They do it a lot. Being together is enough. A chickadee joins the sparrows and the cardinal. Their music is divine. Gaby is likely oblivious to the serenade; she’s a bit hard of hearing. Mom on the the other hand, can hear a pin drop at several paces; perhaps she’s enjoying the concert. I can’t know for sure, but I can hope.
“There’s a bird flying in. Joining the others…and another…and another,” Gaby observes. “That’s quite a flock of them.”
“Yeah, I think it’s a flock. I must tell Sue that,” Mom says.
“All getting together. Before going to bed. And they’ll all go and perch somewhere and sleep the night through,” Gaby says.
Cars drive up and down Sherbrooke Street a hundred feet away. People going here and there. I don’t think Mom and Gaby notice the cars. A hundred feet away is too far. They draw the line of their awareness with a fine-feathered quill.
“I don’t know who is on duty in your room tonight,” Gaby muses.
“Who’s on what?” Mom has no idea what Gaby is talking about.
“I don’t know who is on duty to help you go to bed.”
“Oh I don’t know.”
“No, we don’t know.
“Well I don’t know what they’re going to do. Half the time they don’t do anything,” Mom says. You got that right, Mom.
“I suppose they’re too tired,” Gaby ventures, more forgiving than I.
“And you see when they get tired, they go to bed,” Mom ties it all together.
“Oh boy. That’s what we should do. Right now. But we can’t,” Gaby says.
That’s my signal. It’s almost time to take them back to “The Home.” It’s past their bedtime already. They’ll sleep like babies tonight. I thread the dishtowel through the handle on the refrigerator door. Hosting them is joyful, enriching and a privilege. It also isn’t easy. Still, the taking-them-back-to-Elder-Jail part is the part I wish wasn’t part of their visits at all.
Then Gaby says something I will remember forever, or at least until I get Alzheimer’s too:
“That’s nice of those birds to come here. And walk around for us to watch them.”
“Yeah.” Mom replies.
I feel the tender center of my heart cave in on itself. A second or two later as if on cue, the flock of seagulls takes wing leaving Mom, Gaby and I to do the same.
July 15, 2014
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