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Losing Mom, too young, to Alzheimer's

When she was only 56, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She immediately became a student of the disease. She had been an English-as-a-second-language teacher and found herself giving tests over again to her classes, not remembering having given them the day before. That experience and a fateful trip to the supermarket were the tip-offs that something was seriously wrong.

Mom went shopping one afternoon. The fact that she may or may not have been able to find her car immediately was no big deal. Did she wander, lost? Who knows?

This particular day she loaded her groceries into the trunk, but by the time she got home, Mom had totally forgotten that she had shopped. In fact, she settled into her after-school routine, making dinner, thinking she needed things and would have to make a list. She taught at school the next day, staying a little late no doubt to give extra help to students. When she left school, she thought she had better buy some items for dinner. She had no recollection of shopping the previous day.

After filling her cart once again with groceries, my mother walked to her car and opened the trunk. There was all the food from the day before. Mom's heart leapt into her throat! How could she have forgotten so easily?

She knew the devastating signs immediately. Mom was no stranger to the disease. It had eaten away at her mother's life, and now she was on the brink of the same diagnosis.

I marvel still at her courage and perseverance in the face of such a debilitating illness, knowing that it robs every last shred of dignity and confidence. It was terrifying to feel her basic life skills being slowly stripped from her grasp.

Mom graduated top of her class in high school and college and had earned a master's degree. She was an inspiring and life-changing ESL teacher, the first female trustee in our hometown, PTA president, a gifted pianist, a devoted wife and a loving mother. She was active in church and her community and impacted countless people in her short, active life. First and foremost, she loved her family -- especially her children and grandchildren. In difficult times, she was the glue that kept our family together and the one who valued relationships more than life itself.

At first, she was very high-functioning, saying "that darn Alzheimer's" anytime she forgot something. As time went on, she sat in her wheelchair, bewildered. In the end, we took her around her nursing home on a rolling recliner.

In the beginning, Mom had trouble putting words together. Eventually, she was unable to speak at all. The last few years, she was unable to feed herself or take care of daily necessities. We watched desperately as our beloved mom slipped away. Her mind deteriorated until there was no one behind those dark brown eyes, and we mourned her passing over the 20 years that she suffered from the disease. It was a long, painful journey that ripped our family apart.

Consequently, as our sons became teenagers, I couldn't call saying, "Mom, I need your advice!" I couldn't glean from a loving mom the fine points of mothering, or share the wise counsel of someone who cared about and understood the fragility of family relationships. How I longed to hear her reminding me, "There is justice! History repeats itself!"

No doubt, she is smiling now as each grandchild accomplishes something wonderful, overcomes an obstacle, ties the knot, or welcomes a newborn that would be her great-grandchild. I picture her rejoicing with each proud moment, lamenting every falling tear, comforting us all from afar. Her spirit lives on through the generations in each little kindness, every caring word, each courtesy given and in hands extended in warm welcome.

I imagine Mom, radiant and beautiful, happy and free of the chains of Alzheimer's, still teaching me how to live and to love my family, and reminding me that being a mother is a privilege -- and one of the things she did best.

Loving her family was her gift and legacy.