Spending time with Don this morning was tough. As we sat in the living room it was just past five-thirty, and I was struggling to wake up, drifting in and out of awareness. He asked me again, “So, are you married yet?” This was the fifth repeat of the same question in the span of ten minutes. Add to this the other fifty (if not more) times he had asked if I was married over the course of the previous four evenings, and I was starting to lose my patience. Didn’t he just ask me that thirty seconds ago? Hadn’t I already replied so many times, trying out different responses of varying description and grammatical complexity, finally settling on, “No, not yet. I’m not opposed to it, but I’m not in any hurry to get married right now?” This now well-rehearsed response seemed to be the right combination of brevity, directness, completeness of thought, and it matched his generational ethos. He gave me a knowing nod, saying, “Well, there’s no rush. You’re still learning about who you are as an individual, and that’s important.” Then, he asked, “How old are you?”
Again, I was losing count of the times I had heard this question. “Fifty-three,” I replied, adding the now perfunctory gesture of holding up five fingers and then three fingers, in case he didn’t hear me this time, whereupon he looked slightly perplexed and replied, “Fifteen?” Now, I had only to wait for him to either process this as my being still young or else, “Fifty-three? Why, you’re over halfway to a hundred!” It was a coin toss. This time he sided with my youth, probably to reassure me that was is okay to be so old and not married. “And, how old am I?” “Eighty-six,” I replied. “Thirty-six?” “No, EIGHTY-six,” I said with friendly yet now somewhat strained emphasis on the eighty. I hoped that if I kept smiling and raised my eyebrows to brighten my expression when I spoke, he wouldn’t register the buried exasperation I struggled to contain. I knew that even though he wouldn’t remember the words, he would still record the emotional content of our conversations, and a negative impulse could stay with him for the rest of the day. “Eighty-six!” he replied in mock (or was it real?) disbelief, “That’s getting real close to a hundred! Jeesh, I’m an old man!”
He was thoughtful for a moment, and I couldn’t tell where he was. The lights in his eyes flickered briefly like bulbs loose in their sockets. Then he was back. “Then, why do I feel so young? You know, Michael, I am so fortunate. I feel like I am forty.” I felt a warm rush of pride mixed with gratitude, because he called me by my name. I could tell that the ominous effects of Sundowning Syndrome were finally receding…
We had talked for four hours straight the night before, and what had started out as a cogent conversation had gradually devolved into a constant stream of repeated anecdotes and questions, all designed to give him some idea about who and where he was, and whether he was okay. His self awareness, along with the setting sun, had finally dipped below a horizon, a line above which is the consciousness we take for granted when we are awake, and below which is the place we only go when we are asleep. We were now both sitting in the dark, me experiencing night outside of myself, and Don experiencing night within.
I managed to convince him to go to bed by yawning and remarking about just how late it was getting. He didn’t take the bait for some time, either ignoring me outright and continuing on with his litany of stories, a sort of personal Apostle’s Creed, or else replying that he wasn’t really that tired for some reason, and “What time is it? Nine-thirty? In the morning or evening? Well, it’s getting to be about bedtime. But anyway, the Ingles and the Flynns, they live just down the road past my Uncle Cliff’s house…” Finally, he broke the pattern by asking where he was sleeping and where I was sleeping. We settled on our respective bedrooms, and I said goodnight and went upstairs.
I couldn’t fall asleep until he had stopped walking around the house. I could hear his footfalls and trace their path in my mind…now he was in the kitchen…now he was going upstairs to my mother’s sitting room…now he was back down and walking to the entry room to make sure he locked the doors…now back to his room…repeat. While this unconscious ritual might normally last two hours or more, this night was the short version. Another hour and all was quiet. He had finally settled down to sleep. After reading a bit, I, too, fell asleep. It was eleven.
At five in the morning I heard the clomping of his shoes on the parquet flooring and the squeaking hinges of the door leading from his office cum bedroom to the kitchen. Concerned that he might still be as disoriented as he had become by the end of the evening the night before, I hurried to get dressed and started downstairs with a bright and cheerful, “Good morning!” I find it is best to initiate contact in as friendly and knowing a way as possible. I know Don as well as anyone in my family, so I don’t consider it dishonest to amp it up a bit, so he has no question that I am a friendly face whom he can trust.
I offered to make some breakfast, and he asked if I was eating breakfast, too. He is always a gracious host, even if he hasn’t the slightest idea who I am (or who he is, for that matter). That is one of his personality traits that goes a long way in mitigating his current condition; He is friendly, courteous, humble, and eager to please. He is also stubborn, calculating and manipulative, but, his presence is always infused with love, so his shadow side is easy to forgive.
I began preparations, being careful to time everything so that he could enjoy a complete meal instead of something akin to a Rockford breakfast dim sum, with him attempting to eat each item the moment it hit his breakfast tray. As we sat together, we began to rebuild his reality, wiped clean from the night before. He asked me who I was and how we knew each other. He told me that he used to live in Rockford, and I reassured him that he still does, and that we were in his own home. He asked if I was married yet. He talked about being married to Charlotte and gradually was able to retain the idea that Charlotte is both his wife and my mother. He said he was grateful that I know so much about his life, and thanked me for helping him to remember. Little by little he was solidifying the tenuous connections of his diminishing reality, his receding self.
As we sat in the living room waiting for both the external and internal sun to rise, I found myself in danger of either falling asleep or getting curt and snappy. Sensing I was losing my grip, I told him I needed to run to the bathroom, and that I would be right back. This was a lie. I just needed a few minutes to take a few breaths and get my head on straight. After a moment of chastising myself for being impatient and for daring to even think of ways to escape his company, I said a prayer. I asked God to help me turn it around, so that I might not waste the last thirty minutes until being relieved by the home health care worker by becoming selfish and negative. Feelings like these would surely infect his spirit and linger until more positive feelings could overtake them.
Almost immediately, the thought came to me: I am his architect, rebuilding the gradual, deteriorating interior castle of his mind. I am his external hard drive, rebooting his system and downloading all the now defragmented files he had instinctively uploaded to me the day before. In short, for this precious time I had spent with him, he had relied on me to be his “I.” I was a living container for his identity, keeping it safe until he could hold onto it, however briefly, by himself. I took one more deep breath, made my way back downstairs, and settled back onto the couch. “So, are you married yet?” he asked.