To supplement my writing life I’ve started running a senior-care side business. One of my clients, Alice, has early-stage Alzheimer’s and lives in an in-law apartment upstairs in her daughter’s house. She just cognizant enough to be adamant that she doesn’t need help and just demented enough to go missing every now and then.
I’ve been going over there once a week under the guise of “dog sitting” to check up on Alice, try to get her to go outside, and maybe even lure her to lunch at the museum. So far, I’ve gotten inside her private enclave three times for a tour, been invited and uninvited to her summer house at the lake, and vaguely tolerated before being dismissed to the hall landing. Then I go downstairs and savagely sweep and mop her daughter’s kitchen floor, which really is a disgrace.
No prob. Every week it’s a new possibility with Alice. And I know full well from my experience with Sean that victory against mental illness is as fleeting as anything else. But there’s one thing I absolutely love about her Alzheimer’s. Every week Alice asks me if I have any children. And when I tell her about Sean and his schizophrenia her eyes light up: “Oh!” she says, “I have a schizophrenic son too!”
And she does. A 50-something son who lives in a group house in a city nearby from what I can glean. Sometimes she thinks he’s 30 and still in the psych hospital like Sean. Other times she remembers the present. But oh, Alice! Bless you, bless you. Every time we talk about our sons she tells me: “It will get better, don’t worry. Twenty-six is the absolute worst. My son wouldn’t speak to me for years either. It’s a phase they go through.”
Today we had this conversation three times as we walked her daughter’s two goofball dogs around the park. She couldn’t remember their names and I never learned them, so they were just Big Guy and Little Guy. “You just learn to live with the schizophrenia,” said Alice, tugging small doggie. “Nothing much you can do about it.” (She’s Canadian and thereby systemically unflappable.)
Little Guy rolled at her feet in the spring grass like a colt in a meadow. She watched him and giggled a minute before asking, “I wonder what he’s doing?” Then she turned to me afresh and said: “Do you have any children?”
Am I a spaz that I find this repetition so deeply comforting? Just the act of saying My Son Is Schizophrenic to a mother who understands fills me with radiant happiness. Each time I get to see her face alight with the discovery of our shared motherhood. And in every interchange she is invariably generous to me, encouraging me to feel hope and to trust in the long picture.
Maybe if we carry on this demented dialogue long enough I will come to believe Alice about the getting better part. And even if I don’t, I can keep circling back with her to the children we can’t forget, and remembering: I am not alone.