#1 in a Series on Purpose
It begins with Princess.
“I need your help, mom,” I tell her. “Can you help me with Princess?”
I’m petsitting a client’s cat this week, my decades-long sales career replaced with a different kind of work: Alzheimer’s caregiving and, occasionally, petsitting. Finding my life’s purpose seems as elusive as my mother’s memory.
Yet as a caregiver, I’ve learned how important it is for my mother to feel helpful, so I bring her along one afternoon. As mom brushes Princess, she exclaims: “Let’s put lipstick on him!” Outside, shadows are shrinking, the cloudless winter sky lost to coppery dusk. Like clockwork, sundowning has begun.
When we return to her care home for supper, everything is forgotten—Princess, lipstick, cat toys. The earlier elation in giving my mother purpose is now replaced by the defeated ache of Alzheimer’s, too often thrust at my heart.
A few days later, mom tells me about Perky, her childhood cat and how she loves to brush him. Scrambled memories aside, her enjoyment of the moment is clear.
Sometimes I’m so focused on finding my own purpose, I forget the true joy in making someone else’s life meaningful.
This week, the planets aligned in my creative galaxy: acceptance letters from two publications; a literary agent seeking quirky cookbooks; a food memoir writing course; a blogger who wants to feature my mother’s cooking newsletter on her site.
As I ran in pre-dawn dusk this morning, drenched in sweat and the deluge of inspiration, I decided to reopen a writing project I’d shelved two years ago in a fit of rage at a disease that knows no shame.
I’d envisioned the book as a tribute to my mother’s many talents. We’d write it together, I thought, the perfect project to regain the sense of purpose Alzheimer’s was slowly stripping away. I’d interlace essays from the monthly newsletter she’d written and designed for thirty years with posts from my blog; use artwork and recipes from her cookbook Cook & Tell, published nearly two decades ago.
But reminders of the skills she’d lost and attempts to reclaim the identity of the woman she no longer remembered proved too painful for either of us to endure. I surrendered the project and Alzheimer’s won that round. Almost.
When the Universe nudges, I’ve learned to listen. And when inspiration sparks creativity, I’m propelled into action.
“What if you die before me?” she asks. “What happens then?”
We’re walking through Paradise Memorial Gardens, across from my mother’s care home. Max, my black lab puppy strains at the leash, lunging closer to the pond where two swans glide gracefully along the duck pond.
She does not realize we’re in a cemetery, an appropriately ironic place to have this difficult conversation. In my lifetime, my mother and I have never talked about death. Like disease of any sort, her religion has taught her to deny death.
Conversely, my father keeps a list called “The Departed,” a sheet torn from a legal pad, the names of friends and acquaintances written in his shaky octogenarian penmanship. It’s taped to the dining room wall of his tiny island cottage, a maudlin catalog of death that grows longer by the moment.
I, too, am surrounded by death. The recent suicide of my husband’s daughter. Our Golden Retriever. A stepmother and stepfather. Ex-husband who overdosed. The death of my career. And the agonizing death of my mother’s brain.
I am not equipped to deal with the grim reality of dying. Or this conversation. By the time we walk home, she’s forgotten the question entirely.
And slowly, I learn to appreciate the moments when life seems worth living.