The Principal Edinburgh Hotel on George Street had been a Scottish landmark since its opening two centuries earlier – a favourite lodging of luminaries like Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. It had never been constructed as one structure, but was an amalgamation of five different buildings that eventually became the one prominent Edinburgh hotel.
Alberta couldn’t recall it from her youth, but the fact that some of the world’s great authors and poets stayed there when in Scotland appealed to her publishing experience. Robin had been able to secure them a suite. It had recently undergone a multi-million pound refurbishment, reclaiming much of its earlier glory and reputation.
Things only got better as they entered the door beneath eight massive pillars and walked into a lobby that exuded style, taste, and something else very special to Alberta. There was the Printing Press Bar & Kitchen, bookshelves everywhere, stuffed with literary classics – all an attempt to recapture Edinburgh’s rich literary heritage. She gasped upon seeing actual pages from Scott’s books and his drawings of Robert Burns beneath a glass case.
“This is perfect … just perfect,” she exuded, hugging her daughter by way of appreciation. “Thanks to you both for taking care of the details.”
They checked in at the ornate desk in the lobby and were pleased to discover, despite being early, that the suite was prepared and ready. When a porter was called to assist with the two suitcases, Alberta demurred, saying they could handle their own luggage. The man behind the desk simply nodded and pointed them towards the bank of elevators.
The room was lavish, but conservative – luxuriously appointed, with a clear view over George Street in the front through stately, tall windows.
When Jenny suggested a rest following the train journey, she was surprised when her mother agreed. But first, Alberta put her belongings in their proper place, including toiletries in the bathroom. Then she kissed her daughter once on her cheek and climbed into the double bed with the plush comforter and pillows.
As she watched her mother drift off, Jennifer texted Robin to say they had arrived safely and that their mother was sleeping. Then she sat in one of the two upholstered chairs in front of the large window and gazed out onto one of Edinburgh’s most famous streets. But she wasn’t really noticing what was transpiring. Rather, Jennifer revisited the conversation with her mother on the train only a couple of hours before. “It is my journey … I don’t wish to change it,” were Alberta’s exact words. How was Jenny supposed to react to that? All she had been told, as a means of orienting herself to being a caregiver to someone with Alzheimer’s, was about the little disciplines that those tending the patients should continually practice. It was supposed to help them keep a grip on reality. Yet her mother was slowly opening her eyes to what was another reality. Alberta Alexander wasn’t building some great work of fiction but was, in fact, revisiting places, times, and people that had existed, only in another time.
And then she entertained a revolutionary thought: was her mother building her own guard against the inroads of dementia, a world where the awfulness of Alzheimer’s had no place and where it wasn’t welcome? From the present world, where everything was in decline and sooner or later forgotten, was Alberta journeying to her own place of life and stability, where things wouldn’t change and previously treasured people were brought to life once more? The irony of it was astounding – her mother was using her memory of the past to fend off the indignity of losing it in the present.
Jenny smiled at this thought because it was exactly the type of thing her mother would do. She would find her own way to make peace with her condition, but it didn’t necessarily have to dovetail with standard medical practices or psychological counsel – perhaps even the urgings of her daughter. Wasn’t this what she had always done, especially following the devastating and unexpected death of her husband?
It was becoming increasingly true that the effects of Alzheimer’s and its accompanying dementia were random, common, and brutally real. But this was not news – they had known it was coming. Yet it was perhaps that knowledge that had persuaded her mother to prepare a place in her mind and soul that could prove immune to the ravages of her disease, at least as much as possible. It was always assumed that Alzheimer’s patients just drifted into dementia, without realizing it. But what if, knowing what was coming, Alberta Alexander made plans to limit the damage to herself and her family as much as she could?
Her mother was slowly leaving her children. There was no drama, no yelling in anger, no bolting out the door, but she was departing. Yet she wasn’t abandoning them, merely journeying to a place where she could protect what she had left: the memories of another time when life was simpler (despite the war) but – and this was vital – still available to her thoughts.
Yes, Alzheimer’s was a disease, an awful one. But it was also a revelation, showing something honest, childlike, and beautiful in Alberta – something Jennifer might never have seen had the disease not struck her mother. And might she have missed it if she, as caregiver, had only focused on the here and now and the countless efforts to keep her mother rooted in current life?
Could it be that there was a misunderstood bliss built into Alzheimer’s, a kind of abandonment that relegated impending death to the periphery, substituting memories when Alberta was most alive? What if her mother was centering herself on a past moment in her life, where nothing need change or deteriorate, no one need depart, and where history couldn’t be altered?
She looked over at her mother’s form, lying on top of the comforter and soundly sleeping. If she was dreaming, would she be in that same place she visited when awake? It was a comforting thought. Ironically, Alberta would be in a safe space even as her mind was most vulnerable to destruction.
Jenny looked at her watch and noted that an hour had passed already. She moved to wake Alberta, but then hesitated. Why, she wondered? Perhaps it was the ability to be in this quiet mode, even if only for a few moments, and to think about her mother’s disease from angles other than what standard authorities and sources demanded. She realized that this thinking outside of the box was only possible because her mother was no ordinary woman. She could take life on its terms and slowly bend it to her insights and will. Alberta Alexander was sojourning down a path unknown, unique only to her, but one which offered her a certain grace in her confusion and lostness.
Conventional wisdom maintained that the young learn while the older understand. But what happens when both overlap one another, when an older woman can travel backwards and forwards in the timeframe of her life? Her older self could still learn. In travelling back in time, in becoming young again, was it possible for her to understand more than when she was literally a child? Could the lessons of life, learned over the process of eight decades, actually assist her as she moved back in her mind to her earlier days?
These thoughts formed a new adventure in Jenny’s own mind – a journey she was presently enthralled with. She left her mother to her slumber as she moved even further down that path of deeper understanding.