“Yes. I remember Helen very well. I’ll never forget her.”
“Yeah,” he says with a softly rising inflection that seems to add finality. “I pray the rosary for her every day.” His eyes look through me to a different time when the carpeting is not beige and a little slip of a girl with curly red hair skips from the kitchen, licking a smudge of powdered sugar and milk from her upper lip. He does not know me anymore although I’ve been a part of his family over the past thirty years. The living room looks to me much as it had twenty years ago, with the same velour-print sofa, against the wall, across from a picture window that looks out on the afternoon sun and an electrical substation on the other side of the street.
“Remember my dad?”
“Yes, I do…George–wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he nods again, speaking more to himself than to me. “He’s not here anymore.”
“No. He’s in that better place, Clem, where we’ll all go someday.” I wanted to say in Heaven, but I’d already said that and it felt so cliché-ish. It’s what everyone says. It’s what you tell your child when their goldfish dies.
I saw him last four or five months ago when he still knew me. He had taken me out to the garage to show me how he had organized and labeled everything so that he might better find something he’d need and I helped him replace a broken latch on the screen door leading out of the sunroom. I remembered the previous summer when he’d taken apart an electric power washer and then forgotten how to put it together, and how he smiled two hours later after I’d somehow managed to reassemble it. That long weekend visit was punctuated by card games and reminiscing around the kitchen table. He remembered Helen then too, but with more clarity, such that he could understand why he was crying.
When I saw him two nights ago, just before one in the morning, after a 13 hour drive across three states, he was walking from the bathroom to the bedroom at the end of the hall. His steps were short and unsteady behind the walker as he was helped along by his wife. Shirtless, with disheveled hair of that iron-grey that is more black than white, and a face more unlined and clear than one would expect after eighty years, he looked at me with eyes so empty of recognition that I was startled, and wished I were somewhere else.
This morning, when I came up from the basement where I’d slept in Jimmy’s old bedroom, I found him sitting at the kitchen table with a pile of coins that he was trying to count, moving them into a plastic bowl one by one. He looked up and I said good morning to him and he replied in kind. I greeted him by name and reminded him who I was, “Shaun—Suzy’s husband,” and he nodded, repeating it after me, just like he had the previous morning; each day as though it were the first. After a few minutes of counting, and my one-sided conversation about Jimmy’s little boy, he looked up at me, blinking back tears, and asked, “Remember Helen?”
It’s ninety degrees outside, but with the air conditioning the sun through the picture window feels good on my arms. He’s sitting in the electric recliner to the side of the picture window, angled so he can see out the window, and I’m sitting on the other side of the window in a high backed chair that was more comfortable than it looked, my feet up on a matching ottoman.
He leans forward and looks into the sky. “It’s going to rain,” he says. I twist around to see a couple of tall wispy clouds above the distant horizon in a clear blue sky otherwise so devoid of clouds that the two that are there seem anomalous. That evening there’s thunder, lightning, and the following morning three quarters of an inch in the rain gauge.
The skin on his forearms is loose and I remembered the time I was on the roof helping him wrap some decorative tin around the chimney flue. He’d cut the tin with the snips, then took the two sharp edges in his bare hands and tore the rest of the strip in two. I remembered how he could take a tiny screw in thick fingers and make it go in a small hole in a deep dark place that I didn’t understand.
He sinks back into the chair, then looks over at me and asks, “Remember Helen?”
“I do, Clem. I’ll always remember her.”
“I pray the rosary for her every day,” he says.
“I know you do. We all pray for Helen, Clem.”
“Yeah.” He wipes the tears from his eyes, the memories more distant week by week such that he understands less and less why he feels such grief, only knowing that he does.
Dementia is a terrible and all too common illness that affects 5-8% of people over the age of 65, and that number doubles every five years. There are many causes of dementia although the most common seems to be Alzheimer’s. Most forms of dementia are degenerative (irreversible) and manifest themselves by decreasing cognitive function over time.
Some causes of dementia are reversible (metabolic, some medications, normal pressure hydrocephalus, brain tumor, vitamin deficiency, chronic alcohol abuse); so, it is important to see your physician to rule out these causes that can be addressed; and also for consideration of treatment with medications that can slow down the progression of the disease.
Dementia is, I think, more difficult on the loved ones of those so affected as the patient themselves are largely unaware of their deterioration, other than in the initial stages.
For those diagnosed with dementia, know that there is help and treatment, so take hope, and treasure the time with family and loved ones, as we all should be doing anyway.
For those family members and loved ones of the affected individual, know that there is help and treatment available (and actually partake of it for respite), so take hope, and treasure your loved one all the days of their life, as we all should be doing anyway.