One day, my caregiver drives me to Ukiah – a half hour away – to go to the Social Security office. I anticipate a long wait, as I don’t have an appointment, but we get there early and only have to wait 15 minutes. When I go to the window to talk with someone, our exchange is even more brief.
I had planned to have lunch afterwards, but it is too early for that, and I don’t feel like going home. It occurs to me that I could visit Josephine, who has dementia and lives in one of the facilities in town. I tell my caregiver my idea and off we go.
I haven’t seen Josephine in a long time. I first met her in Massachusetts when I was 13 years old, about 50 years ago. She is the mother of my first boyfriend, Mark, who, long story short, ended up living with me and my family until he graduated high school. When Mark and I broke up a few years later, I ended up renting an apartment from her back east for a short time. Our families have interacted with each other over the years: Josephine bought land in the tiny town of Elk, CA, where my parents moved to, and Elizabeth, her daughter, moved there once a house was built. Josephine continued to live back east, but she came to visit Elizabeth often, and, while there, saw my parents too, and sometimes I’d make an appearance during these visits. Mark and I stayed in contact over the years and he would occasionally call my dad, whom he had made a strong connection with while living with us.
When my caregiver and I arrive at the facility, I start having doubts: Will she remember me? Why am I doing this?
Putting these questions aside, I go up to the front desk and ask the woman behind it if I can see Josephine Mitchell. She lets me know she’s in the middle of an exercise class, but it would probably be okay if she came out for a visit.
While I am waiting, I look around: The lobby looks clean and spacious, but what about the rest of the building? Does she share a room with others, and if so, how many? I don’t think Josephine had a lot of money, so I don’t know what she can afford.
In the midst of these thoughts she shows up in the hallway that leads to the lobby. I’m surprised at how young she looks. She doesn’t appear much older than the last time I saw her – probably 15 years ago. I approach her tentatively, not knowing how this is going to go. I have never been in this situation before and I don’t know how to act.
As I get nearer, I notice that, although physically she looks the same, there is something in her manner. Josephine always seemed sure of herself, confident and outspoken. Instead, the woman before me looks a little lost, a little frightened and as awkward as I feel. She has a small, uncertain smile on her face, which makes her seem young, almost innocent.
“Do you know who I am?”, I ask.
She shakes her head.
I explain my relationship with her, mentioning her son’s name. When all I get is a blank look, I add a little more: where we met, that I know her daughter, as well. But I can tell this doesn’t trigger any memories at all.
“Well”, I say, feeling foolish, “can I give you a hug”?
She shrugs and then gives a little nod as if to say, “I don’t have any idea who you are, but you seem like a nice person, so why not”?
And so, I give her a gentle hug and then we just stand there looking at each other, both of us unsure what to do next.
“Well, I guess you might as well go back to your class. It was great to see you”, I say, lamely.
When I leave, I continue to feel foolish. What was I thinking coming here? It meant nothing to her.
But, as the day wore on, I realized it meant something to me. I gave myself the gift of respecting my own memories that are still with me, as she edges towards death, leaving hers behind. Those memories connect me to an impressionable and precious time in my life that left a positive imprint, which compelled me to reach out to Josephine.
Memories link us together. When we think of someone in some significant way, it is our memories of them and what they stand for that causes us to act or feel a particular way. Somewhere deep inside of us, we sense that this interconnection leads to interdependence for all of us. Simply said – we need each other to survive and thrive.
It was also a good lesson for me to be on the other side of things. I thought that because of my own experiences of loss of memory after seizures, I would know exactly what to say and how to act with Josephine. But I didn’t. It was humbling. And it also gave me insight into what my caregivers, friends, and family sometimes go through when they struggle with how to be with me when I am feeling seizury or extremely sleep deprived or anxious. I now know how they felt.
Love isn’t always straightforward.
Relating to others can be awkward or confusing. We will sometimes feel foolish in our interactions.
But, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we try. What matters is that we show up in difficult times. What matters is that to the best of our ability, we say and do things that add up to “I love you and I care”. What matters is that we don’t give up on ourselves and each other. We are all fools for love at some point or another; hopefully often.