We said our earthly goodbye earlier this year. But she had been gone a long time. Our grief began eight years before Mama died.
She was the last parent I had. Daddy died too early and now she was dying a slow death before our eyes. Nancy Reagan called Alzheimer’s the “long goodbye”.
They say there are times you’ll never forget: your wedding day, the birth of your children, those landmark events in life.
But she did. She forgot the times, the milestones, and the memories. She forgot she was a pastor, forgot my dad and forgot me.
Alzheimer’s does that. It robs those things you’ve tucked away in your memory, the moments you whisper to another, “We’ll never forget this day.”
We never imagined it would happen to this vibrant woman. We didn’t know she wouldn’t remember her three children or her eight grandchildren. We didn’t know her memory would crumble into pieces of our past.
The journey of Alzheimer’s is uncertain. The stages cannot be scripted. Disease is never one-size-fits-all.
‘Why?’ was a constant, silent question. At times, we were brave enough to ask it out loud to each other. It seemed a selfish thing to ask when we knew there was no answer.
How long would we watch her decline? How long would she suffer the indignity of losing her speech and becoming childlike in every way? There are funny moments and ones that aren’t — but you have to laugh anyway. It’s like having a two year-old again, only she is 72. It’s not cute when a 72-year old is unsure about how to spell her name.
We wrote back and forth to each other, my sister and I. We wrote things we never wanted to say out loud. We confessed our hurts of the past and planned for a funeral long before necessary.
When someone loses their memory, it seems important to hold on to whatever you can. An apple pin Mama gave me on one of my visits sits in a drawer. It’s something I would never wear and had she remembered I was her daughter and not just someone with a “nice smile,” she would have known that. But she didn’t know me as her daughter and even still, her gesture was sweet and kind and, I hope, a moment I’ll never forget.
Over the years, grief ebbed and flowed as grief does. It often came as I stood in the card aisle searching for a Mother’s Day card I didn’t need to send. She may have forgotten her daughters, but I didn’t forget she was still my mother.
She kept snapshots of our life in shoeboxes. I pulled them out, one by one, probing the remnants of her fragile memory. “Who is this, Mama?” Her eyes focused with intention as she paused, then pointed at the man, her husband who had died a few years earlier.
“He used to be with us,” she said was some certainty. She recalled neither his name nor his role as husband, but she knew he was “with us.” Yes, Mama, he was.
One after the other, I gathered photos ranging from her childhood to more recent times. I was looking for where she was living. I couldn’t find her. How could I? She couldn’t find herself.
I don’t know if I intentionally numbed those emotions and feelings or if it was God’s divine intervention that kept the pain from wrecking me. I didn’t cry in her presence, not once. Even in its sadness, the moment was too precious.
I searched God for answers to the why. When they didn’t come, this verse did:
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you! Isaiah 49:15
She had forgotten the children she’d borne. My sister and I stood on each side of her and she didn’t know she’d birthed us to life. Though she forgot, God was faithful to remember our longing and our pain. He is faithful to bring hope even in the heartbreaking pain of grief.
Yes, we wrestled with anger and questioned God. But He didn’t forget us.
No, she didn’t receive a miraculous healing or have a last moment of clarity where she knew us as hers, but God didn’t forget Mama.
In the middle of our sorrow and the turmoil of loss, I put my hope in knowing His loves endures forever. I breathe: “Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”