I am finally emerging from a crummy cold. Not a horrible nasty one, but still enough to empty a few Kleenex boxes and have me scouring the medicine cabinet for relief and something to let me sleep. Being sick brings its own small gifts; I read a book I was meaning to pick up and really study this time; I watched a total of 8 episodes of a Ken Burns’ documentary and I found strangely enough that I could meditate well, even through the sniffling and coughing.
It also gave me time to sit with my disquiet that has lingered since spending a week with my mother who has moderate Alzheimer’s. I only say ‘moderate’ because that is what the care plan coordinator has written down. I haven’t wanted to learn how to name the stages–I only know how difficult it is as a daughter to watch her mother’s memory slip away.
I think it became obvious her loss of memory was more than just a ‘senior moment’ about 5 years ago. She became unable to read her bank statement or add up things in her checkbook. She began to confuse the days of the week and began misplacing things. Slowly my phone calls to her began to surprise me; she would ask me the same question maybe 3 times in an hour phone call. At first I would remind her that she had just asked me that question, I suppose in an attempt to nudge her mind into gear again. But it was more that I was in denial. I began to realize that reminding her wasn’t any help at all and only served to embarrass or confuse her. Gradually, I became aware of more and more repetition in our calls. She would get stuck in a loop of asking the same question unless I distracted her with a long term memory. She still could recall things from the past very well, as is the usual progression of memory loss. Slowly, I could tell she had a few stock questions or comments that allowed her keep a conversation going: “How old are your grandkids now?” “Do they live close to you?” “How are things going up there?” “What are guys up to?”
I tried giving different answers, just to see if one was more satisfying than another. But that didn’t seem to matter. And I let go of my need to remind her and tried to answer the question as if she had asked it for the first time instead of the tenth. I thought I had come to some peace about her memory loss, just happy that in the moment she still had a sense of humor and even nuance about some topics.
But I was having a harder time with the fact that she did not remember when I called or when people had come to see her. She lived in the reality that she had not seen anyone for weeks and that I had not stayed in touch. Not wanting her to think I didn’t care, I tried to suggest that I had just talked with her or remind her that my sister was there yesterday. But again, this was all for my benefit, not hers. I was so sad that her default reality was that no one came to see her when in reality someone was there everyday. When I visited this last time, it seemed she had some sense that I was in town, but by the last day when I went to say goodbye to her, she asked me when I had arrived. Without thinking it through, I said, “Oh about a week ago.” I could see the look of hurt on her face. “Nobody told me your were coming. I’ve been here. You could have come.”
What could I say? If I told her I had seen her every day the past week, would that confuse her more? But if I brushed it off in the moment, would that hurt as well to think I had not come to see her? Even knowing she wouldn’t remember what I said in the NOW, I could feel the helplessness of not knowing the steps to this new dance–a dilemma faced by so many in this time when we live longer, yet our memories fade.
Certainly I count my blessings. She still knows me. She still is so grateful for her life. She still wants to visit and listen to my stories about the grandkids. She can still walk and be in her own home. She can easily laugh. She forces me to live only in the present moment and to mine what we can from that reality.
Still there was this sadness that lingered on my return. I spoke about it with a spiritual teacher and then, even as I described my angst, a vision came to me as I closed my eyes of a golden thread that looped back and forth from my mother’s heart to my own. I could see how alive and vibrant it was and how the connection was strong and unbreakable. Of course! The mind may go, but this binding was eternal and flaming, undiminished by the disease in her brain. Seeing that glimpse of what was still very real erased my sadness. The love was there and would always remain. Even as memory and words fade more and more with time, and I know they will, here is my constant. We will know each other in the way I knew her when her eyes first met mine and love was immediate, unconditional and golden.
I’m listening to her questions repeated over and over now when she calls, when I hear her try so hard to keep up the connection. I hear her words in that voice I’ve heard since the womb. But now, there is a deeper listening. I hear her heart in those words; I sense her love; I listen to the vastness of her soul that has no words, no sound. It’s more than just an old adage; Love really does conquer all.