They say that grief can hit you without warning. That at the time you least expect it, it will hit you like a ton of bricks. They are right.
Grief, you might ask? What are you grieving? Your mom hasn’t died. No, she hasn’t died, not in the literal sense. I still get to see her every week. I can hold her hand and feel her soft skin. I still can hear her sweet voice. I can dance with her and giggle as she tries to sing songs. But there are so many things that I have already lost with her. Having a relationship with a mother who has Alzheimer’s is like a continuous death, a little death of something lost almost every time I see her. A memory, a name, a skill, all lost, little by little. These things you grieve as you see the person you once knew changing right before your eyes.
Lately my mom has been on a plateau. We have been rolling along. The visits have been about the same for over a month now. There are walks. There are broken conversations. Things have been somewhat status quo with her. I guess because of that I have done less grieving lately for my mother. I have not felt the emotional roller coaster ride that I had been on before that things evened out, if only for awhile.
I was at home ironing some clothes and BOOM, it hit me. It was out of nowhere. I was overcome with sadness. Somehow the synapses in my brain connected ironing to laundry to lost socks and that was all it took. My brain had created a metaphor that was too much for me at that moment. The lost socks were all of those things-memories, experiences- that I had lost with my mom. Those experiences I never got to have as well as the experiences that we already have had that she no longer recalls. With an Alzheimer’s patient, once “something” is lost, it is gone forever. There is no relearning it like you or I might be able to do. It is simply gone, swirling around in a mess of black tarry plaque in an Alzheimer-addled brain.
So, I stood there crying, steam swooshing out of the iron, clothes half ironed on the ironing board. Stood there grieving the lost things, the things that could have been and the memories that have been lost forever.
I know in my intellectual being that these sort of victimizing thoughts do no good. They cannot create new memories for her. They cannot make her know my name, drive a car, sing to my children. They cannot make her into the mom that I wish I still had. But right then that is what my heart needed. It needed a release, and I hadn’t even known it. I had been moving along in my life, accepting the status quo situation with my mom and not dealing with it.
I really think I had been somewhat relieved that for a little while things were the same. There were no dramatic changes that I had to adjust to. I was savoring the fact that maybe I could just cruise along and not feel. Sometimes that seems like the easier choice, at least at the time.
When I was done with my crying and grieving that day, I thought back to some of the other times I had been overwhelmed by my feelings. I can remember a few. Once while labeling my mother’s clothes I had a breakdown. No one else was around, but I literally said, out loud, “Is this what my life has come to? Labeling my mom’s clothes like I would my own children’s - as if she is going to camp?” There I sat, laundry pen in hand, crying over an unlabeled pile of clothes.
Another breakdown happened while I was shopping in Target. There was no specific trigger that I can remember. I stood there trying to hold back the tears. I had to abandon my cart in the middle of the store and leave. Tears streamed down my face as I put my sunglasses on, seeing people stopping and staring. Thinking, let them make up their own stories about why I was crying, my story was bad enough.
Even yesterday I had a twinge of pain. As my friend was driving me around Waldo Canyon in Colorado Springs, where last year a forest fire devastated the land, pushed people out of their homes, and took homes and some lives, I again was reminded of things lost. Flying W Ranch had been burnt down, destroyed, lost. This old working cattle ranch had also served chuck wagon suppers and provided entertainment to many a person. Back in 2002 my husband and I took my mom to the Flying W for a night of fun. When we got there, she told me that she had been there before, years ago. She started on a story of her adventures of traveling cross-country from New York to California with her friend Jane. In the 60’s, they had stopped here and seen the ranch and had the chuck wagon supper. She described how it was different back then - updates that had been made, things moved. I was amazed that she had been there 40 years earlier. I was so glad that we had taken her, so I got to hear that story.
So, while driving through Waldo Canyon yesterday and seeing the devastation, I thought of that story. I thought of how she doesn’t even remember that trip or her stop at the Flying W. She also doesn’t even know about the fire that burned it down, but I do. I have those memories and that can’t be taken from me, can’t be lost.
In the midst of pure loss and devastation of the families of Colorado Springs, I also saw renewal and rebuilding. Green vegetation already was starting to grow. Woven in between burnt sticks that were once trees, I saw houses being rebuilt and new possibilities. It was a great reminder that with things lost come new life and experiences.
As I grieve the loss of the mom I once knew and wish I still had, I have to remember that I have gained so much as well. I have learned a deeper level of patience and understanding. I learned unconditional love for my mother, and I have learned and gained a deeper understanding of my mother as a person. She had to let walls down so that I, her daughter, could see and help her with her needs and fears. In doing so I saw another side of my mom, a side I may not ever have seen if she didn’t have Alzheimer’s. And the Colorado Springs and Waldo Canyon’s tragedy has helped me again see that where things are lost, there also is a chance that something new will be gained.