Sometimes you just have to laugh. Not the polite little chuckle or a polite smiling nod. No, you have to really laugh. Laugh so hard you cry. Laugh in the face of pain and suffering and hopelessness and helplessness. Laugh what Dad used to call a ‘good old fashioned belly laugh’. Sometimes you have to laugh like that because if you don’t, the depths of despair would suck you down into the black hole of depression and you’d never climb out.
I laughed like that this week. It was so funny I couldn’t help myself. Tears streamed down my face. I laughed till my sides ached. It was just too funny. Way too funny.
Mom is fading. The early stages of dementia have moved to the middle stages. Her memory is shot. Paranoia rears its ugly head. Her ability to care for herself wanes. Interactions become more and more difficult. She is frail and falls easily. She spends long hours in her room at the care facility mindlessly watching television or reading and rereading the Lenten devotional I wrote a few years ago. Sometimes she doesn’t even look at it, just slowly turns the pages. Confusion reigns. “Rod,” she says when she calls, “what date is it today? My calendar isn’t working right. You need to get me a better one…”
“It’s Thursday, the 21st of July.” I tell her.
She tells me she’ll write it down, but that she’ll forget it because she has short term memory loss. She does. It is awful. A few hours later she calls again and asks the same question. I repeat the answer. Memory loss is a big thing. She sits in the lobby on Saturday morning all dressed for church waiting for Beth to pick her up for church. She calls me later to tell me she missed church because Beth forgot her. I tell her it’s Saturday and she tells me it’s not what her calendar says. “I can’t remember what day it is.” she mourns.
“It’s okay, Mom.”
Of course, it’s not okay. It’s awful. I hate it. I love her and want things to be the way they are supposed to be. I want to again experience those glorious days of the past when that bright, kind, loving mind and heart would engage all who came close to her. The nurse practitioner reminds me that there will be good days and bad days, but that in the long, slow slog of the disease the good days will never be as good as the prior good days and the bad days will become more and more prevalent. It’s true. I hate it, but it’s true.
I was in Phoenix and went to visit her. She still knows me, though the day comes when that won’t be true anymore, either. She needed some toiletries and had run out of Mentos so I asked her if she wanted me to take her to Walgreens. She was excited to go, but needed to find her ‘grocery list’. She triumphantly pulled a scrap of paper from under her calendar a few minutes later. Deodorant, shampoo, soap, Mentos, and a bunch of numbers were scrawled on the paper. I asked about the numbers. She couldn’t remember for awhile. Then it came to her, “Those are the numbers for the days you give me when my calendar doesn’t work,” she proudly recalls, “they’re the numbers you give me.”
It takes a long time to go to Walgreens. A very, very long time. We slowly pace the aisles finding correct brands and determining good sale prices. “I forget how much fun shopping is,” she says. Her face lights up. I’m glad it’s fun for one of us. I’m worried she’ll fall. She’s unsteady even using the walker. It makes me nervous. Eventually we make our way back to the car. She forgets how to get into the car. I try to gently guide her, but she struggles to remember how to get into the passenger seat. Eventually she falls into the seat and announces that she made it. We drive slowly back to the nursing home. “I hope I didn’t forget anything.”
On the way, she sits silently, lost in thought. As I pull the Buick up to the door, she turns half towards me, catches my gaze, and with a serious frown, says, “Rod, what do you think I should do about this memory loss thing? Just forget about it?”
That’s when I laughed. And laughed and laughed and laughed. It just all came pouring out. I couldn’t stop. Fighting for air, snot running down my beard, tears streaming from my eyes, I gasped and choked and at last managed to croak out, “Well, I guess you might as well.” By that time she was laughing, too. We both sat there laughing. Belly laughs. Big, huge, life giving, belly laughs. We laughed till we couldn’t laugh anymore.
I think it was just what we needed. Sometimes you just have to laugh.