VIOLA - Lying on the couch, wrapped up in a blanket, watching ‘Lassie,’ ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ or ‘Gilligan's Island,’ I reached my thin arm out of my warm cocoon and rang a bell. The bell was sitting on a metal snack tray, along with a bowl that had held Campbell's chicken noodle soup. Soon Mom came and I said, “I finished my soup—can I have a popsicle now?”
A sore throat was keeping me home from school. Whenever this happened, Mom would make me a nest of blankets on the couch, along with my pillow, turn on the TV, and place a snack tray next to me with a bell on it. Her instructions: “Ring the bell if you need anything.”Where she went or what she did after that was a mystery.
What I did know was enough. I knew I was getting attention. I knew I was loved. And I knew if I faked it, I could stay home from school, lie on the couch, and watch my favorite TV shows while Mom brought me warm 7-Up, saltine crackers, soup, and an occasional popsicle. I was a quick learner.
When my dad came home, he’d rub Vick’s on my chest or back, often Bengay on my legs (they were always hurting me), and kiss me on the forehead. Other than a sore red nose from blowing it too much, I didn’t consider being sick horrible.
I’m sure my sister, Jill, felt the same way–but not anymore.
Jill has Alzheimer's and lives in a memory care home, where she is kept safe and gets round-the-clock care.
When I visit her—which is never as often as I’d like, given the distance—I’m not clear on what to talk about or if there is anything I could have brought. We slip into a pattern; we hold hands and walk the same route.
We stop and look at the same pictures on the walls. We visit the birds in the big colorful display. And we always end up at Jill’s room, but not once has Jill recognized it as her door. After I find an aide to unlock it, Jill jumps up on her huge bed and comments about the height of it. It’s a good-sized jump and she does it with finesse.
On my most recent visit, Jill lies down on her bed, on her back, and keeps talking and gesturing. I lie next to her. Dane and my granddaughter Helena are also in the room, but Jill doesn’t seem to know this.
Jill keeps up a steady conversation that is like tracking a herd of cats. Her thoughts are random and hard to follow. I smile a lot, nod my head, and occasionally interject words, like “Jill, Jack, and Jane.” Jill stops talking, then repeats Jack’s name, so I do too, again. She stutters a few times and says, “I’m going to walk all over him,” and then laughs. Is this a big-sister memory?
I wonder what Jill knows. I know she was aware that she was getting sick. She knew, after many tests, that she was diagnosed with early Alzheimer's. But now, she doesn’t know where she is. And she isn’t faking being sick.
I’d like to put a metal snack table next to Jill's gigantic bed, set a bell on it, turn on her TV set to ‘Lassie,’ and climb back into bed with her. We'd sip warm 7-Up and munch on saltine crackers. For dinner, we’d have chicken noodle soup. When we were done we'd ring the bell and Mom would come in carrying two popsicles.And, Jill would know how much she is loved.