Within minutes of sitting down next to a man and his mother in the back of a huge conference room, hundreds of people convened to hear the latest in Alzheimer’s research, he did a pin prick test on his mother, looked at the results, and pulled out a needle full of insulin from his bag. Something was wrong with the loaded needle and he shook his head, I looked over at him, sparingly, not wanting to intrude on his work.
So, then he talked about what he’d given her for breakfast, how he might have miscalculated, but how he thought she was okay, she was coherent, he said, so he thought it would be okay. And right then, I wanted to hold his hand and tell him he was a good son and we hadn’t even met yet.
Our conversation ran the gamut. About care giving. About Alzheimer’s. About his mother’s life story. About his life story. About his day, every day. How his day was cooking, cleaning, giving his mother a bath, making lunches for her and his brother, also disabled, about staying up late at night because that was his only time and then realizing he needed to sleep in order to start over.
We talked about nutrition, whether he thought nutrition made a difference. And he said yes, he thought it did. It was important for his mother to eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. And meat, well, meat was different. Think about it, the man said to me, animals live and then they die a violent death so that we can eat them, and there is trauma in that death, and so we end up eating that trauma, swallowing it, and it becomes part of us.
His mother moved the scrambled eggs on her plate from one side to the other with her fingers. Her son cut up the sausage links into small bites. In the room there were several hundred people all eating their scrambled eggs and sausage. A woman at our table wondered why there was no toast. The man’s statement about trauma stuck with me and I wondered how many people in the room had big lumps of trauma in their throats from the people they helped, from their own lives, from the endlessness of it all, the thin, dissolving scraps of hope.
I took a last swallow of coffee and soon after, I had to leave for another meeting. I told the man he had taught me a lot and I held his hand and his mother’s. When I left, I thought of how he would get his mother to the bathroom, because I think of these things when other people are thinking of loftier thing. But I knew he would know how, that whatever he had done before had prepared him for this moment, he had digested whatever trauma had come his way, and somehow made the best of it. He would get her there, get her wherever she needed to go.
He wrote his phone number on the back of a business card and I put it in my pocket.