Three or four years ago, when I was visiting my daughter in Las Cruces, we decided we would take in a movie. It would be a typical evening for us when we were together--go to dinner and go see a movie. Girl Time! Meghan told me that she really wanted to see the "Notebook." I had seen the previews and it looked like one of those wonderfully sappy love stories that you just love getting lost in.
We bought our tickets and entered the theater. The first thing I noticed were all the older people who were at the movie. It was kinda strange. At first I thought it might be a senior citizen's discount movie, because it was really different seeing a tremendous amount of seriously gray headed people in the theater. However, the movie started, I was lost in the story, and the other patrons were not on my mind until the end of the movie.
It was probably 2007 when my dad called me on the sly to talk to me about my mother. (On the sly meaning that he would wait until she went to the beauty shop on Friday and we could talk about whatever he didn't want her to hear.) This conversation would be the first in a series where he told me that he thought she was behaving differently and was being unusually forgetful. Now, my mom and my dad had been living together as a retired couple for many years, spending an inordinate amount of time together. Mother had reduced much of her traveling and going off on her own because of her fears that my dad would have a heart attack or die by himself if she left him alone. I secretly thought she also was concerned that he would withdraw thousands of dollars from their bank account and spend it willy-nilly at yard sales if her back was turned. However, Mother and Dad were definitely exhibiting many signs of spending too much time together. Trying to be supportive, but not encouraging his worrying, I would reassure him that this was all part of growing old together. This did not stop his concern. After talking with Dad, I would call my brother, Gary, and get his point of view. Gary would give her his evaluation and tell me that she was good--it was all good. Mom and I discussed it all too. She ademantly disagreed and thought Dad was being a pain over nothing new. Finally, all this came to a head and Mother agreed to go see a doctor to appease my father.
Testing for memory loss is interesting... First, you have to have a physical. Then, a battery of tests begins. CAT Scans, MRIs, eye exams, hearing tests, internists, and finally someone refers you to a psychiatrist and a psychromatrist. Mom actually did well on all the tests. We learned that she had some brain scars from high blood pressure, she had a couple of "mini-strokes", her hearing was good as was her eye-sight, she had a small growth on her pituitary gland, she was very bright and very social. (If the doctor had told me that her coat was glossy and her teeth were fine it would not have suprised me!) We also learned that she did exhibit some signs of mild dementia, but the psychiatrist reassured me that she was doing well and everything was good. Typical results for an aging woman. No Alzheimers--thank you, God! My dad had also heard the same results, but every week when we would talk on the phone, he usually had concerns for her memory and her mental health.
My mother seemed just fine to me. We also talk at least once a week, and she seemed to remember things just fine. When we were together, she was lucid, sharp, and able to recall details without concern. She could piece one of her quilt masterpieces, make my favorite cookies or pie without a hitch, and she kept her checkbook to the penny. She would go to her doctors' appointments with Dad in tow, and everything seemed just fine on her end until last December.
Mom and Dad were scheduled to fly to Arizona for the holidays on the Saturday before Christmas. On Friday, she would get her results from her regular memory tests from her new doctor, a gereatric psychiatrist. That Friday evening, both of my parents called to tell me that the doctor had changed the diagnosis to Alzheimers. My heart just sunk. There had to be a mistake. Who was this new doctor? Something just wasn't right.
I wish I could say that everything was bright and beautiful--candy canes and sugar plums, the best Christmas ever... But that would be a lie. Mom DID seem the same, but one day, when she and I were frantically wrapping presents and baking goodies, she seemed to "check-out." She asked several questions over and over and I had to keep track of what she wrapped to make sure the tags didn't get switched. I was already stressed out with the approaching holiday, and now this. Dad wanted to talk about it all the time. If we went to a store, he told the sales clerks his wife had Alzheimers. When we spent a day with Bosco's family, he quietly told everyone there that Mother had Alzheimers. On Christmas day, he told all our friends that Mother had Alzheimers. Only he calls it "Aldztimers." Finally, the day after Christmas, I thought I would scream if I heard him say it again, and he did. I didn't scream, but he and I did sit down and try to talk it all out. Picture this... An eighty year old telling me that if he dies before she does that Gary and I are to sell their house and move her into an assisted living facility. And me, the fifty year old with a big case of denial arguing that there had to be a gross mistake. Not my mother. Not us.
After Christmas break was over, I contacted my mother's psychiatrist. He was a nice man, very patient, and truly experienced in explaining the situation and bad news to extremely worried children of patients. The news wasn't good and the future isn't either.
MY mother. Note that I claim her as MY OWN. Yes, I share her with Gary, but due to the age difference between Gary and myself, we each have different memories and relationships with her. Katherine Henry Hill. Organized. Dedicated Christian. Frugal. Good cook. Excellent seamstress. Family quilter. Sister. Talented. Fast driver. Crocheting goddess. Wonderful Nana. Big haired Texas Lady. Gardener. Funny. Polite. Reader. Loving friend. Democrat. Breast cancer survior. Exemplar southern woman. Strong willed. Country girl. Barefoot by choice. Worrier. MY mother. Her doctor told me that little by little she would lose pieces of herself and that one day she would not only not know me, but anyone else. How could MY mother not know me? I'm her baby. This has been selfishly the hardest thing to accept. Her doctor told me that over time we would see the woman we knew diminish, but that it is not hard on the Alzheimer's victim, but their family. I see that.
A person in my shoes told me that Alzheimer's is like swiss cheese--you know how the holes in swiss cheese don't exactly line up? That is like an Alzheimer's patient's memory. One day they can remember a lot, the next day more, then nothing, then it's back again. A rollercoaster of unexpectedness. Only, there are signs and stages the victim will go through. In the end, all the brain cells die--end of story.
Right now, MY mom still knows me and our family. She is still pretty active and enjoys doing the things she has always done. Dad does more for and with her. She likes making her own decisions and often feels like he is over protective. We talk regularly and when she doesn't seem to remember something, I don't push it. It's hard, but not compared to what is coming our way. Weird thing is, I used to pray and worry that cancer would be our main concern with Mother. I just didn't see this coming.
Oh, and the Notebook... I hate that movie.