Alzheimer's and Mom and Me

Trish Vradenburg Health Guide
  • My mom was larger than life. Not a shrinking violet, everything she did was with flair and drama. Busy in politics, civic and charitable activities, she still managed to live two lives - hers and mine. If I was sick, she knew precisely what I should be taking and what I was doing wrong. And what a worrier. I joke that this trait largely (thankfully) skipped a generation (me) and went straight to my daughter, who also has no problem identifying what I'm doing wrong and "why don't you listen to my advice?" Sigh.

    People often ask how old my mom was when she got Alzheimer's. I'm still unsure about that one since my mom, still unmarried at 28 - an embarrassment to her family - decided to make herself ten years younger. That's the age I knew her as so I was very relieved to find out she was really ten years older (bless her skin) because if it is a genetic disease, it bought me ten more years.

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    Because I was bicoastal at the time - jetting between New Jersey and California to write on the sitcom Designing Women -- I may not have noticed when she first exhibited signs of AD. But I have no trouble pinpointing when I realized it. It was in 1986, five years before she succumbed to this unforgiving disease. I was on hiatus from the show so I was in my home in Jersey. I fell in the center hall, sliding on our faux marble floor (which, of course, my mom had chosen - but that's another story). Unable to walk and knowing I had to return to LA within the week, I reluctantly called my mom to take me to the hospital. I knew she would make a fuss and want me to have a kazillion x-rays and, maybe, quit my job to stay home with my babies (13 and 15 - not exactly in the diaper stage) so they wouldn't start shooting up cocaine or flunk out of school. But I was willing to put up with the usual craziness so I could start healing and get back to work on time.

    I called and she said she would drop everything and be right over. My mother lived seven minutes away so when she pulled into my driveway 35 minutes later I was 5 minutes away from calling the police (maybe that worrier thing hadn't totally eluded me). When I questioned what took her so long she gave me a vague look and asked me what I thought of her new hat. The hat was ten years old -- hardly new -- but I told her it was fine and we should leave.

    "Leave where?" she asked, befuddled.

    "Here. Leave here."

    "Can I have a cup of tea?"

    I looked at her like she was mad. "Tea? No, Mom. I have to get to the hospital. I'm hurt."

    "Will they have tea there?"

    "Mom, did you hear what I said? I'm hurt. I may have a broken ankle. For all I know they might have to do surgery," I told her, raising the stakes. " I may never walk again."

    "Uh huh. Do you like my new hat?"

    My husband says I have a camera in my head and he is right. It takes pictures and movies of the memories of my life. I can see those memories anytime I want - and sometimes when I don't. I can see my children's birth, my wedding, my surprise 30th birthday party, the night my husband had a heart attack. But, somehow, the day my mom came to take me to the hospital is my most vivid memory. It was the day my mommy no longer put me first. It was the start of the ruthless spiral down to Alzheimer's.

Published On: December 05, 2011