It’s our usual day. She dozes on the couch most of the morning. I dress her for our outing. She’s as fragile as cracked glass, gasping and moaning at the putting on of socks, befuddled at the pulling up of pants, completely lost at the pulling over of a shirt. She can still tie her shoes.
We go out for lunch. It’s what we do on the Tuesdays when I visit her. It’s also become one of the ways I most see her decline: the inability to choose a utensil, know what a straw is, cut her own food anymore. She jabs at what’s on the plate and then opens her mouth, and it is a gamble that the food gets there. She has no preferences about what to eat, though she won’t eat what she doesn’t like. She couldn’t tell me if she did have a preference. It’s been a year or more since she’s collected enough words together to make meaning.
She still laughs. She still smiles. She is still more beautiful than any woman her age. She is willing to do what I ask if she understands it. That’s where I fall down so often, thinking she’ll understand. I’m always exhausted by my lack of acceptance as to what has happened and is happening to her and by my expectations, always too high.
Later, I make dinner, keep an eye on her as she does her rounds, from hall to dining room to den and around again. She walks carefully, so carefully, often reaching out to the wall or a chair. She runs her foot along the creases of the joined tiles. She doesn’t step, she shuffles.
I put her in pjs early, sit in a rocking chair, emotionally battered by our day, by what I see. I always try to prepare myself. I remind myself of her decline, but I am never, never ready for it. And so my mood dips in the afternoon. I hate myself for its dipping.
Are you tired, I say, more to make conversation than anything else. So often there is silence between us. She can’t talk, and I seldom chatter, but chatter is what is needed these days, a light ongoing constant from the only one of us who can do so, but I’m bad at it. She looks at me. She answers with stunning clarity: You’ll never know how tired I am.
It’s the first sentence I’ve heard in over a year. And before I can even respond, she’s back to her shuffle through the hall, the dining room, the den.
I sit where I am in shock. Yes, everything is hard for her, isn’t it? Moving, dressing, eating, getting up and down from a chair, walking, recalling, associating, living. All hard now.
I must remember this, I tell myself. But I won’t. I’ll be as surprised and upset next week as I am this week. Later, I think of the poet Mary Oliver:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
The family of things….her place in it and mine, her despair and mine, her love and mine…………….