Alzheimer’s: The perfect love story

When I worked in home health care to help in emergencies, I was told that the husband would relay my care taking  job duties when I arrived at their home.

I knocked… but the door was ajar…he told me to come in. He would not leave her alone. When I walked in, the kitchen wasn’t in the best of condition; crumbs on the counter, frying pans that needed elbow grease. That is where he spent most of his time. She needed to be fed soft foods because of her condition. He tried to make interesting recipes.

She really didn’t know what they were but she ate them without complaint. She would smile as he picked up the fork and spoon, alternating between one dish and feeding her steadily. She didn’t know how to do that anymore. I just sat and watched.

“Sorry that the kitchen is such a mess, would you mind cleaning it after we are done. Then you can iron…I just don’t do well with the iron at all, he commented.

By his tone of voice, he wanted household responsibilities to take precedence such as cleaning and laundering. Not feeding his wife of 50 years; the latter was his job and his job only with never ending love and patience.

“She loved to cook and the holidays were always here at the house. She would invite neighbors, friends that didn’t have a place at a festive, dining room table with the best of food. I was out working in one job after another”. I really didn’t pay attention to what went on in the kitchen” I came and just ate,” he said, a sad tone escalating, “Why didn’t I tell her then…. I don’t know.”

“She knows, I am sure of it,” I responded assuredly.  Because of what you are doing right now.”

“It is the least I can do,” he said, “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“Quite, I said. Though her beauty had been ravaged by Alzheimer’s and other physical issues, to the unknowing eye anyway. Never to his.

She turned to meet his gaze. In a whisper, she said, “Thank you,”.

Unsure whether she was thanking him for his compliments or just a reciprocation for his efforts, it was a thank you with emotional meaning and trust.

He told me more about their life together, the minute he met her…. knowing that it was just natural for him to feel comfortable, the sense of humor they both shared, the instinctive level of intelligence they had assumed.

“No problems?” I asked though I knew that only fairy tales were without those.

“Of  course,” he said but I learned that women think differently than men.  It was probably better for me to just nod and accept. I have two daughters.I will never quite understand them either. I guess that is okay….it worked for us.”

“And women should just stop trying to figure you guys out as well,” I laughed.  He agreed.

Filling the spoon more slowly and gently nudging her to eat one more bite, he smiled at her, as their eyes briefly met.

“I guess with her beside me all these years, that is all I have ever really needed. You know you are with the right one when you lay your head on the pillow, place your arm around her and close your eyes to sleep.

You just know!

Trying to preserve love?

For over twenty years, a wall of family photos compliment the staircase to our family home. And one photo scares me as I watch it changing….as I watch three people in the photo keep fading away. My father, Mother and myself taken over 50 +years ago.

Dad passed away two years after the picture was taken and Mother passed away 16 years ago.  Me at 10 years old, was ready to party in one of my best dresses.  Today, I don’t run as fast up and down the stairs. I spend more time staring at pictures from the past.

I remember the moment well when the picture was taken. It was a celebration for a new gift. We were all going out to dinner on Easter. My fathers closest friend just got his first color Polaroid  camera and he couldn’t wait to take a family photo of us. We didn’t have many stills since my father had a movie camera and somebody was usually left out.

Yesterday, I walked down the stairs and noticed how much color had drained and even our facial features had faded…strange, how mine were probably the most prominent. I was the only one still alive? And I had less years in front of me than behind. Does this picture define our earthly existence? How creepy, sad….should I take it down or restore the colors of that evening that I still remembered so perfectly?

Even the picture I took with my cell phone for this article is fuzzy. Is that a coincidence as I think and write of faded photographs, a bad photographer with a poor camera, or a  spiritual answer to my questions.

Later that day, I heard one of my Mother’s favorite songs by the Vogues, Turn Around Look at Me, and if you listen to the words, there is someone who will stand beside you. There is someone who will love and guide you and most importantly, waiting forever for you .

And suddenly, it hit me. For some, a message from God or the spirit of a loved one. The past is the past and memory, pictures, scrapbooks will deteriorate with time but the love expressed in a painting or photo will live on now in this world and the next. In this case, a family that loved each other and a reminder from heaven that true love never dies. I will see them again in new color, image and light. And maybe, just maybe I should be more concerned about right now.

As I gazed at the wall again, I thought that maybe I would create a new element to the staircase. Maybe some of my primitive paintings I am trying to master today would be a creative addition or my daughter and significant other’s current sketches. I will check my computer pictures and cell phone gallery for the latest in family, friends, birthdays, and holidays.

And I am going to leave the first color Polaroid just as it is.

Quieting the Storm

After grabbing the key that had been securely hidden from the eyes of most, I unlocked the door and stepped inside. As her professional caregiver, these were the instructions for taking care of her. She would wander the streets if the doors were not locked from the outside.

At first, it was quiet; maybe Emily was asleep and then I heard it.

“I don’t remember, you should know where Dennis lives,” her voice angry and desperate. “That’s why I called you,” she pleaded.

Knowing Emily was on the phone, I followed her anguish to the bedroom. She was pacing back and forth, the cordless in her hand. I noticed that directory assistance was talking to her. Emily had a son who lived in town named Dennis. Her husband of over 60 years was still alive, but recovering from a stroke and currently in a rehabilitation facility.

His absence played more havoc with her dementia, especially shortly before the hours of sundown. Emily’s symptoms of memory loss and confusion were much more enhanced during this time of day.

Gently taking the phone from her hand, I quickly apologized to 411 and put the phone on the receiver. Simultaneously, I grasped her arm, and looked into her eyes.

“I have Dennis’s phone number,” I said, waiting for some recognition before I continued. “Let’s call him”.

“Hi Mom,” he said and assured her that Dad would be home soon. But she would forget, and in a matter of minutes it would have to be repeated. She may not be sure of the time, date or even season. After she hung up, it seemed she had not been satisfied and started to become more agitated. Emily needed constant stimulation.

I got up and removed the painting from the nearby wall. Maybe she could tell me about the majestic movie house called The Chicago Theatre, with 1941 written on the marquee. Built in French Baroque in the 1920’s, the theatre was one of the most lavish in the country; remodeled in the 1980’s. As I brought the picture closer to her eyes, the tension began to fade.

“Oh my,” she started as she began to search for the answer, “My first date with my husband. Oh, he was such a good-looking man. The line of people that night reached all the way around the block to see The Lady Eve.”

Emily couldn’t remember if he was in the military, or his involvement in World War II, but she could remember how he held her hand in that line that seemed to stretch forever.

Giggling and moving closer while grasping my hand, she said, “I could tell he just didn’t have too much experience with the girls like I had with the guys.”

“How could you tell?” I asked.

“His hand was perspiring and shaking,” she laughed again.

“And you hooked him for sixty years…I imagine!”

“I knew he was the one the first night. He gave this painting to me for our anniversary.” She responded tenderly.

“Which anniversary?”

“I have no idea,” she giggled, “there were so many!”

Later, I found her wedding picture; a breathtaking bride with large eyes, dark hair and beautiful smile. But Emily seemed more interested in talking about her mother, after eyeing this photograph, who did not see her dressed in white because she had passed away before her marriage.

“My mom passed away just a few years ago,” I commented.

“You have a Dad,” she stated matter of fact.

“No, he is gone too.”

“Brothers and sisters?”

“Only child.” Emily just couldn’t fathom a 50+ woman to be the only one and parentless.

“I do have two children. I am a Mom like you too.”

That didn’t matter much to her; it was about who was going to take care of me. She asked if I was hungry…most mothers do. Her vivid heart and mind remained cognizant, regardless of the disability, of her partner’s love and parental obligation.

Love always somehow survives in the end. Every time I visited as her caretaker, we did it all again; sometimes the phone call, the Chicago theatre and their wedding. Always before leaving, she asked if she could cook me something to eat.

However, one Monday the routine had changed; allowing an astounding new journey to begin. Her son had told me that his daughter had just gotten married and because Emily was not in the best condition to attend the wedding, they brought the party to her the Saturday before. Emily dressed in her finest while receiving the wedding party, between the service and reception, in her living room.

New pictures were shared in front of the family fireplace; cake was cut and served along with dribbles of champagne. As I viewed the new pictures, the bride and grandmother shared the same tears.

On that autumn afternoon, with brilliant color shading the home, Emily displayed a new color in her cheeks and vibrancy in her eyes. This time she remembered every exciting detail of blossoming new love in front of her own fireplace that weekend; just like her own in first encounter in 1941.

(Originally published in Maria Shriver’s Architect of Change- Taking care of those with Alzheimers/2013http://archive.mariashriver.com/quieting-the-storm-karla-sullivan/