It strikes me that being in one’s mid-life, having been on this planet for four or five decades, a cycle of change brings a new and sometimes unsettling reality to our existence, the realization and experience of loss.
During my late thirties the telephone rang one day on a beautiful autumn morning. It was my dad who, barring any significant news, seldom phoned us from the other side of town, rare occasions. Our conversation began with familiarity, the usual pleasantries. Dad had been outside on the patio next to the pergola, seated next to mom as they so often did, almost daily weather permitting, he perusing the daily newspaper, she reading a Chatelaine magazine, her gaze periodically shifting bemused to the beautifully flowered gardens, the blue heavens above, the Weeping Willow, its lazy streaming branches draped symmetrically to inches above the ground.
Dad explained that mom had gone to have a nap and he had taken this opportunity to give me a call. In his voice I felt that something was wrong. He began with “son, lately I have noticed that your mother has been experiencing some unusual moments of confusion, absent mindedness, lethargic and restless moments as though struggling with some kind of internal events or turmoil. I have taken mom to her physician and more recently a specialist in geriatric psychiatric assessment. Mom has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.”
This opening pronouncement had me thunderstruck, nearly sick to my stomach. Heartache and fear set in as the shock and sadness for mom’s health quickly set in. “Son, are you there?” dad asked concernedly. For seconds I fought to regain my composure, for dad’s sake and not my own. “Yes dad…I’m so sorry.” Dad went on to explain that, as we knew only too well having seen numerous relatives, including several of mom’s siblings, go through the awful experience, and that the illness had its own unpredictable progression, its own manifestations, its own level of severity, its own finality. I gazed to the clock which really was insignificant in this moment yet in terms of mom’s remaining time with us was indeed a hugely symbolic realization of things to come. Tears welled as words failed to come.
Fast forward to several years later and the more difficult moments of mom’s illness began to surface through the course of long and often arduous days for mom. Every conceivable emotion was worn on her sleeve as distinct symptom and measure of what stage of her illness would manifest in each moment. Cognitive impairment was increasingly obvious, as was mom’s growing frustration with an increasingly troubling and disabling illness that was ravaging her, heart, mind and soul, day by day.
Mom is long gone some ten years now but memories, fond and at times painful, lay just beneath the surface always. I had arrived one beautiful, sunny warm day in spring to find mom sitting alone in the livingroom staring inquisitively at a beautiful satin floral arrangement that mom and dad had bought on one of their bi-annual visits to California. As I drew nearer, mom never taking her gaze from the coffee table adornment, began to look upset. “What’s wrong mom?” I asked in a gentle, quiet tone. “I hate this goddamn thing” she angrily pronounced while at the same time hastily yanking off petals and buds and tossing them to the carpet. “Mom, no, please” I exclaimed and I further implored “dad will have a fit if he sees you do that…you love that plant.” Mom repeated the same expletive several times more and I quickly resolved to invite her to join me on the patio. This scene would have been less comical except that mom really was Victorian, prim and proper in her ways and cussing vulgarities was seldom a part of her vocabulary!
The beauty of the patio almost always brought mom out of the doldrums. A nice cup of hot tea, a calming chat with her son and the gorgeous gardens and hanging baskets that surrounded us were treasured to mom, things of significance and a visual catalyst to instant recall of a time, though quite long ago now, when she would painstakingly attend to these near-artistic renderings by her own hand, dead-heading, pruning, watering, weeding.
Familiar surroundings were critical to mom’s well being, her sense of comfort and belonging, home. The security of home, our presence and these familiar visualizations were critical elements connecting her not only to her past but all-to-important present. She would smile, she would laugh, her head ever turning as she took in the beauty, the same beauty that was her very inner self.
As we sat bathing in the warmth and energy of the sun I noticed mom gazing at the pergola set on the outside of the patio, its graded roof line imposing and strong. “Do you want to sit in the shade of the pergola mom?” I asked with curiosity as to what her thoughts in the moment might be. “No, it’s too dark in there” she exclaimed, a slight irritation in her voice. “Ok mom, it’s beautiful right here anyway” I assured.
In the next moment mom started to laugh, almost uncontrollably. She had the most infectious smile and laugh, always a great comfort to me. “What’s so funny mom?” I asked with a chuckle of my own at her good humour all of a sudden. “I just remembered a saying an old aunt of mine in Winnipeg had years ago” and she was off on another nearly hysterical giggle. “What did she say mom?” I asked knowing full well the answer to my query having heard the story hundreds of times over. “Well, whenever we had a down moment, a cry, a struggle to deal with or anything else upsetting she would quip ‘She always wanted to be a bubble dancer but her daddy wouldn’t buy her the soap’ to which she just howled!
Those moments were an elixir for me, secret potion that, for her and the family, made the whole world right, if even for just a few moments, a levity that told me there was still some semblance of balance deep down inside. It was those kinds of humorous moments, recollections that gave mom a sense of reassurance as well. She would often tear up about her fear of what was happening to her. I would sometimes arrive in early afternoon to find mom in a very tearful state asking “what’s wrong with me?” and she would collapse into my arms sobbing. This would crush dad as he stood by, helpless with emotion he felt he dare not show. I would assure mom she was doing just fine, hold her close and tell her a story about that old aunt and her quirky sayings…and mom would look up into my eyes and smile…that she did indeed remember.
We would often sit together, my gaze on the clock disconcerting and I’d look away. Time…time was not on mom’s side, ticking away as a looming reaper, a fatal strike against her as the seconds, minutes and hours passed. It was well past noon now and she would soon grow tired and weepy, her mind increasingly wandering, distressed. That dear soul was caught in a vortex of paradoxical wasteland, her very essence eroding away as fragments of time passed and could never be salvaged again.
Mom often surveyed that clock high on the valance over the family room window. Anxious, she would exclaim “better get the kettle on for dad” and I’d respond with “oh, I’ll get that mom…you relax.” The kitchen was mom’s treasured domain for all her years and now she could not safely go near a hot stove let alone recall how to cook, what ingredients to blend, what temperature to set nor when dinner would be ready. She would marvel at how comfortably we looked busying ourselves in a place that once felt as familiar as a soothing hot bath.
It was past noon now…time slowly slipped away…
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© Don MacIver 2013; All Rights Reserved
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- The 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s (prweb.com)
- AlertID Offers Solutions to Help Alzheimer’s Patients and Families; September is World Alzheimer’s Month (prweb.com)
- The Age of Alzheimer’s: A note from Maria Shriver (nbcnews.com)
- Hope for Alzheimer’s Disease Patients Now Closer to Reality (medindia.net)
- Elder Care: What can you do about Alzheimer’s disease? (cumberlink.com)