The Alzheimer's wing of the Cedar Rapids care center is a hard place to visit. Each individual has his or her set of problems compounded by foggy, smudged memories. Visiting John's mom is both agonizing and sad. The aviary is busy with twelve wrens flying about, ever hopeful that the clear glass is pure, sweet sky, but being repeatedly jolted into reality from invisible walls blocking their freedom.
John's mom is full of hugs and love, although she doesn't know us. She constantly licks her lips, mouth dry from medications or lack of water...or lack of remembering that she should drink. She looks at an unknown distant memory and her eyes seem vacant and then something delightful happens and she snaps off a sparky retort that is full of amusement and giggles as if she is in the moment. Her hair is not styled, her nail polished chipped, her clothes stained, but she has bigger troubles and is not concerned. She recounts tales of who all visited her that morning (none of which actually did) and suggests that we all go to her house so that she can fix us a meal. We assure her that she is home (a lie not meant to harm) and she responds with gibberish--words that haven't been invented yet. We do our best to make sense of the words...but fall woefully short.
The physical therapist comes by to play kick ball and seats all the patients in a circle. She stands in the middle and starts gently bouncing the large beach ball to each one. Some bat the ball back with their hands, some kick it back, some try--but miss, and others catch it inspecting it for some clue as to why it is in their possession. John's mom's reflexes are lightning fast (a by-product of raising five children no doubt) and she has a much easier time than most. And her eyes sparkle. She feels productive and useful. One lady is very angry and continually yells, "I hate you. I'm going to kill you. I wish you were dead!" to an unseen agitator. After several minutes of hearing these spiteful words, Eunice (John's mom) has had enough and she snaps back, "That will be enough. I don't want to hear another word out of you! You stop it now!" This breaks the repetitious pattern the other lady cycled into...and she gets quiet...at peace for a minute.
John's dad has been here so much he knows each person's name, he knows what touches their hearts, and he knows what questions to ask. "Did you milk the cows this morning Susan?" "Roger, did your dog come home last night?" "Sam, what happened to your head? How many stitches did you get?" And so it goes.
We sit, we enjoy, we listen, we watch...and tears pour silently down our souls as we watch Eunice take tiny bites of her snack, each time offering it to us first. Each time getting a little more chocolate around her mouth...her napkin clenched tightly in her other hand for it's usefulness has long been forgotten.
The care-takers speak with kindness and love, never raising their voices. The room is clean and spacious. The meals look and smell delicious. And yet the loss of memory has imprisoned Eunice with invisible walls of fear, empty days, and hopelessness. Alzheimer's is a demon of epic proportions.