* Featured Image by Elisa Peterson
Brain cell connections and the cells themselves degenerate and die, eventually destroying memory and other important mental functions. Memory loss and confusion are the main symptoms. No cure exists.
For years you’ve worked the daily Sudoku and crossword puzzles in the Washington Post. You run three miles three days a week, five miles on Sunday. Take a brisk walk with your dog Joey on days in between. You volunteer at the food rescue one day a week.
You wake up at 4:00 am and torture yourself trying to recall the name of the movie you watched after dinner last night. Fret when you cannot retrieve the setting, the plot, not even one of the characters. Usually by morning when your head is clear an image of a woman walking a narrow London street comes to you and you piece together the plot. Usually. You research the Mayo Clinic website for a definition of Alzheimer’s. Make a checklist of the early signs. Forgetting recent events or conversations is first on the list.
You should have known years ago when your mother stopped dusting knick-knacks, washing windows, changing sheets on her bed. Your Finnish mother — who when you were a kid took you to your grandmother’s for a steamy sauna every Saturday night. Yes, this mother who taught you to scrub floors on your hands and knees and hang sheets outside on the line so they would smell fresh when you crawled into bed. She quit taking showers and washing her hair. She didn’t notice food spilled on her clothes. You said it was just because she was 91. She wasn’t alone. Your father was there to watch out for her.
She quit knitting, quit sewing, quit reading even the crossword she’d done religiously for so many years languished on the table by her reclining chair. She stared blankly at the TV your father had turned up loud and told him she didn’t know what they were saying. And when she let lettuce mold and milk turn sour, served chicken rare, when she left the stove on over night — by then you knew it was more than just her age.
A runner you meet on a morning run calls out, “Hi Sherri I haven’t seen you in a long time.” Her voice is familiar and so is her smile. You know you know her but your mind is blank. You mumble a weak “nice to see you” and continue down the road. You go through names of all your running friends but nothing comes. Then you go through the alphabet of women’s names.
You subscribe to the Writer’s Almanac, Creative Non Fiction, and Poetry Daily. You savor poetry by Joy Harjo, Wendell Berry, Ada Limon. You write poems and essays and submit a few to on line journals that promise a quick response. Every night you read until your eyes sting and you have to turn off the light. You take writing classes with weekly assignments and deadlines. You write lists: brush Joey and Gracie, baby pantry Thursday, send gift card to Harry (grandson too old for toys), call your sister, order Wilkerson book. Your desk is a multicolor mess of sticky notes with dates and things you have to do.
One morning recently you found a candle on the kitchen counter you’d left burning overnight. Yes it was a big candle and the flame was deep inside – hard to see. You apologized to your husband and made a mental note. Alzheimer’s progresses to severe memory impairment and inability to carry out everyday tasks.
You e-mail the bookstore to order Sanjay Gupta’s new book “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age.” You try to convince yourself that you are more like your father who was sharp until he died at 99.
In the United States about six million people over 65 live with Alzheimer’s disease. You wonder how much your mother knew and if she suffered.
Looking back, at the beginning she complained of and seemed frustrated with her bad memory. There were times during the six years she was in memory care when she asked you repeatedly to take her home but she was always pleasant and grateful that you had come to see her. Even after she could no longer walk or move herself from wheelchair to bed, the staff said she never complained and she thanked them for every thing they did. She complemented them on a new hairstyle or a brightly colored shirt. She asked them where they lived and if they had children even after she’d forgotten that she was the mother of eight.
You wonder if your greatest fear will come gradually.
Will it spare you the pain of having to know what you have lost? And if it comes, will you accept it with the grace of your mother?