Monday, August 09, 2004

Word to My Mothers: A Tribute (Part I)

The soul of my soul
This is Annie, my natural Mother. She died of complications from Alzheimer's disease on August 22, 1968. This is not a picture of how she looked when she left this world; it’s her high school Senior picture from 1937. This is the image I choose to think of when I imagine her now. It’s an image I never came close to knowing while she was alive.

I’m somewhat pleased that the scan of the photo turned out as good as it did. The image is from a family history book that my uncle put together. It's just a Xeroxed reproduction, as are all the hundreds of photos in that book that he painstakingly compiled as a chronicle of my Grandparent's arrival in this country at the turn of the century, and to detail the lives and families of their children.

When my uncle created the first edition in 1981, distributed then only to that first generation, there was no such thing as instant publishing and even desktop word processing was still in its infancy. The entire book was created as individual, double-sided pages, Xerox-duplicated and then professionally bound. I applaud him for the great job he did in putting the two hundred-plus page book together, given the technology and budget restraints he was under.

But I sure wish I had a print of this photo.

It's one of the photos I mentioned in a previous story about my brother David, having seen in the NOVA episode on Alzheimer’s disease featuring my family which aired in 1991. I had recently watched the VHS tape of the PBS program while writing about David. In one scene, my Mom's graduation picture was shown scattered amongst several other photos across a table at which two of my uncles (including the one who created the book) sat, relating their memories of my Grandfather, who was the carrier of the familial Alzheimer's disease that plagues my family. My heart jumped as I recognized it, partially obscured by the other photos of my Grandfather, Uncle and Aunt, who, along with David, were all the subject of a fifteen-minute segment of this program on genetic diseases as part of their Biology Series.

Prior to when I received my copy of the family history book on its second printing in 1991, I may have seen my Mom’s senior portrait before, but not more than once or twice. At any rate, it wasn't an image of her with which I was familiar. Upon first turning to the chapter dedicated to her, I well remember the chills that ran down my spine as I saw that lovely young face, whose eyes, nose and cheekbones so resembled my own that I literally gasped in amazement. The eyes in the picture, so focused and sure, weren’t the eyes that I remembered as a youngster. Those eyes frightened me. Those eyes were themselves frightened, bearing the marked frustration of one whose memories were in the process of being plucked from her mind, as if by some supernatural force, which she could do nothing to resist.

Life with Annie was a very confusing thing for an eight year-old, which is the age I was when I first asked my Dad, "What's wrong with Mom?" soon after we moved to Middletown in late 1964. His answer, in which he simplistically attempted to explain the effects of Alzheimer's as the doctors had explained it to him, was as fitting to her demeanor as it was accurate to the pathology of the disease. Choking back tears, he said simply, "Honey, her brain isn't getting enough air."

From a biological standpoint that was exactly true, as the predominant pathological feature of Alzheimer's are the network of "senile plaques" which form, enveloping the brain cells of its victims, essentially suffocating them and causing them to atrophy and die.

But even beyond the accuracy of the biological analogy, was its accuracy in my Mother's behavior: the sense of near panic I remember so well that she bore as she struggled to remember things. She often looked as if she was literally suffocating in her own skin. She became easily agitated, and would sometimes bolt out of the house inexplicably and begin walking down the street, sometimes to my Aunt's house down the block, but just as often, in the opposite direction. In those situations, it was I who did the panicking. I would follow her, pleading through my tears for her to come back into the house, but she would refuse and tell me to get away and leave her alone. The only one she would allow to walk with her was my younger brother (Lbro), who couldn't have possibly known what was going on with her at only four years of age. However he always seemed to comfort her and made sure that she stayed in the neighborhood and came home safely after a time.

That is the memory that causes me the greatest pain. I felt so confused and helpless. Soon I found myself becoming fearful and avoiding her as much as I could.

But the one episode that probably sent me over the edge was also a pretty funny one in retrospect. It happened near to the time that my Dad had to institutionalize her when I was nine years old. I was in the garage with my next-oldest brother (TK) and a bunch of neighborhood kids. At that time we had a pool table that we absolutely loved, and which we constantly occupied ourselves with. This day was no different. It was early in the day, probably before noon, either on a Saturday or during the summer. I was waiting my turn for a game when the door that lead from the kitchen into the garage slowly opened. My Mom, her hair all in bobby pins, peeked her head around the door and called for me to come. She needed my help.

As I approached the single step that led up to the doorway, she withdrew behind the door, opening it just wide enough to let me into the house. At first I didn't notice anything weird except that her hair wasn't made up. She was wearing a light yellow-colored button-up blouse. Then as she turned to me after closing the door, it hit me at exactly the same time I heard her say, "Honey, could you help me...I...don't know how to do this..." She was fingering the buttons of the blouse, and couldn't figure out how to make them work.

And she didn't have another single stitch of clothing on!

No bra, no underwear, no pants or skirt — only an unbuttoned blouse. You wanna talk about panic? My eyes must have spun around like whirligigs as I felt the temperature of my ears reach nuclear meltdown proportions.

I think I said something like, "Mom...wait. I don't think I can do that either. Let me get TK to help you." I turned to open the door and screamed for my brother to get in there fast. TK came immediately, and I left in the same way. I remember running away into our big living room and crawling up into a ball on the couch, horrified at what I'd just witnessed.

This unfortunately was the Annie I knew. This was her state of mind during the earliest point in my life in which I could have been able to have an intelligent conversation with her. But that was never meant to be. Instead, all I have are the flashes of memories from between ages three and five, in which I see Mom doing housework; feeding me those wonderful poached eggs she used to make; laughing and smiling while she talked on the phone in the kitchen.

She had a big, deep aluminum washtub that she used for extra-dirty clothes or hand-washables. I remember it seemed so huge to me. It was square and stood on four long legs with castors on the bottom. She would fill it up from a hose attached to the kitchen faucet, add her soap and hand wash the clothes. I remember being so amazed at her superhuman strength when she would lift the tub up to empty out the water into the sink when she was finished.

I remember one time, exclaiming, "Boy, Mommy, you're strong!" She smiled at me and flexed her well-toned right arm, making a muscle for me, as I stood in wide-eyed amazement.

I remember how she would occasionally sunbathe on the patio in the back yard, in her sleek black one-piece swimsuit, with either slices of cucumber or shiny copper pennies over her eyes to protect them from the bright sun.

I remember having nightmares and getting up to get into bed with her and Dad. I remember how she held me tightly next to her. She smelled so good.

I remember one day coming home from Kindergarten, the school bus let me off at the corner directly across the street from our house. My Mom was waiting on the front porch steps for me, smiling. As the bus pulled away, I ran excitedly to greet her, but tripped as I entered the street. At the exact same time a big black Buick sedan was turning the corner, heading up our street. He didn't see me until it was almost too late. As I momentarily lay prone on the pavement, I heard my Mother let out a blood-curdling scream as the front tires of the Buick let out one of their own. I looked up to see a huge whitewall about two feet from my head. I scrambled to my feet and ran as fast as I could into her waiting arms. She held me, rocking back and forth for what seemed like an eternity; both of us shedding tears of fear and relief.

These are the moments I remember. These are the moments I won't allow myself to forget, which I carry with me always.

I wish there were more.

But despite the fact that there weren’t, I feel her presence in my life. I still feel the gentle touch of her hand on the back of my neck when I’m alone with my thoughts of her. I sometimes feel as if she’s the better angel of my nature; the one who keeps me mindful of the principles that she believed in and that I’ve always tried my best to follow.

The soul of my soul.

Next: Annie’s Legacy
blog comments powered by Disqus