Last Wednesday, I went to a department store in Albertville to do a little shopping therapy. While browsing through the clothing, I noticed two ladies I assumed were mother and daughter because of their striking resemblance. One appeared to be about my age, while the other was much older with silver in her hair and a crossword of lines on her face.
As I neared them, my heart broke a little. The younger woman was showing her mother several lovely blouses to look at but the older woman was holding a doll and kept repeating that her baby needed clothes more than she did.
Just as I pushed my cart past them, the mother looked at me with eyes glazed and confused. She asked me if I was her daughter. I looked at the younger lady who nodded with tears in her eyes. So, I smiled and said, “Yes, I am,” and she embraced me in a warm hug. Her daughter mouthed a silent “thank you” and I went on about my shopping with a flood of memories of my own.
Because my grandmother was disabled, my mother and I went to her parent’s house most days while I was growing up to cook breakfast and help with any chores that needed to be done. I was around ten years old when my grandpa Morrow slowly began to forget names, dates and other daily things. The doctor said it was Alzheimer’s with an early onset of dementia.
I will never forget one morning we cooked biscuits, bacon, sausage, eggs and gravy for them. After we all ate, Momma stood in the kitchen washing dishes and cleaning up. Grandpa walked up beside her and asked when she was going to have breakfast ready. “I’m starving to death,” he declared harshly. He had no recollection that he had just finished eating enough to fill up a mule.
The disease quickly grew worse and his memory failed a little more with each passing day. He was a big man even in his later years and soon became difficult to handle. The family had no choice but to place him under the care of a nursing home.
I was twelve years old when he drew his last breath…he had no idea who I was, but I still held on tight to the man who had taught me so much about life. He was my hero and the one I had sat beside so many times listening to stories about rabbit hunting and chopping cotton.
While family history isn’t necessary for a person to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, research shows that having a parent or family member with the disease increases the chances of developing it by at least 30% or more. My mother was apparently in that percentile.
A few years after my dad passed away, we all began to notice that Momma’s memory started fading. She forgot little things like birthdays, what day of the week it was and even how to use the remote control for the television. I thought at first, she was just getting confused from time to time, but when she called and asked me how to make homemade biscuits, I knew something was seriously wrong. My mother had probably cooked enough biscuits in her lifetime to feed the country of Japan for a decade.
I remember one day, she decided to drive herself to Foodland in Albertville without letting any of the family know where she was going. I got a phone call that afternoon from the local police department. An officer had noticed her driving around town in circles for a couple hours. When they stopped her, she insisted that the grocery store must have moved was the reason she couldn’t find it.
Before long, Momma slowly lost her battle with reality in a haze of Alzheimer’s. She soon forgot to take her medication and even failed to remember to eat, so my sister made the decision to place her into an assisted living facility. I’ll never forget the last time I saw my mother. It was her birthday…she was 80 years old. When I walked into her room, the first thing I noticed was that look in her eyes. I had seen that same expression in my grandpa’s eyes and I knew that like her father had so long ago done, Mother was now completely lost to the horrible disease.
She didn’t know who I was for the first few minutes of my visit, and then she seemed to wake up briefly. I was always so happy in those brief moments when the fog lifted and she was my momma again. She started crying, begging me to take her home. I cried too that day because I desperately wanted my mother and I wanted us both to go home…even though I knew it would never happen. She passed away soon after…a prisoner in her own mind. I felt like a big piece of me died that day with her.
It is estimated that 6.7 million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer’s and there is still no cure. It’s an awful disease that not only affects the patient, but is heart breaking for the family. It’s the “long goodbye” because the minute the diagnosis is declared, the grieving process starts.
As we age, it’s common to forget things from time to time. We might fail to return a phone call or answer a text. We may even struggle to remember a classmate’s name from high school.
But when I leave the house and get two miles down the road and began to wonder if I closed the garage door or not…that’s when I began to panic just a little. I worry that one day I too may get lost in a fog of my memories like my ancestors once did. I just hope and pray that Momma and Grandpa are there to hold my hand and guide me through it.
Sandy Holsonback is a local contributing columnist for The Reporter.
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