Keeping it Normal

It was in Jeff’s old workplace, the family hardware business, that I ran into a long-time almost-friend. (One of those people you encounter periodically enough that you know you’d be friends if your paths just merged more.) She chatted with me while Jeff hovered nearby, then with just me a few minutes later, while Jeff was distracted by the old hardware gang.

“He seems happy,” she said, to which I replied that he is content. Then we smiled and shrugged in that ‘what more can you do?’ sort of way. At which point she caught herself, and wrinkled her brow. “I mean,” she said, “not to make light of the situation.”

“Of course not,” I assured her. “Obviously it’s a tragedy, but you can’t live there.”

“Right,” she said. We both knew what I meant.

Do you know what I mean?

Another friend with whom I’ve intersected at irregular intervals since high school puts on a different face. He tends to try to meet me more than halfway when halfway is fine, assuming, I guess, that anyone in my line of work should be coddled. Each time we meet I get at least one full dose of the long, sympathetic face which acknowledges my plight.

Not that I want anyone to be so oblivious as to think caring for an Alzheimer’s-stricken spouse is just another lifestyle.

Although, in a way, it is just another lifestyle. It is a lifestyle fraught with an ongoing quibble in the pit of your stomach, to be sure, but there is a degree to which we get used to it.

Or not. I’m not sure. The paradox of Alzheimer’s existentialism. Do we get used to it or not? Does it become “life as normal” or not?

I’m leaning toward “or not.” Nevertheless, most of us have developed, as a survival technique, a way of living most of our hours on a plane of awareness that chooses not to dip too deeply into the distress layer of our emotional strata. It is there of course, and unanticipated stimuli poke unwelcome holes in our plucky crusts often enough that we remember what we’re dealing with when sad burbles to the surface.

But we don’t want to dive in. We don’t want to live there. Which is why it’s okay, when you run into me in the hardware store, to keep things light. Why not notice if the guy with AD is happy? Why not note his friendly welcome of fellow humans even if he clearly has no clue who they are?

It is, after all, one of the primary goals of an Alzheimer’s caregiver to keep our affected spouse feeling content if we possibly can. Where we succeed, shrugs, smiles, and pleasant chatter are entirely appropriate responses. I already know that if you’re half a human, you recognize the underlying tragedy. And if you’ve expressed that recognition and offered me condolences, I appreciate it. But then we can laugh, and keep things normal. I’d rather.

Now as for the ongoing problem of whether or not people know what to say to an old friend or relative who’s in the grip of Alzheimer’s…well, some are great and some are paralyzed. But that’s a different story, and one I’ll save for another post.