Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Blue Sweater

One of the Alzheimer’s residents I work with is named Jeannie. She is short in stature, pudgy around the middle, and not very in touch with the real world. The disease has been aggressive on her brain.

She is one of my favorites for several reasons, the main one being her name. Switch three letters around and she shares my mothers first and last names. Since my mother died right before she turned 50 I will never know if she would have struggled with Alzheimers. When I work with Jeannie I sometimes imagine this is what my mother would have been like as an old woman. And it makes me spend extra minutes and extra hugs on my friend Jeannie.

Jeannie has two priorities in life. Her own mother and blue sweaters. No one can explain why these are the two things her brain has held onto as it struggles not to slip away completely.

She has no idea what day of the week it is. She does not notice the differences in seasons. The large windows in her room display a garden outside, sometimes painted with spring flowers, sometimes smothered in snow. It’s all the same to Jeannie. As long as she has her blue sweaters and knows her mother loves her.

Her body is still very mobile. She sometimes even skips down the hall on days she is feeling well. She is alert and prone to extreme moods, mostly ecstatic jubilance but every now and then heavy sadness will find her. But her language is very limited.

Not that she can’t say all the words she might need to express a thought; it seems to be a conscious choice, limiting her vocabulary to things related only to her mother and her blue sweaters.

And by blue sweaters I don’t mean specific blue sweaters. Thankfully she is not picky. As one wears out, it is easily and painlessly replaced by another. She owns about four at any given time, in all textures and weights. And it seems to have as much to do with the color as it does the garment. She also loves blue shirts and pants and any nurse wearing blue scrubs. But when she speaks she limits herself to sweaters.

A typical morning, as I wake her for a new day:

Me: “Good morning, Jeannie! What a beautiful day! Are you ready to get up now?”

Jeannie (blinking as her eyes adjust to the light): “Yes. There’s my mother. I love my mother.”

She gestures to the large painting on the wall at the end of her bed. The woman who watches over her seems to be in her early twenties, at the turn of the century.

Me: “Let’s get up now. Swing your feet around towards me.”

Jeannie (obediently doing as instructed): “There’s my blue sweater. This is my blue sweater. My mother is beautiful. She’s my blue sweater.”

Me: “Yes, your mother loves you a lot, doesn’t she? Let’s go over here to the bathroom and find some clothes for the day.”

Jeannie: “I love my blue sweater. That’s my mother. She’s beautiful.”

Each sentence is said with conviction and expression, as if she is carrying on a logical conversation with me. Sometimes she even smoothes down the front of her robe, or pats back her hair, as she makes her random statements. Almost as if she means to say something about her appearance and the gibberish is all that comes out.

I wonder sometimes if Jeannie struggled to feel love from her mother. At first I assumed she must have been very close to her mother, to miss her this deeply. Then a co-worker pointed out that sometimes not ever feeling secure in love can make a person very needy. After I found her moaning and crying in her sleep one night, mumbling appeasements to her mother, it seemed more likely there was a deep need for acceptance. Acceptance that never came before her mother left the planet.

The blue sweater thing is still a deep mystery though. What makes a brain forget two loving sons who visit her every day but cling to a concept of a certain colored piece of clothing? What makes a garment priority and allows memories of a full life to slip away?

No matter where it comes from, it is who she is. We love her through her days and nights and hope she finds peace with her mother on the other side. And hope God allows blue sweaters in heaven.

Yesterday Jeannie woke up in a terrible mood. After recovering from an intense illness last month it has become more common for her to be sad or angry. I tried my best to turn her mood around but nothing was working.

We walked out into the hallway and she suddenly stopped. The dark cloud lifted from her face.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Does that John live here?”

She pointed to the door we were about to pass.

“Yes, he does,” I said, “he’s down in the living room right now.”

She lit up. Her shoulders squared as she brushed her hands along the front of her blue sweater.

“He’s my friend,” she announced.

“I’m really glad,” I offered, “why don’t we go down and watch the news with him?”

With a skip in her step she was down the hallway in a flash. As we turned the corner I saw an empty chair right next to said John.

He is a fairly new resident and we all enjoy his bright smile and quick sense of humor. He is much more aware of the world around him and tells long detailed stories about coming to America from Italy when he was a child. He smiled back as I grinned at him from across the room. He had no idea what he was in for.

Jeannie skipped past me and plunked down her blue clad self right next to him. After she scooted her chair even closer to his, her hand ended up on his knee.

John welcomed the affection and grinned back at her.

“She’s sure glad to see you, John,” I said.

He beamed, too sure of himself to be embarrassed.

Not knowing what else to say, Jeannie continued to pat his knee, grinning like a giddy school girl.

As I walked by them a few minutes later, off to check the status of the coffee carafe, I heard her chanting. Gently and affectionately, just a bit louder than a whisper. She was gushing to herself.

“He’s my blue sweater. Yup, he’s my blue sweater. My mother loves me and he is my blue sweater.”

Who says love has to be represented by hearts and curly qs and the color red? Sometimes, just sometime, love comes in a different color. Sometimes love can best be described by something as ordinary as a blue sweater. I think next Valentines Day I will sign the card to my husband, “I love you sweetie. Won’t you be my blue sweater?”

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