It always makes me sad to visit my sister who suffers from Alzheimer's syndrome. One reason is that she has always been a particular favorite of mine, mothering me all my life. Of course I loved my mother and knew she loved me, but there was always some anxiety -- a fear of her criticism or of my falling short of her expectations of me. But from this sister, I remember only kindness and unfailing affection, and the bond between us has continued since my mother's death almost 24 years ago.
To my shame, I do not visit her and her husband as often as I think I should. It usually makes me feel frustrated and helpless. This past week, I spent a few days with them, and actually felt that I not only contributed a bit to making their life easier but gained a renewed awareness of the strong love between us. Although she has trouble remembering acquaintances she has known well for years, she still recognizes close family members. She repeatedly expressed delight at our "surprise" visit, although it was not a surprise to her husband at all. Her memory for daily activities and events has broken down completely; she wants to start a meal whenever she feels hungry, even though it's less than a couple of hours since the last one. Since her husband had stomach surgery eight years ago, he has to eat small, frequent meals, so meal times and snack times merge into one another in a continuous loop. Over the last several years, her husband has gradually taken over grocery shopping and cooking. She continues to do the dishes, washing them by hand in the sink. If she attempts to put them away, it is an adventure for him to find where they are.
It gives me pleasure to prepare their food when we visit, and she has gradually come to accept it without question or apology. This wasn't an easy transition, as she was more inclined to want to do things for me than to expect me to do for her. During this last trip, I tackled the task of organizing her clothes, which was a continuing problem for her husband. (Is it a masculine trait to have a blind spot when it comes to selecting, laundering, and storing clothes? My husband shares this inability, probably because, like most of the women in my generation and earlier, I have always assumed complete responsibility for those duties.)
As I hauled her clothes out on the bed in their guest room, she began to resist the project. Feeling it was her responsibility, she became anxious and didn't want me to "go to all that trouble." Her husband's idea was that I should assemble the various pieces of an ensemble and then make a picture of it that he could refer to later to recreate it. At first, I too wasn't sure it was worth the trouble, but as I got into the project, I began to see his point. My sister has never had a great deal of money to spend on clothes but she had good taste and always looked well dressed when she went out to shop or attend church or other meetings. As her disease progressed, she was unable to remember what clothes she had, where they were, nor what pieces look good together. As the tornado a year and a half ago destroyed all their belongings, she does not even have the familiarity of old standbys in her closet. Her family and friends showered her with many gifts of clothing, some a good deal less appropriate than others.
The more I got into the task and began to enjoy it, like the many hours I spent dressing my large collection of dolls as a child, the more she resisted. I tried to get her to sit and watch, but she continued to protest. Finally, I did something I do not usually do; I spoke directly of her difficulty in remembering things and explained that I was organizing her clothes to help her husband manage them. He likes for her to look nice when she goes out, and he has been frustrated trying to select her clothes. I told her that if I lived nearer, I could come over once a week and select her clothes for her. She has always deferred to her husband, and this seemed to put an end to any protests, especially if I'd stop often for coffee breaks. I'm convinced that she too began to enjoy the shared task and our time together.
At one point, she asked me how old she was when I was born. I answered that she turned thirteen a few months before I was born. She told me about an incident that occurred while I was a baby. Our family was visiting a neighbor family that had a daughter the same age as my sister. While she and her girl friend were playing on a bed with me as a baby, she realized that she was having her first menstrual period. That memory came to her from approximately 70 years ago. Like her, I have a great appreciation of those old memories and was moved by her recollection.
Later, she astonished me with another unexpected memory. While admiring a lovely dressy suit trimmed with elaborate floral appliques on the jacket and skirt, I noticed that the jacket had several buttons missing. I commented that I'd buy some buttons and sew them on the next time I visit. She replied, "Oh, those buttons are here somewhere," and proceeded to find them in her top dresser drawer among her jewelry.
After we left, she asked her husband if they could afford to move somewhere near my husband and me. Of course, the answer was "No, not without selling the whole farm." As she has lived there almost all her life, that is not a feasible option. But I really must make the trip more often, while there is still so much of the sister I know and love.