I broke down in the supermarket the other day, in the greeting card aisle, looking at Rosh Hashanah cards. This will be the first year I observe Jewish High Holy Days without either of my parents. Just seeing the cards wishing peace and a healthy year to come tore me apart.
Other things unexpectedly lance my gut – the scent of coffee as both my parents could not face the day without a cup or two. The sight of the ocean as we’d lived near the Atlantic on the New Jersey shore or the Pacific in both Hawaii and California. The chirping, twittering sounds of birds as my dad ushered us through rain forests and woods, identifying avian species. The feel of hot wind against my skin, recalling the clutch of Alabama’s unforgiving broiling weather when I lived there as a kindergartner. Pierced constantly, I bleed all over the place.
I look at a pink blouse in Macy’s, thinking how much my mom would like it, maybe I should… then it comes back to me – no need to buy it for her. The same effect on spotting a new crossword puzzle book at CVS, solving puzzles together a favorite pastime when she was alive. The Alzheimer’s that held her in its long noose for so many years is finally over – she passed in late March. Still my emotional pain is ebbing – mom is no longer in the horrific physical pain that stalked the last year of her life, and that’s a good thing. My blood stanches.
I dreamed of my parents standing next to each other, gazing at the Pacific. Their last home was a condo that overlooked the ocean, nothing in front of their window but train rails along the beach and the swelling turquoise sea. My dad had one arm around my mom, the other around me, united again at last.
I know our dreams are personal manifestations of the world as we experience it, filtered through our sleeping subconscious mind. Still, I felt tranquil in that moment, knowing I had done everything I could to care for my ill mom in a way my dad could accept after he died nearly ten years ago. I believe in the survival of the soul – my dream might be a message from the world to come, from the sacred essence that survived the deaths of their corporeality.
Over the last decade, I’ve had a loving, supportive family holding me up. A son and daughter-in-law moved aside like cars in the way of a fire truck, allowing me respite with their two children. My grandchildren, who loved their great-grandmother, not realizing she was ill. She was their Gigi, and they accepted her quixotic inability to remember their names, always knowing she would shower them with kisses and hugs. My grandchildren softened the shredded edge of my worries with play, stories, and antics that allowed me serenity.
Another son and daughter-in-law, living far from us, knew when I needed a phone call. The cell tower network (we are so very fortunate to live in an era of global communication access) leap frogs hundreds of miles so I could contact our two youngest grandchildren. I listened to their baby talk until their babbling chatter over the years became words, then sentences, and finally full throttled conversations about dinosaurs, gymnastics class, and the funny bugs in the yard. To be immersed in such presence is a holy moment.
My husband put up with my despair and commiserated about the injustice of a disease that dismantled my mother’s social and logic skills. He endured me fuming about the legal, health, and financial worries that woke me in the middle of the night like lions hunting on African grasslands, the threat of attack imminent. A husband who visited his mother-in-law without a prompt from me, always with a fresh bouquet of blooms to remind her that she was someone important to him, even when she no longer had any idea who he was. He soothed me back to sleep.
Friends inflated a flotation jacket around me, keeping me from drowning. Some are people I’ve known forever, living near enough for a hug fest, others only close enough for a sobbing phone call late at night. My friends are a bulwark of ears and shoulders, one limb to turn my verbal outrage into sense, the other a net to catch my emotional free fall. Many are family members of other sufferers of Alzheimer’s. We are an alliance of wisdom and folk stories about how to limit the devastation of the disease, both the physical impact on those who are ill and the emotional toll that forces family into no man’s land. All of it is about loss, confusion, and righting a leaky craft. They remain steadfast for me as I do for them.
Alzheimer’s is a shipwreck foundered on alien shoals. But I am learning to jump ship, skip the waves, and wade in the shallows. To smile. To sleep through the night. To feel the consolation that my parents’ long journeys are over, that mine will be an easier trek each new day. There is laughter again, friendship, love, family, and calm after the storm.
Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.
Image of California coastline courtesy of Pixabay