The Red Shirt

#3 in a Series on Purpose

“Is today the day I wear the Red Shirt?” Mom asks, as she does nearly every time I visit.

I don’t mind this question. Or the other millions of questions that repeat like a cassette stuck in an endless loop. After living in Alzheimer’s World for five years, the passage of time no longer matters.

What matters is the Red Shirt.

Earlier this year, we launched Yappy Care, a new program at the animal rescue where I volunteer. Twice a month, we bring a shelter dog to visit the residents at mom’s memory care home. As team captain, mom walks the dog down hallways and patios, stopping to socialize with her friends.

And she wears the Red Shirt, the official uniform of a shelter volunteer.

The Red Shirt reminds her that she has a purpose. Helping others has been a guiding principle in both our lives, a code she instilled in me at an early age. And, it reminds me that even as dementia slowly strips her soul bare, she is still capable of living a meaningful life.

As Bob DeMarco so eloquently reminds us in his Alzheimer’s Reading Room blog:

“Success is what happens to you. Purpose is what happens through you. Meaningfulness is what you give away to others.”

Food for Thought

This week, the planets aligned in my creative galaxy: acceptance letters from two publications; a literary agent seeking quirky cookbooks; a food memoir writing course; a blogger who wants to feature my mother’s cooking newsletter on her site.

As I ran in pre-dawn dusk this morning, drenched in sweat and the deluge of inspiration, I decided to reopen a writing project I’d shelved two years ago in a fit of rage at a disease that knows no shame.

I’d envisioned the book as a tribute to my mother’s many talents. We’d write it together, I thought, the perfect project to regain the sense of purpose Alzheimer’s was slowly stripping away. I’d interlace essays from the monthly newsletter she’d written and designed for thirty years with posts from my blog; use artwork and recipes from her cookbook Cook & Tell, published nearly two decades ago.

But reminders of the skills she’d lost and attempts to reclaim the identity of the woman she no longer remembered proved too painful for either of us to endure. I surrendered the project and Alzheimer’s won that round. Almost.

When the Universe nudges, I’ve learned to listen. And when inspiration sparks creativity, I’m propelled into action.

Heaven Can Wait

“What if you die before me?” she asks. “What happens then?”

We’re walking through Paradise Memorial Gardens, across from my mother’s care home. Max, my black lab puppy strains at the leash, lunging closer to the pond where two swans glide gracefully along the duck pond.

She does not realize we’re in a cemetery, an appropriately ironic place to have this difficult conversation. In my lifetime, my mother and I have never talked about death. Like disease of any sort, her religion has taught her to deny death.

Conversely, my father keeps a list called “The Departed,” a sheet torn from a legal pad, the names of friends and acquaintances written in his shaky octogenarian penmanship. It’s taped to the dining room wall of his tiny island cottage, a maudlin catalog of death that grows longer by the moment.

I, too, am surrounded by death. The recent suicide of my husband’s daughter. Our Golden Retriever. A stepmother and stepfather. Ex-husband who overdosed. The death of my career. And the agonizing death of my mother’s brain.

I am not equipped to deal with the grim reality of dying. Or this conversation. By the time we walk home, she’s forgotten the question entirely.

And slowly, I learn to appreciate the moments when life seems worth living.