Loss can be like a meteor crater on the landscape of your life: the unwelcome footprint of a destructive force of nature, but with fascinating scientific and aesthetic details.
My mother has Alzheimer's. She's declining—a graceful synonym for her mind falling apart around her. I recently spent a very busy two weeks orchestrating her move into assisted living. For her to continue to live in her house alone was not a good idea. The assisted living facility offers the kind of social life, structured activities, nourishing food, and daily oversight that may give my mother's final years some real quality of life. She won't accidentally burn down the house; won't fall down in the house or yard and lie hurt for hours. Not attempting to manage her own finances, she won't make mistakes of judgment to the effect of hundreds or thousands of dollars. She wanted to stay in Columbus, Georgia, and that is a good idea. She had friends and family and she knows the climate and the birds there. She won't feel uprooted like she would if I insisted that she come to Houston where I live.
The down side—one of them—is that my mother moving to assisted living means I lose my ancestral home. I'd wondered what her house would be like after a year of being inhabited by a person with Alzheimer's. Well, when I went back to Columbus for Thanksgiving, the housekeeping was poor, and the clutter worse than ever, but the "nest smell" still the same. It's a comfortable olfactory fabric woven out of the scents of an old wooden frame house plus the cleaning agents, laundry detergent, and air fresheners my mom has used for years, and her favorite perfume. I think the nest smell of her house is very much like what I knew in my early years, when my grandmother lived with us, in a different but similar rented house in the same neighborhood. In the next few months I'll have to clean out and sell the house. In the end I'll miss that nest smell. And miss the battered but long-familiar furniture in my old bedroom, and the self-respecting blue-collar neighborhood with trees much taller than the homes, pine-tree-tinged breezes, and firefly summer nights.
I feel lucky that my mother stayed put in the neighborhood where I grew up, in the same kind of house, and even kept of lot of the stuff that was there in my grandmother's day. Every time I visited her for decades, I got to greet all of that. American society is terribly transient. When children are relocated, either elsewhere after a divorce, or up the ladder of increasingly respectable housing as the family prospers, or from one state to another in the wake of parental job changes, it may not occur to anyone to help the kids say goodbye to the old place. Then it's gone for good. I have very few friends who can ever experience the same light, the same trees, some of the old furniture, and the nest smell of childhood. In losing our early places, many of us are like refugees from a past we can never go home to. People whose families fled from wars in Bosnia or Viet Nam lost whole countries along with their childhood homes. No wonder it can be a profoundly emotional experience for them to return to visit relatives years later. Americans, though, have a real knack for just casually misplacing the places of childhood.
Speaking of saying goodbye, I said goodbye to my mother several months ago, in a dream, while I was staying with friends in Tulsa. What an odd place and time for a heartfelt goodbye. But Alzheimer's is a long stair-stepping slide downhill, and it can be hard to pinpoint when you lose the person. In my mother's case it's particularly hard to say when I lost her. In a way I lost her when I was three, and she was 38, when she divorced my father and spiraled down into a quarter-century of depression and social withdrawal. After she retired from teaching school, though, she came back to life. She took up walking and dancing. She made friends. She never regained enough emotional competence to be good at mothering, but I am profoundly glad that she was a social human being for a full twenty years of retirement. As her best friend puts it, my mother "came out of her shell" in her old age.
Last December was when her Alzheimer's became obvious and scary. Was that when I lost her (again?) Not exactly. In the twelve months since then, during which my first novel was published, she became more cognizant and more supportive of my writing career than ever in my entire life. Granted it's easier to conceptualize my daughter wrote a book than my daughter has been writing short stories, novelettes, and articles and doing editing and teaching creative writing for years. But the whole emotional tone of her feelings about me, or at any rate the feelings that she was able to express, changed enormously. During the past year she informed as much of the world as she had the opportunity to talk to that I has written a book and she was proud of me. She also told me—on the phone, while I was in Tulsa, before my goodbye dream—that I'm a smart, hard-working and ambitious woman. A lot of my friends over the years might vouch for that, but I'd never heard such words from my mother's lips in my entire existence. For decades, her favorite line in dialog with me was "Are you OK?" (Yes, dammit, and in fact I'm usually better than just OK!)
Did the Alzheimer's knock out some of the dysfunctional circuitry in her brain? Maybe. One of my friends had such an experience. After her entire lifetime of being unfavorably compared to an older sister, their Alzheimer's-afflicted mother somehow turned into the sympathetic, companionable mother my friend had always yearned for. It's a mysterious malady, Alzheimer's. It inexorably destroys the brain and it blasts an emotional crater of loss in the hearts of loved ones. Yet it has intriguing and, very rarely, wonderful details.
Anyone who's responsible for an aging parent or friend should get the book ELDERCARE 911 by Susan Beerman and Judith Rappaport-Musson (Prometheus Books, 2002.) It's authoritative yet compassionate, and tremendously helpful. Another remarkable book is Aging with Grace by David Snowdon (Bantam, 2001.) Snowdon is the scientist who conducted the Nun Study of aging brains. The Nun Study brought fame to Snowdon, but in reading his book one gathers that working with the elderly religious humanized him.