I am never at Sunrise Senior Living at Pinehurst on a Sunday. Never. But last weekend I happened by to show a friend the community where I live out my love on a daily basis. We had not been there long when someone rushed inside, "Franny* fell!"
You have to know . . . Franny is one of my resident's and her heart beats with mine. We have a friendship that goes beyond, "Hi. How are you?" We have a connection that is soul deep. She trusts me with herself and it is a trust I highly treasure.
Rushing out the front door, I found her lying on the pavement. She had lost her balance and fell the back of her head catching the brunt of her fall. Instantly the nurse and several concerned care managers surrounded her. The Lead Care Manager called 911 and, as I approached, was in conversation with the dispatch relaying Franny's vitals and doing what they suggested to make her more comfortable until the paramedics arrived. She had already bled through two thick towels placed beneath her head.
There was a spot just big enough for me to squeeze into and I claimed it as my own. "Ms. Franny," I gently scolded with a tender smile, "I can't leave you alone for a minute without you getting into trouble." She looked at me and our eyes connected as it does every time she is afraid. I reached down for her hand, she reached up for mine, and we held on tight. "You fell," I explained, "And hit your head. You're going to be all right, but we need to get you checked out, okay?" I hoped she still had some of the courage I had given her a few days earlier in my office.
We have history Ms. Franny and I. When I first came to Pinehurst, I had a terrible time remembering her name. She was the epitome of patience, reminding me repeatedly, "My name is Franny." It took awhile but we were both proud the day I finally remembered and could call her by name.
She took to stopping by the desk every day when I was on duty. We would chat and she would tell me about herself. She was born in rural Kansas with a mild disability that crippled her walk. One day I asked if we might spend a couple of hours together in her room capturing her memories on a CD for her family. In light of what happened in the months that followed, I was so glad we had shared those precious moments - it bonded us heart-to-heart.
On days when I work in Marketing, I sometimes shut the office door so I can get my work done. Otherwise, a myriad of folks drop by to say hello and chat. While I love to visit with them, it makes it difficult to effectively tackle my daily to-do list of paperwork and phone calls. Shutting the door is a subtle way of saying, "This is really not a good time." Which being interpreted actually means, "This is really not a good time for everyone but Franny." When she needs to talk, she does not bother to knock - she simply pushes the door open, shuffles in and sits down. She knows I will not turn her away. We are buddies and I often tell her, "It's you for me and me for you."
Franny walks with a cane, her step hesitant and slow. She wears her graying hair short - one of those easy comb and go styles. My guess is it has not changed since she was a young woman caring more for comfort then flair. She had fish to catch, and campfires to build - she did not have time to mess with a fancy hairdo. On the wall next to the entry to her room hangs a picture of Franny standing outside her humble, old camper beaming from ear to ear. She loved roughing it in the great outdoors.
Franny still loves the outdoors though she does not get to be there much these days. She is not distressed about it though because she has come to believe that her room at Pinehurst is her camper. She worries when it is cold (and even when it is not) that the truck on which her camper sits will not start. She worries that someone is going to make her move to another campsite and she will not be able to find it. She worries that "Kitty Cat" will get cold when the thermometer plummets and the snowflakes fall. She worries if she has ample blankets to keep her own self warm in the middle of the night. She is a dyed-in-the-wool worrier. Some days when she is close to working herself into a full-blown tizzy I say, "Oh Franny. Look at the clock. Your worry time ended ten minutes ago."
On the wall in the main hallway just outside the Executive Director's office hangs a large picture of a homestead on the Prairie. On her better days, Franny will stop in front of it and say, "That's my favorite picture."
"It reminds you of home doesn't it Franny?" I ask each time. And every time she pauses, lost in her memories, then with a gentle nod of her head, she walks on.
The last few months have been especially tough for Franny as her Alzheimer's disease has picked up steam. On days when she struggles most, I feel rising anger against a disease that can render a healthy, active woman with a sharp, witty mind to a confused, frustrated, shuffling person who cannot function outside her comfort zone. In the beginning, she had only an occasional misfire in her thinking process. If she slowed down, took her time and thought really hard she could usually get her thoughts out in a cohesive manner. At least, enough so that I could ask questions to clarify and piece it all together. Not so anymore.
What Franny is experiencing is not a normal part of aging. Alzheimer's is a toxic brain disease. It causes a slow, ever-worsening decline in recall, thought and reasoning skills. Soon daily activities, accomplished with ease for years, become tough to complete. It is a cruel and frightening disease, especially in the initial stages when the individual is aware that they are losing the ability to think soundly and communicate clearly.
Franny used to pick up an activity schedule and follow it through the day, now she rarely remembers that a schedule exists. She participates in activities just because that is what everyone around her is doing. She will not remember when it is over that she was even there.
She does not know what day it is. She vaguely remembers her family members who visit hit-and-miss. She knows that she should know them but she is not certain if the woman at her side is her daughter, granddaughter or maybe a friend from days gone by.
Franny could knit and crochet with the best of them, but not anymore. Her fingers no longer cooperate and her vision plays mean tricks on her. Saddest of all is that she does not remember how to count the stitches.
Her sense of humor has dulled with the passing of days. She no longer smiles at the funny things in life. Every thought, every task, every day is hard. Even the places she is familiar with have become frightening.
One thing she has not yet forgotten is the location of my office. She peeks through the window several times a day. On this particular day, I had a stack of paperwork to process and phone calls to make, so I shut the door hoping against hope that she would take the hint and go on by.
She did not.
I heard the door open, and looked up to see Franny poke her head inside my office. I waved for her to come on in and signaled to her with my pointer finger - Just a minute and I will be finished with this phone call. She was careful to enter quietly. Using her cane for support, she took small, measured steps until she was fully inside then she turned and softly closed the door.
Usually when she comes to visit, she will pull up a chair and sit by the round table in the corner. However, that day, even after I hung up the phone, she stood statuesque, saying nothing, just staring at me. I could tell from the look in her eye that she was both frustrated and afraid.
I finished my call and as if on cue, she started to speak. Her words were jumbled but I knew she was doing her best to apologize for interrupting. I assured her that it was okay, that I had time for her. I could not remember the last time she had completed a full sentence. Maybe that is why what she said next came as a total surprise to me. She took a second to gather her thoughts, and then before she could lose them again, she looked me in the eye and said without hesitation, "I just need you."
I felt like crying. I sat back in my chair, and simply waited. She waited too. When you are tied heart-to-heart, you do not always need words. When she did not speak, I suggested, "You need some courage, don’t you Franny?"
"Okay." I stuck my right hand in my pocket and pretended to pull from it something wrapped snuggly in my fingers. I lifted my hand into the air, and she lifted her own in anticipation. I was amazed to see that she remembered the game we often played on her really rough days.
I pulled my fist back and threw like a pitcher in a hotly contested baseball game. "Here it comes, Franny. Here is some courage. Catch it!"
I throw it through the air, and she deftly reaches out to catch the coveted courage, curling her fingers tightly so it will not slip through.
"Now Franny," I whisper just loud enough for her to hear, "Put it in your heart."
She presses her fist to her left breast and opens it as if letting the courage go straight to her heart. "Push it in Franny! She pats her chest as if to firmly lodge her courage in place.
"Good catch! Now, shoulders back." She stands up straight and tall.
"Take a deep breath." She breaths in deeply.
"I think I can make it now," she says.
"I know you can Franny."
She is one of the bravest people I know.
* not her real name
Franny passed a few months back. I miss her and often, when I’m in need of courage, I think of the game we played.