My mother, a good person who loved her family, her friends, her church, her life, was robbed of all of it by Alzheimer’s Disease. And we were robbed of her. There were days in which she would have a vague recollection of my sister and me, that we were somehow connected. One day she looked at me and said, You're my father.
I smiled at her and said, No. In fact, you are my mother.
That's right, she said, as she patted my hand. You're my father.
I took her hand in mine and held it and sat beside her on the couch in the Memory Unit of her retirement community. She knew we were somehow related and father was the only word she had left that spoke to that connection.
But those days of even the faintest connection to us became increasingly rare. She lost the simplest of abilities, like how to hold a fork or make a sentence. She even lost my father, who was the one and only love of her life. He died young at only 51, and she was 46. But she never dated or tried to recapture that kind of love. She said that he was too hard an act to follow. One of my saddest moments was when I told a funny story about daddy, many of which abound because he was a larger-than-life guy, and she had no clue, no clue who this dark, handsome, funny man was. How could she have lost daddy?
I wish everyone reading this could have known my mother. She was a pure example of someone who could bloom where she was planted. She was born and reared in Houston, went to Rice University, and had a best friend who had been her best friend since the 7th grade. But she left all that sense of place behind in 1978 to start over in Davidson, North Carolina. My sister and brother-in-law and their two young children wanted to move to Davidson, where I had moved the year before with my husband and baby boy. They persuaded my mother to join us, so we could be an intact family, once again, and have our children grow up in the same place, sharing the same wonderful grandmother.
Wonderful she was, too. She was the escape hatch for the grandchildren, all four of whom would run to her for comfort, protection from their unreasonable parents, or for a delicious home cooked meal. They spent the night with her on most weekends in her cozy house, until dating took some of their Saturday nights. She made them feel that they were the most important people in her world because they were. She gave them confidence and self-esteem and found a way to turn their mistakes into learning opportunities.
Her youngest grandchild, my younger son, would run into her house and call out, “Baffess, Nana!” He started talking and making sort-of sentences before he was two, so his language was brief and to the point. What he meant was that Nana should grab her glasses because he had arrived, and she needed to meet him at the piano so that she could immediately stop what she was doing and play all his favorite nursery rhyme songs. She made him feel that he was never an interruption, that playing for and with him was exactly what she should be doing. And she did that same thing for all four of her grandchildren.
She also made herself an indispensable friend to many and a beloved member of Davidson College Presbyterian Church, after being a lifelong Baptist. Talk about opening a new window. She joined the choir. She accompanied the children's choirs. She substituted as the organist in worship. She played the piano for the very picky Men's Bible Class, transposing their hymns on the spot so that they would be in a lower register and easier to sing. She was gifted. She was generous. She was unselfish. She was loving.
And then, gradually, she was gone.
On the May weekend when she slipped from this mortal coil, we all had a chance to tell her goodbye and to promise her that we would be okay. She had done her job. She could let go. All the grandchildren and their significant others had private moments to say what was in their hearts, except the grandson who lives in California, and he felt that he had taken special time with her during his last visit to Davidson. She didn't fight, and wasn't anxious, and the amazing people of Hospice helped us know what to expect and what she was experiencing physically in the transition from this earthly life to the next. Our dear ministers, friends, and community members surrounded us with love and support during these hard days, as they did when the disease ravaged her in the months before her death and, then, in the weeks after.
In some of the time since, it has been like being in suspended animation. The world goes on around me, but motion stopped inside my heart. For two months, I walked through my life without somehow fully experiencing my life. Jobs got done, meals got cooked, articles got written, but I watched it all from a perch somewhere outside of it.
Now, I have come to know that the miracle of another year is something I will not take for granted ever again. We get to look ahead, wipe the slate clean, take a deep breath, and start anew. There is such hope in that moment. And though Alzheimer’s Disease is a thief in the night, it did not take away the fortune and gratitude and hope that having a mother like mine gave me.
Her gifts - optimism, unconditional love, joy, laughter - are in all of us. She rarely felt sorry for herself. She was never bored because she was never without a book by her side. She enjoyed the challenge of games of all sorts, especially bridge. And music was her constant companion. Though I feel ‘if-only’ come over me from time-to-time, like how much she would have loved the women in our sons’ lives and being a part of her great-grandchildren’s growing-up, I will try to look at all these gifts through her eyes and help them feel the deep sense of belonging that she gave us.
No thief in the night, no power, no amount of time can take that away.