Losing My Mother, One Memory at a Time

My mother holds a yellowed newspaper clipping in her hand as she answers the door. She stands wide-eyed looking at her grandson and says, “Are you Jesse?”

“Yes, Grandma, I am.”

She lets us in, hugs us, and thrusts the newspaper clipping into my hand. It is an article from a 1969 edition of the Detroit Free Press about her father’s retirement. “I thought you’d want to see this,” she says.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that and I do want to see it, but I want to see you, too,” I say. “How are you?”

“Well, I’m fine,” she says. “Here’s a picture of Chuck’s daughter Barbara. I wish you could meet her sometime.”

“I know Barbara,” I say. “She’s my step-sister. I’ve met her many times.”

“You have?”

“Yes, I think the first time I met her was thirty years ago when you and Chuck were married.”

“I don’t remember that,” she says.

“It’s okay, Mom,” I say, “It’s hard to remember a lot of things.”

It isn’t just hard for her to remember a lot of things; it’s impossible. But she still remembers me, which feels like a sort of grace. I glance at the article about my grandfather and my mother sees me looking at it. “I thought you’d be interested in that,” she says. “It’s about my father.”

“I know . . . he was my grandfather.”

“He was?”

“Yes, I’m your son so your father was my grandfather.”

She pauses for a moment but this information doesn’t sink in. A sort of non-stick surface has coated her brain. “Have you seen this picture of Chuck’s daughter Barbara?”

Chuck interrupts from across the room. “They’ve seen the picture.” He slides his glasses down his nose so he can see over the top of them and starts fiddling with a remote control. “These damn things don’t work right,” he says, and I’m not sure if he’s talking about his eyes, his glasses, or the remote. He has six remotes in the living room—one for each of the three television sets, and one each for the VCR, DVD, and cable box.

“Bet I could sort those out for you,” Jesse says.

“Bet you can’t,” Chuck answers. While they are engaged with the remotes, my mom slips out of the room and returns carrying a photo album.

“I thought you’d like to look at this,” she says. My wife, my mother, and I sit together on the couch looking at the photos.

“Do you look at these often?” Gretchen asks.

“Yes, they help me remember.”

Memory. Memory is sacred. So much of the Bible is about memory. “Remember the Sabbath.” “Remember the wonderful works God has done.” “Do this in remembrance of me.” What does it mean when you can’t remember any of those things?

“I’ll be damned,” Chuck says from across the room. All three TVs are on, along with the DVD player and VCR. “I didn’t think that was possible. Good job, Jesse.”

“There’s Jesse as a baby,” Gretchen says, “and there you are, Carol. You came to help me when Jesse was born.”

“I did? Well, I’m sure I was happy to do it . . . Oh, have you seen this article about my father?” “They’ve seen the article,” Chuck says.

“Or this picture of Chuck’s daughter Barbara? I sure wish you could meet her.”

“They know Barbara,” Chuck says. “Besides, they’re having dinner with Barbara tomorrow night. Speaking of dinner, we better get going. If we leave now we’ll be sure to get back in time for Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.”

We walk out the door and I’m not thinking about the article about my grandfather or meeting my step-sister. Instead I’m thinking about the Bible, and wondering if there is a verse that takes precedence over all those verses about memory. I’m drawn to Jesus saying, “Unless you change and become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Somehow my mother in the fog of Alzheimer’s is a sign of the kingdom. She is childlike. She isn’t unhappy or agitated. She trusts everything will be okay. And Chuck, who took me aside to tell me that caring for my mother gives him a purpose he’s searched his whole life for, is a sign of the kingdom, too. Though never a churchman, eighty-year-old Chuck has joined a Bible study and started attending worship regularly. Both give him nourishment for the journey he’s on.

I hate Alzheimer’s. I hate the robbery that has taken place. But the gospel says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Here and there, now and then, in the midst of this horrible affliction, I see those words are true.

Jeffrey Munroe is a minister in the Reformed Church in America and a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.