Today is my birthday. I’ve been enjoying special messages and phone calls and cards and gifts. It’s wonderful to be remembered on this special day, even though I don’t expect all that kind attention. But on this one day, this day of my birth, it really is nice to know that I am thought about and loved.
I’ve heard from friends, some old and some new…….even some that I have never physically met. Facebook has opened up some friendships with people that I feel like I know well but have actually never seen face to face. I’ve had messages from friends that I have known from all the different places that we lived during our military career. Of course, I’ve also heard from family in various ways today.
The person I have not heard from today, and that I know I will not hear from at all on this special day, is the woman who is responsible for this day of my birth. My mother. I no longer expect a card from her, or a gift, or even a call. The woman who gave birth to me no longer even remembers that day years ago that she came in from mowing the lawn while Dad was at work, and ended up in labor at our local hospital. Not only does Mom not remember that day, she no longer remembers me.
Gary and I went home to West Virginia last week for a brief visit. It had been far too long since we had been home to see family. It was past time to go. And it was also past time for my mother, who has Alzheimer’s. I knew from what family said that Mom wouldn’t know me. To experience that reality, though, is far different from just hearing about it.
Jeanie, my sister-in-law, took Gary and I to see mother at her assisted living home. She lives in such a beautiful setting in those West Virginia mountains. We’re all thankful for the good care she receives there and for how happy she has been……she and her precious cat, Princess.
We walked in to her apartment with Jeanie just as Mom was coming out of her bedroom, pushing her walker in front of her. Mom realized that somehow she knew Jeanie, although she doesn’t really know how she knows Jeanie or who Jeanie is or what her name is. But as for me and Gary…….there was hardly a glance in our direction, for Mom had other things on her mind as soon as she saw Jeanie’s familiar face. She and Jeanie talked for a minute, and went to check on Mom’s concerns, with still no notice of Gary and me.
When they returned to the living room, I went over to Mom but still she didn’t have any reaction to my being there. No hello…..no “How are you?”………no “It’s so good to see you.”……..no hug…….no emotion at all. And certainly no recognition. I patted her shoulder, wondering if I should hug her, and still she hardly acknowledged me.
Jeanie and I sat on the couch, Gary sat on the recliner, and Mom sat in her chair with the ottoman in front where she could lift her legs, her feet somewhat swollen. It was then that Mom seemed to realize that we were there and that she didn’t know who we were. I felt strange, as if I had entered the home of a casual acquaintance or was visiting a shut-in for church or something. I didn’t really feel like I was sitting with my mother whom I hadn’t seen in way too long. It was the first time in my life that my mother had not seemed glad to see me. There was no rudeness, just distance and unfamiliarity.
Mom was so polite, so gracious to these people that she didn’t know. Again that feeling of unfamiliarity hung over the room. Here sat the woman that I had known for my entire life, who loved me like no other…..like a mother loves her child………yet who at this moment was puzzling over who we were and why we were there.
She talked about her concerns over her colitis issues, although she doesn’t understand that it’s colitis. To her this is new and serious and has never happened before until recently, and so Jeanie kept assuring her that Dr. Pam knew all about it and that there was no cause for alarm. I listened to Mom as she tried to talk about other things as well, seeing that many words were lost to her. Common words like window or cat or bed. She struggled to express her thoughts in every area because the words escaped her, and I could tell that this frustrated her. She knows that she doesn’t know, to some extent, but the ability to bring up the correct words is largely gone.
And there was still the matter of this strange couple sitting in her living room, smiling and talking as if we knew her. Mom would stop and shake her head, and then say, “You just seem so familiar. Now who are you?”
“I’m Patty, your daughter,” I’d hear myself telling her. Telling my mother that I was her daughter…….how odd. I was prepared for this. I wasn’t really surprised, but still that feeling of unfamiliarity was hanging over the room like an unwelcome presence. It dawned on me as we repeated the introductions over and over that what I wasn’t prepared for, totally, was that when we told her who we were……….when I was identified as her daughter and Gary as my husband…….that she basically showed no joy at that revelation. Again, she was polite and she smiled and even showed some surprise……but she didn’t show the joy that a mother would show at seeing her long absent daughter. The connection to that emotion was gone. Again, unfamiliarity.
“Your voices just sound like someone I should know,” she said several times as we talked. And she would again shake her head, trying to piece together in her mind what she very vaguely remembered but what was mostly lost. She was especially fascinated with Gary, more so than with me, and this made us smile.
“You’re so tall and so handsome,” she said to this new man in her living room. “Now who do you belong to?” she asked him. Gary would point to me as his wife, and Mom would look at me and say, “So you’re his wife?” I laughed and wondered why she was surprised. She wanted to know, over and over, if Gary worked. “What is it you do?” she would ask. And over and over, in various ways, he tried to answer her question as simply as possible.
Later, as we got up to leave, I hugged and kissed this dear woman who is my mother…….though she didn’t know that she is my mother. That evening, we picked her up for church. Jeanie had asked me to curl Mom’s hair. Mom sat in her chair as I carefully rolled her fine, baby-soft hair around the hot curling iron……so fearful of burning her. I thought of how many times this dear woman had no doubt curled and cut and combed my hair. Now here I was, doing the same for her…….except she had no idea who this nice woman was who was fixing her hair. It was a sweet time, mixed with the bittersweet. My mother and I…………the once cared-for now doing the caring.
We walked into the church foyer, Mom rolling her walker in front of her. Her body is more stooped and frail now, which makes her even shorter than she always was. She motioned for me to lean down close so that she could say something to me. She pointed to John and said, “Look at that one. I think I should know him.” I just smiled as I told her that that one was John…….her son. The preacher. And she was surprised and she smiled at that news……….as she has now for months when she is once again told that the preacher is her son.
John later motioned for me to come over. He told me that Mom had come over to him, pointed to me, and said to John, “Look at that one. I think I should know her.” So we laughed. Poor Mom. That one……and that one……and that one. Who are all these people that I think I should know? The familiar is now so unfamiliar, yet she is aware that she should know.
The next day we had a family gathering at Bob and Jan’s house. It was a wonderful time of talking and laughter, of catching up with each other and enjoying time together. Mom still asked who that one was or who that other one was, but eventually she just settled in to enjoying the commotion and the conversation. As the day wore on, I came to the conclusion that Mom doesn’t really even know what the word “son” or “daughter” or “grandchild” means. I don’t believe the relationship those words conveys really registers with her anymore.
She, in typical Mom fashion despite her lagging mind, called a little family meeting in order to talk to us about her colitis concerns………though she didn’t refer to it as that. She just told us that this worries her and she thinks it might be the end of her, but then she showed that spirit she’s always had as she firmly said, “But I’m not going to let it get me down!” That’s our mother!
We sang hymns, which I want to write more about in another blog. It was incredibly sweet and touching to all of us. And before I knew it, I was hugging my mother good-bye and kissing her soft cheek. She had no clue whom she was kissing or why, but she welcomed the love and she returned it to this woman that she no longer knows. And she once again noticed Gary before she left to return to her apartment…….that tall, handsome man. “Now, are you married?” she asked one more time. We think Mom has her eye on Gary!
My dear little sweet mother. She doesn’t remember Dad. At least she is not grieving his death anymore. None of us can change this disease of Alzheimer’s or the sad effect it has had on her. She is lively, yet vacant. She is kind, yet reserved. She is talkative, yet clueless. She is aware, yet at a total loss.
John and I talked on Wednesday night. He said that Mom is gone. Yes, the mother that we’ve known and loved is indeed gone. What made Mom our Mom is forever gone. We love and honor this dear woman that is in our lives now, and we remember her as Mom. But she is no longer in that role in our lives.
Mom said it well, too, when we were visiting her in her apartment. She was talking about her physical worries, and she said, “I just don’t know why this is all happening……but I know I’m going to a better place.”
John has said that he sees evidence of the Lord in Mom’s life……..of the work of the Holy Spirit……..even when she’s not aware of it. I saw it then, in this truth that Mom spoke. Such a blessing! “I know I’m going to a better place.”
We have hope, despite the ravages of Alzheimer’s. And someday, in that better place that Mom talked about, that unfamiliar feeling will be gone……..forever!…….to be replaced with healing and wholeness and love.
She’ll know us all. That one…..and that one…..and that one, too.