My beloved Aunt had Alzheimer's. At some point she entered assisted living; at a later point we supported my Uncle, her brother, obtaining guardianship. Toward the end, she was reduced to chanting rhythmic senseless syllables....At one of the early stages, when she was in and out of dementia, we took a long walk outdoors on a blustery cold day. She said to me, "you know, there will come a day when your old Aunty won't remember your name." I said, "that's ok, i will come and visit you anyhow." "Really?" she asked. "I promise!" I said. And I meant it, because i had watched her spend years and years visiting the woman who had raised her -- a nanny to motherless children -- who spent her last years in a home, not recognizing her own visitors.
I came to think of that period of transition - when my Aunt was still on this side of the divide, but was aware of the large cognitive gaps occurring -- as "the tunnel" between the light and the dark. I saw her fear of dark - and as she progressed, some of her well-hidden deeper fears and anxieties began to bubble up to the surface. I spent time in there trying to go straight to her core fears and address them -- I felt that the biggest gift I could give her was to relieve her of baggage as she entered the dark tunnel. We dredged up some old issues, and i told her it was all ok, we would take care of everything...she could relax and move on.
The lesson I took away from this: yes, focus on the love. Promise to be there, and fulfill the promise. But also, for me: the hard work of growing up and "getting right with the world" in the spiritual sense, in the interpersonal sense, in the logistical sense of paying bills and taking care of details -- has got to be done before I face my own dark tunnel. Because when i face the dark i want to have left behind as many of my own fears, regrets, monsters, and pockets of shame as i possible can. I want to travel light, with curiosity, gentleness and generous spirit. I want to be able to love and appreciate the people who pass by, whether i recognize them or not, be they nieces or nurses aides....And I came to see all of this as one of the goals of my own spiritual practice.
It is indeed a hard disease, and i send you patience and strength and gratitude for sharing your own lessons.
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