My mother’s 90th birthday is today. It’s a milestone she won’t remember.
She was born on Jan. 20, 1929, into a hardscrabble life on a farm in northern Minnesota, the youngest of five children whose parents toiled to pull a living out of the thin, sandy soil. It wasn’t an easy life.
Mom always hated her January birthday. Minnesota winters always made it a gamble to plan parties this time of year. Gatherings routinely were canceled because of blizzards or dangerously cold weather in the 30-below range. Her other two sisters had sensible June and July birthdays, and were always guaranteed good weather. Mom always longed for a summer celebration.
The last time I was home for her birthday was two years ago. It was 24 below the morning I left and we waited three hours on the tarmac at the Fargo, North Dakota, airport as a crew thawed the plane’s water line. I decided then and there to opt for summer visits instead — I, too, had succumbed to the January weather my mother always loathed.
So here we are at 90. Mom is deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s now. We’re about nine years into this agonizingly slow death march. She no longer remembers Dad, says she’s pretty sure she was never married, and doubts she had any children, even though our baby pictures still hang above her bed in the memory-care unit of the nursing home. Mom is largely contained to a wheelchair, but continues to be pleasant and accommodating, and for that we’re thankful.
On a good day she seems to still remember me and my brothers, but the fog is getting thicker. My middle brother Rodney, who lives nearby and visits most frequently, said Mom often has a “deer in the headlights” look of panic when she sees him because she doesn’t immediately know who he is. Most of the time she can remember him with a gentle reminder.
I think every child of an Alzheimer’s patient clings to the hope that their parent will continue to know their own children, that the disease will claim them before it gets to that point. Perhaps it’s arrogance on our part, or denial. It seems unbelievable that a mother no longer knows her own children, but that’s the threshold we’re crossing. At some point in this endless ordeal I have come to my own acceptance that Mom is with us physically, but not mentally.
We had decided at first not to have a party to celebrate her 90th, because any extra commotion sends Mom into a complete mental tailspin. But in the end Rodney decided to throw together a small gathering of a few of the remaining relatives, nothing fancy; short and sweet. It’s more for everyone else’s benefit at this point.
I won’t be there for her party, but I’ll be thinking of Mom today, remembering the good times and all that she did for us and for others through the decades. It’s her incredible life’s work that will define her, not Alzheimer’s.
News Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.