"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Seldom Spoken Upside Of Losing One’s Mind –The Here And Now Was Never That Interesting In The First Place

Anna Parcella lived in the Sunset Hills Retirement and Senior Care Home, a pleasant facility, as far as that kind of institution goes, on Long Island Sound, with an ample garden, a front lawn sloping towards the water, plenty of windows, and a responsible and reasonably caring staff.

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Anna had lived alone for many years after her husband had died, but when she began to see things, her daughter was advised that it was time for her to move while she could still manage the transition without too much disruption and anxiety.  Fortunately Sunset Hills had an opening, and Anna moved into a small, furnished apartment with all the necessary elder care appurtenances.  She would remain there as long as she was able to manage meals, the long, tricky corridors, and finding her way to and from her apartment.  Everything in Sunset Hills was color-coded; Alzheimer’s researchers as well as traffic engineers had concluded that color in all its shapes, sizes, and tones jumped over cognitive barriers and resonated in the sub- or near-consciousness.

Each floor was coded with a different color, and each apartment given a contrasting color and shape.  Anna’s floor was The Red Floor, and her apartment was coded with a bright blue triangle. Computer chips were inserted both in the corridor walls, in the unique apartment signature, and in the wristband worn by each resident.  The wristband would flash bright red when Anna was on the right floor, and would begin pulsing blue as she neared her apartment.  When she arrived safely, the wristband would play a comforting, familiar melody.  If she went off course, the wristband would give off a warning signal, gentle, but purposeful; and more importantly it would sound loudly in the nurses’ aide station.  The errant wanderer would be met, her system recalibrated, and gently sent on her way.  Sunset Hills residency was a matter of human compassion and interactive technology.

Anna settled in quite well, adjusted easily to the diamonds and triangles, complained about the sickly colors on the third floor, but was calm and characteristically social.  Most of the residents of Sunset Hills were only at the initial stages of dementia, so while the conversation at table never made sense, no one cared.  The cross-currents of personal memories, fantasy, and imaginings all flowed together without being called out for lack of logic.  It was only the close relatives of the residents who tried to corral them back into logic and observable reality.  Most of the residents, however, resented the hectoring, schoolmarm, corrective attitude of sisters and children; and preferred the free-flowing, untrammeled chat of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

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This is not to say that dementia is a benign illness.  Far from it.  Many of those with dementia see demons, are terrorized by horrific daydreams and nightmares, and spend most of their hours petrified with fear.  Sunset Hills was very careful in their screening process, and their triage identified those applicants who might need the special institutional care that they could not provide; and even if any well-screened, well-off resident began to lose their ‘composure’, they were referred to a sister facility in New Haven.

“The Pope came to visit me the other day”, said Anna to her nephew who came to visit once a month.  Now, this nephew who had been close to his aunt since childhood, was not close enough to feel the need to pull her back from her new world. She was his aunt whether travelling in Sardinia with Garibaldi or eating chicken a la king at Sunset.  She had the same spirit, the same sense of humor, the same irreverence, and the same good will now as then.

“What was he wearing?”, the nephew asked.

“Red slippers”, replied his aunt, “and the cutest golden tassels on the tips. When he walked down the aisle they looked like dandelions nodding in a Spring breeze”.

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And so it went – the male strip show, the fireworks in the birthday cake, the monkeys hanging from the chandeliers, and the President’s kisses, an amalgamation, a potpourri of her childhood memories, a bit of daytime television, and the antics of her fellow residents. 

She liked Bill Bailey – ‘a prince of a man’ – whose meanderings she thought were lyrical.  He had been a professor at Yale of Romantic poetry, a renowned critic of Blake, and somehow his poetry had lodged itself in that part of his brain where the wires were most crossed.  “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright”, he said to his fellow diners, “and what a glorious flame it was, crackling in a sulfurous din, singing his orange fur, trimming his stripes until he was fit for no jungle, no prey”.  Here he paused and stood up.  The diners looked up from their soup and bean salad.  “He reached up from the flames and touched the sky and transformed it, luminescent like the ribbons of the Northern lights”.  He looked around the room, pointed to the ceiling and the slowly turning fans, and sat down.

Image result for Images Poem Tyger Tyger. Size: 150 x 255. Source: www.pinterest.com

“That was marvelous”, said Aunt Anna.

The two of them became friends, easier by far than two able-minded people meeting for the first time and obliged to recite the litany of jobs, family, children, and travel.  Bill and Anna could travel without caution, without predilection, and without aim.  Somehow their personalities unchanged and permanent no matter how sparking and inconsistent their neural synapses, they were the same people; and their mutual generosity, humor, and good will shone through the strangest of fantasies.  They were friends who did not need to know who they had been, where they had come from, to whom they prayed, or what they missed most.  Theirs was a world of shared popes, lyrical fairy tales, and non sequiturs.

When Anna’s daughter met Bill Bailey she thought he was as crazy as a loon and immediately tried to remove him. As before, she wanted to pull her mother away from her new world and back to her old – one which had had more downs than ups, an errant husband, bad investments irresponsible grandchildren, and never more than two pennies to rub together.   Yet despite her daughter’s back-to-back  blandishments and rebukes, her mother paid no attention.  Her daughter made no sense at all bringing up bits and pieces of this and that that she had discarded years ago.  What was the fuss? she thought, and returned to Bill Bailey.

Anna was one of the fortunate ones whose dementia, while deepening, never turned ugly and sour.  The old world simply ceased to exist and all in it.  She could no longer recognize her daughter or her sister, but created happy versions of them in her fantasies with Bill Bailey.  The recreated women were far more interesting, vital, and engaging than the real ones.  The places they lived in were not the dismal ramblers of Wallingford and Bristol, but palaces, Versailles (thanks to Bill), and the Gardens of Persepolis.  After a time they did recognize each other, but there was enough residual camaraderie that showed up in a look or smile to set off the cavalcade of wild ideas.

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As Anna’s nephew aged, he wondered for how long he would have his mind before losing it; and whether or not his new world would be as benign and happy as his aunt’s.  He was not a worrier, and much more like Bill Bailey than either his mother or his aunt; so he assumed – hoped – that he would go Bailey’s way, for a life with the Sun King, Darius the Great, and Lewis and Clark would certainly be better than accountancy and a rambler in West Haven.

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