A few months ago my daughter Nicole and her husband decided that moving to British Columbia was a good thing all around, from career opportunities for him to a new life opportunity for her.
As the actual move time crept closer, Nicole wanted to arrange a visit with my mother, her grandmother, who just the month before celebrated her 96th birthday. As those who follow this ongoing Diary of a Caregiver know all too well, my mother’s been in her nursing home some six years now.
While the awful Alzheimer’s disease has been eating away at my mother’s mind, the fact is she has been defying almost all accepted trends and studies. Oddly enough, she seems able to tune in or out of situations as they best please her.
I’ve now seen so much of my mother’s day-to-day behaviour that I’ve actually come to believe that regardless of the dementia that is devouring and scouring her mind—and by extension her body—my mother really seems, to a meaningful extent, to be somewhat in control of her life.
It was in was this context that Nicole started her visit. It had been close to two years since she last saw my mother.
As the visit began, my mother focused on a place very far away. A place we couldn’t see. I stood next to her, trying to find the place where she seemed to be zeroing in. She had an intense, locked-in look, staring at a spot where Nicole wasn’t, and neither was I.
This behaviour went on for some time.
My personal problem at that moment was that while I considered this to be a very important moment in the lives of both my daughter and my mother, I didn’t know how to make it happen happily for everyone including, selfishly, me. It’s very hard for me to let events unfold as they do, and not as I’d like them to be. Control issues? Probably.
But Nicole has this truly amazing ability to connect when she wants to. On that day, it was evident that she wanted to. And after a while, she did. Step by slow step, it was as though a protective barrier buried deep within my mother’s mind peeled back.
As time passed, my mother started to follow Nicole with her eyes. And then, slowly but surely, as Nicole moved in and out of comfort range, my mother trailed her. Her eyes followed Nicole. Her head swung back and forth to accommodate the need of her eyes to keep watching what my youngest daughter was doing.
It’s interesting to note, I think, that my mother had been listening to Nicole’s voice and honing in on it. Then, my mother focused Nicole and her movements. Most certainly there was a major sense of connection and a deep but unexpressed affection took over.
While Nicole spoke softly to her grandmother…while she patted, hugged, held hands with and laid her head on my mother’s chest, I could actually feel my mother’s awareness and engagement grow, moment by moment.
It was not dissimilar to when Nicole’s older sister, Andrea, comes to visit. Then, too, there is a little time before they connect, but it happens. It happens even more so when Andrea brings her now two-year-old daughter, my mother’s great-granddaughter, Annika.
On those occasions, too, a slice of time seems to have to pass before the connection begins. It’s reminds me of when we used to have a dial-up internet connection—you’d hear the buzzing sound, the bell, and then the distant voice that said you’re on.
A loving visit
From my vantage point as the slightly removed adult, child and father all rolled into one, it was a loving visit. The silence spoke just as much as any words could. Nicole held her grandmother’s hand and just looked at her, and my mother worked diligently to look back at her granddaughter, the one she had taught to ride a bike and to swim. The one who’d have afternoon naps at her house and wake for a snack and to play dress-up.
This relatively short visit was intense. I could feel was the strong flow of personal emotions on both sides. It really was a piece of time to be captured, stored and treasured by both my daughter, who was soon leaving, and my mother, who may also soon be leaving us.
The mind is a miraculous thing
My mother spends most days with her eyes closed. She sleeps a lot. She eats little. She speaks barely a handful of recognizable words, never more than one at a time, and often with a lot of time between them. She never moves what must by now be thoroughly atrophied legs and seldom lifts her arms or uses what have become gnarled, claw-like fingers. For the most part, she lives in an inner place, only on occasion finding an opening between her world and ours.
During Nicole’s visit, there was a periodic opening that grew wider and larger and longer. It was profound and powerful. From my vantage point during Nicole’s visit, my mother seemed to find an inner will and drive to absorb, record and file the experience.
Even now, weeks later, when I show her one of the pictures I took during Nicole’s visit, her eyes open, widen and even, for a bit, focus.
That, to me, is the miracle of the mind. Riddled and ripped apart with Alzheimer’s disease, or any other dementia, I believe there are scenes, sights, sounds, smells and visitors who can, at least for a short time, break through the thickening veil of darkness and bring a glimpse of things precious and beautiful. Those moments are priceless.
And isn’t that exactly what we all want to do? We want to connect to any aging parent and other loved one whose mind is moving to a place we think we can’t reach. To help them discover, for at least a little while, a moment of personal, private joy. And if that’s lost a moment later it’s still, in my opinion, an utterly important connection to make and mutually savour.