Love on the Seventh Floor
“You’re beautiful and I love you,” he says, taking her hand. She nestles closer to him, rests her head on his shoulder, and with a smile replies, “I love you too.” They sit on a bench in early evening in springtime, a few whipped-cream clouds and faint jet trails punctuating the otherwise clear blue sky. A breeze stirs the flowers as the sun sinks toward the horizon.
“You really are one of kind,” he says.
“It takes one to….” She stops, forgetting how the saying ends.
These are my parents, and the forgetting is what brought them here. At first it was a name, a date, or a word for an everyday item. Then whole chunks of her life slipped away. Mom got more confused and the doctors said vascular dementia, then Alzheimer’s. Now my parents sit in the rooftop garden of their retirement home, where Mom lives in the memory care unit on the seventh floor, and Dad lives down the hall in assisted living. They see each other almost every day. This love scene plays out each time.
It wasn’t always this way. For years after the diagnosis, Dad clung to the idea of staying together in their own home. He hired nursing assistants to lighten his load while he juggled grocery shopping, cooking, and dealing with an ever-more depressed, erratic, and bedbound spouse. And he did this while trying to maintain his own life, in which he worked on a peacemaking foundation, and served as a lector at church. Even with eight kids and many grandchildren to help, the stress sent him to the hospital four times in quick succession. His cardiologist urged respite care, which finally convinced Dad that he and Mom couldn’t go on as they were. The dream of living out their days independently was shattered, but he now says it is the happiest time of his life.
The youngest 92-year-old you are likely to meet, Dad has been mistaken for his eldest son’s brother. To him, the word “retirement” means having more time to pursue his myriad ideas for improving life for the residents of his new home. He and Mom have known happiness in their seventy-one years of marriage, but also pain, illness, and the strain of raising a large family on an often too-small income. And, in recent years as he’d clung to the familiarity of their lives in their own home, he suffered from caregiver stress. As Mom’s dementia progressed, she’d sometimes been hostile. But all that changed when they moved to the seventh floor of the Continuing Care Retirement Community.
“Now when we’re together, all we have to do is love each other,” says my visibly more relaxed father. Mom is similarly rejuvenated—surrounded by loving people who care for her and keep her active. Organized daily activities like word games, music, and exercise stimulate her mind and body. And, most nights her husband visits her after dinner to take her out to the enclosed garden, or to watch the Nationals game.
“Is it OK if we watch baseball?” he’ll ask.
Mom, who for most of her life never watched any sport if she could help it, answers, “As long as you’re with me, it’s fine.”
I don’t remember witnessing many signs of affection between my parents during my youth. It wasn’t that they didn’t love each other. But the gentle sweetness of simply being together seems to have come as a strange and unexpected gift of Mom’s illness. Maybe she’s forgotten old wounds, and her newfound warmth towards her husband provides him with no reason for recalling grudges. Dad says she is living in the sacrament of the present moment. With the smiling face of her life’s partner before her, she cannot help but smile back.
In the memory garden, Mom pries open the golden heart-shaped locket that hangs around her neck, revealing tiny black and white pictures of their young, radiant faces. The pictures were taken while they were dating. Dad recalls that in 1942 he was just getting ready to go overseas with the U.S. Army Air Corps when she said, “We should get married.” He protested that he was going away to fight and would probably be killed. “All the more reason,” she’d replied. He was gone for three and a half years, and before they were reunited at Union Station after the war, neither was sure they would recognize the other.
But they must have found each other, for they settled down and soon the babies came. Mom often recites the names of her eight children in the order of their births without pausing for breath. It’s something we continue to prompt her to do, trying to help her hold on to her identity as a mother. We know Mom’s memory will continue to leak through the holes opening up in her brain. A lot has already disappeared. “We lived in England for seventeen years? Really?” she asks, astonished. Like my siblings, I now wear a name tag when I visit. Though she’s always thrilled to see us, she can’t always accurately introduce us to others. I’ve come to accept that this is less important than the fact that she is happy when we come, and rarely upset when we leave.
Some of her most intact memories are from her earliest days: the chickens and mango trees at her childhood home in the Dominican Republic, her parents and sisters. Although her parents are long dead, they are still very much alive to her. She says she has seen them recently, and she can often be found waiting for their arrival at the doors separating her unit from the rest of the seventh floor.
But when Dad arrives instead, she lights up. I think about the couples who occupy the six floors of independent living below my parents, and wonder if they fear the day when they might need to move to the seventh floor for more care. Maybe if they saw my parents at this moment, they could take heart. It’s like they’re courting again, with him bringing something for her each time: the church bulletin with their anniversary listed, a card from a grandchild. But mostly he brings his loving presence, and for the time they’re together, he enters into the present moment with her. They bask in each other’s love like teen sweethearts.
Teresa Dickinson is the Communications Associate at Bloomberg BNA in Arlington, Va. A native of Washington, D.C., she received her degree in English at the University of Southampton in England and occasionally has to be reminded of the correct American spellings of words.