This I believe…
I believe a brush with an unfixable situation transforms your life. Today, I sit beside my mother who has Alzheimer’s and hold a cup of spiced apple cider to her lips. She is nearing the end of her life, and the disease still smuggles her mind away one cell at a time. But, the part of her brain that responds to sensory stimulation is still alive. That’s why I bring something she can taste, and I hum the first bars of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” She opens her eyes.
As we wait for the cider to cool, I launch into a rhythmic monologue. I reminisce about the smell of spiced apple cider simmering before Christmas guests arrived. I talk about how she loved to hear people step through the door and say, “Mmmm, it smells good here!” I tell her about my beginner’s luck with my first apple pie—complete with novice experiments for a good crust. In her cloud of confusion, she nods and chuckles.
My mother’s name is Sally, and six years ago, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. We used to dance to Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in her room, but that’s over now. I plunked out faltering melodies on the piano as we sang—sometimes in harmony—and she would say, “We’re still pretty good together.” And, I agreed.
But last fall, a finality set in. The social worker announced she had crossed over to Stage 7, the last one of her disease. She speaks very little now, needs to be fed, is incontinent daily, and is completely immobile.
At first, when she entered the long term care facility, I fought back tears whenever I visited. I tried to focus on what we had left, but my eyes and ears were assaulted by the repeated cries of a woman in the next room or a man in the hall who slumped in his chair—saliva and this morning’s eggs evident on his shirt. I saw not only Mom’s disabilities, but time’s curtain opened to show the chill of what’s ahead.
Today, Mom sees my tears as we listen to Christmas carols. She squeezes my hand. Words betray her now—her brain’s cells and synapses can’t send reliable messages. Tears flow down her cheeks, and I know we talk beyond words.
As I let go of her—and it’s still painful—I focus on sharing fully alive moments. While I’ve helped her rediscover her senses, I’ve rediscovered my own and the layers of memories triggered by them. Over and again, the gateway of taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound make it possible to communicate.
We revel in the pleasure, security, and love that repeated sensory experiences bring. The pain of the long good-bye is real, but our senses deliver a miracle of being simply and wholly present.
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