Yesterday was her birthday. She was 88. You wouldn’t know it to look at her. Teeth pearly white. Skin smooth thanks to a lifetime of Merle Norman. She maintains at her age almost her girlish figure. She is in a Nursing Home. She has no idea where she is. She recognizes no one except my wife and me. Every time we come in, she smiles the biggest smile. And when she speaks it is only mumbling and you don’t know what she is saying. All the nurses tell us that she is always cheerful. Always smiling. She gives no one any trouble. In fact, she is a favorite of all those that work there.
When her husband died five years ago—she started drifting away. The changes were subtle but we knew something was going on. Little by little we had to make decisions. We had to take her driver’s license away. We got someone to come in the daytime and prepare meals. Then we had sitters for eight hours, then twelve—finally around the clock.
She had to leave her home and move to Birmingham. We were left with the sad business of disposing of all her treasures. Cleaning everything out. Getting her house for sale and moving her fifty miles to where we lived.
At first she hated the move. She wanted to go home. More than once she was caught, pocketbook in hand, walking down a street looking for home. We moved her five times. Each time she escaped we had to transfer her to another facility.
When we moved to South Carolina from Alabama—we brought her with us. We were scared about driving her so far—but she made the trip probably better than we did. She is two miles from our house—and it is easy to check on her.
Sometimes she mumbles, “Where Mama? Have you seen Daddy?” Not very often she looks up at us with the saddest of eyes and says, “Would you take me home?” It’s a hard journey this winding rocky road. It’s like watching someone slowly slip away on an iceberg—and you call and call but there is no turning back.
We kept asking each other, “What do you give someone who has Alzheimer’s?” The clothes we bought her are long gone—either she gave them to someone else—or just disappeared. Shoes, too. She lost her glasses over and over. We never did find them the last time. What could we possibly give her? She loved flowers so we went to the florist and got this beautiful bouquet of flowers. We drove by the facility, went through the locked doors some aide had to open. She was in the Dining Room. She had not touched her food. Her eyes were closed. She was asleep. “Dorothy, wake up. It’s your birthday.” She never opened her eyes. She kept them shut tight. We never could wake her up. We left the flowers in her room. We hope she noticed them.
The Doctor says she is in the last stages of dementia. She doesn’t eat. It is hard to swallow. Hospice begins this week. She is in a fine place. The care she gets is excellent. She sleeps most of the time.
We keep going by. When she is awake she always knows us. That is all. And so on her eighty-eightieth birthday she keeps her eyes tightly shut. I don’t blame her. Eyes wide open—there is so little to see these cold winter days. What do you give someone with Alzheimer’s? You give them love. You give them the best care you can. You talk to her—mentioning her sisters and brothers long gone. You tell her about the dog she used to have—and the house someone else now lives in over two hundred miles away. You riffle through her photograph albums—and she recognizes no one. And you give her flowers. Maybe flowers she will never recognize. And you pray to God that her journey will soon end and she will be a peace. Happy Birthday, Dorothy. The old promise she hung on to as long as she remembered was, “I will be with you.” Deep in our hearts we hope those old words are still true for our dear friend even though now she does not know.