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Eating My Way Through Alzheimer's

Photograph by Getty Images

Lately, I can’t stop eating cookies. I never set out to eat cookies. I set out to eat lettuce with steamed chicken. Then I add a rice cake or two “for crunch.” Then I add a third because who’s ever felt satiated by a rice cake or two? Smacking my lips chasing the crumbs of the third rice cake is usually when the idea of a cookie hits me. The errant piece of dried rice serves as kind of a memory jogger, as if I need one, of other tasty crumbs. Like ones from cookies. And that's when the hunt begins; “I shall eat all of you!” roars inside my head as I slam cabinets open and shut, “Nya, nya, nya!!!!"

I admit it; I have a kind of evil superhero relationship with cookies.

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I was able to keep this alt persona at bay for most of my adult life by living alone and not exposing myself to cookies. Because I never smoked pot, I was not one of these people who would put on shoes and go out and buy them. The cookie urge would hit me, usually watching some TV commercial, and I’d have the thought to eat every sweet, crunchy disc in the world to eradicate them once and for all. I’d quickly realize this meant leaving the house and think better of it. I’d read Page 6 of the New York Post, try on a skirt from 10th grade and move on.

But now, as is every single gal’s fantasy when dating and eating sweets in the dark in your studio apartment after yet another disappointment, I actually have a husband I live with, and two small boys. Guess what these civilized people enjoy after a meal or for a snack with a glass of milk? Yes! Cookies: peanut butter, chocolate dipped, ginger snaps (ginger snaps kill me, aren’t they just spicy, sugary chips?), snickerdoodles, vanilla sandwich, everything but oatmeal—which I keep trying to get them to eat and they don’t and then I have to.

For the past 13 years I have impressed myself with my ability to manage my inner cookie monster. Perhaps it is a desire to save face with my children, to not embarrass myself with these tiny people who I would prefer worship me rather than be frightened by me. Or that I don’t want to answer my husband’s question, “Did you eat those Milanos that were here last night?” with a lie, that I have kept it all in check. Until, and this is going to feel like it’s coming out of nowhere so hang on, my mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

In this last year, since meeting with my mother’s neurologist, I have eaten more cookies than I have since before puberty hit; and I figured out they can make you really fat.

I didn’t see the connection right away. I thought maybe the uptick in Pepperidge Farm consumption was some nod to peri-menopause for which I also qualify. Until I was foraging through my friend’s kitchen cabinets in Las Vegas while she struggled with morning sickness in her bathroom. I ate half a bag of some kind of yogurt-covered granola balls in the time it took her to wash her hands and flush the toilet.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise to me that cookies have made a grand reentrance into my life.

I had been trying to reach my mother for days and couldn’t get her on the phone. She’s having trouble with phones now, it’s always Verizon’s fault.

“You can’t believe what they do to me!” she barks on almost every call.

She never knows where her phone is to answer it and can no longer decipher how to retrieve messages. When the lack of communication with her stretches beyond 24 hours, I start to get tense. This happens pretty much every 48 hours.

I continued opening various cabinet doors in my friend’s condo hoping and not hoping my mother would call back. I never know what state she is going to be in and talking with her when she’s disoriented is almost as disturbing as not hearing from her at all. Also, I couldn’t shake the low-grade anxiety of knowing that in five days I would be getting on a plane to see her in New York City, with the boys, to finally take the reins in putting together some kind of team of people to help her at least stay safe, since happiness seems impossible for a woman who is still present enough to know she is losing her mind.

As I chomped on some gluten-free oatmeal crisps, I thought about my fear. Side note: That exact sentence, if you changed out the type of cookie, could describe every binge I’ve ever had. I chewed X, Y, and Z and thought about my fear. This particular time, however, my fear was covered in a thick frosting of self-loathing, too. How could I be worried about going in and taking charge? I’m a “take charge” kind of gal, I thought, desperately wishing my friend had a taste for Double Stuffed Oreos instead of all things quinoa. I have produced shows for over 10 years in multiple cities with a rotating cast of probably 100. How hard could it be to put all the pieces of one old lady’s life together?

“Your mother is one of the most resistant patients to giving up control that I’ve had in my career as a geriatric therapist,” her therapist had said to me over the phone the week before. Dr. Miller called to introduce herself. I asked her if I could call her Abby, since she sounded the age of my UCLA students and she said, “No one else does.” Then Dr. Miller told me that if I didn’t find a way to get my mother the support she clearly needed, that it was her obligation by New York state law to report her to the geriatric care board or some entity that sounded a lot like that.

“Oh,” I said.

I hung up, ate a box of Trader Joe’s cinnamon letter cookies and booked plane tickets.

Eighteen years ago I sucked back a lot of pecan sandies watching my father die of cancer. It was as bad as any cancer movie has made it seem. I left for Los Angeles shortly after his death to start a new life, which I’ve done successfully. If you understand success to mean having literally seen the fragility of life, of the difference between breath and no breath in the existence of a human being, and still managing to carry on. I let go of enough cynicism to fall in love, marry and be blessed with two boys and even a little dog, Pepe. Despite knowing we all die and that the key to life is keeping enough balls in the air to distract you from this simple fact, I have a lot of laughs.

Just when I thought I’d settled into some kind of normalcy—when your big worries are where your children will go to middle school and if they will be scarred terribly if we can’t afford summer camp, and do I look hot enough to go to my next college reunion—enter Alzheimer’s. I have no right to make my mother’s illness about me, or I wouldn’t if it didn’t mean that I had to get on that plane next week and act like a grown-up and figure out how to make this incredibly stubborn woman comfortable for this next phase of her life. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to me that cookies have made a grand reentrance in to my life. It’s no secret that I find the most soothing way to meditate is to chew and swallow.

I replace my friend’s treats with pregnancy-friendly ones, and we head home to Los Angeles. The night before we are leaving for New York, I wander into the kitchen after dinner—of course. But in anticipation of the trip, the cupboards are bare. I go to my office to pack my laptop. My desk is littered with school art projects and pictures of my boys at all ages. As the printer spits out our boarding passes I remember how shocked people were when I told them I was pregnant the first time.

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“Really? You’ve never struck me as the nurturing kind.”

“Me neither,” I’d joke, having no idea how I was going to pull off being a mother. But I’m doing it. Having children has helped me discover that part of myself. And my deep love of animal crackers.

But now there’s this. How am I ever going to take care of a grown woman who doesn’t want it? A person who, when you even suggest helping her snaps at you the way Pepe does if you try to take food from his mouth?

“No, thank you! No one is in charge of me but me! When I die you can take over.”

No one wishes this more than I do, I think, stashing the passes in my bag, closing the office door and hoping there are graham crackers out in the garage, forgotten from last summer’s camping trip.

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