“What if you die before me?” she asks. “What happens then?”
We’re walking through Paradise Memorial Gardens, across from my mother’s care home. Max, my black lab puppy strains at the leash, lunging closer to the pond where two swans glide gracefully along the duck pond.
She does not realize we’re in a cemetery, an appropriately ironic place to have this difficult conversation. In my lifetime, my mother and I have never talked about death. Like disease of any sort, her religion has taught her to deny death.
Conversely, my father keeps a list called “The Departed,” a sheet torn from a legal pad, the names of friends and acquaintances written in his shaky octogenarian penmanship. It’s taped to the dining room wall of his tiny island cottage, a maudlin catalog of death that grows longer by the moment.
I, too, am surrounded by death. The recent suicide of my husband’s daughter. Our Golden Retriever. A stepmother and stepfather. Ex-husband who overdosed. The death of my career. And the agonizing death of my mother’s brain.
I am not equipped to deal with the grim reality of dying. Or this conversation. By the time we walk home, she’s forgotten the question entirely.
And slowly, I learn to appreciate the moments when life seems worth living.
Childhood Christmas traditions were as quirky as my family: cans of soup in our stockings, regifting used candles, gift tags that rhymed.
Today, in lockstep with Alzheimers’ relentless march, my mother enjoys simple Christmas traditions. Gingerbread and eggnog. Cards and carols.
On the way to church this morning, we sang along to Rudolph and Silent Night. She knew all the words.
Yet, as I’ve learned in dementia caregiving, memories are excruciatingly arbitrary.
“We MUST get a Christmas tree!” she declared, over coffee and donuts after church. We’d already put one up weeks ago and although she didn’t recognize any of the ornaments from past family Christmases, it’s a comforting symbol of the season.
When we returned to her care home, she noticed the little tree, tinsel twinkling amidst tiny white lights. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” she said. “Is it Christmas already?”
Yesterday, we went for a walk, my mother and I. We had just finished lunch in the main dining room of the senior home, one of her favorite things to do.
“This is a horrible place,” my mother says, the chocolate cake from moments ago long forgotten. “You can’t imagine what happens here.”
I’ve heard this almost as many times as I’ve heard what a wonderful place it is. And I’ve learned over the years to nod, smile and redirect when she experiences the extreme emotions of Alzheimer’s.
“Look at the beautiful marigold bush!” I point to the purple sage on the xeriscaped lawn. These days, we call most flowers “marigolds,” regardless of hue. The familiar memory erases her distress as swiftly as she shifts between reality and dementia.
Today, when I visit, the residents are listing famous heroes on the white board. We take a walk, my mother and I. She picks a few pink oleanders.
“What beautiful marigolds!” she says. “I love this place!”
When we return, we begin a new white board game with her friends, listing all the things they love about living here.
“Chocolate cake!” my mother yells out. “We haven’t had that in years!”