My Year of Visits to Memory Care
I first visited Millie a few days before Christmas. She had fallen and broken her hip and, after a short hospitalization, was recovering at a rehabilitation hospital. My friend Bernie had arrived from Los Angeles to tend to his mother’s needs and called to inform us of her situation. When I entered her room, she was staring listlessly into space, a bit disoriented by the whole ordeal. Though I had known her for decades, she passively greeted me and persisted in her dementia and trauma-driven daydream. After a few minutes of cordialities and warm embraces, I offered to play a song on my flute. As I played something remarkable happened. Her face began to change and her vacant stare took on a glow of reflected emotion. Then tears began to roll down her face.
I noticed her dramatic transformation and so did Bernie. “What is it?” He asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said, “that song just made me feel so much. It was beautiful.”
Thus began the remarkable relationship between Millie and me and the flute.
A couple of days later Bernie called to report that Millie had taken another fall and was at the nearby Emergency Room. I grabbed my flute and was on my way. As she rested in the bed in the tiny ER alcove, I softly played a song of comfort for her. This happened several times in the first weeks of the new year, including visits to other temporary rehabilitation facilities. Later Millie would report of me “he has visited and played for me every time I went to the hospital.”
After a dogged search, Bernie found a suitable memory care facility for Millie, sweetening the deal with the expressed benefit that a guy would come play flute occasionally, something the other residents might enjoy. As we moved in furnishings and set up Millie’s room with familiar objects and photos, I was already befriending residents at the facility. By the time I played for the assembly of residents in the activity room, I was a welcome and familiar face.
As I played for the group, they responded. Faces brightened, looking up from their distant gazes, engaging in the same way Millie had when I first played for her. Then I played the one actual song I know, as the rest are simply meditative improvisations. Upon my mother’s encouragement I had learned to play Amazing Grace, not an altogether simple task, as the Native American flute is tuned in a minor pentatonic key and the fingering pattern is altogether different. My mission realized, I prayerfully played the hymn and soon heard humming, then voices singing along. When we finished the whole room erupted in applause, not just for my playing, but because it was the reasonable next act in the rousing event. What had been a room occupied by disengaged residents was transformed into a celebratory group experience. I bowed graciously and promised to return and play more.
Thus, throughout the year I visited Millie once or twice weekly. First we would contact Bernie on FaceTime for updates, stories, and laughter. Then I wheeled Millie to the dining room where I would sit and play for the residents as meals were served. This routine has become somewhat predictable and I am now recognized upon arrival and my playing is requested and equally rewarded. These residents have become my stalwart fans and express such gratitude for the “peaceful songs” I deliver. I recall that on one visit their applause and graciousness was so strong I felt as though I was the champion of a bout being carried upon the shoulders of a cheering crowd.
Throughout this year I have also come to know them and the challenges they are encountering in this shadowed twilight of their lives. I have come to know them as they are. As a hypnotherapist perhaps my decades communicating with individuals within the dreaming world of hypnotic trance has enabled me to understand their sometimes opaque statements, bubbling up from a sea of drifting remembrances or concerns. One thing that has been clear and consistent is their almost universal request to go home. Their security needs have created a kind of cloistered confinement and more than one has sought to conspire in hushed tones for me to help them escape. Within this restricted realm, however, they adjust to the routines of the day and develop their own manner of relationship with one another. Millie regularly gives me reports about residents like a gossip columnist.
I have also come to know many family members on their regular or random visits. I see in them a similar sense of bewilderment as that experienced by the residents. They struggle to connect and interact with the ever-fading coherence of their spouse or parent. I see their sorrowful longing for a time before illness began to rob their beloved of memory, function, and at times even recognition. I feel their sense of shared loss as they rage silently against the circumstance.
I have been somewhat spared from this distress due to the absence of a close previous relationship, for my encounters with Millie were sparse. This separation was challenged, however, when one resident whom I had become very close to revealed more of her own story. Serendipitously, she was the mother of another dear friend and in residence at the same facility. Our visits, like those with Millie, became a part of my routine. One day she was not at her table for lunch. I went to her room to check on her and she was sleeping peacefully on her bed. On the wall I noticed a photo montage. As I looked at the various images I began to see the richness of this friend’s previous adventures. I saw her as she was before her stroke and dementia had diminished her function. I suddenly felt as though a trap-door had opened within my gut and all the contents had disappeared into the subsequent vacuum. From this mournful hollowness, I played a gentle song for my friend, now with a greater understanding of her odyssey. I played of the joyous travels and time with family and friends. I played a song of quiet comfort, of presence, of regard for her long and full journey. I left her napping with a familiar kiss upon the forehead. She had been a teacher; I had become, perhaps, her final student who was now learning the most meaningful lesson she could share, the value of each day’s fullness.
As the months passed, I observed the continuing losses for my familiar friends. I saw their phases of progression of illness, their injuries from falls, their slow yet steady retreat from daily activity, their absence from the dining table, their departure from the facility and this life; this final loss often met with a resolute sense of gained serenity. I have greeted newcomers and played for them a welcoming song, always met with an engaging smile.
I have also come to know the staff and their tireless patience and support for the residents. I have even been mistaken as staff by visitors due to my familiar presence. I have been delighted to see how the staff works to help make special days matter. Such was the case when I recently attended the Christmas Dinner. A full feast was prepared and family members brought deserts. It was just like a home-made event. I even managed to pick out a rough version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” on my flute and was gifted with more applause and appreciation.
Afterward, I took Millie back to her room for our common entertainment of shopping for clothes in her closet, an echo of one of her favorite former activities. She selected a garment, admiring its texture and then asked “How much?”
“It’s already taken care of, Millie.” I replied, as she nodded approvingly.
We called Bernie for a chat, celebrating the progress of the remodel of his new home in Minnesota and his approaching visit. We reported on the birds and squirrels at the feeder he had installed outside her window. Following the call she pointed to the poster sized photos Bernie had placed on the walls, getting their identities mostly right. I showed and read to her the Christmas cards she had received from family. She enjoyed a piece of her favorite chocolate as I played another song on my flute. When I finished, she looked kindly at me and said “you’re really getting good at that.”
“Thanks to your support, Millie.” I replied. We hugged. I kissed her forehead and she kissed mine. “I love you,” she said.
“I love you too Millie, I’ll see you again in a few days.”
I gathered my flute, left her resting cozily in her room, and made my way back to the front door to wait for a staff member to let me out.
©2018 Timothy L Trujillo timothytrujillo.com
Postscript: Millie Millie!
On the last Friday of January 2018, as I walked through the park on my way home, I received a call from Bernie. Millie had taken a fall. The staff assured him that she was fine. Family members were visiting that weekend, so we decided I would wait until my regular Tuesday visit to see her. Late Sunday night, as the Super Bowl was ticking toward its finale, Bernie called again. He had been contacted by staff and told that Millie had experienced a rapid decline during the day and her death was imminent.
It was almost eleven when I laced up my shoes and headed north to be with her. In the eerie stillness of the late night darkness I made my drive up Western Avenue. The route took on a surreal air; it was very familiar to me from the nearly one hundred traverses I had made during the year, but a quiet vacancy reverberated both on the street and within me. I remained present to the awareness that it would be my final drive to see Millie.
When I arrived at the center, it too had the same quietude as the drive. I made the procession to Millie’s room, reminiscing in the moments of laughter and music in the activity and dining rooms as I did. All of my friends were tucked safely into their beds for the night. I arrived at Millie’s room and saw her resting peacefully upon the bed, as though she too was tucked in for a dream-kissed sleep. The hospice nurse greeted me. I pulled a chair near the bed and sat gently in it as I reached out to place a hand on Millie’s shoulder and said “Millie, it’s Timothy, I am here with you.” She was mostly unresponsive, but a slight twitch on her restive face allowed me to accept that she knew she was not alone. I called Bernie and held the speaker phone near her so he could speak to her and affirm his unending love and gratitude. I withdrew my flute from its soft cloth sheath and played a lullaby.
I sat there for hours, gently holding her. I used my Reiki skills to bridge the distance to Bernie and let my hands be as his, reaching across the miles he could not readily transit physically, and projected his presence, his masterful artist’s hands that my own sensibilities retained from decades of embrace. I watched as her breathing slowed, halted, then stopped. I watch the steady rhythm of her carotid pulse until it too slowed to stillness. I bent over, kissed her on her forehead and said “Millie, you are free now, be at peace. It’s time to go home. Leroy, your daughters Mary and Martha, your sisters, and your beloved mother and father welcome you now. Thank you for being with us.” I picked up a bell from her shelf that had an owl on its handle, part of her great collection, and rang it gently over her liberated body, then played another quiet song. Her roommate Donna, who had checked in on her every night, leaned over her and proclaimed “Momma! You’re walking, it’s beautiful, you are walking! Walk on into this beauty.”
I called Bernie with the report. The staff would make arrangement according to plans. I tucked the covers around her a little more and kissed her forehead one last time. I made the tear-blurred, throat-choked drive home, the landscape seeming somewhat more distant than before. It was after 3 AM when I crawled quietly into bed and drifted restlessly into my hollow-hearted sleep, comforted by the slumbering presence of my beloved Lenise beside me.
I had an early schedule the following day, as I was recording a series of video interviews for an upcoming conference. I was dizzy from my lack of sleep and considered that my face would betray the weariness of my ordeal. I was still hovering in that space of unacceptable loss and decided I should take a break to rest and perhaps connect in the hypnotic trance with Millie. I stationed myself in my recliner with headphones and the aroma of my Magi Blend oil, then began to listen to The Five Minute Miracle. There is a section in the program in which I state “allow yourself to go to a pleasant place.” I knew that I could use that cue to return to days passed when I could be sitting with Millie again, talking about this or that. To my surprise, I found myself not at the memory care facility, but back at Millie’s house, at her kitchen table. She was at the stove cooking, and one by one she laid out upon the table dishes of every flavor and texture: casseroles, stews, loaves, cakes, and pies. In a constant procession of deliciousness she encouraged me to receive the nourishment not just to my palate and my body, but also to the depths of my soul. Now, in spirit, Millie had returned to me the boon of care that had been the foundation of our relationship during the previous year.
Bernie arrived 24 hours later, after driving from Minnesota through a blinding blizzard. I met him at the care facility and helped pack out the room we had settled Millie into just under one year before. The emptied room became our silent metaphor. The little red birdhouse he had mounted outside her window was the last thing to be removed. He then, with continuing steadfast devotion, structured an event that would suitably honor his mother, who had provided devoted care not only to him, but also to a barrage of friends and family who would lend their reports to her treasured remembrance.
That weekend, on a cold February morning, we gathered to memorialize Millie. Those present spoke of her love of and skill at fishing and her happiness in her Tennessee hill country childhood home. Central to the shared stories was her undying sense of hospitality and never-ending service of providing fresh home cooking to those in need. Bernie remarked on her ability to always have a little something to say to make you smile or set you straight. His wife Anne Marie expressed the wisdom of the Velveteen Rabbit, how being real is something that happens to one, often after much wear and tear. Bernie’s brother John added “As I look around this sanctuary, I think of a time that this place would be filled with her friends. The fact that we are now a sparse crowd speaks to the long and full life Millie lived. Don’t cry because she is gone, smile because you knew her.”
I closed the service by sharing my own story with Millie. I reported how I had first met her decades earlier when I officiated at Bernie and Anne Marie’s wedding and how the offices Millie and I held in that great event intoned our entire relationship of mutual respect. Someone had mentioned the cornucopia of cookware she possessed and I added that we had inherited one of her soup pots and were nurtured from our Millie Pot several times each week. We had also homed many of her now orphaned decorative owls, along with the wisdom that came with them, to always be looking out, to see through the darkness, and to not give a hoot.
I told those gathered that Millie and I had come together at a time when she needed care and it was my good fortune to be there in a manner which fulfilled my own purpose to provide care. I would always cherish the feeling of walking into the center and seeing her look up from her wheelchair and with beaming, tearful eyes say “You’re here.” That made me feel as if I mattered, as if something I was doing made a difference for someone else. It was not just the fulfillment of providing a need for a brother and his mother, whom we determined was then my mother too; I had become the greater beneficiary of the bridged relationship of mother and son. I had experienced that opportunity, born of privilege because I could and duty because I must.
In referenced the Egyptian funerary practice of speaking the name of the departed so that they may “live again forever”, and the tradition of listening for their final wisdom. In this regard, I spoke of the meaning of the word “legacy”, as that which is left behind or bequeathed in monetary or material treasure. The legacy I had received from Millie was her echoing voice to “just be there.” She had lived her life that way. Through my diligence in “being there”, I had benefited beyond measure and carried the spirit of Millie’s life forward.
In closing I picked up the owl-handled bell and rang it a few times, then lifted the flute to my lips and played one last song of love and appreciation for my friend, my mother, my guide, Millie.