Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – April 17, 2004
Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – April 17, 2004 – I was having tea with my mother one afternoon when I was about seventeen years old. I was past the ‘summer of my rebellious teenage angst’ at fifteen and my ‘Sauble Beach summer’ of sixteen. I realized that my parents, while not as cool as the parents of some of my friends, were smart, kind and generous. I also knew they trusted me.
What a gift that was. My mother (Mary) and I had settled into an easy relationship with one another. As we sat and chatted that day, for some reason I asked her what frightened her. She replied that she’d had a hard, lonely childhood. It had bent but not broken her, and that short of something happening to my father or one of her three children, she didn’t fear much. Her only rider on the statement was that she never wanted to be in a position where she couldn’t look after herself, and where she would have to be dependent on others for her well-being or her daily care.
I asked her why the thought bothered her so much. She replied that throughout her life, she had lost a lot, but she’d never had to compromise her dignity. For her, losing the ability to make decisions about her life, would be a spiritual, physical and emotional violation. She shuddered, reached over and as she patted my hand said, “But don’t worry, I’m a tough old bird, it won’t happen to me”.
I never thought about that conversation again until many years later. I was in my early thirties when my father, brother and I first started to notice a few behavioural changes in Mary. Nothing serious – she told the same stories over again and again, but the audience was always different so we thought they were just her favourite tales. Eric and I were living in Toronto and my father was running his own, very successful business. We all had busy lives, except my mother whose antique business had slowed to a trickle. She had also retired from her job as the night news editor at the local newspaper and she spent a lot of time alone.
My parents had a rather unconventional marriage for the time. Today no one would even notice, but then, there were a few hurdles, mostly to do with what other people thought and said. My mother married her first husband Bruce when she was twenty-two. It was 1929. She was with him for eleven years, did not have children and then got a divorce. It was 1940 and that was unusual. She was thirty-three and a single woman again, but not for long. She joined the army, moved to Toronto and married my father when she was thirty-six. He was a fresh-faced twenty-two year old, smitten with my mother and not concerned with the small town public opinion of his parents.
My father returned from the war in the fall of 1945. My parents settled down to start their lives together. In spite of the local busybodies warning my mother that giving birth to her first child at thirty-nine would be disastrous, she soldiered on, and my brother Eric was born in July of 1946 – fit and pudgy with a full head of curly hair. Mike and I followed in 1948 and 1949. Ours was a good family.
From the day my father married my mother, he never looked at another woman. She was his rock, his reason to get up in the morning and his source of joy. He was an incredibly strong man physically and morally but a dependent man emotionally. His was a soft, gentle heart, so when he started to see the changes in my mother it was an excruciatingly painful time for him. She was seventy-four and he was sixty. By 1982 it was evident that something was very wrong with my mother.
The early signs of forgetfulness, annoyance, unexplained rudeness and fatigue can be hidden fairly easily by the person who is afflicted. Mary always paid for things at a store with large denomination bills, so she didn’t have to be concerned with the amount of change she received. A reminder that we’d heard a story countless times before could be laughed off with a “silly old me comment – I must be a little tired and forgetful”. She didn’t want to face her condition as much as we didn’t want to acknowledge it. That would have made it real. I can’t even imagine how lonely, afraid and depressed she must have been. I sometimes wonder if we failed her when she needed us the most. If we did, I know in my heart she has forgiven us.
My father struggled with my mother’s condition until 1985. He called me in the middle of the night that spring. He was crying. I asked him what was wrong and he said, “I don’t want your mother to wake up and hear me so I’m down in my workshop”. The raw pain was evident in his voice when he said, “I just can’t do this anymore. I can’t leave the house because I’m afraid she’ll drop a cigarette and burn it down. I can’t work in my shop without being afraid that she’ll wander off and get lost. I’m totally alone here and so afraid. I need help.” His quiet crying almost broke my heart.
What followed in all our lives was Mary’s hospital evaluation, followed by a barrage of physical and psychological tests including a cat scan, and the final, formal diagnosis. What we already knew in our hearts was true – Mary had Alzheimer’s Disease. I liken this illness to slow-motion dying. My mother’s body was strong, true and healthy – her mind was tortured, sad and dying. The hospital staff was as supportive as expected, but always with the level of detachment, necessary for anyone working in the health care field. It was decided that once a bed became available in the long-term care facility, my mother would be admitted for the three month evaluation that would determine her placement.
We went home, we three and sat at our kitchen table, where over the years, so many momentous family gatherings had occurred. I made tea and sandwiches which no one touched. We sat in silence. My mother finally got up, stroked my father’s cheek softly and then went quietly upstairs alone. My father and I sat together and wept.
We cried for every cross word, every missed opportunity, every moment of impatience and every unkind judgement. We cried for the years that might have been, but were lost to us now. We dried our eyes and reminisced about all the memories in a lifetime and the laughter that had echoed throughout our home. I hugged my parents good-bye the next morning and returned to my life in Toronto. My task was simply to wait for the next cruel volley in Mr. Alzheimer’s arsenal and it wasn’t long in coming.