Mom frmrnyis

My mother has dementia caused by microvascular disease: blood vessels in her brain shrinking and drying up, and a series of mini strokes. My older sister’s graphic description of her MRI a few years back was that it looks like Swiss cheese.

The dark spots are places where her life used to be stored. The woman she used to be has been packing up and moving away a little bit at a time since at least 2000, and probably sooner.

I can date it with some precision because she and Dad went to visit my brother Don and his wife Lisa in Seattle for a fake millennium party December 31, 1999. (Fake, because sticklers know that the new millennium started 1-1-01, not 1-1-00. At the end of 1999 you’ve had 999 years go by, not 1000. Duh.)

After Mom and Dad arrived, said their greetings and started settling in, my mother went to the bathroom. On her way back, she just sort of stopped and stood in the short hallway. Lisa found her there with a very lost expression on her face. She clearly didn’t know where she was, and from the way she looked at Lisa, she apparently wasn’t quite sure who that young woman was either.

Lisa is wonderful. She very gently said, something like “Gladys, it’s so nice to have you here in Seattle visiting your son Don at our house, and I’m Lisa and I’m so happy to be married to him.”

Mom sort of came to and put on her hostess smile—the one that covered up any amount of misbehavior, spilled cocktails, red wine on pale carpets, burned hors d’oeuvres, or late-arriving guests with a gracious sense of welcome. “Of course!” she said brightly.

They sat down to talk, and Mom admired a pretty Christmas tree ornament. The way Don tells the story, that’s all I need to write about the next half-hour or so.

Here’s how the scene goes: She looks at the ornament, says how beautiful it is, asks where they got it, smiles and nods at the answer, and looks away briefly. They try to move the conversation on. Her eyes roam back to the ornament, she rediscovers it and says, “Oh! What a beautiful Christmas tree ornament! Where did you get it?”

Variations on this continue for some time until Don finally snaps (he’s never had small children) and takes the ornament off the tree so it ceases to exist as a cue in her visual field. Problem solved. At least, the short-term problem.

I have a huge folder of emails to and from my siblings both before and after that date. There are six of us. I lived in Coeur d’Alene at the time, about 35 miles from Mom and Dad. Jan, my older sister, lives about 90 miles south in Lewiston. Everyone else is farther away: Seattle and Friday Harbor in Washington, Twin Falls, Idaho, and Albuquerque at that time for world-traveling Jim (who subsequently went to the Philippines and now Mozambique for the State Department).

So Jan and I made up the team for a story I may tell another day: me accompanying Mom to medical appointments, discussions with Dad, Mom getting lost driving to her hairdresser of 20-plus years, negotiating and manipulating towards the decision to move to assisted living in Lewiston, finding a place, Mom’s struggles with her memory loss and ultimate surrender, packing, sorting, estate sale, move, disorientation, settling in, group meals, hoarding of desserts in various drawers, more problems, moving again to a special dementia facility where they live today.

I’ll be visiting tomorrow with my girls, who are very kind and loving with their grandparents. When we visit, the conversation takes a lot of laps around a very short track (similar to another blogger's description), often with topical cues coming from the TV that never shuts off and always plays at a volume that accommodates Dad's habit of keeping his hearing aid turned down.

Mom is very pleasant and seems happy to see us, although I’m pretty sure she can’t quite place us at first. Dad generally does a graceful job of saying, “Oh, hi there middle daughter Barbara Kaye! And here’s Kate and Laura!” He’s cuing her with names and roles. Her hostess skills must be in her bones instead of her brain, because she always rises to the occasion.

A friend of mine who helped care for her mother-in-law with Alzheimer's described it as being like an anthropologist visiting a tribe with its own customs. You observe but you don't try to bring them into your culture because that would be cruel and disruptive to their way of life. Gladys Land is a happy place, so we visit and then take our leave.

So about Mom frmrnyis, the name of this piece? That’s what happened when I got my fingers off by a key typing “dementia”. I looked at it and thought, “Well, that’s probably what it’s like in there—close, but not close enough to make sense.” So I left it.