Million Dollar Smile

Selected from Musings of a Purposeful Mind by Gerald Lloyd Wood, © 2018. All rights reserved.

“The dilemma for all of us is to bring clarity to an ambiguous situation. Failing that, and we will in most cases, the critical question is how to live with ambiguous loss. For each of us, the answer will be different. But the answers are less critical than the questions.”
– Pauline Boss, PhD, Ambiguous Loss, Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief, 1999, p. 140

I visited my wife yesterday where she lives in an Alzheimer’s/Dementia care facility. There is little normalcy about my visits anymore since she hasn’t been able to relate to me as her husband or communicate with me for a long time. We passed our 54th wedding anniversary earlier this year. It wasn’t the usual celebration we’ve typically enjoyed although I tried to maintain a semblance of tradition with a card, balloons, flowers and sweet talk. Of course, it was futile since she simply doesn’t understand normal things anymore but I wouldn’t think of missing our anniversary. My visits find her distracted, agitated or sleeping most of the time. Seeing her walking arm-in-arm in the hallway with male residents is not shocking to me under the circumstances. Those things don’t change my need to see her regularly, to feel her warmth, to cut her hair, to insure her safety and good care. When friends ask about her, I explain that she doesn’t know me…but I know her. And I love to sit by her bedside to brush her hair back, scratch her head and rub her shoulders like I’ve always done to get little signs of approval, a coo, a smile, although she may be sleeping at the time.

This remarkable woman is imprisoned in her own body with no way out and no hope. That is one of my greatest difficulties as her spouse because there is nothing more I can do for her or solve this dreadful dementia. My loss as her companion is real which causes spontaneous grief that comes when it comes. Few words of hers may be found in Webster’s dictionary as she now converses with what our support groups call a “word salad.” It makes no sense whatsoever but I’ve learned to listen and fake understanding with exaggerated facial expressions. It’s a reminder that communication is more than words alone. About a month ago, I bent over to kiss her goodbye and say that I loved her as she slept. Making my day, she said, “Thank you” as clear as a bell, a true gift.

When I arrived yesterday she was sitting at a lunch table with another resident who says only one word repeatedly, “Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby.” That is the only word that I’ve heard that lady say for almost two years; yet, the two of them were having quite an engaging conversation as I approached from behind and patted my wife on the shoulder. She turned with a startled look in her eyes. After an instant of puzzlement, her demeanor changed as she beamed a beautiful smile like the old Linda I’ve always known…as if she recognized me and was so glad to see me. Then she was gone again. My eyes moistened multiple times that day when I remembered how those same million dollar smiles and her winning ways had won my heart when we were young and fell in love.

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