One Friday afternoon, my 15–year–old son John and I were in the kitchen preparing after–school snacks. My mother, who lived with us, was there too. My younger sons, James, 10, and Jaron, 8, were playing outside when I asked John to get the milk.
"Excuse me, Grandmother," I heard John say. Then, suddenly, there was chaos.
"What do you think you're doing?" my mother demanded angrily. I jerked my head up in time to see her slap my child—hard—across his stunned face.
"I was just trying to open the refrigerator, Grandmother," John said, his voice barely audible as he backed away. The look on his face broke my heart.
I would never have believed my mother would strike a child, much less her own grandson. But in the brutal grip of Alzheimer's disease, this woman we knew so well was becoming a stranger.
My sons have always been close to their grandmother. She did all the things grandmothers are supposed to do—sent brownies in the mail for no reason, saved tiny jars and boxes perfect for chubby fingers to play with, sewed special–request pajamas every Christmas. But a bout with viral meningitis caused Mother's fairly mild degree of Alzheimer's to become debilitating. She lost all short–term memory, many motor skills, and much of the ability to control her social behavior. Overnight she went from living on her own to needing round–the–clock supervision.
"She'll live with us, of course," my husband, JosÉ, had said matter–of–factly when my sister and I were discussing what to do. I could have nominated him for sainthood that day. Having Mother live with us was a lot to ask of my family, but I never had to ask; they offered. None of us knew, though, how enormous the adjustment would be.
While Mother's confusion was heartbreaking and frustrating for me, my sons delighted in her now juvenile silliness and lack of regard for "proper behavior." She and James would make outlandish faces at each other till they collapsed in fits of laughter. She and Jaron would snort and whinny and shriek their way through ridiculous skits with puppets and stuffed animals. When no one was watching, even John would join in, donning goofy hats and hiding behind pillows as Mother egged him on.
During those early months, it was wonderful to have Mother with us for Wednesday night suppers at church and baseball games at the Y. Instead of being embarrassed by her sometimes–excessive exuberance, the boys found it endearing. More than once, I saw John chuckle and shake his head as Mother lavished praise and affection on a bewildered stranger. I often heard James explaining to friends, "My grandmother has Alzheimer's; she gets a little carried away sometimes, but she's really nice."
One of the boys' favorite memories is the afternoon Mother abruptly decided to join in a kickball game at a church picnic. We all watched uncertainly as she walked up to the ball and gave it a long look. Suddenly, she gave it a resounding wallop with her walking cane, and the ball went sailing across the field to a rousing chorus of cheers and whistles.
Unfortunately, those happy times gave way to darker ones as Alzheimer's caused Mother's personality to become angry and unpredictable. One moment she'd be sitting at the piano playing a duet with Jaron, and the next she'd be yelling at him to get his hands off her piano because "it belonged to my mother and you are not allowed to touch it!" James came to me in tears one day, crushed because Mother had lashed out at him and stormed away when he tried to give her a hug.
"What's wrong with her?" he cried.
I tried once more to explain what Alzheimer's does to a brain. "Your grandmother would never push you away, sweetheart," I assured him, "but that grandmother is gone. Maybe you could think of this grandmother as someone we are loving and taking care of because she was a very special friend to Grandmother." He sat for a moment and then said quietly, "But that's like losing Grandmother twice—now and when she dies." His profound assessment of exactly what was happening made me realize why this disease is so painful for everyone involved. You say good–bye to the person you love a little more every day.
I'm no Florence Nightingale, and Mother was not a cooperative patient. During many of those dark days, we were both at our worst. It was then that my sons stepped in to restore peace. "Hey, Grandmother," James would say. "Let's go see what's growing in the garden!" In no time Mother would be happily weeding the strawberry patch or helping water tomato plants. Or, "Come on, Grandmother, let's go for a walk," John would say, and down the drive they'd stroll, Mother's agitation evaporating as she basked in her grandson's attention. So many times, those small windows of relief provided me a desperately needed opportunity to calm down, berate or forgive myself for my impatience, finish whatever task was at hand, and pray for the strength to cope until bedtime. My sons' support and flexibility enabled us all to make it through that very difficult time.
But things got worse. Instead of just being nasty, Mother's outbursts became violent. One day she became enraged and hurled a glass across the room, missing James's head by mere inches. Another day I walked onto our deck just in time to see her abruptly brandish a paring knife in Jaron's face. I'd pledged never to put my mother in a nursing home, but as her outbursts became increasingly more dangerous and unpredictable, I agonized over balancing the well–being of my family against my duties as a daughter.
Ultimately, Mother's doctor insisted that keeping Mother at home was no longer the safest or healthiest choice for any of us, and, amid overwhelming sadness, I moved her into a facility specializing in Alzheimer's care. She was never even aware of the change. In fact, she flourished in her new surroundings, charming everyone with her warmth and vitality. While John, always the shyest of my sons, seemed uncomfortable in the new setting, the younger boys eagerly volunteered to visit. Both residents and staff enjoyed their youth and energy, and I was pleased to see that instead of being frightened or repulsed by the friendly but confused inhabitants, my sons responded with warmth and patience.
I, however, suffered from depression and enormous guilt. It wasn't until my sister and I talked months later that I realized God was still at work in our mother's life.
"You know how Mother was never at peace after Daddy died?" Vera asked. (Our father, Mother's childhood sweetheart, died when he was only 49). "It occurred to me that maybe this is God's reward for a life well lived. She's so content, so happy now, and she never was before." Odd as it seemed, I wondered if my sister might be right. My mother, who had spent 30 years aching from the pain of a lost love, the fear of living alone, and the frustration of what to do with her life once her children had grown and gone, was now blissfully unaware of anything except the moment she was in. And in those moments, one person after another was blessed. Every time I visited the nursing center, someone had a new story to share: how she offered a hug at just the right time; how she made a funny face and thwarted a nurse's bad mood; how she delivered a heartfelt "Thank you so much, honey!" when an aide was feeling overwhelmed. Every meal she consumed was the "best," every outfit she wore was her "favorite," every day was completely free from memories of heartbreak or sadness or pain.
My mother passed away in December, ten years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The stream of people who filled her room the morning she died was a beautiful testament to the fact that even in the face of something as horrible as Alzheimer's, God's goodness can prevail. At the funeral I watched John, James, and Jaron stand tall and proud as her pallbearers, their brightly colored ties shimmering in the sun ("Grandmother was not an all–black kind of person!" James had protested. "She deserves some color!"), and I knew her memory would live on.
Jayne Jaudon Ferrer is a wife, mother of three, writer, and speaker. She and her family live in Greenville, South Carolina. She's written three books of poetry for parents, including A Mother of Sons (Loyola). For more info you can visit her website at www.JayneJaudonFerrer.com.
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