Words Can’t Do Justice

Alzheimer's Wrought Unexpected Changes in a Mother

When Mother’s Day came around, I used to find myself blankly staring at the cards on display at the drug store. I stood there puzzled by their messages: “Thank you for always being there for me, Mom,” said one; “You’ve encouraged, inspired and believed in me,” said another. I knew many were corny, but I was scratching my head over something else. I wondered, do people really feel this way about their moms?

Feeling obligated more than inspired, I’d eventually find the perfect card for my mom. It usually had a lily or other flowery flower on the front, and the message inside said nothing more than “Happy Mother’s Day.” After a lifetime of longing for but not getting a mom who’s “always been there” and “encouraged, inspired and believed in me,” it would be the only card that made sense.

My relationship with my mom has been strained for as long as I can remember. There were the standard abandonment issues and then the whammy of all whammies when, at age 18, I inadvertently learned that my dad wasn’t my biological father. But what hurt most has been her emotional inaccessibility. A classic narcissist, she was only ever interested in herself and being the belle of the ball. All eyes on her. She, and whatever fascinating thing she was working on at the moment, were her favorite subjects. She would ramble on and on, usually repeating herself, to whoever would listen.

I longed for her to say anything that might show she was interested in me. I was starved for her attention. I needed her to comfort me when I had had a hard day or to be happy for me when I had had a good one. But instead of getting her, I got stuff: a pony for Christmas, an elaborate carnival party for my birthday, a singing telegram (phoned in from Europe) for college graduation. She never had deeply felt words for me, and that’s why for years I had no words, not even corny, pre-printed ones, for her.

My mom moved to Europe when I was in college which, pre-internet, made keeping in touch difficult. After 10 years there, and blowing through her divorce settlement, she returned to the states and to work. She moved around a lot but, regardless of how close we lived to each other, we were in and out of touch for the next 30 years. A few times, several years passed with no contact at all. I always hoped that she’d make an effort and reach out. I wondered if she thought about me. I hoped that she’d miss me and call just to hear my voice, but that never happened. After a while, I’d reach out to her but re-connecting always ended up the same, with her being inaccessible and self-focused and me being disappointed and hurt.

About eight years ago, during one of our sabbaticals from each other, the manager of her senior living facility called to tell me that the other residents were complaining that my mom hadn’t been bathing or washing her clothes. As I stepped in to help, I noticed other peculiar behaviors — writing duplicate rent checks two days apart and long before the rent was due, misspelling simple words, and having trouble working the TV remote. She ate only sporadically, missing meals for days at a time. After trips to the neurologist, cognitive testing, and a brain scan, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. With my brothers living in other cities, I became her default caretaker.

I’ve heard that as Alzheimer’s patients slip away, they revert to their core, true selves, and that this process can go in one of three ways: They can be sweet, or ornery, or somewhere in between. For my mom, I would have put money on ornery. Instead, the most extraordinary thing happened. She stopped talking about herself entirely, she became sweet and gentle, and she took a genuine interest in me, my husband, and our two girls. When I sat next to her on the bed, she would gaze at me lovingly, stroke my hair and my face. She would ask about my day, compliment me on my outfit, and tell me I looked beautiful. Who was this woman? I asked myself. Where had this sweet mom person been all these years? Didn’t know. Didn’t care. I just relished who she had become.

But it soon seemed like a cruel joke. Just as quickly as her disease gave me a glimpse of the mother I’d spent a lifetime longing for, it whisked her away, deeper into its fog. Over the course of two years, she vanished entirely. She stayed sweet and loving and affectionate but spoke less and less. When she did speak, her sentences were a mishmash of syllables with just the occasional recognizable word. Now she doesn’t speak at all, and it’s hard to know just when the disease will take her away.

My brief, sweet time with my mom has been oddly healing. I can’t say the pain of the past — a lifetime of longing and disappointment — is gone. But now, as I stare at the Mother’s Day cards at the store, instead of wondering if people really feel that way about their moms, I’m a bit more touched than puzzled by the corny but loving sentiments. The time I had with my mom, before Alzheimer’s took her away, wasn’t much and it wasn’t for very long but it’s what I got, and I am thankful for that.


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