I WAS SOBER SIX MONTHS when my Uncle George took me to lunch and told me he believed his sister, my mother, had Alzheimers. She was 60. Via frequent short visits to Pittsburgh and more phone calls than we’d shared in decades, I helped my dad accept that he needed to take her to the doctor for tests. Then I helped him accept the results.
She declined over ten years. It was like a plane crash in slow motion.
At my Aunt Ruth’s funeral, my mother cried and cried, with no clue who she was crying for. When I joined my parents at the grave site, my mother turned excitedly to my father and pointed at me. “I know that man!” she said.
When she couldn’t talk any longer; after all the in-home nurses had quit; after the cousin who’d come to care for her committed credit card fraud while my mother wandered the house unwashed and raving; after that, I helped my dad accept that mom could no longer live at home.
Oh, and I stayed sober.
The final two years she spent in a facility. It was like visiting a statue. My dad would get her an ice cream and wheel her around the nursing home garden. She ate the ice cream. I’m not sure she saw the trees.
She had a little CD player in her room, and when we visited, we would put on music she liked – that is, music she had liked when she liked anything. Once, I swear I saw her shiver at the melancholy sax riff on a Frank Sinatra ballad. As if someone was there.
Then there was the day her hair turned white. I suppose it had probably turned gradually during the few weeks since I’d last seen her. My career was taking off and I couldn’t visit Pittsburgh as often. For that matter, maybe her hair had turned white a decade before, and the attendants at the nursing facility had just one day decided it wasn’t worth coloring her hair any more.
Alzheimer’s can only be proved via autopsy; it can’t be diagnosed with 100% certainty while the patient lives. My dad’s insurance company used that loophole to avoid covering a dime of the cost of the last ten year’s of my mother’s care.
After she died, after months had elapsed and my dad was still living among all her old things, my then-girlfriend and I volunteered to weed through my mother’s possessions, giving nearly everything to charity. In my mother’s desk drawer, we discovered a note she had written to herself at the onset of the disease, acknowledging that her mind was going. She feared the passage into darkness.
April 24th would have been my mother’s birthday. I think of her with some regularity. Sometimes I wish my mother could have lived to know my daughter, who is now seven. And sometimes I indulge the thought that somewhere, somehow, she does.