Mom called a family meeting almost five years ago to announce the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and was slightly offended that none of us were as shocked as she was by this. Within a week, she had diagnosed herself with the more palatable (to her) Dementia, and most days lives in the even happier world of Denial. She confides to me in each conversation, as if it were news, that her memory is getting bad. So bad. I know from past experiences that she will forget my visit and our conversation by the next morning, if not by bedtime.
But we are fortunate in what she does still remember. She recognizes all the family and usually gets our names right. (In our family, mislabeling names is a common occurrence at any age. We take no offense.) She cannot name many of her new friends in Assisted Living, but knows their faces and a little about them. She remembers friends from church and community when their names are mentioned to her, though she may or may not be able to call them by name when they meet.
She’s very good at playing along and faking memory. If I pop in unexpectedly and suggest going somewhere, she might respond with “Oh, I forgot we were doing that today.” Other times she works through a memory loss, such as when when she arrived at an unfamiliar church to see her youngest grandson receive his Eagle Scout Award, and found herself baffled by why there were Boy Scouts in the front of the sanctuary. She then laughed at herself as she suddenly remembered why we were there. Now that’s my mom. We enjoy rare glimpses of her still.
Her memories are strong when it comes to her own childhood and teenage years. I have heard many formerly untold stories about her school life, her sister and brother, her mom (desperately missed by her still) and dad, and even an annoying neighbor. They seem clearly remembered. No one exists to confirm or deny. It is a particular kind of loneliness, being one of the last survivors of your own history.
She remembers clearly where she was when Pearl Harbor was attacked, as I remember her being with me the day President Kennedy was assassinated. She never talks about those days, of being our mother. If I mention my old friends by name, she lights up with recognition, then quickly turns to new conversation. But Alzheimer’s is not blocking these memories. They are under Black Out.
Somewhere between my 12th and 14th year of life, my parent’s marriage cracked irreparably. Though they lived under the same roof for ten more years, we ceased to function as a family at that time. No more stories were told of our family history or our lives as children. No new family memories were created. Only silence and occasional angry outbursts. We were good secret keepers. What a shock their divorce was years later to most who knew us.
The stories never came back. My sister and I have pieced together our own memories over the years. Good and bad and what might have been. I have added some pieces to this memory quilt recently in going through my mother’s home, preparing for a sale. Though Mom denied the memories, she kept every picture, letter, and memento from those years. It has been bittersweet to see many of these things, buried in silence over forty years now.
The good, the bad, and what might have been. Alzheimer’s is not my first experience with memory loss.