erin f. wasinger

stories of loving our neighbors, discernment, & other hard things

One final word about Alzheimer’s, I hope

I started a fire in the toaster Friday morning. Don’t worry: I got Louisa’s PopTart out just in time.

Because I saw the incident coming, I’d already been holding the contraption to the open kitchen window when I smelled the quick death of breakfast junk-food. I unplugged it — “Never stick a fork in the toaster,” my first-grader loudly warned me (“I’m not, it’s a spoon”) — and saved the morning, just barely.

Meaning the preschooler didn’t fall apart in tears. Meaning I could laugh about it and feel borderline Ma Ingalls about my quick thinking under duress. Also the house didn’t burn down, etc., etc.

Chances are, I’ll forget about this by next week. A year from now or later, I’ll read this and try to conjure the memory — what had happened? Why?

Because that’s what a life is, these little moments.

And they pass. They pass so quickly for us; I’ll be the first to admit that this PopTarts one probably doesn’t need to be stored in the archives in my mind, but we don’t often choose the moments that make it into the filing system. There are just so many moments.

These are my people.

These are my people.

Trying to remember even the highlights is like grabbing for confetti during a ticker-tape parade. Some pieces you catch and stash in your pocket. Most, though, you have to be content to have seen stream down around you in a colorful haze.

These small things, small moments — remember, the litany of small things — are our existence. We don’t miss them til we realize that some of the keepers of these banal memories have lost them, too: our grandparents or parents; our friends, our babies. It’s impossible that my kids would remember our old house; they were babies. I can’t remember the inside jokes written inside my high school yearbook.

(“Remember the fry incident!” someone wrote. I do not remember the fry incident.)

***

But of course, some not-remembering (non-remembering? un-remembering? dis-remembering?) is a disease. Some things fade to black before our eyes.

A lady of principles.

A lady of principles.

So here we are, we sentimentalists, or there we were for years: sitting at the foot of Grandma’s bed, watching her sleep.

By the end, she’d long forgotten who we were or whom she was. Her mind simply dissolved, slowly. Alzheimer’s doesn’t steal or rob: it destroys. First her mind blurred around the edges, then holes disappeared completely. What was to her black and white became gray, then a February-sky color. Then nothing at all.

So what then?

After the family mourned the moments she lost or the first time she didn’t recognize us, there was still a warm, beautiful body in front of us.

What then?

What does modern humankind do with that? What does someone offer the world when their stories are gone and their mind and muscles are permanently at rest? What then.

Then: we wait. We repeated stories to her or to each other. Stories that reflected who we were, or who we are. Without our identities, some might label us “shells.” “She’s a shell of what she once was.” But this isn’t right.

When the stories were trapped somewhere in the attic … In retrospect, we must’ve seen something else, right? We kept coming back. 

She wasn’t empty because her identity, her stories were gone. She hadn’t lost her identity, even if we lost ours to her: She was, until the end, a child of God. Alzheimer’s is no “mixed blessing” (what does that even mean?). Alzheimer’s is a disease. Horrific, ugly, maddening, and really, really hard to watch. It sucks in every way possible for everyone involved.

But — God knew it sucked and hanged on anyway. And called her His child. We dare not call empty, can’t label “a shell” that in which the Holy Spirit indwells.

Hey, believing God was there means that when we visited, we sat really close to God without us realizing. Whoa.

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4 Comments

  1. Kathy Dobie

    Beautiful Erin….they don’t call Alzheimer’s the long goodbye for nothing. For some it is longer than others, Hard to watch someone so dear slowly disappear in front of you, I will always remember a little story I read somewhere once (probably Readers Digest or Guideposts….) about a man who faithfully visited his wife in the nursing home every day. Someone asked him why he bothered, “She doesn’t know you anyway.” His simple response, “I know her.”

  2. Becky Fuerst

    Erin this is simply beautiful. Thank you for seeing deeply into her and understanding she was still a lady, a Mom, a Grandma, and a great-Grandma too. Precious time we spend with our loved ones as the transition into Gods presence is an honor. Sometimes it takes way longer than we want, but God was in charge of that and His timing is perfect. God Bless you and yours

    • Erin

      Thank you, Becky. You said it well: it’s not what we would choose but we can find something meaningful in the process.

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