Wednesday, February 1, 2012

How Is She?

My mother, Edna Simmons, with her grandchildren Andrew and Kaitlyn looking on as she holds her newest grandchild, Lisbeth, in November, 1981.
The first anniversary of my mother's death was last week. She was 88 years old when she died from complications from Alzheimer's. Mom moved into assisted living shortly after she was diagnosed with the disease in 2006, and my five siblings and I began our grieving process that summer as we worked together to clear out our childhood home. Alzheimer's is often referred to as "the long goodbye," and it is an apt description: we watched helplessly over those last five years as our mother progressively lost large expanses of memory and the capacity to do the things that had given her so much joy in her rich and busy life: knitting, sewing, baking, dancing, tending her house and yard, caring for her beloved cat Arabella, taking photographs, hosting the mammoth family gatherings for her six children and their spouses and her nineteen grandchildren and eventually their growing families. In her last year she still recognized my brothers and sisters and I as family, but she couldn't say our names, and the grandchildren and great grandchildren had become a big indistinguishable blur. I cherish the times she would pat my hand, and tell me in her low and broken voice, "You're a good girl."
Words did not come easily, and attempts to speak were often just garbled phrases, sputtered out with long pauses of frustration and sighs of exasperation. After these attempts to speak, Mom would fall back in her chair, her eyes closed with exhaustion from the effort. So we would sing to Mom, and tell her lots of stories. When we tapped into her long term memory and recounted tales from her girlhood, she'd smile, and nod with recognition, and perhaps even add a word or two. But when we would tell her, "Mom! You were married in the Spring of 1944 to a wonderful man named George, and you had six children together! Their names are Steven, Deborah, Kenneth, Martha, Susan, and Amy, " she'd scrunch her brow in puzzlement, and ask us, "How do you know these things?"
On one of my last visits to see my mother in the nursing home, I was talking to my sister about Lisbeth, and in a rare moment of clarity, Mom looked me straight in the eyes, and asked, "How is she?"
I am moved to tears each time I think of this: that my mother could "mother" me one last time with her concern, and that Lisbeth's story was so deeply etched in Mom's ravaged brain (or "left in her brain," to quote Lisbeth...) that she could rise up out of the murky swamp of Alzheimer's and connect with me about Lisbeth, for those precious few seconds...
simply slays me.


  1. Beautiful, Martha. And familiar. Those rare moments of lucidity were like finding a long-lost stone from a treasured piece of jewelry. What a gift it must have been to know that in some undamaged corner of her mind, she still held you and Lisbeth close.