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Slowly Saying Goodbye to My Mother: An Alzheimer’s Story

Monday, November 28, 2022

By Kathleen Perkal

“Red. Seven. Bananas,” the neurologist said. “Joan, these are just random words that I will ask you to repeat in a few minutes.”

My sister Colleen and I flanked our mother, shoulder to shoulder, in front of the doctor’s desk. Mom’s memory was becoming unreliable. Her system of turning her medication bottles upside down, as a reminder that she had already taken them, became confusing as she tried to remember which end was the indicator.

After the neurologist’s visit, when we were back in the car, Mom was seething. She blamed the doctor for the diagnosis. After all, she had been able to recite her address, name the nation’s current president, and her birth date. “Those meaningless words weren’t fair. I only missed one!” she fumed.

I recalled a time when she told me that she didn’t know which affliction she would eventually die from, but that she was grateful Alzheimer’s did not run in our family.

Back at her place, I was thumbing through some mail. She had forgotten to put stamps on a few envelopes that were returned. Then, as I opened her bills, I saw that outstanding balances were beginning to pile up. I broached the subject gently. “Mom, you are so busy these days. Why don’t I help with paying your bills?”

“I am doing just fine,” she said. “If you could just help me with this one thing, I will be back on track.” She opened her checkbook. The register was filled in, with checks that had been written, but numbers were missing. It was nearly impossible to figure out which line items had been subtracted and which had accidentally been added to the running register.

When I did eventually take over the finances, she called one of my brothers, and said, “Kathleen took all of my money.” I was her first-born, her trusted daughter, yet she could not comprehend that I was helping and not hurting.

The heartbreak over what she had lost, and for what she would continue to lose, was excruciating to watch. Our fun, vibrant, up-for-anything mom—the one that all my girlfriends wanted to hang with—was powerless against the force that was robbing her of cogent thoughts and meaningful moments.

It had only been two years since she had devised a plan to minimize the habit of repeating herself, an early sign that there was something amiss. She had come for a visit, and within minutes, launched into a story. I mentioned that I had already heard that one. She accused me of being harsh, but quickly added that she really didn’t want to be repeating herself. Instead of calling her out, she asked me to give her a sign—to hold my hand to my head, almost like a salute.

Our fun, vibrant, up-for-anything mom—the one that all my girlfriends wanted to hang with—was powerless against the force that was robbing her of cogent thoughts and meaningful moments.

What fun we had. For days after that, she would start to repeat a story. I would smile and bring my hand to my forehead. She would burst out laughing, and then we would both be roaring. Her plan had worked!

Until one day, it did not. She had been away for a few days, and upon returning, she started to tell a story for the second time in a half-hour span. I smiled and held my hand to my forehead. She looked at me like I was slightly crackers.

I said, “Mom! This is the sign you gave me for when you are repeating a story.” The slow recognition of our agreement crept across her face. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I guess the signal only works when I can remember it.” Joyous laughter, once again, filled the room.

Her story about coming up with the sign and forgetting the sign became the hit anecdote of dinners with her friends, as each elder silently willed away their own fears of dementia with laughter.

I smiled as I recollected those earlier days of the disease—when we were hopeful that she was just an older person with memory struggles. But now had confirmation from the neurologist that she was indeed losing it. We never called it “Alzheimer’s” when we spoke to her; we glossed over the diagnosis, so as not to frighten her.

One afternoon, sitting on her sofa, surrounded by mostly women in varying stages of dementia, she whispered in my ear, “Kathleen, there is something wrong with me.”

I swallowed the lump that had lodged in my throat, and said, “Mom, you have some short-term memory loss.”

But, she was adamant, “Kathleen, there is short-term memory loss, and there is not knowing what is going on.” I swallowed again. “That’s what I have.”

I held her thin, veiny hand in mine, kissed her cheek and whispered, “It’s okay, Mom.”

For five years, we watched her brain atrophy in slow motion—from the forgetfulness, to the inability to dress herself, to the ever-present agitation and anxiety. Although the disease did its best to rob her of her personality—the grace, humor, and kindness that were hallmarks of her disposition won out.

When I can’t remember the name of a particular restaurant, or the word for a sofa that you can recline on, I feel a momentary panic about slipping down the scary slope of dementia. Mom had warded off her own fears by reasoning that her mom never got it.

I don’t have that luxury.


Kathleen Perkal writes short essays about big topics. She was voted Readers’ Favorite in the Inspired Writers Contest on Medium in July 2022. She is a published ghostwriter, which is almost as good as being a published writer, except there is none of the glory. She is also the Founder of Cartoon Cuts, the nation’s oldest chain of kids’ hair salons. She resides in NYC and Fort Lauderdale.