My brother Dennis called to warn me.
Mom’s forgetfulness. I had noticed it while visiting the previous summer. He was calling to say that it was worse, that she had, in fact, been diagnosed with mid-stage Alzheimer’s Disease, that I shouldn’t be surprised if she called me by someone else’s name, that I shouldn’t be astonished at the disarray, the lack of cleanliness, of the place, that she was refusing to take any medication, that her personality had changed. He was calling to say, though he did not actually say it, that Mom was dying.
Still, despite his warning, I was surprised, astonished.
When I arrived, she kissed me on the cheek, as usual; asked after my wife Kathy, my son D.J., and the grandkids, as usual; asked how I’d been and how the school year went, as usual. Then the usual stopped. I watched a blankness steal into her eyes as she lost the thread of our conversation. I watched her stand uncomprehending, immobile, in front of the Mr. Coffee machine. I watched her take packages of chicken condon bleu from the freezer, unpackage them, put the entrees on plates, and serve them to my Dad and me, accompanied by a lettuce and tomato salad without dressing. I saw a shower that was an oversized culture dish of mold. I saw her normally generous, wholly hospitable personality transform, in an instant, into biting criticism of and paranoid accusations against Dad. He had forced her to give up the home she loved and move to a retirement village condo she hated. He wanted to steal her jewelry. I saw her hide her purse and her wedding ring. I saw that the carpet had not been vaccumed, the furniture had not been dusted, and the cupboard shelves had not been stocked. Dad told me she spent most of the day sleeping, no longer cleaned, and no longer shopped. Dad, a man of his generation, did not clean or cook or shop. Didn’t know how. Mom refused his suggestion that he hire a person to clean, that they apply for Meals on Wheels. He was losing weight.
Alzheimer’s is an insidious disease, lurking, lurking, lurking, like a thief in the attic, for as long as ten years, descending every so often, unobserved, to pilfer an item here and there, before swaggering through the front door, declaring that it now owns the place and everything in it, can’t do anything about it, resistance is futile. Alzheimer’s is a remorseless disease, the tangled clustered clog of amyloid plaques, and nerve cell fibers, and blasted nerve cells progressively, insistently evaporating the backward look of memory and beckoning beyondness of anticipation, systematically pillaging control of thought and emotion, ruthlessly decentering time and space itself, relentlessly dispossessing the located and continuous self and replacing it with a kind of mental white noise. If there is such a thing as the ghost in the neuro-machinery of the brain, Alzheimer’s is the ghost buster.
Over the winter Mom was placed in an assisted-living facility. Early in the summer she was placed in hospice care. When I visited in August, she did not recognize me at first. I prompted her, repeatedly: “I’m Jerry, your first-born son.” “Oh, yes,” she said, and a look of recognition faintly bloomed. I began an incessant monologue, talking nonstop, telling her about Dennis and Kathy and D.J. and the grandkids. I reminded her that I taught at Graceland University in Lamoni in southern Iowa and recounted for her the courses I taught and my colleagues in the Humanities Division and what the students were like, anything, anything that would anchor me in her awareness, and as I talked, her face became a polite mask, the kind I had seen her put on before in social situations where she encountered strangers. She became a shuttered window. I became a nameless voice.
Mom was being taken from me before she was taken from me. When I returned home, I decided that, like Quanah Parker, the Comanche chief who led an army of warriors that rolled back the encroaching frontier in mid-19th century Texas, I would arrest, even repel, the disease spreading across her mental landscape. Every Sunday morning I wrote her a letter. Each one began, “Hi Mom, this is Jerry, your first-born son,” and then I recounted an experience from the past we had shared. I reminded her of the time when, as a five-year-old, I had taken half a dozen eggs from the refrigerator and, standing on the front porch, tossed them against the side of our next-door neighbor’s house, just to hear the satisfying little explosion they made. I reminded her of the time I had to be physically restrained in Dr. Shaw’s office when he attempted to give me a shot. I reminded her of the dream she had when I told her I was getting married, how she walked into the living room only to see the lone inhabitant of the fishbowl had mysteriously disappeared. I reminded, I reminded—a desperate rhetoric of memory, an invocation of remembrance to call her back me to her. It was, I knew, a fool’s mission; the ravaging, ravening frontier of Alzheimer’s Disease cannot be deterred, cannot be rolled back. But it was my Mom. Attachment theory tells us that the mother’s presence provides children with the secure base from which to move outward into world, to explore and play, to venture, to adventure, and that that bond persists, in some form or another, as the child grows into adulthood. I was losing the woman who provided, who in many ways still provided, my secure base. I had to intervene.
Mom died that October. After the funeral, Dennis and I bundled up her clothes for Goodwill, donated the television to the assisted-living facility, and moved her furniture back to the condo. There were only a few pieces: a dresser and mirror, a rocker recliner, and a nightstand. Removing the top drawer of the dresser, I noticed, tucked in a back corner, the dozen letters I had written. They were all unopened.