It was the art of course. It was so unexpected. Mom completely rejected the idea that that she could or would ever paint. “Childish,” she would say. But the big hole left in her life after my father’s death needed to be filled and she began going to the Elderwise painting class in Supported Living at Horizon House.
We didn’t expect much. After all she hadn’t painted since grade school. But surprise – she was good and, to me, remarkable. Above is Mom’s first painting.
Each week I looked forward to seeing what she had painted at the previous class and each week discovered that the woman I had written off as fading away was still here, full of wit and invention.
As I spent more time with her, it was me who began to change. I began to relax in the peace of the moment – no worries, no regrets, no deadlines, no hurry – just the moment. I began to meet her neighbors and realized that she had a new family in Supported Living and I could either join them or try to reclaim the past. Over time, I relaxed and learned.
It’s common to think that a person with dementia has nothing to teach us. But they do. Mom taught me patience, the value of touch, of a compliment and a smile; to show down and listen and adapt my pace to others.
Over the years her artwork began to change and to my eye, it was less interesting – less color, more repetitive, less inventive. So I began to experiment. The next week I arrived early; we played Scrabble and went to the top of the building so she could play the piano a (her own special medley of Silent Night morphing into Polly Waddle Doodle) and wonder at the view. The difference was immediate. Her painting that week was of an odd little creature painted in warm earth tones.
In the past, the nurses had escorted Mom and her neighbor Phyllis to the class. Now every week I would arrive with enough time to play with Mom. Scrabble, singing (I‘d start and she would finish.) We would march (she like to sing Onward Christian Soldiers) play with pop-up books and play the xylophone She would ask me the same question over and over and it became a game for me to think of new answers. Phyllis would join us and when we sang I heard her voice for the first time. She never spoke; she cooed. But she sang with a clear and lovely voice. It was such a treat.
I had to be cagey though. If I escorted Mom to the class too early, she would balk. “I don’t do this,” she would say as she got up to leave. But if we arrived just as the class began, she would sit down happy to join. Sometimes she would finish her painting quickly, leave and then return. “May I join you?”
A few years ago I began taking photos of the models they were painting. This was prompted the day the model was a red poinsettia in a red vase. What she painted was a fanciful figure in black, blue and yellow and 3 red buttons. From then on I have always taken photos. The transformations are fascinating.
But I digress. It was being there that, over time, opened my eyes and my heart to the knowledge that she was still here – full of invention and joy and love.
How lucky am to have made this journey with her.