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.
January 3, 2023 @ 1:38 pm
Goeie naand Tannie Gerda.
Dit is altyd goed om van jou doen en late te lees.
Ek is bly daar is nog goed wat jy kan doen en geniet. Op die ou end van die dag maak dit net saak dat wat jy doen, jou gelukkig maak, plante plant, bed opmaak of kombuis skoonmaak.
It’s the small things in life that makes the biggest impression, do those things asif it the first time you have ever done them.
Happy New Year to you and Pieter.
May you be healthy
May you be safe
May you be happy and
May your life u fold with ease
February 4, 2023 @ 9:32 am
My liege Erika, Een van die dinge wat my in hierdie nuwe jaar gelukkig gemaak het, is om van jou te hoor. Baie dankie vir jou wysheid en mooi woorde en nuwejaarswense. En ook “The small things,” soos jy skryf. Een van die dinge wat my al vir twee jaar gelukkig maak is iets wat jou ma vir my gestuur het, jare gelede: Oom van Rensburg se autobiografie, wat sy getik het van sy handgeskryfde manuskrip. Miskien het jy ook ‘n kopie. Ek het dit twee jaar gelede begin vertaal na Engels sodat my kleinkinders en nie-Afrikaanssprekende familie dit ook kan lees. Ek sal vir jou ‘n kopie stuur wanneer ek klaar is. Hoop die gaan goed met jou en jou man. Wens ek kan jou van nader ken, maar selfs oor die afstand weet ek jy is een van my spesiale mense. Baie dankie dat jy kontak hou. Baie, baie liefde.
January 3, 2023 @ 2:52 pm
I love these journal entries. Your use of art and metaphor and tying it all together at the end is just amazing. You teach not only about your dimentia, but life lessons we can all use.
February 5, 2023 @ 11:43 am
Dear Becky, Thanks so much for your wonderfully supportive note. I’m not sure about my writing any more, not sure where it’s going when I start. But I’m happy to hear it still means something to you. I love your painting and very much enjoy each new post. Wishing you and those you love everything of the very best.
January 3, 2023 @ 11:09 pm
Jou Doña stories is geweldig inspirerend. Dis vir my so lekker as daar ‘n nuwe een in my inbox verskyn.
Ek is Erna (Schutte) se dogter. Ek bewonder jou al my hele lewe lank! 🥰
Die insig wat jy deel oor jou lewe met demensie maak dit makliker om die krimpende wêreld van oudword te verstaan. En daarmee medelye te hê.
En dankie vir die kuns!
February 5, 2023 @ 11:41 am
My liewe Hanli, ek weet al van jou en al jou wonders vandat ek jou as kleuter ontmoet het op ‘n klas-reunie! Wens ek kno jou as ‘n volwassene leer ken–maar hier doen ek dit nou adv jou wonderlike boodskap. Ek weet hoe lief jy is vir jou ma en hoe baie jy vir haar doen en beteken. Jy is so wys om te sien dat demensie maar net een moonlike faset van ouerword is. Ouder word sonder demensie is ook nie vir sissies nie. Ek bewonder jou en jou familie se ondersteuning van my liewe Erna deur haar te help om ‘n plek in die platteland te kry. Ek hoor te min van haar en maak ook van my kant nie genoeg kontak nie. Ek dink so baie aan haar en haar familie en stuur baie dikwels my ateisties gebede in haar rigting. Gee asb my liefde aan haar, maar net nadat jy ‘n groot chunk vir jouself gevat het. Baie, baie danke.
February 20, 2023 @ 2:11 am
En daar sit ek al weer in snot en trane en tjank. Maar dis ok. Dis open-heart (oopgebars van liefde en sorg en medelye en verwondering) surgery wat jy met jou blog verrig. Baie dankie vir jou briefie aan my hierbo. Ek sal bietjie vir Erna aanhits om vir jou epos te skryf. En ek het vir haar ‘n hap van jou liefde gestuur, maar meeste het ek self opgegobble! 🤭💗🌸
January 6, 2023 @ 12:02 pm
I verlang na you Gerda. Ek dink baie aan jou. Ek vir al die maande nog nie die krag gehad om met jou te praat nie. Nicola was vir 2 maande in die hospitaal met suurstof tekort in haar bloed. Nege dae in ‘n koma. Sal vir jou ‘n foto Whats App. Sy het nou ‘n suurstof masjien hier by haar cottage en kan anskakel wanneer sy sukkel. So baie om te doen, so baie om te reel. Nooit tyd om te dink of te voel nie.
Ek het toe besluit om almal te verjaag hierdie kersfees. Geen boom, geen persente, geen Kersfees kos nie en geen mense om my nie. Ek wou my pyn, verlatenheid en aleenigheid diep ervaar. Dit was die beste besluit ooit! Kersdag het ek ‘n groot skildery geverf. bietjie Google raad opgesoek en die beste, mees praktiese ou was Guy Winch. Ek is ook mal oor Tim Minchkin se 9 life lessons wat hy by University of Western Australia gelewer het. Hy is werklik die moeite werd op op te soek!
Die wonderlike stuk wat jy hier geskryk het, het my inpsireer om vir jou te skryf. Jy is ‘n ster my enigste vriendin. Baie liefde, Brenda
January 9, 2023 @ 5:13 pm
So bly om van jou te hoor, Brenda. Ek gaan vir jou e-pos stuur. Ek kyk nie dikwels na my blog nie en is meer betroubaar op e-pos, as dit vir jou sal werk. Wil oor alles praat, Baie lief vir jou en Nicola.
February 16, 2023 @ 1:43 pm
Blanket-on – blanket off: How loved I feel every night when I (mostly) come to bed after you have fallen asleep and I find the crocheted blanket so carefully placed on my side of the bed. You have your blanket wrapped around your feet in that way that you love and in the past that left me fighting for a piece of blanket. Then you noticed and made a plan to solve the problem so very long ago. Placing my very own blanket on my side of the bed so that I can do whatever I want with it is such a loving act … and you do it EVERY NIGHT.
How lonely it would be without you next to me.
February 16, 2023 @ 7:42 pm
If I added up all the blanket-on-blanket-off things you have done for me over our life together, I would get to infinity–which is how much I love you. Thanks for helping me manage my life at a high enough quality for us to remain next to each other for the longest possible time…
February 20, 2023 @ 2:13 am
💗💗💗💗💗!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! So baie liefde vir jou vir alles wat jy doen vir Gerda. En vir haar voel.
February 24, 2023 @ 6:25 pm
Dankie vir nog ‘n mooi boodskap, liewe Hanli.