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I Thought Mom's Alzheimer's Would Get Less Devastating

I remember the moment I realized my mother was losing her mind. It was July 2012, we were on one of our trips across the country to see Grandma, me and my two boys, who were 5 and 9 at the time. My 79-year-old widowed mother had managed to convince a dog rescue organization to give her a puppy: a pug with anxiety issues, no less. At the time of our visit, she had been caring for this high-strung canine for about four months with the help of an alcoholic friend who liked animals more than people.

Before we'd arrived, I had asked her to please hire a dog walker for the evening walk. I was planning a night out, and I didn't want the boys going out on the street late with her. I also didn't want them left alone.

"I will pay for the person myself," I said to let her know I was serious.

"Of course," she had said to me on the phone the week before.

That night came. I returned to her building and was greeted by her doorman.

"You just missed your mother. She and the boys took Buster for a walk." I looked at my phone: 11 p.m. I instantly looked over his shoulder, out to the street, to the pitch black of Riverside Park facing us. I started to run.

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"Wait, wait," he stopped me. "They're back. They went upstairs already."

I rode up the elevator, sprinted to her door and threw it open. The boys were hitting each other with pillows on her couch. My mother was standing near them, her coat still on.

"Mom, did you just take the boys out for a walk with the dog?" I asked her.

"Yeah, Mom, it was so much fun!" Gabriel my 9-year-old shouted as his knees crashed on the cushions, before his grandmother could come up with a lie for why she had a coat on and was holding a leash.

I felt my face get hot and had that feeling I often got around her—of not being able to breathe. "Mom, I specifically asked you not to do that. I told you I would pay for a dog walker."

"It was no big deal. Why do you make such a big deal out of everything?" she said, taking off her coat.

"It is a big deal. It's 11 o'clock at night, it's pitch black out, and I asked you not to do this."

"Well, obviously the children are fine, so I don't see what the problem is."

I knew the boys were fine, but I couldn't let it go. I was riding a 46-year-old tidal wave of being dismissed by her and, although not proud of it, especially in front of my children, it was destined to crash squarely on her.

And there it was. Madness hanging in the air between us. Now it was me who had to avert her gaze.

"The problem is that I asked you not to do this, that your dog is wild, and he could have pulled you and the kids out into the street. Or someone could have approached you. It's not smart or safe."

"That's ridiculous."

The "that's ridiculous" kerosene? Really? Hang on to the furniture, boys.


By the time I hit the word "clear," she'd turned away from me. When I finished, my mother turned her gaze back to me, shaking a little and with an entirely different look in her eyes, glassy, full of wonder and innocence. She blinked and said quietly:

"I would never do anything like what you are saying. I would never take the boys out alone at night. Why would you accuse me of something like that?"

And there it was. Madness hanging in the air between us.

Now it was me who had to avert her gaze.

"OK, Mom," I said, taking a few steps back from her. I walked into the living room. "Boys, let's get pajamas on."

That fall, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's dementia. The interesting/devastating aspect of this illness for the people who love its victims is that not every day is like this. Or even every conversation. Almost half the time my mother is still lucid. "Still Mutzi," to quote the movie title. In fact, we all took an outing to see "Annie" on our trip to surprise her last week. When she saw Katie Holmes in an ad, she quipped, "Look at her. Glad to see she could get a job."

Vintage mom.

Which brings me to this week's mistake: On Christmas Day, the boys and I boarded a plane to go see her. I could tell you that the reason I kept it a surprise was so it would be more fun for her. Truth is, I did it this way because she obsesses now. Had I told her ahead of time, she wouldn't have slept for weeks in anticipation, unable to remember what day it was we were to arrive and then calling me repeatedly to tell me what a bad idea it was to fly on Christmas and that it will be too much for the boys.

I reminded myself what I'd read in the pamphlets: They don't know what they're saying. As the daughter, you're supposed to love the Alzheimer's patient through the disease, etc.

But guess what? You don't get to hurt my children.

We showed up with our baggage to an annual Christmas party she goes to. After the door opened and she figured out we were actually standing there, she grabbed Gabriel, hugging him tightly and weeping. I threw Gideon in there too so he wouldn't feel left out. "Gideon's here too, Mom!" I said. She stretched her arms to include him, too. It's not that she doesn't love them both, but she does have an unsubtle soft spot for the one who looks like her. This is another part of the disease: There is no longer an internal editor. There is no sensitivity to anyone else's feelings. It is all raw, impulsive behavior. Interesting to see what this looks like given that I've always thought it would be so cool to do and say whatever you think whenever you think it.

For the record, it's not.

At one point during our visit, the kids were playing too rough with her dog, and he got a little nippy. "He bit me!" Gideon said, running to me in tears. "On the wrist."

"I'm sorry, honey," I said, quickly pushing up his sleeve to see if the skin had broken. It hadn't. "You'll be OK honey," I said, rubbing it.

"Let me see it, let me see it," my mother shrieked. "He didn't bite you; he's never bitten anyone! That's ridiculous," she said, the madness bubbling up to the surface.

"We're gonna go out, Mom," I said, trying to stay calm. Gideon clung to me, burying his head in my stomach.

"What did you do, put your hand in his mouth?" his grandmother snapped at him. Gideon grabbed me tighter.

I recognized this as the disease and swallowed my response. I tied shoelaces and buttoned up jackets as she continued her rant. I reminded myself what I'd read in the pamphlets: They don't know what they're saying. As the daughter, you're supposed to love the Alzheimer's patient through the disease, etc.

But guess what? You don't get to hurt my children.

We left.

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We saw my mother again before we boarded our plane back home to Los Angeles. We went to the bank to make sure her accounts were fine. We went back to her apartment and had some soup and grilled cheese together.

She has no memory of anything else.

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