I missed the first clue: runny devilled eggs. Mom had always prepared them perfectly, no recipe required. Suddenly the ingredients were a mystery.
The second clue, dinner with imaginary friends, was distressing.
But when my mother began wandering around her condo building, berating my dead father for being late from work, a diagnosis was made: Alzheimer’s. Mom moved to The Home, a facility near me so I could visit often. It was a wrenching but necessary decision.
Mom was disoriented by her new surroundings despite my attempts to surround her with family pictures and treasures. Though it was a lovely place, she was depressed. I didn’t blame her. I found it depressing too. An air of desperation hung over the cluster of residents in wheelchairs hovering around the locked front door – prison inmates ready to make a break for it.
It gave me some comfort to hear Mom’s somewhat in-your-face comment directed at them as we left: “MY daughter is taking me out for lunch.”
The implication was that they, unfortunate souls, didn’t have people to do the same. While I was astounded that this normally kind, gracious woman was capable of such rude behaviour, I was delighted that she appreciated my efforts.
The year-and-a-half Mom spent there before her death was painful for all the family. Her condition deteriorated to the point where she didn’t recognize us. But we were spared even worse ravages to her body and mind when she succumbed to a heart attack. With her death came a deep sense of loss – and, as other Alzheimer’s families know, relief.
Despite the grim reality, there were humorous times and poignant moments, and I cling to those.
One time when I was visiting, the door to Mom’s room opened and another resident, a neatly dressed woman, walked in. She came with her purse (an accessory every female resident carried: a habit of many decades, an essential part of their lives even though the purses were often empty).
Mom looked taken aback, but her longtime hostess gene kicked in and she rose and showed the woman a seat. She apologized that she had nothing to offer in the way of refreshments. “This hotel doesn’t have room service,” she noted.
The guest was not bothered and began chattering away to Mom in a language that sounded Germanic but seemed to be a combination of languages. Mom knew only English and French. And yet she responded, carrying on a separate and distinct conversation. They may as well have been speaking in tongues. And yet, both seemed satisfied with the chat.
Then, with no warning, the woman got up and left as abruptly as she had come.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” my mother replied. “I think she’s from England.”
Well then, I thought. That explains everything.
My children, who were teenagers at this time, loved visiting Grammy. They had greater patience with her than I did. Whereas I found myself frustrated at having to repeat things again and again, they distracted her and made her laugh.
One weekend we took Mom to the family room for tea. As we entered, a hush fell. Everyone stared. We found a table and sat down. My son offered to get refreshments. As he made his way, an elderly resident grabbed his arm and asked: “Are you Jesus? You look like him!”
As I glanced up at the wall with its picture of Christ, I could see the resemblance – long flowing hair, tunic-like shirt, sandals. Maybe not the jeans. But the old man could be forgiven that. We stifled our laughter.
One unusual symptom of Alzheimer’s is “time travelling,” often combined with repetitive packing. Mom did both.
Arriving for a visit one time, I entered her room to find suitcases opened on her bed, stacks of newspaper and piles of neatly folded clothes. The first time, I was upset and confused.
“Mom, what are you doing?”
“Packing to go to Perth,” she answered, her tone insinuating I should know where she was going – her childhood home.
“But,” I stammered, “Why are you going there?”
“Why, to see Mama and Papa,” she replied. “I haven’t seen them for ages. And I want to see my sister Flo. I started writing a letter, but it’s better in person. I’ve asked this lady (the nurse) to get the train for me.”
Indeed she had started a letter to her dead sister. It was on the bed next to the suitcase.
We had been transported back to the 1940s.
The nurse unpacked and put Mom’s clothes back in the drawers. I thanked her.
“Oh, I spend the better part of my day unpacking for the residents,” she chortled. “Packing makes them happy. It’s soothing. I don’t mind. It allows them to relive happy times.”
I never knew which decade Mom would be visiting. Some days she was a young girl in Perth, others she was a newlywed in Toronto or a mother angry that her husband worked long hours and couldn’t attend his child’s special events.
As I was catapulted from one decade to another, I realized with regret that I did not know many details of my mother’s life. And as she retreated further into the fog of her disease, my opportunity to truly know her disappeared as well. Time lost, never to be retrieved.
Laurie Best lives in Waterloo, Ont.
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