“His body is here,” my friend said, “but the rest of him is in a place where I can’t go.”
Susan’s husband of forty-four years has Alzheimer’s, the dreaded disease of so many seniors. Fortunately for Dan, Susan is a trained nurse with the compassion and patience of Mother Teresa. A spiritual person, she leans heavily on her inner resources for strength.
“Without it,” she says, “I would have caved long ago.”
I felt uncomfortable discussing Dan’s illness while we sat on my screened porch with a glass of wine waiting for the sun to set. But I am her friend and she needed to talk, to unwind, to decompress.
“One of the toughest things,” she began, “is dealing with what is lost.” She paused reflecting, and I didn’t barge in with chatter to fill the silence.
The expression on Susan’s face was bereft when she spoke again. “Dan, you’ll remember, was the life of the party, the golden boy who managed to achieve all of his goals. He created and patented many designs and was a top executive at his firm. We traveled all over the world. Gosh! The things we saw and the good times we had.”
She stopped speaking to gaze at a slowly sinking sun, the similitude of which was not lost on either of us.
“They are all gone now,” she whispered.
I reached for her hand. “What’s all gone, Susan?”
Quietly, she said, “All the memories we created together. Not just the years of traveling, but the days and nights we lived side by side in the same house, choking on my bad cooking, sharing sorrows, laughing and jeering at reality TV.”
I squeezed her hand.
“Everything’s gone,” she said. “Last week I tried to get him to remember the time we were in Paris and toured the Louvre. He was so touched that he cried standing in front of the Mona Lisa. But he didn’t remember. Couldn’t. I want so much to share our wedding day again, but even the photo album doesn’t help. I look at the pictures alone and cry. Memories represent such a huge part of who we used to be. Not being able for us to share them is devastating.”
The sun dropped below the horizon as if on cue and the first hint of night began to hover. I held tight to her hand, not wanting to let go any more than she wanted to let go of Dan and their life before Alzheimer’s.
Susan spoke of other complexities that make up her days and nights and they are many. “At first,” she said, “I wrote copious notes and left them all around the house.”
Take a shower. Your clothes are on the bed.
Brush your teeth. The toothpaste and toothbrush are on the counter.
Don’t forget to eat the snack I left for you in the fridge.
I’ve gone to the grocery store. I will return by ten o’clock.
The cat’s name is Miss Mew. Pet her. She likes that.
After two years, Dan was unable to comprehend the notes she carefully wrote for him because his comprehension had diminished to the point where notes were useless. For two years, she had been the sole caregiver but by that time she was emotionally and physically exhausted. She needed help.
Enter Alice, an experienced home care nurse and Susan’s and Dan’s blessing. Alice’s husband had also struggled with the mental monster known as Alzheimer’s and after he died, she moved in with her daughter. Susan saw an opportunity for them both and quickly invited her to live with them. Together, Dan would receive the best of care and Susan would have some relief.
“My daughter is a generous and beautiful soul,” Alice said, “but she’s got a husband and three children to take care of. They moved me into my granddaughter’s bedroom and that’s just not fair to her. You
know how territorial kids are about their rooms.”
Susan nodded but she did not know because she and Dan had no children of their own. Their lives had been all about each other.
Since Alice was with Dan giving Susan a needed break, she was free to sit with me on my porch, watch a sunset, sip a glass of wine, talk a little, cry a little and relive memories she could no longer share with the love of her life.
I held her heart in my hand that day because friends don’t let friends suffer alone.