"Your mother shows moderate cognitive changes consistent with Alzheimer's disease," the nurse practitioner, said. "But until she's had the MRI, I can't definitely say."
My mother nodded her head in agreement, most likely too confused to really understand what the nurse practitioner's words meant. Three weeks later, after the results of the MRI were in, the NP could definitely tell us: at 70 years of age, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
The diagnosis didn't surprise my sisters and me. My mother's mother had suffered from the ailment, and so had at least one of Mom's uncles. As Mom began to exhibit more and more symptoms of memory loss, she clung to the belief that Grandma's brother hadn't had any cognitive deficits and that alcohol had been the root of his problems. I should have known at that time, when Mom refused to admit that her capacity to remember had diminished, that the road ahead would be long and winding for us.
I don't know exactly when the memory loss began for Mom. She'd been relatively active as a grandmother, especially after the birth of her first grandchildren in January 2002--my set of identical twins. Several times a week that winter, she drove 45 minutes to get to our place to help me out with the girls. And for eight full weeks in late fall of 2002, the girls and I lived with Mom and Dad--full-time--while I wrote my dissertation. Mom seemed fine then: she was capable of taking care of nine-month old twins all day; she could still follow a recipe and cook full meals; she didn't repeat herself. At that time, Mom's brain was still, presumably, healthy.
But Mom hadn't worked outside of the home since 1997 and for those years before her grandchildren arrived, and even after, her days were filled with nothing substantial, nothing to stimulate her brain day-to-day. She puttered around the house most of the time, cooking and cleaning, reading novels, paying bills--using only simple math--and filing papers. Dad worked all day and was wrapped up in his own life, too busy to see what might be creeping in. And friends? Mom had never been the type of person to cultivate friendships. For much of the week, she remained inside the house, inside her cocoon.
But by early 2014, it had become clear that Mom was experiencing what my sisters and I thought was abnormal memory loss. She'd tell the same story again and again, she couldn't decide on what color to paint the walls, and she didn't understand--when my father fell and hit his head--that she should pick up the phone and dial 911. She consulted the calendar every day, and crossed off the days in the evening, the dark pencil mark serving each morning as a reminder of what day had just passed. She couldn't remember a fact that someone told her five minutes before. Reading, one of her favorite pastimes, had been placed to the wayside because she had to read and reread the pages, unable to remember what she read by the time she reached the end of the paragraph. She grappled for words: she called the driveway "the path that leads to the garage," and the refrigerator became "the cold box that holds food." By the time the diagnosis of Alzheimer's came in June 2015--a diagnosis that only came because of Dad's second fall, when my sisters and I pushed for an evaluation for both of our parents--she couldn't always recall the names of her three sisters.
Prior to her diagnosis, when I spoke to Dad about Mom's symptoms, I realized that his perspective was much different than mine or my sisters'. "I repeat stories," Dad would say to me and brush off my concern. "She's fine."
Did he really believe that Mom's memory loss was normal, or did he refuse to acknowledge that changes were happening? At first, I became angry at and blamed my dad, wondering how he could have let Mom deteriorate so much without pushing her to see a doctor about her memory loss.
"She always goes to her appointments," he said. "And she'll get mad at me if I say anything to her about her memory."
Never one to confront conflict head on, my dad chose to keep the peace, maintaining silence and ignoring what he saw developing in his wife. While the reason he did so may be partly due to his inability to see the drastic nature of the changes, there's more to the story. There always is.
I lived with my parents for 18 years, until I went away to college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It wasn't until I'd stepped away from my home and experienced the pleasure of meeting other parents and students that I realized that something had been wrong with my mother when I lived at home. Looking back, it's obvious that she was both depressed and anxious, two disorders that made her a very volatile being. A kind mother one moment--I remember having her read stories to all three of her girls aloud--she'd become quickly enraged by what turned out to be nothing. Her answer for many situations was to get angry and yell, while other times, she expressed disinterest in her children. And while it was rare to have her spank us in anger, I remember not wanting to get Mom mad, ever, because the look in her eye--one of fury--scared me. So I understood why Dad didn't want to argue with her. To live with her animosity on a daily basis would have been inviting in an arduous life. The easier route for Dad was to simply let everything just be.
Consider me shocked, then, when I realized that now, almost six months past her diagnosis--a diagnosis she doesn't even remember--that life with Mom is far less erratic and far more pleasant. I see her frustrated at times, reaching for the words that are just beyond her grasp--but in a moment, when I tell her "It's okay, Mom, we'll figure it out," she trusts me. She doesn't snap at me in frustration liked she used to. Her snide comments rarely surface. Even if her eyes light up for a moment with that fury I know so well, that flame is extinguished quickly, because her brain cannot retain the reason for the anger. My mom is, in the simplest terms, a kinder person.
And that, I find, is the silver lining of this disease, at least for me. While the time may be brief, I get to experience a side of my mom I rarely knew. A more charming and amiable side. A side that isn't as concerned with keeping up with the Joneses or worried about what the neighbors might think. She might be more confused and unable to perform many tasks--cooking, writing out checks, and taking care of her grandchildren--but she smiles and laughs more often. She takes things in stride instead of worrying about situations she cannot control. She actually seems like a happier person.
I don't look forward to the days when Mom won't know who I or my sisters or her grandchildren are. I fear for the time when she can no longer completely take care of herself or when she's unable to swallow, and then to breathe. But in the meantime, I plan on reveling in the pleasantries that have become my mother. I hope to hear that belly laugh reverberate off the walls, see the crinkles form at the corners of her eyes as she smiles, to watch her enjoy each day like it's her last. Because one day, it will be her last day, and I want for her to experience joy unlike that which she's ever felt before.
I just wish she'd be able to remember that joy.