Leaving Sheila

IMG_1888_2Sheila had dementia. Bob was her husband, and I was their social-worker, so when the phone rang and Bob said, “I was tucking Sheila into bed last night and she asked me who I was…” – I just listened.

He said to me, “I told her I was Bob, her husband, and she seemed to remember, or at least be okay with that. I told her I loved her too and turned off the big light.  Then as I was just about the close the door, I heard her say out loud, That sure is a funny name for a woman.” He chuckled a little — he had to — and I waited to for his next line.

“I’m just not sure how long I can do this.”

Bob was a fantastic husband, a former academic loved by his neighbors for his bakery skills, and loved by his wife when she still could recognize him.

He told me how Sheila, in her dementia, often saw people in the living room a little while after dinner. She never wanted to go to bed as long as they were there, counting on her to be a hostess, gracious as she would’ve been in a past life. And now the past life was the present but with only her in it. Bob tried to enter this life with her to make her more comfortable.  He stopped trying to tell her that the people in the living room didn’t exist.  Instead, he played along and pretended to usher the imaginary guests out, telling each one of them good-night and shaking their hands, hoping he had the count right (how many people did Sheila think she was hosting tonight?). If she still seemed agitated, he would go so far as to walk out into the now-neglected yard, hold open the garden gate and wave as they drove away. He told me he was quite proud of these evening performances. Then, one evening, Sheila waited at the door as he climbed the six steps back up to the house.  She looked at Bob like he was crazy and said to him: “What the heck were you doing out in the yard at this hour? And who were you talking to?” This from a woman who had studied for the bar exam and passed it without going to law school. She went on to practice law for over four decades.

Now Sheila refused to shower – common with dementia – and would only eat ice cream. She was losing weight and a family friend would walk circles through the rooms of the house with her, easing Sheila’s restlessness — her need to go somewhere, to do something without knowing what. Bob and his little network of loving support carried on but when Sheila finally didn’t recognize Bob anymore, we had crossed that line in the sand. It’s called the line when it is sometimes more loving to let someone else care for your true love because otherwise you’ll die in caregiving.

So then there was that phone call. Bob was all business (he had to be) when he called.

“I’m moving Sheila on Friday, into the secure memory care place. Can you move her stuff while I drive her over and get her settled?”  We would time to move so that we came in just as he left the house. The suitcase would be on the bed; the bed and the little yellow chair needed to go too.

IMG_1886On the morning of the move it was sunny and spring-warmish. One of our volunteers drove a van normally used to haul Meals-on-Wheels groceries and followed me into their neighborhood. We pulled onto Bob and Sheila’s street just as they were leaving: Bob in the driver’s seat, Sheila looking out the window on the passenger side. Bob waved and I could see Sheila look over, probably to ask, “Who the heck are you waving at?”

We loaded the little twin bed with the wood frame that had belonged to Bob and Sheila’s children.  We moved the little chair with yellow flowered upholstery and wooden legs that matched the bed frame and we moved the soft suitcase of clothes. Sheila mostly wore sweats and Velcro shoes now — changing clothes disturbed her, maybe left her feeling too exposed.  She usually wore a grey hoodie with the hood up over her shock of shoulder-length straight white hair.  Her tiny wardrobe was squishy and light in the suitcase, in my arms.

When I arrived at the memory care community, Bob was walking Sheila down the hallway.  He was somber and she was in tears. I came alongside Sheila and she held my arm. Bob and I looked at each other over her head.

“Sheila, hey, I’m going to go back to the car and get you some medicine.  I’m going to get you something to make you a little more comfortable.”

Sheila said she wanted to go with him.

“No, just stay here.  I’ll just be a minute.”  He untwined himself from Sheila, nodded at me and bit his lower lip as he walked deliberately down the hall.

I continued to walk with Sheila, down the hall, out the door and through the garden. She asked me if she could call her father — he would be able to get her out of here, she said.  Then she saw people on the other side of the fence where the lawn dropped onto a soccer field on the edge of the river. She called to them to help her get out and a breeze moved through the leaves of the cottonwood trees.  I could see how she thought someone was answering her.  She shook her head and clung to my arm. They didn’t give her the answer she needed.  Sheila and I finally wandered slowly back inside.  She was still holding onto my arm.

A nurse walked toward us in the hallway and told Sheila that she could take a break and sit in the navy blue armchair on the edge of a little alcove.  Sheila turned around and backed up until her thin calves touched the chair.  She held onto the armrests and guided her thin body down onto the cushion.  She was frail, I thought, paper-y like ashes after the fire.  A breath could whisk her away.  She looked out the window and looked at the nurse.

“Where’d Bob go?” I whispered, not wanting to upset Sheila.  She had her hood back on and was staring out the window.

“Oh, he left a half-hour ago.”  The nurse turned her back to me and wrapped a blood pressure cuff around Sheila’s arm. “It was time for him to go.”  She pulled her stethoscope up into her ears.  A round of vitals, the first of many for Sheila.  Vital to what?

I walked down the hall, stunned, knowing I was the last person from Sheila’s old world to leave her in this new one. I couldn’t remember how to punch in the code to exit the unit and an aide came to help me.

Bob called a few days later. He had spoken with his family. He said he felt calmer.  He told his family that I was a social worker who dressed in cowboy boots and that I would probably be just fine in Colorado but he would miss me.  I let there be silence for a few seconds — we were both thinking.

“That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he finally told me. “I just love her so much.”

“I know,” was all I could say.  I had no words and stared out the window of my office toward the river.  They were going to be plowing the field soon to plant spring crops, maybe hay, maybe corn, maybe clover.  The air would smell like earth.

I drifted back to Bob.  The line was quiet.  We both knew the other was crying.  I kept thinking of leaving Sheila, of leaving the parts that were still left.  Bob mentioned that the house was so quiet now.  He turned on the radio for company.  We promised to keep in touch but it was a light promise.  He wished me luck in Colorado.  I thanked him.  I wished him luck but didn’t say what for.  I could feel the conversation wrapping up, halting, staring off into space, and then finally it was tucked in, with nothing more to say.

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