Thursday, March 3, 2016

Nothing Contrary About Miss Mary


She hopped up the moment we came through the front door.

"Well, welcome, welcome!  Y'all come on in!"  Her voice was hearty and expressive.  Miss Mary sprang from her wing-back chair, arms extended wide, an enormous smile stretching across her time-worn face.

She's a life-long Texan, with a twangy accent that could charm the rattles off a snake, as they say.  Very tall, very slender, with very wrinkled skin, likely from years spent basking in the Lone Star State's vicious sun.  And an untamed dollop of kinky gray hair crowns it all.

Three of us had arrived at Autumn Leaves for a visit this morning:  Mom, a friend of ours, and me.  Autumn Leaves is the memory-care facility where my Dad died last fall, but we still visit regularly.

The people there - both the residents and the staff - had become such a significant part of life for Mom and me.  During Dad's stay, Mom learned that a long-time member of their church was also a resident at Autumn Leaves, and that her retired daughter attends their church.  Thus started our little carpool service for the retired daughter - who no longer drives - once a week for her to visit her nonagenarian mother.

And today was our weekly visit.  And Miss Mary was sitting with one of her middle-aged children, who had his pug dog on a leash, and her personal nurse in the lobby's sitting area.

Miss Mary had become a resident at Autumn Leaves just before Dad passed away, so we didn't get to know her well then.  But over the intervening months, we've learned what a hoot she is, as her gregarious personality welcomes everybody, even as she doesn't know who any of us are.

Her arms still outstretched, she waved her hands in a circular motion, like a proud grandmother welcoming her brood to Thanksgiving dinner.  We were told that after her family placed her at Autumn Leaves, Miss Mary had wasted no time claiming the entire facility as her own home - although several times she's complained to me in confidence that she couldn't remember ever having picked out that furniture!  I don't know if that meant she didn't like it, or if she did, but it didn't stop her from considering the lobby her main living room.

Her son, with the dog, remained seated, but his mother came over to me, hugging me like a long-lost relative, cackling about how relieved she was that we'd finally arrived.  Trying to be friendly with her son, a balding veterinarian, I told him about the time I'd asked Miss Mary if she was behaving herself, and she quickly retorted, "wail, cain't you see mah hay-low?" in her yellow-rose-of-Texas accent.

(For you Yankees, let me translate:  "Well, can't you see my halo?")

Once time, after she'd returned to Autumn Leaves with her personal nurse from a trip to the local Starbucks, she marched up to me and asked me if I'd been able to keep myself entertained while she'd been out.

Miss Mary loves men, and she hugged my Mom, giving her a sloppy kiss on the cheek, asking her if she was proud to have such a handsome son as me!  I'm telling you; sometimes, these dementia patients can be excellent for your ego!

Usually, the friend we bring with us goes down to an activity room, finds her mother, and spends an hour or so sitting with her.  They don't chat much - one can rarely have any kind of meaningful conversation with a dementia patient - but spending time as mother and daughter has a value for them that anybody should be able to appreciate.

During that time, Mom and I normally are able to chat with the staff, commiserate with other family members who are visiting, and even interact with residents; but today, things were pretty quiet.  Miss Mary's son left not long after we arrived, and several staffers were in a meeting.

So eventually, Mom and I found ourselves lounging in some upholstered side chairs in the lobby, when Miss Mary came back from having her pants changed.

Hey - it's a fact of life.  Many dementia patients have brains that cannot process the biological signals for how its body empties its bladder.  Wet pants are part of daily - sometimes hourly - dementia care.

At any rate, Miss Mary was now agitated.  She couldn't stand still, or sit still.  She carries an empty purse with her ("It's as empty as my head," she'd joke, perhaps indicating her dim awareness of her condition).  She'd toss her purse into a chair, like she was staying... and then snatch it back up, like she was leaving.

Earlier, after we'd arrived, and greeted her and her son, I was watching the morning activity in one of the side rooms, when I heard Miss Mary marching down the hallway, muttering "I hate you" to nobody in particular, with a few F-bombs thrown in for flavor.  When she passed me, I greeted her (you can never greet dementia patients too many times; they won't have remembered your last greeting) and she muttered something about having misplaced something.  This scenario happened twice.

Miss Mary usually wasn't this rattled.

At any rate, as Mom and I now sat in the lobby, Miss Mary came over, sputtering about how long she had to wait for her son to come and take her to lunch.  She maneuvered one of the big wing-back chairs to face us, ostensibly so she could sit down and have a chat.  But she spent so much time rearranging the chair, she forgot that she'd wanted to sit down in it.  Without stopping, Miss Mary stalked off to another part of the lobby.  That happened a couple of times, too.

While she was waiting for her son (who had just left, you'll recall), another couple arrived to visit a loved one.  They had never been to Autumn Leaves before, but Miss Mary welcomed them to her "home" anyway with all the charm and enthusiasm of the perfect southern hostess.  Surprised, and obviously uncomfortable with such familiarity from a woman they'd never before seen, the couple stammered something about the person they'd come to visit.  Miss Mary had no idea who that was, but with her long arms, she waved them down a side hallway, assuring them that they'd find what they were looking for.

I think that couple spent all of five minutes at Autumn Leaves, before they were hurriedly trying to leave.  The woman made some apologetic comment to me about how the place unnerved them, and I completely understood:  If you've never spent time in a dementia care facility before, it can be a distressing experience.  I don't know what it says about Mom and me that we're so comfortable when we visit Autumn Leaves!

Still, we don't spend much time there, either.  You can get surprisingly drained from being around so many people whose memory no longer works.

Although, with Miss Mary, her delightful sense of humor obviously has a stubborn streak.  It's proven to be one of her last senses to go.

Back in the day, she used to be a public schoolteacher - proper, organized, with excellent diction, and an upright poise - and we were told she is a proud Southern Baptist.  Later on this morning, she came up to me with an empty plastic cup, asking me if "they had something stronger than water in this place."  I laughed, and she did, too.

"Miss Mary," I teased, "I thought you were a Baptist!"

"I am," she shot back with her quick wit, "but I'm not always a good one!"

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