Therese Park

Mystery of the Mind

A few days ago at dinner time my husband and I shared a tense moment when a bottle of Clorox laundry bleach showed up in our refrigerator. How did it get there? It was mind boggling.
“What is this doing in the refrigerator?” he asked.
“How do I know?” I said.
“You mean, you didn’t put it there?”
“Me? Why would I leave bleach in the refrigerator?”
“If you didn’t, then who?” he said, accusingly. “I never touch bleach, as you know. Besides you and I, who else lives here except three birds?”
He presented a valid point here, but it proved nothing because I swore I didn’t put the bleach in the refrigerator. “Don’t look at me like that!”
“Tell me, then,” he said, sounding like a detective. “Have you used bleach today?”
I did, in the kitchen sink, to remove ugly food stains out of my sweatshirt. But if I admitted it, he’d get a wrong idea. I know this much; here in the U.S. one is not guilty until proven so by the court. But lately strange things had shown up in the refrigerator, once a pair of scissors in the fruit compartment and another time a bottle of liquid soap next to Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque Sauce.
“Let’s not argue about something we can’t prove,” I suggested. “Thank God, it was only bleach.”
He stopped interrogating me, but his expression told me he was worried whether or not he might end up eating bleached food some day.
Forgetfulness comes with aging, like one’s hair turning white and skin gathering wrinkles and dark spots. It’s designed by the creator, believe it or not. Otherwise, who wants to be forgetful? Medical scientists call forgetfulness “dementia” or “Alzheimer’s disease” and look at the patients through microscopic lenses.
My longtime friend Norma lives in a nursing home in South Kansas City and has been diagnosed with dementia. She has lost her short term memory, as well as her physical mobility, and is confined to wheelchairs. She cannot remember how many grandchildren she has or how old her youngest granddaughter has turned this year, but she remembers every detail of events that happened 20 or more years ago.
I had known her in the late 1980s while I played cello with the Kansas City Symphony, and more than 20 years later, she introduces me to her neighbors in the nursing home, saying, “This is my friend Therese. She plays (present tense) cello with the Kansas City Symphony.” She then says to me, “Let’s go for lunch, soon. We have much catching up to do.”
Interestingly enough, her favorite topic these days has been preparing a meal for a big gathering, in which I am her partner, not her guest. “Come to my place at six tonight,” she orders me. “No, actually, five will be better, so we can make a list of things we need at the grocery store.”
Her manner is so sincere that I can’t tell her the truth; that she no longer owns her own place or that she is in no condition to make dinner for anyone, not even for herself. So I say, “I am busy tonight, but we can talk about it another time. How about we do something together now? Do you want to go to the gift shop downstairs and look around?”
She agrees. So I wheel her to the elevator and go to the gift shop downstairs. We look around. But coming out of the gift shop, she gets nervous, even worried. “Do you know how to get back to my place?”
“Of course,” I say. “We’re in the same building as earlier, only one floor down.”
“No,” she says, “This is not where I live. We have to go back to my place.”
Should I insist that she is confused and that she has a medical condition called “dementia?” I have no guts to do so. If I did, I would be no better than my husband who accused me of leaving Clorox in the refrigerator, which I had no memory of. So I tell her, “Do you remember taking the elevator when we got here? Let’s do that first and see where we are. When we get out of the elevator you will remember, I promise.”
She takes my suggestions willingly because I am from her long-term memory, during which time she had control over her life as a mother, wife, homemaker and an active member of a church. She is glad when things look familiar and familiar voices surround her.
Over the decades, she has lost so much: her husband, her home of many years, her physical strength, her ability to walk, and worst of all, her sound judgment. How much more can one lose?
An hour or two we spend together each day gives Norma a bit of the freedom she used to have, but what I gain from her are practical lessons of aging and what can be expected when I am in her shoes.

The Kansas City Star
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