Enter Mourning: A memoir on death, dementia and coming home
By: Heather Menzies
Chapter 2: The Diagnosis (excerpt)
….Was Mum on the verge of something awful too? Was she getting Alzheimer’s? The prospect terrified me: the mad woman in the attic, the door locked and me alone in there with her, trapped and unable even to scream. That’s what I was afraid of, so afraid that I couldn’t look Alzheimer’s in the eye. I didn’t even contact the Alzheimer’s Society until after Mum was dead. At the time, too, the fear was for myself: wanting to protect myself against Mum, and the possibility of her hitting out at me. That’s what defined the disease in my ignorant mind, not the sad unravelling of a daily existence: the difficulty in remembering your own telephone number, the names of old friends and family suddenly beyond one’s reach.
One day we were having tea outside on the lawn beside the river, watching the bird traffic over the water. The resident kingfisher flew off its favourite dead branch in the Maple tree at the water’s edge, shrieking raucously.
“What’s that bird?” Mum asked.
“Kingfisher,” I said, shocked because my mother was known as “the bird woman.” She knew the names of all the local breeds and the most intimate details of their nesting routines. Now, it was as though someone was splashing whiteout across Mum’s brain; she could no longer read even the well-thumbed pages of her memory.
A month or so later, again outside having tea by the water, she asked, “What’s that flying insect that hops?”
“A grasshopper,” I said. Again, I wrote this down in my journal for future reference, along with the stepladder incident and the forgotten recipe for pie. Again, I felt better at having done so, facing up to it sort of, but leaving it at that. Yet, as I learned later, these were classic signs of the mild to moderate stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Mum had it already. …
When the dementia is diagnosed, preferably in the early stages, doctors now routinely refer both patients and their caregivers to a local Alzheimer Society for inclusion in its First Steps program, which provides useful background on what dementia involves, and what to expect. Most importantly, though, it offers counselling and self-help groups for both patient and care- giving family members. As Marg Eisner, head of programs and services at the Ottawa Alzheimer’s Society explained to me: “Alzheimer’s is a disease of losses, and in the early stages at least the people involved know what is going on. If they have a chance to talk, they can grieve. In fact, it’s in facing the reality by talking about it that the grieving can begin.”
She was forgetting the odd word or where she’d put something away. But she brushed it off if I asked her about it, saying she was just tired, and I let it go, her word as always trumping my sense of things. One day, though, I was outside finishing off some weeding while she started supper. She came out the back door to say: “You know, it’s the funniest thing. How do I make lemon-meringue pie? I can’t seem to remember.” I was shocked. But just as quickly, I moved to reassure her, telling her I’d be right in. We’d do it together. That would be nice. A few weeks later, Mum called me on the phone wanting to know where the applesauce maker was.
“It’ll be in the same place. I just don’t know where that place is!” she said. I told her where to look, and didn’t hear back, so I assumed that all was well and I, feeling relieved and reprieved as well, carried on with my life.
Mum was being displaced from her home in her own home. She was being displaced from herself.
All Contents Copyright © Heather Menzies