Alzheimer's Disease and My Momma
I had always aspired to be just like my mom. In my eyes, as a child, she was an angel walking on Earth. She was the Holy Mother that took in hungry neighbor kids, helped me feed stray dogs, clothed those even poorer than us and always had a positive outlook and a laugh that filled the room like music wafting through the air from a nearby concert.
My mom was beautiful (as was my father!). I dreamed of having her movie star looks. Her lips always kissed with red lipstick. Her eyebrows perfectly arched. Her hair coiffed and her clothing style uncompromising. Even though our family lacked much needed money, she had the artistic ability to create a home that looked as if the wealthy resided there. She had such style sense, she carried herself as an heiress would and with 10 children straggling behind her, never lost her poise or sense of humor.
My life as a young girl was that of gangliness, pudginess, buck teeth, a nose too large for my face, big feet and huge boobs at too early an age to know how to deal with them. I was constantly teased by other kids, was clumsy and felt inferior to the other kids in the neighborhood. My mom however seemed to know what to do or say when I was at my lowest.
I would watch as mother created castles in my hair with ribbons and birds. I observed her constant knitting of beautiful sweaters and sewing of clothing even the best seamstress couldn't compete with. She cooked like a five star chef and still had time to join church circles, volunteer at our school and lead scout groups. She seemed to me, the perfect woman.
I believe that young girls watch their mothers more than we realized. My daughter, while having a somewhat tumultuous relationship with me at times, looks at me in awe and wants to do all of the things that I do. When she was younger, I was puzzled by this. She resisted my help all the time yet she wanted to be just like me. Now an adult, she is a reflection of the teachings I presented and she is gifted artistically, like my mother and myself. She is an advocate for those needing help and has a huge heart. I would like to think that the best parts of my daughter stem from the example I tried to give to her as she grew up.
As I transformed into a teenager, I began to realize that I had inherited very few of my mom's physical genes. I had my father's large Polish nose, his family's large hips and breasts, the blue-green eyes characteristic to his side of the family. However, I did possess my mom's ability to create artistic creations, floral arrangements, her sense of good will toward others and her incredible love of children. I believe that her compassion for others guided me to be the woman that I am today. I have always had a soft spot for those in need. I enjoy going out of my way to help someone. I don't want recognition or gifts; just a simple smile or thank you can fill me with joy. I taught Special Education for 32 years and loved every minute of it.
My mom grew up before WWII and married my father the day he stopped working for the Navy; shortly after the war. She was the daughter of a poor family. Her mother however, took in over 100 foster children before her early death and my mom felt the same need to help other children. Perhaps that is what inspired me to become a special needs teacher. I didn't know my grandmother Mabel very well. She died when I was only three. I do remember however her housecoats that she wore and her large bosoms that held me tight. My mom's mother had an article written about her in the local paper when she died for her service to the county as a Foster mother. Up until her death, my mother was enchanted with little children. Her own mother's spirit lived within her.
Mom possessed incredible artistic ability and in high school was offered a full scholarship to the Chicago Institute of Art. Her parents wouldn't let her go as they needed her to work at home and help support the family. She being so depressed about life and the future, dropped out of high school with just a few credits remaining. After marrying my father and having ten children; she went back to school at 50 and got her high school diploma and also a college degree in the medical field. She was a 4 point student!
I was in high school at the time and often helped mom study for tests; allowing me to also learn a lot about illnesses, cures and medical terminology. Mom retired at 62 and battled her diagnosis of heart disease; having a triple bypass around that time. Mom gave me an immense gift in going back to school. She showed by example that learning never ends. I learned so much about medical terminology that many times people ask if I am a doctor or nurse because of the language I use.
I wanted to remember in the raising of my own children that what I put forth as an example of myself needs to be positive. It was hard to remember this when things got difficult in our lives. However, looking back at my mom and the strength and courage she had to accomplish what she did, I paled by comparison. I wanted to be that kind of strength to my two kids. According to them, they feel I accomplished that.
Even though she had so many reasons to become introverted within herself, my mother continued being Grandma and Mom to all of us. Most of the decisions I have made in my life were reflected by the strength I saw in my mother. I wanted to have the inner strength, the energy and the abilities she exhibited on a daily basis. She was truly an inspiration to me and others.
A Sense of Losing Mom
When mom was in her 70's, she began to show signs of severe dementia. She repeated questions constantly and had difficulty remembering day to day occurrences. Since she and my dad had moved to Florida after my son was born, I hadn't realized how pronounced her dementia had become until I spent time with her on a visit a few years later.
It was terrifying to me, hearing my mom ask the repetitive questions and seeing that she had no cognizance of her actions. My father showed patience and only occasionally reminded her of her reoccurring questioning. I supposed that it terrified me most because I too was experiencing memory loss in my 40's.
Mom's behavior began to concern everyone when one year, she got in the car and was gone for days with no recollection of where she slept, ate and what she did. She laughed it off as having had "one hell of a good time, what ever I did" and I joked with her that she most likely had a million dollars waiting at some casino in Vegas. She had put 100's of miles on the car during those missing days and her whereabouts still remains a mystery. Her car keys were confiscated and her sense of independence taken as well, she spiraled down to the point where she began to forget who her husband of 67 years was and that she even had children.
When her beloved husband(my father) died one June, she was alone. Family surrounded her but she didn't know who they were. She couldn't recall names. She didn't remember many times it was her husband that had passed but she knew she depended on him and loved him and her grief blanketed life as she knew it.
Family moved her back to her home state of Michigan and we soon realized that our vibrant mother, the super mom of the centuries, had lost her will to live and was completely lost now that she was alone. We moved her to a facility where she could receive constant supervision and also have interaction with many people, get involved in wonderful activities, eat delicious food and be treated with dignity and respect.
Moving a parent into a place, no matter how nice, makes you feel as if you are a jail warden and you are committing a loved one to an early death. I don't know how my siblings felt about this but I know for a fact that my mom would rather have died early on, then to have ended up in a "picked" residence and exist simply to wait until her body decided to expire.
When I looked into my mother's eyes, I saw so many things . She recognized my face and felt safe with me every time I visited her. She didn't know I was her daughter or my name. When the holiday were approaching, she kept waiting for her husband to come home so they could plan for the family visits. My children and her other grandchildren were complete strangers to her. The memory book I pieced together for her; encompassing years of child bearing, her children growing up and their present day families was enjoyed by her and did sometimes, force a memory to come through but then the disease took over and she escaped me once again.
At 86, my mom was radiantly beautiful. She still applied lipstick and dressed impeccably. Her silver-white hair was styled in a flattering bob. She still had her laugh which was less frequent then it used to be but I grasped onto the sound each time it graced my ears. Her eyes always seemed pensive. The warmth was replaced by confusion in her last days and she didn't remember why she was here and asked if she is being punished and in a prison.
The only prison she lived in was the state of Alzheimer's. It is a terrible disease that leaves one coherent enough to remember what they used to have but not understanding why and how they got to the existence they are living now.
My mom always said that she didn't want to be a burden on her children. I continuously say to myself that I won't allow myself to get to the point my beloved mother is. Yet, in her last summer as I took her to graduation parties and different events, I saw a woman smiling, laughing, enjoying people's company and adoring little children. While Alzheimer's had taken my mom's memories, it hadn't gotten all of her. She was still loving and emotional. She still felt happiness and anger. She was in no way a burden to me or my family. We loved her. I loved her. I giggled and talked about myself more than I wanted because she couldn't remember what she did 5 minutes ago but I loved the time that I spend with her. I wished that I had lived closer to her so I could have visited her every day.
I just want all mothers and fathers to know this...You are not and will never be a burden to your children. If we act as if we are frustrated by your questioning, your sense of loss, your inability to carry on with tasks like you used to, it is not because you are a burden. It is because we, your children are struggling with how to accept that we are losing what we used to have with you . Never, ever feel like you are a troublesome factor in our lives. It's important that all of you hear that now. I think it is also important that all of us remember that Alzheimer's is a disease but it is not a death. I hadn't lost my mom rather I had gained a good friend who was genuinely happy to see me each time I visited and she remembered me. Not my name or that I was her daughter, but me. The people who love you will grieve a short time for the person they thought you were and will in a short time relish the person you are. None of us can plan what our latter years will be. We can only live life to the fullest while we are here and remember to smile and try to remember how we got here. We all want to leave this Earth with dignity and we hate to imagine that our parents or loved ones suffer. We still cling to what used to be and are fearful of what will become. I understood this with my mother.
I look into the mirror today, and see my mom more than I ever have before.
I have her smile. Her eyes; not the coloring but the piercing look of a life filled with activity, experience and fulfilling ventures. I have her ability to touch others; especially children and the elderly. I have her artistic ability. I have her laughter and her sense of humor. I also have the same fear that I too will disappear into the world that she knew wasn't right but cannot do anything about it.
For all the years I had wished to be just like my beautiful mother I never stopped long enough to truly see that I was. I am so thankful.
Seven years ago, at the age of 87, the disease that afflicted my mother decided that it was time for her to leave her Earthly body and pass into the Heavens.
I received a call from one of my brothers that mom's organs were shutting down and they had placed her in a hospice. My children were 14 and 9 and I had friends that were gracious enough to stay with my son and daughter so I could take a small leave from work and stay at the hospice with my mother.
My other 9 siblings took turns coming up to the hospital. Some lived out of state and hours away so they were only able to come for a short duration of time to give mom one last kiss and whisper their love into her ear. Two of my sisters stayed at the hospice with me the entire week mom lay in her bed, uttering only noises that sounded as if she were in pain and we took turns stroking her hair, rubbing her arms and holding her hand.
At first, we all thought we could expedite mom's passing by talking to her about meeting up with dad. We played older music constantly. Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and other artists from that era. Mom loved playing her albums throughout the day. We would leave for dinner and kiss her goodbye after letting her know that it was okay for her to "let go". We thought that perhaps she was holding on because we remained in the room. It occurred to me that mom didn't picture herself as a mother or even a wife her last cognizant weeks, before entering hospice. She imagined herself to be a young woman, ready to conquer the world and ready to get a job to earn money. My sisters and I began to talk to her as if she had just started dating our father and we focused on how her mom, dad and siblings couldn't wait to see her again.
Mom's last night was emotional for all of us. She had a DNR that specified no food or fluids and she was only receiving morphine which never seemed like enough because of her utterances that sounded eerie and racked with pain. We kept asking to have the morphine increased to ease her pain. She hadn't spoken in over a week and she seemed a bit agitated. My two sisters and I sat on her bed holding her and telling her how much we loved her. We decided to retire and the two of them shared a pullout sofa bed while I took the night duty of laying in the recliner next to mom's bed.
As soon as I closed my eyes, a nurse touched me on the arm and said, "She'll be gone in a couple minutes". My sisters and I jumped up and told mom we loved her and that it was okay for her to leave us. Within minutes of our last words to her, the nurse reported that she no longer had a pulse. We knew mom's suffering had ended. My sisters embraced and cried mournfully. I could not cry.
I know my siblings looked at me and wondered why I lacked any emotion. Instead of crying, I began to feel joy and I smiled. I remembered the day my mother had asked me to promise that I would never allow her to be placed in a nursing home or facility. I was thirteen years old. When my father took her away to Florida, I had no control over what happened to my mom. When she came back to Michigan after my father died, she would have moments of clarity where she would ask me why I allowed her to be kept as a prisoner. I would try to explain that I was helpless in being able to assist her and with a turn of her head, her memory vanished and she only knew she felt angry for some reason. I remembered the loss of her incredible, artistic ability. I thought of how she wanted to be free and the many escapes from the facility where she had covered over a mile before being "captured" by the workers who had discovered she was missing. I felt joy for my incredible mother, who was now free from a body that imprisoned her and away from a lifestyle that she begged not to be a part of. How could I feel sad? My mom had finally escaped for good and was no longer imprisoned.
While I didn't cry when my momma passed that night, I certainly have made up for it since. I miss her terribly, as does my entire family. On her birthday, each May 5th, we celebrate her by posting pictures of our beautiful mother on social media. We count her birthdays and proclaim our love for her.
I am visited daily by a female and male cardinal. I have no doubt that my parents are looking over me. The first Thanksgiving that my mother didn't spend with my children and I was very difficult. Mom passed in September and the couple of months that had passed didn't provide me with enough time mentally to accept that she wasn't sitting at our dinner table. I had a memento that belonged to my mom. It was a snow globe with the four actors from White Christmas and the song that played was the same. It was something that mom loved listening to and we would wind and rewind the globe during my visits with her at the holidays.
The globe had been over wound and no longer played the song. I had removed the battery and placed the globe in the cupboard below my china cabinet. As my children, my friend and I held hands in prayer, I was overcome with emotion and began to cry during my prayer. I reflected upon how mom had spent the past two Thanksgivings with us and how the holiday seemed empty without her. All of a sudden my children, my friend and I heard the melody of White Christmas playing. We looked around the room and realized the music was coming from the cupboard below the china cabinet. My eyes lit up and I hastily opened the door. The snow globe was playing the song! I lifted it up and was reminded that there was no battery at the base. As soon as I sat it on the table, the song stopped. It truly was a miracle and it was a sign from my mother that she was indeed with us that Thanksgiving day.
The snow globe has never produced a sound of any kind since then. It remains broken. However, my broken spirit was healed that Thanksgiving after my momma passed. I was reminded that the love of a mother becomes the essence of who you are. She will always be a part of me and she will continue to live through me.
For that, I am truly blessed.
© 2011 Laura Cole