Her voice on the phone that afternoon was high and thin, stumbling over the words she spilled out too fast.
“Judy, can you come over?” she said. “I can’t find my money, I’ve looked everywhere. I think someone took my money, I’m sure it was in my purse, and now it’s gone. I think somebody took it.”
“What money, Mom?” I said. “How much money are you talking about?”
Her voice trembling, breathless. “All my money, Judy, all I had left from my Social Security.”
“You keep it in your purse?” I said. I was impatient, incredulous, this made me tired.
“Can’t you just come over and help me?” Mom said.
In the car I tried to remember Mom’s sources of income. Dad’s Social Security, barely enough to support a person. Donations from her followers. Before Tim got sick I kept her banking straight and legal, but now there was no telling. There couldn’t have been much coming in since she stopped holding darshans.
Mom’s door was open. There were no lights on in her apartment and the drapes were closed. Mom, the light freak, was sitting in the dimness on her couch in her pink bathrobe, her hair uncombed. She lifted her head when I turned on the overhead light.
“I was meditating,” she said.
The Watkins Products invoice was on the hall table. Here’s where the money went:
One quart bottle of Watkins Bathroom Cleaner Plus $8.99
11 oz Original Double-Strength Vanilla, flavor that won’t bake out $19.99
Brain Plus. Has your memory played a disappearing act lately? Our unique formula can help to bring back your memory while protecting against age-related mental decline (60 caplets, 30-day supply) $18.99
Frances said: “Remember when the Watkins man used to come to the farm and I bought my spices and vanilla from him? This Watkins man is just as sweet as that Watkins man, they are all so nice. He visits me a lot.”
I sat back down on the couch Mom’s sad energy swirling all around me. I put my arm around her, pulled her closer to me. What was I going to do with my enlightened, sad, human, failed little mother?
Mom got up and went to her window. She pulled the wand to close the vertical slats, the wand stuck, the blinds wouldn’t close.
“Judy, would you…?” Mom said.
The wand didn’t work for me, either, until I straightened a few slats that had gotten turned sideways.
Mom’s blue prism eyes glowed at me, her smile as bright white as her foam hair.
“See, Judy, you can always make things work. You’re a miracle worker. Always have been.”
How Alzheimer’s works: the patient loses her faculties gradually, in reverse order from how they were developed: last one in, first one out. Memory fades, and then physical abilities. They begin to dress weird—petticoat on top of the dress, colors and patterns clashing wildly. And they won’t be talked out of it, just as a four-year-old stubbornly insists on wearing two pairs of shorts under her dress and four of Mom’s necklaces to pre-school. Then they need help dressing. Finally they forget how to dress themselves at all. Toilet training fades, from “accidents” back down to diapers. They gradually lose motor skills. The loss of language is close to the end, the vocabulary dwindling and dwindling until only a few simple words remain. “No” is a favorite word, usually one of the last words to go. They no longer give any sign of recognition with familiar people.
At about age six weeks a baby begins to smile—it’s the first sign of humanness and personality, and we are delighted. In Alzheimer’s, it’s the last sign of humanness and personality to go. Like the Cheshire Cat, when all other aspects of the personality have faded and disappeared, all that remains is the grin. And finally, that, too, is gone.
This is how we dissolve our personality/ego and remember our Essence, which we gradually lost in the first two years of life, developing personality and ego to replace it. We lose Essence one facet at a time, and that is how we regain it. We cultivate its characteristics—honesty, strength, compassion, etc.—and as we do, the personality trait that replaced that facet of Essence dissolves. As we regain facets of Essence, each one we regain helps to bring back the others.
We moved across town to be near Frances and the Center. At age eighty-six, it was clear that she was no longer able to live alone. She needed more care and help than I could give her. She moved into an assisted living facility near her home, and lived in relative peace and comfort there for five years. I had moved to the Oregon coast, a two-hour trip I made regularly to be with her and help her. She called me several times every day, often with dementia-related problems I couldn’t fix. I could only listen, commiserate and try to reason with her, but she often seemed like a frightened five-year-old child who could not be reasoned with or consoled. Or an angry, rebellious ten-year-old, or a determined twelve-year-old who was planning to escape. She had begun to have nightmares about her father. I decided to treat her as if I were her mother, and simply entered into her world, whatever age she seemed to be. It was successful. And often frustrating for me, because my cell phone number was on her speed dial, and even a five-year-old knew how to hit the “Judy” button. My friends told me I needed to “get a life.” I had a life, and a satisfying one, but it was interwoven and overlaid with her needs and demands.
My year-and-a-half younger sister Jenny and her psychotherapist husband had worked with women whom she called “fractured”—known in the psychological literature as multiple personality syndrome or, more recently, Dissociative Identity Disorder. It is defined as “a condition in which a person has more than one distinct identity or personality state. At least two of these personalities repeatedly assert themselves to control the affected person’s behavior. Each personality state has a distinct name, past, identity, and self-image.”
Jenny had, in fact suggested such a possibility to Frances. She was met with cold resistance and absolute denial that any such thing could be true. I spoke with professionals in geriatric psychology, and they all assured me that her behavior was “typical for dementia.”