An Unlikely Girlfriend
You can’t pick your friends when you’re locked down in an Alzheimer’s ward. They’ll find you whether you want them to or not. Mom was still new to the ward when Irene burst through the adjoining bathroom and bolted for her bed. Stopping just inches from Mom’s face, she demanded “get that ring out of your nose! Get that ring out of your nose! ” What ring? What? Who ARE you? Stunned we by the sudden intrusion, Nick redirected Irene back through the bathroom into her own room. Mom’s large brown eyes reflected fear and confusion as she shrunk back under her covers. With a timid and trembling voice she whispered “I’m scared”. I knew she was frightened, who wouldn’t be? I fought back feelings of anger that Mom was nearly accosted in her own room, a supposed “safe” place and reassured her that Irene wouldn’t hurt her. I told her I’d keep Irene out of her room and she had no worries. Her “ Army” daughter had this shift and was standing guard, protecting her flanks (even though I was retired, menopausal and shaking myself J ). I spoke in that military lingo she loved and understood, to calm her fears.
As WWII Navy vets, Mom and Dad loved the military and followed our Army careers closely, always preferring to visit us at faraway Posts. They participated in our promotion ceremonies, military functions and retirement. Motherly delight in my military success was a little embarrassing at times when Mom would introduce me with unabashed pride. “She’s a bird Colonel” she’d say as I’d shrink down and try to slip off. But now that she was under personal attack, I felt as though I’d been recalled to active duty! My mission? Protect Mom from Irene and anything or anyone else who might hurt her. I’d establish a perimeter and secure all avenues of approach! Yet, secretly, I wondered if that was truly possible in a place like this. I’d never played war games on such an unconventional battlefield. Little did I know then, that Irene was not the only combatant we’d have to engage during “Operation Saving Mom”.
But the primary invader continued to be Irene. It became a daily challenge to keep her from bursting into Mom’s room uttering loud, nonsensical, unconnected thoughts as if shouting out orders. Although a petite little gray haired woman, Nick aptly named her the Gestapo. She’d blow in suddenly like the Nazi security police and you’d better move or she’d run into you! She could show up anywhere at any time and there was no locking her out. She’d usually just speed through Mom’s room briskly and walk out into the hall. If she wasn’t sleeping, she was moving fast, very fast, like the Road Runner! She’d walk at break neck speed up and down the hallway as if rushing with a purpose….eyes never diverted from the path ahead, never stopping to look around, never carrying on a conversation grounded in reality. When I did speak to Irene, she had a good vocabulary and would ramble on in well constructed sentences that sounded as if they were fragments of her past.
In time Mom seemed to understand that Irene, though strange and unpredictable, was harmless. Yet, she kept her distance and tried to turn a deaf ear to the on-going intrusions. Irene too, seemed to become more indifferent to Mom’s presence in the adjoining suite. The newness had worn off. They never spoke but were able to be around each other without fear it seemed. It was probably clear to Mom that Irene was literally out of her mind. She was obviously much different than Mom and Mom knew it. Sometimes Mom would walk the halls but never as fast as Irene. They’d just pass by each other without a word, gesture, or any communication between them.
And then something very unexpected and moving occurred late one night as I peered through the glass doors into the Ward, trying to remain hidden from Mom’s sight…Wanting to see what was going on when family wasn’t with her. I had to see to believe and it flooded my soul with instant joy and wonder. Mom and Irene were walking together holding hands! Not a word was spoken and somehow they’d compromised on their walking pace. Irene had slowed down a bit and Mom had sped it up. Now, Mom had a girlfriend who she could walk with! It was like watching 5 year old girls strolling through the park hand in hand, without a word, just comfortable being buddies. Oh, how sweet, I silently sighed! Who initiated this I wondered? I just knew it had to be Mom who’d always been a friend to the friendless, a mother to the motherless.
My suspicion was confirmed one day when I was again hiding out and saw Mom grab Irene’s hand as Irene made a quick pass through the kitchen. Irene didn’t flinch but kept up her pace just dragging Mom along. I captured these and many other precious moments in photos. It didn’t matter that Irene couldn’t carry on an intelligent conversation with Mom or offer most of the other blessings of true friendship. Regardless, she was still a human being, a woman who’d also raised a family and now lived in a strange, lonely world, separated from those she loved. So, in true Mom fashion, she reached for a hand……..and Irene took that hand. It was all Mom could do but it was enough for Irene who willingly accepted the warmth and comfort of a girlfriend’s hand. Human touch is healing to the soul and I have to believe that Mom and Irene found that in each other in this desolate place far from the comforts of home and family. I was thankful that Mom had found a girlfriend, albeit such an unlikely one. Who would have predicted this a month ago when Mom shuddered in fear at the very sight of Irene.
There was a short period of time where Mom was relegated to a wheel chair due to her weakened condition. Although wheelchairs weren’t permitted on her ward for the safety of other patients, an exception was made for Mom rather than move her to another ward. I rolled her down to the community room and parked her in front of the T.V. then returned to her room to pack up her laundry. Minutes later I looked up from my task out into the long hallway and fear struck my heart as I beheld Irene racing down the hall pushing Mom in the wheelchair!! Oh No! Mom could fall out or be slammed into a wall! Mom’s face was expressionless; eyes fixed straight ahead, her red hair flying! She was utterly helpless with Irene in control. “Irene, Irene, stop!” I screamed as I ran to intercept the speeding vehicle before it collided with someone or something. I was beginning to understand why wheelchairs were banned from that ward.
Several weeks after God took Mom home, I returned to visit Irene and some of the other patients and staff. I brought them photos and walked around Mom’s room in a deeply contemplative state, pondering that this was the very place her spirit left her tired worn out “tent” for her real home in heaven on July 28, 2009. It was sacred ground to me. Visions of days past flooded my mind as I tried to capture each moment and find purpose and meaning in all that had transpired here. I was so thankful that God had opened the doors for me to leave my busy life in South Carolina to be with my Mom during her final season of life. Such a privilege that most of my siblings didn’t have and my heart broke for them knowing how desperately they longed to be where I was. I would carefully journal and share this experience with them one day so that they could see and feel what I saw and felt.
I found Irene still speeding down the halls and stopped to inquire how she was doing and share photos with her. I told her Mom was in heaven, wondering if she missed Mom’s company or even understood that she was no longer there. She looked at me and said “She was a wonderful woman, wonderful woman!” Irene knew! I took her hand and walked down the long hallway, just like Mom had done so many times before. Something inside me wanted to fill Mom’s shoes for Irene’s sake…..and for Mom’s sake. I told her that Mom loved her, that she’s been a good friend to Mom and that she would see her again one day in heaven. I tried to explain that I lived far away but would visit her when I was in town. I hugged her one last time and left her alone there, hoping that another of God’s undercover agents would reach out as Mom had done, to share His love with a most unlikely girlfriend.
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