Monday, October 24, 2011

Signs Overlooked



After two people break each other’s hearts, after they stare into the eyes of the truth, wounding each other with last looks, final words, often ugly, they look back over their shoulders to see the signs posted along their journey, signs that warned of a dangerous curve ahead, signs overlooked, missed, now all too obvious. So it is with disease, especially the disease of Alzheimer’s.

Grandmother, a bookkeeper all her days, could not balance her checkbook any longer. Mother tore up five checks before asking me to write it for her. She had forgotten what and where to write.

For Thanksgiving dinner one year, Mother, who was a fine cook for more than fifty years, forgot to cover diced potatoes with water before boiling them. She added just enough water to keep the potatoes from scorching, and I watched her do it, saying nothing. She had been cooking and stirring much longer than I, and she had been my teacher so I trusted that she knew what to do.

I was wrong, of course. Mother had confused steaming vegetables with preparing potatoes for mashing. Just a momentary blip on the radar screen. A brief second. A slight error. Silly to worry or even notice really. Everyone, of all ages, can make a mistake when so much happens all at once—guests arrive, conversations begin, interruptions occur, dressing and sweet potatoes and pies and appetizers need attention. Who wouldn’t make a mistake?

Sometime in the coming year, Mother forgot to close the refrigerator door, leaving it so many hours that several items had to be thrown out. On another day, she thought of something while rinsing dishes, turned from the sink, and wandered to another part of the house. Many minutes later, she heard the water and wondered who had left it running.

But I’ve been known to try to juggle just one more ball and make a colossal mistake. Recently, I left the hot water running to scald the dogs’ huge water bowl while I scooted around the corner and down a short hall to collect two scoops of dry grain for them. As I bent to scoop, I noticed a spider carcass that the cats had left for me to find so I decided to use the handheld vacuum and suck the evidence into an environmentally-friendly bag. The vacuum cleaner’s motor blocked the sound of the water as I widened my target to give the utility room floor a quick once-over. Then, I remembered the water and ran back to the kitchen.

The force of the hot water had sealed the stainless bowl over the drain. The water now ran from one deep sink into the one beside it. So much for environmental awareness. So much for multi-tasking awards. So much for my keen mind. Surely Mother’s mistakes were simply caused by trying to accomplish too much at once.

Rationalization and empathy only prolonged the inexorable reckoning, however. Mother could not finish her sentences. She struggled for words, often substituting the wrong word for what she wanted. She stopped calling friends and neighbors because she couldn’t remember how to make a call. Occasionally, she tried to speak into the listening end of the telephone. Recently she took an icy cold shower, telling me later that something else in her home needed repair. I soon learned that she simply forgot how to turn on the hot water, and when I taught her again how to turn on the warm water, she looked defeated. She realized in that moment that she had lost something quite basic and once well-known. My heart ached for her. She isn’t safe with the thermostat either. I arrived to find her overheated, the thermostat set at 98 degrees on a hot Oklahoma summer day. I had to advise the companions to teach Mother to put on more layers rather than change the thermostat.

I try to take these errors in stride, to let Mother off the hook, telling her that anyone can make a mistake, but she knows she’s lost ground. She knows she’s lost in a pathless wood much of the time, and I know now that the accumulation of errors is Alzheimer’s. The signs were there. I just didn’t want to believe them.