Remember the scene in the Matrix where Neo goes upstairs to that seemingly ordinary kitchen in that seemingly ordinary apartment, where a seemingly ordinary old woman is baking cookies, and then it turns out she is actually a future-reading-Oracle with a message for Neo from the vast beyond?
This is pretty close to how I feel after visiting Kyrin and Martha. Kyrin doesn’t predict the future, but she is definitely a conduit for a message that feels as if it comes from a timeless place. A message spiritual in essence but alive and breathing in Kyrin’s life, and in the story she has to tell.
The thought of having Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, or loving someone who has it, is an uncomfortable one. If we even touch the thought lightly, we feel terror, and return it to the shadows.
But there is no terror in the shadows at Martha and Kyrin’s house. The morning breeze blows through open doors and windows. Their tiny white-on-white apartment is busy with hand drawn pictures of the chakra system, eclectic art, a Goldie painting, a sunset burning up behind Rangitoto, busy creative person “to do” lists, a packed bookcase, beautiful ornaments, accents of pastel, green, gold and wood. Calming oils infuse into the air and in a small earthenware jug beside me on the table, my Bohemia Moon Tea steeps. The sounds of Saturday morning cricket filter through from the adjacent park.
Martha sits in a comfortable looking armchair opposite me, her body relaxed and at ease. She has thick, dark hair peppered with flyaway silver threads, and dark, alive eyes that sparkle. Her face does read as naive, open, gentle. When I arrive she lifts her face, our eyes meet and she smiles benevolently. I resist the urge to hug her and then learn over the next few hours that hugs are Martha’s primary language.
Martha was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s nine years ago at the age of 61. Kyrin’s father cared for her until he passed away five years ago and the responsibility for Martha’s care fell to Kyrin, their only child. Kyrin is clear to point out that there are many options for the loved ones of people with Alzheimer’s and that we’ve got to really look at our own options and do what is right for us. “But this,” she states with absolute clarity, “was what was right for me.”
Kyrin was living in Christchurch at the time and had a “normal” adult-child to parent relationship with her parents. When Kyrin arrived in Tauranga following her father’s death, she found a long check list with only two things not crossed off. He’d travelled around the country to see friends and family. He had warranted and serviced the car. He’d been tying up loose ends.
“It was his only choice, to pass away,” Kyrin explains. “He was never going to put Martha into care and caring for her would have killed him. He got out at the right time.”
One could forgive a person for feeling resentment at being left with a responsibility this daunting, but Kyrin’s perspective is not what we’d expect. Though Kyrin will admit that her job is hard, she considers partners who are caring for their ailing spouse to have the more daunting task:
“That’s hard. Those two people have known each other a long time, it’s an equal partnership, that person is your lover, those relationships change so much more. There is a service in being a child. This person grew me, raised me, fed me, housed me and gave me all the money I ever asked for and I kind of just took and took without consciously giving back. Dad’s passing allowed me to have a relationship with Martha before she was really sick. It’s really rare for a child to have a close relationship with their mother in their adult life. I left my job, we travelled lots and we just kind of hung out. Before this we didn’t have a relationship.”
It’s not the last time Kyrin will stun me with the positive way she is able to frame her life experiences. However Kyrin did not always view her circumstances in this same light. A few years ago Kyrin tells me, she was in a really dark place. Unable to deal with her circumstances she struggled with deep depression and attempted to commit suicide. “I was stuck, I just couldn’t see a way forward.”
And then a chain of events intervened.
Already struggling with the care of her mother, Kyrin experienced a friendship breakup which she describes as devastating. So she took herself off to an isolated cabin on Lake Wakatipu surrounded by mountains and deep in snow. Here, she went out to watch the sunset one night and everything went wrong. Instead of getting some great pics for “the gram” Kyrin was confronted with a decapitated deer and felt the universe stop her in her tracks.
“I literally could not move. I had an experience, a spiritual awakening really. It was surreal. I saw and learned a lot of things. It was kind of like the universe opened up to me. There was a moment where I understood that I was the most insignificant part of this universe as well as the most significant part of the universe. I received messages about my past lives, and my soul’s purpose and messages from my ancestors. It was totally like, cool.”
The next morning Kyrin woke up and her mind was at ease. She describes going out to the stony beach to have her breakfast and seeing all of her past lives and ancestors there, either side of her, and their message was: ‘we are here to support you, we’ve got you.’
“I knew that the purpose of my life was to be of service and the biggest service I could provide [was] to care for my mother. I realised I had actually chosen to be a caregiver. Instead of it being ‘you have to be a caregiver,’ it turned into ‘you get to be in service, which is your life’s purpose.’ When I made that decision, that is when everything clicked. I had to own it. I had to really be okay with it, and doing so made everything a lot easier.”
Kyrin’s father was Hindu and she believes strongly in reincarnation. “The final step before reaching enlightenment and moving forward into the next phase of existence,” Kyrin explains, “is service.”
I sit there and take it all in. Wanting to include Martha, I glance towards her at times. She sits serenely listening to music on her headphones, occasionally emitting some mumbled lyrics in a high sing-song voice. Directly above her on the wall is a framed print of Goldie’s painting of the chieftainess, Ina Te Papatahi. Although the eyes of the chieftainess are downcast in the painting, you get the feeling that she’s taking you all in. Her softly curled hair though grey doesn’t allude loss and fragility. It speaks of mana and superiority. The golden yellow scarf at her neck nods to both spirituality and royalty. The light source in the painting is Ina herself. My eyes float between Ina and Martha, the echoing of them is unmistakable.
“It would have been easy for me to dismiss the experience as hyperthermia. I was in the snow for six hours,” Kyrin admits, “but I think that’s what we do in this culture, we dismiss the spiritual element. You look at cultures such as the Amazonian tribes and their use of Ayahuasca to attain a spiritual realm, but when we experience it naturally we say ‘that person is going crazy.’ Hallucinations and delusions are really dismissed in Western culture as ‘there’s something wrong with their brain’ but that is also a space where the spirit can become evident. I think Martha is on her own spiritual journey, I think she lives a lot in the spirit world.”
At the same time she was having these revelations, Kyrin was in touch with a woman whose parent had also just been diagnosed with dementia who was putting her parent into care.
“She said she wasn’t prepared to give up her independence and I had a really strong reaction to that. I thought: ‘I’m not giving up my independence.’ And it made me feel defiant about my choice, which gave me a lot of power.”
Kyrin also gives credit to a therapeutic relationship she had with her counsellor at the time which was immensely healing for her.
“Connecting with another human, who is like: ‘I hear you, I see you, I’m trying to understand where you’re coming from, and I’m here to support you.’ That was powerful for me, to have someone say ‘I’m here. I’m here.’ I don’t think we get that very often, in our relationships. We’re disconnected.”
Kyrin is now studying towards becoming a counsellor herself. “My end goal and hope is to guide people into a spiritual journey and reconnect people back to the spirit because it’s been such a huge catalyst for me. For me, getting massages and facials isn’t what sustains me, what sustains me is having hope for something more. I think hope is the fundamental need of humans. Without hope I wouldn’t be here.”
And that’s what Kyrin would like to tell people from her own experience, that there is something that we can take away from any situation, but we have to be open to it.
“Martha’s being unwell has given me the greatest lessons of my life that I will ever learn, nothing will ever compare to these lessons and it is by the grace of God that I have been allowed to have these experiences.
“We all have, ‘Is this person going to like me? Are they going to judge me?’ [thoughts], whereas Martha is so free. Martha has only love to offer. There is zero judgement in her mind. When I say I’ve seen God through Martha, I mean, I have seen her connect with people.
“There was one girl at the supermarket, and Martha just grabbed her and they embraced for a long time. The girl’s dad told us she hadn’t let a stranger touch her in four years, she was really high on the autism scale. It was one of those things—two spirits connecting with love. Martha is a really great healer, because it is only love, that’s the only emotion left with Martha, which is such a rare thing to happen.
“Alzheimer’s sucks, it’s horrible, but also I’m grateful that she has it. Yes, Alzheimer’s is terrible, but our lives are not terrible, we are really happy; we are living a good life. We have a relationship, we have connection. There is a blessing in everything it just takes time for that blessing to be revealed.”
Living in this golden age of happiness it can be easy to get positivity-fatigued, positive psychology is everywhere we look, where once only Oprah stood, now thousands of down-to-earth, heartfelt guru’s stand spouting feel-good happiness advice. But often when these tools: gratitude, connection, mindfulness, purpose and so on would be most useful, they seem their most trite and least achievable. Everyone knows someone who is still searching for that hand to pierce the fog of their lowest lows, to show them a way out. It is the final offering from Kyrin that morning that suddenly seems like the gold leaf on her manifesto:
“You know, everything you say to yourself is true. It cannot be dictated to you by anyone else. We need to trust ourselves to know that what is true for you—is 100% true.”
Her words resonate with me, taking me back in time—a new mother struggling with the realities of her new life. I remember the day when I realised that it was what I was saying to myself—that I didn’t want to do this—that was creating and fuelling every inch of my unhappiness. That it was the simple act of changing a single phrase that I used to describe my life, that then allowed me to accept and move forward with my life.
My reverie ends and I return to the present where I am thanking and saying goodbye to Martha and Kyrin, feeling about a foot off the ground and tingling with good feeling. And this time I do not prohibit myself from reaching out to Martha, and she takes my hands in both of hers and smiles, and there is nothing but love.