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My Mother's Madness Is Only Half the Story

Photograph by Getty Images

I wonder if after you read my first piece about my mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis you felt a little squirmy in your chair. Like, “Eek! Too much information,” or “Why humiliate a woman by exposing the specifics of such a horrifying illness?” Well if you didn’t, I certainly did.

Reading my own words in a public forum like mom.me forced me to see that I did not tell the whole story. I told the easy story; the easy feelings of disappointment and disorientation and disbelief. I definitely covered all things, “dis.” But now I fear it’s not just my mother’s brain that is slowly being vaporized by dementia. It seems an integral part of my own cerebral cortex is also slipping away. Or whatever part of your brain it is that tells you what is appropriate to share publicly and what is not.

I see that from now on, I have to be vigilant in my reporting about this to be sure that my deeper, and much more vulnerable fear of losing my mother doesn’t unconsciously edit out the gifts she has given me in my life. I am going to have to dig a little deeper. And dig I must if I am going to tell the whole story.

It’s not that this entry is going to be an apologia for my initial impulse, to recount the unbridled truth about how shocking it is to have your once highly capable parent begin to mentally crumble. But I feel compelled to tell you a little bit more about my mother. Because I suspect that in some ways she is like all our mothers, and by extension, like each of us.

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My mother was “leaning in” before it was a movement, and not because she wanted to. We moved to Connecticut from New York City after my father’s garment manufacturing company in the city tanked. They had both gotten real estate sales licenses as a hobby several years before and my father decided the time was right to reinvent himself as a broker. He also decided, unilaterally, to reinvent my mother, from pampered housewife to business partner. As family legend has it, he came home with candy and flowers and told my native New Yorker mother, “Honey, we’re moving to Connecticut. And you are going to open a real estate office with me.” No warning, no preparation and, worst of all, no discussion. (Sidebar: She never forgave him for this. With two small girls and from a traditional family, it never occurred to her to say, “No.”)

With “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog,” blasting on the radio and ice crunching under the tires of our brown Cadillac, we pulled up to school for my first day of 4th grade in Westport, Conn. First day for me, but since it was January, everyone else was in full swing. Not a lot of fun. And from that day on both my parents worked full-time, seven days a week.

My mother never intended to be a career woman, but not working was not an option for her. And then she discovered she was actually very good at it. Of course, I didn’t understand this; I was a kid. I just assumed selling houses must be more interesting than being with me. So I became an actress, HA! One way to guarantee that your parents pay attention to you is to get the lead in the school musicals and belt show tunes, loudly. I also learned to keep myself very busy, a reaction to love I have to this day. Since those years, I still resist any kind of downtime where I might find myself longing for someone I love.

My mother is not ready to let dementia take her out.

But back to the facts about who my mother is in my life. She has always supported, and still supports, every artistic choice I have ever made. Even today in her Swiss-cheesy brain, she ends many of our conversations saying, “My money’s on you, Dani. You just keep doing what you’re doing—you never know when someone will pick you up!” It makes me smile in that here-come-the-tears-way. Because it’s so charmingly old school and also because I am fully aware that after she goes, no one will ever say, “My money’s on you, Dani,” again. Even when they actually give me money to do something, they still won’t say it exactly like that.

She continues to surprise me, despite the Alzheimer’s. Three weeks ago she went out and bought an iPhone so she could text with my boys. And when she was out here last, no doubt her final trip to California, she texted me from her smartphone, apologizing for her negative reaction to our weekly Saturday afternoon family class at Temple. God bless her, the woman has not forgotten how much she hates religion. Which I’m fine with. I am only sorry she couldn’t at least get past the parts that offend her for the benefit of being part of a community. But I can’t help her see this and that’s not my point here.

What I want to focus on here is that my mother is not ready to let dementia take her out. Both of these actions—learning a new phone system and apologizing for anything (which involves a degree of personal insight)—are experiences her neurologist told us, given the trajectory of Alzheimer’s, would be unlikely for her to ever do again. And yet there she was, texting me on her tiny keyboard, “I’m sorry for my reaction, that’s not how I want to be. Please come get me so I can be with the family.”

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No doubt, it is much easier for me to be snarky and bitter and point out all the disappointments of my life with my mother, which when you read them on the printed page feel akin to a teenager acting out as part of the separation process from her mother. Only in this case, I’m not going off to college. This is separation with a capital S. And to quote my teenage brethren, it sucks.

So the bigger story of my mother and me is that no one will ever love me with the depth and breadth that she does. And knowing now that there is a good chance that someday she may look like my mother and even still sound like my mother, but that her brain will no longer make the connection to me and our history together, is so incredibly painful that it’s just easier to hang up the phone, quote her crazy lines of dialogue, make some jokes, because as she herself said, some days it’s just better to laugh than to cry. But I'm not fooling anyone doing this. Including myself.

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