My mother tells us she’s getting married. His name is Will and he has lots of money. Every time we visit her, she tells us more about Will and his family, with interesting details, a host of characters suitable for a romance novel, and an expectation on my mother’s part that we’ll all be at the wedding.
When I entered my mother’s room at the nursing home, I found her in her wheelchair, chin resting near her right shoulder and her eyes closed. Slouched in her wheelchair with a notebook resting on her lap, pen in hand poised to write the next note on paper, she slept so deeply that I had trouble waking her. Minutes later, I had her full attention because she wanted to tell me about the wedding.
“Have you seen Will?” She wanted to know.
“Me? No, I haven’t. Have you?”
“He’s been trying to find me, but they won’t let him. I don’t know what’s wrong with these people. All night long Will and the girls have been outside and it’s cold out there. What door did you come in? Was Will still outside?”
“I didn’t see anyone,” I assured her. One of the things that she worried over continuously was finding Will, or more to the point that Will couldn’t find her. Not at this nursing home, not in rehab three months ago, not at the hospital the month before or in rehab at the first nursing home before that. We were all tired of hearing about Will’s problems in getting in to see her. She suspected security wouldn’t let him in, but she could never work out why.
Exacerbated, she sighed as she said, “Stupid security people. What’s wrong with them.”
Though she articulated, as best she could, certain words came out slurred and run together with the next. “Stupid security people” sounded more like “Stusecurity pupple.” And “Whatshwrong wthm” made her sound drunk. A stroke six years ago had caused some problems with speech, most of which she had overcome, but every now and again I noticed the same “mushy” post-stroke sounds. I wondered if she had not been sleeping well or whether the doctor had increased the dosage of one of the drugs. Maybe the TIAs were causing more stroke-like symptoms. It was increasingly difficult to tell.
I suspected the medication had been increased because the wedding caused her to be more agitated than usual. On Labor Day Will’s factory had burnt down, and naturally the wedding had been called off.
We had talked about the wedding each time I came to visit her. She’d even gotten married before. By my next visit she would have forgotten that she’d told me, and we’d talk about the plans all over again . My husband, her grandchildren, her friends, the nurses, aids, doctors, and more than one roommate had all heard about the coming wedding. At first we tried to reason with her, telling her she’d maybe had a dream or that she was confused with a book she’d been reading. That kind of response only made her angry.
The Alzheimers’ support group I attended advised us to enter her world and enjoy it with her. So, we began to fabricate wedding scenarios at each visit.
I’d even practiced a look of surprise. Happy surprise because she worried that I did not want her to get married. I practiced in front of a mirror saying, “What! What am I going to wear!” And I’d walked into coworkers offices exclaiming, “Oh, no, when? I don’t have anything to wear.” We all agreed I was getting better at feigning happy surprise.
The nurses and aids were usually pretty good at staying in the world of Wonderland with the dementia patients. Except one. She found Muzzy rolling down the hall toward to dining room between meals and stopped her. As my mother tells the story, the aid has a problem.
“She’s a witch, but with a ‘b,’” according to my mother. “You should have heard her. She chased me down the hall yelling ‘Adele, where are you going?’ And I told her, I said, ‘I have to go down here to see if Will’s waiting for me,’ That wasn’t good enough for her, the witch.”
I knew this story was not going to have a happy ending, but I let her go on, “Then the big witch said, ‘Ain’t nobody down here. Who’s Will?’” My mother mimicked the aid’s voice like a snotty seven-year-old tells a story.
“Who’s Will? Can you believe she asked me that? Wait. Wait til you hear what else she said!”
“Oh, no,” I said, with honest dread in my voice.
“Well, I told her Will is my FIANCE,” she said drawing the word out in three slow syllables. “I’m getting married and I need to find Will. He’s waiting for me.” She took a breath and let her eyes get big. “And she had the nerve to ask me, ‘Don’t you think you’re a little old to be getting married?”
To which my mother replied, “Don’t you think you’re a little FAT to be a nurse?”
“That’s what you said?” I couldn’t believe it. My mother is a favorite resident and never gets into trouble. What in the world has gotten into her. She went on to tell me that the witch made her go back to her room. The story goes on with details of how my mother reported the aid to the head of “this place” and he fired her, “the witch!”
“And now they all watch me all the time. I can’t go anywhere without somebody asking, ‘Adele, where are you going?’” She pushed herself up straight in the wheelchair and said, “I am going to get married and that’s that.”
I’d learned that if I asked too many questions about Will and his family, my mother took it as doubt on my part. “Enter her world” I reminded myself. Every visit had its own story.
Before she could launch into Will’s newest wedding plan, I wanted to find a comfortable place to stay and visit with her. “Muzzy, let’s go down to the sunroom and you can tell me there,” I suggested. We all called her muzzy, ever since my daughters had called her that as toddlers.
Muzzy thought the sunroom sounded like a good idea, so I pushed her wheelchair down to the end of the hall and as luck would have it, we had the whole room to ourselves. The windows that surrounded us offered a second story view of the highway where cars and trucks provided a constant change of scenery. I took a seat at one of the tables used for board games, crafts, and jigsaw puzzles. Muzzy’s vision and memory were failing, so her attention stayed inside the room, looking outside only if I pointed out something of interest. Her attention today focused on the wedding.
“I think you will be upset when I tell you what I have to tell you,” she said firmly.
“Upset?” I repeated, “Upset over what?”
“That I got married. Last night. I should have told you, I’m sorry. But I didn’t want to upset you.”
During this particular visit she seemed more agitated than usual and very concerned that I would be angry with her for getting married.
“I’m not upset that you got married.” I assured her. “You told me that Will had a ring for you. A really big diamond ring.” I lifted her left hand and feigned surprise, “Where’s the ring?”
“Will did have a gorgeous ring for me. He gave it to me. We got married!” She looked at her fingers, puzzled. “Someone stole it!”
“Someone stole the ring! That’s terrible. Who would steal the ring?”
Muzzy looked at her naked finger and then at me, exclaiming, “FRANK. Frank stole the ring. He was really mad about the wedding and he came flying down this hallway ran in here, grabbed the ring and jumped right out that window.”
Frank was my father, and her husband, until his death 14 years ago. She’d been looking for him the day before on my last visit, and I had to remind her that Frank had died. Yes, she said, she remembered now, and commented that she didn’t have to worry about him anymore.
“We’re on the second floor. Why would Frank jump out the window?” Momentarily, I left her world and began to think rationally, thinking maybe I could bring her back to our world. I was never comfortable in her world and despite what dementia experts said, I could not resist an attempt every now and then to rationalize with her, to make her see that what she thinks she’s seeing is not real.
In fact, on this occasion, I made an impromptu, but not quite unconscious decision to rally reality all around her. “He’d probably die if he jumped out the window and hit the ground, not to mention the glass he’d break going out,” I exclaimed.
“It was in the paper. I’m surprised you didn’t read all about it. His whole obituary was in yesterday’s paper,” she argued. “You didn’t see it?”
“What?” I snapped. “Why would he steal your ring?”
“Well, how should I know. He ran straight in here,” she gestured with her hand to show me he’d come from the hall way, “And he grabbed my hand, grabbed the ring, and right out through the window he went.”
I followed her motions with my eyes until the part where he jumps out the window, and I turned toward the window to imagine the scene. That’s when it occurred to me without really occurring to me that it was time for a reality check.
Placing my arm gently around her shoulders, I leaned close to her and with all the concern I could muster I said, “Mom, I know you don’t probably want to know this,” I began. My inner child had woken up and before the adult within me could stop her, I said, “But they think you have dementia. I’m so sorry,” and the tears came to my eyes and surprising myself I was really crying. I made a firm decision not to stop. This is the reality she had to hear.
My eyes were closed, my head rested on her shoulder, as she patted my head, and I cried. “I’m sorry,” I told her again.
“I hate to see you this upset. Everything is ok, honey,” she was saying as I opened my eyes to look at her face. It was blank. Empty of emotion. “I was afraid the wedding would upset you. I should have told you before.”
Obviously, she hadn’t heard me, I thought. I could re-enter her world and be no worse off, but I had reality on my side. “No, no not the wedding. There’s no wedding. Your mind is off kilter. They think it’s the dementia. I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too, honey. But it will be okay. Please don’t be upset. Of course I don’t have dementia. Why would they say that. I haven’t forgotten anything,” she said with every assurance it was true. “Who says I have dementia?”
“The doctors do,” I told her.
“I haven’t forgotten anything. I can’t dementia because that makes you forget.”
“If you forgot something, how would you KNOW you forgot it?” I asked innocently, for one last grasp at reality.
For a fleeting second, I thought I saw the glint of the present moment in my mother’s eyes. “Here we are,” I wanted to shout. “Grab my hand, stay here.” And then the glint passed.
“Did you say you saw Will on your way in?”