For the last couple of months, ChicagoNow has held a Blogapalooza. Bloggers are given a topic and have one hour to file a post on that topic. And the topic is: Write about a great challenge faced. By you. By someone else.
And so tonight, I write about dying with grace after fighting a disease. This story is about my Mom. What does this have to do with education? Not much? In the end, I wonder how much learning and thinking it will take to dodge Alzheimer’s—if I ever genetically can. But, I can still admire my mom’s grit, persistence, and resilience. Alzheimer’s was not going to take her down without a fight.
My mom was not a highly educated person. She graduated high school in 1952. She went to college for two years at Navy Pier and then she met my Dad, quit, married him and raised a family.
End of story? No. She went back to school when I was 18 which made her 51 and graduated at 53. This time, she made sure that she got a diploma.
Ten years after she graduated, she was diagnosed with dementia. Kicking and screaming, she fought the disease in any way she could. And we, her family watched. First in horror and then with admiration.
My mom was a warrior. She was persistent and was not going to give up—to anyone or anything. It was a long haul.
The first phase. Imagine being asked to draw a clock by a neurologist and not being able to do that. Not being able to order the numbers by the hours in the day. Imagine being carted off to a biweekly class with others diagnosed with dementia where the teacher asked about current events. Imagine remaining silent. What year? What week? What day? Through it all, my mom gritted her teeth and attended. And even made a friend until…my mom got lost and couldn’t find her home. Picked up by a real estate broker and brought to the police station, smiling. “Surely officer, there must be some mistake…”
The second phase: Imagine being unable to fold a napkin, name the President, or tell a social worker what day of the week it was. Averting the social worker’s gaze, my mom accepted her fate and stoically entered a nursing home.
The third phase: the story goes on and on and on. She tells her peer during dinner. “You grew up in Morton Grove. So did I. I did. Morton Grove was a fine town.” And then again, “you grew in Morton Grove. So did I. Morton Grove was a fine town.” The tape would rewind and rewind. “Cousin Jackie died.” My mom would tear up. “Cousin Jackie died.”
I learned to appreciate the little things with my mom. A quiet breeze. She used a Yiddish term: “Mihaya.” A Hebrew chant. My mom loved to sing. Singing was the last thing to go. She sang even after she stopped talking. It was automatic.
Clinically, I wondered what she understood. How the plaque was eating at her brain.
Some people get angry when they are afflicted with the disease. My mom rarely did. She just smiled. Even at the end, she smiled as her family gathered around her. As the harpist played and we cried. Till the will to live left her. Nearly ten years later.
My mom faced death much like she faced life. She was not a quitter.
Lesson learned: grit pays off in any context.