“Let’s review,” I’d say. And grandma would say, “My husband is still alive and we have three children. You gave me the picture on the wall. It belongs to me and not anyone else.” Every visit with Grandma at her assisted living community concluded with my correcting her revised life story and calming her fear that someone was angry that she’d stolen that cheap print of a sunset. She’d lower her gaze in shame. I would cry on my way out the door. She had been my pal as a child. We shared a love of books and she encouraged me to write. Later, through the trials and tribulations of my teens and young adulthood, I could always depend on her sympathetic ear. And now I felt like I lost her.
But it wasn’t true. Keys, hats, and umbrellas get lost. You might get lost in the woods, in an unfamiliar city, or lost in thought. You might lose your hearing, your patience, or your sense of humor. People with memory loss aren’t lost. They are who they always were.
If only I knew then what I know now. I’ve learned that it’s on the play field of imagination where we find our loved ones. All of the parts re-emerge—the mischievous child, the caring grandparent, the fun-loving friend. We only need to put aside our own inhibitions and join them.
As a TimeSlips facilitator, I look forward to jumping into that play field of imagination with reckless abandon At an adult day center, we talked about the tooth fairy and how she comes to collect baby teeth from under a child’s pillow. “That’s not what happens,” said Alice. “When you lose a tooth, the tooth fairy comes to get it and brings it to someone who really needs it.”
I feel like the fairy. I get to bring something that many thought was lost to people who really need it. My heart is full of joy.
But it’s harder with people we know. There’s a shared past and an established pattern of communication. Before Grandma’s dementia, our conversations were about family history, the progression of my career and the antics of my children.
My husband’s friend, Carmen, has early onset Alzheimers. Tom has lunch with her most Tuesdays. They’ve known each other since they were teens, so their conversation typically migrates to the exploits of their youth. Carmen increasingly fakes it. She stares off into space and says, “Oh sure, I remember that.” And Tom feels embarrassed for her. But the day Tom brought her home and they discovered a dead raccoon in her backyard, everything changed. They called him Clarence and talked about how he might have ended up there. He had a wife and a dozen children. Clarence was out getting some time for himself when he came upon his arch nemesis, a wild coyote named Silver. Silver bit him in the neck and Clarence climbed the fence into Carmen’s yard to try to escape. “His wife is really going to miss him. How on earth will she support all of those children without him?” They laughed and laughed and the light in Carmen’s eyes shone bright.
I wish I could do my time with Grandma over again. I wish that I had been able to make the shift either grilling her about her health or reminiscing to imagination. I wish that when she told me that she was a widow and had seven children, I would have asked her to tell me about her deceased husband and their lives together. I should have conspired with her to remove that print on the wall that worried her so and restore it to it’s sacred place at the Guggenheim museum. We could have created a story that would have delighted us both and strengthened our bond. We would have been pals again.
(You can learn more about TimeSlips and making meaningful connections through imagination at timeslips.org)