I made the mistake of calling my mother. I was on my lunch break from work; she was safely ensconced in her memory care facility where she receives great care but continues to lose her memory. I paced a shady sidewalk while I conversed with her. By the time I hung up and reached for the door to my office building, I thought, “I’ve lost her already,” and then had to fight back the tears that were so close. I know these phone calls are not about me, but just then my emotions felt differently. I want my mommy. The one I remember. The one who doesn’t remember me.
I hate Alzheimer’s Disease.
I had eaten my lunch quickly so I would have time to speak to my mother.
“Barbara,” I heard the worker say, “you have a phone call. It’s your daughter.”
I could hear my mother’s surprise and delight before she even got on the telephone, but I knew I would have to remind her who I was when she finally answered.
“Hi, Mom, it’s your daughter Sara,” I recited. My new normal. (My old normal was a simple “Hi, Mumsy!” — when I could assume, correctly, that she knew it was me by my voice and my term of endearment.)
“Sara?” A pause, then, “Where are you?”
I explained that I was at work, that it was my lunch break and I was calling to see how she was doing; I also named the city where I’ve lived the past nearly 30 years.
I’d say my mother gave me a blank look, but I wasn’t Skyping or Facetiming and didn’t see her face. But her voice was blank. I could tell what I was saying wasn’t registering with her, and while she sounded congenial and delighted, my mother didn’t know who I was.
Often, when I tell her who I am and where I am, she asks me questions. This time, she wasn’t trying to get her bearings and remember. She didn’t ask what has become her usual repertoire:
“Oh, how long have you been there?”
“What are you doing there?”
“Do you have any children?”
“Five? Wow. That’s incredible. You’re wonderful.”
My mother had five children herself, and she never thought herself wonderful; it was simply a blessing. I am her youngest, the one my siblings call “the favorite.” The one most like my mother in temperament; she and I became fast friends when I became an adult. I considered her my best friend, my confidante.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a trial Toastmasters meeting. (Funny, that. My mom was a Toastmaster when I was a girl; I always thought she was THE Toastmaster.) During the “extemporaneous speaking” part of the meeting, when a topic is introduced and a person selected to speak on that topic immediately after, one member announced a topic that I have been rehearsing mentally ever since:
“If you had all the resources in the world, what disease would you cure and why?”
My first thought, surprisingly, was Ebola, since that is the current hot spot in the news. But my second was my mother and the forecast for Alzheimer’s Disease. This is the speech I’ve been rehearsing ever since I wasn’t called on to speak in front of a large group of strangers:
“Hello, my name is Sara Dagen, and I would seek a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. My mother suffers from the disease — and though my siblings and I don’t have it, we suffer too. My mother is quickly forgetting — us — along with everything else. It is painful to lose a loved one before she dies a physical death. I want my mother back, and that demands a cure for this disease.
Lately, I’ve been reading several books — among them Grain Brain, The Perfect Health Diet, The Coconut Oil Miracle. These books indicate to me that poor diet and lack of exercise may be a better harbinger of Alzheimer’s Disease than genetics. To avoid the disease, avoid gluten and all grains. Eat more fat, especially coconut oil, in addition to meat and potatoes and fruit and vegetables. Enjoy exercise daily. And then live long and prosper — with a brain that remembers. Of course, hearing that “diet and exercise” weighs more than “genetics” is exactly what I want to hear for my own sanity. That means I can prevent Alzheimer’s from touching my brain. But that verdict doesn’t help people who are already so far along the disease’s path that diet and exercise choices won’t make enough of a difference.
So while there may be a preventative for Alzheimer’s, for now we have no cure. And so we lose the ones we love — while they are still living. But if I had all the knowledge and all the resources in the world, I would cure Alzheimer’s. Today.”
That was just a mental rehearsal — I didn’t get chosen and so did not get up and speak extemporaneously. It also was wishful thinking; I don’t have the power to cure my mother or anyone else who is suffering. And I doubt I could have given that little speech without adding a few spontaneous “boo hoos” to the non-scripted speech.
After all, I can barely muster a phone call without tears.
My phone call to my mother lasted a mere 6 minutes, 23 seconds, certainly a record for brevity for us. Just saying goodbye usually takes us about 6 minutes. But after the initial introduction, my mother asked me when I was coming to visit, and seemed delighted when I suggested November — even though she thought it was currently summertime. It seemed she was jotting down notes on a calendar of sorts, but she asked me to send her a confirmation. I attempted to ask her how she was, but she addressed me quite impersonally and said, “Thank you so much for calling.” That was all.
Except for the pain.
And just for the record, I do want my mom back.
In the meantime, let me write a note to self: Sara, don’t call Mom on your lunch break.