Alzheimer's, Beauty, Challenges, Feelings, Friendship, Health, Joy, Life, Love, Relationships, Writing

loving words at sunset

My Mom, Patti, soon to be eighty-five and in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, can’t really carry on a “sensible” conversation anymore.

Mom’s friend Gaby is ninety-seven. While Mom has lost most of her marbles, Gaby still has all but a few of hers.

Gaby’s major complaint (about which she hardly complains at all) is the corn on her foot; it makes it painful for her to walk. She’s also becoming a tad hard of hearing, just a tad mind you. Other than that, she’s as “right as rain.”

Patti and Gaby found each other at The Home Which Is Not a Home. Gaby has lived there about six years; Patti, since November 16, 2012.

They became fast friends after Patti moved into the room next to Gaby, and their friendship is flourishing, despite Patti’s ongoing descent into oblivion.

Gaby and Patti share a table, along with two other residents, in the dining room at The Home; they have breakfast, lunch and dinner together. Mealtime conversations are infrequent. People waiting to die don’t have much to say it would seem.

I visit Patti and Gaby often at The Home, and they come to my place once a week for dinner, a small pleasure amongst those they’re still able to enjoy. The atmosphere is livelier at my place than at The Home. We find more to say, and to sing.

Tonight is one of the dinner-at-Susan’s-place nights.

Gaby helps Patti put the knives and forks on the table. They hold hands and teeter totter slightly as they arrange the settings.

I prepare a simple feast: tuna salad with celery and mayonnaise, a few leaves of local lettuce, crisp carrot sticks, golden-toasted sesame seed bagels, mixed olives.

They have orange juice in crystal highball glasses I took from Patti’s real home when she and I left last year. I sip sauvignon blanc from a funky goblet my cousin Liane gave me.

After dinner, I make Gaby and Patti comfortable on the back deck, then ferret out something “delicious and nutritious” for dessert: fresh peaches with yogurt and honey.

On the way back to serve them, I pause to eavesdrop on their sunset conversation and take a few surreptitious pics with my iPhone.

Gaby: Isn’t that a beautiful sky?

Patti: Yeah, and I told them it was. Dad thinks so too. (Patti looks around.) Where’s Dad?

Gaby: Yes, you did. (She waits for this to sink in before she goes on.) He went to get our dessert.

A moment of silence. Then another. Then several more.

Gaby reaches over and gently feels Patti’s left arm, which is bruised because of the Coumadin Patti takes to stop blood clots from forming in her swollen legs. She used to stride, purposeful; now she shuffles, uncertain.

Gaby: Are you cold?

Patti: No, I don’t think so. (Patti pauses long and hard. She searches.) Do I feel cold?

Gaby: You feel a bit cold.

Gaby withdraws her hand from Patti’s arm. Together, they hold space for time and each other: Gaby in the slightly laboured rasp of her breath, Patti in the tissue she folds and unfolds, folds and unfolds, folds and unfolds in the cradle of her lap.

The sun sinks a little more.

Patti: Are you cold Gaby?

Gaby: No, I’m not cold. But you feel a bit cold.

Patti: I do?

Gaby: Yes.

Patti: Oh. I didn’t know. I’m not cold.

Gaby: OK.

More silence. One looks this way, the other one that. They stare at nothing in particular: nothing in particular being the main thing they contemplate day in and day out. They have many days in. Days out are fewer and farther between.

Gaby swings her right foot, and in the process inadvertently kicks Patti’s left.

Gaby: Oh. Did I hurt you?

Patti: No.

Gaby: I wouldn’t want to hurt my friend Patti. You’re my best friend.

Patti: You didn’t hurt me Gaby.

The sun keeps setting, as it is wont to do on kindred spirits everywhere, each day earlier and earlier until late December, then later and later until late June, when the cycle recycles itself.  I guess it’s the other way around in the southern hemisphere. And different again at the poles.

Gaby and Patti don’t care about the hemispheres and the poles. They don’t worry about the length of the days: shorter days, longer days, makes no difference. They’re all the same for them. Except days like this, when they get to go out. These are special days, even if they don’t remember them. I will, until I too fail.

Gaby: Your hair looks nice.

I wonder how many times Gaby has paid Patti this compliment today. Three? Five? Ten? More?

Patti says nothing. She touches her head with her right hand. Pushes a roller-induced wave in and up. Still nothing. Perhaps she’s already forgotten Gaby’s words. Or maybe she needs a mirror to confirm their veracity. Not knowing the truth of one’s own reality is part of the disease.

Gaby: And that top looks beautiful on you. You have the nicest clothes.

Patti looks down at herself. She moves her hands to just below her waist and pinches the bottom of the light-caramel-and-white-striped golf shirt she’s wearing. She stretches it down and out to see it better. The stripes in the top match her caramel capris.

Patti: Do I?

Gaby: Oh YES! You are so stylish.

Patti: Am I?

Gaby: Oh yes! Very! I wish I was stylish like you. And you have such beautiful rosy cheeks. I love your rosy cheeks.

Gaby leans closer; her hand once again rests like a crooked feather on Patti’s arm. She plants a slow kiss on the pinkish flush of her friend’s left cheek. She’s oh-so-careful not to bruise her.

Patti is quiet.

Gaby: I’m glad I’m here with my friend Patti, enjoying the sunset.

Patti: Is it time to go home yet?

Gaby: Almost.

Gaby slides her hand down Patti’s purple-splotched forearm. She gathers Patti’s hand in her own.

Gaby: We’ll go together.

I set my iPhone down on my cluttered desk, and swipe the back of one hand under both eyes. There’s nothing more I can do but to offer the peaches. I nudge open the screen door, and step into the oncoming twilight.

Related links:

I See You and Me. And Love.

85 And Feistier Than Ever

An endless prayer

Oh Mom! (A mother/daughter moment remembered)

15 Empowering Things to Tell Your Kids (and Yourself)

10 Things Our Daughters Could Learn From Whitney Houston

6 Powerful Ways to Make Your Life More Beautiful

Life Breaks My Heart

26 thoughts

  • I have no words to describe how this makes me feel; gratitude, surrender? How lucky Patti and Gaby are; how lucky you are to witness unconditional love between two people – no expectations or ruses – just being. How lucky I am that I could read this and notice how far I am from that beautiful place because I believe I have ‘things to do’. Thank you Susan, Patti and Gaby for letting me in and letting me bask in that wondrous presence. X

  • what an amazing lovely conversation…. I hope I can be such a wonderful friend when I am suddenly old and wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me…

  • Wow…your words not only paint a beautiful picture, they elicit a kinaesthetic experience, touching the heart. Thanks for sharing. I can’t wait to read the book!

  • This is stunning. I just started my own writing project and I hope I can achieve the same clarity. I felt like I was there with you. Thank you for sharing this!

    • @Lynne: Wow! TYSM. My experiences with my Mom are the subject of a play (I’m on draft two of same), and perhaps a book which I’m in the process of stitching together as well. Do you have a blog I can follow?

  • Great piece Sue…much as I remember my mum’s days (years) at the Connaught and watching her final relationships. Sad for us but who hurts the most? I think those who love them as they have already left…

  • Hi Susan, this is Heavenly Sojourner (a.k.a. Leanne) in Wollongong, Australia. I responded to something you posted on FB about your experience with your mother and your journey with her through her Alzheimers Disease. As I mentioned, my Mama is only 75, and we (my family) have been travelling down this road with her since she was around 64, when we first began to notice that things were not quite right. My wonderful Dad, who is 74, looked after Mama at home for four and a half years following her initial diagnosis. Sadly, other health issues sent her to hospital in early March 2009, and soon after it became clear that she required permanent nursing care. Making that decision was the hardest thing we, as a family, had to do. My poor Dad could not face telling her (she was able to communicate at that stage), so it was left to me to do the deed. We were very fortunate to find a wonderful facility only 15 minutes away from my Dad’s home, with fantastic staff and a which was attached to a nursing home. As Mama’s condition deteriorated, she was transferred to the nursing home in October 2011. For me, I have found the most important thing has been to keep a sense of humour, hard as it is. That, and keeping the channels of communication open with Mama’s carers and doctors. Knowledge is power…and it is also in many ways, a comfort. Connecting with other residents in the dementia care unit and now the nursing home also helps, and getting to know their family members as well. Sometimes people ask what it is I do when I visit my Mama, given that she can no longer walk, talk or even recognise me. For me it’s simple…she may not know me…but I still know her. I take her, in her big reclining chair on wheels, out into the garden if the weather is good, we visit with other residents in the nursing home, and I always make sure I am there at a meal time, so that I can feed her. That’s the least I can do. The one thing I miss more than anything, is the sound of her voice. Feel free to email me anytime if you have any questions, or just need someone to listen. I know just what it’s like…and it can be a very lonely space to navigate.

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