If the stories you hear about Alzheimer’s and dementia fill you with sadness or dread, meet my mother Jean.
Mom made me laugh – being with her was fun. She radiated good humor. With her perpetual smile, her standard answer to nearly everything was “Just Delightful.”
True in the beginning, the inexorable advance of Alzheimer’s was definitely not a source of joy. “How long have I been like this?’ she would say, aware that she was following in her mother’s footsteps – that something beyond her control was happening to her. “Walk away,” she would tell us. “Don’t sacrifice your life for me.” And all of us – her five children – generally agreed.
As the disease advanced a sense of fatalism set in. She focused on my father who was experiencing both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and on her mounting fury at the nurses who were dressing and undressing her husband – her job. And all day she would chirp, “Hop up, Bob” … unable to comprehend that he was in a wheelchair.
And then Dad, at the age of 89, died. We woke her to say goodbye and I have never seen such grief. Particularly not from Mom who kept a tight rein on emotions. Would we have to tell her the news every day and would she have to relive it over and over?
I arrived early the next day. She was sad and a bit lost but she remembered.
The second day – she remembered.
The third morning I found her crying softly in her bed, “I just want to be with your father.”
I summoned the mother of my youth and said, “Well Mom, you should have thought of that before you began to take such good care of yourself.”
She laughed. “Well that’s life.”
And from then on she put her feelings in a box. Though she said “Oh, Bob,” throughout the day, she reverted to her cheerful self – eager to join others and enjoy the moment. She began to paint. I began to visit more and more often and the more I did the more willing I was to join her in the moment.
I stopped focusing on what was lost and instead enjoyed who she was – wh0, as it runs out, continued to be wonderful and always fun.
Our Scrabble games continued. I’m going to beat you at Scrabble” I would announce as I set up the board. “Not so fast,” she would counter, lifting her chin in determination.
She was mischievous. Generous to others, she wouldn’t accept a compliment herself – that led to pride, a seven deadly sin. But one day we walked into the corridor to find ourselves alone. “You know what this means?” she said. “We are the most beautiful women in sight!”
I asked her to tell me the secret to a happy marriage; she and Dad adored one another and were happily married for 66 years and friends since they were 14. “Love him dearly and laugh.”
She played the piano, her own special medley of Silent Night morphing into Polly Waddle Doodle.
We looked at the view. “This is the best place to be in Seattle,” she would say beaming.
We sang – Oh, What a Beautiful Morning, Winter Wonderland and Pop Goes the Weasel – her favorites and always sung with dramatic gestures.
“Do you believe in heaven?” she asked. “I’m not sure but if there is a heaven,” I would answer, “Dad is up there building you a boat and when you get there, he’s going to take you on a cruise.” “Now you’re talking!” she would say with glee.
And throughout the next seven years of her life with Alzheimer’s, she continued to laugh and smile and take delight in every moment.
She continued to teach and inspire me with the wonderful tenacity of the human spirit.