On What Dementia Cannot Steal

Posted in AHA!

If you have ever struggled with a loved one suffering memory loss, you understand that grief. In working with residents living in skilled nursing settings, I have witnessed an astounding fact. Core parts of an individual remain uncompromised, an essence left intact. Here is my own story of a failing parent’s memory loss and something found as well.

Heavier than the Hawk Can Lift

I watched a hawk glide parallel with the ground, low to the grass. It moved without moving but fast. It was wide and flat with chestnut wings, a broad triangular plane, all silence, speed and stealth. I do not know if it found rabbit or songbird. No outcry of defense rippled the serenity of the afternoon. I went behind the shrubs that blocked my view and found no tuft of fur or feather. I marvelled at its intentionality without apparent effort.

My week had had no glide in it. Everything was a stop action. My car refused to start. My aging computer, with no warning, shut down for all time. I backed up the job and tried unsuccessfully to repair the disk but failed. This gave me pause. I could not work without computer, nor drive without a car.

During the pause of waiting, a greater loss hit home.

My mother had called in desperation, “You’ve got to do something! I will get somewhere, not know where I am or how to get home. Help me…” She has Alzheimer’s. It comes and goes. Her main tool, her mind, is failing her. The loss is temporary, unexpected and silent like the hawk which picks up memories and cognitions. Then she cannot recall what she was just told or that my sister had flown cross-country to visit her last week. The hawk has found small things in her life and snatched them, leaving behind nothing of what was lifted and devoured. To cope she doesn’t leave the house often and refrains from visiting people. We discuss moving her into a level-of-care facility. She refuses. Perhaps that’s OK.

She enjoys the front yard squirrels, the back yard feeder, the shrubs outside her window, and the giant pin oak that was no bigger round than a finger when we moved in. She loves the front porch geraniums though she can’t remember their name. She stays mostly in the back den on the sofa where she sleeps now, near the kitchen where she stirs instant coffee into hot water. She attempts her crossword puzzles in the morning. She describes with pleasure the breeze that comes from cross venting windows. It is her breeze, they are her birds, her shrubs, her squirrels and her view. She is more attached to all of it than any person. She will not easily let them go.

She doesn’t need memories to appreciate the routine of the newspaper on the front walk. She can watch the rhythm of the ceiling fan and find a pattern of comfort. The days themselves have a rhythm in the play of light on the walls and the arrival of darkness that makes the oak a benevolent presence than when observed distinctly. She loves and is accustomed to her home. While she is holding on to it all so tightly, the hawk can’t take her with him. She will be too heavy to be lifted by a mere set of wings.

The hawk will fail to take the heavy parts, the parts that makes us who we are. Our memories may be tattered,  but these fragments are our driving force. To the discerning eye of those who love us, there will be something recognizable in what is left. It is that which is unique to us, makes sense of us.

My new computer came, much faster and larger than the old one. My car was repaired riding better than ever. I got my glide back and lifted into flight again. I grieve my mother’s loss of mind, it cannot be repaired, or a new one purchased. It frightens her, of course it would, unless seen another way.

I note her perceptions are more like poetry now, the distilled essence of years of caring about something, even if that something is only the breeze stirring the curtains. Poetry does not follow plot or storyline. It rarely has characters in its play. It brushes against appreciation of the world and the greater sense of living that attempts at definition but points to something greater, remaining nameless. The rhythm of poetry is like the sunlight that moves across the room in a steady and predictable meter. Her life is no longer a novel or a to-do list. We have gotten her help to cover the things that must be done, leaving her to enjoy the play of light, the birds. No matter that she can’t remember why she came to the store or how to get home. She didn’t belong to the store or her list, after all. She belongs to her home. Of that she is sure.

She dwells where she best recalls her happiness. What she loves most cannot be carried aloft by wings or talons. She is the beloved, and that truth can never be lost or forgotten.

Jerri Strozier (excerpt from Becoming the Beloved)