Thursday, February 18, 2016

When love speaks above disease

Often when people pay tribute to a loved one who has died they reminisce back far into the years. I only knew Sharon Noonan for four and a half of her years on earth, and as many who knew her will attest, I didn't ever know her the way she once was.

Little did I know when I entered a restaurant on a misty September evening with my friend Jennifer that I would meet the man I would one day marry and his wonderful mom - together. 
Patrick charmed me for sure, but I have to say the two were a package deal and I was drawn to Sharon every bit as much as her sweet son. She was warm and enthusiastic with sparkling eyes, and every bit engaged in our lively conversation at the table that night. She peppered me with compliments in a charmingly uncommon way. "I like her," she would say and look directly at her son. It was unfiltered and quite simply adorable.

Perhaps it was the repetition of an identical question that tipped me off that something was different about Sharon. Or perhaps it was the gentle way Patrick guided his mom to the menu that prompted curiosity.

Thanks to Jennifer I have this picture of the first night we met.

That night, as I was of course told later, Sharon urged her son to "call that girl". Patrick already intended to call me but mother's intuition was a nice reassurance I'm sure.

A diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease was a very present reality in her life, but it never ever defined her. Incredibly, she broke through the barrier of her disease to do a very healthy and ordinary thing - forge a relationship with her son's significant other. Yet, it was not by any means an 'ordinary' relationship,

I'm told the Sharon Noonan of that night was not the same woman many had known. I could feel short-changed or robbed in some way, but honestly I feel incredibly blessed. 
Remarkably, Sharon was able to bypass the grip of dementia and remember me for almost all of the time I knew her.

Sure, there were nuances and details that were missed, but over the years she was every bit learning who I was. She did this in a way that science or neurological reports might never accurately explain.

I had been dating Patrick for almost six months when he and I made the long road trip out to Wisconsin to visit her for the first time after our meeting in the restaurant. I thought at first as we entered her apartment that she would ask who this woman was and find a stranger, but her arms wrapping around me stifled my worry.

We spent such a golden few days going to breakfasts at diners, bowling and visiting with 
Patrick's sister Karen's family. One afternoon while driving around the back country roads, Patrick asked his mom "would you like to go see Tara?" "OHHH Yes," she exclaimed with a kind of childish joy I had not seen in her before. Patrick turned the wheel down a long road and pulled up to a farm. We were going to see Sharon's horse.

"Tara!" she yelled and a sleek bay picked up her head from grazing, pricked her ears and ran up to the fence. No longer hers in ownership, Tara was living here on a farm with several other horses. As Sharon approached the mare almost danced toward her. I watched Sharon pat Tara's neck as the mare leaned in to accept the gentle touch with such loving familiarity. She turned to me smiling "Do you like horses too?" Hahaha do I like horses? We were two birds of a feather. 

Sharon was calm and comfortable as she led her longtime friend around by the halter. She began to tell me of the many times she had ridden this beautiful animal as we both took turns stroking her. The soft nickers of this beautiful horse were music to both of our ears.

As Patrick hung around in the background, Sharon snickered..."he doesn't like horses quite the same as us." We shared a laugh looking over to see an ornery Shetland pony having a comical dance of avoidance with a 6 foot 2 male. Little Pepsi apparently had developed a strong desire to assert alpha male status in the pasture.

 It was i
n those moments Sharon's disease was hidden, blanketed over by her comfortable confidence with an animal she had spent so many years of joy with. I could see that there most of all beside Tara, Sharon was every bit herself, not lost in memory or confusion. Animals had been so much of the fabric of Sharon's life.

A year later Patrick would propose to me on Mother's Day...and announce our news to everyone in his card to his Mom. It was just another one of the beautiful memories I have of a woman who became such an important fixture in my life - despite distance and dementia. 

The most difficult decision had to be made prior to our summer wedding in 2014. Sharon was having extreme difficulty readjusting to visits outside her memory care facility. It was understood that a long trip and a stay in unfamiliar surroundings would be harmfully confusing for her. For both Patrick and I the mere thought of her not being there for our wedding was heartbreaking.
The answer became clear - if Sharon can't come to the wedding... The wedding indeed came to her, thanks to Patrick's sister Karen and husband Jim who helped us chose a lovely community center and set up a lovely spread complete with Karen's homemade carrot cake as our wedding cake. 
An impromtu second walk down the aisle
Our "Act Two" Wedding

We did the whole ceremony over with Patrick's brother Brian officiating. And afterwards on a little portable speaker we played "I Hope You Dance" and mother and son had the turn around the dance floor together they had both so deserved. Though my parents made the journey from Rochester to be there the bride's side was slightly tipped in balance. Sharon was surrounded by people she loved that day. Truly, it was her day and this bride wanted it that way.

The next day after all was over she had forgotten the memories of the event. We sat for lunch with her in a booth at a Mexican restaurant she loved. Words were hard for Sharon at this point. Most of the time she spoke in short repeated words, not sentences.

She had to be reminded that I was married to Patrick. It was as if the day before had never happened. But the joy spilled back over her again as we talked to her, walking backward through the details of that day. "Oh my. How wonderful!" she exclaimed. 

When Patrick excused himself to use the restroom, Sharon seized the opportunity. In a moment I will never forget she grabbed both of my hands and looked in my eyes.  Clear as day she said "I am so so happy for you two. So so happy." It was the most steady and solid thing she had said all weekend. It was as if she had worked up the way to say what she felt so important to express to me - and to me only.

I smiled at her with tears in my eyes and squeezed her hands back. "I'm so so happy to be with your son," I said. She squeezed harder and repeated "so so so," trailing off as though the fleeting moment was being taken back from her- snatched back by a mind that so grasped onto the right to have it. Her words didn't matter. It was her eyes that danced with sincerity and conviction. It was the deep assurance any daughter in law could want from her beloved's Mom. This to me was my gift - an incredible one.

When Patrick returned she smiled at him and no hint of our exchange remained. "Hey, did I miss anything?" he playfully joked. Truer words had never been spoken.
Patrick and his Mom - August 2015

As months rolled on, she gradually struggled more with my name. Eventually she would forget altogether the second voice on the phone call or the woman beside her son. On our visit last summer she looked at me with a puzzled look I had never seen in her before. Thankfully, she knew Patrick. She spoke very little, a stray word or two, sometimes a nod. I accompanied Patrick as a stranger, but one with obvious affection for her son.

The grip of the disease had finally taken me from her active memory. As sad as that was, I know I had the gift of a time where I had lived clearly in her mind. Against all odds.

Through many years she held my name on the tip of her tongue and instantly brightened with victory when she stumbled for it and found it again and again. Except for this past year, she always knew me. It was not what was expected by any textbook, but it was mine. 

Two weeks ago Patrick and I got the call we had known would one day come. We drove 14 straight winter hours to be there in time- fearing we would miss saying goodbye. At three in the morning we joined Karen who had not left her bedside once.

Sharon had love surrounding her. She was able to hear the voices who loved her saying goodbye and telling her to let go, both of her sons and her daughter. She hung on for two days, but left on her own terms. She slipped out of this world knowing that she was loved.

As I held the hand of this woman who gave birth and lovingly raised the man I love, I thanked God for the time we had. I will never ever forget her or the miracle she worked to truly be in my life. I will never ever forget the remarkable Sharon Noonan.

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