My friend’s mother, June Cotter, had Lewy Body dementia. It’s a disease caused by protein that builds up in nerve cells that leads to the deterioration of brain function. I took care of June for almost five months; I made her dinner, went for walks with her, told her jokes, danced with her and we sat around for hours while she told me stories about the old days.
When June died a few months ago, I was asked to write and read something for her memorial.
June looked up into the sky and studied it for a while. It was thick with marbled clouds that looked like granite. It was going to rain, which was uncharacteristic for a Sacramento summer. She started to speak and then paused.
“This weather is …”. She stopped mid-sentence. June sometimes got this look on her face—sort of a distant stare—that conveyed a thoughtful sadness. Part of it was the dementia, but the other part, I think, was her just soaking up the world. “Oh, I shouldn’t say it,” she said, looking at the noodles I made, pushing them around with her fork. She wasn’t impressed with my culinary skills.
“No, say it,” I prodded. “Now you have to say it.” It wasn’t often that I’d seen June Cotter embarrassed. After all, she was the one who got mad when I wouldn’t let her wear her Dr. Seuss hat out to dinner. And there was that one morning, when my door opened—the sharp knife of early morning stabbed at my eyes through the blinds—and June stood there, looking disheveled. Her bright red robe was halfway open, revealing a silk slip and part of her breast. It was pretty much the opposite of how I would have liked to begin my morning.
“I must have had a bad dream,” she said. Her eyes were raw, like she’d been rubbing them for hours.
“I’m sorry, June,” I said, hoping she’d just go back to bed. It was barely 6 a.m. and I could hardly see her through my puffy eyes. “Everything’s fine now. It was just a dream.” That wasn’t good enough. June stood in the doorway, pouting.
“Well, I thought I could just crawl into bed with you,” she said. I wasn’t sure if she meant that literally. It was too early to understand such a complex idea. She started walking into my room. It was more of a shuffle, actually. The leather bottoms of her slippers against the wood floor sounded like a locomotive—a slow, not very powerful locomotive, but one with a definite destination. Which was my bed.
As she got closer, I panicked, throwing my blankets off and springing up as fast my body would let me. “I’m up!” I said, jumping out of my bed and standing next to it with my arms up in the air, as if I’d just performed my grand finale magic trick. “I’m up. Good morning. I was just getting up!”
“Oh, okay,” she said, very puzzled. And she turned around, went back to her room and fell asleep. June was not embarrassed by that; she was just very confused.
But that day as we sat in the backyard just before the summer rain, she looked at the sky and she stopped mid-sentence. And I could tell she was a little bit embarrassed.
I should have just left her there with her unfinished sentence. But, of course, I didn’t. “What were you going to say, June?” Maybe I was just trying to get back at her for the time she suggested to the hospital nurse that I was her boyfriend.
“Well, I was going to say this weather … is a bitch,” she said, earnestly. “But I shouldn’t say that, should I?”
June smiled. I smiled back. We sat under the awning of the porch, looking out into the clouded sky as the unseasonal rain started to come down. And that was the day we both laughed so hard that we could hardly breathe.