When my Mother died, she had her brain autopsied.  This is not customary, even in cases of extreme cancer, such as she had.  She had been part of a long-term brain study and the last piece of the study for any participant was to agree to have this procedure done upon death.  I knew about it on a surface level, but when she died, it was the farthest thing from my mind.  Fortunately, E-Bro knew what needed to be done and did it – putting ice packs around and behind her head until the funeral home people came to take her away.  I assume that E-Bro then gave them some instructions, but after helping get her into the body bag, I really lost track of everything.

All maudlinity (yes, thanks, it’s my own word) aside, this brain autopsy showed that she had Stage 4 Alzheimer’s Disease.  Alzheimer’s has 7 defined stages; Stage 4 is considered to be mild or early-stage.  In this stage, according to the Alzheimer’s Association website, symptoms may include:

  • Forgetfulness of recent events
  • Impaired ability to perform challenging mental arithmetic — for example, counting backward from 100 by 7s (hmm, could I do that now?)
  • Greater difficulty performing complex tasks, such as planning dinner for guests, paying bills or managing finances
  • Forgetfulness about one’s own personal history
  • Becoming moody or withdrawn, especially in socially or mentally challenging situations

My Mother didn’t really have any of these.  A couple of months before she died, we noticed a few things – she would forget what color piece she was in Parcheesi or something like that, but we’d laugh about it.  We both figured it was just a matter of normal aging.  She lived for three months after her massive cancer diagnosis, and it wasn’t really until the last few weeks that I noticed something odd.  I remember us discussing if perhaps the cancer had spread to her brain.  We both considered it a possibility, but decided there was no point in finding out.  It didn’t matter.

In hindsight, I can see that all of things we laughed at and thought might be brain cancer were symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  Due to her excellent mental hygiene, we never even considered it.  My Mother was an insatiable reader and never failed to do the crossword puzzles in every paper.  She was one of those people who could do the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink.  She also kept a journal every day for decades.  She noted conversations she had, what she did, what we kids did, what she ate, thoughts, appointments.  She made a point of remembering everything.  She was always learning, keeping her brain fresh.  This is one of the things I’ve heard – that keeping your brain awake and buzzing keeps things like Alzheimer’s and dementia at bay.  I hope that’s true – I wonder what the rate of Alzheimer’s is among writers?

Well, as you’d imagine, my Mother’s diagnosis is a concern for me.  I had a mild closed-head injury many years ago, and after that, I went through a long period of forgetfulness, and an occasional inability to remember words.  I would look for a word in my head and it was like someone had literally erased the word from the blackboard on which my brain kept it written.  That improved over time, but I’ve noticed myself being more and more forgetful over the last two years.  I am assuming that it is stress – the same thing that’s made me put on weight and get depressed.  But with my Mother’s diagnosis, as I say, I wonder.

I’m not concerned enough to get myself tested for the Alzheimer’s gene.  I need to be doing all the same things to keep my brain sparking, regardless of whether I have the gene or not.  I would hope no one would make a decision to be or not be with me based on my having the gene.  So there’s really no point.  Is there?

The thing that disturbs me the most about the possibility of developing Alzheimer’s is the pain it causes the people you love.  I can’t imagine not being able to remember Kelsea.  What would that feel like for her?  We’ve actually talked about this, and I’ve told her that if it ever happens to me, to just remember that I’m in there somewhere, knowing and loving her until (and past) my last breath.

I’ve recently become fond of the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy”.  One of the characters on the show is in a similar position, although her Mother’s Alzheimer’s was much more severe than my Mother’s was (and she’s fictional).  But in a scene the other night, when she was searching her bag for the house keys that were in her hand, I was reminded of myself. 

And I felt a light chill.