As we began to lose my mother-in-law to dementia, dinner at her kitchen table became one of the casualties of her decline.
That kitchen had once been her entire realm and her chair at the table a kind of throne. From there she could see down the hall and right out onto the street as she talked on the phone to her friends and relatives.
That door was thrown open by her husband and children, her brothers and their families, neighbours and friends and eventually her grandchildren, all charging down the hall to eat.
She fed us all, but she was never a good cook. Conversation mattered more to her than food. She was always fascinated by everyday life in her small neighbourhood universe, the children she saw on the street on her way to the grocery store, the dogs and cats, the birds at the feeder and, above all, the parade of family and friends at that kitchen table, that miraculous table that could shrink to hold two or four or expand to seat eight or 12 diners, depending on who walked through the door.
That kitchen was like a transit lounge, with family members stopping by before moving on to evening activities. It was a daycare where the grandchildren stayed for days at a time. It was a crisis centre for disasters big and small, from tanks moving during the collapse of the Soviet Union to the crushing of our dog under the wheels of a car on the street outside. And eventually it was a sick room for a son who lived nearby and came for solace as he declined, then for a husband who began to fail and needed to be shepherded out of this world.
As the grandchildren grew older and the friends began to die, the door was thrown open less and less often. Some days when I walked past her house on my way from the subway, through the perpetually open screen door I could see her sitting alone by her table, maybe peeling an apple or drinking tea - pleased to talk if I came through the door, but equally willing to wave happily, knowing I didn't have time for her now.
None of us had much time.
As the months passed, she became a little confused, not recognizing one or another of the grandchildren, or getting dressed at night to wait at the door for military transport to Afghanistan to help her grandson, who was fighting there with the Canadian Forces. We had someone move in with her to help, and that worked for a while, but her legs gave out and she started to fall and her helper couldn't easily pick her up.
Inevitably, the time came when she had to move into a home, and not just to any floor of the home, but to the third floor, full of people like her, those a little confused or very confused, a little lost or utterly bewildered.
The home is a good one, with caring workers, singalongs and games. But it was hard for us to adjust. Hard to sit on the edge of her bed or in the lobby and search for things to say.
And then, somehow, we decided that we had to eat together again. Dementia wards have party rooms, even if they aren't used much. Now we've discovered a way to profit from them.
Some Sundays, when it's my turn to provide the food, I start early in the morning, say with something simple like a beet borscht soup. A pot roast pretty well cooks itself. An apple pie takes a little longer, but if I have the filling prepared ahead of time and the piecrust in the fridge, ready to roll out, it's not much trouble.
All of us congregate around 5 p.m. at the nursing home, my wife first to get her 91-year-old mother ready. Usually four of us go, along with any of her grandchildren who are around and sometimes as many as four others. I carry the steaming bins inside and the regulars who know us ask what we're eating this time.
We wheel my mother-in-law down to the party room and her grandchildren help set the place up. She's not much of a talker any more, but she is a good listener, beaming at the table, repeating how delicious the food is and often holding the hand of one person or another. It's hard for her to find the words to finish a sentence, but easy to show her love with the squeeze of a hand. Her grandchildren might serve her a spoonful of dessert or help wipe the crumbs from her lap.
A few patients in the dementia ward sense a party going on. Sometimes Monika comes down with her walker and waits by the party room door until we open it. She seems to like the vibe. Aldona doesn't use a walker, but she can't speak any more. She comes in and sits down, her hands on her lap. She sometimes likes to take things away, a spoon or a plate, like a kind of souvenir, but she'll give it up if you ask her.
And so we dine together most Sundays, all too conscious that this won't last forever. Every dinner might be the last one. Every meeting, even at the best of times, involves a calculation of this week's loss - another level of immobility, another few words of vocabulary disappearing, groped after for a while and then waved away as irretrievable.
This is dinner in the dementia ward, a little sad and wonderful at the same time. These meals are just shadows of our dinners of the past, just crumbs compared to the feasts we used to enjoy, but they are still very, very sweet, and the taste of them lingers all week long.
Antanas Sileika lives in Toronto.
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