The test findings confirmed their fears – Alberta Alexander’s disease was worsening faster than expected. Her worry that it would lead to a long and protracted decline that would become a heavy burden for her caregivers seemed to be somewhat assuaged.
Elizabeth Fairborough, now understanding that Robin and Jennifer were following their mother along a different route for care, thought they should be the ones to inform their mother of the rapid advancement of the disease. Fairborough prescribed some medication to help with the worst of it, but other than that, she could only watch as her old friend and confidante of many years moved quickly into the realm of the unknown. Her children and her doctor could only be companions on the journey now, no longer guides.
Alberta sat in the front seat of the car as her children drove her back from Finsbury. All three understood that a difficult conversation was about to ensue, but no one felt the need to rush into the inevitable.
“The news isn’t good, I presume?” Alberta asked, finally breaking the subtle tension.
Inexorably, the conversation deepened until the stakes were clear. Jenny took her through what was likely to occur in this new phase – mid-staged dementia. “You’ll begin to require help with some of your daily activities, Mom,” noted Robin.
“That’s happening now,” his mother responded, curtly.
“I know. But that was with cooking or things that might have caused you physical harm because of memory loss or just forgetting. Elizabeth thinks you’ll require help with dressing soon, along with some of the small tasks that you’ve done naturally for so many years.”
“God.” It was all that Alberta could say in her frustration.
“I know, Mom – it’s hard, but we’ll just have to go through it as a family. Elizabeth says that memory deficits in this stage are severe, with individuals often forgetting prominent bits of information that affect their daily lives – such as their home address or phone number. They may not be able to identify where they are or what time of day it is. Place and time get confusing.”
Things were quiet for a time as scenes of drizzly countryside drifted by the window. Autumn would soon arrive, and with it, the passing of another summer season – likely Alberta’s last. She thought of this as they neared Clerkenwell and felt a consuming desire to just be in her garden.
Following a brief lie-down, Alberta was among her beloved flowers, trees and, especially, her stones. She turned down Jenny’s offer of lunch, choosing, instead, to have some scones with her tea in a couple of hours. The afternoon warmth felt good on her skin, though the clouds, in the distance, threatened rain. Her rubber boots were already covered with water beads from the wet grass and flowers, and her garden gloves were saturated. She didn’t mind. The smell of decomposing leaves and the wet earth invigorated her senses and she set to work preparing the garden for the winter that was only a few weeks away.
Alberta thought it humorous that she was, herself, preparing for the cold months of dementia ahead. She had guided her garden over many years, and now it was her turn to prepare herself. She smiled, thinking of how her cherished garden was now tending to her.
She had remained quiet in the car on the way home, pretending to listen to the advice and insights of her children. But she already knew what was transpiring inside her brain and body. Her capacity for research assisted in preparing for what was to come. She had read of how abnormal deposits of proteins caused neurons to stop functioning and die. Once that started happening in significant fashion, problems with body functions would increase. She understood that the great danger from that point would be failing to take care of herself physically. Poor nutrition, dehydration, falls, and infections would be her lot if she didn’t take great care. Of course, Jenny and Robin would be there, but Alberta was determined to be self-disciplined until it was no longer possible. Then the time until her death would likely be brief – just as she would have wished it.
When she heard the door behind her, instinct told her that it would be either Jennifer or Robin. She had seen them both secretly watching her from behind the blinds. She was surprised when both of them came to either side of her.
“Tea, ma’am,” Jennifer said with an expanded accent.
“And your scones, complete with jam and Devonshire cream, m’lady,” chimed in Robin.
Alberta smiled at the pretense, and took a chair at the table for her afternoon tea. The clouds quietly separated from one another, leaving lengthy bouts of sunshine to bathe the garden with as direct a sunlight as they would get until next year. Alberta cast off her sweater and began pouring the tea.
“How’s the garden?” asked Robin, accepting his cup.
“Oh, intimidated by what’s to come, I think. The roses dislike the cold months the most, I think, although the falling leaves have provided some warmth.
They went on like this for a time before Robin had to catch a bus to the restaurant where he worked. “If you’re still up by nine, I’ll see you then, Mom,” he said, kissing her on the forehead.
Following his departure, Alberta observed, “You know, he’s getting more and more like your father – that gentle voice, kind eyes, and the wisp of light hair drooping over his brow.”
“How old was Dad when you met him?” Jenny already knew they had met at a sailing regatta at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, and that they struck up an immediate friendship that extended on since both lived near London.
“He was 24 and I was a year younger. There was just something so natural about him. Sun suited him, but he was just at home in the rain or snow – always active, always loving nature.”
“When did you know you loved him?” Strange that she had never asked her mother that question before. Life had been so busy for everyone that there was little time left for history.
Suddenly Alberta’s face was alight. “Oh, I think it happened in the same instance for both of us.”
“Well, you can’t just leave it there, Mom. Go on.”
“A group of us had taken a summer journey to Blackpool to enjoy the sea and to dance. On the Friday night, we all went to the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. Sandy looked so exquisite. He was a wonderful dancer. We were already dancing in the centre of the room when the band started playing “The Way You Look Tonight.” He suddenly pulled me around and, before I knew it, we were circling around the perimeter like it was magic. Which I suppose it was, because when I looked up at him, my heart leapt out of my chest, and I was eternally his. He leaned down right then and kissed me, never missing a step as we whirled around. Ten minutes later, we were out on a balcony overlooking the sea and telling each other how much in love we were. We were married four months later.”
“St. James, just over there,” she said, pointing to the lofty spire spiking the clouds. “My parents were Anglican, and that was where that set were married. It was beautiful though, and when he swept me away in his MG, my veil flew off and we never found it.”
They were quiet for a time, finishing their tea.
“Mom, what was it about him that you loved the most? I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it.”
“It was his big world and how he just fit into it, no matter where we were or what we were discussing.”
“You’ll have to explain that,” said Jennifer, curiously. “Big world– what do you mean?”
Alberta instinctively reached up and caressed the key hanging on its chain about her neck. Her eyes took on a faraway look. “He seemed to know what was going on all around the world, and I think that’s just a natural outlook for anyone living in Britain. Perhaps it came from the days of Empire, I don’t know. But your father was always thinking important thoughts, big thoughts, and I always marvelled at it. He had a healthy mind. I loved him for it because it flavoured our marriage in such a way that it was intelligent and fair.”
That was just the way Jenny had seen her parents. When young, she was aware that her mother and father were always keenly admired by others, and that they carried a certain “salt of the earth” quality that instilled reason and understanding in those around them.
To her surprise, Alberta rose and walked slowly to the arrangement of stones in the garden. Jennifer followed. The older woman knelt on the ground and began shuffling the stones around in accordance with some kind of pattern that only she knew.
“The birds get between them, looking for insects underneath, and the stones lose their place,” Alberta noted.
“How do you know which goes where?”
“Oh, I’ve just learned over time. Funny, isn’t it, how I can always remember it but I can’t recall where I left my toothbrush or purse.” It was said in a tone that was more sad than anything else.
Just then, Jenny watched as her mother reached into her pocket and drew out two stones that were new. She placed in them in special spots in the arrangement, patting them down when done.
“What are those?” asked Jenny. “I haven’t seen those before.”
Her mother looked up and smiled. “Well, this larger one is from Edinburgh Castle and the smaller smooth one is from the garden on the grounds of Holyrood. I took them, but I don’t think anyone noticed. At least I hope not. If they did, they’ll think it was just the idiosyncratic ways of an old woman.
“I never saw you pilfer them,” said Jenny, smiling.
“Oh, it was just between Sandy and me.”
“What do you mean, Mom?”
Alberta looked slightly perplexed, as if she was wrestling with what to reveal. She picked up the two stones she had so meticulously put in place, and held them before her daughter.
“These represent the young woman I was, and became, prior to meeting your father. He told me repeatedly of how he loved the youthful spirit in me, yet he never fully understood my time in Scotland because he wasn’t there. I put them here with the others because I think he would like it. It’s who I was before he helped make me into someone even better and more loving. I brought my youth to him and he protected it. I love him to this day for it.”
Slowly, she put the large stone in its place while Jennifer took the other and put it gently on the spot from which it had been lifted.
They sat in silence for a time until Alberta looked at Jenny, her face red from embarrassment. Jennifer knew that look, and could smell that her mother had wet herself. Just then, the side gate opened and a voice called out hello.
“God, no,” whispered Alberta. “That’s old Mrs. Finch, from next door. She’ll see me like this and it will be around the neighbourhood by dinner time. Oh no.”
Jennifer could see her mother about to cry. She grabbed her hand and said, “Mom, just come with me … come on.”
The two women proceeded into the tall wild grasses that Alberta had planted years before, and moved about freely. The moisture lingering on the long blades transferred to their slacks and blouses. To Jennifer’s surprise, her mother started a light dance, swirling and singing a tune she had never heard before. She joined her in the motion until both women were soaked.
“Oh, Mrs. Finch, you’ll have to excuse us,” said Jennifer. “We were just having some fun before the rains start up again.”
The two of them came out onto the manicured grass and looked as though they had been caught in one of Britain’s common downpours. They were still holding hands and their slacks were fully saturated.
“Well, that’s a bit strange,” Gladys Finch uttered boldly. “I just came over to say hello, but I can see you’re busy. My, my.”
Before they could say anything, she had gone. Mother and daughter turned to one another and burst out in a muted gleeful laughter so that they couldn’t be heard by Alberta’s clearly perplexed neighbour. She came into her daughter’s embrace and whispered, “Thank you, Jenny. Nothing could have been worse for me than to be caught having an accident. It’s hard for an old woman like me. But now, I have some laundry to do.”
The two of them proceeded inside, each in a state of glee that, although they knew it to be fleeting, had captured the moment of great love and surprise. In that instant, there was no thought or fear of Alzheimer’s, merely two grateful minds taking from life the opportunity it afforded them.