The first job I had after college was as an intern in a kindergarten classroom at a private school in Bedford, New York. I still have the notebook I kept that year of the funny things the kids said. I remember those little guys so clearly. Here's a terrifying thought: they're now in their mid-30s, with kindergarteners of their own. The little girl who was a chubby delight is now a yoga teacher; the daughter of a famous actress followed in her mother's footsteps; the shy little boy is now a heavily-tattooed and immensely talented photographer.
I have found that spending time in the company of dementia patients is a lot like being with kindergarteners. How odd and interesting that so many of us do seem to return to that early condition, at end of life. Having a conversation with someone who is moving in and out of the present is fascinating, and, of course, much easier to enjoy when the person isn't someone you knew when they had full powers of cognition. I find that the company of someone in the twilight of dementia puts me in a kind of gauzy state. They say funny things ("I can't remember where she lives...somewhere near Lake Shampoo.") and they move seamlessly from one time period to another. One minute we are in the room together, talking about lunch, and the next we are on the farm, waiting for Dad to get in from the barn. Dead husbands sent flowers yesterday and children are coming later to take them home. Reality bends back and forth. One of the most interesting things I find is how many cannot recall the number of children they have or what their names are.
How funny, the ways in which we travel back around to where we were before.
I want to tell you one of the most beautiful stories of my life.
In 1999 I was married and living in southern Vermont, with two young boys. For reasons still mysterious to me, I found myself deeply unhappy in my marriage. It might have been the isolation, it might have been that I was disconnected from my teaching life. Perhaps I was unprepared for the realities of motherhood. Maybe my husband, Scott, and I didn't know one another well enough to navigate the challenges we faced then. We got married not long after his first wife had left, and then we had two kids in quick succession. Who knows?
I left the marriage, moved in with my parents just up the road and began working on an M.Ed. at UVM. A couple of years later, I moved north, leaving behind the small town of my married life and the members of Scott's family who live there: his parents, Marion and Lee, and his brother and his wife and kids. To say that I disappointed them and broke their hearts is probably an understatement. Though I was happy in my new life, as a student, living in a larger town, dating the man who would become my second husband, I know my happiness did not extend to the people who had loved and welcomed me into the McChesney family.
Fast-forward seventeen years: I am writing this today sitting at the kitchen counter in Marion and Lee's house in Pawlet. I'm care-taking their home while they are traveling. I live here, now, again. I came back two years ago to be the pastor of the church where I married Scott and our two boys were baptised.
Marion and Lee come to church every Sunday, faithfully. They began doing this after I took to the pulpit; they had not previously been very churchy. They come and sit in the pew and listen to me, the woman who left their son, who left their family and broke their hearts, preach.
Please don't go through your life closing doors and moving on. Go back. Look at it again. Be humble. Be very willing to say...what I did was wrong. Life is going to circle you back around anyway. Chances are good that one day you will need help eating or walking, again. Allow the experiences of your life to remain with you so that the truth will emerge, as grace, as compassion, as art, as love. Amen.