"The capacity to love in Christian life also increases the capacity to suffer." - Thomas Keating
I knew it would be difficult watching my hospice patient start to decline. I understood, through my training, what I would be witnessing as my patient's Alzheimer's progressively worsened. That's why I haven't been surprised by these past few visits with his memory failing more and his inability to find the right words to express himself. But I am surprised at how I've been feeling about this, especially since I'm pretty aware of the stages ahead.
It suits me just fine to sit down with my patient and realize 30 minutes have gone by and the only topic we've discussed was "boiling fish." You'd think in 30 minutes I would know a lot about boiling fish, but the truth is, with Alzheimer patients, that's pretty much all I know... is that he boiled fish, at some point. Not being able to remember when he did this, for how long he boiled it, or even what kind of fish it was, made for a very uneventful half hour for me; but not for him. He couldn't wait to talk about it (the same 2 sentences) over and over again, like it was the first time he spoke about it, each time he brought it up. But the smile on his face the entire time made it a fun topic to listen to because you were just so happy that he was happy.
Today's visit wasn't quite the same. I came in right at his lunch time. He was quite hungry and nearly cleaned his plate. After he was done and his plate was removed, I told him he must have been very hungry because he ate very well. His look was more blank this time than in the past and he asked me if he just ate. Then he wanted to know what he ate. After I listed for him the things on his plate, his eyebrows raised out of amazement and he replied, "Wow!"
I started bringing up subjects we had already spoken about in his past, but today, none of those subjects sparked any memory. He asked me if he worked and I told him he did and what line of work he was in when he was younger. His only question was, "Was I a good worker?" As I sat there watching him put his hand on his forehead, squinting his eyes, trying to concentrate on what I was saying, my heart wasn't ready for words like "This is embarrassing." or "I don't remember things." He didn't need to remember any words at that moment because the expression on his face said it all. This once, hard-working man, full of smiles, was struggling to find himself. And all I could do was assure him he was one of the smartest and best workers around. And then I added, "and the most handsome too." (This was the first smile I got from my visit today.) His eyebrows raised, he sat up straight, and stared straight out the window smiling real big... before asking if that was his truck parked outside.
Today really made me reflect on my own life, where I am, what I hope to accomplish, and mainly, why I would ever take for granted the blessings God has given me today. For us to want more, to wonder sometimes if life could be better if you stayed where you are, or moved somewhere else, or if you had a better car, or expensive clothes, etc. It is time for a reality check. Life passes us by so quickly -- we don't have time to sit around and want for more. As it is, we barely have time to thank God for everything He has given us today.
With each visit I find myself realizing that my patient is an incredible teacher, even with very few words; allowing me to leave with a little more knowledge and a lot more heart. As I was getting up to leave, an elderly woman with Alzheimer's got up out of her chair, walked over to me, and said, "Go! Just go now! And don't come back until you called his wife first because I have NOTHING to do with this. Bye bye." and walked away. :) I just love these patients!!!