I don’t mind as I am narrating a story in my head – all quiet moments are gifts of time.
The last couple of weekly visits have changed – the routine of greeting my resident, talking for a few minutes to reassure her of the reason for my visit (I am recording and writing down her life stories and memories), turning on the recorder, and prompting her with a few questions to stimulate her life stories has disappeared.
Lately, during our visits I notice that she is either very drowsy or somewhat confused, and conversations about her family, childhood, school antics or young married life have dried up.
I have had to adapt, and I no longer ask her questions or give her prompts. Only a month ago I had inquired about her grandchildren and she had responded with a lovely story.
But not today.
When she awakes, I have to remind her who I am (Gwen’s daughter – you remember Gwen – she lived across the hall and you shared many cups of tea together) and she smiles her beautiful smile, and although I can read on her face that she is happy to see me, I sense that she no longer remembers Gwen (or me).
So I try again. More confusion.
In my cloth bag I have a copy of her life stories to date, so I retrieve the typed pages which are in a plain, three-ring, navy blue binder. I place the binder in front of her on the lap tray of her wheel chair and open it to the front page. I have learned an 8” by 11” binder is easily held by a senior.
She stares at the page for a very long time, and I am leaning over to close the book when she reads aloud her name and the words, “Life Stories.”
She looks at me and grins, and I urge her to turn the page.
She begins to read her very own, unique stories of her past. Unexpectedly, I note that she is a good reader and am thrilled because I didn’t realize that she still possessed the ability to read. My own mother had difficulty reading when her dementia progressed, and eventually she lost the ability completely.
I remember the October before my mother died in December, she signed a birthday card for my sister that I had purchased for her. I asked her if she would like to sign the card herself, or would she like me to sign it. She answered (as I knew she would), I can do it myself. She spent a few minutes gathering her strength to sign the birthday card to my sister, Sue. Then, she scribbled (almost illegibly): Love, Sue, instead of Love, Mom.
I loved that card. Because her intention (love for my sister, Sue) was so beautifully evident.
I draw my attention to my resident: She is reading aloud her stories…she pauses at the funny parts to look at me and remind me, that happened to me, also. I realize that she is not completely aware that these stories are hers! I keep re-assuring her that they are her stories, and that I only transcribed them. I keep repeating: your words, not mine; your stories, not mine.
When she reads aloud, she re-reads many of the passages and so I lean over and begin to turn the pages, but she stops me, and goes back to the top of the original page to re-read the story. After 45 minutes, we have only read two pages. I begin to panic and worry that we will never get to the end of the book at this rate.
But then I see her face. I begin to really see her face and read her energy. In that moment of being present (truly present) I am aware that she is completely entranced in the story – her story! She is smiling and nodding her head, chuckling (oh, yes, her stories are funny) and then I have an aha moment. My resident is in the moment. Her moment! She is oblivious to the natural bird sounds outside her window; she is oblivious to the staff who are talking, and pushing carts in the hallway – the noises of life in a long-term care home are a muted constant 24/7.
My resident is in the moment. Time has ceased. Her face tells me that she is a young child again, living a life of scarcity and hardship, but filled with family love, laughter, and richness.
One thing I have learned when transcribing life stories of the residents is that our memories evolve: they don’t change completely, but we, as humans, re-paint them. We brush over the memories that hurt us, or caused us pain. I, too, find that over the years, my hurts and disappointments have been watered down – I have lifted out the colours that no longer serve me.
Like others before her, my resident’s stories have been blended with other experiences and the passage of time, and now understanding and forgiveness is the rich palette that remains. Through the lens of our journey we perceive our parents’ weaknesses, as strengths; their mistakes, as lessons. A gruff father who never spoke of emotions (or feelings) to his daughters becomes the ninety-year old man with Alzheimer’s who never speaks, but utters, I love you to both his daughters whenever they leave the room.
Through him, I learned that disease, dying, and death are powerful teachers. Forgiveness, reconciliation, love and peace are potent change agents. They transform our stories – blending, layering, pulling out colour, until bleeding the stories into one.
Through the process of reminiscing we begin to connect the dots starting with the point of origin to the last dot You Are Here.
These are the insights I have gathered, and these are similar to ones that I hear time and time again from the residents who I sit with. In the telling of our stories, the bad bits get left out and the good bits grow, and we are left with a richness that we had never seen before – colour laid upon colour. A richness that inspires gratitude.
When a resident comes to the end of her life story, I often hear: I’ve had a good life. Those were wonderful days and I feel lucky to have lived them. I’ve had a good life and I am at peace. I am ready for my final journey. I am content.
Still reading the first few pages after an hour, I eventually tell my resident that I have to leave, and I know that she is disappointed but she closes her book as I promise to leave the binder with her. Yes, I still have lots to read, she informs me, and she adds, it’s a good story.
My intuition tells me that the time has come to end our weekly sessions – she no longer has new stories to tell me. I believe her stories are still there in the recesses of her mind, but they are not accessible as they once were. Like a locked filing cabinet, I no longer hold the key to open it.
When I leave, she grabs my hand and closes her other hand around mine and gently strokes it. Thank you, she whispers. Please visit me again.
I will, I promise.
As I walk through the hallways of the long-term care home, I am reminded once again that the only thing that really matters is our presence. As humans, we all want to know that we matter – that our lives are spent well – whether we are young or old; healthy or not.
And I am reminded that gratitude, above all else, matters, too.