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A Love Story for a Mother

“What is your name?” my mother said to me on the fortieth day of my fifty-eighth year. We were clearing brush along the tree line of her property. It was about four o’clock. Time of day is noteworthy for people with Alzheimer’s disease, like my mother. I knew she was sundowning. This term describes what happens – generally in the late afternoon or early evening – to a person with Alzheimer’s after her energy level starts to fizzle. She gets confused and perhaps suspicious. Her brain gets too tired to remember her third son’s name.

Seven years ago I learned something was wrong when she couldn’t remember how to get from my place back to hers. The route is twenty miles due north on a single road. She couldn’t remember that. On that Saturday in April at her place, I worked side by side with my mother and her remarkable husband Jon, laughing and joking. Life without Jon would seem nearly impossible for my mother. He’s more than her husband of forty years. He is her rock, her guardian, her caregiver. After two hours of tugging and chopping the debris left behind by the fierce winter winds, we unloaded the stock onto a burn pile stacked so high that it promised a legendary bonfire. “This was my grandfather’s land,” she told me. It wasn’t, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the place a memory of her father and grandfather could take her. She smiled and cried a little. She smiles and cries a little each time she talks about her father and grandfather.

The temp barely reached forty-five-degrees, so after our first load, we retreated indoors to watch the beginning of the Cubs vs. Brewers game. We huddled near the TV with protein bars and bananas. Twenty minutes later we met back at the tree line to collect the second batch of limbs.

That’s when she said to me, “What is your name?” Those four words are a game changer. I knew this day was coming but I didn’t know when. It came on the 21,224th day of my life and I may remember it forever. Or I may not.

That same Saturday in April I bought the first card I picked up at the Mother’s Day display because it said perfectly what I felt:

”You live your life in a loving way and it shows. You deserve this day for

being the amazing mom you are. Happy Mother’s Day.”

If there is a single, minute blessing in being the child of a person with Alzheimer’s disease, it is this: your heart breaks gradually into a million tiny pieces over a long period of time, instead of knocking you flat with one crushing blow. Yes, Alzheimer’s takes its sweet time. No, it will not, cannot be rushed.

We still visit at least once a week for lunch – usually for Indian food or Dairy Queen treats – and my heart breaks a little each time.

She looks back – sometimes seventy years – to those memories she cherishes the most: her father and grandfather, two of the greatest men she has ever known. Both were honorable, Godly men who worked the land with their hands and a mule and knew how to make an honest living.

Sometimes we’ll sit there a couple of hours, just the two of us, enjoying peanut buster parfaits and Oreo Blizzards, talking about the way it used to be for us. We’ll travel back fifty years to when I opened up my left kneecap while foolishly exploring the junk bin out back. Or the time I (again, foolishly) dove off the dock at the lake before checking the water’s depth and broke my wrist. Or the time I steered a Soap Box Derby car down the steepest hill in Kokomo only to lose the race. She remembers these events with clarity. I remember she always came to me with comfort. She has offered me light and strength and hope through all these years.

She calls herself an old woman now and I guess she is. Yet on good days, she can outwork me or anyone half her age. She still possesses an unstoppable, unwavering spirit. She helps my brother Mickey bale hay.

And so we come to the mystery of life. What remains of our time together? How can this possibly end? Big, unanswerable questions. But isn’t that what life is? A mystery with impossible answers.

We don’t know how this ends. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, no turning back time. She will never get better. But she will always be perfect. Just the way she is. And I will continue to love her with as much graciousness and compassion as humanly possible.

So, although you may forget me, Mom, I will never forget you.

I love you.

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