In 1973, my parents moved up in life. Fifty-five vertical steps from the street to the front door gave us excellent cardiovascular health along with a spectacular view of the Hudson River and the Palisades cliffs beyond. From her bedroom, in the front of the house, my mother, Alice, loved to watch the Palisades glow with dawn light. She treasured this quiet time alone before the rest of us woke, before a day in the classroom, before errands on her way home. At the other end of the day, as the sun dropped behind the cliffs, the golden ginger light wafting into the living room cast a powerful spell on her that often pulled her away from the kitchen. Dinner could wait. The first time that a family friend visited and saw the view during one of these magical sunset moments he said, “Alice, you’ve arrived.”
Now sunsets sometimes bring a different kind of magic. Black magic. Stories come alive. Newsreels from her childhood come back through the ether. Phantoms appear. The Mayo Clinic defines sundown syndrome as “a state of confusion at the end of the day and into the night.” While its cause is unknown, the shape of the phantoms can give clues about how to make sunsets clear and safe again.
I hovered that time of day, pulling Alice into the kitchen to do something familiar as the light, and reality, shifted. She was slicing green peppers into the tiniest cubes, when she said, “It’s good you came along when you did. I would have drowned. Papa would have been so mad at me. I promised not to go there.” That afternoon she had read Marion Dane Bauer’s, On My Honor, the story of a boy consumed with guilt after his best friend drowns when the two of them sneak off to swim in a forbidden river. I could tell her, “Papa would forgive you.”
When the witches came, I asked her what they looked like. Sure enough they were of the Wicked Witch of the West variety. In my best Glinda voice, I told Alice that I spoke with the bad witches and explained that they weren’t allowed at our house.
“They listen to you?”
“I’m glad I’m with one of the good witches.” I was honored.
We never shifted dinner time to five o’clock, as Alzheimer’s residences do in order to ease the pain of sundowning. To keep our lives normal, we waited for Peter to come home. Instead, we worked in the kitchen, mindful of the spirits who were there with us. Once they and she had settled, we could step outside together to see the evening colors spread across the Vermont sky.