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 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 seemed to make things better however; don't moms seem to know what to do?
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. I am puzzled by this. She resists my help all the time yet she strives to be like me. I saw my own mother's faults but yet, strove to be like her too.
As I transformed into a teenager, I began to realize that I had inherited 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 hope that I am passing these lessons on to my own children.
My mom grew up before WWII and married my father the day he stopped working for the Marines; 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. To this day, my mother is enchanted with little children. Her own mother's spirit lives 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 need to remember in the raising of my own children that what I put forth as an example of myself needs to be positive. It is hard to remember this when things get difficult in our lives; however, looking back at my mom and the strength and courage she had to accomplish what she did, I pale by comparison. I want to be that kind of strength to my two kids.
Even though she had so many reasons to become introverted within herself, she 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. It is important for mothers to remember that while we wish to keep our own identities in tact, we also need to make sure that we are empowering our little ones. What greater honor then to have your kids want to be like you!
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 a few years ago, 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 now 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 the past June, she was alone. Family surrounded her but she didn't know who they were. She couldn't recall names. She didn't remember at all 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 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 can 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 feel 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 the good Lord decides her time with us is over.
When I look into my mother's eyes, I see so many things now. She recognizes my face and feels safe with me. She doesn't know I am her daughter or my name. With the holiday approaching, she keeps waiting for her husband to come home so they can plan for the family visits. My children and her other grandchildren are 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 is enjoyed by her and will sometimes force a memory to come through but then the disease takes over and she escapes me once again.
At 86, my mom is radiantly beautiful. She still applies lipstick and dresses impeccably. Her silver-white hair lies in a flattering bob. She still has her laugh which is less frequent then it used to be but I grasp onto the sound each time it graces my ears. Her eyes are pensive. The warmth is replaced by confusion most days as she doesn't remember why she is here and asks if she is being punished and in a prison.
The only prison she lives in is 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, this summer as I take her to graduation parties and different events, I see a woman smiling, laughing, enjoying people's company and adoring little children. While Alzheimer's has taken my mom's memories, it hasn't gotten all of her. She is still loving and emotional. She still feels happiness and anger. She is in no way a burden to me or my family. We love her. I love her. I giggle and talk about myself more than I want because she can't remember what she did 5 minutes ago but I love the time that I spend with her. I wish I lived closer to her so I could visit 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 haven't lost my mom rather I have gained a good friend who is genuinely happy to see me each time I visit and she remembers me. Not my name or that I am 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 am beginning to understand this with my mother.
I look into the mirror 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 knows isn'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. I hope that I am as much an inspiration to my own children as my mother has been and still is to me.