A few weeks ago I received a gift from Mom – she had a day of extreme clarity and knew that I am her son, not a former neighbor or just a friend or her nephew (nephew is the most common, or rather she refers to herself as Aunt Carrie). She knew I am her son that day. The ray of light that penetrated the fog inside her mind also shone upon me for a bit and warmed me, if only temporarily.
Five minutes after we hung up from our call, she called me back and spoke as if we hadn’t just hung up the phone with one another. It was such an odd thing to experience with her – like a temporary break in the clouds that reveals a patch of soft blue, briefly, without warning, breaking the spell you might have fallen under to believe that the sun had completely disappeared, and yet there it was, all along, just behind the clouds. You look at it, let it warm you for a few seconds, only to lose it again behind the clouds.
Nevertheless, the break in the clouds that day, for both of us, was a gift – no matter how short-lived.
Since that time she’s gone back to being ‘Aunt Carrie’ or just ‘Carrie’ or ‘Whoever the hell I am today’ on the phone and in her messages to me when she forgets that I’ve gone back to work recently and usually call her now in the evening rather than during the day. I can’t say that it surprises me, though, that she forgets this small detail when she’s forgotten so much else…things, places, and people…even the fact (most days) that I’m her son.
That said, I am fortunate that no matter who she thinks I am, she trusts me still.
A week ago she called me in a panic – telling me “the people who work here won’t let me out so I can go to work, they’ve got me locked up and I can’t get out, you’ve got to come help me get out of here so I can go to work!” There was fear and anxiety and desperation in her voice. She’s grown convinced that she leaves her ‘apartment’ (as she refers to her room) and ‘goes upstairs to work’ in a different part of the building (it’s a one-story structure), and for some reason the people there were refusing to let her go out the door to go upstairs.
“Please – PLEASE come here and help me!” she begged into the phone, and I could hear that she’d begun to cry.
I asked her if anyone was in the room with her, and she said that yes, there was. I asked to speak with them, and she handed them the phone. I talked, briefly, with the caregiver there who explained that Mom was having a VERY rough day and was refusing to stop trying to go out the door which of course they couldn’t let her. I thanked her and told her I’d do what I could to calm Mom down.
At first I tried distraction – asking her what she’d had for lunch, what the weather was like, if she was reading anything good lately – but she knew what I was up to. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, depending upon how fixated she is on whatever is bothering her at the moment. This was sizable. She wasn’t about to be deterred. The staff at the assisted living had tried to distract her by telling her that the ‘meeting’ she had was cancelled, she told them they were full of shit (per her words), etc. I could tell that for me to try to use that approach, placating and going along with it, was going to be a huge failure for me as well.
And so I changed gears, to my ‘rainy day’ tactic, which I try to use sparingly because it can certainly backfire in a hurry. I told her the truth.
“Mom, I have to tell you something, and I need you to listen carefully, and this is one of those times that we’ve discussed that no matter how far-fetched it seems, no matter how you might believe otherwise, I am telling you the truth – is that something you feel you can do right now?”
“Okay.” (deep breath for me) “Mom, where you are right now is not a place of employment – it’s where you live. There is no second floor, but you do go to other areas of the building now and again. You are very helpful to others who are less physically able to help themselves at meals, but it’s not a job for you – you live there. The people who do work there are concerned that you will wander out the door and down the street and get hurt because you don’t know the area. That’s why they won’t let you go outside by yourself. They are, whether it seems like it or not, trying to take care of you.”
“Well, why the hell would they worry about that?”
“Because, Mom – your memory is failing. It would be very easy for you to get lost around there and not know your way back.”
“Mom – I know you don’t like to hear about that, about your memory, but I need you to trust that I would not let anything bad happen to you, and I believe that the people there are trying to take care of you – can you trust me about that and not continue trying to leave?”
She began to cry again then, as did I (the silent type of crying I sometimes do so that she’s not aware of it on the other end of the phone).
“Okay.” she said softly. “I don’t really understand what you mean by I don’t work here, but okay. If you tell me this is where I live, not work, and that I could get hurt if I try to leave on my own, I’ll believe you – I do trust you.”
“Thank you. I wish I could be there right now to give you a hug.”
“I wish you could, too.”
“Just know that I don’t want you to get hurt, ever, and I’ll do everything I can to prevent that – even if it doesn’t make sense to you sometimes, I hope you know I am doing it for your well-being, not to harm you.”
I suspect this was the first of what will likely become increasingly difficult to diffuse scenarios. I hope that she continues to trust me, trust the sound of my voice, no matter who she thinks I am, or who she is to me.
I remember hearing Mom say (to others) in my youth, on days when we might have gone to a nearby strip of beach along a river or somewhere else out of doors and the clouds had come in and overtaken the sun that the ‘sun had disappeared’. I used to believe, in my youth, that this was true. That the presence of the clouds meant that the sun, whereas I could no longer see it, had, indeed, disappeared.
I know better now. I know that the clouds are just a cover. A wispy, gauzy veneer that often obscures the bright blazing ball of gas beyond them. But the sun doesn’t just disappear – not really – it’s still there behind the clouds, waiting for a fracture to appear so it can shine through once again.
It’s like Mom’s recognition of who I am, in ways. No matter who she thinks I am or who she is to me, she still trusts me. She still listens and accepts what I’m telling her, no matter how contradictory and far-fetched it may seem to her. It may not be this way for whatever time she has left, but for now, I’ll take it – for now I’ll enjoy and appreciate the fact that just my words and my voice can calm her down and redirect her and help her out of the dementia haze that she’s in. No matter how thick and impenetrable the haze may seem to her, there’s still something behind it trying to fight its way through to her.
Just like the sun – or rather, the Son, behind the clouds.