Alzheimer's and The Long Goodbye


They call Alzheimer’s “The Long Goodbye.” Your mom is waving right beside you. Then she is 10 feet away. A month later, she is at the neighbor’s house. And years later, she is way down the street, still waving. By this time, you cannot recognize her. You cannot see her face. But, someone is still there, waving, and bidding you goodbye. No longer does she respond to being called “mom.”

It all begins with questions. At first, you barely notice it. You answer the same question that you answered last week. Then, like contractions, the time between questions decreases. It becomes three days, then two, until the same question is asked twice in one day.

It’s not a question like, what is the meaning of life or what is the square root of pi. Instead, they want to know if you graduated from high school (when you are thirty-seven years old) or whether the president is still Ronald Reagan. Before you know it, it’s like putting a song on repeat, except it is a question, asked over and over and over again.

It shifts into the realm of family. People begin to resemble photos from someone else’s album.

She is beautiful. Who is that?

-That’s your granddaughter, mom.

He is so handsome. Who is that man?

-That’s your son.

Suddenly the dreams and thoughts of her vacationing and growing old gracefully are replaced with one selfish prayer…that you don’t become one of the people she asks about.

Lauren’s mom has been kidnapped by Alzheimer’s. Every few days, I get a text or a phone call from my friend. She tells me about the clues that her mother leaves behind: The soaking wet clothes on the laundry floor, the cordless phone that she places in her purse instead of her cell phone, the suitcase that is packed and unpacked every morning, the bath towels that have found a place in the closet next to her dresses, the roll of toilet paper on the paper towel holder, and the thermostat that has been switched from cool to heat in 90 degree weather.

All clues lead Lauren to believe she is now taking care of someone else who is moonlighting as her mother. Every once in a while her mother makes an appearance. She asks what is happening to her or why can’t she remember things. And then she is gone, back to paying for a $12 pharmacy bill with two twenty dollar bills. She jumps in an out of decades in just one sentence. She loses fifteen years in seconds. And Lauren is left to play the role of a daughter, mother, wife, and nurse with no applause…just a pity party she throws for herself every now and then.

I have three friends who are all saying goodbye to their mothers. They all went to the same school. They are all under forty. They are all parents. Although they have never met, they are all connected through a disease that preys on memories, relationships, and fear.

I lost my father last May. I miss him every day. Even with cancer, my father told me how much he loved me. He knew who I was. I never thought that cancer could make you lucky. But sometimes, after Lauren’s phone calls, I feel that way.