Rudy was an oral surgeon before Alzheimer’s robbed his body and brain of memory and meaning… when I met him as a hospice chaplain he was in the end stages. I would visit him every Monday by 10 am…. He spent most days alone in his room in a bed in the dementia unit at the facility where he lived. It was a beautiful facility with halls and rooms decorated like a swanky hotel, there was a pricey patent leather Steinway in the Lobby donated by one of the residence’s family for the purposes of the familiar….
The rooms where grand with high ceilings and crown moldings and beautiful sunny yellow paint…..
Their grandeur and cheer betrayed only by the hospital beds, wheelchairs with restraints and the stacks of chucks and diapers lined up on the dressers. Dressers that were impeccably dusted, yet unfilled- only a few changes of clothes and one pair of shoes, topped by one graying, faded wedding photograph from the glory days.
The dementia unit was only two blocks from the office where Rudy spent over 40 years in practice but it might as well have been a million miles away…
He did not know where he was, nor who was around him. He was trapped inside the confines of his own decaying brain, he existed solitary and separated from the bustling reality around him.
He would usually be back in bed by the time I arrived- fresh from his morning wash, tired from the breakfast activities which consisted of aids wrestling oatmeal into his mouth careful to block the combative arms which reacted in muscle memory to a time when he once acted on his own will…. As he lie there his head still wet, small tufts of white hair that rested just above his ears, he smelled of A and D ointment (knick-named “buttpaste” by the aids) which kept his skin dry and free from sores that hindered so many in his state. He was dressed only in a crisp white cotton t-shirt and a diaper…. In the shadows from room darkening drapes that were drawn…. He mumbled unrecognizable words while scuffling in and out of sleep.
He was fully unaware of my presence, and as I made my rounds and logged time…. I would sit by his bed and pray. Sometimes, random petition… “Lord please bring him home”…. “Relieve him of this burden of a being alive but not living…” “Be with his wife who is unable (because of her own declining health) to visit.”
Sometimes I would just recite the Lords Prayer…and sometimes I would sing softly…. Once as I sang, he moved his hands as if he were sowing something…. Almost to the exact rhythm he would carefully stich the air…. It took me a while to understand what he was doing, but as I watched him, it occurred to me that perhaps he was remembering surgery….
Somewhere in his brain imprinted the memory of when he was fully alive and practicing what he loved, what gave him purpose and meaning….and perhaps the sound of music playing and the sound of singing prompted that memory to return…
Perhaps, he would listen to music while he was working all those years ago and that day on a random Monday fifty years past his prime something clicked …. He would smile as he sewed.
And I was taken by how our brain stores memory ….how we keep those tiny parts of preciousness stored in the recesses of our minds for comfort in times of darkness. It was in this place where I began to question…. What is it all for anyway? Why bother…if it all comes to this….laying in a bed, alone, half naked, unaware of anyone or anything…what is the purpose in this … if everything happens for a reason …what is this reason?….Why is it, that a life which was once so full and filled… could become so empty and vacant ….sewing the air ….
a life once so full…. now dark and silent and unaware….
I didn’t have any real answers to those questions then,
I still don’t…. but when I would go home to Ethan, I would hold him longer than usual, purposely being present in that moment….so grateful to be able to love and to be loved and to know love…. starkly and furiously aware of the fragility of life and love and haunted by how in a moment or a memory it could fade…away.