When Life is a Game
David Weiss, October 19, 2018
I don’t reflect on my Mom’s “descent” to be morbid or melancholy … and surely not to be voyeuristic. If you feel discomforted, turn away. I do it because it’s what I do: wrap life in words as carefully and compassionately as I can. From what I see and hear—and feel—I could write a book, but I can only bear to write brief glimpses. You won’t catch the whole story here, just a moment.
I’m in town for a visit that happens to coincide with my parents’ 61st wedding anniversary, but I came less to celebrate than to keep company. “Festive” is overstatement. Quiet accompaniment with rare moments of bright joy is more accurate. And more than enough.
Mom’s dementia creeps. No precipitous decline, just a slow unraveling of self, thread by thread, row by row, the fabric of her life coming undone. Like Bansky’s recent self-shredding art prank happening in the slowest motion possible, but inexorably self-consuming nonetheless.
In Mom’s case her energy remains painfully unfocused during the day. She’ll describe herself to me as “a lazy woman,” with a mix of resignation and contempt. “No oomph,” she says almost apologetically, but with no capacity to marshal any fresh oomph from anywhere.
She used to comment to me on knick-knacks and pictures around the house all day long during my visits. Like memories shooting out of the past from one item after another. This time there’s hardly any of that until just before bedtime, when, like a child with frantic energy at the end of recess, she flits from a plant to a little crocheted trinket to another plant, to a book, to a photo—each time pointing it out to me as though I need to know this right now. As though desperate to delay the bedtime she knows is here.
I suspect this is at least partly because she never sleeps with just Dad and herself anymore. Her hearing has become so acute that at bedtime she sleeps—or tries to—with every heart beat echoing in her head. A little too much “me time” for her own comfort. It may be that thoughts, as well as heart beats, crowd in at the end of the day. I don’t know. But I wonder.
This visit I also notice her waning interest in interaction. People sometimes measure their social energy in “spoons,” saying, “I only have so many spoons (of energy) to use in a day, and I have to spread them around.” Or, “I’m sorry, but I’m all out of spoons, and if I don’t get some alone time, I’ll crash and burn.” My mom seems down to her last spoons for interaction. Yes, she still enjoys interaction over cribbage or Scrabble, and occasional bursts of conversation (especially at bedtime), but once those spoons are spent, she’s in her own world.
Which is mostly word puzzles or solitaire—both of which she castigates herself for. “I play too much of this game (solitaire) … it bothers my arthritis, but I just try to go slowly.” And “I don’t know why I let myself get caught up in these word puzzles, but I do. Yes, that’s you, Carol. That’s you.” I think she finds both activities self-soothing because her memory doesn’t play hide-and-seek there. But beneath the level of her conscious thoughts she wishes it were otherwise.
Conversation, I think, simply requires too much effort to do for very long. And most tasks—even pretty basic ones—require a sense of purposeful energy that escapes her. But these simple games can still challenge her within a framework of predictability. As do cribbage and Scrabble, where the interaction is made “manageable” by the rules and rhythm of the games. Plus, they let her use the part of her mind that’s still pretty reliable.
Even during mealtimes this week, with just three of us at the table—me, Dad, Mom—she brought her crossword to the table one day, and worked silently on words while eating with us … but in a place quite her own. Twice at supper she finished her food and cleared her place to play solitaire while Dad and I still ate and talked. As though she could not bear the effort of tracking a conversation (let alone joining it), and so it was more comforting to retreat into the familiar patterns of her games.
These games, they are … a bit … like a stuffed animal to cling to. I don’t mean that pejoratively. I mean somehow these patterned activities give her a foothold in a world that seems increasingly off kilter. You can almost see it on her face when she becomes absorbed in them. It is calmness on the far side of disquiet, but not quite as far on the far side as she would prefer.
For Mom, these days, life is a game. And in an imperfect world, unraveling thread by thread, perhaps a game is enough.