I’m attacking the almost year-long overgrown flower garden. Golden black-eyed susans have pushed their way through the taller wild grasses and foxtail. I pull with all I have on the pigweed. When it doesn’t budge, I rip out hands full of clover growing around its base. When the pigweed root is surrounded by exposed and wet-smelling soil, I take my large shovel and hack away at its root. I grunt loudly with each strike, not caring if my neighbors hear me.
I talked with Mom today. Twenty-seven minutes exactly. As soon as I’d told her who was calling, she displayed the cruelty of the disease eating her brain.
“What day is it?”
“Monday,” I said.
“September 1,” she answered.
“No, September 3,” I said.
I could hear her breathing loudly, thinking through my answer, seeking understanding where none could be found.
“Today is Saturday?” she asked.
“No Monday.” I hesitated. It’s a holiday Monday, void of the usual Monday routine, a confusing day for the brain fighting to understand while it is having its daily function strangled from it. “Do you see September 1?” I asked.
“That’s right.” I praised her. It felt condescending. Does it feel that way to her? Can she tell how far she’s fallen in just two weeks?
“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.” she responded.
I waited. She breathed.
“Do you see Sunday?” I asked. “It’s number 2.”
“Okay, down on the next line,” she said. “Sunday the second.”
“Yes, that’s right.” I said. “Now look to the right.”
“Number 3?” she asked.
“Is today Thursday?” she asked then.
The strange cruelty of Alzheimer’s: To know right from left and for it to be of no use. To know how to lock your door with a key but to have no idea how to find the doorknob.
Alzheimer’s has become a living being, continually growing in its power and cruelty. I sometimes swear at it, realizing I’m actually cursing the man who discovered it. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe we’d all feel better if we didn’t know what was happening.
No, we wouldn’t.
“Today is Monday,” I said. We are 22 minutes into the conversation. Should I have simply said, yes? Would she have accepted the wrong answer and stopped trying then? Could we have talked about something that makes her feel good? That makes her forget for a few minutes that she is not the same as she was just 6 months ago?
“I need to sit down,” she said.
“It’s okay, mom. Why don’t you sit on your blue chair?”
I heard her movements, her sigh.
“Are you in your chair?”
“I’m in the blue chair,” she said.
“OK good. Just relax for a while. It’s really okay mom. Sometimes the disease you have—the Alzheimer’s—will make it hard to think.”
“Yeah, he’s been real…today.”
She, I realized, has given Alzheimer’s human characteristics, too. “It’s okay, mom. It doesn’t matter what day it is. It’s still a day to relax, to watch a funny movie, to enjoy talking to each other. It doesn’t matter what day what we call it.”
I heard her breathing. I imagined her trying to formulate her thoughts from her feelings.
“It’s still a day to let your cat sit on your lap.”
“Yeah, and she’s right here,” she said.
I sighed myself, then. We were onto another topic. One that brings her joy.
A minute later she asked me to call her later; she needed to rest.
I immediately dress in my cut-off painter scrubs, an old t-shirt and stained sneakers. I need to get my hands around something. I wet a bandana to tie around my neck and go into the humid 89-degree back yard.
I’ve been working almost 90 minutes on the garden, and now I hear the release of the pigweed stalk. It triggers something in me:
What’s the sense in it? I ask. I guess I’m talking to God. What’s the purpose in watching someone suffer? Why does she have to suffer while she still understands her suffering? What is there to be gained by that for any of us?
I don’t understand it. I’m not meant to understand, I see now…again. I am meant only to keep going.
What’s the point of that? I wonder. But still, I hear the point I am meant to know now: that I am to keep going.
The ornamental grass I planted three years ago has really taken off. Tall, proud green stalks with golden plumes rise toward the hot sun, growing strong in spite of—or as a result of–its brutal heat. I didn’t take care of the plant properly last fall by trimming the dying stalks a few inches from the ground, and now those dead stalks lie ruined around the plant’s base. I gather the dead grass like straw–it comes up easily when I tug—and I twist and rip it to pieces, watching fragments scatter as they fall on the turned-over soil.
What am I taking away from these hard years of watching the dying slowly yield? Is there anything positive to be taken from this?
I look again at the dead stalks on the floor of my garden: the dead protecting the potential below it. Maybe something will grow here. Something that gathers strength from the fresh start and the protection of the previously-living lying above it.
I don’t know what will grow here. But suddenly I am certain of one thing: Something will grow here. And it will be something good. It will be something strong.
Until then, I am simply meant to keep going.