85: Still Sancho

85: Still Sancho

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Still Sancho

I know who I am and who I may be, if I choose.

~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

“Did you make that?” a chirpy voice asked. I looked around and saw the Laundromat was deserted (or so I’d assumed). Then I saw her — a white-haired old lady. At four feet ten inches, she was a peanut.

She smiled, asking again, “Sorry, but I was just wondering if you made that,” pointing to the granny square lap robe somersaulting in a nearby dryer. She added, “I used to crochet, years ago.” We chatted, exchanging names. Kitty and I became instant friends.

The conversation went on. For more than a decade. We talked about food, love, religion — our unhappy childhoods. Once, I recall tittering like schoolgirls over a handsome young Spanish actor we slyly nicknamed “Tony Flags.” It was the literal translation of his name. So what if everybody else called him Antonio Banderas?

Kitty is older than my birth mother, yet she and I always had the feeling ours was a bond between contemporaries. I have never been sure why. She had a curiosity about life, the sort more often found in much younger people. Maybe that was it. Truth is, we got on superbly. No generation gap.

My neighbor Barbara, seeing us walking one day, chuckled that we looked like Don Quixote and his faithful squire Sancho Panza, on a quest for a windmill in need of tilting. The nicknames stuck and defined my relationship with Kitty in the profoundest way. Often before we would head out adventuring, Kitty would ask if I had my keys and subway tokens.

Then I’d ask her if she had used the bathroom, or if her shoes would serve for the trek. The collar on my favorite denim shirt had a nasty habit of flipping up. She’d reach up, smooth it back down and say, “Now we’re ready.”

Kitty was an avid bookworm who loved detective stories and historical fiction. She read cookbooks as one might read a novel. A crossword buff, she waggishly boasted, “I prefer the term cruciverbalist!”

As the years went on she started losing language. Slowly, subtly. A phrase here, a noun there. She would refer to something as a “whatchamacallit.” I found this quirk annoying and chided Kitty for being lazy. It never occurred to me I was seeing early signs of an illness that would eventually bring the briskly turning gears of an exceptionally busy mind to a near halt. Some time later, during one of our daily phone chats, I asked what she was doing. “Cleaning,” she quietly answered. “The . . . big white . . . thing in the kitchen. You put food in it?”

A short while later her facility with crossword puzzles abruptly disappeared. Almost as if some phantom eraser had swooped down and begun, bit by bit, rubbing things out of her brain. Kitty’s relatives moved her to a nursing home six months later.

Trying to arm myself against the inevitable, I read whatever I could find about Alzheimer’s. I learned that a person who has Alzheimer’s can still experience the world through the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell. Thinking back on our years together, I would visit Kitty in the nursing home with some item or other in tow. Gazing into her blank face, I would place an object in her lap.

Her doctor, seeing me there one afternoon, stopped by to talk. She made a point to tell me, “Alzheimer’s is by no means straight downhill, you know. Remember to expect surprises.”

Then and there I decided to put my despair on hold as much as possible. I promised myself I would keep up what I had come to call The Bringing: a bracelet of dark wooden beads, scented with sandalwood. A handful of dried lavender bundled in a lace doily. Two braided macramé belts — one pink, the other deep purple. At the farmer’s market, I bought broccoli florets, a favorite of ours when we cooked together in my phone booth-sized kitchen. Smooth black stones from a neighbor’s bonsai garden. My hope, of course, was to awaken her from her stupor, if only for a moment. And indeed, she would sometimes take one of the objects in her hand, sparking briefly. Then the fog would settle in once more.

Since by this time she could no longer walk, I needed a way to get physically near to her in her bulky wheelchair. I moved closer, pressed my forehead against hers. Looking for a way to break through to my old pal, my Sancho Panza, I asked myself, “Perhaps a song will do?” Kitty loved “You Are My Sunshine.” I looked out the window, noticed it was raining. No sunshine here, I thought. Pulling the folding metal chair nearer I leaned in, took a breath, and sang the first lines in her ear.

Her eyes were closed, head bowed onto her chest. In almost a whisper I began, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy, when skies are gray.” Within seconds Kitty lifted her head, joined her voice to mine, word for word, note for note in exactly the same key. We sang it together twice through. Only by then, I was the one having trouble.

She turned to face me. During the song I hadn’t noticed — the shirt I had on was that old worn denim one. The collar had turned the wrong way. With the same loving, gentle precision I remembered from years ago, Sancho’s hand reached up. And put it right.

~Cindy Legorreta

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