Up Into The Cherry Tree

Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses
Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Gar­den of Vers­es

My moth­er died a few days ago. While I’m over­whelmed with the mes­sages of prayers and con­do­lences, at least at some lev­el it feels like cheat­ing to accept them too ful­ly. This isn’t a new con­di­tion. This is just the final moment of a slow-motion death.

A lit­tle over five years ago my moth­er was for­mal­ly diag­nosed with Alzheimer’s. It was quite brave of her to get the test­ing done when she did. This had always been her most-feared sce­nario for aging. Grow­ing up, we had befriend­ed an active elder­ly neigh­bor who had gen­tly died in her sleep after a minor slip on some ice. My mom thought that was the best exit ever. She swore Mrs. Gold­smith had come to her in a dream the next night to con­grat­u­late her­self, say­ing “See, I told you I was lucky!” For years after­wards, my moth­er con­vinced her­self that she would go in a sim­i­lar­ly ele­gant way.

My mom, Liz, must have sensed that Alzheimer’s was a pos­si­bil­i­ty when she sched­uled that doctor’s vis­it. The news didn’t come as much of a sur­prise to us fam­i­ly. I had been jok­ing for years that my mom seemed to have only twen­ty sto­ries that she kept on rota­tion. After she read a study that cross­word puz­zles keep your brain sharp as we age, she became an obses­sive cross­word puz­zler; when the Sudoku craze hit, she was right on top of it. She had brave­ly bought her first house in her late 60s. How proud she was. At the time she let us all know, repeat­ed­ly, that she would be leav­ing it “in a box.” Caulk­ing trim, replac­ing win­dows, and trou­bleshoot­ing a mud room leak that defied a dozen con­trac­tors became her occu­pa­tion, along with vol­un­teer­ing and watch­ing grand­kids. But by 2010, she must have known she wasn’t going to have Mrs. Goldsmith’s luck. It was time to adjust.

When she called to tell me the diag­no­sis, she couldn’t even use the A-word. She told me her “brain was dying” and that the doc­tor was putting her on Ari­cept. A quick Google search con­firmed this was an Alzheimer’s drug and a call with the doc­tor lat­er that after­noon helped map out the road ahead.

Alzheimer’s is a slow-motion death. She’s been dis­ap­pear­ing from us for a long while. Reg­u­lar out­ings became less fre­quent till we couldn’t even take her out to a near­by restau­rant for her birth­day. As words dis­ap­peared and speech began fal­ter­ing, I’d show her recent kid pho­tos on my phone and tell sto­ries to fill the emp­ty­ing space. Even­tu­al­ly she stopped show­ing inter­est even in this. On my last reg­u­lar vis­it with her, I brought the kids and we had lots of fun tak­ing pic­tures. Mom kept point­ing out at the phone’s dis­play as if it were a mir­ror. But con­ver­sa­tion was too dis­joint­ed and after a few min­utes, my kids start­ed wan­der­ing in ever widen­ing cir­cles look­ing for inter­est­ing but­tons and alarms to touch and pull and I had to round them up to leave.

In the past few weeks her for­get­ful­ness has extend­ed to eat­ing and swal­low­ing. Inter­ven­tion would only buy a lit­tle more time until she for­got how to breathe. Alzheimer’s is a one way trip.

On my last few vis­its she was most­ly sleep­ing. She’s was calm, preter­nat­u­ral­ly calm. Lying on her back, pale and peace­ful, she looked as if she might already be a body rest­ing in a cas­ket. Only the slight rise of sheets as she breathed gave away the news that she was still with us, if bare­ly. I felt awk­ward just sit­ting there. Some peo­ple are good in these kinds of sit­u­a­tions, but I self-consciously strug­gle. With lit­tle chance of inter­ac­tion, I struck on the idea of read­ing from a favorite book of poems that she had read to me on count­less nights as a child.  “Up into the cher­ry tree, who should climb but lit­tle me?” I don’t know if she heard me or pic­tured the cher­ry tree in her haze, but it was a way for us to be togeth­er.

The slow-motion nature of Alzheimer’s means she slept a lot until she didn’t. For rea­sons that go deep into biog­ra­phy, she was a won­der­ful­ly friend­ly per­son who didn’t have a lot of close friends any­more. It seems pecu­liar that one can walk upon the earth for so many decades and only have a dozen or so peo­ple notice your depar­ture. But then maybe that’s the norm for those who live deep into their eight­ies. Most of us will leave life with the same kind of qui­et rip­ples with which we entered.