Perhaps it was the news today about Justice Sandra Day O’Connor whose family announced to the world that she’s battling the early stages of Alzheimer’s that really hit home. You see, my mom may not have been a Supreme Court Justice, but she was a rock star in my book – she retired as a deputy superintendent for a school district in New York City and was beloved my hundreds of people who got the chance to work with her or become her friend. Today, she has mild cognitive impairment – code word for Alzheimer’s disease.
I can’t pinpoint when I first start noticing when my mom started forgetting. I remember reading the book “Still Alice” and watching the movie and noticing how Alice started to forget recipes. That’s how it started for Mom too. She used to cook during the holidays and would bring tons of food to my house that she had already prepared at her own home. But somehow, over the last few years, she began forgetting basic recipes and I had to step in. She still makes a mean sweet potato pudding with marshmallows but other than that, there’s no more brisket, matzah ball soup, stuffed cabbage and many more dishes we have come to savor over the years. Thank goodness I wrote down the recipes and can recreate them myself but it is sad that Mom can longer do it herself and oftentimes finds herself confused when she’s in the kitchen – forgetting what she was doing in the first place.
The second thing that started to happen was the end of our heart to heart conversations. My mom was the ultimate listener. I could lament over my latest heartbreak or career dilemma and she was always there to lend an ear and offer sage advice on how to get through it. But over the last two years, our conversations just feel dull and flat. She struggles to find words for basic things like doctor, nurse, or hospital. She also repeats the same word – high end – over and over again. She tells me that she just wants everything to be positive and high end and doesn’t want my family to worry about anything. I totally get it – no matter how old I am, she will always worry about me but this time, I’m worried about her too.
Then there’s the repetition. Mom reads street signs, store signs, practically any sign she sees whenever we are walking or driving in the car. If we get stuck in traffic, she’ll tell us how she’s never seen such bad traffic before and will repeat that phrase over and over again. Then she’ll argue with my dad about something he knows is right but she’s convinced he’s wrong about it. For awhile, my dad fought her and even made her feel bad for forgetting things but now that she is letting us play an active role in her mental care, he knows that he can’t make her feel bad for forgetting. Little by little, the mom I know is slowly slipping away from us and there’s really nothing we can do about it except reassure her that no matter what, it’s okay to forget.
About 30 years ago, my mom cared for my grandmother who was battling Alzheimer’s disease since her late 60’s. Sadly, every member of grandmother’s family was afflicted with Alzheimer’s and when I was in high school Grandma was deteriorating in front of our eyes. Mom had just landed a big job in Long Island that she really started to enjoy but unfortunately, my grandmother’s condition was steadily worsening and she was forced to leave her job so she could take care of her. She eventually placed her in a nursing home where she lived for nearly a decade. We visited often but eventually, my mom told me to stop coming because it just got too depressing. Grandma no longer remembered us and was becoming a shell of who she was – the woman who taught me to blow bubbles even though she had dentures, the one who would always have Hershey’s kisses and lemon drops in her purse, the one who chased a pack of mice out of our summer home or the one who taught me how to make matzah balls. Losing my grandmother was incredibly hard and I think of her practically every day. Grandma’s loss was even tougher on my mom because she was devastated to lose her mom and totally frightened that the same thing could happen to her.
Today we’re facing the harsh reality that we could be traveling down the same path. Thankfully, there are advancements with regard to treatment for Alzheimer’s and dementia and I even hear they could be a cure within the next five years. For now, I am doing all I can to preserve the countless memories I have made with a woman who I absolutely adore. I try not to get frustrated and realize that while our conversations may not be as spirited and insightful as they used to be, no matter what happens, she will always be my mom, my confidante and the person who has inspired me to become who I am today.