Sally’s mom, Jeanette, is in an Alzheimer’s residence. They call it “memory care.” Not a bad name, if you think of it as a place where memories—however we experience them—are prominent. No one here lives, exactly, in our time. But then, time is an elusive concept, anyway. Take it from no less a great thinker than Albert Einstein: “the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” I know he was speaking as a physicist. Still…
At memory care, we often have to take things as we find them. It does not come naturally to me, to operate this way. In our ordinary lives, most of the time, we focus on what we are going to do—that stack of papers we are going to get through, the project we’re going to finish, a room that will be vacuumed. We are going to do the paperwork, the shopping or the laundry, change something by our effort and concentration.
Memory care is not like that.
I learned this with my own father, during his last illnesses: Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. I focused a lot on his clothes, his medications, his therapy regime, the objects in his room—trying to get it right. After a while I realized I couldn’t make anything turn out a certain way. This wasn’t a ship to be righted. The best I could do was give my presence. After all, when we’re with people who will soon be leaving us, what else do we have to give?
The day after Thanksgiving, we’ve come to see Jeanette. She’s dozing in her wheelchair, parked in front of the TV in the common room. There’s no movie playing today, just messages scrolling across the screen; public service, I guess, I don’t stop to read them. Soft jazz, sonorous and soothing, is playing over the speakers.
We were here yesterday, and Jeanette was tired then, too. We didn’t stay long. I scared her when I pulled her sneaker off (her shoes were on the wrong feet). I’d loosened it first but it caught a little on her heel and when I pulled on it she must have been startled, she called out and swore. I felt awful, even though I know it’s nothing personal. Sometimes, when she’s really scared or stressed, she tells the caregivers she hates them. When they finish whatever they’re doing, moving her or bathing her, and she’s calmer, they check in. I love you, one of them will say. We ok? You love me?
And Jeanette says yes.
Today not only Jeanette but nearly everyone’s dozing. I see Tom, the wanderer, sleeping in a recliner in the corner. He’s usually up and about, talking about his dad and/or fishing. He’s like an explorer, nosing into every nook and corner of the place. He often sets off the alarm, pushing on the door that goes to the hallway. Yesterday the aides had to shoo him out of the little kitchen that appears to be for resident activities although I haven’t actually seen it in use. Sally said she saw him looking in the fridge. Of course, I said, the Lions game is coming on. He’s probably looking for a beer.
Today we find some space in one corner, and a woman sitting on a sofa there motions me to sit down beside her. Sally moves Jeanette’s chair closer and sits kitty-corner from me on a vacant loveseat. Jeanette wakes briefly, roused by being moved, then goes back under.
In contrast, our new friend is talkative. She tells me she used to teach dance. In fact, she says, she was teaching everybody to dance yesterday. “No wonder everyone is so tired,” I comment. She goes on. “Have you ever danced the Charleston?” No, Sally and I tell her, we don’t think we have.
“It’s easy,” she says; she’s taught little children the Charleston. She used to take care of little kids and they started calling her Mama. She prattles on, in a soft accent; sounds like possibly Tennessee, to me. She tells us about another dance, the Hippo. Then she’s back to her favorite.
“Do you know how to dance the Charleston?” she asks again. No, I say, but it looks like it would be fun. Now she’s focused on her eyeglasses—they’re smudged, she wonders if she has something to wipe them with. She looks in the compartment under the seat of her walker, in front of her. “Well all I’ve got is this big one,” she says, pulling out one of the cloth napkins from the dining room. We smile. She puts it back. Starts searching in the purse in her lap.
“Oh lordy what’s in here,” she exclaims and scoops out what appears to be a handful of jewelry, I see silver and maybe a rhinestone or two, then she puts it back. “I don’t know what that is,” she declares. She finds a tissue, wipes her glasses. I notice it takes her a very long time to zip up the purse, I watch her fumble with it. I’m not sure if she can’t see, or if she doesn’t quite comprehend how it works. I notice the big silver cuff bracelet on her near wrist. “I like your bracelet,” I say, and she shows me she’s wearing one on her other wrist, too. She’s also wearing two old-fashioned ladies’ watches, the kind with tiny faces and stretchy bands, one on each arm.
There’s some activity around us as lunchtime approaches, the caregivers are beginning to get people ready to go to the dining room. Jim, one of the med techs, comes over. “I’ve got some medicine for you,” he tells our new acquaintance, then dabs some ointment on her ear. After he walks off she tells me, “I used to carry him around when he was a baby.” I think, I can understand why she believes that. He’s kind and helpful. He must feel to her like a son.
The commotion ramping up is bringing people to. Jeanette stirs and opens her eyes. I’ve been noticing lately what a pale blue they are. Sally fills her in on family news. She seems interested, smiles and reminisces with us. “I remember a picture of you giving Kim (her oldest grandkid, now grown) a bath in a lobster pot, at the Jersey shore,” Sally tells her. I laugh. “That’s funny,” I say. Jeanette is all smiles. She seems to remember. In any case, she is happy to hear about family.
Beside me our new friend pipes up again. “I’m so sleepy,” she says, “I could take a nap right here.”
“It’s almost lunchtime,” I say. “Maybe after lunch…”
“I used to teach dance,” she says. “Do you know how to dance the Charleston?”
No, I say, and then ask Jeanette: “Have you ever danced the Charleston?”
She doesn’t think so. Then lunch is being served, and we stand up to wheel Jeanette off to her table.
“You two stay out of trouble,” the woman on the sofa says. We tell her we’ll try.
We get Jeanette situated at the table, with her napkin and her silverware and one of the fancy bibs they provide here (they’re big and soft, chocolate-brown velour). Despite being tired, she tucks into her soup without a problem. She often tells me that she’s always ready to eat, and it seems to be true. Her other great pleasure is music. Sometimes we put CDs on for her, she likes old classics like Frank Sinatra (he’s a nice man, she said of Frank the other day). She sings along, knows the words to every song. From memory.
We leave Jeanette to her lunch and go down the hall to her room to check on things, water the plant, see if she’s out of anything, toothpaste or socks. On our way back to the dining room we cut through the big space where the staff holds activities: sing-alongs, crafts, trivia. On the wall beside the French doors into the courtyard there’s a large poster, “The Give Thanks Tree.” There are individual leaves stuck to the tree, each with a resident’s name inked on it and what they’re thankful for. I start reading them; there are quite a few that say “Friends and family.” One says “Kathleen”—she’s the activities director. And then another catches my eye: “The Charleston.” Signed, Elizabeth.
“We know who wrote that,” I say to Sally, and we chuckle.
As I said, there is much at memory care that we will have to take just as we find it. A few days later Sally reports that she sat down beside her mom’s wheelchair on one end of a sofa, noticing Elizabeth seated at the other end. “Don’t sit on me,” Elizabeth said to Sally, and moved to a chair farther away. Not having a good day, she had no desire to talk—not even about dancing. What constellation happened, what forces aligned to allow us to chat with her the day after Thanksgiving? We don’t know. We never will. But for half an hour, we were in Elizabeth’s living room, having a visit. We were guests, in her home, in her memories.
I have never danced it. Perhaps I never will. But even so, I think that I too am grateful for the Charleston.