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The Beauty of Alzheimer’s

My mother is losing her eyesight, so when we get together, I read the clues to her so she can still do crossword puzzles.

“It’s a long word,” I say.  “It means ‘tardy one’”.

“Latecomer?” she responds. Darn, how does she do that? It’s hard enough to do crosswords when you are looking at the squares and the adjoining letters. Somehow, she just pulls the words right out of thin air.

“That’s right!” I say. “I can’t believe you got that one. But this one’s a little harder. It’s a kind of a long word. It means ‘abodes’. Starts with ‘D’” I say.

“Dwellings?” she asks. Amazing. She’s right again.

I scan the puzzle, trying to find one that I’m sure I know the answer to. Nope. Not that one. Not that one either. There are some of them that I know she won’t get even though I know the answer myself. She never gets that a wooden golf ball holder is a “tee”, no matter how many ways I ask it. After all, she never played golf. But she knows that the high card in a deck is an ‘ace’ and she knows the dance that they do in Hawaii is the ‘hula’.

Big deal, you may be thinking. Well, to me it IS a big deal. My mother has Alzheimer’s.

She doesn’t have the almost fully functional stage one Alzheimer’s that allows people to still live at home and even sometimes hold down a job. She’s way up to stage six (out of seven stages). And she’s been in that stage for almost five years now.

Sometimes she doesn’t know my name. She doesn’t know where she is (in a nursing home) or why she’s there. But she is still really good at word association, which allows us to still do crossword puzzles.

I’m sure she hasn’t used any of these words in a sentence in a very long time. I mean, how often do you use words like abode or dwelling or latecomer, anyway? But she was always great with words. She spent her whole life doing crossword puzzles and playing scrabble. And so she still has the ability to associate one word with another, so when I say ‘excavate’ she can always say ‘dig’ and when I say ‘nighttime twinkler’ she can always say ‘star’.

Some people get really mean and nasty at this stage of Alzheimer’s.  I hear them at the nursing home, arguing and yelling  at the other residents and at the nurses. My mother went the other way. She got nice and she got happy. I mean REALLY nice and happy.  Which is kind of unusual for my mother.

For as long as I can remember, my mother wasn’t a very happy person. And perhaps because of that, she was very negative and sarcastic and critical.

I felt like I spent my whole life trying to please her and make her happy, and I never felt like I succeeded. I certainly never recall her telling me I was beautiful.

She was always somewhat depressed and shy and unassuming, but now, whenever she hears music, she starts singing and dancing, regardless of whether she knows the words or the beat to the song.  She’s very talkative now and when she is talking, she’s always bragging about me to everyone she meets.

As soon as I get there for a visit she says, “Let’s go introduce you to some people” and we walk the halls and she introduces me to the same people she has been introducing me to for the last two years. “This is my daughter,” she says “Isn’t she beautiful?”

The nicer nurses play along “Oh yes Ruth,” they say. “She’s beautiful just like you.”

Some of the nurses are tired of playing the game “I know it’s your daughter,” they say. “I’ve met her a thousand times.”

And some of the residents are way past the point of understanding what my mother is even saying.

That doesn’t faze mom a bit. Two minutes later, when we run into the same person, she’s at it again. “This is my daughter,” she says “isn’t she beautiful?”

We make our way down the hall, carrying out our meet and greet until mom gets tired and wants to go back to her room. Then, since it’s very hard to carry on a conversation with someone who can’t remember what happened five minutes ago, we usually start in on our crossword puzzles.

She lies down in bed and closes her eyes and I read her the clues and a remarkable number of times, she gets the answer right. Even words that I haven’t heard her speak in years. Maybe I never heard her speak them. But she can still get them right. She can still handle word association.

It makes the whole thing not so bad. I mean, Alzheimer’s is horrible. Really horrible. But it is the first time in her life that she has seemed really happy. It’s certainly the first time I have ever seen her giddy enough that she is singing and dancing. It’s the first time that we’ve ever really spent time together doing nothing but having fun and being supportive of each other.

And it’s the first time in my life that I’ve learned that when she hears the word daughter, she always associates it with the word beautiful.

(Published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Tribute to Moms, c2008)

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