Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Storm before the Calm

There's nothing like wicked weather to make you well-disposed toward weather that's not so bad.

I just got back from a spending a week in Columbus, Georgia, where my mother lives. Columbus was stirred up like an anthill that's had a stick dragged across it. A couple of days earlier, an F3 tornado pirouetted across the north end of the city. No lives were lost, but the tornado raked numerous roofs, demolished at least one house and punched other homes and businesses in the facade, slammed a church steeple, and murdered scores of pine trees. A McDonald's was open for business under a storm-battered sign: "the sign of the fallen arches!" cracked the driver of the van in which I arrived by highway from the Atlanta airport.

The sunny weekend right after the storm, local building supply stores were busy. So were the churches: attendance seemed to be up! On Monday, I went with my mother to her neurologist. His office windows had a lovely view of an unruffled cormorant in a lake ringed with pine trees – with treetops snapped off, tree limbs sticking up out of the water, and branches, twigs and pine cones and bark all over the ground. The neurologist's office had a very near miss in the tornado.

The neurologist confirmed that my mother has senile dementia. That came as a shock but no surprise, not after last December, when she exhibited signs of mental derangement that put family and friends on high alert and led to appointments with the neurologist.

Not that Mom ever, in my opinion, was the sharpest tool in the shed. When I was growing up, she seemed to be a person with exceptionally dreary, dull mental weather. She was depressed, inhibited, unengaged in the world for years, and uninterested in reading. The last was almost unbearable for me while I struggled to become a writer and encouragement from Mom would have been nice.

But I can tell you that after dementia has manifested itself in someone's mental landscape, any kind of banal mental weather looks just fine. Like Columbus right after the tornado when ordinary wind or fog or drizzle were wonderful, thank you, and several days of balmy sun were heavenly. When Mom seemed dim-witted last week, well, after her episode of dementia in December, any less than devastating psychological weather on her part strikes me as wonderfully tolerable. In fairness to her, I should say that after she retired in the 1980's, she took up walking and dancing and developed a vibrant social life that revolved around the park, the senior citizens' center, and her Sunday school class. She enjoyed more than two decades of sunny mental weather, which greatly improved the Mom part of my life. Some of the sunniness was still there last week. She relished several two-mile walks in the park with me. And she was able to help me help her. We found an assisted living facility that seems just right for her. Ironically, it's downhill from the tornado-damaged church and sustained minor roof damage itself.

The assisted living facility's marketing director told us that at the time of the storm,which was in the evening, he'd been at home. Curious, he walked outside to look for the tornado. But he sensed an unnerving utter calm that made him run right back in the house and take cover. The next morning he climbed up onto the roof of the assisted living facility with the maintenance people to examine the roof damage. From that vantage point, they could see the tornado's track by a trail of ruined trees. It had been heading straight toward the facility. But it veered away. Tornadoes are capricious things.

Last week while I was in Columbus with her, my mother may have been in a temporary calm before the next outbreak of her mental storm. How long the calm will last we don't know. Right now she may be responding well to the modern medicines for dementia, and there may be a few more sunny days and weeks. Maybe even long enough to relocate her to the assisted living facility in good enough mental shape to adjust to the move, benefit from the assistance and the structure, and even enjoy a few years there. Dementia is capricious. It's time to take situational cover; and that's the only thing we really know now.

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