To her, I am a perpetual student. I was still in high school when her Alzheimer’s picked up its pace. While I was in college, I was able to deflect the question. She asked me what classes I liked and when I was going to graduate. I let myself believe that she understood that I was in college. In the back of my mind, I knew that wasn’t the case. Still, I pushed it to the back of my mind.
After graduation, it wasn’t so easy. Each time she asked, I had to tell her that I already graduated college with a business degree. I took a job at a bank. She sits there in silence when I tell her this. I try to imagine the feeling. The current date in her mind is different from the date in the real world. Our time flies by—a new day with every sunrise. Hers stays the same—or fades even further back with time.
I try to listen to her carefully for clues. If I get enough clues, I can figure out what day she thinks it is. References to events, political figures, wars, family members, births, and deaths. Each reference is a clue. Some narrow it down to a decade. Some narrow it down to a year or month. If I can narrow it down enough, I mark it down in my booklet.
I’ve been doing this for five years so far. It started off as a way to get to know my grandmother better before she passed. It’s been that, too. But the part that baffles me is time. I started the booklet in May of 2007. At that time, my grandmother was 81 years old. I was able to pinpoint her inner date to October of 2001. That one was easy. She could recall the events of 9/11, but was confused that her husband wasn’t around. He died in early November 2001.
My first note in the booklet has the gap between real time and her inner time at five and half years. It’s been five years since that time. In that time, I got to know my grandmother better than most people in my family. In her mind, as she became younger and younger, it became impossible for her to have a grandson my age. I didn’t have the heart to explain. Instead, I tell her I am a distant relative gathering information for the family tree. Since she forgots me each time, it is easy to repeat the same lie.
When I first started keeping track of her mental age, I thought the Alzheimer’s simply meant she wouldn’t create any new memories. I was wrong. As I learned more about the disease, I quickly discovered she was falling backwards through time. Early on, a month had passed in real time between my visits. At the same time, she had lost two mental months. In that single month, she had fallen behind an entire season. As the years passed, it only got worse. This past year was her worst. She lost six mental years this year.
We put her in a home this past weekend. It is April 2012. To her, it is the early 1970s. She keeps talking about how she’s so excited that Nixon got a second term. She’s somewhere between the election of 1972 and Watergate. That means the gap has grown to almost 40 years. She’s 86 now. To her, she’s in her mid-forties.
It’s like an evil, unwanted form of time travel. She’s stuck in a time when her children are teenagers. How confusing and terrifying it must be when she sees my mother walk in through the front door. Not only is she fully grown. But she’s got children fully grown as well. It’s no wonder that she doesn’t understand. How can a woman in her forties have a daughter in her fifties?
No matter how much I think about how this all works, my mind always goes to the same place. Each morning she wakes up with the mindset of a forty-year old. She reaches over for a husband that’s no longer there. Startled by his absence, she’s wide awake. When she calls for him, she doesn’t recognize her raspy voice. As she gets out of bed, phantom pains haunt every joint. When she sees her frail arm, she shakes it off—thinking she’s still half asleep.
How do you explain the moment she steps in front of the mirror? A woman of forty-something looks back as a woman of 86. A widow in a room she doesn’t remember. We always talk about how difficult it is to lose our relatives to Alzheimer’s. It is hard, yes. But there is no comparison to the feeling you get when you lose yourself. Every day she steps in front of that mirror, stunned in silence. How do you process the loss? Once would be enough to send me to the psych ward. But every morning for years?