Mark Holtzen is a Seattle author whose mother-in-law, Sara, lives with Alzheimer’s disease. When the day came that Sara was moving into an assisted living facility, Mark’s wife, Carolyn, and her siblings were coordinating the move. While Carolyn and her siblings were packing up Sara’s belongings, Mark and Sara spent the day together in Seattle. Mark noticed how Sara was handling the weight of the life change she was about to undergo.
“The family asked if I would take care of Sara for the day, and I thought ‘of course,” Mark says. “It was all hands on deck. The siblings were trying to get the house packed up. I was with our kids and their cousins. It was a crazy time. I had no plan. I figured we’d just have fun and go around the city; but Sara kept referring to things over and over again about her life and her fears. Despite her memory challenges, she fully comprehended that a huge change was coming so I began taking notes right away.” He later turned his notes into an essay below.
“It was a big deal. We had a really nice time. We went to a museum, we went to a restaurant. What struck me was the way she was communicating her unease. As the day progressed, I realized how important my role was that day. In the end I was honored to be there for her in my small way.”
Two daughters. Their mother. An empty living room. Upstairs bedrooms cavernous with half-filled, untaped boxes. Discarded papers and scribbled post-its lie cockeyed on the floor and walls. Dirt outlines absent rugs on the hardwood. Dust bunnies swirl in the corners.
The eldest daughter holds her mother’s glasses.
The youngest daughter holds a small bundle of folded, sage green sheets.
“You don’t have to wear those shoes, Mom,” says the eldest.
“What’s wrong with them? Can’t I wear them?”
“Of course you can,” the eldest says with a reassuring smile. She glances at youngest then tosses a pair of white tennis shoes into a box.
“Where am I going?” their mother asks.
“To the apartment, Mom,” the youngest says. “The new one. Remember?”
“Will I be coming back?”
“Well, not today, no,” eldest says, handing her the glasses.
“But we can come back at some point if you want,” offers the youngest.
“Yes, I can come back and get anything that we forget.” The mother adjusts the glasses to her face.
“Mark is going to take you out for the day.”
They all look to me, the son-in-law.
“What are we going to do?” she asks me.
“What aren’t we going to do?” I joke.
They laugh. She laughs too. She’s uncertain though. Her eyes express doubt. We walk out of the house to the car. Her journey is made up of small goals—first step, next step, the asphalt at the base of the curb, the car door handle. Each one commands her full attention.
I drive her to her neighborhood café, and we order coffee. Espresso for me. Latte for her.
We sit at a wobbly wooden table, offer one another polite smiles. She stares out the window. I do the same, wondering if my job as distractor for the day will only last the five hours the sisters have asked me for.
She peers around the room. The faces in the café stare into glowing screens.
“Just look at them,” she says. “All these humans. Never get to know them all. Not a fraction.”
“True,” I say, noting the absence of a daughter to take lead in the conversation. “A lot of people in the world.”
The silence lingers. I bring up the memoir of hers that I’ve been helping edit. She looks troubled.
“Where are those files?” she says of her writing. “I wonder where they are?”
I tell her that I have them. She nods as if she remembers.
“A lot of people in the world,” she says, looking back out the window.
“What happened to my files?” she asks again. “About my mother?”
I explain. We drink our coffees.
I decide I’m thirsty and fetch two cups of water from the bar.
“Well, cheers,” she says, lifting her cup. “To new chapters.”
“To new chapters.”
Our cups meet with a plastic thunk.
“We do the best we can, don’t we?” she says.
I agree that we do.
The coffee barista appears and leans in to her. “Ma’am. We made a mistake and made you a cappuccino. I’m happy to remake you your latte.”
“Oh. No, it’s fine.”
“You sure?” the young woman inquires, tilting her head, her voice lilting.
“Yes. It’s a coffee,” she says. The look on her face assures the girl there is no doubt.
The barista rests a light hand on Sara’s shoulder, gives a nod and leaves.
She sips her coffee. Eyes back to the window.
“This coffee is strong. What is it?” The plastic cup catches her eye. “Were these glasses here before?”
I ask what the title of her memoir should be. Her distant past is also a proven topic. Names she can recognize.
“Well,” she says, taking a sip of her water. “The essays are about my mom and the struggles that she overcame.” She brushes a crumb off the table. Her face crumples with concern. “I haven’t seen those files for a while. I wouldn’t have taken them anywhere. They’re important.”
I tell her I have them. Tell her it’s okay. Drink the last of my espresso.
I mention the school library she founded at the school where I teach. Where she was admired for her generosity, intelligence, and tenacity. Where younger teachers sought her counsel. Where she defended her opinions on children’s literature, and allowed students to curl up in library corners during recess. You didn’t want to mess with her, former colleagues said. We discuss a few longtime teachers and whether and when they might retire. More proven topics.
When our cups are empty we clear off the table and walk outside. She takes my hand as we cross the street, a habit my wife has adopted with her. Holding her hand feels too intimate. I quash my self-consciousness when I see the uncertainty on her face.
“Look at that sky. We do have blue skies in Seattle.” I agree. July in Seattle is beautiful.
“We’re pretty interesting animals. There’s no other animal close to us.”
We head to the MoPop museum. Each time we enter a new room in the exhibit she asks why we’re here. I start to skip displays. We eat salads in silence at the museum café then return to the car.
“Look at that sky,” she says. “We do have blue skies in Seattle.”
That we do.
I drive, unsure of where to go next. We have two hours left.
“I think I’m too old to make new friends,” she says.
When I suggest she be grumpy with every new person she meets to weed out the riffraff, she laughs, but goes quiet right after.
I decide we should go to my house. She tends to nod off on our couch. On the way there she says, “New is an interesting word. So many meanings. There’s new to me. Brand new. Old but new. Newly discovered. He knew something.”
I enjoy this part of her. Always have. The wordsmith, the thinker.
My kids are at summer camp so the house is quiet. She nods off on the couch. I go to the back and read. When I walk back into the room twenty minutes later, her eyelids flutter open. She sits up, looks outside.
“We do have blue skies in Seattle,” she says.
We linger, then head out. I drive the long way.
When we reach her new facility I park in the turnaround driveway. It has a wide entrance with easy first floor access. We sit in the car.
Inside, I imagine the sisters have positioned her favorite living room chair just so. So she can see out the window toward Lake Washington, just like home. Favorite photos of grandchildren placed on her dresser. The Jacob Lawrence painting on its own wall.
In the passenger seat she bites her lip. The two daughters appear inside the front glass doors. A welcoming party of nervous smiles. As her daughters walk toward the car, she turns toward me.
“I’m scared,” she says. “Dad shouldn’t have left me.”
My throat tightens. I take her hand.
“I’m too old for new friends.”
Join Mark and Carolyn this weekend at the Pacific Northwest Walk to End Alzheimer’s at Seattle Center. Register today.