I’m not really sure when it all began. Oh, I know when I first met her. I know when we first became friends, not just boss and staffer. I know when I first saw her fall in love with the man who was to become her husband. What I don’t know is when she started down that dark path they call dementia.
Our frequent lunches to talk about anything that came to mind had become less so because of time and distance. She moved a good hour and a half away from me so that getting together was becoming a logistics puzzle. I was working and she -- well, she maintained that she was busy with meetings and boards on which she now served. So, we fell back on that tried and true old communication method of our past – we telephoned one another all the time. Then what were familiar calls became confusing to me. I wasn’t quite sure why she asked me some of the questions she did. She asked for help putting some thoughts together for a speech she needed to write as a tribute to her husband. While we talked about the speech, I realized that her mind quickly wandered and that her recall of events seemed strikingly sketchy. I let it pass and wrote the speech for her. It was just easier that way.
Another time she called and wanted help with a charge that appeared on her credit card bill. She said she didn’t quite remember when she made the purchase or what the product was for which they were charging her. She wanted to cancel the credit card so that she wouldn’t have to pay for the service. When we finally got to the bottom of it, we realized just how confused she was about finances. To think that she was at one point in her life responsible for running a program that was one-sixth of the entire federal budget. And now she didn’t know how to read a credit card bill.
I wondered if I was reading the signs correctly. No, that’s not it at all. I knew exactly what the signs were and what they were telling me. I just didn’t want to admit it. Why? What was I afraid of? I didn’t want to see this happen. I didn’t want to see her lose her memories. I didn’t want to see her lose her ability to rationalize what was going on around her. And, as for me? I didn’t want to lose my friend. Where was she going? Why didn’t she remember all those things we used to do together? After all, we had traveled the world together from Europe to the Middle East. We shared weddings and baby showers and mutual friends’ funerals. She remembers none of that now.
Her husband explained to me exactly what is going on as only a clinician could. He explained to me the diagnosis, prognosis, and, well, the truth of her new life expectancy. It won’t be long. Her dementia will rob her of her memories, her mind and too soon her life.
He told me that I needed to keep talking to her: that she needs me now probably more than ever. I need her too – the thought of not having her in my life, no matter what shape she is in, is heartbreaking. And so I decided that, at the very least, I would make sure to call her at least once a week. I chose Friday as an arbitrary day to do so. When Friday rolls around I stop what I’m doing and dial her number. In the beginning she sometimes didn’t answer. I left message after message on her answering machine and then realized that there was no way she knew how to operate it. So, I pressed ahead and tried other hours of the day on Friday. Eventually she got the hang of it and began answering those Friday calls. And then one day it happened – she picked up the phone and said: “Oh, it’s my Friday friend. Thanks for calling.”
My friend recognized the normalcy of our interactions. My friend indeed was now waiting for my calls. She knows, for now, that we are friends. That we have now shared over thirty years of our lives together and that that will continue for as long as……it can.
The years have taught us a great deal about each other and ourselves. But the years have also taken their toll. For now, I take solace in the fact that at least on Fridays she knows that I’m there for her.