In a bustling airport,
I watched the scene unfold;
an elderly woman
surrounded by police.
She was traveling to see her son.
She did not know where he lived.
She did not know her name.
Clutching a policewoman’s hand, she cried
Please don’t leave me!
I moved on.
Why on earth is she traveling alone?
What an irresponsible son!
Little did I know.
Across the country
my mother was covering up
signs of emerging dementia.
We attributed her occasional slip to
or an annoying
ploy for attention.
And my clever mother always
smoothed over missteps;
deflecting any doubt;
Mama, what did you say?
Oh, I was only joking!
And with that assurance,
we moved on.
Just a few years later,
the doctors gave those missteps a name–
but beyond their diagnosis,
to explain what was happening.
And when I asked too many questions,
their answers were imbued with impatience;
peppered with subtle disregard.
during the first weeks of our nursing home life;
a social worker nonchalantly commented:
Well, that’s your mother’s Sundowner’s Syndrome.
I had no idea what he was talking about.
When I asked for an explanation, he seemed incredulous
You know, he said, in the afternoons, she gets more confused.
Yes, she’s more confused in the afternoon. It is called Sundowner’s Syndrome.
the meaning of sundowner’s was dramatically revealed during a visit with my uncle.
My uncle and aunt–
always impossibly charming—stylish–even glamorous–
in my adoring eyes, and
in their respective 90th and 93rd years,
they still were.
I visited their new assisted living facility; assisted or not,
they appeared unchanged—
my handsome, jovial uncle; my gracious, proper aunt–
compared to the typical roller coaster visit with my mom,
this was easy.
But as the afternoon light shifted, deep shadows fell across my uncle’s chair.
he looked anxious.
He glared at me;
his face etched with fear.
His expression menacing, he demanded
Who are you?
My aunt buried her head in her hands;
Oh no, oh no. This is so frightening.
And as if a loud voice could clear his mind, she shouted
It’s Hallie; it’s Hallie; Mike’s daughter, Hallie!
Your brother Mike—Mike’s daughter– Hallie!
I don’t know any Hallie. Are you my wife?
My aunt raised her voice; it’s Mike’s daughter! Mike’s daughter, Hallie!
Mike didn’t have any daughters.
like film noir–
shadows appear sinister; mysterious; threatening;
and the demented brain reacts.
In a flash,
the patient responds to danger;
fear sets the stage.
Just as startling,
as the drifting light again enveloped my uncle’s chair,
he snapped out of the sorcerer’s spell–
he smiled wanly,
come see us again soon.
And there you have it–
a face staring from a missing poster
or lost in an airport–
each completely different;
each exactly the same.
They call it dementia;
they use clinical words and vague terminology;
but they don’t tell you what to expect;
they simply don’t know.
as the disease approached its final stages,
my mother would sit for hours in the garden;
cradling her face in her hands.
She’d taken to wearing a cap over her unwashed hair—unwashed because she wouldn’t let anyone touch her;
she’d scream if we tried.
Words fumbled; sentences incomplete; her thoughts quickly evaporated into silence.
we had finally reached
dementia’s steepest slope;
little did we know.
Right before her last birthday,
my mother re-emerged;
back in the sun.
Sporting a new haircut,
she was ebullient; effusive;
brimming with excitement for her 95th year.
My sister and I were wary; her mood could change at any moment. Just the three of us gathered in the garden—bestowing balloons, presents, cake,
and photo birthday cards with images from her youth.
my mother’s joy never abated; she was clear, content and even more beautiful than the pictures on the cards.
As the afternoon light slowly shifted, she studied us closely.
a faint smile at the corner of her lips,
she quietly proclaimed
I am so pleased.
As we returned to her room, she gave her best Queen Elizabeth wave to her fellow residents in the dining hall, calling out
Thank you for coming to my party!
The nursing staff approached my sister and me. They shared our euphoria, confiding that they were astonished by what had transpired.
Just a few weeks earlier, they were not sure she would make it to her birthday. Certainly she would not understand what was going on.
Instead she surprised all of us with a transformation
no one could anticipate.
She gave us
her old self;
a radiant last birthday;
all of us
once and for all
how little we know.
The Octave Mirbeau “Observe her closely…” quote comes from his description of Claude Monet’s Study of a Figure Outdoors, Facing Right ,1886, in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay, Paris