My mother-in-law, Jay, is an incredible woman. At 82, she can still tap dance in front of a room of family and friends, play old standards on the piano, and delight in a blooming lily.
For the last several years she has suffered from Alzheimer’s. She still remembers who her children are (and most of her fourteen grandchildren; in-laws are tricky), but she has lost her short-term memory. It’s as if a reset button is pushed in her mind the second a moment has passed. She is continually trying to get her bearings: “What’s this place called?” (“This is the assisted-living facility where you live.”) “How did I get to your house?” (“We just drove here together.”) Because she instantly forgets what she has just learned, she will ask the same question perhaps fifty times in an hour.
Of course she was not always like this. She raised seven children. She went from PTA mom to PTA chairwoman to assistant to the mayor of Pasadena. For years she was a “field rep” for the city, priding herself on knowing the who, what, and when of every civic detail. Now, it’s as if she’s convinced she should still be playing that role but is unaware that she no longer has the facilities to do it.
There are times when her face seems to register the utter wilderness she inhabits. I’ve seen it when the room is full of her relatives, and she finally retreats to a chair after rubbing a baby’s head or hugging an in-law. A look of fear darkens her face, as if she’s thinking, “Who the hell are all these people? And who the hell am I?” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen terror illustrated so clearly.
But there is also a strange grace to her Alzheimer’s. Jay’s husband Bill died three years ago. Their marriage had been a rocky one. When I first met Bill and Jay in the mid-nineties, they were living apart; while she held down the Pasadena home they had owned for several decades, he lived nearby in a small bachelor pad. They would come together for holidays and visits from relatives (and he’d still come over faithfully to try and fix things around her house), but there seemed to be a lot of built-up resentment between them. To me, Jay always seemed mad at Bill for something, and he always seemed perplexed about what he was supposed to atone for.
With the onset of Alzheimer’s, it’s almost as if Jay forgot her resentments. With his physical health failing and her mental health diminishing, he moved back into her house. She started calling him “my Billy” and would often retell the story of how they first met, even if the details got murky. When they’d visit us she’d sometimes lay her head on his shoulder almost like they were high-school sweethearts.
Bill died of heart complications in a hospital bed the family had set up in the assisted-living apartment Jay and Bill finally moved into. As he lay there dying, Jay stroked his face and mourned the loss of this man she did indeed truly love. Somehow the forgetting allowed her heart to open up to that deep river of affection that was always there between them, even during the years when they seemed to argue more than agree.
The last time Jay came to visit us, I tried to prepare myself for the challenges her presence brings. It’s hard to answer the same questions over and over. But if you tire and show your frustration to Jay, she gets hurt and confused, because she doesn’t understand why you’d be irritated with her — she literally doesn’t remember that she’s asking you for the thirtieth time how often you have to mow the lawn. To her, she’s asking for the first time, so why would you be bothered by such a simple question? To Jay there really is no recent past or near future. What’s in front of her refreshes every second, and fortunately what she’s retained through all of her trials is a certain joy in the simple beauty of the world. What she repeats are not complaints or snarky questions, but rather tiny moments of astonishment at what she sees.
We have a storage shed outside our house which the previous owner painted with huge, vibrant sunflowers. During her last visit, every time Jay looked out the window and saw the shed, she’d marvel, “Oh my gosh, look at those flowers! Did you paint those?” I’d feel the heat of irritation prickle under my skin, but then I’d see her eyes so lit up and reply, “No, Jay. The people before us did. They are beautiful, aren’t they?”
Is it truly so exhausting to look at those flowers again and again?