My mother, Virginia, loved yellow—the color of the mind and the intellect, the third chakra in the solar plexus, representing personal power and spark. Yellow is the hue, most visible of all, of memory, hope, happiness, and enlightenment. Yellow inspires the dreamer; encourages the seeker. My mom’s rapture with yellow was an upward, heavenly turn in her stages of grief.
Yellow also is a color of angels, and in scripture it symbolizes a change for the better. My mom, who died of Alzheimer’s in a bruising battle with the disease, believed in angels. So do I, in the wake of my own diagnosis five years ago of Early Onset Alzheimer’s. Yellow—derived from the ancient Latin “Angelus,” translated “messenger” or “envoys”— resonates with peace. And in the throes of Alzheimer’s that’s pure gold. If you scratch below the surface of life, messengers abound, as Hebrews 13:2 counsels: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
My mother, I believe, entertained angels unawares. In late fall 2007, seven months before her passing, she became obsessed with the color yellow. She saw yellow everywhere, mostly yellow cars. All she talked about was yellow. I dismissed the thought outright. Soon, I was seeing yellow, too.
In time, so did my younger brother Tim, who decided to buy a yellow Jeep Wrangler. My mom was thrilled every time he drove into the driveway on Cape Cod, somewhat of a second coming. Taking a cue from my younger brother, I also bought a yellow Jeep; this one with four doors—sibling male rivalry to show my brother that mine was bigger than his. But it doesn’t really matter when you’re Irish. One size fits all. Still, we were heaven on wheels—Mom’s angels at arms. She loved driving in our Jeeps, like a kid on an amusement park ride.
As a New England November gave way to December, the days were tersely shorter—a sundowner affect for all. The sun, lower in the sky at the vernal equinox, now dipped into Cape Cod Bay at 4:09 p.m., as the hourglass sand of my folk’s lives were slipping through our fingers. Alzheimer’s was bearing down on my mother in the final stages of the disease; my father in a wheelchair was succumbing to circulation disorders, the progressing affects of prostate cancer, and advancing dementia himself. After 60 years of the yin and yang of a marriage, they had morphed into one—primarily out of need, reflex and a love not forgotten. My dad became my mom’s intellect to the extent he could; she was his arms and legs.
Meanwhile, I was adrift off my own mooring, reaching out, like my mother, for muscle memory, or what scientists call olfactory phenomena—a natural rhythm in nature that allows. For example, how a lost dog to finds its way home or alewives, local herring in these parts, make their annual migration at the strike of spring just down the street through the ancient herring run. Thousands of them fight like salmon against a flush of water as the alewives rush in gut instinct up the slick, steep water stone ladders of the run from the bay to the Upper Mill ponds to spawn in fresh water kettle ponds where they were born. Cognitive reserve in primal nature!
My mother fully relied on cognitive reserve as Alzheimer’s resolutely moved to full throttle. The progression was much like watching paint dry: ever steady and slow; you can’t see it dry, but know it’s sticky to the touch. My parents, at this point, were at the tipping point—an irreversible moment in time, like a glass of fine Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon spilling over onto a white-linen table cloth. Standing up the glass will not retrieve the wine nor will it remove the crimson stain.
Yet she kept seeing yellow. So did I.
After my dad’s death, mom was rudderless and adrift. A wrenching family compromise was reached: she would go to a caring nursing home about two miles from my house. My brother Tim was on hand for the move, but I had to deliver the news first—a come-to-Jesus encounter with my mother, who had fought her disease to the point of submission. She was compliant, yet all the while preparing to give up the ghost.
On the drive to the nursing home, Mom noticed yellow cars in front of us and behind us.
“Look at that,” she said. “I can’t believe it!”
“Believe it, mom,” I blurted, finally in faith.
Within a few miles, the yellow cars peeled off, only to be replaced shortly by another escort of yellow cars. The exchange occurred, on and off, all the way to Epoch.
Mom’s stay at the nursing home was brief. Weeks later, she was overcome with pneumonia, carting around an oxygen tank. She was frightened; her frail body was breaking down. I got the call at 10 p.m. one evening.
“You mother is not doing well,” the nurse said. “She’s scared. She needs you.”
I raced to Eopch, a short drive along a dirt road through the woods, hitting all the potholes in my yellow Jeep from the trot of horses on this country road, rear wheels sliding left and then right as I pressed ahead. When I arrived minutes later, my mother was deep asleep. I woke her to let her know she was not alone.
She smiled; there was a contenance about her that said something was about to happen. She seemed more alert, more at peace. Her father—glancing down tenderly from the framed photo on a wall at the foot of her bed—was staring right at her. I felt his presence in the room.
I gently put my left hand over my mother’s left hand, as she lay in bed. Slowly, she put her right hand on top of my hand, as she had done four months earlier on my father’s deathbed. We talked, as one can, on the steps of death. I waited until she fell back to sleep, then kissed her on the forehead as I prepared to leave.
Her green eyes opened wide. “Greg, where are you going?” she said in a soft voice.
Knowing in my soul the moment was at hand, I sat back down, held her hand, looked into her eyes, and said from the heart, “Mom, I’m not going anywhere. We’re riding this one out together…”
I stayed by her side until she fell asleep again. Then, I kissed her on the forehead, knowing the long kiss goodbye had ended. She never opened her eyes again.
Three days later at the funeral home, as my brothers and sisters queued up behind a black, stretch limo, I told my brother Tim to pull his yellow Jeep in front of mom’s hearse, and that I’d pull my Jeep behind it.
“We’re going to take mom to church, then home, surrounded by angels,” I said.
In death, my mother was still teaching, even to the point of lost luggage.
Two days after she died, I rushed to North Carolina for my daughter Colleen’s graduation from Elon, flying back hastily for the funeral. My mother knew that I hated flying, mostly because the airlines always lost my bags. It was a regular occurance. Sure enough, upon arrival, one of my bags was missing at T.F. Green Airport in Providence, Rhode Island. After a computer check, US Airways determined that the bag, tagged under another name, had been sent to Akron, Ohio. Someone at the counter had put the wrong sticker on it.
So, I had to spring for a new suit for the funeral. Mom always liked picking out my clothes; apparently nothing in my closet had suited her taste. Still, she was calling the shots. And she knew I liked a good ending to a story.
“Now wipe that smile off your face, Mom, and please find my bag!” I challenged her from the pulpit at the end of my eulogy, hoping she engaged St. Anthony, the patron saint of the lost and found. Apparently she had.
Hours later when I returned from the cemetery there was something waiting at the front door—my bag with the mislabeled sticker.
The baggage sticker read, “Brown,” my mother’s maiden name.
Mom and her angels had my back.
Fast forward two months ago when a deer at night darted across a country road less than a mile from my house. I veered my yellow Jeep sharply to the right, crashing through a stone wall airborne, then rolling the Jeep twice, ripped the top of the roof off; my head hit against the windshield, a gash that had to be closed with surgical staples after an ambulance ride to the hospital. The accident occurred in the parking lot of the church were my mother’s funeral had been held. The irony of this was not lost on me in a crash that I should never have walked away from.
Two weeks later, I got a text from my brother Tim; “You are never going to believe…was in an accident last night…Jeep is totaled.”
I called him immediately. He told me that driving in the middle lane along icy Route 95, north of New Haven, Ct., a car in the right lane crashed his yellow Jeep into the passing lane where it hit another car, then spun back into the middle lane where it was hit again, snapping the Jeep’s front axle in half. My brother was taken to the hospital with a head injury, in an accident that he should not have survived.
“Coincidence,” Albert Einstein once said, “is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
Do you believe in angels?
NPR/All Things Considered is airing an ongoing series about O'Brien's journey and On Pluto.
Greg O'Brien's latest book, On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer's, was recently published. He is also the subject of the short film, "A Place Called Pluto," directed by award-winning filmmaker Steve James, online at livingwithalz.org. In 2009, he was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's. His maternal grandfather and his mother died of the disease. O'Brien carries a marker gene for Alzheimer's. For more information go to:OnPluto.org