Denumbered by dementia, Doña Quixote counts her toilet paper squares and her Winter Solstice blessings
Featured image: Picasso, Blind Minotaur Guided by a Girl in the Night, etching (1934).
The New Year arrived this morning in Salt Lake City like a blank slate, a snow-whitened landscape whose underlying structure is only hinted at by a palimpsest of dendritic trees. Today is as pervaded with lightness as the winter solstice season is with darkness. It seems that our northern hemisphere winter solstice revelries of lighting candles, hanging evergreens, giving presents, dancing, and singing, have succeeded in driving the darkness away. Before we plunge too deep into the anticipation of spring, however, let us heed Wendell Berry’s poem “O know the dark”:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
I’m grateful for that.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Star of the Kings: A Night Piece (c. 1651)
Another version of the “not-the-right-number-of-toilet-sheets” revealed itself several months ago: every day when I take out my pills from the 7-day storage box, there seems to be too many or to few. In the morning, too many: I worry that I might have doubled up when I packed them (unlikely, since it’s a task with which Peter helps.) At night, again, not enough: there are supposed to be 5, but I can’t see if I’ve dropped a pill on the floor until I touch-count them. Like most people with well-functioning brains, I used to be able to”instantly” judge the number of objects in a small group without counting, for example, the number of dots on a die while playing, say, Snakes and Ladders. The ability to rapidly judge “how many” objects there are in a small group is known as subitizing, from the Latin “subitus,” or “sudden.” Kids are nowadays taught subitizing at school. On average, students can subitize up to 6 objects by the time they are seven years old. Subitizing certainly was not taught 68 years ago when I started school in South Africa, yet my cousins and I had mastered it well before school age in the playing of dice games. I only learned that the skill had a name when, as a mother-to-be, I started reading everything I could find about childhood development and pedagogical systems. In Montessori, as well as other systems, the instant recognition of quantities was part of the curriculum for brain development. By the time my children were toddlers, I had made flash cards that (ideally) would enable my children to subitize up to groups of 17. Despite being a tiger-mom-in-the-making, I did not test them (!) but helped them acquire these and other number- and mathematical skills through games. Losing the skill now is not only to be deprived of a former ability, but also to involuntarily let my current failure mar my very joyful memories of being a full-time mom with a weird former-self jealousy .
Initially, we use sub-grouping to subitize, as shown above with the number 8. Later on, one recognizes the group as a whole
If taking stock of one’s losses is painful, why do it? I cannot avoid it, the deficits beat me down all day long, building anxiety as the hours pass. Paying attention to them gives me time to not only adopt techniques to lower my anxiety, but also to notch down my expectations and thoroughly explore potential failures and plan for them, so that they are not surprises when they catch up with me—as they inexorably do in dementia. In this respect, I am a defensive pessimist. Our attitude is, in the words of Jennifer Senior (as quoted in the New York Times), to reason that “if things start going downhill, [I] will be the one [with my] feet already on the brakes.” As studies have shown, “defensive pessimists experienced significantly higher levels of self-esteem compared to [other anxious people]. In fact, their self-esteem rose to almost the levels of the optimists over the four years of one study.” I am thankful that this brand of realism still works for me. Besides, I love the dark humor that arises from defensive pessimism and that can give us dementers who can still get the joke, as well as our caregivers, a good laugh of recognition.
A cartoon about dementia by Tony Husband. The text reads, “Alison, er Ann…no…Amelia—bugger, what’s your name again?” The object on the desk is Alexa. Tony Husband has been a full-time cartoonist in England since 1984 and has won major awards. He is also a campaigner for people with dementia. His dementia cartoons stem from his experience of having his father living with and dying of dementia.
From the bottom, the note on the table reads, “Mum, this is Alexa.” The speech bubble reads, “Alexa, who am I?” The title text reads, “The loneliness of dementia.”
My winter solstice review of the past year yields not only my deteriorations, but also the awareness of the blessed life I still lead. That my world is shrunken is very clear, but the fact that Peter and I together can time and again adjust my busy-ness level downwards to suit the place I inhabit each day is a huge plus. We no longer have to maintain jobs, as many people of our age still do. We have a lovely home, a loving and supportive blood family as well as our made-in-America family. I have Peter, without whom my life would dwindle to the size of our apartment—that is, if I can even manage to stay on by my own for even a short while. The small range of household contributions that I can still take on are blessings: unpacking the dishwasher, hand washing (unbreakable) items too large for the dishwasher, tidying up the kitchen after meals—these tasks give my days structure and purpose, and makes my ego feel important… (Peter is often too quick to jump in with help so that I often have to rudely chase him away from my territory.) I also make our bed, which includes arranging our lovely, large, thick, flower-embossed crotched blanket on it as a bedspread for the day. At bedtime, to accommodate our different sleeping temperature needs, I pull the whole thick bedspread/blanket over to my side of the bed and cover his side with a thin one. The other day I joked with him about these bed chores: “Remember The Karate Kid? Well, these days for me it’s “blanket on, blanket off.”
Without my remaining household tasks, my days would be long and boring. Even without them, I am often bored. Dementia has deprived me the initiative and/or energy to do something productive most days or even become excited about a movie or something I see or hear or see. Some time after Thanksgiving, though, I had an inspiring surprise: two kinds of leaf sprigs that had lasted for months in a tiny macrame vase had sprouted roots! Because the vase was not see-through, the growth was a total surprise. The metaphors someone in my situation could devise from the detection were “uplifting,” a word I seldom applicable to most of my discoveries!
Yesterday, New Year’s Day, I had the initiative and energy to pot the sprouted plants. While the outside ones are anonymous sprigs I’d saved from a bunch of flowers after its compadres had died, the middle one has sentimental value: when I started triaging the deciduous plants that flourish on our balcony in the summer to see which ones would fit into our limited space, the battered-looking shrub from which the middle sprig was taken did not make the cut. Before I’d made or announced the changes, my friend Kimarie came by, notice and loved the shrub heart-shaped leaves despite its overall dishevelment, and asked if it propagates from a cutting I said I did not know but of course offered her a cutting. Then I remembered I was going to get rid of the plant anyway and asked if she wanted it. She did. She had room for it on her sunny deck. When it got too cold outside, she put it in her meditation room. A few days before my discovery of the roots, she wrote me a note that said the plant was “alive and thriving.” I knew then, of course, that I would not betray the plucky “mother” by not taking care of her offspring. The heart-shaped-leaves were clearly not yet done with me. Getting all the materials together for the potting took Peter’s help by conveying me to two stores with garden sections. These outings happened over two days. In the first case, I had misremembered the name of the store where I thought I had bought light-weight plant pots before. By the time we had gone there and established that it was the wrong store, my energy switched off like a toddler’s at bedtime. We had to go home. We went again another day since fortunately Peter had remembered a different store where I had been successful before. I found the pot and soil and little rocks for the bottom. Without Peter, the plants would have shriveled up, like me. Instead, on New Year’s Day, I acknowledged the nudge from the Universe’s that “life, uh, finds a way.”
I’m grateful for that.