By Roger Barbee
It is like so many words we often use, and it has seemingly become commonplace in our modern lives. We use it, but do we know it? It is a word that I knew of, one that I had to look up for its correct spelling, and one that I knew as a possibility for us all. Like so many of us, I used it, but this week it became more than a medical condition, it became personal.
My mother, Flora Belle Atkinson Barbee, will be 94 years old in February. She, like so many born of her era, is in great physical condition. She has the medical problems of anyone who has lived 90-plus years, but she has all of her teeth. She regales any nurse who offers her a covered dish for her teeth by saying, "Honey, these are mine." She walks each day with one of her daughters, keeps her front porch and walkway swept, and does a bit of gardening. She enjoys sitting in her front porch swing, talking with those who visit, and watching what happens on her street. Just a few years ago, at her surprise 90th birthday party, she was the "belle of the ball" as she and her 14 grandsons and great-grandsons rode around Kannapolis, N.C., in a limousine before her arrival to the luncheon in her honor.
But all that has now changed.
My siblings and I are fortunate because mother's four daughters take turns staying with her for a week at a time. My brother and I have been, because of our gender, deemed unqualified to share the duty, but he and I do what we can, which is mostly to support our sisters. He and I call most every day, especially Sunday, to talk with Mother and the sister staying with her for that week. However, in the daily phone conversations with her, I have heard her mental demise.
She is always cheerful, and she likes to share in each conversation how "One of my girls is always here with me, they enjoy staying here, bossing me around, and I let 'em." Over the past two years, our conversations have become somewhat rote as she will ask the same questions and make the same statements. Intellectually I was aware of her mental state and my sisters gave accurate reports of her condition, so it was a situation I mentally knew and could grasp. But it now has consequence.
John Prine wrote a song titled "Hello in There" in the 1970s, and he still sings it in concerts. It is a lament about growing old and lonely. Prine sings, "Me and Loretta, we don't talk much more/She sits and stares through the back door screen." He goes on to ask us all, "So if you're walking down the street sometime/And spot some hollow ancient eyes/Please don't just pass 'em by and stare/As if you don't care, say, 'Hello in there, hello.'"
Flora Belle Atkinson Barbee worked in a cotton mill hemming wash clothes. She reared six children alone through faith and hard work. She was the first woman in our town to be allowed to rent a mill house, and she would tell us small children how good the back and neck of a fried chicken was, and it was her special treat. That way, she made sure her children ate the wings, legs, and breasts - the parts with meat and nourishment. She was a reader until her eyes failed, and she knew how to get a child to do what was right by words or a switch if the words failed.
Now, she suffers from dementia and her world has shrunk to only what she sees and understands. For two years I have heard it in her voice, but this past week in one of our conversations, she asked, "Where do you live?" With that, dementia came into my life in a personal way and the great sadness of that lovely woman's mental collapse burst into my consciousness. All I could tell her was that, "I live in the Shenandoah Valley, Flossie, the beautiful valley." And as I spoke those words, I doubted if she knew who I was, and I wondered in what valley is her mind? But, unlike Loretta in Prine's song, she does not sit and stare and is not alone. That is a blessing.
But if in your travels today you see "some hollow ancient eyes" please say hello and offer a few minutes out of your day to that elderly person. You will be better for it.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.