When Jeff and I perform at birthday parties of kids under five we get to see this. Our whole facilitation of the birthday concert changes because kids this little haven’t been schooled in sitting quietly, listening, calmly, or even which way to face when a concert begins (towards the performers). It’s kids this age that want to talk to us the whole way through the show, “Did you say bobcat? My dad saw a bobcat once!” They comment on our comments, and they cry out with emotion as the events of our performance unfold.
It’s just the two of us, dressing up as different characters: mountain lions, trees, honeybees. The littlest kids delight in letting me know, when I return to the stage as “Paige” rather than “Bobcat,”
“Jeff stuck his head inside of a cave and met a bobcat!” “Oh my goodness,” I reply, “That sounds dangerous, I hope he’s okay! Why was he doing that anyway?” “He was looking for my birthday present.”
I can’t say this younger audience is always my favorite, as a performer. When we first began this career it was strange to be interrupted mid-dialogue. I was taken aback, unsure what to say, and I soon discovered that if I listened to one question or comment from the audience, I’d have twenty four-year-olds, trying to talk to me at once. Over time I learned some tricks of the trade, diversion works best,
“Thanks for telling me, I’d love to hear more later. Oh wow! What’s that?! Do you see it, over there? A beautiful blade of prairie grass!”
There is something delightful and wild about working with little humans who haven’t a clue about “right” behavior, who haven’t even a clue that there could be such a thing.
Last week I visited my ninety-eight-year-old Grandmother. Born in 1915, raised on a farm, and then working as a teacher, Grandma Guinther spent her whole life being schooled, or schooling others in what was “right.” Correct behavior, table manners, pronunciation, spelling. Now she has dementia and lives in a memory care facility with others who no longer have the capacity to care for themselves. When I visit her I often struggle with what to do while I am there. She’s wheel-chair bound and gets too confused if we go anywhere unusual. So the choices are to sit in her small bedroom surrounded by family photographs that she intermittently recognizes but mostly ignores, or to sit in the main room with other people who are also in various stages of letting go of their minds.
The search for something to do, while visiting, has little to do with Grandma and more to do with me, the visitor. She doesn’t seem to mind what’s happening regardless of the activity, or lack thereof. She doesn’t really recognize me anymore, though I like to think that I am a familiar face amidst the crowd of people she sees on a weekly basis–nurses, aides, visitors, other residents.
Last week when I stopped by, we sat in the main room and looked at her Cat Book. The Cat Book is a large coffee table book full of cat pictures, hundreds of them. I flipped through the photos and showed them to my grandma, sitting next to me, and then turned it out to show the photos to the other ladies in the room, like reading a story book. Some looked at the photos, others nodded off. One woman scowled at me each time I showed her a picture, but then looked hurt if I didn’t. At one point she called-out to me,
“Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying it!” “Oh, I’m not selling anything.” I replied, “I’m just visiting with my grandma.” “She’s your grandma?” “Yes she is.”
The woman grew quiet again, looking at me expectantly for each new cat photo.
Grandma Guinther ooed and ahhed over each picture. She’s loved cats for as long as I’ve known her. Now she has three of them. They are her stuffed animal companions. She’s usually holding one of them on her lap, stroking it and cooing to it, “You’re a good little puss, aren’t you?” Recently she also acquired a baby. Well, a baby who is also a kitty.
On another day last week, my sister, Katrhryn, my mom and I visited Grandma Guinther together. This time we hung out in her room. Grandma was having a “good” day, that is she wasn’t too anxious or too lost in the past, so Mom called her sister Margaret and put Grandma on the phone.
The strangest part about dementia is that you just don’t know what you are going to get, sometimes there are flashes of clarity and it’s like you’re having a conversation with the woman you used to know, and other times, sometimes only moments later, Grandma is talking to you about your dead grandfather, who you never met, or accusing you of moving her pocket book. On this day she was in the flow of the present enough to carry on a mostly sensical phone-conversation.
While Grandma talked to Aunt Margaret on the phone, Mom straightened photographs on the wall and wrote in the guest book. I sat on the bed listening and flipping through a prayer book that I found on the night stand, Kathryn played on her phone. And that’s when we noticed, Kitty Baby.
“Oh my God, what is that?” “It’s Grandma’s new friend, haven’t you seen it before?” I said stifling a laugh. “We think one of the aide’s gave it to her,” Mom chimed in.
My mom had earlier shared with me that when she visited grandma a few weeks earlier she found this strange doll in Grandma’s arms. Grandma was cooing to it like she did to her cats, but also bouncing it up and down, like a real baby. “It’s kind of sweet,” I said at the time. “Or creepy.” Mom responded.
Creepy, sweet, or neither, here it was, a baby dressed like a cat, looking up at us with its calm cerulean eyes and a striped tiger hood.
Kathryn picked it up and put it on her lap. She stroked its hooded head for a moment and then grabbed her phone.
“What are you doing?” Mom asked, noticing the commotion. Kathryn was positioning and then repositioning the doll in her lap. “Ah! I can’t get the right angle. The light’s not right.” “She’s trying to take Kitty Baby’s picture!” I chimed in. “Oooo, put it over here.” I grabbed the doll, now dubbed “Kitty Baby” from my sister and placed it in the corner. Grandma was still on the phone. There was a pause as we all heard her speaking to my aunt, “Well, we’ll be heading to Cleveland later this afternoon.” There was another longer pause in the action, Mom standing with her hand on a picture frame, me holding Kitty Baby, and Kathryn with a camera in her hands and Grandma in her wheelchair, in the middle of it all. And that’s when we started to laugh. It was a middle-of-church-service laugh, an algebra-test-in-progress guffaw, when stifling does anything but stop the hilarity and the giggles spills out of your body, using any path necessary, even leaking out in tears.
We formed a circle of laughter around my Grandma. None of us could control ourselves. Mom had to leave the room to catch her breath so she could take the phone back from Grandma. Grandma was oblivious to our behavior, although I like to think she felt the joy of the moment. Kathryn got the perfect shot of Kitty Baby. I marveled at the absurdity of it, the wildness of life, the delight when we can step outside and look in.