The office of my mother’s neurologist can be a grim place. Not the ambiance (well lighted and nicely appointed) and not the staff (cheerful and unfailingly professional.) It’s the patients and their families facing Alzheimer’s. Three years ago my mother and I were there. I knew the gist of what the doctor was going to say and Mother suspected it. That was a grim afternoon.
A couple of days ago we were back for her to have a follow-up evaluation of how her Alzheimer’s is progressing. Short answer: it is – but much less rapidly that would have been the case if the neurologist had not put her on the gold-standard Alzheimer’s drugs, Aricept and Namenda, three years ago. Mother still recognizes me and we can have conversations. Circular ones, because she loops back to earlier topics with some of the loops being three minutes or less. But it’s bona fide conversation and typically pleasant. She’s a surprisingly happy person, in large part because she lives in a wonderful Assisted Living facility where she has good care, nourishing food, and many friends. And where there’s a Chaplain. I like going to Chapel there on Sunday afternoons, like today. It puts me back in touch with my Baptist-Methodist roots.
As for my end of the mother-daughter relationship, well, it’s true that Alzheimer’s is a long goodbye. On the other hand, in her case the disease lost no time knocking out some of her dysfunctional circuits, especially her crippling inhibitions. In some ways she’s a more normal – less crippled – person and mother than she used to be. She’s in a more invigorating and resilient social matrix than when she was almost a recluse when I was young. I travel from Texas, where I live, to Georgia, where she’s in Assisted Living, about four times a year for week or so. Every time I visit, she introduces me to several of her friends and neighbors. Sometimes more than once to the same people, but they don’t mind. To be brutally honest, my mother’s Alzheimer’s has given me gain as well as loss.
She’ll worsen in every imaginable way if she doesn’t die first. She could suddenly deteriorate at any time. For the days of this fleeting week, though, I’ve enjoyed seeing her. With financial, legal, and practical things squared away after three years of hard work, this time around I have time to visit her and, well, just relax. Alzheimer’s is not utterly incompatible with people relaxing and even having fun. We’ve laughed a lot. Thank God so far she still has her same sense of humor: self-effacing and kind-hearted, never mean. She reminisces, pulling up old memories with startling clarity compared to her blurry grasp on the here and now. That’s typical for Alzheimer’s people. I’ve gleaned bits and pieces of her family and personal history that I never knew before.
The neurologist ran late. Given his intrinsically unpredictable clientele, I was not surprised. Mother and I had time to sit in the pleasant examining room with its view of a lake and pine trees. She sang a ditty from when she was in the Women’s Army Corps that went on for several pointedly funny verses. Alzheimer’s people tend to retain songs even after they lose almost everything else. Soon she was singing the old popular song “Blue Heaven.” There’s a line in that one about whippoorwills calling. She demonstrated a whippoorwill call she learned how to do growing up on a farm. Then she recollected how her mother, my saintly grandmother, used to play the piano, one old Baptist hymn in particular. I remember it. We sang together, “There’s a land that is fairer than day…in the sweet by and by we will meet on that beautiful shore.” Lord only knows what the doctor’s staff thought about what they heard through the door. Probably they appreciate having happy patients and families for a change.
If you believe that love is stronger than death, and that our ancestors can care about our welfare and even in some way visit us or help us if we ask them to, then Alzheimer’s is a conundrum. The mother or father, wife or husband or sibling that we knew raggedly fades until in the end there’s a demented and severely impaired stranger in their husk. When do they really die? With this question on my mind, I asked a spiritual director if she thought it possible that our ancestors may partially, or paradoxically, slip into the nearer presence of God before the body dies. She slowly said yes – that might be.
The truth we don’t know. I do know it gives me comfort to think of my mother as being already partly in the nearer presence of God and in the embrace of my grandmother while it’s my job to be kind to the person who is still here. She’s partly familiar, partly strange in a crazy-making way. She’s heartbreakingly impaired and frustrating to deal with. And sometimes something shines through her like light through a darkened house on a stormy night with a dark wind twisting the curtains. The house of her mind is ill-lit by guttering candles of rationality. The dim rooms of her soul are haunted by gentle old memories and ungentle, ugly paranoid notions. But through the flailing curtains and rattling shutters and framework falling apart, there’s a gleam of dawn beyond the house, behind the storm.