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Paradise Re-Found

For most of the  past week my mother sat on the front porch in a rocker and stared out at her beloved ocean.  She said "beautiful" a lot.  Last year's word was "gorgeous."  I don't remember if she had a word the first year we spent time together on Cuttyhunk Island.  She had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and pronoucned unable to live alone; my sisters and I had emptied her house, moved her into assisted living, sold her residence while furnishing the second-- and then I had gone along to stay with her in the house she had rented for many many years.

She had taken the house for her usual three weeks but when we explained the owner what had recently happened, she generously let us cut it back to a week; none of us was sure how it would go.  My mother and I had had, to put it mildly, a fractious relationship for as long as I can remember (infancy?) and while I was willing to go and care and cook for her, see she took her meds, keep her from wandering, falling, sinking into depression, I thought three weeks would be two weeks too much.  Besides, I had a daughter to care for and a home that was, since my divorce that winter, mine alone.

The week went fairly well with her only blowing up at me three or four times.

The next summer went far better, even though I shared the cottage with a new husband as well as my mother and we quickly discovered that the house, charming as it was, could simply not hold three large adult persons with large adult personalities. 

And then this summer, with her eightieth birthday nearing, we decided to take a larger house, bring as much family as it could hold, and spend the week being as festive as possible.

The weather held, the party went off without a hitch, my sisters were there, my daughter, my nephew, my mother's sister and her husband, my mother's best friend and her husband and daughter.... everything fell into place.  Even my father, who owns a house on the island but has been separated or divorced from my mother for thirty years, came with his second wife.   My mother rose to the occasion and even made a small speech.  She drank far too much but then she always has and once the diagnosis was confirmed she saw even less reason to stop.

Interestingly, even with her continued drinking, my mother's difficult personality has measurably softened over the years since her diagnosis.  She has become voluble in expressing her love (which she never had before), lost much of her selfishness and self-absorption, and become incredibly generous of spirit and pocketbook (not her strong suit).  It's such an odd turnaround, especially as I have heard countless stories of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's becoming coarse, angry, mean, rude, difficult.  But my mother has become almost a different person.  I am still getting used to her, even as her memory and function fades evermore.

The week this year was  even busier than usual and quite stressful emotionally and physically, and I don't quite look forward to next year-- even though I adore Cuttyhunk and have been visiting the island myself, with boyfriends, husbands, childrend and friends for twenty eight years. Yet, I know that if my mother is up for it, if her condidtion has not further deteriorated, I will once again drive up up from Virginia with my husband, and, I hope my daughter, and we will all will trek groceries and luggage out to the ferry, climb aboard and take the forty five minute ride to what remains, even with the new and difficult memories, a certain kind of paradise for me.

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Alzheimer's is a terrible disease. When my father and I were dealing with his mother's illness, the running joke was always "When I get Alzheimer's, remind me to kill myself." I guess we have dark senses of humor. Unfortunately, I only really dealt with my grandmother when she was very deep into the disease—she lived with it for over fifteen years. From the time I was seven or eight she had no idea who I was and could barely speak, but little glimmers of the wonderful woman she was would occasionally shine through.

You are very lucky that you are getting to spend this time with your mother while she is still here, and even better that the differences between you are growing less important and divisive. Time with our loved ones and family is precious, and short. Thanks for writing.

-Max Sindell, Red Room

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you and your mother

oh, sure. all about you.

i would like, gentle reader, to inform you that this week on the island would not have been possible without the unnamed "new husband."

Michael, you turned what could have been a horrow show at times into a bearable and even occasionally enjoyable experience. you were always there, always willing to listen to my mother, to sit with her on the porch and give us a break from the never-ending vigilance. and you did it all graciously, with a smile. perhaps it was just the southern gentleman in you rising to the occasion, but whatever the cause, the result was the same.

i thank you.


one of the unnamed sisters