“If you’ll just come with me and see the beauty of Tuesday afternoon.” – The Moody Blues
The beauty of this Tuesday afternoon was in the eyes of my still beautiful mother-in-law. They are cloudy and her sight is fading, yet they express what she can’t verbalize anymore. She has Alzheimer’s and she’s still alive.
Lillian can’t feed herself or use the bathroom, but she knows cold and warm, she feels the sunshine and breeze through her window, she’s able to scratch her nose and cheek when they itch, and she knows when she’s comfortable and when she doesn’t want to be moved. She sits in her chair most days with no stimuli – no television or radio, just muffled voices from beyond her nursing home door.
When Larry’s sister told us that Lillian couldn’t speak clearly, we thought it meant she couldn’t speak at all. What we learned is that her voice, a sweet southern accent, can be quite strong although garbled much of the time.
When we walked in the room, she had slid deep into the side of her recliner, her head lying just above the arm rest. My sister-in-law and Larry lifted her upright, straightened her pillow, and covered her with a blue Sam’s Club fleece. She smiled and her eyes brightened when she saw us in her room and she said slowly, “Who’s this pretty lady?” as she reached for my hand. Then she saw Larry and found his hand and gripped it tightly, every once in awhile holding it to her cheek. There’s something instinctive about our tasks as mothers. We can be deeply involved in something – a book, a sermon, work – and yet if our children come near us, we are aware of their presence without being fully conscious of it, and we reach out and touch them and let them know they are always a part of us whether we are fully in their presence or not. Today, Lillian was Larry’s mother, not consciously aware of who he was, but ever present, somewhere in her mind, of his being there with her.
Lillian also had one clear, precise recollection of a detail today, a completely lucid moment that lasted five seconds at best, but it was five seconds in which our guilt for being healthy as Mom suffered with Alzheimer’s was lifted and she was a part of our collective conscience, a participant in our conversation. When Lillian was a little girl during the Great Depression, her father killed himself. Her mother’s brother, fondly known as simply Uncle, moved in with the family and raised Lillian and her sisters as his own. She has a photo of Uncle in her room and when Larry showed it to her today, she said, “He never had a girl.” My sister-in-law, Larry and I looked at each other and smiled. She was right. Uncle had a few girlfriends, but he remained single all his 94 years.
It’s hard for us with working, thinking minds to comprehend having no real awareness of time, people, things, or consciousness in general. And so we try to fill in gaps that probably don’t need to be filled, but we fill them anyway to ease our fear that perhaps another lucid moment might come about and our loved one with Alzheimer’s might, for one split second, realize that there is nothing or no one nearby. No music playing. No television on. Just a bare wall in front of them. It is in that fear and feeling of total helplessness that Larry decided Lillian needs flowers, if for no other reason than he’ll feel better that she has colors to look at instead of a dresser with little more than a photo of Uncle and a mirror reflecting her hospital bed. We will buy a bouquet before visiting her again tomorrow.
As I said in my last blog, you can’t say goodbye to the living, no matter how dead they seem inside.