I’m not looking forward to getting Hilda up this morning. Mornings are when she is the sharpest. That’s typical for someone with short-term memory loss. In the morning the mind is at its freshest and things are easier to remember. As the day wears on, things slip away.
So, the odds are good that, this morning, as I help her and her walker navigate the hallway towards the bathroom, she’ll say something like, “I wonder how my husband is doing”. If I’m lucky, she won’t ask until she’s dressed and sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for her breakfast, because the conversation will seem a little more dignified at the table. But whenever she asks, I’ll gently remind her that he passed away a couple days ago. She’ll tear up again and say, “He was always such a good man”, like that somehow should have protected him from dying two weeks before he turned 94.
We’ll spend the next few minutes talking about the blessings of their life. Things like the fact that, up until 9 months ago, Orval was still living at the farm, with some help from their son, who would visit a few times a week and take Orval shopping. Like the fact that Orval hadn’t suffered from a long, debilitating disease, instead just dying from old age; his heart, his mind, and other organs wearing out. Like the fact that four weeks ago today was their 71st wedding anniversary. “Seventy-one years married!”, I’ll exclaim. “Who gets that, Hilda?” And she’ll agree that 71 years is a long time to be married and she’ll say “Well, we always enjoyed life”.
They did enjoy life. They married in 1941. Orval served a few years in WWII and shortly after the war ended, they settled in Deer Park where Orval built their no-nonsense, just-the-size-we-need house with lumber milled from the trees on their land. They became farmers, raising all the usual animals and two children, a daughter and a son. Hilda gardened and canned, spending every waking hour on her feet and as much of that outdoors as the weather permitted. They belonged to the local grange hall and on Saturday nights they’d go to the dances there. Orval was often found playing guitar with friends, providing the music for the dancing.
They lived the epitome of a hard-working, simple life.
Today Hilda will bury her husband. Her mind, demented by old age, is struggling to make sense of it all. Orval stayed here with us for 6 months over the winter, until his dementia and paranoia became unsafe for all of us and he had to move to a facility with a locked-down dementia unit. He went downhill quickly then, a combination of old age, a broken heart and side effects of the medication he needed to maintain some sort of clarity. Hilda has mentioned more than once in the past few days how unfortunate for her it is that her first husband died and now her second husband has died. The kids, she says, belonged to her first husband, but when pressed for his name, she can’t come up with it.
There has only been one husband…Orval. When he left here for the hospital in May, she realized that the man she loved for so long, the man who cherished and protected her, was gone…had all but physically died. Now that his body is ready to be buried, she perceives that there has been a second death, therefore, she must have been married to two men.
Isn’t the mind an amazing thing? It struggles to make sense of whatever life throws at us, even when it’s addled by dementia.
There is going to be a simple ceremony at the cemetery, followed by a reception at their son’s house. Hilda will be greeted and consoled by family and friends, many of whom she hasn’t seen for quite some time and probably won’t remember. She’ll come back here late this afternoon, where, by dinnertime, things will have faded. While she might be left with a lingering sense of dis-ease, she won’t be able to put her finger on what may be causing it. Tomorrow morning she’ll remember something and ask us. We’ll fill in the blanks, she’ll cry a little and the day will move on. Sometime over the next couple of weeks, she’ll quit asking altogether and may never mention Orval again without being prompted.
Such a mixed bag, this thing called life is. Dementia (of which Alzheimer’s is one form) is such a thief! Yet, the very thing that robs her of memories, protects Hilda from rehashing the new, bad ones. That’s some sort of blessing isn’t it?
In my more philosophical moments, I’ll tell you that each oldster who comes to live with us was sent here to teach me something. I’ve mellowed over the last 13 years, not just from my own aging, but from theirs.
Today I wonder if this is Hilda’s gift to me…the realization that there is more than one way to die, and an awakening to the truth that relationships are the only thing of real value in our lives. My goal today is to love my family and friends like it’s going to be the last thing they’ll remember of me.