My plan is that each day for the next week or so I will enter a blog that describes some “highlights” from each year of my mom’s decline as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s. I will work my way to the present.
2004 / Year Two of My Mom’s Alzheimer’s
My mother doesn’t recall what she did the ten minutes before I arrived—did she eat lunch? Read the classified ads aloud and read them again? Ten foot boat for sale, yard sale on south side of Eau Claire—so I look at picture albums with her, sometimes side by side on the couch, or I sit in the easy chair across from her and quiz her about these old photos from across the room. She recalls the names of everyone, all of these ghosts from sixty or seventy years ago.
She must have been fourteen and was working, first as a live-in babysitter for a family who owned a tavern, then as a factory worker at the paper mill and living with her brother and his wife. She had her own money for the first time in her life, and she bought a camera and a watch. The poet in me sees how fitting this is: a camera to capture each moment before it passes, a watch to mark time. In 1944, these were the tools of an adult. Her life in photos begins then.
Today I hold up her one and only group family picture for her to see, taken when she was four years old. She tells me her fourteen siblings in order, oldest to youngest.
I point at a child in the picture. “Which one is this again?” I ask. She names each one again. When she gets to her parents, she says their full names: Ignatz Austin Weinfurter and Anna Grace Altman Weinfurter. We laugh at the barn and the chickens in the background. I don’t tell her how odd and wonderful it is that this family stopped their farm work for a photo.
My mother had her picture taken so few times as a little girl that her smile must be authentic: this child could not have known a pose.
This is one of the few pictures she has of herself before she’s an adolescent. She is dimpled and curly haired, wearing a paper-thin dress handed down from six or seven older sisters. She looks so happy I want to reach into the photo and hold her in my arms.
These Weinfurter children were born to work the farm. It’s 1934, middle of the Great Depression, and her family is beyond dirt poor, but at least in this photo my mother still has both parents. Her mother is younger than me here, though she looks much, much older than mid-thirties. Anna Weinfurter, my grandmother, is pregnant with her fifteenth child. She’ll soon discover she has cancer and die at home when my mom is just seven years old. A few years later her father—who made his own moonshine during Prohibition and my mom tells me today “sure liked his beer”—one night will come home from the tavern and get run down in front of his farmhouse by a drunk driver.
This photo was shot long before my mother had to quit school after eighth grade and go to work, passed around to family members: a bedroom here, an attic there. Years ago she told me she had friends who took the sixty minute bus ride to high school, and when she wasn’t working she’d sometimes ride the school bus with them just to see what it was like. She always loved school.
This photo was shot long before she met my father, and he moved her away from her family and farming community to a city where she knew no one. He worked midnight to eight am on the railroad, and it was the first time she had ever been alone in her life. At eighteen she was afraid of the dark and the noises the tiny apartment made, so she stayed up all night and put puzzles together by lamplight, slept when he slept. She got pregnant just two months into their marriage, and then the babies came and didn’t stop for twelve years. She was never alone again but for years perhaps only treasured the way a baby treasures his mother, or in the stuttered touch of an overworked husband reaching out to her across one sleeping baby to make another.
Today when she finishes saying the names of each sibling, she will not know how much I cherish this little girl from seventy years ago, a ghost of this woman beside me.
She looks at the picture in my hands and tells me, “We were all in the same shoe.” I laugh and laugh. As a kid, I’d look at this picture and think of the nursery rhyme “There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe” . . .she had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
“I mean boat,” my mom says, and she laughs, too. “All in the same boat. Poor. Nobody had nothin’. But we were happy.”
I love another photo of my mother—she’s fourteen or fifteen, an attendant in her brother’s wedding. She’s wearing a long gown, and though the photo is in black and white, I envision the dress as cotton candy pink. She’s standing outside against a barn. When I look at her face in this photo she is not my mother—she is some rising starlet or beautiful pen pal whose words you know on the page but you always want more. She’s a girl whose hand you’re compelled to take, whose blown-away curls you want to smooth, whose red lipstick—a color that’s new to her—you want to wipe off. I do not want to reach into this photo and hold this child (for even with the lipstick, she is surely still a child), but I want to pull her into this current scene—my mother at age 74 beside me today on this flowered couch—I want her fourteen-year-old self in the easy chair here with us. I want to tell her, “You must go to school and make good grades and I will get you to college. You’re the spelling bee champion of St. Killian’s Grade School and a good reader. You can be anything.”
What I don’t realize till much later, home and banging away at my computer (something my mother has never done), is that if I reach into that photo, circa 1934, and cradle that little girl in my arms, or if I pull that rising star out of the other photo, circa 1944, and give her advice about getting to school—neither of them becomes my mother. Her lifelong ability to be affectionate to any child has surely come from her own abandonment. Her desire for all of her children to be educated comes from her lack of school. If “that mom” had gone to high school and college and had a career, she most likely never would have married a farm boy and had eight children. No “that mom,” no me.
My mother is pissed off about her dementia diagnosis. More than anything it’s that she’s caught something my father hasn’t. Like when all but one in the family’s had the stomach flu or lice or chicken pox, and every moment you vomit or scratch or inspect your scabs you hate the one who isn’t puking or itching.
“Don’t come into my MRI appointment with me,” she sneers in my dad’s direction. “They may figure out that you have it too.”
My father has never been a patient man. He ignores her and heads towards the garage.
“I may outlive all of you,” she says as he closes the door. She flips through a pamphlet on dementia that her doctor gave her. She says to me, “Sometimes it’s better for old people not to know all this stuff.”
I read over her shoulder at the description of “cognitive decline.” She pronounces the words slowly: cog-NITE-ive. I read mild dementia, a label I suspect that may anger her the most. Like saying “half pregnant”—you know what’s coming.
After a week on Aricept, an Alzheimer’s medication, her disposition seems to improve. “Dad even cuddled me,” she tells me one day. “And I get two kisses: morning and night.”
One day I show up at my parent’s house when they’re in the middle of an argument. I take a spot at the dining room table. Lately my mom is angry at my dad most of the time.
“You shut up,” she yells at him. “You don’t know.”
When we were kids none of us was allowed to say “shut up.” I’m still shocked every time I hear it come out of my mother’s mouth. Until recently, I’d never heard her yell before.
My dad clears his throat the way he does before he cries.
She says to me, “People keep saying I have something, but I don’t. What is it called again?”
Part of me wants to burst out laughing: the Alzheimer’s patient can’t remember the name of her disease.
“Mom,” I say gently. “You have Alzheimer’s.” It’s the first time I’ve used that word with her.
“No I don’t,” she says. “My doctor said I have memory loss. Not Alzheimer’s.”
“Dad forgets things too, you know.” How happy she’d be if he were also afflicted and she wasn’t alone.
“He does forget some things, but you’re the one on Aricept.” I’m not sure where this is going. My mother has never been reasonable.
“For memory loss,” she says. “And I’m going to start to take more pills.”
“And why do you want to take more?”
“To stop the memory loss.”
“Because it’s getting worse?” I ask. I want her to admit what she’s said to my sisters and forgotten: that she can actually feel the blood vessels in her head bursting, and she can’t remember anything anymore.
I know she uses twenty dollar bills for book marks and that my dad doesn’t leave her alone when they go to a flea market or the casino. I know her arms are often covered in burns from the oven. I suspect that by tonight she’ll forget I was here today.
She says, “Because if I take one pill then two would be much better.”
I find my father alone in his garage, the only place I can ask about my mom. “How are things going?” I say. Before the words are out of my mouth, he puts his head down on a ladder wrung and sobs. He tries to talk, and I rub his shoulder.
“You don’t have to do that,” he says.
He’s so unused to crying in front of someone, so unused to a comforting touch. My mother was not a crier and did not tolerate it in others.
“Just between you and me,” he says.
My brother the construction worker has organized enough family members to put a new roof on my parent’s house.
Sunday afternoon I come over to make potato salad and scalloped potatoes to go with ham. My mom and I work in the kitchen. I peel potatoes while she looks for pans.
She says, “I think Dad moved my cake pans.” Like a lot of long-married couples, my parents call each other “Mom” and “Dad.” “Do you think he’d put them in the basement? I’m going to go outside and ask him.” She heads for the door.
“No, don’t. We’ll look together. Don’t bother Dad.”
“He’s just standing around out there. He’s not really doing anything.” My dad has strict rules NOT to climb the ladder, but he’s still running the show.
“Did you look under the stove?” I ask her.
“What do you mean?”
“That drawer under the stove where you used to keep pans. Did you look there?”
“I kept pans under the oven.”
It’s the first time I recognize she can’t use words interchangeably. She opens the drawer beneath the oven/stove and finds what she’s looking for.
Next it’s summer sausage she’s sure was in the refrigerator the last time she looked. She’s on her hands and knees pulling out containers and opening them. “Do you think someone stole it?” she asks me. I know she’s kidding, but a part of me is beginning to question everything she says.
“That venison sausage is good, but not that good,” I tease.
“Mom, I bet you put it out and the guys ate it.”
She keeps looking. A few minutes later she tells me, “I put it out before and the guys ate it.”
She tells me a number of times how much she appreciates me coming over to help put on meals for two days. I don’t mind when she loops with compliments or appreciation, maybe because this happens so infrequently. In fact, I’m conscious of giving her different responses, which means she may not remember. Each time she thanks me she tells me that Dad is paying the guys. “But I don’t think he’ll pay the cooks,” she says and laughs. She does this three times in fifteen minutes.
The fourth time she thanks me I tell her, “I don’t expect Dad to pay the cook.” I do it just to see what she’ll say next.
“Well,” she says, “I’d say you worked off the cost of those pants.” She looks at the running pants I’m wearing, ones she bought at a thrift sale in Florida and brought home to whoever would take them. “I paid fifty cents for them. I’d say you earned them today.” She laughs.
I wonder why she recalls these pants, the price, but not where she left a stack of twenty dollar bills my dad gave her for spending money? Why these pants and not an entire doctor’s visit? These pants and not having the same conversation in a fifteen minute period.
She has all of the ingredients lined up for me. Three Campbell’s cream of mushroom soups, two jars of mushrooms. She pulls out a new can opener someone gave her from Pampered Chef.
“Fancy,” I say.
“I don’t know how to use it,” she tells me. “Let me go get Dad.” She heads for the door again.
So this must be what their days are like. She gets stuck and calls for my dad. The poor bastard. Not only does she call him names and yell at him, but he must be at her every whim: find the Miracle Whip in the fridge, open the can of tomatoes, write this down.
“No,” I say. “We’ll figure it out.”
I look at the opener and position it sideways on the can. “The handle turns really easily doesn’t it?” She shrugs. She’s never used it.
I think I’ve opened the first can, but the metal lid doesn’t pop off.
“What the hell,” I say.
My mom laughs. “See,” she says. “It is a hard one.” She’s awfully pleased I can’t figure it out.
I try another can. Same thing: the opener goes around the top but nothing happens.
My mom laughs so hard I think she’s going to pee her pants. Her laugh stance for years has been to grab her crotch when she knows she’s going to laugh hard. Giving birth to eight babies has done a number on a lot of her body parts. I’ve never understood her grab-your-crotch logic—does she think she can hold the pee in with her hand?—but every time I see her do this, it makes me laugh harder. There we stand, laughing at the three unopened Campbell’s cans.
I take one can and the opener out to my dad. He’s covered in tar and soot from walking around the house and picking up nails and shingles. His hands are black and his cheeks smudged.
I hold up the can, and he laughs at me. “Couldn’t figure it out, eh?”
He shows me how to use the pincher on the edge of the opener to get ahold of the top of the can. “This way there aren’t any sharp edges,” he says.
“Fancy,” I say. “Why don’t you teach mom how to use it?”
“I have. Three times,” he says.
I dump the cream soups into a big mixing bowl and tell my mom to fill the empty cans with milk. It’s a dish I’ve seen her make for years—with equal parts of soup and milk. I go back to slicing potatoes. She checks the ham and lines up more pans for me.
“Did you put the milk in?” I ask her.
“I don’t know. Did you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” I really can’t remember. I got the milk out for her, so maybe I did add the milk.
“See,” she says, “you forget things too.”
“I wouldn’t forget if I was doing this alone. I told you to do it.”
“Two cooks,” she says. “spoil the pot.” She looks at the soup cans. “No milk in the bottom. We didn’t put the milk in yet.”
“Cool trick,” I say.
I mix up the soup and potatoes. “I am so forgetful,” she says. “About everything.”
“I know,” I say. “Maybe the higher dose of Aricept will make it better.” I know this is a hopeful lie. Aricept might help her from getting worse too quickly.
“I know I’m losing my mind,” she says. “But I’m not goofy yet. Don’t put me away yet.”
I laugh. “Mom,” I say, “You’ve been goofy as long as I’ve known you.”
The next day I stop over to see how the roof has progressed.
“That Geralynn worked so hard all day here,” my mom says.
“I know, I was here,” I tell her. My sister showed up with groceries and then came back to serve the meal.
She looks at me blankly. I say, “I was here all day. I made the scalloped potatoes. I mixed up the potato salad. I left after we served the meal.”
“Well, no one liked the potato salad. It was too soupy. I don’t know if anyone even knew what it was.”
I’m embarrassed to say how much this hurt my feelings. She’s a sick woman, and she simply forgot which daughter was here. Still.
“I’ll see you later,” I say.
She’s asking if I want to take home some potato salad as I walk down the driveway.
“Geralynn said she liked it,” I call back. I keep walking.