I worry a lot about whether or not I'm giving Duncan enough. Rats are highly intelligent, highly social beings, and generally don't do well alone. Now, don't get me wrong. Duncan isn't languishing or depressed. He's alert, affectionate and increasingly
curious about his surroundings. He recently threw himself off his cage and adhered to my chest like a little
crazed velcro rodent
barnacle, earning himself the nickname "bat rat." He's grown, and is fat and glossy, and appears to be thriving on the vast array of foods I offer him. He gets beans, both cooked and dried, cooked pasta, corn (his favorite), peas, green beans (which he likes only cooked,) baby carrots, barley, broccoli, oatmeal, nuts in the shell, raisins, and a daily little marble of the raw meat/pumpkin/organ/vegetable concoction which I feed to the dogs, all in addition to his scientifically balanced nutritional lab block and rat feed. He appears to be doing quite well, both emotionally and physically. Yet, I worry. Is he getting enough of my time? Is he getting enough time out of the cage? Is he getting enough mental stimulation? Is his cage getting cramped for him now that he's grown (and now that it's crowded with enrichment items?), even though all the cage calculators say that this cage is big enough for 2? I am, after all, all he has, and I worry about whether or not I'm meeting his needs.
So, that's it. I obsess about my animals. Not only do I have a rat for whom I ask these questions every day. I have Crow and Hudson. I have Kiwi and Ziggy, and I have Dover. For each of them, I try. I do my best, and I go to bed every night fairly certain that, though there's always "better" to be considered, they're all doing fairly well.
Two weeks ago, on Sunday afternoon, I did what I've done nearly every Sunday afternoon for the last three years. I hauled my knitting (sometimes it's a book,) and I got into the car, and I drove the hour of highway driving it takes to go be with my mother. This week, as I do so many, I found my brother, Mark, already in the room, sitting in the chair by the window. I appreciate these opportunities to visit with my brother, because, sadly, these visits are no longer active visits with my mother. She is rarely conscious during them, and aside from the kiss and the greeting, and the kiss and the goodbye, there is little chance to interact with her. Oh, if I'm alone with her, I talk to her and tell her the bits and pieces of my life, of our shared lives, that any daughter would share with her mother. News from friends and family. Plans. No longer troubles - the days when she might offer input, insight or advice are long past. On the chance that some bit of someone else's happiness might get through and brighten her existence, I talk, but the days of having a real visit, and a real conversation are gone.
This particular visit, since Mark was already seated on the far side of the bed, I took the chair with its back to the doorway. I took out my knitting, as my brother and I talked. He paused at one point, and I glanced up from my knitting to see why, and he gestured toward the door. "Looks like we have a visitor." I looked over my shoulder, just as a soft rap sounded at the door, to see a beautiful, white haired woman in a wheel chair, tentatively steering herself into the room.
Please understand, this was not a friend of Mom's. Mom is essentially never conscious. She is bedridden, fed in her bed, moved to her wheel chair only to be taken to the room where she is bathed. She occasionally responds to certain people and definitely hears it when Mark becomes animated about a topic, but can no longer really participate in or enjoy social interactions.
So, Helen, as I found out her name is later, was a stray. She silently wheeled herself in and positioned herself behind me, inching closer and closer. Mark somewhat hesitantly picked up the conversation where he'd been, and we talked. I spoke to him, and also to Helen, who, at first, did not reply.
"I'm knitting socks," I told her, holding up my two-at-a-time, magic loop project, which admittedly looks sort of confusing if you don't know what it is. "Aren't they going to be pretty?" And then I heard her whispered reply. "Beautiful," she rasped.
I was surprised. Helen had appeared, with her blue, staring eyes, and her hesitant entry into this room where she knew none of the occupants, with her gnarled hands twisting at her waistband, and her queer peering at her own reflection in the mirror, to have been far, far, far on the other side of Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia. In short, I had assumed there was no one at home.
Instead, with that one, thin, raspy whispered word, that one "beautiful" reply, I realized that there was someone in there. I looked more closely at her face, into her eyes, and she smiled at me. "Do you knit?" I asked. There was a slight nod - more, there was a steady gaze holding mine that spoke volumes. "Did you make socks?"
Another slight nod, and still, those eyes never left my face. She appeared to be trying to figure out if she knew me. All I could offer in return was my smile.
Shortly, Helen decided to leave. She slowly backed her wheel chair out of the narrow passageway and through the door, bumping into the walls a couple of times, and carefully pulling forward to right her course. Mark and I laughed about it. It had been very odd, and sort of funny, this silent woman we did not know, intruding on our weekly ritualized visit with Mom. As far as Mark knew, Helen had never spoken. It had all just been an odd pantomime from his position across the room, I'm sure. But I had been held by Helen's eyes. I had noticed that this human relic had once been a startlingly beautiful woman, and still, in her aged way, was.
I have thought about Helen a lot over these last two weeks. Does anyone worry about Helen the way I worry about Duncan? I know she is getting the basics. She's fed. She's kept clean. She's dressed. But, is she getting what she needs? Is she warm enough, interested enough? Does she know what she's looking for? Is she treated with friendship and respect? Does anyone care who she loved, where she went, what she knows? Or is she sad, and truly alone?
When I went back last Sunday, I looked for Helen. I found her rolling herself slowly and silently through the hallways, no one paying any attention to her, separate from the rooms filled with wheelchairs, filled with people, oriented toward one happy helper trying to give them something fun to pay attention to, trying to lead them in songs from their youth. I crouched down in front of her and said, "Hello, Helen. How are you today?" She peered at me, and those light blue, apparently vacant eyes, slowly found mine. She frowned. Then something in those eyes seemed to change, and she whispered something. I couldn't understand, so I said, "I'm sorry. What did you say?" She slowly and carefully, but no more loudly or clearly, repeated what she'd said. And this time I understood.
Just then, an aide came along, and grabbed the handles of Helen's wheelchair, "C'mon, Helen," she said, "That's not your daughter. You shouldn't be bothering people. Let's go back to your room." She pulled the wheelchair backwards, and smiled an apologetic "Sorry" at me as she took Helen away.
I stood and continued on the way to my mother's room, trying to fit Helen's words into my head and my heart. In that thin, barely audible whisper, Helen had given me much to ponder.
"Beautiful socks" will echo for a very long time while I tend to those in my care. I will think about rats and old women. And I'll continue to talk to my mother.