My mother began showing signs of dementia when my second child was eight months old. She was visiting from the Seattle area, and I remember she kept asking me, “How old is Sierra now?” The third or fourth time she asked me this within a few hours, I began to wonder what was going on. When I mentioned it to one of my sisters, she didn’t seem concerned; she hadn’t noticed anything unusual. Mom returned home, and it wasn’t until a few months later that others in my family started noticing. One brother or sister at a time started asking, “What’s with Mom?” Eventually we all knew what was going on, but since her illness progressed at a very slow pace it took my father a long time to admit that Mom’s problem was serious. Her journey through Alzheimers lasted longer than many people’s; it was about 15 years before she was moved into a Memory Care facility, and another three years before she had the stroke that led to her death a couple months later.
Losing Mom was a slow and painful journey for all of us seven grown children, and particularly so for our father. Each of us experienced it in our own way, loving her so much and being powerless as we watched her disappear, bit by bit. For me, there were many many times over the years when I so needed my Mom, and yet I knew that she wasn’t able to be that for me. The loss was incremental, hard to put my finger on, and very very sad.
There was one bright spot: In her own unassuming way, Mom had always been a positive, cheerful, smiling person, and in Alzheimers, she was even more so. Toward the end, when she could no longer remember who we were, or other details of reality, it wasn’t uncommon for her to literally dance through the halls of the Memory Care Center, visiting with the other residents, as if blessing them with her sunny presence. She developed an amazing lightness and conduced herself with a remarkable sense of confidence. She knew how sweet and special she was, and was more than happy to share herself with others. She brought many a smile and warm heart to the staff who cared for her. I think about some of the other patients, who struggled with paranoia and confusion, and am so grateful that Mom’s journey at least didn’t go that route.
At one point, when Mom was still at home with Dad, I felt that she needed to be wearing an ID bracelet. I had heard of dementia patients wandering and getting lost, so I ordered one through Walgreens, and had it sent to Mom and Dad’s address. My Dad was still struggling with accepting the fact of Mom’s illness, and I don’t think we talked much about the bracelet, but I do know that he put it on her wrist and she wore it for the rest of her life.
After her death, I asked if I could have the bracelet. My Dad was glad to be rid of it, I think, and gave it to me with relief. Back at home, in Santa Fe, I went to a local nursery and bought the cutest, cheeriest little rose plant I had ever seen – a “Happy Chappy.” I planted the bush with Mom’s bracelet around the center cane. I also scattered a few of her ashes there. A few months later, when I happened to mention it to one of my sisters, she exclaimed that she also has a Happy Chappy and that it’s one of her favorite plants. Every year, when my Happy Chappy blooms, I think of Mom and her bright disposition (and my sister, and hers). I dig through the mulch and dead leaves and find the bracelet, still there, and remember my sweet Mom.
Happy Chappy is in full bloom right now. You can see one of the flowers above.