At the Intersection of Alzheimer’s and Blessing


My mother is closer to the dead than to the living.

They populate her days; a ceaseless parade of faces from the past.  Parents and grandparents.  Brothers and sisters.  Friends and grandchildren and one great-grandchild.  Names slip from the increasing ruin of her mind, seeping through the chinks like water, and pass between her fingers like prayer beads.

Her dementia has made all the moments of her life simultaneous.  All time is Now.  Events from her childhood link arms with those of her adult life.  Unable to differentiate between place and time, she lives them all, all at once, eating meals with the dead grandchild she adored and the great-grandmother she despised.

Her mind is as dense as the Amazon rain forest, as slippery as the slopes of Everest.  We who love her hunt through the dripping jungle wet and poke into snow caves in search of her, but the truth is that the woman we knew as ‘Mom’ is already gone.  The occasions when she knows us are increasingly rare — a glimpse of exotic plumage, the track of the Yeti.

She hasn’t forgotten us entirely, not yet (although we walk with the dead now, too), but that time is fast approaching.  Last week, my sisters and I were “You, her, and the other one.”  When I bathe her, she asks “Do you have many patients to take care of?”  And I’ve witnessed the momentary blankness that descends sometimes when she looks at my father.  Sixty years married, three children, ten grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and she wonders “Who is this man?”

My father sees her expression and turns away.  He focuses on the television and marshals his emotions so as not to cry in front of her.  He’s done better with this than I expected — keeping in mind that ‘better’ is another word for pushing through the days by staring straight ahead so you don’t go insane with grief.

Some days we do better than others, but it’s a losing battle.  We’re all vulnerable, each of us touched to one degree or another by the insanity, the tears.  Despite our best intentions, emotions ran rampant.  Like bulls driven mad with pain, intent only upon what WE feel, we gore at each other heedless of the damage we do to ourselves or to the future of our family once she is gone.

There’s no how-to manual for this.  Others before us have shed light on this path, but all advice is subjective; each circumstance its own particular Hell.  We knew we would cry, but no one warned us about HER tears, her moments of terror and despair, when she curls up and sobs like a child, abandoned in the deepening well of her own brain.  “Where am I?” she asks.  “What is this place?  Why can’t I go home?  I want to go home!”  At other times, she nails herself upon a cross built of insecurities — “I was a terrible mother.  I didn’t mean to make mistakes.”

We do now what she used to do for us — we hold her and rock her; quiet her tears and terror; try to explain what we can (knowing full well she won’t remember it two minutes down the line); try to make her smile, make her laugh.  Tell her we love her.  Tell her we forgive her.  Tell her that she’s perfect just the way she is.  (“No, I’m not,” she says, looking at each of us, her face wet with tears.  “But you are.”  Oh, God, if only that were so, Momma.)

But.

No one tells you about the upside that may come with dementia, the unexpected gifts that open suddenly in your hands like a pearly lotus, leaving you breathless with surprise and gratitude.

My mother spent her life as a rock.  She felt each emotion, knife-sharp and poignant, but held them tight in her heart (particularly the hurts and angers) and never let them show.  Alzheimer’s has unlocked that gate and set her free.  She cries with us, yes, but those tears are a gift.  No longer alone with her pain, she has others to share the burden, to take it from her shoulders.

And she laughs with us (boy, does she!) and makes jokes.  She teases as she never teased before (but gently, always gently), and if she doesn’t always know the name of the person she’s teasing, so what?

But the biggest gift, the unexpected prize at the heart of her dementia, has been the renewal of her relationship with my father.  Both children of the depression, both raised in neglectful (sometimes abusive) families, they are tough nuts to crack.  Both are intensely private; neither has ever been one to outwardly show affection.

Now all bets are off.  Every night before bed, my father kisses my mother goodnight .  (In 53 years of life, I have only seen them kiss once.)  They are solicitous of one another in a way they never were before; respectful, gentle, thoughtful and caring.

It is a wonder to behold.  And if it had to come about in this way — if we had to walk the jungle trail of dementia in order to see this miracle occur — then I’m all for it.  My parents have their love back.

And I thank God.

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About Melissa Crandall

A million years ago--round-about the first Ice Age--I cut my writing teeth on fanzines and science fiction media tie-in novels. I'm happy to say that I've since branched out to include fantasy, horror, essays, and narrative nonfiction. This site will keep you up-to-date on my adventures in writing. I live in Connecticut with my husband--who frequently wonders what he got himself into by marrying a writer--two cats named Tuna and Gypsy, and a semi-neurotic Australian shepherd named Holly.
This entry was posted in Alzheimer's, Connecticut, Darling Wendy, death, Dementia, dying, Essays, Melissa Crandall, Writer, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to At the Intersection of Alzheimer’s and Blessing

  1. MTC says:

    Thank you for this column. I have been down this path with my grandmother, and am starting down it again with my mother. Thank you for reminding me that there are moments of love and joy amidst the tears.

    MTC, see my post at http://fillingmyemptysea.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=188&action=edit

    • It’s a difficult thing to remember, isn’t it — the joy amid the tears? Especially when you’re hip deep in the entanglements of Alzheimer’s. It’s just like a big old sticky spider’s web…from a spider as big as Shelob in “Lord of the Rings.” Know that there are others out here going through it like you, who hold our their hands. It’s the only way we’ll get through this.

  2. Suzi says:

    I should not even venture to adequately express how meaningful this story is to me… I know it is and will be a source of light to many others who will be lucky enough to read it. But these days it seems that many sons and daughters are not as able or willing to experience or receiving such beautiful and heartbreaking truths. So, thank you, Melissa, Daughter, for moving into and through this difficult journey with such courage and love and for sharing it with us. Why is it that so many folks cannot or do not allow themselves to feel all the feelings as they care for and let go of loved ones? In their fea of feeling I see them diminished daily, and some are even crushed by the weight of burying themselves from their experience, their feelings, the up and down and the myriad shades of grey (that may never make sense). Bless you and may you continue to move forward and through all the joys and sorrows ahead, as you write it out and shed some of the extra pain thereby. I believe when you come out on the other side of these days, you will be an even brighter, and clearer light. Lucky us.

    • Thank you, Suzi. I believe my time as a Hospice volunteer (3 years) has helped me enormously to face what I need to do now with my mother. I saw all sorts of families, all sorts of patients. Some families did everything so well — supported each other and their departing loved one, cast aside old hurts. Others didn’t, and it was painful to watch. My Hospice families were wonderful teachers and I hope I do them honor in my behavior now (keeping in mind I’ll probably have moments when I don’t do so well…and the grace to forgive myself for those lapses). I heartily recommend Hospice volunteering to everyone. It’s not scary in the least — it is illuminating. And even if it is scary — our job here on Earth is to face the things that frighten us (a truth I’ve only recently come to understand), pass through them, and move on.

  3. Becky says:

    Beautiful, sad, moving..Thank you for a glimpse into the life of someone that I have always loved dearly.

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