THE BLOG
06/24/2013 04:28 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2013

The Healing Power of a Smile -- Moments With Dementia

The noise from the tractor brought me out of a writing frenzy that I'd been engulfed in for two-and-a-half hours. Looking up from my computer screen, I glanced out of the window to see my brother sitting on the old John Deere. He turned the noisy machine off. I pressed "save" and walked outside to say hi. With a bit of luck, this would mean another coffee break.

He was looking past me, smiling, and when I followed his gaze, I realized the reason for his grin. Our mother had just been dropped off from her Friday outing with her Dementia day care buddies. The setting sun glowed around her and my brother and I were struck by how beautiful she looked.

The matriarch of our family walked with intent, pride and elegance. Her blue eyes twinkled with fairy dust. I knew my brother saw it too -- for a split second. But the light didn't linger. Instead, it faded as she walked with fragile determination toward the open door. "Hi mum," we said. She looked through us in silence and entered her home. My brother turned the key to the tractor and drove off. I followed mum into the house and made her a cup of tea.

After a few sips from her favorite delicately painted mug, mum motioned toward the iPad. I opened it and she slid her right hand over the first page, stopping at the icon that gives her a voice. She thrust her index finger onto the screen like it was an old IBM typewriter. I gently held her hand, pointed my finger beside hers and said, "Tap mum, just a gentle tap." The iPad endured a couple more thumps before the keyboard magically appeared.

Her words are muddled mirroring the frustration in her mind. Ten minutes tick slowly by before she pushes the screen in front of me. Most of the words resemble a dialect similar to pig Latin and they are repeated over and over again. I take my time, allowing my brain time to relax and sort through the letters before taking a guess at what she's thinking.

She gets up and walks into the bathroom. I wait a few minutes before following her. The door is open, I peak in and she looks back at me in the mirror and smiles. I tell her how beautiful she is and ask if I can help her with the facial powder that she's just applied. I smile inwardly and suggest she close her eyes. I do my best to take off the thickly-layered dark brown powder, as I'm pretty sure that it wasn't my darling mum's intention to paint her face as if she were heading for some sort of tribal ceremony.

I suggest we order Chinese takeout tonight, and she whispers something that sounds like lemon chicken. Thirty minutes later, I park the car outside the restaurant and ask if she'd like to come with me or stay in the car while I run in and pick up the food. She nods her head and as I get out of the car, I wonder if I should be concerned that she might wander away. I remember that my siblings have told me that it's OK to leave her for while -- she doesn't wander, yet.

I rush in, pay for the meal, then hurry back to the car, but I don't see Mum inside. My heart is pounding as I search the parking lot. No sign of her anywhere. In seconds, I've done a mental survey of the area. There are five entrances to different buildings surrounding me. I go with my gut and race into the liquor store and discover her pulling bottles of wine from the shelves, five in all -- a mix of rosé and chardonnay. My mum's drink of choice is a good gin and tonic.

I gently take a few bottles from her saying, "I guess you're thirsty, Mum." She smiles, we pay for the wine and I get her safely back home where we eat our Chinese takeout, she drinks a glass of wine and together, we watch the original Sabrina.

Once my mum's in bed I thank technology for giving her some independence by enabling her to speak with her iPad. I'm thinking of placing a few phrases like WTF and FU in her most used phrases collection, just to help get her frustrations out. I think of how my heart was racing when I thought I'd lost her in the parking lot. And I remember the image of her backlit, walking toward someone or something -- maybe my brother and I, in the late afternoon Australian sun, and I smile.