Several times a year, I hear about promising new treatments to halt or even reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s. I’m grateful when people send me links to these stories, knowing I have a personal stake in them; but to be honest, I rarely read them. It was too late for my grandmother and it’s too late for my mother. If this hellish disease comes for me, it won’t make any difference if I’m personally informed about the latest research or not. Either it will help or it won’t.
For several years, as my mother’s excellent mind became more and more smothered by confusion, I was angry. At her, which makes no sense. She hated and feared what was happening to her, and did everything she could to fight it off, which was nothing. There really isn’t anything you can do. I knew very well that none of it was her fault, and I knew very well that my anger was a shield put up around my heart. Anger often is.
Lately, the wall of anger is being pulled down to reveal what sits behind it, which is of course a bottomless sorrow and terror. From that well of grief comes up memories, and lamentations. The good conversations I had with my mother were so few and far between; the misunderstandings and missed connections were so many. I’m 45 years old — almost half a century! — and I’ve sorted through enough nonsense that I think my mother and I could finally really understand each other. I’m passing through from the years of childbearing to whatever it is that comes next, and I want to talk to someone who made it to the other side. I want to talk to my mother, and see what she knows. I want to stop evading her and reveal my heart to her in a way that I never did as a young woman.
But it’s too late. I missed her, and now the best I can do is drive an hour, sign in to her dim nursing home, and watch her slump in a wheelchair. Her arms are shielded so she won’t scratch herself to pieces. She tilts, and a crust forms in the corner of her mouth. A few words make their way out, and some of them seem to mean something. She doesn’t open her eyes.
“I like your shirt,” I can say. “You look nice in pink.” And in honesty, that is something I never would have gotten around to saying when she was present and able to hear it; and if she had said something so simple to me, I probably would have taken it as a veiled criticism of some kind. We didn’t connect well. We didn’t understand each other, at all. Now I have no idea how much she understands of anything. Something, surely. When my father unloads his medical woes to her on his daily visits, she sometimes mumbles, “Oh, you poor thing.” The same thing my grandmother said when someone unpeeled a helpless banana in her sight.
Poor thing, poor thing.
One of the articles I did read was about some promising therapy for dementia patients. Guess what it is? Light.
We think of light as the thing that reveals things for what they truly are. The thing that strips away pretense, that pierces through shields. And this is true, sometimes. The light of honesty is what we need, even when it’s painful. I remember one time I was so seized up with depression, it was as if I lived outside my body, observing. I saw myself talking to my mother about my children, and I watched with detached interest as my face unexpectedly and randomly curdled up into the grimace of a tragedy mask and I started to cry, because things were just so hard, too hard.
“What’s the matter? What’s wrong?” she flew to ask, because she is my mother.
“Nothing,” I said, and composed my face again, sealing off the tears. It felt too risky to show to her what a failure I was, and how much I was suffering when I shouldn’t, I thought, be suffering. Maybe if I had told her how wretched I was, and how guilty I felt to be sad when I was so very blessed, she might have helped.
Or she might not have known what to do. Sometimes there just isn’t anything you can do. I suppose I could go and tell her now. She is still my mother, even though she has passed through the years of childrearing and into . . . whatever it is that she’s in now. It feels like it would be cruel to go and cry to her now. Maybe she’d be just aware enough to sense my sorrow and her own helplessness one more time. That’s not what I want to share with her.
But, I suppose there are different kinds of light. Light that reveals, and strips away pretense, pierces protective shields, and leaves you naked and helpless, poor thing. And then there is the light that builds, stimulates. The light that gives, rather than taking away.
The light therapy they are experimenting with boosts gamma oscillations in the brains of mice, and this apparently makes better connections between nerve cells. More connection is good, apparently. This light therapy “preserves against cell death in mouse models,” they say.
I don’t know how to end this essay. I don’t know how this ends. I suppose I could make the drive to see my mother before the end of the year, and see if I can make a connection one more time. Either it will help or it won’t.