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.