Posts Tagged ‘Denial’

It’s easy to miss the signs of love if you aren’t looking for them.  All my life, my mother encouraged me to take risks, to go off on adventures, to see the world, to create without any expectation of the outcome.  For years, I took this for granted…   this is just what my mother did, just who she was.  It’s only now that I see my friends angst as their kids set off on their own that I have a glimpse into how hard this must have been for my mother.

When I was five, though she watched every lesson, she willed her self not to intervene so that I could learn to swim.  I was taking swimming lessons and was terrified of drowning.  For the first few days of swimming lessons, I held on to the wall for dear life.  You could not pry my fingers off the ledge of that wall.  Finally, the head of the program took drastic measures and tossed me out into pool.  I floundered until I realized that I was floating.  I heard her tell her friends how hard it was to watch, how she wanted to run in and rescue me, to protect me from my fear.  But she knew that I had to do it, had to take risks and face my fear in order to really grow up.

When I was 15, she went through a similar tug as I learned to drive.  I had inherited a Ford Courier pick-up truck that, as my father would say, “had been rode hard and put up wet.”  Sometimes it would start.  Sometimes it wouldn’t.  When it did run, often as not, it stammered and sputtered and stalled.  And when it was running well, sometimes the brakes just didn’t work at all.  How she didn’t have a heart attach every time I left the house is beyond me.

I started college when I was 17.  I was incredibly naive and was ill prepared for the possibility that my professor would abuse his position.  She never let on that she was worried about his attention or intentions…   When he invited me to dinner, she came along as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  She just created reasons to go to school with me.  She’d make it into an adventure.  We’d go to the mall or out to dinner or to a movie, just the two of us.  The key is that she was there when I got out of class, a physical deterrent to any funny business on his part.  She let me figure out on my own that something was off.

When I was 19, I moved to Mexico for a summer.  She kept her concerns about the political unrest, corrupt police, Montezuma’s revenge and all those horrible things that could possibly happen to an American girl abroad to herself.  Instead, she focused on the adventure of it and her excitement for me to have the chance to explore new worlds.  When I was 22, I moved to London.  Again, she supported the adventure of it and didn’t burden me with her fears or the fact that having me so far away almost broke her heart.

Seeing her pain through the hearts of my friends, I get it now, that while sometimes love is about holding someone close to you, sometimes love is about letting go.

Sitting with her, witching her drift off to where ever it is that Alzheimer’s is taking her, I don’t know that I can let her go with the same sort of grace.  I don’t know that I can mask my grief and fear of losing her.  I catch myself clinging to who she was with the same tenacity I had when I clung to that wall in the swimming pool when I was five.  Only this time, I’m afraid of drowning in my pain.


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Our culture has created guides to help us navigate the markers that correspond with youth.  We have books that tell us how to deal with baby’s first tooth and baby’s first step.  Magazines and TV shows tell us how to deal with our child’s first day of school, the first band concert, the first date, the first heartbreak, the first drunken escapade, the first job, the first college acceptance letter, the first final exam, the first college degree.  These markers are, if not exciting (it’s hard to imagine being thrilled at the sight of your teenager staggering across the living room) at least offer promise that things can get better if you can get your child back on course.

There are no real guides to prepare you for the markers associated with Alzheimer’s.  Once the markers hit, there’s no hope for things getting better.  You can read the lists of signs and symptoms and even go to a support group, but when stumble over or slam into the markers, you’re own your own.  Denial may be the only useful tool you have, and it only lasts so long.  For example, the first time Mom forgot what day it was, I just chalked it up to “senioritis.”   I used the same excuse the first time I had to help her fill in a sentence.   The time we got lost on the way to the library, I was just about to slap on that excuse, until I saw her cry.  “Senioritis” makes you laugh.  This was something different and it hurt her.

What do you do when you’ve run out of denial?  You have to sit with the feelings until they move through you.  This may take years.  I still remember how my heart broke the first time she forgot to send a birthday card.  She’d never, ever forgotten my birthday so I knew this was a sign that she was slipping away.  And I felt like someone ripped my heart out and put it in a blender.  I was scared of losing my mother.  I was angry at the Alzheimer’s for taking her away.  And the sadness felt unbearable.

The first time I coerced her into taking a shower sent my heart right back into the blender, same pain but with some different feelings thrown in for good measure.  I’d  been home a week and she hadn’t bathed since I’d gotten there.  It was summer and she was, to put it mildly, ripe.   She’d said the night before that she’d take a shower in the morning.  When lunch came and went and still no shower, I pushed.  We sparred.  She said she’d already taken a shower.  I pointed out that she hadn’t.  She got defiant.  I got honest and told her that she stunk.  She cried.  The fact that she took a shower did little to assuage my guilt.  I’d been mean to my mother and I couldn’t take it back.

With Alzheimer’s, it’s not just what you can’t take back that’s hard.  It’s bearing witness to what you can’t take away.  Last Christmas, Dad sent me in to help Mom get dressed.  I walked into the bathroom and found her drying off with a wash cloth.  I handed her a towel which I suggested might work a little better.  She took the towel but instead of thanking me, sat down on the toilet,  said, “I can’t do anything right.  I hate myself.  I wish I was dead.”  I stood there, speechless, and watched her cry.  I’d never had to face my powerlessness so directly.  There’s no joke you can tell or pill you can fetch that will take away this pain.  Words felt impotent against my mother’s misery.  All I could do was reach out and hug her, wrap her in my love, and hope that this would be one of those moments she forgot.

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Twist Ties

My introduction to the impact of Alzheimer’s Disease was overwhelming.  I was helping a friend clear out his mother’s house.  She was having trouble remembering things and was a bit out of touch.  She was also a hoarder.  Every room in the house was stuffed with newspapers, books, garage sale purchases, twisties, and natural food products and supplements.  She had saved every newspaper, magazine and piece of mail that had come into the house for eight years.  Our job was to, in essence, dig her out, so that she could walk from couch to the bathroom and the kitchen.

We hauled off truckloads of recycling and garbage.  We dug out a hospital bed in the dining room that was covered with an odd assortment of knick knacks, twist ties, art, clothes, and maggot and moth laden bags of  rice and oatmeal.   When she was awake, we struggled over every item she saw us try to get rid of, even the rice and oatmeal, which she assured us was fine.

When we finally got to the kitchen, we were shocked to find thousands of twist ties.  They were scattered over the floor and stuffed into drawers and cabinets.  It seemed like they were self-replicating; every time we’d think we had gotten rid of all of them, we’d find more.

She’d been very active.  She’d played tennis, swam, sewed, danced and for awhile even did Judo.  She had Now all she did was lay on the couch, sleep, listen to classical music, watch PBS and talk to her sons.  It was as if she’d almost completely shut down and given up on life.  She wouldn’t leave the house unless she had a medical appointment.  I tried to reason with her, tried to convince her that she’d feel better with out all the stuff, and that getting out would do her some good.  Mostly she’d just sort of drift away when I talked, as if she’d forgotten we were talking.

At the time, all I knew about Alzheimer’s Disease was that it was scary and that I didn’t want to have it.  I didn’t understand why it was so hard for my friend to see that his mom really wasn’t OK.  I didn’t understand that she’d declined gradually or that she was terrified of change.  I didn’t understand that she held on to things because she’d grown up very poor and was afraid that if she got rid of stuff, she might not have enough.  I didn’t understand that she’d sort of regressed back to an earlier time.   And I didn’t understand how painful it was to watch one’s mother slip away, not until I realized that my own mother was slipping into the same fog.


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