I called my mother on Thanksgiving afternoon, something I've been doing for approximately 30 years since I moved to Arizona. Normally, our conversation would take about 30 minutes and then my mom would have to attend to the gigantic meal she made every year for three people (herself and my two brothers). But this year, things would be a little different.
My mom has never been the most tech-savvy of people, and so she owns what is known as a "Senior's Phone". It shows pictures of people, and if you want to call, you simply tap on their picture. For incoming calls, it shows the picture and name of the person calling. When I called, this is how our conversation went:
Me: (dials phone)
Mom: ...Did it work? Answer! ... Greg ... Who is Greg?!? ... Hello?
Me: Hi mom, Happy Thanksgiving!
Mom: Uhhh... Hello. I'm going to put you on the phone with my son.
Brother: Hey, how's it going?
My mother is 87, and was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
A year ago, my mom began displaying symptoms of a cognitive decline. My brother and I had many conversations about it, but in a nutshell we felt that the symptoms were relatively minor, often had technology involved (never her strong suit), and that my brother's close proximity to our mother would allow him to monitor things to make sure that she was healthy and safe.
She also flat-out refused to see a neurologist, almost certainly because at some level she knew something was wrong. A Geriatric Nurse Practitioner explained it thusly:
Don't feel bad that you didn't know your monther had advanced dementia. She is intelligent, and high-functioning both socially and verbally. So dealing with her on her home turf? Forget it, she just talks her way around the signs that pop up.
Everything came to a head when she had to go to the Emergency Room for a minor, but pressing need. The longer she was away from her home turf, the harder it became to hide the dementia, which exacrebated the situation to the point where it became obvious what was going on. "I don't understand why my husband hasn't picked me up to take me home yet. How could he forget about me?" (My father passed away in 1994.)
The first week was awful, because she was undergoing a battery of tests while my brother and I were scrambling to find a memory care facility that wouldn't break the bank (not easy). With nothing around to remind her of her old life, my mother became despondent and given the situation, the only option remaining for us was to deflect her questions.
Mom: I want to go home. When can I go home?
Me: Well, the doctor says that you may be leaving here on Tuesday.
Mom: Oh, good. I can't wait to get home to my babies. What if they're cold? They need me!
Her babies, by the way, are six life-sized dolls that my mother began collecting in the 90's. My mom has always hated hot weather, and being from Canada, almost all weather is hot for her. This is a person who often neglected to turn on the heat, in Chicago, in January. But when I walked into her apartment, I almost fell over. It was sweltering, with the thermostat set at 95 degrees. On the couch, lined up in a row, were all six of her dolls, lovingly tucked in so only their heads were exposed to the "cold".
I guess there's a level of expectation that insulates me from the pain of certain life events. My mother forgetting my name was kind of funny to me, actually. I knew that my mom's memory was spotty at best, and at some point in time she will forget me and never again remember that she has a son named Greg. But I expect it, so when it happens, I'm not unduly upset about it.
But I was not ready to walk into my mom's apartment to find it unbearably hot and filled with signs of an intelligent person's mental decline. Like the incriminating math that betrayed the fact that my mom did not how old she was:
It's sad, but I would be thrilled to live to 87 before the proverbial wheels came off. (I'd even buy dolls if that's what it took.)
So this Thanksgiving, I took time to give thanks for the fact that I have a loving, caring mother who did every possible thing in her power to make my life better, whether that meant changing my diapers, cleaning my messy room, or worrying all night about something that might happen to me, but likely never would. She was always there for me, always trying her best.
That woman still exists, though she is slowly fading from view. But on those days when she is happily talking away, even though she doesn't exactly understand why a total stranger would be calling her from Arizona, I will remember that person and give thanks that I am lucky enough to call her my mother.