But over the years the disease robbed Faith of cherished memories, of logical thinking, of the ability to play her beloved parlor grand, of the will to initiate speech. It stripped Faith down to the core of herself. But that core, say those who know her, holds an inner light that refuses to fade.
Faith is my ex-mother-in-law. My own mom died before I was married, and Faith became like a mother to me. A few years ago, I retired from my career as elementary principal to become her primary caregiver.
Like many others, I learned to experience life through the lens of dementia. I learned that training sessions with Faith didn’t work. Warnings and endless repetition also didn’t work.
What did work was removing obstacles, diverting attention, radically adjusting expectations. And what worked best of all was simply noticing – noticing, for instance, how Faith needed to ‘organize’ things each day in the kitchen, noticing how her hugs over time became stronger and lasted longer, noticing how Faith almost never reacted to the content of speech, but always to the tone of voice.
And every day, I noticed Faith watching the chickadees. When they fluttered at the feeder, Faith smiled. When she saw a seed drop, Faith’s face momentarily clouded with worry. The more Faith took notice, the more I did too. I noticed chickadees perched on railings and branches, taking turns at the feeder; chickadees singing even on frigid winter mornings; chickadees first to arrive after dawn, and the last to disappear before dark.
Where DID chickadees go at night? One day the thought just arrived in my head: ‘With chickadee caps on chickadee heads/do they sleep eight across on chickadee beds?’” Faith laughed every time I shared the couplet, so I added more. Couplets became stanzas, stanzas become a story. And when renowned Michigan artist Charles R. Murphy agreed to illustrate, the story became CHICKADEES AT NIGHT. But it was too long at first, so I took out a big middle section, and that section became the core of THE CHICKADEE SPIRIT.
To celebrate the release of CHICKADEES AT NIGHT last year, I took Faith, who had been in and out of hospice just a few months prior, on a 1500 mile road trip to New England. We packed some fruit, whipped yogurt (whipped doesn’t drip from the spoon), a few dozen Depends, a favorite stuffed bear, and off we went – the greatest trip she’ll never remember.
I have read the Chickadee stories to Faith dozens of times, and for her the last time is just as fresh and moving as the first. Life is about beautiful moments now, not beautiful memories. That’s exactly what we try to give to her, and that’s what the chickadee books try to give to everyone – smiles and snuggles and beautiful moments for chickadee spirits of every age.