It was only after my mother died that I became fully aware of how little I actually knew about her. She shared so little of herself with any of us. But one thing I always knew, on some level anyway, was how terrified she was of developing Alzheimer’s, as her mother did, and her grandmother before that. In fact, no one even knows how far back into our family it goes, this insidious and dreadful disease.
My grandmother died curled into a fetal position in a nursing home where she had lingered for more than ten years. But long before she’d reached that stage she’d already forgotten who my mother was. Her only daughter. My mother never let on how much this hurt her. But it hurt me. Not just for my mother, but for myself as well. Most painful was the day my grandmother, though at the time still living alone and managing her life, approached me at a family gathering and asked, as though we had only just met, “Now, what did you say your name was again?” This was how the disease started with my grandmother, turning her loved ones into strangers.
So when my mother’s symptoms began, her denial was understandable. It’s not like cancer, which eats away at some organ but with luck can be caught and slowed if not eliminated altogether. Alzheimer’s spells certain doom. Drugs, what few there are, don’t stop it. And in many cases don’t even slow it noticeably. The tragic outcome is always there, staring you down, looming larger and larger until you lose your senses right along with your mind. Your life does a 180, and you go backwards, returning to the state of helplessness in which you began. It was this sad irony my mother wanted to avoid, and which I, too, had hoped might skip right over her somehow.
So sometime in her second life - that is, the life-after-children life – she developed an addiction to crossword puzzles. “Brain exercises,” she called them. Whenever she visited me over the years, in all the various places I lived, I was trained, like a loyal pet, to leave the house early in search of a paper stand. So that we could begin each day as she always did when she was home - with Katie Couric and the puzzles. I don’t think she was capable of doing it any other way. As some people drink coffee to jump-start themselves, my mother worked a crossword.
She always made a show of reading the other sections first, often out loud - which was more than a little annoying - but I knew it was only a half-interested effort at best to keep up with the day’s events. As the years progressed, the time span between the front page headlines and the methodical folding down of the sought-after section – in half, then half again, pencil in hand - got shorter and shorter. Until eventually it seemed as if that one page, the puzzle page, was the only reason for a paper at all.
Carl, her companion of thirty plus years, whom she refused to ever marry or even live with, was hooked too. The link between them and their crosswords was so interwoven that even on the nights when they each slept at their own homes, one would always call the other early the following day with a question like, “34 down…what’d you put there?”
My mother’s memory had always been unfaltering. And indisputable. Or at least, if she was wrong, no one dared suggest it without facts to back themselves up. She remembered things in surprising detail – the name of a restaurant we’d gone to years earlier, or a street we’d lived on a lifetime ago, places and events no one else could recall. My grandfather was one of ten children – my mother had stories to tell about all of them, in detail. So when these memories began escaping her, it was easy to see how it terrified her. The look in her eye of abject fear. And it was easy to understand her denial. But when she began to confuse memories of my father, whom she divorced in the sixties, with Carl, who was with her until he died in 2005, there was no way for me to remain in denial right along with her.
I had tried for years already to get her to do other “brain exercises.” Learn a new language, take a course in something, anything. I even tried convincing her to buy a computer. She refused. “What do I need that for?” she’d ask, even as my sisters and I presented her with answers ad infinitum. She’d get angry at us if we persisted. It did no good to tell her how it might help keep her memory sharp. By then it had become a touchy subject, almost taboo. So we tried to show her other reasons, the joy of surfing the net, the convenience of email. To no avail. As afraid as she was of Alzheimer’s, I think she was even more afraid of failure. The challenge of learning to use a computer was more than she was willing to try. And she as much as said so.
Then the day came when I learned the level to which her dementia had finally advanced. I found a stack of unfinished crosswords. Dozens of them, going back weeks. All in a neat pile, almost hidden, under the coffee table in her living room. Her habit had always been to save a puzzle if she’d been unable to complete it, going back to it again and again until it was finally done. Sometimes it would take her a few days, but she was determined, and nearly always successful. “Did it!” she’d exclaim as soon as she’d filled in the last word, her understated way of waxing triumphant. So she had been saving all of these for the same reason, apparently with the same determination. I selected one from the stack, thinking to fill some idle time by completing it. But many of the answers she’d filled in were completely inappropriate, utterly wrong. I was afraid to look further into the collection. I couldn’t bear to see any more evidence of what I already knew.
Four months later, two days before her 84th birthday, my mother died. It’s sad and frightening to think about how unsuccessful her paltry efforts to beat her destiny were. But I can think of one small way in which she won. She still knew the names of all her children. In that, at least, there is victory. “Did it!” I can hear her saying.