One morning, when I stopped by the independent living facility where my mother-in-law resides, Carol met me at the door, her eyes sparkling.
After giving me a hug and leading me inside, she declared, “This is a banner day for me.”
“Is that right?” I asked as I mentally scrolled through the possibilities of why today was more special than yesterday.
“Well,” she said, taking a seat. “Last night I graduated from high school!”
I could have searched my brain all day and not come up with that one. “Okay,” I said carefully. “Congratulation?”
“Thank you!” She was almost giddy with excitement. “I feel such relief. You know, today is the first day in thirteen years that I don’t have to get up and go to school. It is so freeing!”
“I bet,” I answered brightly, her enthusiasm infectious.
She paused and looked at me carefully, taking in the crow’s feet around my eyes and the subtle yet stubborn gray highlights in my hair. “Well, I guess you would know what it feels like since you have obviously been out of school for a loooooong time.” She spoke with just the right mixture of adolescent disdain and pity.
I couldn’t help but laugh. Not that Alzheimer’s is a laughing matter. It is a heartbreaking disease, a devastating disease on many levels, but this was a good day. This was a day, in Carol’s mind at least, to celebrate. She was young again, even her body language was more girlish, and we had a nice visit, riding the happiness of where she was in space and time. And then I left, knowing full well that tomorrow when I stopped by, things would be completely different.
But that is okay, because this is Carol’s gift to me. One that I unwrap before each visit as I sit in my car and remind myself to meet Carol where she is. Regardless of whether it is the present moment or Easter (Easter comes up often on the calendar year for Carol and me) or one of those difficult days when she is restless and agitated and just wants to go “home.”
It took me several months and a lot of research about Alzheimer’s to get to this place with Carol—to stop trying to correct her confusion, and to learn to contain my own anguish about the deterioration of her mental processes. When I started practicing accepting Carol as is, life became much easier for us both. By removing the resistance, she and I can find a peace of sorts with each other and with her disease—even on the really hard days.
It took a lot longer for me to realize that what Carol was teaching me could also be applied to my daily life. As much as we try to control our day-to-day existence, life can be quite a labyrinth at times. Motivational speaker Wayne Dyer said, “Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be.” Although it is human nature to resist the unexpected (or at least it is MY human nature to wholeheartedly resist the unexpected), there is no peace to be found in pushing back. As the saying goes, “What you resist, persists.”
So these days, under Carol’s tutelage, I am trying to learn to find peace and safety in what is. To accept the unexpected and the unplanned. To celebrate the roller coaster of uncertainty. Some days my attempt to meet life as it is goes better than others. When I find myself flailing, I know that it has been too long since I visited my mother-in-law. So I run by the bakery and pick up a couple of glazed old-fashioned donuts and point my car to the east side of town. I know that when Carol opens the door, she will remind me of exactly where we need to be.