The Heart Retains its Clock

One of my best friends here in Vermont is Alice. When I lived across the street from her, the age gap didn’t matter: she in her eighties and I in my fifties; it might even have helped, as she had only sons and my mother was far away (although alive and well, thank God). For years when I probably should have been trawling internet dating sites or writing in one of Burlington’s fine cafes, I settled into Alice’s living room to watch whatever sport was in season, care for the black stray cat that divided his time between our two homes, and chat about life in general. How I loved her stories of growing up in our neighborhood, a one-woman historical society whose father had been the ward councilor with an open front door for more than thirty years. I gardened her huge back yard because my 2nd floor apartment had no land rights, and weeded around the roses along her fence.

But the arrangement was not financially viable for me. Thanks in large measure to what I had learned from having an elderly best friend with serious physical afflictions and growing dementia, I moved in with a friend who happens to have a fatal syndrome whose symptoms can include dementia. I saw Alice less and less. She weakened and grew to need a more and more numerous care-giving team of her own. Visiting her was now more complicated by their presence, although I struck up a quick accord with her live-in.

She no longer recognizes her sons and grandchildren, but she’s clear on her care-giving team.  I go over now and then, when her live-in caregiver needs a night off and the family can’t be there.  Last night was one of those nights, an unexpected opportunity that I was delighted to make available for him. It was short notice, so Alice didn’t know I was coming. Happy to see me, yes, but surprised and a little disgruntled.

She started asking about my absences. It came up in a strange way.  She asked if I was staying long, as if I were a visitor to Vermont. I reminded her about my new home a few blocks away (which she often remembers about), so she paused, pondered, and opened another line of questioning.

What was I doing this winter?

Winter! Why would she ask about that? And then I remembered that when you’re ninety-four, years roll past much more quickly than when you’re young. Plus, since her local son goes away for many of the cold months, as many Vermonters do (her other son lives in Florida), it seems like the snowbirds are packing before you know it after solstice.

But why would she ask that of me? I never go away for the winter, except for the occasional one or two weeks with family in other states.

“It seems like I didn’t see you much last winter,” she said.

Zing! Guilt button! How true that was! Week after week, I stayed in with Lynne.  For several months, when we were setting records for snowfall, my car twice got deeply snowbound at the end of Alice’s driveway as I was leaving, and I finally gave up visiting until her ice thawed. That is not an excuse, I drove by and checked pretty regularly.  My visits were separated first by three days, then by seven, then by fourteen days at least. When Lynne was in the hospital in February, and then coming home and needing extra support, I’m sure I didn’t get to Alice for a month (although I must have done once or twice going into March, because that’s when my car got stuck).

When her live-in came home , he reviewed the list of ways Alice troubles her team.

Did she try to go visit her long-dead parents in the house she sold so long ago after their deaths, but which can be clearly seen from her living room window?

No.

Did she quarrel about food or anything?

No.

Did she sleep deep and long, meaning she’s going to be at risk all night of getting up and falling or walking down the street to see her parents, possibly falling on the cracked and uneven sidewalks?

Not, not that either. A couple of tiny head drops, nothing more.

What did you guys do?

We did what we always do in summer: watched the Red Sox (win) and during commercials flipped to cute kitten videos on Animal Planet.

But then I sat for awhile to visit with the pair of them. As the hour grew late, something began to bother her dreadfully. I had arrived at six, and she had not offered me supper. Could she get me anything now”? If she had known I was coming, she would have cooked.

Don’t worry, I said, I ate before I came over.  She asked again, and then said, “But you’ve been here a long time.”

No denying that.  Sometimes when I come early, I pack a dinner and she sits with me while I eat.  So her sense of time was spot on: I had taken something out of our routine and she wanted to put it back.

So that’s her dementia: her mind no longer understands months, days and years, but her heart knows the rhythm of the way she and I spend time together.

From this I take these lessons about “loss of intelligence”:

1) Intelligence lives in many parts of the body, and

2) it appears that the heart can last longer than the brain; IF

3) the heart has been properly nourished, tended and disciplined over the decades. The patterns of healthy and satisfying lifestyle do more than reduce cardio-vascular stress at the time we pursue them. They also are putting down roots, sowing seeds of calm for the years in which we don’t know people’s’ names, but we still know deeply what we expect of them and they expect of us.  It seems that instilling covenant goes beyond words and paper, even ceremony; it seems also that establishing a pattern of companionship comes to imply a commitment you’d better anticipate.

I can’t think of any better reason for setting a sacred life pattern and sticking to its basics, no matter the temptations, vacations and interruptions that inevitably arise. Some day you will know these occasions, and from them derive security of time and place… just by seeing the face of someone you love, and doing with them the things you have done together so many times, so many years.

When you do, I hope your joy is as great as mine was, when she turned and grinned at those videos of the kittens on her tv.