“Honey, Sweetheart. The dogs want to go for a walk. It’s noon. They can’t wait any longer. Are you OK to hike the trails now?” My husband gingerly ran his fingers through my dirty hair. When he slowed down I knew he was enjoying the sparkle of my silvery streaks against my dark brown hair. I loved that he loved my grey.
“Noon?” I asked. I had fallen asleep in my husbands arms after driving three hours in a van full of our stuff in the dark hours of the morning. For a couple of months Dave and I tag-teamed which one went down to the Madison house to sort, pack, and fix things before the listing. The one who stayed behind sorted, trashed, and fixed things at my childhood home, the house filled with forty years worth of stuff from pack rat parents. I had gone two weekends in a row, working until wee hours in the night and waking in the eerie hours of the morning, stinking of anxiety and lack of sleep. I told him the prior evening that I would need to curl up in bed once I returned to Door County, and I needed him nearby so I could sleep. He obliged willingly.
“Come on, sleepyhead, let’s hit the trails. You need the fresh air.”
He was right. I needed a hot salty tub, astringent steamy coffee, and lungs full of cool fresh air after all the dusty, dirty, depressing physical work I accomplished.
The dogs hopped and bounced, unable to contain their excitement at my movement. When I reached for my socks and boots, they couldn’t help their barking and boisterous face-licking. It felt good to be surrounded with love and energy again. Though my muscles spasmed with every lace I tied and zipper I zipped, it felt good to be back home, my new old home.
My phone buzzed. I tripped over happy dogs and stumbled over the collection of boots in the breezeway, missing the call. It was my Dad. I called back, no answer. He must be leaving a message. I put the phone in my jacket pocket and opened the sliding door to let the dogs out the back yard. The phone vibrated again. Again, it’s Dad, and my phone revealed that he had actually called four times.
“I’m sorry,” Dad sang in a low baratone voice. “I need your help.”
Dave saw the look on my face and whispered, “Go! Go! I got the dogs.”
“What’s going on?” I asked. It’s unusual for Dad to ask for help. Very unusual.
“Your mother forgot we live here. I took her out to lunch, which now I realize was only the second time she’s left here since we moved in. The other time was that family get-together you hosted.” He sounded embarrassed. “We’ve been sitting in the parking lot for twenty minutes now. She refuses to get out of the car. Maybe if you talked to her?”
“I’ll be right there,” did I shout? Sometimes I think I’m calm on the outside but I actually shout into the phone, like my command is going to make the problem go away.
Dave hugged me and sighed. “This is why we’re here, Honey.”
I knew he was right.
When I got to the assisted living facility, I suddenly remembered why Dad probably wouldn’t call the help there. They didn’t want any problems or inconveniences housing a woman with dementia. If she kept to her own, didn’t wander, or caused any real issues for the help or residents, she could stay. But, “If her dementia starts to require more than the usual care, then you will no longer be able to stay here. We are not a licensed memory care facility.”
When Dad saw my mini pull into the parking lot he pulled out of his parking space and drove to the entryway. I parked in his spot and ran over to the passenger door. I opened the door to a mother who must have gained at least ten pounds in her first month there, all tightly bundled in a canary yellow coat and a handknit headband around her stringy dingy dark red hair.
“What seems to be the problem, Mom?”
Her eyes narrowed into fiery hot splinters and her mouth screwed up into a repulsive pucker. “HE,” she jabs a pointy finger in my Dad’s direction, “…wants ME to go in THERE!” she thrusts her pointy finger to the open-assist doors with the Handicap sticker on them. “I don’t know what THERE is but I want NOTHING to do with it!”
She still wore the seat belt across her bulk.
“OK, Mom. Here’s the thing. You are forgetful now. You have dementia, which means you forget things all the time, and that’s OK. We were expecting this. You forgot where you live. You live here. And you also forgot how much you like it here. You like it here a lot. You like the people, you like the nurses, you like the room.”
Mom looked at me with that disappointed look Mom’s give their child when they feel like you betrayed their dream of what a supreme and perfect child you were supposed to be. “Really?” She would’ve believed that Jesus was coming to dinner but she thought I was tricking her.
“Mom, what you also forgot is that we all turned our lives upside down so you can live here where you get better care. You forgot that I moved here from Madison, moved my home, family, and business, just to help you. And Dad too, he lives here with you. He doesn’t have to, but he wants to so he can be with you. We’re spoiling you rotten but you just forgot.”
“Really?” she asked sarcastically. “You called this spoiled, do you?”
“It’s OK that you forget. That’s why you are here. You forget all kinds of things. But that’s OK because we have all of us here to help you. We have your special couch here that you love. Your boxes of pink wine. Your mason jar mug and bendy straws. It’s all here.”
“Yes! All you have to do is look. Just look inside with me and you’ll remember. You’ll remember the lovely fireplaces they have everywhere, and the nice decorations, and once you get to the room, you’ll remember how much easier it is for you there, and you like that. You like how convenient the room is for you.”
“Now let’s just take one little step at a time, OK?”
“Let’s just start with the seat belt. Let’s undo the seat belt now.” I reached over to press the release button but my hands were blocked by hers. Next thing I knew I was in a polite short tug-o-war with the seat belt. My mom won.
“OK, so what happened there?”
“I don’t want to get out here. I want to go home. I want to go to Forest Rd.”
“Oh you don’t want to go there.”
“Oh yes I do!”
“Oh Mom, see you forgot that Dave and I live there now. We changed everything around. There are a couple small chairs where your couch used to be, the Papa Bear chair is moved to where the sewing table was, and we don’t have any pink wine.”
“You don’t? Really?”
I finally looked at Dad. He was standing there, hand on the side door handle, biting his bottom lip and rolling his eyes.
“Yes, Mom, it’s because this is your home now. All of your things are here. You just have to see for yourself. We can walk in, take a look, and if you don’t like it we can leave.”
“Really? I don’t believe you.”
“Well, Mom, right now that is your problem. I can just go home right now and leave you here in the parking lot but it’s doing you no good. You live here. Your bed, your couch, your wine, it’s all here. And remember, it’s not just you. It’s Dad too, your husband, lives here with you. You are not alone. We are not harming you, we are not tricking you, we are only giving you everything you could possibly need.”
“Well I need to go to the bathroom. That’s what I need.”
“Great! Let’s get you to the bathroom.”
The seatbelt unclicked. The moaning and groaning of moving a tired weak body commenced. Dad hopped to attention and pulled the folding step stool out of the back of the car and ran it to under her feet. “Here you go, Sweetie Pie!”
“Oh, thank you. Oh! Oh my. Oh! I think my legs fell asleep sitting here. Oh!”
It seemed like it took an hour to get Mom out of the car, standing with her walker, but the second she stood there, both hands on walker handles, Dad zoomed the car back to a parking space.
I walked my shuffling and groaning Mom to the doors. “Oh, Mom, what would I do without you?” I sang.
“You’d be one spoiled little brat of a girl, that’s what!” Mom hollered into the amplifying doorway. Grey inquisitive faces peered from their wheelchairs parked at the fireplace. I smiled and waved. They smiled and waved back. I’ve made friends with Millard and Sue and Yvette…
Dad followed soon behind us as we slowly strolled down the cinnamon-berry-scented hallway to their room. We passed all the other rooms with their door wreaths and decorations. Crayon drawings, framed dog photos, and fake evergreen trees adorned with paper birds welcomed us back.
As soon as we got to the room, Mom shuffled into the bathroom without a question. While she did her thing Dad told me the story in a hushed concerned voice, and gasped his appreciation that I came to help. “Sometimes I think she just needs to hear a different voice,” he said.
“Sometimes I think she just needs to go to the bathroom,” I said.
We laughed. Mom returned, shuffling her walker as if it were part of her, and blinked and grinned. She stopped to wave in a tiny little circle with her dry hand and twinkling happy eyes.
“How are you? So glad to see you! Thank you for visiting, Laura Jane! Want some wine?”
Dad and I smiled at each other, shrugged, and explained to Mom that I needed to go home and help Dave unload the van.
“Oh give her some wine, Dear, she likes your kind.” She patted the couch. “Come, sit and visit. It’s good to see you.”
When I got home a half hour later, Dave was shaking snow off his boots and toweling off the dogs. “How’d it go? Everyone alright?”
“What would I do without you, Honey?”
“Oh I think you’d manage,” Dave chuckled. “You’re a strong woman.”
I hugged him and sighed deeply into his chest.
“You alright?” he asked.
“Yes, we’re all fine. Sometimes we forget that, but really, we’re all just fine.”