Six years ago, the summer I moved into my new house, my sisters, Linda, Sharon and Laura, and my brother, Lee, came here for our annual siblings’ reunion.
We saw a play in Ashland and walked through Lithia Park. At my house, we played Rail Baron, a Monopoly-type board game. Linda was the banker. To our puzzlement, she kept making mistakes but denying them fiercely when we pointed them out to her. We exchanged worried looks. Something seemed not right with our oldest sister (a year and a half older than I).
Her back had been hurting for months. Though none of us then connected the physical pain with the mental slippage, both were the first indications of what would eventually be diagnosed as Lewy Body disease, something of a cross between Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Her degeneration into the ravages of the disease was rapid. Even four years ago, at our siblings' reunion my brother hosted, she was still walking and able to carry on a normal conversation.
As she tumbled down the slope of the disease, her body became
more decrepit, and her mind chewed up words that might have communicated a
thought. When her husband could no longer take care of her, she went into the
memory ward of an assisted living facility. The big screened-in porch had nice furniture, lots of sunshine, a big bird cage along one wall, and plenty of plants. Linda could still introduce us to the staff when we came to visit. We could take her out to eat. She went on excursions from time to time with other residents.
As both her body and her mind lost
more and more substance, she was finally moved to a full-care nursing home, called the Golden Living Center. I'm sure no mockery is intended, but the name is far from the reality. The quality of Linda's life diminished. Friendships are not possible among people with such extensive dementia. There are no activities that can occupy the time. Life is existence. Only the basic needs are taken care of – general cleanliness and adequate meals. Visitors are the only real pleasures: her husband twice a week; Laura, Sharon, and Lee when they can get there; a co-worker from her days as an occupational therapist. Others? Church friends? I don't know.
|2012, at a restaurant in Virginia: Left to right: me, Lee, Linda, Laura, Sharon|
|2014. The four sisters at Arbor Terrace Assisted Living and Memory Care for Seniors|
For the most part her mind is empty. She becomes obsessed with shiny things. She hallucinates. When Laura, Sharon, Lee, and I walked into her room last week, she was lying in bed, her arm outstretched, pointing out the window.
I sat on the bed, and the others arranged themselves around the bed. I was anxious whether she would know who I was, since it had been a year since I had seen her. When I touched her haggard, thin arm, she turned to look at me. There was a moment of blankness. Then she broke into a big smile – well, not to exaggerate. It was really only a small smile, but it was as big a smile as she could make, and to me it was enormous. She knew who I was. She was glad to see me. Whatever it had taken for me to get there – the cost of the airline ticket, the all-night trip from Medford to Atlanta, the squeeze of the trip in the middle of term – was made worthwhile at that moment.
We called an attendant to help Linda into a wheelchair. Then the four of us wheeled her outside into the warm Georgia sunshine, past some late-blooming azaleas, to a private spot behind the building where her occupational therapy friend had planted an herb bed. We sat out there with each other. We took photographs with our phones. The four of us talked, trying to include Linda as well as we could. She has very little language left and, one would think, very little coherent thought. But as we were all clustered around her, I leaned close to her and said, “We all love you.” And she said, in her very faint, dying-out voice, clearly and coherently, “I love all of you.”
She didn’t say another coherent sentence on either of the two visits I had with her, but that one put a smile on all our faces.
|2016, in the back of the Golden Living Center, L to r: Sharon Lee, Linda, Laura, me|