I knew something was up with Mom when her usually meticulous grooming began to fail. Daily applications of Oil of Olay that was the foundation for her porcelain complexion seemed to have been abandoned. Crisply ironed blouses began to show wrinkles and clues to what she had eaten that morning.
There was something up with Mom. Either she was losing her marbles, or morphing into Janis Joplin. She never touched Jack Daniels and couldn't sing the blues to save herself, so it became evident that something was wrong.
Mom's downward spiral into dementia, and in all probability Alzheimer's, was punctuated by periods of brilliance. The brain seems to have an uncanny ability to radiate a hidden awareness as if to shake a fist at the threat of shut down. It's like a star that goes supernova before it is extinguished. All the energy and recollections of a great life lived surface to say goodbye in a final blinding gasp of love and remembrance.
So it was with my mother. She would recollect in excruciating detail the pattern of the blanket that she held as a child. She would describe the smells of the decrepit courtyard of her families Brooklyn tenement in a Shakespearean cadence. She would gaze on other men with lust and fire, and if I did not hold her hand tightly enough, would approach them and tell them exactly how handsome they were.
She had shed the super ego that Freud described and saw life as a child — unrestricted by the shackles of correctness and demeanor. She sat in wonder at movies, in awe of the technology and performances until she dozed off. She would listen to music and let herself be transported by Perry Como and Judy Garland to another time.
As a witness to the breakdown of her faculties, I marveled at how unrestricted she had become. Alzheimer's seems to attack the defenses first. The personality becomes decimated at a later date. That's when the heartbreak sets in.
I was brought back to this experience last night at the Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre in North Hollywood, when I sat in the audience for “Putting on the Shorts,” a series of one-act plays running through May 29. Kevin Dobson directed one vignette called “Not Dead Yet” by Patricia Wakely Wolf that in about 10 minutes explored the complexities and joys of a mother daughter relationship that was threatened by Alzheimer's.
The scene started out with the daughter, played by Katelyn Ann Clark picking up a guitar and playing the opening chords to “Something by George Harrison. Sinatra described “Something” as “one of the most beautiful love songs ever written.”
The undertone of the song however is about doubt and uncertainty. That significance was not lost on me.
The art of theater was never so meaningful and real. Layers were peeled away as these two women danced in a verbal pas de deux. Irene Chapman's portrayal of the elderly woman who is at the cusp of the realization that she has Alzheimer's was powerful. She was one minute mother, the next child. As her only caregiver, the daughter's duality in roles was blurred as she efforted to provide reassurance to her mother while attempting to offer comfort and solace to herself.
The daughter was cognizant that there was no cure. Things were going to get bad. The mother, however, only hinted briefly at the realization, and then turned to her daughter to talk of Oreos. The mother's last line was, "I don't want to be like that.”
At that point, the daughter reached again for the guitar — an inanimate object that provided calm to the daughter as she navigated the turbulence that being both daughter and caregiver creates. She could offer her mother no reassurances. Her life was about to change significantly, their mother/daughter relationship was about to end on a conscious level. What was left was the culmination of their years, and they explored it with absolute brilliance and honesty.
Magnificent. “Not Dead Yet” showed another side to the tragedy that is Alzheimer's. It showed two people trying to bind together the fragmenting of a relationship that is being torn apart by disease.
And therein lies the art. Alzheimer's is scurrilous in the devastation that it causes, yet it comes first as an announcement not on perfumed stationery, but on the fetid breath of the Grim Reaper. No cure, no future — but you do have time to say your goodbyes. What ensues while dealing with the shock and the darkness that is on the horizon, is life.
There is humor, tragedy — relationships are forged, ended. Roles are reversed, and the disease slowly lowers the curtain. Those who survive are witness to some strange s–t — everything from moments of clarity that surface briefly, to personal feelings of abandonment by loved ones who succumb to the disease — and sometimes forge intimate relationships with other sufferers. The caregiver becomes the shadow.
Alzheimer's shows no mercy.
I had thought I found a cure for it. Mom was uncommunicative, silent in her repose and behind her closed eyes she was hooked up to my iPod, listening to her favorites — Andy Williams, Perry Como, Judy Garland. One of my kids Megadeath tunes was inadvertently placed in the queue. Since Mom was hard of hearing, the volume was up.
Then her eyes tightened, and burst open. The first power chords of “Gears of War” lit her up and caused a brief instant of clarity. Her mouth opened and I'm sure I heard her scream: WTF??
Her return was brief, and wasn't worth the mess it caused.