My 83-year-old mother-in-law lives in an Iowa nursing home and has a pretty advanced case of Alzheimer's. The last time I saw Sally at our house in the Chicago suburbs, she thought I was my sister-in-law. Sally also thought my husband was her youngest sister, Judy.
Before arriving to visit Sally over the weekend, my husband had warned me and our kids to be prepared since she's lost a lot of weight and really doesn't talk much anymore. I couldn't help being sad over that alone.
Sally used to talk my ear off. She was gregarious and headstrong and always made her presence known wherever we went. And quite often, Sally would regale all of us with her life stories. She would go into great detail about her childhood in Buffalo, New York, her college years on Long Island, meeting my late father-in-law at the University of North Carolina and much more. Seldom would she mention Buffalo without adding, "It's a great place to be from!"
But this weekend, I heard her say nothing more than a single word at a time. And yet it was enough. I immediately teared up as we walked into Sally's room because Frank Sinatra's "Chicago" was playing from a small CD player on her nightstand. She's always loved music, dancing and theater. So there's a healthy music collection of classics and show tunes in her room. It is also filled with many of our family pictures.
She was smiling and looked genuinely happy to see us. But did she know who we were? My husband talked to her for quite some time. He chatted about his older brothers and his childhood in Iowa, hoping to jog her memory as he mentioned names and places that she had talked to us about over the years.
"Do you remember growing up in Buffalo?", he asked. She quickly answered, "No." But then, she would smile as he talked about things she had done and the friends and relatives who've been a part of her life for decades.
After my husband kissed her on the forehead and said goodbye, I stepped to her bedside to greet her and asked, "Do you remember me?" She looked into my eyes and immediately said, "Yes." There was something about that moment. We were looking at each other and her expression made it clear that she did know who I was. Instantly, I thought of all the times we've visited together in California, New York, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa and llinois. Images from over two decades flashed through my mind like a flipbook - Broadway shows, outings with the kids, arguments, weddings, funerals and other family gatherings. Was she recalling those same images and memories? More than likely, she's already forgotten about our visit. I haven't.
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