Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Mystery of Loss

We heard yesterday that my husband's mother had died, after years of suffering with Alzheimer's Disease. It would be inappropriate to say she "battled" the illness, because any weapons one might use against that gradual decline are taken from the beginning, along with memory and the particular dignity that memory brings.

My mother-in-law had early onset Alzheimer's; she was only in her early sixties when she began to show signs of forgetfulness, of repeating herself, of putting things in odd places, or losing things entirely. But she had always been smart, a sharp mind, and she found all sorts of elaborate ways to "cover" for the fact that she would forget things--even, sometimes, her children's names. She was a happy person who loved to laugh, who loved babies, particularly her three grandchildren. The cruelest trick of this disease was that it convinced her, eventually, that she did not know them when they came to see her: she, who had loved them so passionately all their lives, would look at them quizzically and say, "These little boys think I'm their grandmother."

Alzheimer's is the thief who takes everything: one's disposition, one's memory, one's sense of self. At the end, it even takes one's awareness of her own existence. In this case, it was life that was cruel and death which was a mercy. Even the evils of cancer might allow one the luxury of goodbyes at death. Alzheimer's makes a person drift away day by day, year by year, until nothing of them is left but the frail shell that breathes delicately in the bed.

At that moment of death, then, that moment when the soul is freed from the cage of the body, from the useless mind, there is a certain beauty. But for the family, there is that rush of grief that has been held suspended in a five-year death. Grief for loss, anger at what was endured.

And then the memories, cobwebbed, come drifting down. They are exquisitely painful, but someday they will be beautiful, comforting. And they are the only revenge: that her memory was taken, but ours was not. We will remember her.


Anonymous said...

Blessings to everyone in your family. My mother-in-law died of the same disease. We did go through the initial frustrations of her forgetfulness before we realized that she had Alzheimers; then the acceptance of what she and we would experience. In retrospect, I will tell you that I do believe that the disease is harder for the family to face and accept and live with on a daily basis than the individual. When I look back on my mother-in-law, I know that although she couldn't remember my name or my face, she loved when I would visit, tell her stories, and just hold her hand. Every now then there would be a smile. I actually think she was a happy person in her own little world...she just couldn't come right out and tell us. It is such a mysterious disease. I know it's crazy to say, but I often thought of Spock on Star Trek and how he would put his two fingers to a person's head to feel and know what they were thinking and experiencing. Only if we caregivers for Alzheimer patients had that power! Take care of each and just enjoy the simple pleasures of Christmas.

Mary Beth

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Mary Beth. You have such a positive view of it! It is true that you have to come to love a person in a whole new way after the person you once knew is gone. Marge was a favorite on the Alzheimer's floor because her sweet disposition and humor still shone through, at least until the last few months. Then there was simply nothing.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Julia, I am so sorry to hear of your loss. My thoughts are with you and your family. Grief is one of those things that is inexplicable, and everyone processes loss in different ways, and I'm sure you'll go through highs and lows in the coming days both individually and as a family. I don't have answers, but I have ears and shoulders.


pattinase (abbott) said...

This haunts all of us, I'm afraid. Is there any family free of it?

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Patti and Sandra! It's a little more of a reality today, and therefore a bit less disorienting for all involved. It is comforting to hear your comments, too. Thanks again.

Kay said...

Julia, my thoughts and prayers are with you, your husband and family. I am so moved by the little essay that you wrote on this tragic disease. With your permission, I will print it and read it to my mother. We placed my father in an Alzheimer-assisted-living facility in March of this year and we are trying to manage through this first holiday time. His 83rd birthday was Friday and my mother is still having trouble with understanding all of this. They were in denial for a long time about it.

Anyway, I am thinking of you all. Mary Beth's comment was lovely and I will read that to my mom as well. I think that every family will be touched with this eventually. It is wretched but my dad is calmer than he was at home. We try to live with him in the present and we are learning a brand new way of relating. It's tough. Sigh....

Ria Kennedy said...

I am sorry you had to suffer this painful loss. I know nothing I say can lessen the hurt. Please be well.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks so much, Ria. That is very thoughtful of you.

Kay, we know all about the denial stage. There was so much angst in the family as we tried to deal with her growing odd behavior but still had to deal with her very strong personality. Her husband wanted to keep her at home, but ultimately couldn't handle it--he would find her wandering at three in the morning, touching the knobs on the stove (she was a great cook before it happened). He was terrified that she would hurt herself or somehow burn the house down.

When she finally went to a care facility, it was a huge relief to all involved, just knowing that she was safe. But even with her failing memory, she felt a sense of betrayal, and always said she wanted to go home. That was hard.

But after a year or so she only felt safe where she was, and clung more to the attendants than she did to us. It was a gradual process of transference.

Cindy Fey said...

Julia, I'm so sorry to read about your family's loss. I remember so well how gentle and lovely your mother-in-law was and how much she loved your boys. We're with you. Much love, Cindy

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks so much. Yes, Marge was so much a part of my Gordon years--and I think she knew all of my friends there.

Thanks for posting, and Merry Christmas to all of you. I'm still trying to get on your blog! :)