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Love in the memory ward

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Joe, my father-in-law, met Barbara shortly after each had lost their spouse and their children had encouraged their parent to move to a place with more of a community (you know the euphemisms).

They were introduced in the independent living wing and bonded over their shared value of rigorous cheerfulness, 60-year happy marriages, and sensible boundaries. Soon she supported him during daily walks and he escorted her to dinner.

Both were forgetful and slipping in every way possible. They’d visit the other during stays in the rehabilitation ward but, eventually, Joe had to move upstairs to what we morbidly referred to as the exclusive gated community – the memory ward. Soon after, Barbara moved to that same wing, but to a floor below with a bit more independence.

At 92, with no short-term memory and an “invisible fence” wristband, Joe might feel depleted. And Barbara, who lost her dining partner and now eats alone at a small table, might start to complain. Instead, their dementia appears to have locked them in those exhilarating days that make your heart leap when you see your love across a room for the first time.  

We often come across Barbara waiting at the elevator where we push codes to ascend to the memory ward. She does not appear to have a purpose for being there but is always happy to see us and answers “yes” with a big smile when we ask if she would like to visit Joe with us.

A few days ago, we escorted her down a long hall that opened on to a lounge in which Joe sat in a circle tossing a bright plastic beach ball with 12 women. When he caught sight of us he turned to his group and said, “Ladies, my playing days are over.” Barbara, who has excellent hearing, turned to me and gushed, “Did you hear that? He is so funny!” My husband, Glenn, wheeled his father over so Barbara could bend down to give him a kiss.

Besides his memory loss, Joe is mostly deaf so conversation is close to impossible. Even his long-time passion for games has fallen by the wayside. He stares at his handful of cards, not sure what to do. But Glenn recently discovered that his father enjoys being read to. Simple, funny plot lines keep his attention. I’m not sure if Joe comprehends or just enjoys his son’s voice, but he laughs at the right places and keeps asking for more.

Photo by Anna Min
Jocelyn Hale

Recently, Glenn has been reading him Roald Dahl’s middle school autobiography, “Boy.” On this day, Barbara accepts our invitation to listen to the story and we settled the two of them on to a couch together. As Glenn finds his page, they glance at each other, grin, and clutch hands.

Both were delighted by the stories of Dahl’s youth and each time the year 1925 was mentioned, Joe chimed in with, “1925! That’s when I was born.” Barbara also related to a pre-World War II childhood and helped us with a few terms we did not know, like tuck-box.

After a few short chapters, Barbara, who needs to move around a lot, declared she must go. The two shared a tender goodbye kiss, and she pushed her walker out of our alcove and to the left. I knew we’d see her again because the elevator was to the right. A few seconds later on her return, I pointed her out to Joe and said half-jokingly, “There goes Barbara …” He got a big smile on his face and excitedly exclaimed, “That’s Barbara? I want to see her!”

We should all be so lucky to spend our final days looping in the throes of reciprocated young love.

Jocelyn Hale lives in Minneapolis. 

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