My husband's mother, Marjorie, would have been 76 today. I have been thinking of her all day--about what a nice person she was, how devoted she was to her husband and her children, how she fell head over heels for her grandchildren, and how, as fate would have it, their babyhood was the last blessing of her life.
This picture was taken about eleven years ago--about two years before Alzheimer's began its evil work in the woman that we all still considered young. She had always had the tendency to jumble her words, to reverse the names of her sons (much to their anger), to pronounce things incorrectly. Her family, with that callousness that we save only for those we love, initially laughed at her, thinking it was an eccentric part of her personality.
But things got worse; she forgot important things, like the fact that she had contact lenses in her eyes, or that she had left the stove on, or that the baby's high chair wasn't properly attached. It was at that point that we had to tell her we no longer needed her as a baby sitter, which felt cruel enough. Less than a year later she was much worse, and her husband had to admit he couldn't handle taking care of her on his own, that he feared what she would do in her nocturnal ramblings around their house. She was admitted to a care facility, and he was asked not to visit her more than once a week.
"It agitates the patients," they told him.
This was true. She would pace nervously most of the time--a symptom of the disease, probably because the victims know enough to realize that something significant is gone, and they want it back. Sometimes Marjorie would trip and fall while she did this nervous pacing. Eventually they encouraged her to stay in a wheelchair to reduce the chance of injury. Little by little, she was imprisoned, mind and body.
When she lived in the Alzheimer's Ward, she clung to her husband's name as her final lifeline. We would visit and she would ask us, "Do you know Dick Buckley?"
"Yes," we'd say. "He's your husband. That's his picture on the wall."
"Oh." She obviously didn't remember, but that name rattled around in her head, tormenting her. When he visited her something in her body remembered him; it seemed to respond merely to the sound of his voice. She would ask him to please take her home, and he would cry and tell her he couldn't do that, that she was safer here.
She was; there were caregivers with her always, watching with the vigilance of new mothers, because Alzheimer's patients, like babies, do things without thinking. They eat things that aren't food because they can't remember what food is, or why we eat at all. They can't remember their own names, or the names or faces of the grandchildren they once so dearly loved.
Alzheimer's Disease makes a person die before her death. It forces her to give up everything that she loves and, most precious, to let go of the last tenuous threads of memory so that those who come to visit are merely props, things that require explanations which will not be understood.
Marjorie was a beautiful and loving person, and she would have been horrified to learn of her fate. She was a Ross MacDonald fan, and when we talked about his work, which we both admired, she would shake her head and say, "I heard he had Alzheimer's at the end." She said it as though it were a terrible punishment. Then she would shrug and go into her kitchen to make sandwiches or some delicious meal; she loved to cook, back in the healthy days.
I think of Marjorie often, but today we are all thinking of her, and wishing we could bring her a birthday cake (which she would most likely refuse, because she always watched her figure). She would mostly enjoy the children; she'd offer to play a game with them, just like always, and get right down on the floor to ponder a Stratego Board or laugh over Sorry. She would tell them something nice about themselves, or ask where they got some new stuffed animal, and then she would say her standard Grandma line: "Aren't you lucky? What a lucky boy!"