June 8, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
A funny thing happened after I sent my mother her birthday card last week.
It was a card I picked out especially for her. Not a sentimental card in the traditional sense. On the front cover was a photo of a little girl in a 70s version of bad plaid pants. The inscription read: “It’s not just the clothes, it’s the attitude.”
I picked it because cute children continue to get a positive emotional response from my mother; because we affectionately used to refer to her as “something of a clothes horse;” and because Alzheimers has brought out the occasional display of Attitude. Given how much my father’s personality dominated our home growing up, I have to admit this has been an interesting development.
The raspberries have become a potent form of self-expression for my mother, as has the eyeball roll.
On a few occasions I’ve been there when my father has barked at her one too many times –
“Don’t you want a warmer coat?”
“Of course you want a warmer coat!”
“No, no, your blue coat! Don’t you know where your blue coat is? Do I have to do everything?”
“Come on, now, you’re slow as molasses, we’re going to be late!”
– she will climb into the back seat of the car and make me sit in front with him.
So that’s why I picked out the card.
I’m terrible at sending cards myself (as I mentioned last week), so I don’t really expect to get any.
At least now that my mother is not On the Case. But a card was in fact dealt me. It came the day after my mom’s birthday, from my brother and sister-in-law.
Okay, really it was from my sister-in-law.
I opened the card. And there she was staring back at me.
Even stranger than this was the immediate feeling that I’d already known she’d be there.
My grandmother also had Alzheimers.
Up until recently I had assumed that my mother had about six or seven years on her where dementia was concerned. It was not until she came close to her eighth decade that the trouble with names and numbers began, that she began writing the wrong years on checks, that words would get jumbled. As recently as this time last year, we were still reading books together.
I thought my mother’s better education, her commitment to exercise, the higher quality medical care she had received over her lifetime, and the fact that she’s had my father to rely on – my grandmother was a widow at 68 – had given her an advantage. That if there was a genetic predisposition, she had managed to delay it – even before the Aricept was prescribed.
The last time I saw my grandmother was at her own birthday party.
My Aunt Alice and Uncle Fred had finally moved her into a retirement community in Harborcreek, the suburb where they lived. The party was held in the common room. We were there with a three year old and a fifteen month old in tow, both of whom – since we lived in Michigan –my grandmother might have been seeing for the first time.
I remember my aunt being particularly nervous about the speed with which Aidan propelled himself through the room by pushing a chair around. He was no longer using a walker, but seeing all those frail adults with their own must have made the child nostalgic.
I remember a conversation about not wanting to wait for the milestone birthday because someone – my aunt? – was afraid Grandma was deteriorating too quickly.
So for the longest time I had this event pegged as her 73rd or 74th birthday. But if Aidan, who was born in February 1989, was pushing chairs around the common room, it was 1990 when this party was held. My grandmother was born in 1911. That means she was 79, a scant year younger than my mother when she declared, at her own milestone birthday, that she had never seen my cousin Stephen in her life.
I remember kissing my grandmother’s rouged cheek at the party. It felt as soft as it always had. I remember that she cried a lot; but then, she always had.
And I remember the smell of melted plastic. That was new.
My cousin Cindy and I had gone up to see her apartment. It didn’t take long to find the source of the smell. The toaster oven light was on, and inside was what looked like a lumpy blue caterpillar. On its back the letters SMTWTFS slid incomprehensibly into one another.
“Grandma!” my cousin cried. “That’s not where your pills belong!” My grandmother giggled. There was a sly look on her face, as if she knew she had been naughty, but thought the joke was really on us.
Perhaps it was.