I should’ve known there was something wrong when she gave up on getting the fish out of the disposal.
I think it was around 2007-2008: Jo and I had been dating for a couple years, and living together for about half that time. I would stop by my mom’s building to say hi and use the gym; it was a good excuse to keep in touch a couple times a week when she was home.
There were a couple plants she kept around–more than a couple, really, but a couple that I remember well. One was a poinsettia that had to be at least ten years old; it’d been part of her office’s Christmas decorations one year, and she’d brought it home rather than let it be thrown away. Over the years it had grown large enough to require regular pruning, and I swear it was so robust it had bark. The other was a grapefruit tree that reached nearly up to the ceiling. When I was in high school, part of her morning routine was to grab her breakfast after her post-morning run shower; typically a cup of coffee and some toast and/or fruit. She went on a grapefruit kick for a while, and would take a few minutes to read the morning paper or watch the news while enjoying her grapefruit, collecting the seeds in a paper towel to throw away after. One morning as I came out ready to head off to school she was excited about something. It turned out she had put one of these paper towels in the pocket of her robe and forgotten about it, and now about a week later one of the seeds had just barely started to sprout. She was excited to save this thing that anyone else would’ve thrown away without a second’s thought and nurture it, let it grow. And that’s exactly what she did; it grew and thrived and got to where we’d have to trim it to keep it off the ceiling.
So on this particular day, I walked in to find her in the kitchen, staring into the sink. She’d just gotten a small fish (a little tetra or something) and would remove it from it’s little ‘tank’ to clean it out. Usually this involved placing the fish in a small bowl or glass of water temporarily. This time, something had happened and the fish took a tumble down into the sink. I saw it laying atop one of the blades of her garbage disposal, gasping and weakly wriggling its tail.
Pets–even a fish no bigger than an inch and a half–were something new for my mom. Her family had had dogs while she was growing up, but we’d never had any. Looking back, I suspect she had grown a little bored and lonely without me in the house anymore, but we never really got to talk about it. She told me what had happened with the fish and I heard a tone I wasn’t used to from her, one I was starting to hear more often–resignation. She had given up, seeing no options for saving the fish, and left the room.
I tried scooping the tiny fish out with a spoon, not wanting to risk shoving my hand into the disposal–no dice. There wasn’t enough room to get an angle with any of her utensils that would lift it out. Then I remembered she probably had some chopsticks in the house (from when I would bring home sushi–not that she’d ever use them, but better to have them and not need them). Sure enough, she had some and I managed to carefully grab the little fish, draw it out from the sink, and place it in a glass of water. It had obviously been through a trauma, but it was alive, and mom was overjoyed. She got the tiny little tank cleaned up and put the fish back in. I don’t know how much longer it lasted after that. The next time I remember visiting, the tank was gone and she muttered something about the fish never really recovering from it’s adventure. Things happen, but it wasn’t like her to just let something die. It felt wrong, but didn’t really register with me at the time.
I should’ve really known something was wrong when she quit her job and moved out of her apartment.
Over 20 years she’d worked at a life/accident insurer, starting as a secretary and slowly learning more, proving herself every day, taking on more responsibilities. She’d moved on to another company in the same field only a few years before, where she finally took the tests and became a full-on agent. My mom came from a modern tradition: she believed not only in the meritocracy, that hard work would be rewarded, but in hard work for it’s own sake. Hard work was the obligation you had to your employer and your family; it was redemptive in her view. This woman, who’d come into this industry as a high school graduate and single mother qualified to be little more than a gopher, busted her ass, stayed in the game, and had achieved her goal.
Not even two years later, she was quitting the job she’d worked so hard to get and wouldn’t tell me why. I pressed her for answers–something I’d never had to do with her before–and all I could get out of her were mumbled near-whispers about people “being mean” to her and that she was claiming disability, though for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why.
What’s more, she was moving out of her apartment and back into my grandmother’s home, where she’d taken me after my parents split and worked so hard to rebuild her life. The apartment was a symbol; it was her having made it on her own terms, defining success in her own life. Now, with no prospects and no forward planning, she was giving it all up. She was giving in. To what, I didn’t know.
So the days came where I’d stop in to help get rid of the things she wasn’t taking with her. Once everything was out, she called to let me know she’d left some stuff in the apartment that I could take or leave, but she was getting rid of regardless. Plants; some of the antiques she used to love going out and hunting; the ceramic tiger cub that was a Christmas gift the year before I was born, and the pictures. Boxes of pictures. Pictures of me, my childhood, us, our family, our vacations, our holidays together. I picked out only so many, and thought to myself “if they don’t mean anything to her, I’m not going to let them mean anything to me.” I’m a fucking idiot.
During this time is when we genuinely started drifting apart. Where once we’d see each other or talk a couple times per week, now weeks would pass between phone calls. Then months. She found a new job; a nothingburger of a job that was years below her talent or experience, but it was something. She only came over to visit Jo and I once, and even then she had to be brought along by one of my Aunts. As the space between our interactions grew longer, I had to remind her where we were living, where my friends were living, whose babies had been born.
The night Jo and I became engaged, I called her and I swear I could’ve told her I’d just gotten the dishes done for the excitement level she displayed. I ended up having to all but beg her to help in any way with the wedding. This wasn’t my mom. My mom was my best friend. She did a near-impossible thing in raising me, and I’d always had her confidence, as she did mine. Every thought of her set off a crisis inside me trying to figure out why we’d drifted apart the way we obviously had.
My first thought was that moving in with Jo and getting married had something to do with it, but for as close as we were I have a hard time seeing her as the type to be so possessive. I started trying to find ways to accept this new phase of our relationship: If we were best friends, well, friends drift apart, no? Then I’d remind myself of what she always told me as I was growing up, that her job as a mother was to get me to the point where I didn’t need her anymore. Maybe that meant she was “done” being a parent? I could at least respect that–she did a hell of a thing, and deserved as much space and quiet as she wanted. Who was I to deny her that? In the most “me” theory possible, and of course the one I had the easiest time believing, I figured she just plain didn’t like me all that much anymore. And while that broke my heart, I’ll be damned if I didn’t understand that, too.
Reminder: I’m a fucking idiot.
By the time the holidays came around in 2012, things were coming to a head. I expected not to hear about Thanksgiving and Christmas plans, but I did genuinely want to have her come over for the ‘traditional’ Christmas Eve dinner that Jo and I have every year. Surprisingly, she agreed and I emailed her directions to the apartment we were in at the time–ones that included as few turns as possible, since I was well aware by then of her aversion to driving and claims of unfamiliarity with an area she’d lived in for the vast majority of her life. If I remember correctly, counting the turn she’d take to leave her neighborhood I’d get her to our place in 5 turns.
Christmas Eve came and Arrowine was slammed as it always was during the holidays. Jo and I were texting about dinner; I hadn’t heard from my mom in a while, so I reached out during a quick break to make sure she was coming. She stammered and said something about being uncomfortable making the drive, but it all sounded like excuses to cover the total lack of interest in her voice. I was pissed, and I let her know it. We had dinner that night with Jo’s sister and her fella and watched the Pope’s Christmas Mass with a pot of coffee and a bottle of Bailey’s like my mom and I used to do (and I still do), and at the end of the night I managed to not give her the satisfaction of breaking down over my disappointment. Because I’m a fucking idiot.
This was a new phase: I assumed she just inherently disliked me so I went out of my way not to put myself out there with her. I’d call mostly to get updates on my Grandfather, who at this point had been sick for several years with the Wegener’s Disease that would eventually kill him. She and her sisters would sometimes take a weekend to visit, and as I worked at least half of every weekend, I had a very hard time clearing the schedule to make the journey myself. I came to rely on her updates after visits, which never had much detail but generally told me he was hanging in there, not doing great but holding on, or some variation. I took these to mean that I didn’t have to go out of my way to go see him; that I had time.
2013 began with a message from one of my Aunts, who was starting to worry about my mom. She said she’d just been over at my Grandmother’s, and that my mom seemed despondent, uninterested in looking for a job or in life in general. There’s some history of mental illness in my family (hell, in me if I’m honest), and she was worried that my mom might be falling into a depression. We talked, and I told her about some of what had been going on between my mom and I, and we both agreed it’d be good for me to take her out and try to get to the heart of the matter.
I took her out to get coffee, partially because we both liked coffee and I missed the conversations we used to have over a cup of coffee or green tea and partially because I knew it’d be near impossible to have a conversation with her with my Grandmother and/or my Aunt in the room. I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety issues nearly every day of my waking life, so I have some experience with these things. I started easy, trying to get a read on her state of mind. She seemed uncaring, numb. I asked her about job plans–she’d lost the job she started after leaving the insurance business during a round of layoffs. She talked in quiet, uncertain half-sentences about not finding anything and just came off as directionless. She was the opposite of the woman who’d raised me.
I asked questions, trying to pry some clues out of her to tell me what was going on. When that didn’t work, I got angry. I got a specific kind of angry: the kind I remember her getting when I’d fucked up at a job, or been out too late drinking, or just generally been a lazy garbage fire of a human being. I didn’t yell. The voice that came out was that of the woman who raised me; the one who would’ve been physically sickened by this pathetic, shrinking husk of a person she’d become.
I told her how much she’d disappointed me during my engagement and wedding; how much it hurt when she no-showed me during the holidays; how much she’d hurt me by becoming so distant after us having been so close for so long. I told her how much I missed her. I told her I was going to need her because Jo and I had been talking about trying to start a family. I told her what I said was what she would have told me (and did) were the roles reversed: get off your ass and do something–anything would be better than nothing. She barely mustered a meek nod and some platitudes about knowing she had to do something, and I knew I’d done everything I could do.
Nothing changed. If anything she got worse. July was coming to an end, and one night my phone rang. Late. It was her. No way it was going to be good news, and sure enough it wasn’t. My Grandpa was in the hospital; her and her siblings were there. They weren’t sure if he was going to make it. It was a 3-hour drive away. I was getting ready to go and I made my last mistake with her, asking how dire it was. Would he make it to the morning? Did I absolutely have to leave right now? I was planning on leaving right then but if they thought he had some time it would be safer to hold off. She said she thought I would have time to make it down in the morning, and I listened to her. No matter what, this was my mom; regardless of the last few years, her record was one of usually being right and she had my trust.
I hit the beltway first thing in the morning, and even before I could pick up 66 the call came; he’d passed a couple hours beforehand. I loved my Grandfather. More times than I can count he’d stood in for me as a kind of father figure. I could always count on him. And I hadn’t been there during his last years, and even now at the end, because I’d blindly trusted my mom’s judgment. I believe I told Joanna at some point during the following few days that I would “never listen to a thing that woman has to say ever again.” I’m a fucking idiot; of course I wouldn’t.
My Grandpa’s passing brought me and my mom’s siblings all together for the first time in years, despite us all living in the same general part of the world. The stories started getting swapped and my concern grew. My mom had been in a minor car accident just before losing her job that I’d never heard about; she wouldn’t drive anywhere. She’d quit the insurance agent job because they’d changed some of the calculations they used, and she couldn’t adjust to the new math. One of my Aunts told me she’d gone out with my mom and she couldn’t even fill out a check, and that’s when I finally knew. This was a woman who balanced her checkbook by hand every night–I know this because I grew up watching her do it. I told them we had to get her to a doctor immediately, and we did.
In the fall of 2013, not long after her 54th birthday, my mother was diagnosed with advanced early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. None of us even knew there was such a thing as early-onset. I felt so helpless and stupid. I still do.
As far as I can tell, there isn’t much in the way of family history. Everyone has a theory, and one is worth as much as any other. I can’t help but think of the car accident when I was 6; the one that left a piece of her windshield embedded in her forehead (which is still there to this day) but she never went to the hospital following despite the obvious head trauma. I remember her hitting her head so hard getting into the car when I was 9 that she shouted and cried for minute after minute as we sat outside my Grandmother’s house growing ever more late for work and school. In the face of studies suggesting malnutrition could play a role in Alz, I remember years of sparse salads for dinner; air-popped popcorn with maybe a trace of salt for a snack; toast, coffee, maybe a fruit for breakfast. Her running on the treadmill before and after work, up to ~10 miles per day while on this ‘diet,’ to the point where this woman in her early/mid 30s stopped having her period for months and had to be ordered by her doctor to work more meat and iron into her diet. (She conceded with cans of tuna and sliced turkey breast, always in ‘moderation.’) I remember showing up to Thanksgiving one year with everyone asking how she was doing, which was how I found out she’d fallen leaving her building and had cracked or broken a couple of her ribs–though with a fall like that, who knows what other damage she did.
I started reading up about Alz, and recognized symptoms reaching into stage 4 (of 7) at the time of her diagnosis. Alz affects everyone in different, unpredictable ways. My mom’s manifested first in a loss of cognitive abilities (inability to do math at work/filling out checks) and what I can only describe as a loss of her emotional response. She got through conversations by mirroring the people she was talking to: if I laughed at something, so did she. If someone was upset, she’d get upset. The previous near-decade of my relationship with her snapped into focus in that moment. It all made sense now. Horrible, unavoidable sense.
Alzheimer’s isn’t The Notebook–that’s dementia. She doesn’t have lucid moments; when something goes, it’s gone. She lives in a home now, a good facility where she has her own room and space and is well taken care of by people who are goddamn heroes in my book. Some of my family had been harboring hopes that she would progress slowly, but early-onset actually tends to move more quickly. Every few months or so she presents new symptoms, new signs of decline. She just turned 57 and I’d be hesitant to put money on her making it past 60.
It’s difficult to grieve for someone who isn’t dead yet, but time and experience let you accomplish damn near anything. I think about her constantly. I can’t talk to her anymore, but I have a version of her in my head, and I still somehow get some of my best advice from her. It’s not the same, but you take what you can get. I miss her all the time. I visit as often as I can, but she doesn’t recognize me anymore. It makes it harder, and I didn’t think it could get harder.
The only saving grace I can think of is that I adjusted to her downturns in time to sit her down over the holidays this past year (2015) while she was still able to comprehend what I was saying for the most part. I told her she did a great job, an impossible job, as well as anyone could do it. I told her I was ok, and that I would be ok, and that what I have in my life and what I’ve been able to do with my life to this point has been all thanks to her, and how she raised me and supported me through years of a hellscape of self-harm and depression I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I told her that I was happy, and would be happy, and that she should be happy too. My mom’s ultimate ambition, what she really wanted to do with her life, was be a mom. I told her I would try to live up to the person she is and wanted me to be.
At this point we were both crying. This was the last conversation we were ever going to have. The last time she was going to be there. I told her when I had a child I’d try to be half the parent she was and if I could do that, it’d be a hell of an accomplishment. I thanked her for being such a great mom, and a good friend, and the smartest, bravest person I knew. I told her it’d be ok. It was only then that she spoke; softly, shakily, through tears and a terror I don’t even want to imagine:
We held each other and cried for a while, and somehow one of us got around to lightening the mood. I had to go. I hugged her and we told each other we loved each other, and I went home. A few months later she was growing increasingly angry and paranoid; a couple months after that I stopped by to say happy birthday and she looked over at me for a second then back to the TV. That was it. I was gone to her. As I type this, she’s a couple weeks from becoming a Grandmother. The only thing that still tears me up about her situation, and always will, is the sheer unfairness of her never getting to be someone’s Grandma. She would’ve been the best. She would’ve been so good. I cry for what my daughter’s going to miss out on. I cry because I’ll never get to see it. I cry because I realize now that this is the job she raised me to do–to be a parent to my daughter, and while I feel confident about it, more than ever I wish she were here to give me advice.
My situation is not unique, and I don’t want to come off sounding like I think it is. It’s believed that up to 5% of Alzheimer’s cases in the U.S. are early-onset (defined as those occurring in people under 65 years old); that’s hundreds of thousands of people, of families dealing with this nightmare.
I’m “coming out” now because since she’s gone in the ways that matter, I don’t feel like I’m sharing business that isn’t mine. A number of my friends know already, but I’m a little weary of telling the story, so this is where it goes. She touched so many of y’all’s lives: I guess I just want ask you to keep those memories as alive as you can. She was really something, and I know a little girl who’s going to benefit from as much of her wisdom as we can gather over the coming years. I could really use some help with that.
Spare a thought for June Anderson when you can. Take care of each other, and love each other the best you can. Realize that you can do everything right, be as prepared and as capable as possible, and still lose (or whatever that speech of Picard’s says). But objectively understanding life is unfair is no excuse for letting that knowledge run your life. You work, and you goddamn fight this unfair world as much as you can. Nothing and no one is beyond reproach. Question everything, as long as you start with yourself. Use your common sense. There are things that are right and wrong in the world, and it’s not hard to tell the difference. Treat others how you want to be treated. This is what my mother taught me. Taught all of us.
June Anderson is my mother. She’s something special. And I miss her.