My mom has dementia. On the cottage deck, she sits quietly and pleasantly. I play Amazing Grace on my guitar and sing too low because I forgot to bring my capo. However, that makes it easier for her to add a beautiful harmony just a step higher than my voice. Her clear beautiful singing voice hasn’t changed. She has asked me 10 times today how old my dog is, but she hasn’t missed a word of Amazing Grace. Her mind still has every word.
This scenario used to be the other way around—she played guitar, skillfully transitioning between cords while Travis picking. I would jump in on the chorus to harmonize with her. Sadly, I’m not as committed to guitar as she was, so I stumble over the chord changes. And though I’m learning the Travis style, I’m not good enough to sing and pick at the same time, so I stick to strumming.
“I should get my guitar out more often, and play again.”
“Yes, you should, Mom. You still have such a beautiful voice, and it would be good for your mind.”
She hesitated. “I’d have to cut my nails though.”
Ha! It’s the first glimpse of my mom’s true personality coming through! Ah the struggle for female guitar players!!!! Do we play the instrument, or have beautiful nails? Both are not an option!
I think my mom’s change in physical appearance is the hardest for me to process. Her hair is frizzy and unkempt, her sedentary lifestyle has changed her shape, and there’s not a trace of make up on her face. All the way into her 60s, Mom was a thin, active, health-nut. She enjoyed creating beautiful outfits by combining different styles contained in her large, eclectic closet. Her natural beauty was always complemented with golden hues on her face, shades of pink on her lips, and rich color around her gorgeous blue eyes.
I don’t remember ever thinking she felt pressured to keep up appearances. I think she just enjoyed finding creative ways to be feminine and attractive. Her clothes often came from the Dollar General, a neighborhood thrift store, or a friend’s closet. Her bathroom was filled with a collection of Estee Lauder freebies, Avon deals, and Mary Kay samples. As a teenager, I loved going through my mom’s closet to borrow some beautiful article of clothing. I grieved when my feet outgrew her fancy shoes. There was never a color of makeup she didn’t have for any occasion. Eyeliner pencils of blue, gray, brown, black, jet black, and purple were organized in a small cup. Lipsticks in every shade of pink, red, plum, and mauve filled an entire drawer. She even dated each item with a thin sharpie, so she could use the older make up first.
I see her influence when a friend will complement an outfit, and I proudly respond, “Thanks! I paid $3 for this at the thrift store!” I get a surge of energy when I find something that is real leather, or a high quality name-brand for less than $10! In fact, I don’t even bother to go into the stores for new items because I know, with patience, I’ll find a second-hand deal. Why would anyone pay full-price? Thank you, Mom.
Day to day self-care skills have been some of the first to go. She will walk into the room, a few times a day, to ask her husband, “Have I taken my pills today?” He tenderly responds, “Yes, dear. You took them this morning.” “Do I have any more to take?” “Not until bed time.” David’s loving patience is worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize! Not only does he care for her faithfully, without complaint, but he continually tells her how much he adores her. I’m so grateful for this loyal and stubborn man that God brought her thirteen years ago! I can’t imagine being able to live so far away if I didn’t know she was in such good hands.
A couple of years ago, I didn’t have hope for this sweet picture. Mom hadn’t been diagnosed officially, but we all knew her mind was going. In the beginning, she would just forget conversations and repeat questions. But then the delusions began. Mom would describe these impossible or unrealistic scenarios, insisting they really happened. At first, they were just strange stories of little girls running her CAT scan, and eagles flying up to the living room window. All too quickly, though, her mind’s experience was that of people stealing from her. Mom has always been an extremist when it comes to politics and the “end times.” She’s always been a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but this was not her. The delusions led to mistrust and rage toward those she loved. When she turned on her husband, we all knew it was time to seek medical help. He was wearing out and couldn’t take the outbursts anymore.
Though the medicines have quieted her vibrant, colorful personality, they have preserved her sweetness. For that, I am so very grateful. She is calm, pleasant, and cooperative. Her husband, David, finds joy and purpose in serving her each day.
I playfully told mom I had good news and bad news. “What is it?” she asked. “I’m just like you! I’ve got a little of your crazy, but I have a lot of your wonderful personality!” It’s true. Without my mother’s influence, I wouldn’t be the playful, nurturing, spontaneous, creative, outspoken woman that I am. The love of throwing a special birthday parties comes from her. Finding fun, creative ways to play with children comes from her. She taught me to skillfully live on a dime. She taught me to cook from scratch, love music, and to laugh. I struggle to manage my emotions like she did. I’m a little too “open” with my thoughts and personal life. And I can get fired up instantly when I judge a situation as unjust (even in a close relationship). I get those “qualities” from her as well.
There were years when I struggled to embrace the family God gave me— when I wished I had been given a different mother and father. Looking back from 43, however, I am filled with gratitude. The joyful experiences have shaped me, and the painful ones have opened my heart to the hurting.
I treasured our three day visit this week, and I’m grateful the medicines have slowed the progression of dementia. However, she is beginning to mix up the details of her long-term memory. If you are, or were, friends with my mom, would you consider replying to this email with some of your memories together? Scanned photos would be an extra bonus! I would love to gather pictures and stories to share with her, my siblings, and her grandkids.
All my love,