by Colleen Lanier
It’s been a little more than six months since Joan passed away. She was my best friend’s mother, and was a part of my life for more than 30 years. I called her Mom for many of those years, and when Alzheimer’s robbed her of her memories, I simply called her Joan. Recognition of her first name was one of the few things left to her, as Alzheimer’s erased the names and identities of those of us who loved her.
In the months since her passing, I find myself reminded of her in the most unexpected of places. Most recently, it was in the cereal aisle of Publix, the grocery store where I do my weekly shopping. I was scanning the shelves for my favorite cereal when my eyes came to rest on a box of Cheerios. In an instant, I was flooded with memories of Joan. Some comical, some sweet, and some downright frustrating.
As frequent visitors, her son and I learned Joan’s routines so we could help her husband, Henry, care for her. In Joan and Henry’s home, breakfast usually set the tone for the day. Joan had raspberry yogurt, Cheerios and coffee for breakfast every single day. To be more precise, she had black coffee, Yoplait raspberry yogurt and Cheerios every single day. Joan did not use milk on her cereal, preferring to mix the yogurt and cereal together in a bowl. I don’t know when she started doing that, or why, but it was her routine and, as known by anyone who has watched a loved one travel down the path of Alzheimer’s or dementia, even the most routine of activities can be unbelievably challenging on a bad day.
On Joan’s bad days, breakfast was an exercise in frustration. She could not get past mixing the yogurt and Cheerios together, and, since she would not start eating until she was satisfied with the mixture, we were often done eating well before she got started. For the most part, nothing her husband, son or I tried was successful in helping her transition from mixing to eating.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. We tried everything we could think of. If we removed the yogurt container from the table, she would look for it, wanting to scrape it out for the fourth, fifth or sixth time. If we mixed it for her before placing it on the table, she would scoop out the Cheerios and place them on the table, stirring the yogurt before adding them back one piece at a time. If we encouraged her to start eating, she would ignore us and concentrate on her mission to have a completely smooth surface to the cereal-yogurt mixture.
We eventually learned that she would eat when she was ready, and we needed to let her complete whatever cycle she was trapped in. It didn’t make it any easier to watch, however, and I remember feeling entirely helpless on more than a few mornings. The prolonged breakfasts were one of the many things that showed me I was no match for Alzheimer’s. No matter how hard I tried to help, my efforts fell short.
A wave of sadness washed over me as I stared at the cereal on the shelf, reliving those mornings and wishing we had been blessed with a few more good days, when we ate together and started our days with smiles. Those days, the good ones, had been few and far between in the last weeks I spent with Joan. That made them all the more precious.
I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder, and turned to find a tall, elderly man looking at me with concern on his face. He reached into his jacket, pulled out a handkerchief, and offered it to me. It wasn’t until then that I realized there were tears on my cheeks.
“Thank you,” I said, wiping my face.
He smiled at me, gently. “Are you okay? Do you need help?”
“I’m fine, thanks. The Cheerios reminded me of someone I miss. It sounds silly, I know. It’s just cereal.” I folded the handkerchief and handed it back to him.
He waved me off. “Keep it. I have plenty. It’s not silly, really. When my wife died, I had to change entrances here so I wouldn’t come in by the flowers. I used to buy her roses when I shopped here, and when I smelled them, it broke my heart all over again. I never cried over Cheerios, but I understand what it’s like to miss someone.” He smiled, and tried to lighten the mood. “Maybe you should try pancakes or frozen waffles next time. Until you’re ready for the cereal aisle, that is.”
I laughed, catching a few stray tears with the back of my hand. “I’ll keep that in mind. I appreciate your kindness.”
He started down the aisle with a quick wave, and disappeared from view. I used his handkerchief one last time, tucked it into my purse, and finished shopping. When I got home, I unpacked my groceries, smiling to myself as I put the raspberry yogurt in the fridge and the Cheerios in the pantry.
I was ready for breakfast. Joan would be proud.
Colleen Lanier is a registered nurse with a private consulting firm, and the author of Miles from Home and The Scenic Route. Visit Colleen on her Facebook page.
Photo was taken by Karen Keller Capuciati.