By Susan Gallagher
The beast that stole my mother had no dripping fangs. It had no matted fur, no raking claws. This beast was silent, stealthy and cruel.
The beast that stole my mother was Alzheimer’s, a disease that ripped away her dignity, her memories, her mind.
Marcella was her name, when she recognized it as such. She had sharp black eyes, a petite frame and a formidable inner strength. She danced for blueberries at 12 years old to feed her family. At 20, she married an Irish sailor with pale green eyes and a killer smile. She bore him three daughters. The youngest – that would be me – came along 14 years after the others and would prove to be quite a challenge.
Family and friends were drawn to Marcella like cold travelers to a warm hearth. Our house was always full of people, love and laughter, card games and holidays. At the epicenter was Marcella. No one went unnoticed or lacked attention from the hostess. Proper etiquette ruled but fun was always allowed.
A devout Catholic, my mother never missed Sunday Mass or Holy Days of Obligation. In the middle of the day, she would often take me into the silent solemnity of the church to say the Stations of the Cross. Back then, women were expected to cover their heads in church, but if we were not armed with hats, she would dig out two trusty tissues and a few bobby pins from her purse. The tissues would be pinned to our heads (stylishly, of course) and we would be able to enter the sanctum. I always wondered why God cared about the tissues.
Marcella always said exactly what she thought, not so much to strangers but certainly to family. Her daughters were spared nothing. “You’re not going to wear that … are you?” This was one of her favorite lines. Somehow, from her, everyone took the criticism in stride and learned from it. I, of course, would buck the trend and go in the opposite direction just to irritate her.
And then there was “The Pink Carousel.” Thankfully, this moniker for her new beauty salon was only a “working title.” It was pink, yes. The entire exterior of the building was painted bright pink – by her design. There really was a carousel inside – not the carnival kind, just a circular ring of hairdressing stations, where stylists snipped and clipped and even waxed an occasional mustache or unibrow. To Marcella’s chagrin, the carousel only came in pale blue – no pink. Thus, “The Pink Carousel” became “Marcella’s House of Beauty” and it was a raving success.
Time brought changes: grandchildren, retirement, the loss of her Irish sailor. Friends passed away or moved, or worse, ended up in a “home.”
All the while, the beast lay in wait, eager for the time to come for its slow and methodical attack.
It began slowly at first. The beast crept up so slowly it was easy to blame the early memory lapses on stress or a bad night’s sleep, or just getting a little older. Maybe Ma’s not as sharp as she used to be but it could be the medication she’s taking. Getting confused in your 60s is normal, isn’t it?
As time progressed, Marcella remembered everything from way back, just not so much what happened yesterday or last week. She certainly had no trouble remembering my childhood transgressions, numerous and colorful as they were.
After a while, I learned to bring her back to her earlier years. In her distant past, she rooted out lost memories and found solace in remembering. This was a precious gift then. I would resurrect old stories of her youth, friends and relatives now lost, my own childhood antics.
“Ma, remember crazy Uncle Dickie and his dirty jokes?”
“Oh, oh, yes. When he was ‘feelin’ good.’” (She meant drunk.)
“Ma, remember when I powdered old Aunt Mary’s bedroom from floor to ceiling with her powder-puff when I was 6? “
“Oh, yes.” A lot of head shaking and disgust followed.
After a time, the present would creep up on her and she would fall back into the haze, staring into space, disconnected from me and from the rest of the world.
Alas, the beast kept on creeping, eating away at the memories and eventually at her ability to function independently. Simple tasks like dialing the telephone became monumentally confusing. But surely, we all thought, she would get better. She was strong, a fighter to the core. Sadly, getting better was not to be.
The day came at last when the ugly truth had to be stared in the face. Marcella could no longer live on her own. She was placed in a lovely facility with beautiful landscaping and lush gardens outside. Wonderful strangers cared for her – strangers in a strange place.
After visiting, I would have to close the “outer door” in her face in order to keep her safely locked in her “ward.” This was necessary to prevent her from wandering off. Sometimes, I think now that maybe it would have been better to let her wander off somewhere, safely locked in her own mind instead of locked in a ward of horrors.
By the end, recognition had gone. Her black eyes, once so sharp and lively, looked at me as if at a stranger. My touch caused her to shrink away. My kiss on her dry cheek made her recoil. Somehow, I knew, though, she knew me, her daughter, and knew I was there with her.
Marcella slipped away quietly in her sleep one night. The beast had stolen her mind, but not her spirit. I feel her with me often (especially when I am doing something she would disapprove of).
With ongoing research into the prevention and cure of Alzheimer’s, let us hope that this beast will be slain and will never again steal another mind.
Susan Gallagher lives in North Berwick.