Forget Me Not
● By Style
Photos courtesy of Tom Mailey.
My mom would have turned 89 this year.
When Patricia Mailey (maiden name, Powell) was born, cars came with hand cranks. She saw a lot: the depression, a world war, and the rise of Justin Bieber. A few years back she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but as she struggled to remember what year it was or forgot to take her medication, some things remained constant, like her sharp sense of humor. I called her one Saturday morning last year:
“Hi mom!” I said
“Who is this?” She asked.
I wasn’t surprised by her question, given that she mixed up my brother and me on the phone long before Alzheimer’s. I clarified: “It’s Tom!”
“Oh,” she said, pausing for one perfect moment. “You still think I’m your mother, don’t you?” and then she burst into a laugh that to me always sounded like water bounding over stones.
My mom passed away in May, not from Alzheimer’s but an aneurysm. The doctor said it happened very quickly, for which my family was thankful. In a way, we were thankful too that it likely spared her from further fading into Alzheimer’s hazy abyss, for which there is no cure and little treatment.
It’s a strange thing, Alzheimer’s. Imagine the brain like a string of lights that suddenly begin flickering. Some bulbs go out for good. Others keep burning. Some seem to burn out, but then come back on, only to dim again. There’s no pattern and little predictability. Some of my mom’s lights burned bright as ever, like that sense of humor and her long-term memory. But others—short-term memory, simple reasoning—were either out completely or flickered randomly. As time went on, more lights blinked out and never came back on.
Dad died in 2006 and Mom lived alone. She was well looked after by my sister and niece, who lived near her. Another sister, my brother and I visited as often as we could. But still, we were concerned. We wanted to move her to an assisted care facility, but she was still fiercely independent. “I’m a tough old bird,” she reminded us frequently. The one time she actually agreed, she lasted one night. My sister got a call the next morning from the facility supervisor: Mom had called a moving company. We realized that for as long as possible, her home was the best place. It was familiar. She was alone, but she was happy.
After the funeral, we cleaned out her room. Much of the stuff we’d seen before, but we were surprised to discover something else. Mom had a lifelong love of writing, but we thought she gave it up when macular degeneration made it too difficult for her to see. However, in a relatively new spiral notebook, we found poems. Not many, but enough to tell us that in her solitude, another light still burned brightly.
She raised four children...
She laundered everything
She went to church, and so did her family
She loved good music
She loved good comedy
She loved to swim
She was lucky
She was happy
She knew sadness
She would’ve liked to attend college
So many years
So many smiles
—And a few non-friendships
(Hey, isn’t that what life is all about?)
Most of all
That whoever reads this
Will remember that I tried in so many ways to care for my family
Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s is not easy, but in the coming decades, it looms. The World Health Organization calls Alzheimer’s a “public health priority,” with U.S. cost projections as high as $215 billion annually—more than heart disease or cancer, combined. October is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. If you have a loved one facing it, you’re facing it too. Resources are available. Find out more at alz.org/norcal. In the meantime, stay focused on those lights that still burn brightly. They cast warmth that can help to see you through.