According to an article in the Journal of New England Medicine, there is general agreement that Alzheimer’s disease will become a crisis by the middle of the century. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease and that their loved ones devote nearly 18 billion hours annually toward their care. If the disease remains unchecked, these numbers are projected to more than triple by 2050, and the economic burden will exceed $1 trillion per year.
This report offers a bleak vision of millions of altered beings–our friends, our parents, ourselves–beautiful or not, cycling slowly through the minutes and hours of a day, unable to define waking life from slumber, learning to mistrust the elaborate proposals of their minds.
Giving it a name and searching for a cause is vital. But madness is nothing new, nothing unseen or undiscovered. It manifests differently in each of us. Some forms are potent, others benign. Though my mother suffered from depression, anxiety, and addiction all her life, her decade-long final descent swept me in its cruel undertow.
I heard myself getting louder on the phone, losing patience with customer service and DMV employees, weeping in the hallways of emergency rooms, and flipping off local drivers who honked at me to speed up. I became increasingly sensitive to anything that sounded derogatory. A desperado suffering from insomnia, unsure of where to bury my sadness, burdened and exhausted by fielding crisis after crisis.
As my mother became less one of us and more one of them, I mourned the loss with every visit. I dreaded walking through the doors of The Gardens and searching in the Common Room for her meager remains. Would her eyes recognize me? What did she see when she looked at me? Not a stranger exactly, but someone dear whom she couldn’t quite place.
My own identity was always in flux. Some days I was one of her sisters, sometimes her daughter, and sometimes just a pair of arms that wrapped around her. In the last few years, she never found a context for me. It was as if when I arrived, I had been dropped into her freeform narrative. I was an insider who embodied everything, including her DNA, and I was paradoxically nothing more than a smaller body beside her, touching her, praising her, and styling her hair with brightly colored children’s barrettes.
I had to arrive without expectations and without wanting. I had to arrive with an eclair or a bar of Halvah, a basket of strawberries, or a bouquet of flowers. I had to arrive and be present, since I learned early on that each moment was the only one we had. With no past and no future to reference or borrow from, we learned to face each other with nothing filling the long bouts of silence. Nothing but love.
Some visits lasted an hour without as much as a word from her lips. More often there was a fragmented narrative she repeated, a parade of faceless characters: “the tall girl,” “the people,” “they always…,” “bring me some of that,” “…it’s all going to go away..” There were days when she swore she’d watched my son playing soccer out her window, or she’d seen her own mother, who’d been gone for decades, sewing a school uniform.
In early November of that year we planned a Thanksgiving dinner at The Gardens and invited Mille’s family to join us. We would bring the turkey and the stuffing, the sweet potatoes and more. We would remind my mother that Thanksgiving was coming, along with her birthday, that events happened and we celebrated them. We told her that life moved in a linear direction, as far as we could tell. We told her all this simply and cheerfully at first, growing wearier with each repetition.
As I drove away that night, I found comfort in believing that the chaos and anguish of my life was nothing more than a moment in time. Our experience of misery, elation, and transcendence exists only now. Now is all there is.