After a discussion with my wife regarding some of the aging research she was conducting, I became overwhelmed by the long list of horrible symptoms and conditions of early onset Alzheimer’s. Imagining the disease suddenly affecting a significant other hit me hard, and I couldn’t shake the idea of a couple close to retirement going through the ordeal.
I happened to be reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters at the time and knew I wanted to tell their story as an epistolary. I had also been mulling over how I might write a mystery as a journal from a father to his son. What follows is the result of the mix.
My dear Jeffrey,
I know you prefer e-mail correspondence, and that this letter will surely seem archaic or an old man’s whim. Simply, it is all I can bear to interact with at this moment.
My last contact with you feels as if it were years ago. I realize it has only been a few months. I write to you now with the hope that this, and any letters to follow, will enlighten you to the sickness I am now positive your mother endures and brings peace for myself in this realization.
To begin, I must start with what I’ve been learning to call the ‘first incidence’ or ‘onset’ of your mother’s disease. It happened in the early fall of last year, before I called the doctors and before difficult decisions had to be made.
Your mother and I were visiting the Lewistons, a younger couple we had been mentoring in our church group. It was a Sunday afternoon, and as we sat in their living room sipping tea and ruminating over the morning’s sermon on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I watched poor Eva’s eyes go blank. Her back straight, hands folded in her lap, she looked vacant of spirit. I thought nothing of it at first. As Mrs. Lewiston approached your mother’s favorite passage from Ephesians, Eva’s eyes relit and she returned to the discussion with vigor and the tenacity of the keen mind that I’m sure you place as one of the sterling traits of your mother.
Yet, this was not to be the last of these episodes. I blame myself for not recognizing the pattern more quickly. It all seems to ring of clarity in hindsight. The rate and ease with which I would dismiss her ‘blank look events’ did not occur to me as odd or even as a nuisance. Now, I wonder how long before I managed to make the connection that your mother had already come to realize what plagued her.
The hour draws late here. I must bring Eva her tea.
My son, I pray that even with the contents disclosed, this letter finds you well.
My dear Jeffrey,
Part of me regrets the choices I’ve been given to make. The other part of me trusts the Lord in the skills and intellect He has granted me, and what I must do with the tools provided. By no means do I expect now, or the events to come, to be easy. I’ve experienced the first blow in the battle for Eva’s mind. I still reel from it.
Your mother has said the Lord’s Prayer every night of her life since she could speak. In the forty years I’ve been blessed to call her my wife, not once has she faltered in either the words or the practice until a night now two months ago. Never has an absence of words caused such a fear in my heart. For it was at that point that each of your mother’s prior episodes came together and illuminated the truth with the bluntness that only reality can possess.
I slept not a moment that evening. Instead, I stared at Eva’s sleeping body and prayed for the restoration of her mind. I prayed that not another moment would be lost or forgotten. It was my greatest hope that a path would be made clear for us.
Your mother did not improve. The flurry of appointments, tests, and hospital interiors that followed were a hindrance at best, a tiring experience full of pain and doubt at worst. The last doctor, a young white-coat named Rajesh, told us that your mother had the symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s, but in reality, he could only call it “forgetfulness”—something about only being able to diagnose the disease via an autopsy. Eva squeezed my hand at the news. Dr. Raj, the name he asked that we call him, told us that we should expect many things, but he couldn’t say for sure when and what symptoms your mother would actually experience. Apparently, each person encounters Alzheimer’s differently because of its effect on the whole person, mind and body.
I didn’t want to know what an amyloid plaque was or how it corrupted the transfer of information in the brain, but I learned about it for Eva. We reviewed the brochures and websites together, but by that time, she had already lost the ability to process new memories. She could no longer learn. She did not remember Dr. Raj or any part of our visit with him. She asked me why we were leaving the hospital. I did not know that a simple question from my wife could bring me to an emotion so strong that I struggled to hold back tears—the thought of repeatedly explaining what was wrong to her picked at my sanity like a carrion bird.
I’ve been praying much more often, and calling out to Him for an answer. Not an answer as to why she’s been afflicted with this disease, but an answer of how to live with it, fight it, and defeat it.
Per Dr. Raj’s orders, I bought your mother crossword puzzle books, traveled to and from the hospital via different routes, took her to plays, square dances, even tried yoga, anything that was new, in the hopes of stimulating her neurons. Dr. Raj called it ‘lifestyle change’ said that what was good for the heart, was good for the mind. I don’t think it is working regarding her memory, but I do believe she is happier in her more lucid moments.
It is late again, and it is time for your mother’s tea. Please keep us in your prayers. She hasn’t forgotten you. She always asks where her baby boy is, how he’s doing, and when she will next see his handsome face.
I have not reminded her of why you are absent. Let me be clear that this is not out of shame on my part. Your mother simply won’t remember. If it is any consolation, I know why you did what you did. I respect you for standing up to a clear wrong. And it is good that you are not here as it is all I can do to get through each day. I dread the time that she will forget who I am, and I pray she doesn’t forget you. You have always been her greatest accomplishment.
Stay strong in your faith while you are there.
My dear Jeffrey,
I regret that your mother had an incident over this past weekend. She had been polishing the silverware and reordering the drawers when she must have found the keys to her car. I should have hid them. I should have sold the car already. But she found them.
My search for her began when I arrived home from the pharmacy to discover the Chevy absent from the driveway. Retracing her steps, I panicked. No one had seen her at the office building she used to manage. The old park where she took you to play, the same park where you told us you would be going away for a time, was empty. Even your studio (it’s now a lawyer’s office) didn’t show any signs of your mother. It wasn’t until I stopped at the A&P that the fine workers verified she had left the store an hour previously. I circled the area, scouring parking lots, alleys, everywhere. I finally remembered she had one of the on-call assistants that utilized GPS installed in her car. After half an hour on the phone with the company and the police, we were able to pinpoint her location over 70 miles away. Apparently, she got on the highway, forgot which exit to get off, and drove until she ran out of gas.
You can imagine how thankful I was to get her home and that she was safe. She had no recollection of going to the store or any part of the journey. I’ve taken the keys from her. Dr. Raj suggested replacing the keys with ones that don’t work, but I felt this too cruel. Your mother never quite took to driving as anything more than a necessity, so I don’t fear her sneaking out of the house. I’ve also handed in my notice at work regarding early retirement. It is best that I stay home with Eva now.
We still go on long walks in the mornings and afternoons. This stretch of sunny weather and an early spring has halted her depression. She points at the colorful flitting birds, laughs at the antics of squirrels, and still finds an easy affection for the tulips in the square downtown.
But it seems that there is always a price to be paid for this disease’s moments of apparent remission. Your mother has developed a twitch in her left eye and a great weakening of her overall endurance. She must nap often. When she wakes, she complains of tingling in a part of her body. One day it may be an elbow, the next it could be her foot. Even though Dr. Raj forecasted these symptoms, it is a much different experience living them. I suppose the day draws nearer when I must decide whether to hire a live-in nurse or to admit your mother to an assisted-living community. A collective tiredness grows within me, and I hate the part that longs for that day when someone else can take care of Eva.
Teatime is here once more. I’ve taken to reading the Bible to your mother at night after tea and biscuits. She falls asleep after a chapter. She falls asleep holding that photo of the three of us at your graduation. We both love you deeply.
My prayers and warmest regards for you.
My dear Jeffrey,
We have been continuing our mentoring sessions with the Lewistons upon one of your mother’s earliest requests. However, I suspect that yesterday’s visit will have been our last. To give them all due privacy, I will just say that Mr. and Mrs. Lewiston were relaying a matter of delicate and personal nature so that they could ask our advice. Your mother broke into a fit of laughter at the most inopportune time. She would not be quieted. Mr. Lewiston left the room while Mrs. Lewiston and I tried to distract a quite hysterical Eva. Thankfully, a rerun of an old TV show calmed her to a state as if nothing had happened.
Once home, I left your mother in the bedroom to call the florist. I wanted to get the Lewistons something for their trouble. It was the first time I felt embarrassed for your mother’s behavior. I know it wasn’t her fault, but I still held a responsibility for her actions. When I returned to the bedroom, Eva had changed into her bedclothes, her underwear on the outside. Unfortunately, the incident coincided with a moment of clarity. She didn’t understand what she had done. She kept asking what was wrong with her, why she couldn’t remember.
I had my wife back and all I could do was hold her as she cried. Through the tears, she asked about you, if we could visit you yet. And, as suddenly as it began, the reprieve ended. Eva returned to the grips of the disease.
This may be one of the reasons why I’ve opted to write to you with ink and paper. It provides a greater sense of permanence in this otherwise fleeting life, knowing that these words will exist long after your mother and I have passed.
Please pray that God grants me the will to be patient and kind, to your mother in particular, but also to all those that I meet. The weariness drags at me.
Teatime approaches once more. In love and hope, I pray you have peace.
My dear Jeffrey,
It appears as if your mother has acquired a stalker. The reasoning defies logic for sure, but I have never known Eva to be so excitable as she is now. Even with all the new traits opened in her by this disease, she has not approached this level of nervousness and paranoia before. It’s always in the afternoon or early evening that she spies this perpetrator. Sometimes it’s been outside the car, sometimes she sees him outside the house. I have yet to catch him but hope to in the hours to come.
We sit in the living room. I’ve returned it to a state you would find quite familiar were you thirty years younger. Your mother reclines stiffly in the old leather chair with the cracks on the armrests and padding almost completely collapsed. I imagine the only comfort it provides is an emotional familiarity. She nursed you, read you Dr. Seuss, rocked you to sleep, and cooed away the nightmares of your youth in that chair. She reads Jane Austen now, sometimes aloud, mostly with her finger scrolling across the page, a range of expressions running across her face. It is almost normal.
She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. It is shortly thereafter that I hear the scream. And your mother can scream. I run down the hallway to find her staring out the window in horror, pointing and shielding her face at the same time. I look out the window ready to hurl words and punches if need be. Nothing. No sign of man or beast not even the shadow of a tree. I step out and the shriek resounds once more. I rush in and see a face in the window. It is your mother’s reflection.
It takes an hour for her to settle. She falls into an uneasy sleep.
I call the doctor the next morning. Dr. Raj says it is as normal as any of the symptoms can be, and that it spurred by something called sundowning, where the afternoon light can cause disorientation and hallucinations. It is also an aspect of the forgetfulness. Apparently, she has forgotten her own face.
Sincerest apologies for the brevity of this letter, but my son, it has been a long day. I must prepare tea and get your mother to bed. I pray you are well.
My dear Jeffrey,
Eva has reverted to a childlike speech pattern. She bobs her head from side to side and asks for a C-O-K-E or runs and hides under the bed if she thinks a B-A-T-H is in her future. It is so disheartening an experience after some of her more ‘normal’ evenings. I wish it were a reversion, but I suppose it is as Dr. Raj says, “The natural progression of the disease.” There will be far fewer ‘normal’ times. Then there will be none at all. The prospect of such a day seemed so remote several months ago. It was hard to fathom the amount of despair I could feel just imagining that day. Now that it is almost a reality, it is only by God’s grace that I can even hold this pen to the page without faltering.
Occasionally, someone from church will stop by the house with a casserole or a note of inspiration. I am blessed when one of the young men or women from the congregation offers to fetch our groceries. These briefest of moments are the only social time allowed to me. I cannot, and will not, leave the house for long with your mother like this. I must portion and feed her all her meals and medications. Bathing is also something I’ve taken to providing for Eva. Some of her motor skills have decayed in such a way that she can no longer hold a bar of soap, and yet she can sit at the piano and play Bach’s Partitia #6 as if she were back in high school.
It is the first day of winter. Christmas is only a few days away. We have been blessed with many gifts, I feel horrible asking for more, and yet I still pray for the return of my wife.
You are in my thoughts and prayers every night. And I wish there was some greater, happier news to report to you. All I can offer is that our door is open, we are here, and the tea is hot.
My dear Jeffrey,
Your mother has passed the point at which I can soundly care for her. She no longer has basic control over her body’s functioning. Her speech has become a mix of gibberish and the German of her grandparents. Eva is not herself, not even a ghost of the woman I have known for so many years.
Yet the drive to the hospital is a study in opposites—a prayer answered. The sky burns blue. It is unseasonably warm, like winter has left without a trace. The windows are down. Your mother’s hair streams in the wind. A smile taps the sides of her mouth until I see the woman she was.
I recall how I raced a friend’s Mustang north on Highway One, past sand dunes, avocado fields, and the great silver green of the Pacific. The sunset lit Eva’s long blonde curls like banners of gold. Her face blended in a mixture of laughter, delight, and an overwhelming calm. She held the camera beneath the rearview to produce blurred pictures of the happiest moment of my life, the day she told me you were joining our family.
We stop at a red light on Division. The record store on the corner has Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” blaring through its outdoor speakers. Eva perks at the lyrics. It is like we are back on the PCH. “Why are we going to the hospital?” she asks.
I tell her everything I can in the span of two and a half minutes. I see the same mixture of emotions animate her now as they did so long ago. She holds my hand and whispers a question in my ear. I nod. She leans back as the song ends. Her last words are, “Es ist nicht deine Schuld.” Though I know it isn’t my fault, I still fall under its burden.
Your mother returns to slouching in her seat with hands folded in her lap. She looks once more with blank eyes out the windshield.
We get to the hospital and Dr. Raj recommends a community for her that isn’t far from the house. They will move her there tomorrow. I sign pages and pages of paperwork. They ask me if I want to stay. I know I will feel guilty, but I decline to sleep on a cot in her room.
Home is empty. I do dishes, laundry, and put away all the linens from your mother’s convalescence. It is quiet. My prayers are that of a tired old man. I lie in bed and feel as if a great weight has been lifted from my body, so much so that an ache works its way over me. I stare at the shadows on the ceiling and realize that this is what my life will be for God knows how long, an empty bed and pictures of the past.
I walk in darkness to the kitchen and make tea just to feel the heat of the steam as I pour water into a mug. My back resting against the counter, I sip the bitter blend. The tap of my wedding ring against the ceramic brings me back from thoughts no man should have.
I go to your old room and retrieve a box from the closet. Inside, I find the answer to the question your mother asked me in the car. It is perfectly wrapped, just as it was perfectly crafted.
The repetition of Psalm 23 settles the tremors in my hands, and eventually settles the ache in my body. I leave you with the glimmer of hope that I see now. Prayers and love, my son.
My dear Jeffrey,
The funeral is today. Wish you could be here, son.
Even in the end, she asked where she could find her baby boy. They were the only intelligible words she had muttered in days. We drank tea in a sitting room at the back of the hospice. She didn’t recognize me. I told her I was just another resident. I served her tea one last time in that mug you made in high school, the one with the pretty raku glaze. I’m sure you remember that bright blue just like you remember how she lauded you for your craftsmanship and artist’s eye. Thank you for bringing a smile to her lips. Thank you for the instructions in the mug’s proper use. And thank God for the man you have become.
Pastor John came in the evening to pray over both of us. Your mother went quietly in the night. She is at peace.
After more paperwork, I made the short drive home. I didn’t think the house could feel more empty, but it does. Days and nights blend together. I look at the mug you made, I’ve set it in the middle of the kitchen table. I don’t know if it’s a reminder of your mother’s last day, her love for you, or something beyond the reach of my mind.
Your instructions regarding the mug were quite clear. And I want to ignore them. I want to drink from it. I want to see your mother again.