Thank you Mom, For the Love of Words
For Mother's Day this year, I am sharing a piece about my mom. It's a bit longer than my usual blog but I hope you'll appreciate why after reading it. For anyone dealing with Alzheimer's Disease in your family, my heart goes out to you, it is a terrible disease that robs you of your loved one much too soon......
My mom was a wordsmith. Until Alzheimer's stole her vocabulary.
She had a passion for words and language. She loved the sound of words and how they rhymed. She wrote poems on special occasions for her friends and family. They were corny or funny but always personal. She had a quick wit and enjoyed making people laugh, often using puns. Nothing like a good play on words for a word nerd. She encouraged us to expand our vocabulary and explore new words. She even invented spelling games for us to practice in the car.
My mother loved music and the lyrics of her favourite songs. She also loved musicals. I vividly remember her singing along to the radio in our kitchen, dancing and smiling while making tea. She sang loudly with a big smile on her face. The joy emanated from her as she sang, even though it was often a little off-key. Many of her favourite songs narrated the soundtrack of her life.
As a faithful letter writer to her friends, she could be seen sitting at her dining room table, looking out over her garden and bird feeders, writing. She had beautiful handwriting. She loved to tell stories, with a wonderful imagination and the passion to create. The Bible, with its rich history and wonderful stories of people, was her favourite book.
My mom also loved a good story and would read to us as children, cuddled into our beds at night, freshly bathed and smelling of shampoo and soap. She would delight in reading any kind of story that sparked her imagination. Her eyes twinkled as she enjoyed the play of words revealing different worlds and characters as they came to life in our minds. As a teenager, I would lie awake in bed and read to myself, often well after my light was supposed to be turned out, then tired at school the next day because a book kept me riveted until the wee hours of the night, turning page after page to reveal the final ending of a mystery. I still read before bed, much to my husband's chagrin as he attempts to sleep with the light glowing from my side of the bed. And I love to curl up with a good book on a rainy afternoon, cuddled into my pillows and blankets with my steaming cup of tea, and the cat on my lap, becoming lost in the world of a great story.
As my mother's Alzheimer's disease became apparent, I first saw evidence of it in the tiny errors she would quickly explain away. Perhaps an error in the time of an invitation, the location of an event, or the simple details of a story or task. A name forgotten, a meal missed, or an event misremembered. She often brushed aside these foibles, explaining that she was tired, overwhelmed by work, or wasn’t paying attention. Or she became angry at the correction stating she did indeed remember but the error must be ours. Sometimes we thought she was being lazy in only remembering what was important to her and conveniently forgetting everything else.
A game of Scrabble brought my fears screeching to the front of my brain one day. My mom loved the game and she was ruthless in trying to find the longest word she could make with her letters, with the highest score for a word on the board. We were sitting at my dining room table on a cool, rainy day, enjoying a cup of tea together and decided to play it together. We drew our letters out of the bag and set up the board. She prepared to go first as I gathered the tea and toast in the kitchen. She pondered a long time, certainly longer than usual. I figured she was creating a spectacular word to score huge points to start the game. Normally not competitive, she played a mean game of Scrabble! And she always beat me although not by much.
However, when she finally laid down her tiles on the board I was shocked to see the word she had pondered for so long was ‘cat’. “Mom, is that your word?” I asked in disbelief. She looked up at me with wide eyes and a face of confusion. “It is a word, isn’t it?”, she said. I quickly reassured her that cat was indeed a word, albeit short, certainly a game killer. I sat down at the table and with tears in my eyes, I tried to continue the game. It was quickly evident she could not go much further in her quest for words. The look of confusion on her face as she stared at her letters broke my heart. I gently suggested we stop playing and sit on the porch to watch the birds instead. A look of relief flooded her entire body as she relaxed and smiled. It was the last time we played together. Her descent into Alzheimer's before only surmised, was evident now.
As her disease progressed she started to gradually lose her words and her expressions. Her speech became more halted. Her language was more limited. She would start a sentence and then stop, wave her hand expansively, and with tears in her eyes say, ‘You know’ and I would nod my head and say, ‘Yes, I know’. And we would carry on.
Not being able to express herself with words must have been frustrating and heartbreaking for her. As her daughter who loved to share words with her, it broke my heart to see her lose the gift she enjoyed so much.
One day, when cleaning out her room, I found little scraps of paper everywhere. In the drawers, under the bed, in her wallet, jewelry box and tucked into books was evidence of her attempts to keep her words when she knew they were failing. The handwriting was shaky, uneven, and sometimes scribbled, not the lovely penmanship of my mother. They were little notes to herself. Reminders of who was related to whom. Valiant attempts at spelling common words. Hints of memory loss. Names and dates were written together in an attempt to retain important details. Each little paper scrap proved a piece of her memory fading as she struggled to remember a life richly lived.
In her last days, years later, she didn’t speak. Couldn’t speak. There were no words. She was unable to share ideas, discuss events, or sing the songs she loved so much.
I cannot imagine the devastating inability to share thoughts, ideas, and feelings with the world around me. She became socially trapped by her lack of communication. Like a songbird who has lost her song, she was a writer who had lost her words.
But she still loved hearing words. The gift of music allowed her to remember some small sliver of her life as expressed in the sounds and words surrounding her when music played. She would quietly try to hum along, tap her toe, and smile. Staring out from vacant eyes, upon a scene only she could see, she would relax, smile and enjoy the words.
During our visits, I would often take her out to walk in the neighbourhood and surrounding gardens. I would talk to her as if she could still understand everything being said. It was usually a casual, running dialogue about what we could see, hear, or feel as we walked along the stone pathway. Sometimes it was descriptions of my day, what the kids were doing at school, my time at work, friend updates, or a recent vacation time. But they were one-way conversations without any evidence of comprehension, leaving me sad about the loss of the woman I once knew.
There were occasional glimmers of the mom I remembered, glimpsed behind the veil of her disease. One day as we were walking in the garden, we shared a moment of connection. A rare gift at that time. Walking slowly beside her, holding her elbow while she shuffled along beside me, slightly stooped, she appeared oblivious to our surroundings. I described the flowers we passed, commenting on their colour, texture, and smell. I reminded her of her gardens and the flowers that she loved, speaking of my memories in hopes that she could also remember them through my descriptions.
Suddenly, she stopped walking, turned her face towards me, stared intently into my eyes, and lifted her hand gently to my cheek. “Baby,” she said, with a tear in her eye and a slight smile on her lips. “Yes, mom.” I whispered, with tears in my eyes “I am your baby”. In that brief, small moment, I saw her. My mother. She saw me. Her child. We connected. It was the last word I ever heard her speak. Only one word. But it was enough.
It was her last gift to me.
Thanks to my mom, I love words and the way they sound, and the images they paint in my mind, crafting them into a visual tapestry for the mind. Today I still read voraciously, with a current stack of books beside my bed and a shiny new book reader for travel. I’m told my penmanship resembles my mother's, genetics is funny that way. I love a great story although my poetry skills are somewhat lacking. But most of all I am grateful for the love of words that was her lasting gift to me. Her legacy will be her love of words and her passion for the language she instilled in me.
And I can play a mean game of Scrabble.
Thank you, Mom. Love ‘baby’.