A man who is living with Alzheimer’s strides onto the stage and people applaud wildly. His son leans across the drums and hands him his guitar. His daughter, poised on the banjo, subtly reminds the man to look at the monitor so he can remember the words to the songs.
Everyone on stage is tuned into making the performance a great experience for the man and everyone in the audience is eager to hear from him. “So what if he sings Rhinestone Cowboy twice,” says one fan.
This scene is a snippet from Glen Campbell’s documentary, “I’ll Be Me.” As I watched Glen connect through his familiar music and bask in the support of his family and fans, I wished that every person could be so supported and celebrated, particularly those who are living with dementia.
As we approach Valentine’s Day, I wanted to share this essay about appreciating each of us for who we are. For me, it’s a reminder to celebrate love and the creative spirit in all their glorious guises.
Please Take a Bow
By Deborah Shouse
The stage thrilled with activities. One man juggled 12 balls. From overhead, a woman floated down on streamers of royal blue fabric, and then wound herself back up to the arena ceiling. Lithe performers dressed as jungle animals danced and tumbled. I sat in the audience, awed by the amazing creativity of Cirque de Soleil. I hardly knew where to look, so much was going on. But one performer consistently drew my attention. A woman dressed as a wood nymph walked around pointing to whichever feat she most admired. As a man juggled dangerously long sticks, the nymph held out her arms toward him, her gesture saying, “Ta da, Look at this!”
The singer burst into an acrobatic aria and the wood nymph ran towards her, unfurling her arms in another “Ta Da” gesture, focusing our attention and directing our applause. One act after another somersaulted, soared and danced and the wood nymph was always there to shine extra attention on them.
Afterwards, I stood in the corridors with Ron and our friends, Jacqueline and Michael, talking over favorite parts of the show.
“I really liked the wood nymph,” I told Jacqueline. “We should take turns doing that for each other.”
She agreed. But then we both wondered, what would we applaud? Jacqueline and I did our writing work practically immobilized in front of the computer. Michael was a legal aid attorney and Ron had an antique shop. The last time any of us had even somersaulted was eons ago, in our firefly laden summertime back yards. Yes, we juggled, but it was the usual middle class shticks, wildly tossing around work, family, exercise, community, friends and more. All the more reason, I thought, to find an appreciator who understood when we performed at our personal peak.
As we discussed the amazing acrobatic skills we had just seen, I imagined going over to Jacqueline’s. There she sits at her dining room table, her computer screen bright, her fingers nimble. She is a great writer and she is working her craft. I stand nearby, face the imaginary audience seated in her living room, and hold out my arms, gesturing proudly towards Jacqueline. She smiles shyly and I hold my appreciative pose. Then Michael walks through on his way to the kitchen.
“Hi Deborah, what are you up to?” he says.
I nod towards Jacqueline, who is writing briskly, and unfurl my arms towards her.
“Oh, yes, I see,” Michael says. He applauds. Jacqueline sits up straighter and allows herself a little bow. A lot of people don’t understand what hard work writing is and I am here to make sure her audience appreciates the subtlety and strength of this art form. Suddenly, Jacqueline stops. I imagine a drum roll as she presses her lips together, furrows her brow and stares into space. She is trying to think of the right word. We all know how hard that is–it’s the equivalent of the back flip followed by the double mid-air somersault. She shakes her head in despair. The audience is on the edges of its seats, mouths agape, hearts racing. Will Jacqueline find the word? Or will she crash to the ground, her sentence in shambles, her paragraphs paralyzed?
Meanwhile, while I daydreamed, the Cirque de Soleil arena was emptying. We walked to our cars and the image of the wood nymph stayed with me all the way home.
As Ron and I walked toward our house, I remembered a conversation we’d had several weeks ago. “Why don’t you ever mention how great the yard looks?” he’d said. “I’ve worked hard on creating this.”
I had started to defend myself. Then I realized he was right. I liked the yard but its lushness was part of my normal world, the world I rushed blindly past. I hadn’t taken time to appreciate all the effort Ron had put into creating it.
Now I stopped on the sidewalk. The porch light illuminated the plants and ivy as I swept my arms toward the yard, then back to Ron.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for noticing.” He took a bow.
I followed him as he left the stage and went into the house.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.