Alzheimer’s Is Helping Me Accept Schizophrenia

old-lady2To 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.

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Cats and Rats and Mother’s Day Wishes

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It happens every few years that my son’s birthday and Mother’s Day coincide. That overlap is recorded in his baby’s book on the day he was born, along with some pressed lilacs a neighbor brought me from her garden.

Today, I find myself taking my emotional temperature all morning as friends and family send Mother’s Day greetings tinged with their pity and love. At the psych hospital that has been Sean’s home for the past year, birthdays are celebrated en masse once a month. So I have no idea when his public acknowledgement will come around or if it even matters to him (I doubt it; he was never big on birthdays). But I’m wondering if he is tending his birthday carefully, privately, as I am my motherhood. And if we share a secret that way, just for today.

Here’s what I’m noticing: I woke to an open bedroom window with a lovely light spring rain outside and new leaves soughing on a distant tree. The smell of bacon actually wafted up from somewhere–a beautiful, smoky cloud. My cat son, Ruben, is curled on the bed beside me where he’s been since last night when I traumatized him with what was supposed to be a cute remote-controlled mouse, but which turned out to be a huge, black terrifying rat from China that bowled him over in the hallway.

Later today I will call the nurse’s station and ask someone to wish Sean a happy birthday from me–since he won’t take my calls. Okay. No longer a gutting. I will hope he at least took the money from the card I sent before tossing it, unread. Practicality. I will envision his delight when he gets the book he requested–Oliver Twist–which is on its way, an incredible little edition with gilded page edges and original engravings that fits perfectly in your hands. Call this hope.

I used to despise it when people who had been on this path longer than I told me it would get easier, even if the situation didn’t improve. But even I have to concede my Mother’s Day thermometer does read something less than a fever. Sean is safe for now so I can afford to wake up a little to my own life, even if I’m not crazy about living it this way. He will always be my mercury, but I am finding ways to cool myself down.

 

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