Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Lucy Snowe and Alzheimer's

I see that often, at the time of day where I reflect on this or that, one of my creative impulses is to take two seemingly disconnected elements in my day and draw a thread between the two. Like yesterday; the threads consisted of a passage from Charlotte Bronte's novel “Villette” and with my aunt who has Alzheimer's.

The character in the book, Lucy, arrives into a foreign country late in the evening, having lost her overnight bag, and only a few coins to her name. A kind stranger emerges to offer her an act of kindness. And, at his invitation, he guides Lucy Snow to an inn, “ ...the park was black as midnight. In the double gloom of thick and fog, I could not see my guide; I could only follow his tread. Not the least fear had I: I believe I would have followed that frank tread, through continual night, to the world's end“. I was reading this section of the Lucy's story on my long underground subway ride, on my way out to visit my aunt who now lives in a senior's home. I hadn't seen her since last summer and her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease has advanced much further along over the winter. Though she did not recognize me, she welcomed me with a kiss, the way she's always welcomed me. I am reminded that, in spite of the fact that she raised nine children, myself and my sisters and brothers were always welcomed into her home. There was never any question of how long we might stay and how burdened she might already be (given that she was almost always in a state of pregnancy or nursing a small child). No matter. Beds were rearranged, pillows were found, an extra handful of pasta was thrown into the pot. We were family and clearly, that's all that mattered to her.

Today, my aunt and I cannot reminisce on those days so long ago. Nor can I ask her about her dozens of grandchildren. I begin conversations about this or that, but she isn't able to respond in a way that is comprehensible to me. Most of what she says does not make sense, at least not in the way that I normally like to make sense of things. But strangely, as I listen to her speak, I find myself interpreting her words, as though I were in a foreign land like Lucy Snow. I try to sense out what it is she is saying to me. And whatever it may be, it is, without a doubt, all kindness and goodness. I believe if I could somehow unscramble her words, I would hear her asking me about my children and my day-to-day life. She would tell me how lovely I looked, or compliment my hair or comment on something I was wearing. She would laugh easily and sympathize deeply.

When she and I stood at her window looking outside, I noticed how the trees were just beginning to open up to the possibility of Spring. Among the trees stood a white statue of Mary, gleaming out, as if lit from within. My aunt and I said three “Hail Mary's” together. Amazingly, having said that prayer, likely tens of thousands of times in her life, the words flowed like a song from her lips. And for a brief moment, we shared the same language.

From the outside looking in, a person could say that I did a kind deed by visiting an aunt who no longer recognizes me. But I would not agree. I would say that by visiting her, I was the one who was gifted. I was able to step outside of my everyday problems and all the things that uselessly preoccupy my thoughts, and leap into something not quite comprehensible to me.... into the unknown. Like Lucy Snow who, without resources, travels to a foreign land and relies on the good will of a stranger to deliver her to safety. She follows him by sound, not by sight. Perhaps, that is where my aunt is right now, in a foreign land. Or, perhaps the rest of us exist in that foreign land. Either way, we can help each other through the “double gloom of thick and fog” by listening beyond language, beyond words, even beyond shared memories. It's not easy, of course. And I would not begin to presume the challenges I would face if she were my own mother. But from the perspective of a niece who loves her in my own way, I can appreciate the gift she gave me in those brief hours.

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