I envy people born on February 29th. I’m not old enough to start lying about my age in the traditional way, but my sense of humor is still in the single digits. I love poop. And farts. And making fart noises. Oh and whoopee cushions too! If I were born on February 29th, I wouldn’t be lying when I said I’ve only had 8 birthdays. I think I must be giving off some sort of smelly, brown aura, because complete strangers like to talk to me about feces. So do my friends, but they already know how well received the subject will be.
I was sitting at my work desk, not actually thinking about butt truffles, when I hear “don’t wipe back to front!” coming from the single-stall bathroom. That was followed by screams of protest and a couple thuds. While my curiosity and concern were battling for my brain’s attention, the younger of the two women emerged. She explained that her dear old mother had dementia and liked saving her dirty toilet paper. Five different soiled clumps of toilet paper had just been removed from various bodily nooks and crannies. My favorite was the armpit. I’m pretty sure that’s the most eventful thing that happened in the bathroom this entire month. That is, until the bathroom door opened again, revealing this pleasantly oblivious mom and her bare ass. Oh, and it turns out she missed a spot, which she announced to the entire waiting room. The bug-eyed, mortified, bright red daughter hastily shooed her mother back into the bathroom. There was silence…and then more yelling. And thuds. When the pair emerged, everyone had all of their clothes on. The daughter explained to the entire room, myself included, that her mother had been throwing a fit because she couldn’t keep her dirty toilet paper wad. “She just wanted a souvenir,” I said. The daughter snorted and relaxed a little bit. In that moment, we were both 8-year-olds.
The tangled web of emotions that come with Dementia would put most spiders to shame. I’m terrified of spiders but not Dementia and I don’t know why. The idea of having such a debilitating and confusing disease really should scare me more than something smaller than my palm (in Seattle anyway). My years in patient care taught me how to be more comfortable with Dementia. Yes, I’ve seen a man break a toilet. I’ve seen a woman experience grief over her husband’s passing, over and over again, every time she remembered. But there is more to the disease. When the mood is right, talking with a dementia patient can be like entering another world. I’ve seen the joy on a soldiers face when he talked about seeing his wife again after the war. I’ve been instructed how to properly fold laundry by the owner of a laundromat. I’ve even chased a purple cat through a house the size of a small mall. I really did enjoy that cat. I like cats. Most important, I’ve met people where they are in their mind while keeping them safe in this world.
When an elderly couple and their son arrived at my office for an exam they seemed like any other loving family. The wife immediately complimented the flower arrangement in the lobby. Multiple times. I just figured she was in to gardening and told her I appreciated her thoughts. She then approached the holy grail known as our candy bowl. “I think I’ll have two,” she said with a mischievous smile. I told her to go for it, only to have her son interject and take the candy away. He explained that she has dementia and often forgets that she’s diabetic. Oops, my bad. I listened as she told her son more about how much she loved my flowers and how she kept meaning to get in to gardening again. Though he was aware her health wouldn’t allow this, he suggested they go buy some seeds later. I instantly liked the son as I saw the smile spread wide across her face. A few minutes after their exam started, the woman emerged and made a beeline to the bathroom. I thought nothing of it until her son peaked his head out to look for her. We found her in the bathroom scrubbing the toilet. “You don’t have to do that,” her son said in a rather amused tone, “work is over for the day.” She squeaked with child-like delight and zoomed back into the exam room with her husband. The son turned to me and said, “sometimes you just have to live in her world.” Yes indeed, good sir, you do!
*disclaimer- I am touching on a delicate subject here, as I am a white woman discussing cultural differences. I love to explore and learn about other cultures. It is not my intention to sound ignorant or xenophobic in anyway and I apologize if I offend anyone. This post lacks my normal humorous commentary to avoid any misunderstandings.
I am flooded with a montage of indistinguishable emotions whenever I think about my former roommate, Banu (name has been changed), and her duty to her grandparents. As Persian immigrants, her grandparents spoke only enough English to survive. They needed Banu’s help multiple times per week for everything from doctor’s appointments, rides around town, and shopping. Banu was in her mid-twenties while trying to launch a new career and live independently. She would often get frustrated by her family obligations and how much more demanding they were than many American families. As a 20-something American-born human my conditioning spawned resentment towards Banu’s grandparents on her behalf. She always seemed so overwhelmed with school, work, and family commitments. However, when I asked her why she didn’t set any boundaries, she was appalled. She refused to consider any alternative because she loved and respected her grandparents with such a complex depth that I could never understand.
Fast forward to the present, to a typical day in the office, when an Indian couple and their son arrived for an appointment. I asked if an interpreter was necessary, and the son said he would be translating. He had taken the entire day off work to drive his parents to various doctors and translate for them. I smiled and said he was a good son for taking such good care of his parents. “That’s what we do in my culture,” he said in a friendly but absolute manner. The idea that he wouldn’t take time off work or would just set up a ride for his parents was just as unfathomable as me riding an elevator without anxiety. As in, it would never happen. We continued to chat for a few minutes about his large family and the connection they share living in a place who’s customs differ so much from their own. I was humbled and grateful for this perspective. I witnessed an unbreakable bond, which is hard to come by in the land of the Seattle Freeze.