What’s Left After the Mind Dissolves

by Rachel Creager Ireland

The kids are back in school, and I have whole mornings in front of me, days at a time, so I’ve been spending more time at the computer, but I’m not finding in myself the slightest desire to write. The book is done (except for that one tiny little thing, and the one tiny little thing I’ll think of as soon as I do the previous one tiny little thing), and I’ve been doing the (not) surprisingly time-consuming tasks one must do when self-publishing. But I’d hate to for you all to go without something to read for yet another weekend, so here’s a little something I’d been meaning to put up one of these days. I wrote it several years ago to submit to some free magazine who never replied, and though it’s not my most searing truth in this present moment, I can’t find anything I disagree with.

I should note that my mom has been gone now for almost three years. She was obviously still living when I wrote this.

Leona Creager, at the nursing home where she lived her last few years.

My mom has Alzheimer’s disease. She’s had it for many years, starting long before we even suspected a problem. It began with forgetting the names of people she didn’t like. She did that for years, while functioning otherwise as a very normal, capable, highly intelligent and organized person. Then it was names of anyone, including people she did like, tasks she didn’t want to do, tasks she intended to do whether she wanted to do them or not, and it went on from there.

For a long time she could cover quite skillfully. She was probably doing it longer than we thought. She could rationalize any strange thought, make polite conversation by asking questions of a person, fabricate entire stories about a past no one really could verify anyway. Sometimes she had an uncanny knack of giving me the advice I needed to hear, as if our mother-daughter roles had not come to a reversal, as if she had any idea what she was even talking about. One time I went to her house, troubled about I don’t even remember what now, and out of nowhere she said, “I used to think that I needed to be what other people wanted me to be, then I learned that I just need to be what I want to be.” It was startlingly applicable to the moment.

As of this writing, she barely talks. I don’t remember the last time she addressed me, or anyone else, by name. A year ago, when asked to sign her own name on a birthday card for one of the other residents of the facility in which she lives, she struggled for several minutes, fretting, writing a letter every now and then, pausing to think, and in the end what she wrote, instead of “Leona Creager,” was “Loner.”

And this is how this disease works. Like a moth-damaged sweater, barely perceptible holes grow until you can put a finger through, then you notice more holes, then the fibers lose all integrity and the whole thing falls apart. Along the way, there’s this interminable period of dissipation. Memories disappear, vocabulary disappears, the conceptual framework that one uses to define one’s world disappears.

For many people with Alzheimer’s, there’s a period of anxiety and paranoia. Some spend entire days looking for things, without any idea what it is that’s missing. Some think people are stealing from them. My mom would go on long rants about my brother’s wife’s father, or about a colleague of my Dad’s at a University where he was a professor forty years ago. I’m sure this is a result of losing one’s mind, literally, but I also can’t help but think that, for my mom, it is an old habit revealed, like the bedrock left after vegetation dies and topsoil washes away. She was a critical thinker, exceptionally skilled, even wise, at seeing through people’s motives. She had worked in advertising, and would automatically point out whose interests were served by any ad she saw. So, to me, it appeared that as other aspects of her personality dissolved away, what was left was paranoia.

Watching this process, I wonder, what of me will be revealed as the landscape of my mind erodes away?  Who will I be, when I can no longer remember my name? What habits am I quietly cultivating today that will scream out their presence in the absence of personality?

Let’s assume we have a choice. There was a period when I used to think, if I practice it a lot now, when I’m losing it I can slip into an obscenely vulgar ditty I heard on a cassette tape my husband bought at a truck stop once. That’s just my absurd sense of humor. It would be a joke that even I would be too demented to get.

Maybe because I’m past forty now, I feel a need to get down to business and pick something real. What idea or concept is worth making so much a part of my life that it becomes my most enduring nature? If I could choose my last words, what would they be? If I had to distill everything I believe and stand for down to one word, how could that be possible? Is there one word that could speak to any moment, any person, any time? That could stand the test of interpretation? One word that, whatever one might say about it, can, when spoken alone, speak for itself?

What one word could I begin today to meditate upon, to repeat to myself before I fall asleep at night, to speak aloud often enough to engrave it upon the bedrock of my being?

The only word I ever come up with is PEACE. And boy, do I have a lot of work to do. I better start right now.