Emma grasped her cereal bowl by the handle and tilted it filled with Cheerios, blueberries and sliced banana: “What are you doing?” I asked. “I want to pour milk on the ceiling,” she said. Well, don’t we all.
That was Emma, my mother, in November 2009, in the middle stages of dementia. That was when she had trouble getting the right words out, when, as I approached her to guide her with her walker, she admonished me, “Get out of my whale!”
“Are you doing this on purpose?” I wanted to ask her. Well, of course she is. Why else would this be happening? What is her intention? Or, well, maybe she isn’t doing it on purpose; she isn’t a child whom I can correct and she’ll remember next time and do it right. No, she is in the process of reversal; her brain cells are dying.
She’d run upstairs after I’d get her all settled on the loveseat in the living room. Well, she didn’t run, but she got a good grip on the balusters and managed. I’d find her sitting on her straight back chair in her bedroom or undressed and in bed. It was warmer up there in the winter, and she was always cold. She always found a way. She never lost her ingenuity.
Her hospice doctor explained to me that while certain aspects of the condition are common to all dementia sufferers, other aspects are unique to the individual based on that person’s background and experiences.
Over the recent years we went through a troupe of juggling circus clowns in white coats, dressed up as doctors, but unable to maintain accurate records and unwilling to take the time to answer my questions regarding Emma’s condition.
So in March 2010 when the hospice doctor called to make an appointment for his first visit with us, he wanted to come at dinnertime. I told him he couldn’t, that it would throw Emma’s schedule all off, that she would be eating dinner too late, therefore, consequently be too tired to eat. “People with dementia need to be kept on their schedules. You’re a doctor; you ought to know that,” I told him.
He had to work at the hospital until five and Medicare required his visit, so we compromised.
When the doorbell rang I was in the kitchen with the oven door open, holding a pat of butter in my fingers basting a turkey breast and Emma had just escaped upstairs.
I got to the front door and opened it. He introduced himself, greeting me professionally and respectfully, handing me his card. I, in turn, without offering him a seat or to take his coat, told him that I had to go get Emma: “I don’t have time to cook dinner, chase after Emma, and chase you, too,” I said, half noting that he was of Indian heritage and rather good looking.
He sat with equanimity in the blue chair in the living room until I brought Emma downstairs. He then went over to her on the loveseat, pulled up a footstool, sat down beside her, greeted her softly, asked her how she felt and talked with her a few minutes. Then, he turned to me, listened to me and patiently answered my questions. Had he carried a flute rather than a stethoscope, I would have thought he was Lord Krishna.
From there on, he consistently conducted himself in this manner, no matter the measure of chaos around us.
Said Tess, our hospice nurse, “He doesn’t add to the stress; he moves through it.”