just one dance

One of the unexpected blessings that bubbled up to the surface during the last few years of my father’s life, as dementia began to move into our world, was his propensity for outbreaks of shear silliness and joy. The hard times between my father and I began when I was in early adolescence and those explosions and heartbreaks overshadowed and sometimes completely eclipsed many years of our relationship. I spent a lot of my adult life bracing for what might be the next confrontation with him – so this turn toward lightheartedness was an incredible relief.

On this particular evening, we’d taken him out to dinner and at this point in his life, it was common that he’d get wound up from the excitement of it all, in the same way that young children do. We always wanted to take him to some place new, but quickly learned that what he really wanted…what really pleased him was to just go to the same restaurant where he’d order the same thing. The whole excursion was incredibly surreal because it would go exactly the same way EVERY TIME.

As soon as we walked in, dad would say with great concern, “There’s no one here. That’s rough on business.” Often, the place would have plenty of customers, it’s just that dad couldn’t see them or hear them, and since he had owned a small business himself, he felt deep compassion for the owner. Sometimes my sister and I would offer to count the customers for him so he’d know that the guy was going to be alright, at least for one more night. We’d count out loud, stating where they were sitting, and how many people were at each table. He’d been there so many times; he could picture it in his mind from when he still was able to see the place. It would put him a little more at ease if we did this…so we did.

We always sat in the same spot; we had to sit at the table with the best lighting because dad’s eyesight was so bad, but not near a window because he’d get a chill from the draft. We’d go through the whole menu and he’d think about it for a time, and then say, “How ‘bout a turkey and cheese omelet,” like it was a grand, adventurous choice…which I guess it was, since he couldn’t remember ever having it before.

Every now and then we’d try to get him to agree to something else, partly just for us, just for the novelty of it. For some reason this one item was fixed in his mind – he just loved that omelet. It came with LOTS of melted cheese and this was the crux of the problem. Miraculously, somehow dad would get a bite of the omelet on his fork even though he couldn’t see what was on his plate, but then the melted cheese would string out in one continuous rubbery strand, from the omelet to the fork to his mouth and everywhere in between. It always happened, it was always a mess and Dad hated when we’d try and clean up after him while he was eating. The worst part was that my sister and I would have to avoid eye contact with each other because it was such a ridiculous scene and if we caught each other’s eye…we’d start laughing uncontrollably. And that REALLY annoyed dad.

We’d just arrived home from one of these outings. Dad was wound up from the excitement of it all, and also overly exhausted. He’d had a great excursion out with his two daughters, had an opportunity to talk a little about the plight of small business owners and now we were home. We knew the best thing would be to get him to go to bed. That’s what he needed to do. But. He wanted to hang out with us some more.

Dad was a tough nut to crack – he didn’t take well to offers of help or change, even positive change, especially from his children. My sister, who’s a musician, was great at finding some of dad’s favorite music and figuring out ways to incorporate it into his daily life. She was as stubborn as he was and wouldn’t give up. She’d found some radio stations that played music from the time when he was a young adult, which would have been during the ‘30’s. Even while resisting, if the music was right he couldn’t resist it for long – he loved it so.

We turned the radio on and a great old song poured out into the living room. I just happened to be standing right next to dad. He put out his arms as if to start dancing…and then as if a marionette artist had pulled on some strings lightly, I put out my arms, and in yet another miracle, dad and I were dancing… TOGETHER.

My teenage years were in the 1960’s, so I never learned to partner dance…the few times I’d tried it with people from my own age group, it was a frustrating and sometimes embarrassing experience – so I steered clear of it. The problem was that I didn’t know how to lead, or to follow. Well, all of sudden I found myself dancing with my father, who I’d heard was just as good a dancer as his younger brother who was a fabulous dancer, but I’d never seen my father dance.

And here’s the thing: my father knew how to lead – even me, his headstrong, chip-on-her-shoulder, eldest-daughter. I could feel, ever so subtly, which way we were going to move, just before we changed direction. It was an amazing feeling. I, who loved to dance, had never come across a partner who had enough grace or rhythm or confidence in their own dance skills that I would be willing to surrender to the experience of dancing with someone else. AND HERE I WAS DANCING WITH MY FATHER – MY ARCH ENEMY – MY NEMESIS. As we were dancing, as I was feeling this incredible amazement, I heard in some part of my consciousness, “Of course you and your father dance so well together…you’re so much alike.”

As quickly as this time-out-of-time moment had begun, it ended. The song was over and we looked at each other.

I looked my father square in the eye, saying, “Wow, dad, you’re a great dancer.”

He looked right back at me and said almost sternly and with a tad bit of surprise, “So are you.”

Then he smirked a little, let go of my hands, melted onto his dear old friend, the couch, and throwing his hands up into the air said, “Phew! I’m beat!”

The mystery blended back into our everyday world. My sister and I somehow got him to go to bed. But the magic of those few moments of dancing with instead of bracing against that amazing old man is something I will never forget.

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The Queen of the Flowers

I met Teodore Thorvendal, a tall, lanky, ninety-five-year-old Swedish man with a sometimes explosive temper, while living in Seattle in the early 1990’s.

Soon after his wife Crossed Over he lost all of his short-term memory. Every morning when his nephew Stefan, a new friend of mine, came out of his bedroom, Teodore would lunge at him, thinking he was a burglar. Somehow Stefan would convince his uncle again, who he was and why he was living with him. This happened every single day until after a year; Stefan couldn’t take it any more. He was going back home to Sweden and on this particular day, I would be driving Stefan to the airport.

I knocked on the front door and I was relieved that Stefan answered. I was afraid of the old man…the one other time I had come to the door of the house, he pulled the curtain aside an inch or two, peered out at me through the window, wild-eyed, and cursed at me to get off his property. So yes, I was anxious when Stefan invited me to come inside on that last morning. They were just finishing breakfast and he motioned for me to join them in the kitchen. Timidly I followed him in and there was the crazy old man glaring at me. I sat there while they both finished eating; metal spoons scraping up the last of their cereal the only sounds that broke their silent meal. Before I could stop him, Stefan jumped up and said he’d go out and load his luggage into the back of my borrowed truck.

That left me alone with Teodore. He put his spoon down on the table, pointed his long, crooked finger at me and said, “Please. Come with me.” I was afraid – afraid to go with him and afraid to disobey him. Against my better judgment, I followed him through the dark living room and out onto the front deck; the same deck I’d stood on when he cursed at me and told me to get off his property.

“She planted them every summer,” he said, speaking to me softly, shaking his head. “Look at them now – they’re all dead.” At first I didn’t know what he was talking about – I was nervous being so close to this man that could become so agitated without warning. I followed his gaze and realized that the entire deck was lined with planter boxes that were filled with dead bedding plants – flower heads in tact, but stone dead. “Please,” he begged me, “please plant them.”

How did he know? How did this man that I had never spoken with, this man whom I was still not sure was safe to be around at all – how did he know that my most favorite thing in the world was to plant flowers and tend them? We stood there silently, then Stefan found us and he and I were off to the airport – Teodore’s request went unanswered.

Back home from the airport, I replayed the conversation with Teodore in my head. Did he really ask me, a total stranger, to plant his flower boxes for him? It seemed that he had, and I decided to do a good deed. The next day I rode my bicycle to the nursery near my house and loaded up my saddlebags with potting soil and bedding plants. It was an unusually hot summer day and by the time I rode my bike back up north to Teodore’s house I was sweaty and tired. And, I have to say, quite proud of myself. I was helping this “poor old man” with his dream to somehow bring back part of his wife’s memory by replanting her garden.

I leaned my overloaded bicycle up against the edge of the deck with a bit of a thud. The front door flew open and there he was; the crazy, wild-eyed man screaming profanities at me, demanding that I get off his property. I was mad now. Hadn’t I just spent my own money, not to mention my sweat equity, to get all these supplies? Isn’t this what he had asked me do? Yes, I was afraid of him, but now I was pissed off. He wasn’t going to beg me to do something and then threaten me when I did it. It was too late – I’d had it with him. I flew around in a rage and told him it was none of his business, that I’d bought the plants after he’d asked me to, and now, like it or not, I was going to plant them. I glared at him hard. We stood there for a few moments, both of us stubborn and fierce. He wheeled around, went back inside and slammed the door.

I have to tell you that this was a first for me. I had never challenged someone, anyone, like this before. There was something about him, or about the combination of the two of us that gave me the courage or the strength or the foolishness, to stand up to him…or maybe it was fueled by my big, fat, bruised ego.

I began working on the flower boxes, and as always, I found the peaceful rhythm of hands-into-dirt, plants-into-soil. I calmed down. I forgot all the craziness. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that he was peering at me through the window. Again he’d pulled the curtain back and was following my progress. When he saw me looking at him he threw the curtain shut again. Sometime later I heard the door open. I paid no attention. Finally he said quietly, “No, not there. Don’t put them there, they should go over in that one,” pointing his long gnarled finger across the deck. Glaring, I told him it was my garden and I’d plant them where I wanted. He slammed the door again and watched me from the curtained window.

After dragging a hose around from the backyard and thoroughly watering these new, young plants, I stood back to view the garden. The door opened and he spoke. His demeanor had changed – back to the imploring voice he’d used on me when he first asked for this garden. How was he going to take care of it? He was an old man; a weak old man and he couldn’t drag the hose over, or lift a full watering can…the flowers would just die. He was wringing his hands. Still suffering from a rather large and bruised ego I stared him in the eye and said coldly, “It’s my garden. I’ll take care of it.” I walked down the steps, climbed onto my bicycle and rode away without looking back.

Seattle was having a true heat wave and I was concerned about the newly planted garden. Two days later I rode back up to Teodore’s house. What would I encounter with the old man? Was I in real danger? My love for the young plants propelled me to return in spite of my fear of him. They needed water. This time I snuck quietly up onto the deck. Maybe I could water the plants without him knowing. But wait – not only had they been thoroughly watered, they had all – every single planter box – been carefully tended to. As I surveyed the garden, I heard the front door open. For some reason he didn’t yell at me, he just watched. I ignored him. He remained at the door, watching me through the screen. When I was satisfied that the plants were going to live for a few more days I turned to leave. Changing my mind I faced him. He tensed. Fear, then rage, flooded his face. I tensed too. Slowly I approached him. Part of me was screaming, “Are you insane? RUN! Get away from him, he’ll hurt you!” Then his face gentled and a smile formed in the most miraculous way. “Well, if it isn’t the Queen of the Flowers,” he murmured in a beautiful, deep, Swedish lilt. “The Queen of the Flowers.”

For the rest of that summer I visited Teodore most every week. He cared for the flowers – never have I seen such a well-tended garden. The moment any impudent weed had the nerve to appear, Teodore’s long fingers plucked it out. Somehow he found the strength and balance to carry watering can after watering can to quench his beloved garden’s thirst. My visits became social calls, not garden interventions. We would sit in his dark, cool, living room, he in his circa 1960’s plaid, upholstered, rocking chair. With eyes closed he would recount story after story of his childhood in the countryside of northern Sweden: the log over the creek that he and his friends would run across, the adventures they would have. Eventually he shared with me that each night before he fell asleep he’d pray that he’d awaken in the morning so that he could care for the garden. He told me he knew that’s why he was still alive, and that he was happy to be alive. In all other endeavors he continued to have absolutely no short-term memory. How could he remember me? What, or who, did he see when he looked into my eyes?

Each visit began with me approaching the front door. He’d draw the curtain back peering out, fearfully. The curtain would drop, the door would open an inch, and before he spoke, something would happen. I’d look into his eyes, he’d look into mine and after a moment he’d sing out, “Well, if it isn’t the Queen of the Flowers.”

It’s been over twenty years now since I met this remarkable old man. The experience has woven itself deeply into my bones…into my psyche. It’s about aging, about how our minds forget and also what they can remember; it’s about what’s beneath fear. And when I moved back home far from my current life, to help out my aging father, who coincidentally (?) was named Ted (Theodore) and lived to be ninety-four, my time with Teodore was patiently waiting there to guide me toward finding a way to connect with my father who had begun his own long journey into forgetting.

To listen to a radio interview I gave on The Story, about The Queen of the Flowers, click HERE.

grace AND dementia in the same sentence

Maybe you cannot imagine these two words linked in the same sentence: grace and dementia. The more time I spend with people who are going through a shift in the way they perceive their world, the more grace I discover.

Please. Dip your toes into the remarkable stories of the ones I have come to know. Many of these stories are about my father. He was and still is, the one who is teaching me the most about the landscape of dementia, even though he’s been gone now for years. There are others as well…other grand old ones with great gifts for me – treasures squirreled away in their twinkling or terrified eyes, in their enormous hearts, whole or broken-open…always they come bearing gifts.

The Queen of the Flowers, is the tale of me as an unknowing wanderer who ends up at the doorstep of a man with absolutely NO short-term memory, and how he and I found our way deep into each other’s hearts. This man, Teodore, gave me a crash course in dementia before I’d ever heard the word, before I knew there was such a thing as short-term memory loss. Our time together was a graduate degree in dementia crammed into the span of one hot summer. And to him I make a broad and low bow for the gifts that he bestowed upon me; his unknowing, then eager, student.

I hope that you will dive into this world that continues to bless me. I hope that sparkling tears will well up in your eyes and maybe roll down your cheeks. I hope that you laugh out loud too. All of this and more wait for you inside this world that our culture has turned away from, for far too long.

Welcome. Welcome Home.