By Jennifer Phillips
My mother has dementia. For the past three years she has lived in a secure memory care facility nearby. This week, at last, she received her first Covid vaccine. There’s been a lot of talk over the last year about how to assign value to lives like hers, so I want to tell you a story about the necklace she’s wearing in this photo.
Because of Covid restrictions, I haven’t been able to visit her in person for many months, but we FaceTime each other every week. Shortly before her recent birthday, I asked her what she wanted in the way of gifts. The question was purely one of conversational convention, as she hasn’t been able to answer such things substantively in a long while. But this time, without hesitation, she declared “A strand of pearls!”
And she didn’t stop there. She described the exact length, style and quality of the item in precise detail. I had my marching orders! After checking in with the staff to make sure there were no restrictions on gifts of jewelry, I shopped and found a strand that perfectly matched her description. I had no expectation that she would recall asking me for them, but they were such a crystallized reality in her mind during that conversation that I felt she would respond to them regardless.
I arranged a ‘window visit’ for her birthday, standing outside her bedroom wearing a mask and speaking to her through the screen while a caregiver kindly brought my gifts inside, waited while she opened the jewelry box and fastened the string of pearls around her throat. She was utterly delighted. She glowed. She declared them to the perfect length and we talked about how good pearls feel against the skin, how they go with every outfit.
Spark of Memories
Just then, without preamble, she launched into a perfect soprano rendition of “Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies,” Ariel’s song from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and one of many choral numbers she learned in school as a child in England.
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them,—ding-dong, bell.
She sang it twice through, flawlessly. The pearls were the hook that dredged “those pearls that were his eyes” and the rest of it up from the deepest fathoms of her mind, where a lifetime of verse and poetry readings lie quiet but perfectly preserved, waiting for daylight to find them.
Our conversation then shifted to art, and we talked of Vermeer’s “Woman with a Pearl Necklace.” She posed just so, lamenting that she did not have her yellow and ermine robes on today.
She posed for this photo, snapped through the window glass, as the resident cat snuggled at the foot of her bed waiting for her, the favorite, to be free to stroke him again. She lives only in the moment now, the biographical continuity of her rich life long gone.
But…so much remains. Libraries of art, music, literature, dance, and world culture dwell behind locked doors, but the keys come in all shapes and sizes, and brilliant light shines through the keyholes to pierce the darkness. I know that it gives her great comfort and confidence to demonstrate her vast knowledge, and it brings joy to most everyone present when she holds forth.
Some people—more than I ever suspected, I am dismayed to discover—don’t think her life is worth living. They judge that her failing, unreliable mind is not worth wasting a precious medical miracle on.
Not because of my attachment to her, or my unwillingness to let her go–that decision is made, as Alzheimer’s is a long goodbye—but because so much of her is still there. She lives in many joyful instants. She adds humor, intelligence, and vivacity to the lives of all who encounter her. She is her whole self.
She is a woman with a strand of pearls. Pearls that contain multitudes, memories, and comfort. Their lustre might be hidden, but they reveal their soft brilliant in lovely ways, every day.
Once, she was a great story teller who relished relating all the spectacular moments in her life with dramatic flair. It’s my job to tell her stories now, and this is one of them.