Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Visit with an Old Friend

She stood just inside the doorway, her right hand suspended in mid-air, her fingers crooked, frozen in space. Her hair was cropped short with tufts of gray at the temples. Her blue eyes looked at me and through me. "She can't see good," her caretaker said. Probably just as well. She couldn't see the distress I was trying so hard to hide.

Joan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's four years ago at age 59. The ravages of the disease forced her to give up her therapy practice. Her partner of many years couldn't accept the diagnosis and its responsibilities and eventually left. She hasn't called or visited since. Thankfully, Joan doesn't remember what must have been a crushing loss. "She's smart," Joan said, talking about her former partner. "She works with people when they're dying. I . . . I can't remember what that's called."

"Hospice," I said.

Joan smiled. "That's right. What did you call it?"


I showed Joan a photo of the two of us taken in 1973. She sat behind me with her arms wrapped around my shoulders. The two of us with our long straight hair parted down the middle and flowers sticking out to one side looked like an ad for the "Summer of Love" in San Francisco. Those were good times.

I'm no stranger to the heartbreak of Alzheimer's. My husband's aunt was diagnosed in her early 70s. My mother showed signs in her late 80s. But this is the first time that someone close in age has been felled by this insidious disease. To see a vibrant, smart, dear woman now tethered to a caretaker for her every need devastated me. Maybe if I'd witnessed the progression of Joan's downfall, the impact would not have been so heartbreaking. But I came in during the final act.

I think Joan was happy that I came to visit. She didn't remember me when I arrived, and I'm not sure she understood our connection when I left. Our ties go way back: Her mother had been my Sunday school Hebrew teacher when I was in elementary school. Mrs. Gilbert was the only reason I was willing to schlep off to school on a Sunday.

"She was . . . a won-der-ful woman," Joan said with a stutter. Apparently, Joan's loss of memory erased all the negative feelings she once held toward her mother. For that, I was grateful.

Without warning, Joan put her hand on her stomach, crunched her face in apparent pain, and began talking very quickly. "I can't . . . I can't. Too much information. This is too hard." I reached for her hand, stroked it gently, and encouraged her to breathe. That seemed to do the trick. Within a matter of 30 seconds or so, the panic abated. Relieved but feeling guilty for possibly setting off her confusion, I decided it was time to leave. I promised that I'd visit again.

As I was putting my coat on, Joan said to her caretaker, "She knew my mother. I like that."

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