by Colleen Lanier
On Tuesday, February 11th, Joan slipped away quietly, her son Sean by her side. She had been like a second mother to me for more than 30 years, and though separated by 3,500 miles and the wall of Alzheimer’s disease, I thought of her often and stayed in touch with cards and small packages. Just a few hours before she died, I had been at the post office, mailing her a Valentine’s Day card. In it I had written about the lovely views from the windows of the memory care unit she called home, hoping she was enjoying the recent snowfall that had blanketed the Seattle area. I had spent quite a bit of time with her in memory care before moving away from Washington, and could imagine her looking out of the windows.
Having been a part of her life as she traveled down the path of dementia, I rejoice that she is finally free, and the tears coursing down my cheeks are for me, not for her. She is in a much better place, once again with her husband, Henry, who died in August 2011. I was with them both during Henry’s final days, and found it heartbreaking to watch as Joan failed to recognize her husband, or his passing. I like to think that her face broke into a huge smile when they were reunited. It is a comforting thought.
As for me, I am blessed with a lifetime of memories dating back to high school, when Sean and I became best friends. I chose my nursing school in Texas in part because Sean and his parents were in Houston, and when I was unable to travel home to Chicago for Christmas, Joan and Henry welcomed me into their home for the holidays. I still have the crystal candy dish they gave me. Thirty-one years later, when I helped Sean pack their belongings in preparation for a move into assisted living, I was touched to find the cross-stitched “Bless our Home” wall hanging I had made for them displayed in their foyer.
When the time came for Joan’s move into memory care, I was a familiar but unknown face. In spite of the many challenges of Alzheimer’s, she hadn’t lost her joyous spirit, and I found myself very protective of her. She accepted my caregiving, and was comfortable around me, but clearly had no idea who I was. I learned her patterns, discovered what activities might calm or help her, and what to avoid. Most of the staff in memory care thought I was her daughter, or Sean’s wife. I was neither, but she was family, the one I had chosen, just as important as the one I was born into.
The last time I saw Joan was on a beautiful, crisp December day. It was unseasonably warm, and I took her outside for a walk through the gardens behind the assisted-living facility, which was nestled on the side of a hill. The surrounding views were spectacular, encompassing the tiny town we lived in, an inlet of Puget Sound, and mountains that on a clear day included Mount Rainier. We settled at a picnic table and got started with one of her very favorite activities — dumping our purses onto a table, inspecting the contents, and then repacking them meticulously, finding exactly the right spot for each item. Affectionately dubbed “the Shopper” by the memory care staff, Joan regularly managed to acquire new items for her purse, so it was always fun to see what had caught her eye.
“A shoe horn?” I hadn’t seen that before.
Joan smiled, reaching for my pumpkin-spice hand sanitizer and putting it in her coin purse.
She had two extra pairs of glasses, one clearly belonging to a man. I tried them on and made a face, making her laugh. “How do you do, you do, you do,” she said.
I ended up with one less pen and no hand sanitizer, but Joan was happy. That was the point, so I was happy as well.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the fresh air and warmth of the sun. As we looked down to the water, the sun bounced off the surface, sparkling and causing flashes of light. Joan shielded her eyes against the brightness, saying, “Whoa, mister.”
“What a nice day,” I said. “Isn’t the water gorgeous, Joan?”
“You know what, yup yup. Uh huh, that’s right.” Joan clasped her hands together, raising them up to shoulder level as if signaling victory.
I laughed, and she did, too. She reached her arms out towards the water and wiggled her fingers at it, something she often did in greeting. It was one of her very endearing habits.
“It is beautiful,” I said.
“Everything is beautiful from above,” she said softly, surprising me with the clarity of the thought.
We started walking, stopping for a cone at the assisted-living facility’s ice cream parlor, taking our time returning to the memory care unit. Neither of us was in a hurry. I was moving to North Carolina the next day, and this was my final visit with Joan before leaving. I entered the security code into the doors of her unit, and we walked down the hall for the last time.
“I love you, Joan,” I said as I hugged her. I was trying not to cry, because I knew it would upset her. I also believed that, much like with Henry, she probably wouldn’t know I was gone.
She responded by handing me the bottom of her cone. She never ate the flat bottom, and found many creative ways of disposing of them. One such place had been my purse, not to be discovered for two days and giving me a much-needed laugh. This day she simply handed it to me and turned away, heading for the dining room which she called “the restaurant down the street.” She was quickly engaged, trying to help another resident get settled at a table. Dementia or not, Joan always wanted to help.
I don’t know if Joan noticed that I did not come back, or if my cards and letters meant anything. I hope that she sensed, on some level, that someone was thinking of her. She was always in my thoughts and prayers, my second mom, the woman who told me she wished I had been her daughter. In many ways, I was.
Goodbye, Joan. You will be both missed and remembered. I hope that heaven has big purses, great shopping, and that the view from above remains beautiful.
Colleen Lanier is a nurse and author of two books. Joan and her husband Henry, who were much loved, are the focus of her first book, and a part of her second. In honor of Joan’s passing, Colleen will be offering both books for free via Amazon Kindle on March 5-7, 2014. She hopes you will help honor Joan’s memory by reading the stories and sharing in their journey.