Recently my Alzheimer’s fears shifted to curiosity and amazement.
Posted January 11, 2010
For many people—myself included—Alzheimer’s is a consuming and frightening disease, dreaded for the devastation and havoc it wreaks not only on the victim’s mind, but also on his or her family. I have always pleaded with my husband that if I am ever stricken with this disease, if I ever degenerate to the point of not recognizing my children, or am lost in the mute recall of the past—he take me out of my misery. Burdening those we love is a painful, difficult thing, and something many of us would choose to avoid if at all possible. But recently my Alzheimer’s fears shifted to curiosity and amazement when my friend Lynn described a visit to the formal institution in South Carolina where her 82-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s lives.
Lynn arrived for a Christmas celebration, a dinner of salmon, chicken, traditional string beans, and squash pie, surrounded by a display of the artwork of the residents, all of whom had various stages of Alzheimer’s disease. This was an elegant last supper for the year, a sobering event marking the passage of time, as the residents could no longer prepare such festivities for themselves. The art show was a pageant of talent, showing their families what they’d accomplished.
Lynn saw an array of works: some relatively accurate portraits; some Christmas trees topped with stars, juvenile in their outline; a daisy in a vase; and one “far out” painting. With the curiosity of a beginner’s mind, the painting was laden with earthy colors, and then a thin, but stark, black line across the center of the picture, not like a ruler but like a line of calligraphy.
Lynn stared at the signature, Betty B., her mother’s name. She thought immediately there must be two Betty B’s. Unable to reconcile this image with the mother she knew for 50 years, Lynn was in disbelief that her mother could have created this free vibrant form of expression, shaping from space never seen. Her Betty B. wore Lily Pulitzer fluorescent pink and green outfits, drank too much, and was a recluse. She was often critical of Lynn, like that visit after the delivery of Lynn’s twins—her mother sat on her bed and said sharply, “Oh, my goodness, we have to do something with your hair.”
The art teacher interrupted Lynn’s reverie, leaning close to her, pointing to her mother’s painting, and announcing, “We need to get your mother into more art classes.”
Lynn nodded, staring at the picture in her hand like a talisman, and approached her mother. Lynn pointed to the picture and her mother responded with embarrassment, shrinking behind her hands, peaking between her fingers as if caught in a game of hide and seek.
Lynn exclaimed, “I love it, can I have it?”
Her mother looked her steadily in the eyes, regained her composure, transforming her childlike self-consciousness to pride. A momentary clarity descending, she straightened her posture and answered regally, “Yes, you can have my art.”
Lynn tells me, “There is an art to learning to love my mother, trying to be present to her, appreciating her in her dementia. There is a power that comes from her unfiltered brain that I first did not trust. Whereas once she was so reserved with me, withholding her love now, now—” she pauses, almost puzzled, “I can’t do anything wrong. She strokes my hair, beams that I am so good-looking, devotion lighting up her face when I walk into the room. It’s crazy, but after 50 years I have what I need from my mother. She is unconditionally loving me, accepting me, and it is my job to believe her.”
From her mother’s new expressive art, Lynn learned that her mother, finally, did cherish her; but I learned something as well. I suspended my fear of losing my grip on reality to the fog of Alzheimer’s seeing that life still can, and does, go on. The circuitry of memory may be derailed, but quite possibly there are opportunities for growth and real connection in this. Creative openings with unexpected discoveries, an inspired truth from imagination that is both comforting and vibrant, may be offered. One cannot sugarcoat the enormity of the loss as parents slip in their ability to direct their lives, or drift away into memory loss. But relief arrives with this potential for a transition in our relationship that may make possible a deeper, purer, understanding reaching beyond words. All from an unfiltered mind.
About the Author
Nancy Rappaport is the author of In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide (September 2009, Basic Books). She is assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She is attending child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Teaching affiliate Cambridge Health Alliance, where she is also Director of School Based-programs with a focus on servicing youths, families and staff in public schools. Please visit her website at www.inherwake.com