Light that builds

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. 

Shout your damnation

Marriage as an institution may be public, but the love between husband and wife is, by definition, private. You inside me. It does not get any more private than that. And yet this reality show is part of a push to turn marriage inside out—to publicly share and spotlight that most intimate of betrayals, infidelity.

And that is what makes my blood run cold: how public Mr. Gasby and his mistress have made their deeds. Why have they done this? Because they know the power of the word “destigmatize.”

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

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Image: modified detail of U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stephen J. Otero

No words

Sometimes it strikes me as hilarious. I fight down a wild giggle as I recall requesting an interview, scheduling a time, doing some research, writing up questions, talking for an hour, and then, as I sit down to transcribe it, bustling so purposefully into a dead end. I feel like a video game hero who just can’t figure out how to get out of a corner, but keeps walking and walking and walking forward, bump bump bump bump bump into the wall, while his life force drains away.

Sometimes it strikes me as less than funny.

“I’ll fix your feet so you can’t walk,/ I’ll lock your jaw so you can’t talk,” murmurs death.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: photo Silberstein, L., Dr. from George Eastman Museum via Flickr; no known copyright restrictions; words added

Podcast 49: Not trying to hurry you (FREE PODCAST!)

I’m making today’s podcast free, just for the hell of it. Normally, podcasts are open to patrons who pledge $1 or more through Patreon. You are still highly encouraged to pledge. But this one is free, who can say why.

In this podcast, my husband Damien and I cover:

How to get motivated at work and not put people’s business cards in your mouth (unless you are Judge Judy);
a very fine story about boy, some other boys, some cement, and a microwave;
what Sr. Mary Immaculata saw when she went to check on my little brother on his circuitous route toward adulthood;
some choice moments with Edward G. Robinson and a certain rat;
For this story about bad sex writing, let me adjust the microphone, if you will;
Woop! Woop! That’s the sound of the . . . billiard racks, and other irrelevancies;
And the priest said, ” . . . well . . . .”
Damien denies having any knowledge of Mexican baloney;
Irish dogs and other unreliable sources;
an actual ankle-biter;
And a poem by Michael Lavers.

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Image: By Trailer screenshot, from DVD The Ten Commandments, 50th Anniversary Collection Paramount, 2006 (The Ten Commandments trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Say it again

She was once brilliant (quantum-physics-as-a-hobby brilliant) and startlingly witty, with no time for nonsense. But now she has Alzheimer’s, and all she has is time and nonsense. Now she says things like, “I can use that for a sunapat. Sunapat with a T. I don’t know, I’m falling out of a tree.” Her nonsense often has a desperate, frustrated air, as if she knows people don’t understand her and she needs to try even harder to get her message across.

But I did hear her, when she could speak. I did hear her, when I did not even realize I was listening.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Photo via MaxPixel (public domain)

Prayer request for my family today

I am sorry to have been scarce around here lately.  My mother, who has advanced Alzheimer’s, enters a nursing home today, and frankly it is hard to think straight. I haven’t written about it because I don’t know what to say. We are very grateful to have a relatively good place for her, and I’m very grateful to my siblings and especially my brother Joe for working so hard to make that happen. I would appreciate prayers for our whole family. Thank you!