Margie sits in her living room. She faces a brick wall that she gets curious about. We have encouraged her to move her chair to the other side of the living room where she could have a nice view of a Cottonwood, but she refuses. She likes the corner she’s in, and says it gives her access to the front door if she needs to escape from “…this goddamn place.”
She never moves from her big leather chair that has molded to the hunch of her back perfectly over the years. When she points to the wall she has to use her left hand to lift her right arm. It makes the gesture slow-moving but she still follows through with full force. Shaking the pointer finger just slightly as if she were hoping a laser beam might jut out through her finger nail. “Why are these walls red? Why do I have the view that I have? Why do people keep coming in and out of that building over there?”
“Well that building is where you live. You all live here. There are many of you here.” I am referring to the nursing home of course that she has been in for over a year now. It’s a top-notch place, one of the fanciest in the nation. But she doesn’t really know that because she never leaves her chair and stays facing the brick wall most of the day and far into the night. For all she knows this wall could belong to some prison.
“And whose house are we in?”
“We’re in your … place. There are lots of people who live in this building like you do.”
“Oh okay.” She shrugs and starts a conversation with herself in a whisper; turning her head to the right where possibly a possible panel of invisible informants is located.
I think she suspects that I expect her to understand, so temporarily she gives up asking questions. Questions with answers that clunk around in her head and bang against the side of her skull. Questions that have practical answers for the normal mind, but for Margie’s there is no normal anymore. And there is no chance answering her questions before they slip away into the land of not knowing.
I’m in graduate school studying to be a Psychotherapist. I have taken a side job as a caregiver for an agency that provides companionship for elders. In graduate school I spend all day studying the vast nuances of the mind. The personalities we have categorized, the diagnoses we have put into books. I study the approaches of the famed folk that have dared to put their theories into written word—Freud, Jung, Bowlby, Pearls, Rogers, Satir—so that budding therapists get the impression of tangibility and predictability. I’ve got big text books the size of tomb stones that I carry around in a pack, sometimes feeling as sense of pride that I’m holding the weight of such knowledge, the landscape of the mind, and the patterns of thought we have mapped out and named.
One of my teachers recommended this as a good job to have if you want to be a therapist. She said this with a corky smile “It will be challenging.” And as I sit with Margie I get my first taste of how far beyond our grasp the psyche can wander. Dementia turns a person’s mind into tumbleweed that passes from one reality to another. I can’t really catch it without stumbling over the thin lines of existence in myself, which would not be of any help to Margie.
Mostly I just sit at a distance from her, and then move closer to her when she asks a question, then move away again. I’m a rubber band that bounces around her confusion. And of course I am confused too. But what I get confused about is normal stuff, the things I think I know that don’t end up being what I know. But at least I still get to play on the same playground as everyone else.
Every five minutes Margie will ask the day and the date, and I will answer with enthusiasm because it’s contact we both need.
“What’s the date today?”
“Today is Novemeber 15th.”
“Thank you.” She will say as if that is all that’s needed from me, she is perfectly fine now that she knows the date. Then I will feel satisfied too because I am able to give her some temporary conclusion like the explanation of her illness, and why she exists.
Then she will ask again and I will tell her again, because it’s a question I can answer with a lot of authority. “Today’s date is…” I can feel pretty darn useful answering that question.
Sometimes Margie will glare at me from across the room. She has forgotten who I am and why I am sitting with her. Her eyes are black and twittering in frustration. I try to sit up straighter or look a certain way, but that doesn’t help because there is no way “to be” anything that is recognizable to her, there is no way to be anything that makes sense to her.
“What are you doing here? Why don’t you get the hell away from me?” These questions I can’t answer as easily.
“Well I’m here to help…”
“I don’t need any god damn help. What you think I’m going to do something naughty?”
Usually I just give her some space and sit further away from her. At a distance her eyes are like an animal’s peeking out from behind a bush waiting to attack. I pretend that I don’t notice. I try to blend in with the environment, become one of the pink flowers stitched into her couch. One time I could not take the glaring eyes any longer, they were biting at me, taking little bits off my face.
“You’re glaring at me Margie.” I say talking to her through one of the house plants sitting between us on the nightstand.
“I’m snaring at you.”
“No you’re glaring at me.”
“Well why don’t you get the hell out of here!?” She lifts herself slightly forward and for a split second is hovering above her seat with the strength of her skinny little arms pushing down on the arms rests. We both forget just briefly that she is old and frail. I imagine that she in fact could come after me with fists, but instead she sputters out and plops back down on the seat.
I want to tell her she is losing her mind. She doesn’t know it yet but she could get up from that chair and try to turn on a light, but forget what she’s about to do, then decide since she’s up she may as well head outside to get the mail, but once she goes outside she will see that she has forgotten where the mailbox is, which will make her angry because how could she forget where the mailbox is when she has lived in this house for twenty years, at which point she will look around and realize that this isn’t her house at all and other old people are slowly making their way down these big white hallways decorated with fake flowers that she’d never have in her home, then panic and anger will set in simultaneously, she will try to get back inside the place that she just came from but forget if the door right behind her is hers, and she will start wandering the hallways looking for someone to help at which point she will realize that she’s just trying to get the mail what’s the big deal, and see a tree outside that she recognizes as one from her childhood. The tree her mother used to sit under and she and her sister would run around in circles chasing each other, and she will walk out to that tree, and look for her sister but realize that she’s all alone, and that she doesn’t recognize anything and then somehow find herself in the middle of the street looking for her first or maybe second husband’s car, and then….So that’s why I’m here Margie. To protect you from your own mind.
Instead I give her platitudes. “I like to be with you Margie. And I make sure that you get what you need like food and Kleenex and stuff. I’m here just in case anything happens like a fall.”
She rolls her eyes and looks as if she has more questions, but then gives up and reaches for a Kleenex, blows her nose and throws her wad at me. Of course it is not a satisfying answer, not like the day’s date. Of course I can’t blend into the couch either, I’m a misplaced object in a stream of scrambled memories. I’m going to stand out in some way. I can see her trying to recall something, perhaps if she has fallen recently, or why she is even sitting there in the first place.
The following week Margie is restless and wants to make herself useful. She empties one bin of trash that’s sitting next to her chair into another bin of trash by her desk. A few minutes later she empties the trash by her desk into the trash by her chair. Then she grabs some water and walks over to some dreary looking white flowers that just don’t seem to have the right color. “These need some water.”
“They sure do.” I say as I watch her pour water on four off white fake roses.
“There” she said. “That ought to help.”
And it did. Because it’s all we had to offer something that isn’t real.