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.)
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.