by Ruby Bonham
The frail wrinkled body slumps forward against the restraint tied to the wheelchair. Her eyes are vacant, empty of response to the activity taking place around her. She is my mom.
I stand there watching unnoticed. The vibrant woman of a few years ago has been lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. As my aunts talk about her, a silent tear starts in her eye and slips gently down her weathered cheek. They all seem to think that because her deteriorating brain has eroded her memory and robbed her of verbal skills, that she can no longer hear either. It isn’t so. I who have watched her and loved her know beyond doubt that deep inside that worn out body lies a soul still tied to this world.
Finally everyone leaves and I am alone with Mom. Now our journey will begin as it does each time we are alone together. Putting my arms around her, I start the sensory input that will take an hour or more. Talking softly, I stroke the taut bony shoulders and head outside.
It is a warm sunny day with just enough breeze to take the edge off the heat. Away from the crowd I start the pattern I have developed as I have learned more about her world. I walk behind the wheelchair but I lean over so that my arms are around her and our cheeks touch. I talk softly and simply about the warmth of the sun, the breeze, about how I love her and am glad to be with her. Ever so slowly she starts to relax and her eyes lose some of their vagueness. I move in front of her and place both hands on the side of her face, touching her gently until ever so slowly we have eye contact. The agitation has diminished and she responds to the sensory input. We move onward but stop often to touch and love. I ask her if the sun feels good and she says “yes”: a breakthrough! After a while we go back inside and unintentionally my speech has become that of someone talking to a small child. I become aware of what I have done as I see the tears start to fall once again and I am ashamed that I have hurt her feelings. It is difficult to keep speech simple and uncomplicated without becoming condescending.
Because of my slip I have to go back and reestablish trust. About two hours have passed and we are both relaxed. I reach out and hold her face and our eyes connect. I say “I love you.” Slowly her hands come up and she touches my face and says, “I love you too.” I am shocked and for a moment, I am speechless. Still we have eye contact and deep within I see a tiny twinkle. I think she is proud of me that I have finally caught on. I smile at her in wonder and love passes between us, unhampered by words. She is more relaxed than I have seen her in months. Still she holds my gaze and I feel that our look says more than words can ever express. I am overwhelmed that she has chosen to let me into her world so completely. I feel life and humor and responses that are supposedly non-functioning at this stage of her disease. For moments we share and then as she tires, her focus wanders. I return her to her room for a nap.
I have watched her experience life from an entirely different plane and I have been grateful for the lessons that have culminated in today’s breakthrough. Society is very rigid in its acceptance of people, choosing only to approve of those who meet the requirements of standard mental and verbal skills. Because she no longer communicates in the accepted manner, she is no longer a part of their world. Not once has anyone wondered if perhaps they could communicate in hers.
Originally written for the Houston Alzheimer’s Foundation