The call came from the memory care unit yesterday afternoon. “J has been crying and calling for you.” My first reaction was, “Really?” J has Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s been at least six months since she has known my name despite living together for more than three decades.
I have to admit my second response was far from laudable. I’m in the middle of packing for a move next week, and the last thing I wanted to do was drive out to J’s facility. My third reaction (with a little prodding from my current partner, P) was, she’s feeling alone; I vowed to care for her; and it’s the right thing to do. So off I went.
I have to admit that I also was motivated by the time I didn’t drop everything, even though the little voice in my head said to, and J ended up alone in the emergency room. And I have not felt good about visiting less often as time goes on. Even at my age, live and learn.
No doubt J was happy to see me. We sat on the porch for a while and looked at the budding trees and pictures of dogs on my phone. She didn’t need more than that for contentment.
The last time I saw J I couldn’t resist asking her if she knew who I was. After all, that is what most people ask me — “Does she know you?” Then, J stammered out, “I don’t know who you are. . . but I love you.” This time was no different; she couldn’t summon my name and didn’t seem to have any idea who I am.
As we sat, she matter-of-factly alluded to someone who had died. “Oh, she’s dead.” I wondered whether I no longer look like whatever image she has of me in her head. Maybe she thinks that person is dead — because obviously she never comes and visits.
Or was she confusing me with her sister, who died in 2014? Or her mother, who died around 1979?
Who knows, and ultimately, what does it matter?
What does matter is that J was suffering and I was able to alleviate her suffering simply by sitting with her so she knew that I cared. Even if I was only there for an hour, I strongly believe that the happy feelings J experienced during our visit lived on at least for hours and maybe even for days.
Everyone deserves love and attention when they are vulnerable. This is particularly true of J, who faithfully cared for her own parents. J went home twice: once to care for her father before he died, and once to care for her mother. Tending to her mother particularly disrupted J’s life. At the time, J had a job she loved, and a budding career as a newspaper reporter. After her mother died and J wrapped up loose ends, time had run out on her leave of absence, and she was never able to get back into journalism. But she never complained. She always said the time she spent with her parents was among the most meaningful in her life.
There is great honor and dignity in caring for spouses and parents. J’s cry, and the facility’s call has shown me that I can and should do better. I don’t have to give up my career, as she did. I just have to show up and be present. J deserves no less.