Sunday's little sacraments


by Michael Leach

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Sunday. Vickie and I stay in bed till 10 a.m. She lies on her back just like she did before she fell asleep, arms crossed over her chest, head straight, eyes fixed, like a sarcophagus of Cleopatra. What she sees, I do not know.

I put my cheek against hers, as warm as a baby's. I turn her face to mine and smile. "Good morning, Sunshine." Her eyes come to life, her face glows. I kiss her cheek over and over and snuggle up close like a family dog that just jumped into bed. We just lay there. It is our morning prayer.

Sometimes I say the Our Father when I wake up. My favorite line: "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." I know God's will for us is better than anything I could think of myself. I also know that my consciousness (heaven) has everything to do with how I will experience life (earth). We don't go to church on Sunday because it is more than a chore. On Tuesdays, one of the priests says Mass at 11:30 a.m. at River House, the adult day care center Vickie goes to during the week. I'd like to say I "pray always" as Jesus instructed, by being awake and aware of my thoughts and more interested in the things of God than anything else, but this boy's got a way to go.

"OK, Sweetie, time to start our day. Are you ready?" She nods, eager to begin a new day. Every day is new when you have Alzheimer's. I get up and open the blinds and let the sunshine in. I pull down the bright yellow bedspread and sit on the side by Vickie. She is looking straight ahead again. "What do you see, Sweetheart?"

"I see I see I see."

Real words like that don't come out much. Usually just sounds, as she continues: "Daki, daki, daki." I don't know what that means but I think she does. Her vocabulary is locked behind a door in her brain but syllables squeeze out under the crack like mice. Sometimes in the morning when her brain is fresh, real words sneak through the keyhole and race down the corridors of her brain to her tongue. Once she said, "I have no words."

"I understand you," I said. "It's OK."

I lift her so she sits on the side of the bed and pull the pajama tops over her head, the wet bottoms down her legs, throw them in the laundry basket along with the bed pads, then hold her hands as we shuffle-dance backwards to the bathroom. We're a rickety Astaire and Rogers we are as I sing:

Heaven, I'm in heaven,
And my heart beats so that I
   can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness
   I seek
When we're out together
   dancing cheek to cheek.

Vickie is humming a different tune but we're in some kind of rhythm as her hips go left and right and mine stay stuck, and somehow we reach the bathroom where I help her get ready for the next act, one of her favorites, the shower scene. We step in, me first, holding on to her hand so she doesn't fall, then I fold open her tight fingers and curl them over the rail. I test the water that sprays out of the hand-held thing. When it's warm, I soap up the washcloth and start on her feet and go up and all around as if I'm bathing a million-dollar thoroughbred.

"OK, time for the good part," I tell her. "I'll take the first hit. Ready?" I turn the handle from the hand spray to the wall spray and it rushes out cold before it turns warm. I take the hit, ouch, and then adjust it. "Time for the Big Switch. Are you ready?"

"Bwick," she says. I guide her under the shower and hold her by the waist so she won't fall and the water pours down her hair and over her shoulders. She holds her hands out like Helen Keller just discovering water from the pump. It's a baptism with a small "b." I turn her like a figure in a glockenspiel so she can feel the healing warmth all over.

Later, when we're all dressed up in our Sunday sweatpants and T-shirts (hers burgundy-colored with a drawing that suggests Zelda Fitzgerald, mine grey with a grave outline of Fyodor Dostoyevsky), we drag our slippered feet down the stairs, a careful step at a time to the kitchen. I talk to Vickie as I crush her medicine and mix it into the cinnamon-flavored applesauce. She hums original melodies back. The lyrics are "mmm" and "mm mmm" and they vibrate from her heart.

It comes time for the second treat of the day. The Greek diner in Stamford has the best food in the world. And everybody knows our name. We are going to take out three fried eggs with bacon ("real real crispy") on rolls back home. The waiter Gabriel, an old friend, greets us at the takeout counter. "Hello, my friends," he says. He holds Vickie's hand and says, "How are you, dear?"

She doesn't respond. "It's your friend," I tell her, "Gabriel, the Archangel."

No matter, Gabe understands. He taps the order into the computer, hands me the receipt, and goes into the kitchen. I place Vickie behind me, hold her arms around my chest, and we wobble to the front so we can pay the bill and get the feast home sooner.

A gentleman who looks like the director Ingmar Bergman stands behind the cash register. He has been here just a few months. He tells us, "You are the sweetest couple I have ever seen."

"Thank you," I say. "She is the sweetest."

"No, both of you," he says. "I can see." When he sees my credit card, he says, "My name is Michael too."

"Yeah? We've got three archangels here then."

"Yes," he says. "Though my real name is Michelangelo." Then he leans toward us on the counter and says, "I was a miracle to my mother. She was to die before I was born. But she did not. I was born here, in New Jersey, and she got well. At age 6 she took me to the island of Delos, a sacred place near Greece, to be baptized. You can't remember things when you are 1 or 2, but I was 6 and I remember everything ... when the water came over my head I felt ... a warmth ... like ... total peace. I have never forgotten that."

"No, who would? That's wonderful."

The archangel Gabriel delivers us a brown paper bag with our morning eucharist with a small "e." I smell the "real real crispy" bacon. Vickie smiles at him. We head for home.

We eat our breakfast in the family room on our comfy chairs, hers the leather recliner, mine the wooden Ikea, facing the TV like Archie and Edith, and watch "Meet the Press." After I clean up I push Vickie back on the recliner and turn to the Golden Oldies music channel. Johnny Mathis puts her to sleep. It is now my favorite time of the day. I lean back, sip a cup of Folgers Instant and put down the Times opinion section to reflect on the value of harboring no opinions but just putting one foot after another and doing one damn thing after another without making a federal case out of anything, even my inability to pray always.

I am thinking that is the only way to see the little sacraments and miracles that happen each day, whether you can talk about them or, like Vickie, not. A Zen master observed, "Your everyday mind -- that is the way." And Jesus assured us, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Put them together and they spell for me ... well, Sunday.

[Michael Leach shepherds the Soul Seeing columns for NCR and is the author, most recently, of Positively Catholic.]

A version of this story appeared in the Nov 18-Dec 1, 2016 print issue under the headline: Sunday's little sacraments.

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