I don’t often discuss family in this place, but today I feel the need.
We’ve just returned from a visit to my family. The trip takes four hours each way; the boys and I do it about every two weeks. The home I grew up in is in the upstate of South Carolina – six miles from the nearest town and twenty from the nearest hospital. I grew up without AC or central heat and when we return now, it is to that two story home with a large fireplace that heats one room in the winter.
My father is 87 years old. He, a little runt of a farm boy, went off to fight the Japs in WWII. Returning he found a job at the USDA milking cows – somethings you just don’t forget. He married my mother who was the first in her family to go to college. She played fast-pitch softball on the Mall in DC to relax after teaching and dad coached her team. They were both tenacious people. Dad surviving as a 9 year-old male leader of his family during the depression. Mom surviving a single mother’s alcoholism and subsequent foster family experiences.
They made good. Retiring to the upstate, Dad began to hunt and plant whichever the season. Mom busied herself through my life – education in faith, arts, southern etiquette and work. As their world became smaller through the year’s progression, they have become their own constants. They are the unchangeable, immutable statement of their survival.
As I would come home for visits, I began to wonder about mom. Something wasn’t right. I began to ask people about it. “No,” I was told. “She is herself. You’re imagining it.” But soon dad noticed it, too. Mom began writing down the date for the next day on a pad beside her bed. “Today is: May 16.” She knew something was very wrong.
He took her to a doctor who sent her to another doctor and this young doctor with horrid beside manner told them that she had early onset Alzheimer’s.
We’ve been watching her inner world’s reduction – she couldn’t write all the way across the page now she can’t write; she would glitch out during a conversation now she is primarily vacant; she couldn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance in English but could do it in Latin now she has forgotten to try. As her abilities have retracted, we’ve soldiered on being as normal as possible. JV keeps her busy while AV and I rewash the dishes. All of us clean the house surreptitiously- so mom and dad can’t be embarassed. We hug more. We laugh and tell stories and happenings that we know won’t be remembered and may be repeated six or seven times in five minutes.
Recently, mom has turned down a narrower path into her brave descent into oblivion. One doesn’t know if the grief that is a constant as the tides is because the person you’ve had for your whole life is being removed by the plaques and tangles of her mind or because you can’t untangle your life with her any longer.