By Leslie Quintanar
Jerry, the Broken Cup, and a Love Letter
In recent weeks our lives have literally been consumed with COVID-19. We can’t escape it and frankly, it is overwhelming at times. Enter Jerry Atkin. I met him in 2015 in one of our communities in Portland, Oregon. I wrote about him in my post The Broken Cup and he’s been an inspiration to me through the last few years.
He takes care of his wife who has advancing dementia and together they share a beloved dog named Coco Chanel. As his wife’s dementia has taken more and more from them, what it has produced is not bitterness, anger, or fear, but a beautiful brokenness that rejoices even in the midst of the ever-narrowing scope of their daily reality.
As life as they know it contracts, their love continues to expand, growing larger by the moment. Right now, we need to see examples of this type of beauty and steadfast commitment. It reminds us that there is beauty in the struggle, strength even in heartache, and joy in the simplest of things. He sent this letter to his family and friends some months ago and gave me permission to share it with anyone who may benefit from his musings. I have held onto it, wondering how and when to share it. In the midst of this pandemic, this seems like the perfect time.
I invite you to enjoy this love letter, and may it encourage you to keep looking for the beauty, even in the midst of the most challenging of situations:
It’s been more than 18 months since I wrote the first love letter. It seems like yesterday and it seems like forever. Our personal world of 18 months ago, that seemed so small, now seems enormous as the circle dementia draws around us grows smaller. The basic principles remain the same, we live in gratitude and experience delight, but the occasions for it are less frequent, the scale diminished.
Lee’s confusion defines our life much more than a year and a half ago. Most of the time she does not know where her bedroom is, sometimes when she is standing in it. Important things vanish from her memory. Hayley visits for four days and two days later Lee does not remember that she was here. This, frankly, seems cruel. Her mobility appears to be increasingly limited unless she is mad at me for suggesting that she can’t walk to the store on her own. Then she is capable of dramatic exits, though they are somewhat negated because she has no idea where she is going. In many moments her words are increasingly difficult to decipher. I tell you this because I wanted to sketch some of the challenges we face . . . but only to set up the punch line: ultimately none of this matters.
Great Days and Emotional Lucidity
A month or two ago I realized that, without her being childish, some of her needs are those of a child: she needs to know where her safety is at all times. That would be me. The best part of every day, for both of us, is lying down together as she goes to sleep. This is the ultimate safety, the place where she feels completely loved and cared for. I may actually emphasize this reality in our conversations.
When Lee was a child the song that made the strongest impact on her was the one with the lyric: I need someone to watch over me. And she did, the world she grew up in, the world of the depression, the war, and the holocaust was hardly safe. If you add in a very damaged, fragile, and unstable mother, she definitely needed someone to watch over her. Tonight as I came out to write this letter, Frank Sinatra was singing that song. I said, over my shoulder: “I will look after you.” And she said: “Yes, you do.” Now how is that not a good day? How is that not a great day?
One of the beautiful things in our life is that Lee’s feeling world is still alive and well. She has what I call emotional lucidity. She may forget everything about a person . . . except that she loves them. Two friends visited from Arkansas and the next day she confessed that she had no idea who they were, but she knew that she loved them. She is also prone to blurting out to people here where we live that she loves them. An example of social disinhibition at its best. For all the challenges we face, this convinces me that Lee’s emotional quality of life is still very rich.
Gratitude and Delight
In the time I have been writing this letter Lee has not been able to fall asleep. I hear a gentle knock on my open door and Lee is there, her silver hair rakishly falling over one shoulder, in her turquoise I Need Coffee nightgown. I admit to her that I am puzzled that she can’t stay awake in the front room and can’t fall asleep in her bedroom and ask her if she wants to lie down on my bed. She admits that she wants to be near me. I thank her for visiting and tuck her in. God, she looks beautiful lying there, her hair faintly reflecting the light from the computer screen. One day at a time . . . and this is a very good one.
So here we are, our love the only anchor on the stormy seas around us. Here in the eye of the storm there is a purity and a beauty to our love, more precious than diamonds. How is this not a great life? A perfect occasion for gratitude and delight?
Jerry, Lee, and Coco Chanel
Three hearts, eight legs, one tail