Sea Monster

” You probably wouldn’t be able to see her, even if you went there, because she is very shy. You just have to do what I do – trust that she’s there, and let that be enough.”

I settled into my bed, my five-or-six-year- old mind still swirling with its own renditions of what this “Loch Ness Monster” that my mom had spoken of looked like, thoughts of what it would be like to see her, images of the fun times I would have pursuing her.

My mom had already specified that she wasn’t a mean monster, so, with nothing to fear on that front,

I fell asleep, thoughts and images melding into dreams in vibrant color, rich texture, glorious imagination. Dream land transcended time and space constraints and my mind ran free with the possibilities of my meeting with Nessie, the people who would take me to lunch to chat about my bravery for one so small, etc.

I enjoy watching kids with vivid imaginations work their magic on the world. If you spend enough time with them, you can see the little wheels turning in their heads, and when that happens, well,

anything can happen.

One minute, she’s a princess, the next, a gourmet chef.

He’s a pirate/ninja/storm trooper and his weapon is a light saber/sword/knife with a removable gun attachment.

As people get older, those wheels start to turn a little more slowly,more cautiously, more intentionally, more purposefully. Dream land loses some of its luster, and is replaced by the “real” world.

Imagination takes a back burner to studies/career/ you name it, the color around us starts to fade, the sea monsters of childhood become less glamorous, but more safely attainable; less adventuresome, more secure.

The seahorse could hardly be thought of as a monster, as far as I’m concerned. I think seahorses are precious  – and they look so friendly too. The seahorse’s Latin name is hippocampus, which comes from the ancient Greek roots hippos (“horse”) and kampos ( “sea monster”).

In ancient Greek culture the hippocampus, or, seahorse was considered a symbol of strength and power.

In human anatomy and the medical professions, the hippocampus is a part of the brain. It is so named because of its close resemblance to a seahorse. The hippocampus’ function in the brain concerns learning and memory : it is responsible for converting short term memory to more permanent memory, and for recalling spatial relationships in the world about us.

In the study of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementing illnesses, the hippocampus is often the first area of the brain to be affected by the brain’s abnormally high accumulation of beta-amyloid (a protein fragment). This protein causes damage to the areas of the brain where it becomes trapped. Damage to the hippocampus results in memory loss, and impaired cognitive functioning.

In memory care advocacy/research/fundraising and in some long-term care facilities the hippocampus (seahorse) is often used as a logo.

My first job out of college was at a nursing home in Atlanta. My favorite parts of that job were

bringing my violin in, twice a month, and taking a few of the very low functioning residents out to the garden for a garden concert,

and my weekly memory care discussion group. We met every Tuesday morning, for Coffee and Discussion, in the garden room on the third floor (the memory care unit).

We would read old newspapers that would have been the news back in their (the residents’) days, talk about our days and happenings of the week (which varied, depending on where each resident thought he or she was in the present moment), and talk about the fact that Gretta Garbo’s legs were apparently insured for $1 million. Yes, it came up every time. And not from me.

Memory care is a special service. It requires patience, familiarity and a pretty profound level of comfort with routine, flexibility,

and an active imagination.

Once, I was trying to get (we’ll call her) Clarissa to come with me to one of the socials we were having downstairs. She kept refusing, adamant that her husband would be meeting her at this bus stop, any minute. “Go on ahead, sweetie, we’ll catch up.”

I wonder if dementia makes those brain wheels turn a little faster.

I decided to invite myself into Clarissa’s world. Suddenly, we weren’t in the hallway on the memory care unit anymore – we were on a busy street! She was sitting on a bench, I was leaning on a telephone pole. All the men walking by were wearing Fedoras and the ladies, hats AND gloves, of course.

“I’ll just wait with you, Clarissa, if that’s ok. I don’t want to leave you here by yourself.”

“Thanks, honey. I’d love the company”.

We sat in silence, waiting for Clarissa’s husband, who had died many years before.

He never came.

A few minutes later, Clarissa looked at me and said ” I guess they’ll start serving any minute, we’ve been waiting a while. I’m gonna go find my seat.”

And, as quickly as it had been fashioned, Clarissa’s bus stop world vanished, she was back in the hallway on the memory care unit, and she was ready to have dinner – husband forgotten, or death remembered and accepted – for the moment.

I attended a class the other night on Alzheimer’s type dementia and other dementing illnesses. It was geared at caregivers, but I went as a theology student aspiring to work as a chaplain in hospice/long term/memory care.

I have a special place in my heart for caregivers of people with dementia. Caregivers listen patiently, flexibly modifying information on the spot, for the good of their loved one;

caregivers imagine along with their loved one: imagine their way into and out of their worlds, creating space for new memories, how ever short lived, or for creative expansion of old  ones, seemingly long-forgotten;

caregivers constantly reinvent their loved one’s sea monsters trying to keep the luster, maybe modifying color and texture;

caregivers make a difference.

To anyone who has ever cared for a loved one with, lost a loved one to, helped a friend through a loved one’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or another dementing illness, this post is dedicated to you, and your relentless love/compassion/dedication.

I hope that my future ministry does justice to you and to the legacies your loved ones leave behind.



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