Instead of fixating on the past, son-in-law Bill is redefining what life with a loved one who has dementia looks like for his mother-in-law, Faith. Through beautiful moments and looking ahead, this duo is working together to write books while savoring life in Northern Michigan.
Some people get gold watches. I got Faith. It was little things at first—mixed-up names, keys in the freezer. But when she started leaving her beloved terrier outside in the cold, never remembering to bring her back in, the time had come to face what thousands of other families face. Faith lived alone. She needed a full-time caregiver.

I had been an elementary school principal for two decades and hadn’t planned on retiring any time soon. But nor had I planned on having a mother-in-law who would be one of those rare souls who moves through the day with a quiet, egoless radiance. That was Faith, and I loved her.

I offered to help. Offer accepted. I moved to Faith’s cottage in the heart of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

In those first weeks, Faith’s oldest son arrived from California. Blank stare. “You know who that is,” her daughter reminded her, “that’s Kirk, your son.” And Faith responded, earnestly, “Now you’d think I’d remember something like that.”

You’d think so, but her world was rearranging itself. She often asked where her husband, Jack, was. “I’m so sorry, Faith,” I replied at first, “but don’t you recall that Jack passed away 15 years ago?” Faith would tear up. It took me a while to understand that my patient explanations of death were, in Faith’s world, nothing but recurring stabs of sadness. Soon my responses became something like, “He’s swimming at North Bar,” or, “He’s playing tennis.” And Faith was content. Righteous lying—put it in your dementia playbook.

Outside with Bill and Faith
I was learning that it was not my job to restore Faith into the world she used to live in. Instead, I needed to understand Faith’s new world, to allow myself to enter into it.

In her new world, memories were drowning, but moments offered a chance to soar. Some moments could be planned—like an opera simulcast at the State, or a milkshake run, or a fall color walk. But most arrived spontaneously—the impulse to share a hug, for instance, or a song, or a sunset.

In these moments—in Faith’s new world—I began trading the hope of recovery for interludes of beauty, and bursts of joy. And along our journey together, Faith did much more than guide me into her world. She also opened the door into a new world of my own.

Faith loved birds. Late one winter afternoon, as she was watching chickadees at the feeder, a worried look crossed her face. Her eyes followed those dipping and darting little birds back into the cold forest shadows. Faith was by then losing the power to initiate speech, but her troubled expression spoke clearly. “Where do those chickadees go at night? Are they safe? Are they warm? Are they cared for?”

Chickadees in December book
Now, you should know that I had been making up stories and plays and rhymes for most of my educational career. It’s just the way my mind worked. So now, as Faith and I flew after those birds into the dark woods, I found myself blurting: “With chickadee caps on chickadee heads, do they sleep eight across on chickadee beds?”

Faith laughed. Laughter is always a beautiful moment, a burst of joy. So, I kept going. “From northern woods to the Alabamas, what do chickadees wear for pajamas?”

Thus, it went, and soon I finished “Chickadees at Night,” my first children’s picture book. We packed up the car and took a book tour. I’m 6 feet 5 inches tall; Faith was 5 feet tall, maybe. We were an odd couple for sure. But we shared so many giggles and smiles and hugs, and so many milkshakes along the way, preferably McDonald’s mint. I called it “the greatest trip she’ll never remember.”

Three more books followed, and the newest one, “Chickadees in December,” has just arrived. All profits are donated to organizations Faith would support: environmental groups, our local VFW Post, The Salvation Army and The Father Fred Foundation. Thank you, Faith—I never imagined that your 85-year-old childlike spirit would guide me into this wondrous new world.

When the inevitable happens—when you or someone you love acquires big health problems—I hope you won’t spend too much time fixating on the past, on what is lost. The way to stay young is to look for the possibilities ahead. Plan for beautiful moments, delight in bursts of joy, discover a fresh sense of purpose. Surprising new worlds are out there, maybe as close as a backyard birdfeeder, or a loved one that needs a helping hand.

Bill O. Smith was a principal at local elementary schools for many years. His chickadee books are available at area bookstores and at billosmith.com. The books are printed in the U.S., with 100 percent of the profits donated.

Photo(s) by Bill Smith

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