My Mom’s Vacant Eyes — Living with Alzheimer’s Disease
By Jonathan S. Henes
Yesterday, on my birthday, I visited my mom. For the past 10 years, my mom has been living with Alzheimer’s Disease. She is not alone. More than 5 million Americans live with the insidious, carnivorous disease, which attacks their brains and steals their memories. The disease is not merciful; it does not impose a quick death sentence. Instead, it sadistically devastates its victims from strong, thoughtful, compassionate people to empty, distorted images of their former selves. It’s horrifying and heartbreaking to watch. It’s not like watching a car crash in slow motion; it’s actually watching the person you love disappear slowly one memory at a time before your very eyes.
Yesterday, when I walked into my childhood home, my mom was sitting on a banquet, vacantly staring straight ahead, with Frank Sinatra crooning in the background. I stood in front of my mom. I smiled. “Hi mom,” I said, “how are you?” She looked right through me. She didn’t know me. She had no idea that I was the son she had given birth to — the son she had reared and loved and supported. She doesn’t even know what those words mean.
Earlier in the day, she had been sitting on that same banquet and fell over on to the floor. My dad thinks she must have fallen asleep and then toppled over. I asked my dad if she was hurt. He couldn’t be sure. It looked like she hurt her wrist and she was holding it gingerly but she couldn’t answer his question of whether it hurt — she doesn’t know what hurt is anymore — and she couldn’t articulate how she felt. My dad had to guess and to be safe he will take her to the doctor. This is just the day in the life of someone with Alzheimer’s Disease.
At one point yesterday, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a photograph. I walked over to take a closer look. It was a picture taken at my sister’s wedding less than 6 years ago. In the picture was my mom. She had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, but it hadn’t yet progressed much. When the picture was taken my mom knew she was at my sister’s wedding. She knew she was with family. She was happy and she was present. I looked at the picture and recognized the women standing there. It was the mom I remember and the mom she wants me to remember. She was beautiful and elegant and happy and charming and witty. Behind her eyes was a thoughtful, empathetic, wonderful woman — a woman who had a way of connecting with everyone she met and making them all feel so special.
I turned from the picture and walked back to my mom. I smiled at her and looked into her eyes. They were vacant. Behind her eyes is a disease — a disease slowly eating away at her brain, although the ferocity with which the disease is acting is now increasing in strength and speed. I so wanted to connect with her right then. It was my birthday and if only for one moment I wanted my mom back. I wanted her to know how much I love her and how much I appreciate everything she did for me. I wanted her to know how much I miss her and how so often I would do anything just for a hug from her or to hear her amazing words of wisdom and understanding. But, as I stood there, smiling at her and looking into her eyes, it was clear that my mom left some time ago. She was no longer there behind those vacant eyes. She no longer lives in that frail human frame that topples over; she no longer lives behind those eyes that stare straight ahead. Instead, she lives within all of those people who she connected with and loved. Instead, she lives within me.