Saturday was my mom’s 61st birthday. I didn’t know what to expect when I called her in the morning. Would she sound groggy and tired, as she so often does? Would she trail off in the middle of sentences? Would she be depressed — or excited?
My mom has suffered from bi-polar disorder (some of you may know it by the name “manic depression”) for decades now. Also, a few years ago, she had a very bad fall on the ice and suffered a brain injury, which exacerbated her tendency to call the dishwasher the microwave and refer to me as “Rachel” (my sister) or “Carol” (my aunt).
Lest you get the wrong impression, my mom is almost universally well liked — she’s got a good sense of humor and usually not a harsh word to say to anybody. Though I would say in recent years, new people she meets definitely look at her like she’s a bit “special.”
Several weeks ago, I got a text from my brother-in-law that my mom had just had a doctor’s appointment and I needed to call her.
Turns out, she’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, “like President Reagan — not a lot of fun,” as my mom says.
That quote is actually from a voice mail she left me a few years ago, the first time she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At that point, we all pretty much wrote it off as a misdiagnosis, thinking she was over-medicated and brain injured. Little did I know that at the time, her doctor put her on an Alzheimer’s drug called Aricept.
Lately, my dad had been noticing a steep decline in her abilities to carry out everyday activities and some pretty weird mood swings (imagine how tough that is to parse when you’re dealing with someone who’s bi-polar). He took her in to see a neurologist and got the diagnosis again. And this time, we all feel the truth of it.
The morning of the day she told me, she had her carpets cleaned, and when it was time to pay, she couldn’t remember how to write a check. She asked the carpet cleaner to write the check for her and she signed it.
She trails off in the middle of sentences and will say, “Shit, I don’t remember what I was going to say.”
Since this diagnosis, a sadness has crept into her voice that has never been there before, even when she’s clinically depressed. She knows she’s slowly slipping away, but she doesn’t know how long it will take.
As a daughter, and one who lives 1800 miles away, I’m having to seriously step up my game. I’m calling her more often, trying to make as much contact as possible, as there will come a time when I will call and she will not know who I am. And then someday, not remember how to use the phone.
Saturday morning, though, was great. Her doctor put her on another Alzheimer’s drug, and she was lucid and in good spirits (except for complaining that my dad had taken her checkbook away). She called me by the right name, talked about plans for Christmas, and laughed when I reminded her about how my Aunt Carol used to give her birthday away to my sister, who always felt cheated having a birthday the day of Christmas.
I told her I wanted to get together with all the aunts at Christmas and record some of the stories they have, and I asked for her permission to write about her diagnosis.
At one point in the conversation, I thought my cell phone had dropped the call and I asked, “Are you still there?”
And yes — she still was.