One afternoon this week after work, I walk over to visit Helen.
Just before I slide open the glass door on the back porch, I take a long, deep breath.
It’s not that I am apprehensive or feel uncomfortable … I’ve been observing caregiving situations for as long as I can remember. My parents and grandparents have instilled in me from a very young age a sense of respect and responsibility for elders.
It’s that I need all the energy that I can muster when I’m with Helen. At 94 (weeks away from 95), I’ve learned that, although at times she thinks that she is 6 and wants to marry my husband (her son), she has the fiercest instincts of anyone I’ve ever met.
She will shut you out or allow you in or lash out at you (accompanied by an occasional bite) in a matter of seconds. I’m mindful of the energy I bring into most situations, but I am acutely aware of how critical the energy factor is when I’m with Helen. So, as I’m inhaling at the door, I assume the “me” that I have found to be most effective with Helen … it’s the positive (but not perky), the strong (but not threatening), the kind (but not weak), the cautious (but not afraid) and always respectful me that my mother-in-law needs to feel safe. So, I take a deep breath and I assume that role … for her.
Helen is sitting in her kitchen at a beautiful pine table made by her husband, Fred (that if you don’t put a tablecloth over, she scratches obsessively and there are the indentations to prove it). The kitchen looks all at once familiar, yet very different, as all around us are the new caregiver’s belongings and ways of organizing … essential and most appreciated, but seemingly out of place at Cheswick, Helen’s historic (circa 1796) home.
I never know when I start a conversation with Helen, whether I’ll encounter the quick witted and all-knowing Helen or the Helen that asks when someone is going to take her home. But, thanks to a lot of practice, I’ve learned to be quick on my feet and meet her wherever she is.
Me: Hi, Helen!
Helen: Hi, girl!
Me (while hugging Helen): Hi, Helen … it’s Melissa … I’ve dropped by to see you.
Helen: I love you. Your hands are cold. Give me those. (She proceeds to blow and kiss them until she deems them warm enough to let go of.)
Me: Well, I have exciting news.
Helen: What is it? (Helen loves excitement and has more energy at 5:30 p.m. after a full day at the adult day center than I did at 10 a.m. after my second cup of coffee)
It is officially the Laughon birthday season. Are you ready for all the birthday celebrations?
Helen: I am always ready!
Me: Well, let’s play a game.
Helen: Ok, I’m ready (she sits up straighter in her chair).
Me: I’m going to give you hints and you’re going to guess who is having a birthday on Sunday.
Helen: This Sunday? Ok, I’m ready.
Me: The first is on November 16thand it’s a boy’s birthday. He’s funny, he’s handsome and he belongs to you.
Helen: He belongs to me!?!
Me: Yes, ma’am. And, he’s a great singer.
Helen: (says nothing, but closes her eyes in concentration and nods her head slowly)
Me: And his name starts with a “T”.
Helen: A “T” … hmmm … (more concentration and I think I see a little smile)
Me: Do you know who it is or do you want me to tell you? (giving her this option balances out the fun of this game that she consistently finds engaging but gives her an easy out that she will often take if she’s not sure of the answer)
Helen: I know who it is … can you guess?
Me: I think it’s Tom.
Helen: How’d you know! Tom Laughon, my boy!
Me: Yes, Helen, Tom’s birthday is Sunday. We should practice singing Happy Birthday!
I start singing “Happy birthday to you” at the exact time that Helen sings “Jesus loves me this I know” and I smile, give her a squeeze and join in “for the Bible tells me so.” When we finish, I tell her after Tom’s birthday is Lissi’s (her granddaughter).
Helen: Claps her hands together and says, “I know that girl!”
Me: And, Ty and Patrick have birthdays in November. And, after that … the next birthday is on December 25 … who might that be?
Helen: Hmmm (closes her eyes again in concentration)
Me: December 25 … Christmas Day
Helen: Me … Helen Douglas Martin Laughon … my birthday is Christmas Day.