When I was in the throes of sadness following my divorce, my 12-year-old daughter came into my room and handed me a stuffed bear.
“This will help you,” she said.
At first, I had my doubts about the healing power of inanimate objects. But I soon learned that cuddling a soft bear was a calming and healing experience.
My mother created her own soothing experience when she was deep into Alzheimer’s. Here’s an excerpt from this story, from my book, Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
A Doll of Her Own
That afternoon, while my mother is walking down the left-hand side of the corridor in the Alzheimer’s unit, tapping one hand on the handrail, and pressing the other palm on her forehead, she sees a baby doll lying on the floor. Mom’s adult diaper rustles as she bends down, picks the baby up, smoothes its curly hair and carries it with her to the dining room. There she settles in a chair and rocks the baby, talking and singing to it.
“Your mom’s fallen in love with a baby doll,” Leticia, the nurse aide, says when I visit.
Mom is sitting at the table in the small dining room, her head bent over, as if she’s fallen asleep on a long journey. I touch her shoulder once, twice and on the third time, she straightens, notices me and smiles.
I sit beside her and spread out some photographs. She is staring vacantly at a photo of her granddaughters when Leticia brings over the baby doll.
“Here you go, Frances,” Leticia says.
Mom lights up, holds out her arms and says, “You’re cute. You’re so pretty. You’re a good boy. You’re a good girl.”
I look on in amazement. I haven’t seen Mom so animated in weeks. Yet I feel a pang: I had yearned to be the one who jolted her into vivacity.
I listen as Mom continues her conversation with the baby. Maybe the ease of having someone who doesn’t talk back, who doesn’t hope you will complete a sentence, who doesn’t care if the words are missing or not right, maybe that freedom lets Mom flow with her speech.
I decide to buy my mother her own baby doll.
At the toy store, the dolls are all full of activities. One laughs when you press her belly. One has a musical bottle. Another takes your picture …
I search the aisles for a quiet doll without too many accomplishments. Finally I find a soft, rosy-cheeked baby, a good size to cradle, who boasts only an open mouth for a pacifier or bottle.
“Some little girl is going to really enjoy this doll,” the cashier says as I pay.
I smile as I envision that 87-year-old little girl who is my mother.
Mom sits in a chair in the TV room, eating strawberry ice cream out of a round cardboard container. I know better than to compete with dessert, so I wait until she has finished the last smidgen.
Then I put my hand on her shoulder. She looks at me, her eyes vacant.
“Hi, Mom,” I say. She stares at me and then she sees the baby doll.
“You’re here,” she says, her eyes widening. “My little girl is here.”
She holds out her arms and I hand her the baby.
“Bo bo bupe, tootle ootle, oop. I have my little girl,” she croons.
She smiles at me; she smiles at the doll. Does she know I’m her real little girl or is she imagining the doll as her child? At this moment, as I watch my mother come to life and praise her baby, it simply doesn’t matter.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.