Thursday, December 11, 2008
All I want for Christmas is her mind back
When I met her almost seven years ago, she had tears in her eyes.
"I'm so glad you came," she said, as a tear trickled down her cheek.
Meaning, that I had come as the new rector and pastor of St. Paul's.
She had never told anyone in the congregation, but she had been in relationship with another woman for more than 40 years.
Now in her late 70s, she had been married, with two sons. An elementary school teacher.
She had lost her job and her children after she divorced her husband and moved in with "the love of my life," as she described her partner, a librarian.
A 'Boston marriage' they called it in those days.
Shortly after I arrived, she began talking openly about her partner with members of the congregation. Her partner began attending church with her on the "high holy days". None of this even raised a question mark among members of the church. It was simply not an issue.
She erroneously credited me for this 'instant acceptance', adding, with tears in her eyes, "I'm so glad you came."
I've been watching, the past three years, as she has become less and less of herself. She lost her appetite and started losing weight. Then, she would 'forget' how things were set up as she went about her tasks on the Altar Guild. She would ask the same question three or four times and then get embarrassed when she realized what she had done.
Less than a year ago, she came to me, again with tears in her eyes. "I have early Alzheimer's Disease," she said, "and I'm absolutely terrified."
So was I. So were we all.
We had all noticed, but none of us wanted to say anything. We all get old. We all get forgetful. Or, so we said, mostly to brace ourselves against the obvious.
We didn't know it then, but we had begun 'the long goodbye'. What would come as additional surprise was how quickly the disease would progress.
She moved to an "Extended Care Facility" late this past August. Her partner still lives in their wonderful old apartment where they have lived for over 40 years. They talk on the phone every day and she comes to visit several times a week.
So does her son and daughter in law, who take her to church as often as they can. Her other son lives across the country and calls her often. He's coming with his wife and children to visit her at what may be their last Christmas together - whether or not she's still alive. Physically, that is.
She came to church last Sunday. I saw her after the service and promised to have lunch with her on Wednesday - yesterday. It was the third or fourth time in the past four months I've been to see her in her new home. I was not prepared for what I saw.
Like so many other things in her life, she had forgotten my promise. Her face has grown expressionless, but there was no hiding the joy in her eyes when I took a seat next to her and the two elderly Jewish women who keep her company.
"I'm so glad you came," she said as she smiled.
"Ackch," said one of her friends, "So, this is the 'high priestess' she always talks about!" Then, whispering to me, she added, "She keeps insisting that you are a priest. My father was Catholic. I know from priests," she said.
I smiled. "Well, she's right. I am a priest. An Episcopal priest."
"Ah, well," said the other friend, who smiled at my parishioner who was beaming and, looking at the other woman, put her finger under her chin to close her mouth. "Turns out not everything is what we think, either."
We all laughed. I didn't know then that I would be grateful for that little window of humor.
My friend must have asked me six times, "What are you doing today?" When she wasn't asking me that, she was asking, "Where's Ms. Conroy?"
I tried not to look as horrified as I felt, but it broke my heart.
I ordered my lunch and watched in alarm as she pushed her grilled cheese sandwich around her plate. She had obviously lost more weight. Her beautiful camel hair jacket, which she often favored to wear to church, hung from her shoulders.
"Is the sandwich not to your liking?" I asked. "Shall I order something else for you?"
"It just doesn't taste right," my friend offered.
"She eats like a bird," one of her Jewish friends offered.
"Is that rye bread?" I asked, knowing that she didn't like rye bread.
"I don't know," she answered. "What are you doing today?"
I answered her - yet again - and said, "You know, when we would go to Angie's for lunch, you always ordered whole wheat bread. I don't think you like rye bread."
This caused a bit of a stir at the table. I mean, who would not like rye bread although one would have to admit that cheese and rye did not really enhance the flavor. Now, a good tuna salad or maybe some corned beef . . . .
With her permission, I excused myself and took her plate back into the kitchen to ask the chef if she might make another sandwich, this time using whole wheat bread.
Within minutes, it arrived and my friend took a skeptical bite. Then, her whole face beamed with remembrance. "Now I remember. I do like whole wheat bread better." And, she began to eat the sandwich, if not exactly with gusto, at least with a level of enthusiasm I had not seen in a while.
In fact, she seemed to think it called for a celebration of sorts, and ordered wine for the table. Red. She had remembered that she liked red wine. We all seemed grateful for these two small but significant victories over this dreadful, horrible disease.
As we finished our coffee and dessert, someone came to the table to remind her that she had an appointment to have her hair done at 1:30. She didn't want to go. "I don't want you to go." She said to all of us at the table.
"I haven't had this much fun in a long time," she said as we all smiled.
It was a fleeting moment, one quickly robbed of us by the cruelty of the disease.
She then said, "But I suppose we'll have to get back to class. Mr. Crushank is such a dreadful teacher. How can one man ruin such beautiful literature? There's something to be said for tenure, but this old man just needs to be replaced. He's getting forgetful and repeats himself over and over again. I mean, really! It's embarrassing. If I get 'senile dementia' when I'm old, somebody take me out back and shoot me. Please. Just shoot me."
We all listened in horror. It felt as if someone had pulled the rug out from under us. Her two friends looked away. She looked at me and then at them and the smile that had been on her face, the feisty youthful mischief that had momentarily flickered in her eyes faded and was suddenly replaced by that now all too familiar blankness.
She looked at me and said, "What are you doing today?"
I answered her question again and then offered to walk her down the hall to the beauty parlor. She didn't want to go, but her friends urged her and she finally succumbed. But first, she insisted on walking me to the door.
Old habits die hard. She had always done that when I visited her at her home.
I said my goodbyes to the table and, as we turned to walk to the door, one of her friends mouthed, "It's so sad." I nodded and shook my head sadly.
As we walked, we chatted about this and that. Her daughter-in-law had made the beautiful candy cane wreaths that hung on the door. She seemed very proud - as much about her daughter-in-law's efforts as the fact that she remembered.
She wanted to see where my car was parked, so I pointed it out to her. She was stalling, I knew. Next, she would ask me to see it. Even though it was rainy and cold and she had no coat or umbrella, and she had actually been inside my car on a couple of occasions.
The horror of this disease is that, at this stage, at least, she has a sense of when she is lucid and when she's not. She is clearly still capable, however, of thinking strategically. I had no concern that she was plotting an escape - just angling for more time for a visit with me all to herself.
Finally, a look of resignation came over her face. She looked up at me, smiled and with tears in her eyes said, "I'm so glad you came."
"I am too," I said. A small part of that was a lie. We both knew that. As much as it broke my heart to see her this way, it was clear, at least in that one, brief moment of blessed, cruel clarity, that didn't she like being seen this way, either.
"I'll be back," I promised.
"And, I'll be so glad you came," she smiled.
We live in 'sure and certain hope'.
Sometimes, the incarnation can be more painful than birth - or death.