Monday, September 14, 2009

Lovely and Twisted Recognition

My brother called last night with disturbing news; one of my mother’s oldest friends had passed away. Though my mother hadn’t seen Josie in years, the roots of their friendship grew deep; they had been neighbors in our small Italian community, talking to each other over clotheslines, and in the alleyway where our buildings married. Josie was even closer to my mother’s first cousin, Angie, so there were branches of her that spread throughout my family. “We were always together,” my mother said.

Ma’s immediate reaction to the news was physical. She started sweating, her face became flushed, and she jittered about with anxiety. When she hung up with my brother, she began talking quickly, firing questions at me that I could not answer. What did she die of? Where was she living? How did Jim (my brother) find out?

“I never got to see or talk with her. How can this just happen? I don’t understand,” my mother said. This death had pushed her to a place of perplexity; bewilderment hung all over her, and painful regret stomped on her heart for not having contact with Josie for years. I had absolutely no idea how to help her.

When Dan arrived home, I met him on the porch to warn him of my mother’s state and apprise him of her loss. When I told him who had died, he said, “She just called here about a month ago. Your mother talked with her.”

What? How could this be? I was bowled over.

I rushed in to tell my mother the news; she had indeed been in touch with Josie and just weeks before. She had spoken with her so there was no need to feel badly. She could lay regret to the side.

“That’s not possible. I don’t remember that at all,” my mother said.

“You did, Jill. I answered the phone, and a woman identified herself as an old friend of yours. You were confused until you heard Josie’s voice and then you were thrilled,” Dan said.

My mother was baffled, but within the confusion was a thin line of hope.

“What did I say to her?”

“I can’t remember exactly but the call lasted about five or ten minutes. You were happy though…I know that for sure.”

My mother turned to me and said, “Why can’t I remember? Not just this, but a lot of things.”

There was the briefest of pauses and in some sort of twisted recognition, she said, “I’m sick, aren’t I.”

Oh God, help me. She knows. In this moment, she knows.

“You are, Mum. You have Alzheimer’s.”

Her gaze did not waver. There was no fear, just enlightenment, like she had found something she didn't know was lost.

“Do I have it bad?”

“Not bad, no.” What was the point of saying otherwise?

“It’s ok Jill. There’s nothing to worry about. You’re ok here with us,” Dan said.

She nodded her head and then looked down at the floor.

“But Mum,” I said, “You spoke with Josie. You connected with her before she died. Isn’t that wonderful?”

She was deep in her own contemplation where my words fell unheard. I was alone wrapped in the loveliness of it; the two old souls had met in word, and not long ago. At least Josie would have had the pleasure of that memory, for awhile.

But I was also disturbed. My mother had suffered thinking she had not spoken to her friend in years. The horror of it made her frantic, and it was only by Dan’s revelation that she had a second of peace. She was tormented because she had forgotten. And her disease is all about forgetting.

When we were walking upstairs to bed, I put my arm around my mother’s shoulders and she put hers around my waist.

“Are you ok now?” I asked.

“I remember some of that conversation, I think. I remember Dan sitting on the couch there when he handed me the phone,” she said, pointing.

“That’s right, Jill. We were sitting facing each other,” Dan said, encouragingly.

I hoped it was true, her being granted the gift of remembering. And if she were to lose that memory, I wished for it to be bundled with the knowledge of her disease. If the good memory had to float away, I hoped it would take the bad one with it.


  1. A great post. Sometimes I wonder if it's good to lie. (Not that you were - that's not what I mean.) I'm wondering if it puts the person's mind at ease to tell them something untrue - is that bad? In this kind of situation, and you didn't have the truth to ease her mind, would it have been okay to tell her something that helped her feel better? I don't have the answer. Just wondering.

    Straight From Hel

  2. I hope your Mother really was able to remember a little of the conversation with her old friend even if it was for only a moment.

    I'd be afraid to lie to make Sue feel better. A third party that didn't know what I had done might come along at a time that Sue was thinking more clearly and say something that would let her know I'd lied to her.

    God Bless America, God Save The Republic.

  3. I definitely thought, "from now on, I won't tell her if anyone has passed, unless she asks after a person." The next morning, all was mention of the funeral or wake, nothing. And I didn't bring it up.

    So I think withholding is definitely ok, and lying is too if I am certain it won't cause problems down the line. It is hard though...such a fine balance with this disease.

  4. You handled a difficult situation very well, Lisa. And I think you and Dan helped your mother in ways you may never know.

  5. Lisa, you share this information in such a marvelous way. I have tears in my eyes everytime I read it, but am drawn to the beauty, not only of the telling, but of the beauty of the relationship between you, your husband and your mother. Your mother is truly blessed to have the two of you providing her care in such a thoughtful, caring way. I honor you both.

  6. “It’s ok Jill. There’s nothing to worry about. You’re ok here with us,” There is no better place for her. OH to be loved like that.

  7. Nancy, thank you. I felt so lost, not knowing what to do or say. She didn't mention Josie's death yesterday, but she did today...I am at once repelled by Alzheimer's and fascinated by it.

    Sylvia, thank you for the beautiful compliment, as a writer and a daughter.

    Tami, he is something, isn't he?

  8. Your right Beverly had a great idea. It is tough for sure. Keeps us busy.

  9. Your writing is just incredible. The way you are able to share this heartbreaking situation, putting every reader in the moment, making us understand what it was like through your dialogue and your thoughts is just amazing. You and Dan are doing a wonderful thing loving your mom like you are. What a thing to have to live with, for all of you, but the way you handle it all and make sense of it, it's inspiration. I'm thankful for your superb writing because it enables me to feel your experience so truthfully.

  10. Brit, thank you so much. Truly.

  11. Wow! What a stunning piece of writing, and a wonderful picture of love. I'm so glad Helen pointed out your blog.