Inside, Outside, Upside Down

The bubbles that make up my grandmother’s life.

“Well, it’s time for us to leave,” my mom says.

“It is?” Mémère asks. “Where are we going?”

“Annie and I are going home. You’re staying here. This is where you live, remember?”

“It is?” she asks in astonishment.

“Yes — this is the dining hall, and your apartment is down the hall.”

“Oh, yes … that’s right.”

The attendant is quick to respond to eye contact and a glance toward the door. As we give final hugs and kisses, he moves toward the door, ready to punch the code which will allow us to leave the bubble where my grandmother lives. Unlike David Vetter, the well-known “Boy in a Bubble,” her confinement is not within plastic. Instead, it is a physical and mental containment, enclosing a woman who for so long gleefully jumped into and flitted between the bubbles of life.

Born in 1921 near Springfield, MA, she was christened Doris — a cherished baby enveloped by the love of a large and close-knit French Canadian family.

The bubbles of life are formed not by the electrical attraction of water molecules, but by circumstance and commonality. They are the groups we join as we move through life, finding ourselves and making connections.

Brought up within the protective spheres of family, church, and a neighborhood where everyone knew each other, making connections was second nature for Doris. She loved meeting new people and has always been able to find connections with perfect strangers. The woman is a poster child for the concept of Six Degrees of Separation — she would’ve seriously skewed Stanley Milgrim’s data. Typical Doris encounters went something like this:

(Upon striking up a conversation with the owner of a small antique store in rural Maryland): “Oh, you’re from Massachusetts originally? Me, too! Where? Chicopee Falls?! I grew up in Aldenville. Yes, right down the street from the Lucky Strike! Do you know Raymond Baililes? How about Mrs. Lavelle?”

Without fail, she would find someone who they both knew, a place they’d both visited, an experience they both understood.

(Overhearing and joining a conversation at Dover Air Force Base’s USO, where she was a volunteer): “Where are you coming in from? France? Parlez-vous français? Oui? Comment ça va? Très bien, merci.

And she would glow with joy and chatter on in the language of her childhood household.

Finding commonalities changed strangers into people who belonged to one of her bubbles — Bargain Hunters, Antique Dealers, French Canadians, Collectors, Catholics, Patriots — the list was extensive.

In one of the many notebooks where she kept a haphazard record of her life, she jotted down the sentiment that there was so much she wanted to do in life that she didn’t know how she could possibly do it all, see it all, learn it all. For her, making these connections was a way to live vicariously by peering into bubbles where she didn’t fit. No, she wasn’t a world traveler, but globetrotting friends and acquaintances brought back newspapers for her from foreign countries. No, she didn’t have money, but she knew quality when she saw it — picking up miscellaneous pieces of sterling flatware for a quarter at Goodwill, and haggling for a good price on antique fine linens at Spence’s Bazaar.

And she loved it — meeting people, joining groups, making connections.

Then things changed. Doris’s universe started to shrink. At first, it was circumstantial. When her husband, Jack, had several strokes and ended up in a nursing home, she stepped willingly into the bubble that situation created. It could’ve been a small, confining existence, but instead Doris made it her new community. She put her energy into being a devoted wife. Every day, she visited. She knew which residents spoke a foreign language or were from a different part of the country, greeted everyone she passed in the halls by name, and advocated — not just on Jack’s behalf, but for all the residents whom she felt needed a champion.

But while she was making new connections, there were sacrifices made elsewhere. Pop! She stopped volunteering at the USO. Pop! Bargain hunting at Goodwill happened less frequently. Pop! She didn’t make it to Mass every week. Pop! No more lunch and activities at Modern Maturity.

When Jack died, she didn’t rejoin her old groups or go about creating new ones. She stayed close to home, mourning and recovering from years of caretaking. Then, several months after his death, she began reaching out — in new and unsettling ways. She started calling friends and relatives in the middle of the night, claiming people were in her basement. Conversations with her became more and more circular. One month she racked up 14 calls to 911, none of which were for actual emergencies. Before long, she was displaying all 10 warning signs. Pop! Alzheimer’s Disease: a bubble-popping, world-shrinking phenomenon.

“You are gorgeous! Just gorgeous! I could eat you up!” Mémère tells the random young man who has just passed us in the hallway.

“Uh … thanks,” he responds, walking away quickly.

She leans over and whispers to me, “When you’re my age, you can say things like that because people will just say, ‘Oh, she’s old. She’s senile.’” She grins mischievously and I laugh, even though we’re at the DMV following her doctor-ordered license revocation due to concerns about her mental competency.

Reality inside “the lock down unit” (more commonly known to the politically correct crowd as the “Alzheimer’s/Dementia wing”) is in a constant state of flux. Bubbles form and pop with a rapidity seldom seen elsewhere. Many of the perceived connections exist only in the minds of the residents. And that’s okay. As long as there are still bubbles (even those skewed from fact), it’s a good thing. The prognosis for Alzheimer’s is grim; eventually most patients end up isolated inside a mental bubble nobody else can enter. But, in the earlier stages, people continue to make and maintain connections — some real, some internal. Being a part of something larger than oneself is so vital to being human that even interactions which only exist within can nourish the heart and soul.

“See that hill?” Mémère asks, pointing out the window. “Jack and I walked up there together yesterday.”

Jack, my Pépère, has been dead for more than two years.

“Did you?” I reply. “What did you do?”

She thinks a minute. “Not too much. We sat and talked. And he held my hand … and kissed my cheek. And then we both rolled right down the hill like we were little kids.”

“That sounds like fun,” I tell her.

“Yup. Yup, it was. We had a good time.”

I can’t enter this bubble of reality. But inside of it, she is happy and loved. On the outside, I am grateful that joy remains a part of her life.

Article © 2009 by Annie Woodall