I am in awe of Katherine after we first talk on the phone. These past couple of years, she’s been doing everything possible to prevent Tom, her long-time husband, from mental decline. Every week they go together to exercise classes specifically tailored to elderly folks with cognitive challenges. Most mornings they walk the dogs to the local coffee shop, where Tom bought the paper and they read the headlines together. They travel locally and across the coast to see family and friends. Our conversation reminds me of the daily support my grandfather has provided, and continues to provide, for my grandmother in the wake of her stroke four years ago.
A few days later, Katherine opens the door for me. Bubba and Chuck wag their tails and greet me, despite my post-biking sweatiness and helmet hair. I have a flutter of nerves in my stomach. I’ve volunteered with all kinds of people and have been trained by Mon Ami, though this will be my first time working with someone with dementia. In the family room, I see an older gentleman, looking around for something he seems to be missing. Katherine introduces me to him, and gives me dating-app-style stats about him: Tom was influential in the spread of emergency rooms across California, a proud Stanford alumnus, an accomplished long-distance sailor, and a lover of sweets. We agree that we will use most of this two-hour visit to get to know each other and to play Scrabble, an old favorite of both his and mine.
Katherine goes upstairs to work, and I am left on the couch with Tom. I still feel the flutter in my stomach as I start our conversation: what do you like doing every day? How was your time at Stanford? Where’s your favorite place in town? Most answers are generic: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I enjoyed it. I go all over the place, there’s so many places to choose from.
He asks me several times about where I live and what I do. A feeling of anxiety and despair clouds the flutter. Am I doing this right?
When I ask about sailing, Tom speaks more specifically and passionately. He tells me about how he captained a sailboat from Hawaii to Tahiti, navigating by the night sky and sextant. My brain twinkles with stars as I see Tom on the prow of a sailboat, searching for Polaris. I ask him twice what a sextant is.
Over the course of the next 90 minutes, we ease between generic conversation and these vivid portraits of the past. Toward the end of our time together, Tom says he needs to check with Katherine about what business he has to take care of. Katherine comes down with Tom and asks all about our time together. I tell her what a sextant is.
Now, Tom and I take Bubba and Chuck on walks to the local coffee shop. We read the headlines and I talk to Tom about everything from the San Francisco mayoral race to Facebook’s data privacy policies. Sometimes my questions get vague dead ends; sometimes they lead to ethical dilemmas in emergency medicine. I still get asked where I live and what I do, though Tom is more comfortable with me every time I visit. I feel lucky and privileged that Katherine has let me into her life, and that I get to witness the loving world that she and Tom continue to create together.
Kyle Engelmann has a degree in Neuroscience and Public Health from Johns Hopkins. He just completed his graduate studies at Stanford.