Mondays With Mother: An Alzheimer's Story

In 2002 my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It is a hard road, and we live it one day at a time. This is a chronicle of her disease and my Monday visits with her.

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Name: Anne Robertson
Location: Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States
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Tuesday, December 04, 2007


I actually wrote about my Thanksgiving visit in the weekly e-mail devotion/podcast that I produce called SpiritWalkers (visit to subscribe) so I'm just going to paste that in here.

Ecclesiastes 3:1 “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.’”

There are lots of seasons going on these days. In New England, we are always aware of the seasons of the earth. We get four distinct seasons, even if sometimes winter pokes its head in to see what early fall is like or summer tries to test its rays on an early spring crocus. Which reminds me that even though fall is about to give way to winter, it is planting season. If I am to enjoy a harvest of spring crocuses, tulips and daffodils, I have got to get those bulbs in the ground now, even though it’s only 40 degrees outside.

It is also the holiday season, with its excesses of food, spending, and parties bumping up against the church season of Advent that tries with an ever-weakened voice to shout, “Wait! Wait!” With the season of holidays comes the season of family with the dramatic highs and lows that come from Hallmark-card expectations. Sometimes the holidays are filled with warmth and joy. But at our Thanksgiving dinner at the nursing home, where my mother fades away into the fog of Alzheimer’s, we could only escape into the warmth and joy of holidays past.

Every person at the table had endured much. There was my stepfather and his daughter, who already had lost a wife and mother to cancer, now bearing the weight of my mother’s illness and care. There was the woman and her two teenage sons who have been part of my extended family for decades. Her husband was family also, until that day in 2003 when the oldest boy came home and found his father hanging in a tree. My brother and his wife were in Missouri on a job. I was there missing my father, who has been gone 27 years now and wondering if my mother even knew it was Thanksgiving. And of course there was my mother. The honest laughter came only from the stories of days gone by, and I came to understand why someone would write a song called, “Thanks for the Memories.”

That’s why I love this famous passage from Ecclesiastes. In beautiful poetry, it reminds us of the same truth that God wove into the very fabric of Creation. To everything there is a season. Life is cyclical, not linear. We live through seasons—seasons that both fade and return. Some seasons bless us with warmth and harvest; some seasons challenge us to work or to courage, and we will experience them all, again and again.

In the Crayola splendor of fall as I bite into a Honey Crisp apple fresh from the tree, I don’t really want to think about winter’s howling nor’easters and walking the dog in the biting cold, although I know they will come. But after shoveling the third March snowstorm, when my bank account is groaning from the heating bills, the promise of Spring is my lifeline. Wasn’t that breeze just a bit warmer? Didn’t that rain smell a bit different? Is it coming now? Is that…why, yes it is a crocus poking up through the snow!

When the winters of life come, Ecclesiastes reminds me that the time to weep, to mourn, to lose…the time for war, for killing, for hating…is but for a season. There is also the promise of other seasons waiting in the wings—the time to heal, to keep, to embrace…to love, to build up, a time for peace.

Oddly enough, the 20 crocuses I planted yesterday need the winter. They can’t just be planted as happy flowers on a warm spring day. They go in the ground just in time for the hard, frozen ground to come, which gives them what they need to bloom. Winter is a season. There is a time and purpose for it, just as there is a time for spring and a time for every purpose under heaven.

A Glimpse

I am again behind in my postings. It's been busy, but as I think I've said before, it becomes harder and harder to write. Emotionally it pulls everything out of me to go back into the experience, even if it hasn't been a particularly interesting visit. But I guess that's what therapy is about, and that's what this blog is for me.

So I went up to the Birches the first week in November. I was preaching in the next town over and had an all out battle with myself about stopping in for a visit. The voice on one side was aghast that I would even consider NOT going to see my own mother when I was so close. What sort of a waste of space was I to not give her that much? That side made me tell a whole bunch of people at church that I was on my way to see her in order to reinforce the idea.

The other side pleaded the cause of my sanity. Even though it was only 1 pm, I had been up since 3:45 that morning to drive all the way up there for their multiple services. With two services and a dinner at the church I had already expended a lot of emotional energy and had to drive almost three hours home still. Seeing my mother was always so draining. My legs didn't think they could walk in there. She wouldn't know anyway. I was so tired.

I got in the car still not knowing what I would do. In the end, I agreed with my first self, that couldn't live with my other self if I drove by. Since I don't want schizophrenia in my future, I decided to keep the peace and stop in, tired as I was.

When I got up to her floor, everyone was gathered in the Great Room for a concert. Students from a nearby college had come to play their instruments...little solo numbers they did one at a time. There was a piano, a violin, a clarinet, a saxophone, and a flute. They were actually quite good, playing a segment of a concerto or sonata for their instrument.

Mother was a musician. She played oboe, which is about the hardest instrument in the orchestra. She also played a bit of piano and she could follow the alto line pretty well in a choir. So here was a musician, who taught young people for a living, listening to some pretty good music played by youth.

She wasn't paying the first bit of attention, at least not in the way you would normally judge body language. She was fiddling with her fingernails and the crease in her pants. Lots of others around me said hello and acknowledged my presence in any number of friendly ways. Mother fiddled with her fingernails and the crease in her pants, even as I gave her a kiss and others moved around to accommodate another chair.

At the end of the concert I took her back to her room. To get home before I fell asleep at the wheel I really did have to go. She had been yawning during a good bit of the concert, so I brought her to the bed. With the arthritis and other issues she has now, I couldn't get her to a lying down position by myself, so I decided to search for an aide on my way out.

But before leaving, I gave her another kiss and a hug. I stroked her hair a bit and she looked at me. "I love you," I said. And there it was. Her. Mother. She was in there, behind those eyes. At the words of love, the woman roaming aimelessly through useless gray matter came out from behind a synapse to make a connection. It was brief...maybe a second or two, but she was there. I saw her. And both sides of me went home satisfied.