My mother is a character from a Tennessee Williams play…but without a Southern accent. I am her second child, born when she was 16 years old. Her childhood cut short and never spoken of in a way that imparted a sense of safety or innocence.
Each man she ran away with was hoped to be the rescue from the last. She gave up every child she bore, to some degree. And in each tragedy she was the faultless victim, bearing the bruises without bearing the blame.
She’s also hilarious. No matter how many times she told a joke, she could make it look like she just thought of it. As a bartender or waitress she told countless anecdotes with ease and entertained like she was under a spotlight rather than serving up the daily special. She’d spontaneously break into song and dance. “I’m not a ham,” she’d say, “A ham can be cured.”
I believe my mother’s highest ambition has always been to be liked.
Hers has been a life of passing laughter and passing friends.
Last month a doctor confirmed her Alzhiemer’s diagnosis, although it’s been obvious for years now. (My mother’s current husband is a good man but of the can’t-change-it-so-why-go-to-the-doctor generation.)
My mom took a short written quiz, answered a few questions, and told a anecdote or two. Except now the jokes repeated too close together. She’s forgotten that she already told us that one. The doctor said Alzheimers and my mom said, “What?”
“Oh, I have Old-Timer’s Disease?!”
“Yup, Mom, you’re officially an Old-Timer.”
“Oh.” She paused. This is never good news, no matter how long you can remember. “Well, at least I still have my sense of humor.”
“That you do.” I answered.
“I’d rather you lose your memory,” the doctor said, “Then your sense of humor.”
“Well, at least I still have my sense of humor.”
* * *
A few days earlier, my mom was quite upset because I was arranging for her to stay in a nursing home for a short time while her husband recovered from a particularly rough time with pneumonia. They would be separated and she relies heavily upon him. She relies upon his presence. But he wasn’t well himself, he needed to be cared for and also care for himself.
She was scared. She was sad.
“Is this my fault?” she asked.
“No, mom. It’s nobody’s fault.”
Which was a lie.
My mom turned 60 this year.
She is 60 years old. She has been smoking and drinking, excessively, for over 40 years. She has survived throat cancer. And barely survived the chemotherapy and radiation to cure it.
Does she know now? Does she finally know now that her decisions, her mistakes, her choices have led her to this place?
No. She cannot. She could not ever face that reality before and she will not face it now. Instead she talks of a past that is sprinkled with fiction. She repeatedly asks about tomorrow or what is next because she has lost control of time.
Today this quote has come across my path in three different ways: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou
My mother has always done her best.
That I do believe. However, she never did better because instead of facing the pain, she drown it, and in doing so she could never take on the lesson. She couldn’t learn to be better. To have better.
At 60 years old, she should still have the chance to do better. But that chance has passed. Choices made and no use now placing blame.
When my mother got cancer, I told her that cancer is a car wreck, it can hit anyone. But what I wrote here via short prose was “Cancer is a Fucking Car Wreck.”
If we move to the facts of the matter, her father had Alzheimer’s and he died only 2 years ago. Her lifestyle, compounded by cancer’s cure, certainly flipped whatever genetic switch there is to be had on this issue.
For reasons not yet known, the fact I gave birth to a child with Down syndrome when I was only 19 is a sign that I am prone to developing Alzheimer’s as well and my son’s triplicate 21st chromosome means that he has a 50% chance of developing Alzheimer’s before he is 50 years old.
And that, my friends, is why I just told you a bit about my mother. Because we are now on a journey to beat the odds. To break this cycle and hold onto, well, ourselves. So stick around, the focus over the next few weeks is going to be about research, learning, hope and change. Yup. Change.
Feel free to use the comments to tell us about your experience with Alzheimer’s, as well as your questions so that I can be sure to get the details you’re looking for, too.
If you would like emailed updates from Grown Ups & Downs, enter your email here.*