Life or Death?

“They’re hacking my brain!” she exclaimed. “There’s a camera in the ceiling fan recording me. They follow me everywhere!”

You probably think this is about how Alzheimer’s has hijacked my mother’s brain.

But this is a story about my step-daughter.

My mother’s had her share of delusions. The man in the closet wearing her high heels. Being held prisoner in the cellar with illegal immigrants. She’s never owned heels. Her memory care home has one level.

Both women have a brain disease. Last week, one chose to end her life. The disease became too real: sanity was elusive; treatment refused.

Again, I find myself packing up a life once lived.

Grateful Dead posters. Zeppelin CDs. Crystal Scotch glasses. Prada handbags. Digging through the layers tells the story of my step-daughter’s life.

We all have a chapter we don’t read aloud. In this case, there were volumes.

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Don’t let shame or fear of being labeled with a mental illness stop you from seeking help. Find out more here or talk to someone 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

Love/Hate Relationship

Yesterday, we went for a walk, my mother and I. We had just finished lunch in the main dining room of the senior home, one of her favorite things to do.

“This is a horrible place,” my mother says, the chocolate cake from moments ago long forgotten. “You can’t imagine what happens here.”

I’ve heard this almost as many times as I’ve heard what a wonderful place it is. And I’ve learned over the years to nod, smile and redirect when she experiences the extreme emotions of Alzheimer’s.

“Look at the beautiful marigold bush!” I point to the purple sage on the xeriscaped lawn. These days, we call most flowers “marigolds,” regardless of hue. The familiar memory erases her distress as swiftly as she shifts between reality and dementia.

Today, when I visit, the residents are listing famous heroes on the white board. We take a walk, my mother and I. She picks a few pink oleanders.

“What beautiful marigolds!” she says. “I love this place!”

When we return, we begin a new white board game with her friends, listing all the things they love about living here.

“Chocolate cake!” my mother yells out. “We haven’t had that in years!”

Soul Cleanse, Act Three

Part Three in a Three-Part Series

The soul-searching silent solitude, the rhythm of the tides from the cove across the street—I live what my mother lived when she was alone in this house, speaking to the spiders who inhabited the cobwebbed corners of her bedroom, before afternoons became terror-filled and cookbooks were no longer familiar friends.

Her artist’s studio stretches into a week-long project, too painful to sort through in one day. Friends who’ve been there tell me they’ve found valuables, money even, stashed in pages of ancient Time magazines. I find no diamonds but plenty of hidden gems in her vast portfolio of creativity: fashion ads, hand decorated menus, floral watercolor sketches, essays from her monthly newsletter, smudged with age.

The house, I decide, will be a tribute to her life, her free spirit released from the dusty piles of an ever increasing brain disease, dusted off to showcase her eclectic talent.

But how?