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Coming to terms with my mother’s fight against Alzheimer’s

MIKE FREIHEIT/The Globe and Mail

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News that my 74-year-old mother, living in Jamaica, was in the early stages of Alzheimer's slammed into me like a tropical storm.

She was diagnosed only five days before my departure to visit her from Toronto, where Mother and I had lived before she returned to 20 years earlier.

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The Saturday-afternoon crowd at Montego Bay airport was noisy – many had returned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jamaica's independence from England.

I grinned and kissed Mother's cheeks, then embraced Uncle Delroy, who had driven her to the airport. Her cheeks had new lines, and her eyes had a faraway gaze.

"You look great, Ma," I said.

"You're looking pleasant," she whispered.

I nodded. Suddenly, my mind slipped from her to Soucouyant, a novel by David Chariandy. It's a grim account of a Trinidadian-Canadian woman – Adele, from Scarborough, Ont. – descending into dementia. Soucouyant was my only source of knowledge about Alzheimer's.

While I was reading it two years ago, I felt confident my family was protected from that mind-robbing monster. After all, my grandfather used to read The Gleaner Jamaica's national newspaper – every morning. Then he'd stand in the village square and recite the latest fighting words Churchill was throwing at Hitler's Luftwaffe as it rained bombs on London. He continued reciting the newspaper long after the war and into his old age. I did not know him, but stories of his capacity to memorize and recite the world's events assured me that Alzheimer's was not an illness his descendants needed to worry about.

I was wrong. While driving home with Uncle Delroy, I listened to Mother asking the same questions over and over. The next morning she was up before daybreak, cleaning non-stop until night. Angela, her helper, could only watch.

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Two days after Hurricane Ernesto, heading for the island, was downgraded to a tropical storm, I returned home after midnight to find the house dark, but the bubbling sound of boiling water coming from the kitchen.

"Ma, who's boiling water?" I shouted, hastily removing the kettle from the stove.

"Who's making tea at this ungodly hour?" she responded.

"Are you making tea, Ma?"


"Would you like some tea?"

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"Angela!" I shouted, waking her up. "Did you know Mother was making tea?"

"Ma, when you want anything at night, wake up Angela."

It was clear that my 14-day visit was not going to be long enough, so I extended it to one month. We visited Aunt Vie, Mother's older sister, and I listened to them recalling their girlhood days, which Mother had no problem doing. Our evening walks took us to the base of Green Mountain, where Mother pointed to houses along the curving road and told me the names of the people living in them. She assigned each house a different name on every trip, but it didn't matter. I was glad for the memories we were creating.

When my younger brother Daniel called from New York and asked Mother about her time with me, she mentioned nothing of what we had done. I was disappointed, but only briefly. The nation's athletes, some from my mother's district, were winning gold medals at the London Olympics; it was hard not to be optimistic.

Only minutes after three Jamaican sprinters won gold, silver and bronze in the 200 metres, a car-honking, flag-waving crowd descended into the square, across from our house, where my grandfather used to recite the newspaper. Many were wearing the nation's black, green and gold colours. Some of the women gyrated their waists in sensual motion, as if the pulsating reggae bass blasting from a parked car was making love to them.

Mother smiled and waved to the crowd from her veranda. But later, when she asked if the games were in Montreal, reality came back. Part of her was still at the 1976 Olympics – she was living in Canada. Before I could correct her, she asked about Pierre Trudeau.

"He died," I answered with a sliver of discouragement.


"A long time ago."

I broke the silence by telling her I write stories sometimes. "That's good," she said.

"One day you will read them," I continued, and waited for her to say more, but nothing else came.

Many years earlier, when the two of us lived in West Toronto, she would put both hands on my shoulders when giving me advice. She always began with, "Well ..." Now her wisdom, on which I had relied, bled from her.

Four years earlier – my last visit – had been joyful.

"Tell me about my grandsons," she'd said. I told her both my sons were dating. She grinned, but then said, "Well, tell them I'm not yet ready to be a great-grandmother." After dinner, she would let juicy family gossip flow late into the night.

My August visit was quickly over.

"Well, Ma," I began. "I am leaving tomorrow, but remember years ago when you won our endless war against me wearing crumpled jeans to college instead of dress pants? 'You wear a uniform to school in Jamaica, but want to look like an orangutan in Canada,' you kept shouting, and never backed down.

"Well, Ma, the brain robber is here; you must fight and never give up. You hear me?"

"Well, yes, son," she answered, smiling, her right hand on my shoulder. "Fight, and never give up."

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