Moving Forward with Mom and Alzheimer's
“What did my mother do to deserve Alzheimer’s?” This was the completely irrational question I kept asking myself eight years ago when I was struggling to accept my mom’s diagnosis.
At the time, I was pregnant with my third child and was letting my hormone-fueled emotions take over; I didn’t want to face the simple truth—no one deserves Alzheimer’s.
Still, it was difficult to accept. My mom, Bobbie Lonergan, was a college-educated math major, a New York Times crossword puzzle guru, a bridge league champion, and an incredible mother of thirteen children. Yes, 13.
As her twelfth child, I had grown up watching Mom dedicate herself to serving others. When she was no longer channeling all of her time into hands-on child care, she was a passionate volunteer for our church, the poor, and the hungry.
For years, everyone would say to me, “Your mom is a living saint.” Yet, for all of her amazing qualities and talents, none of them could prevent her from getting Alzheimer’s.
After her diagnosis, I began to question my faith, wondering how God could let this happen to her. I was also trying to stop the crushing questions in my head. If Mom forgets what she did yesterday—when will she forget about me? My children? I felt like I was constantly on the verge of crying.
At random moments, my tears would sneak up on me, while I was driving my car, pushing the shopping cart through the grocery store, or taking a shower. I soon realized that I was grieving for Mom while she was still alive.
I jumped through the five steps of grief in different directions. Some days, I was in denial thinking that maybe Mom’s memory wasn’t so bad. On other days, I felt angry and overwhelming sadness.
For Mom’s part, she put up a brave, positive front—never complaining as daily living became harder and as her fierce independence gradually slipped away. In watching my mother’s unflinching strength in the face of her incurable illness, I couldn’t help but remember back to when my dad had died when I was in high school.
My father had been diagnosed with cancer and after a valiant fight, died six months later. Yet through all of it, Mom was the rock, refusing to shed one tear; instead, she was the one who picked up the pieces of my shattered family.
Mom remained resolute, determined to see all of us through this emotional storm. And she did for decades—taking on her role as matriarch for all the Lonergans, watching sons and daughters get married, and experiencing the joys of becoming a grandmother to 33 grandchildren.
Through her lifelong example and watching her persevere after losing my dad, Mom showed me and all my siblings the truth about life—it wasn’t always going to be fair, but you had a choice for how you handled the challenges.
There were lots of options—you could throw in the towel, feel sorry for yourself, and retreat into fear, depression, or denial. Or you could be like Mom—find your inner strength and move forward with love, faith, and determination.
Mom never faltered in her way of always moving forward in life—despite the roadblocks that came along. And she made sure that all of us learned this lesson. Whenever we complained, she’d say, “Count your blessings; it could always be worse." Or the Catholic classic, “Offer it up for the souls in purgatory.”
For Mom, life was about making the most out of every day that God gave you.
As Mom has progressed into advanced-stage Alzheimer’s, I’ve worked hard to follow her lesson of always moving forward in life instead of dwelling on the past and wishing that things could be different. It hasn’t been easy.
I’ve shed plenty of tears and have had some heartbreaking moments—when we had to take her car away, when we realized she could no longer live independently and when she looked into my eyes and didn’t know my name.
But I’ve learned to look past these things and have realized that Mom now knows me in a different way—in her Alzheimer’s way.
When I stare into her brilliant blue eyes, I see that glimmer, that spark, and know without a doubt, our love remains. In these precious moments, I remember Mom’s words of wisdom and count my incredible blessings to have been raised by such a phenomenal woman.
I’ve adjusted my perspective to see Alzheimer’s in a different light. Yes, it’s true that pieces of Mom continue to fade away, but those missing pieces live on in me and my entire family.
I move forward with my mom and her Alzheimer’s—wherever this disease takes us. She remains my mother and I remain her daughter; Alzheimer’s can never break this bond.
Kerry Lonergan Luksic is a writer, an Alzheimer’s advocate, and author of the memoir, Life Lessons from a Baker’s Dozen: 1 Mother, 13 Children, and their Journey to Peace with Alzheimer’s. Ten-percent of royalties earned will be donated to Alzheimer’s support and research programs. Some of her other Alzheimer’s advocacy work has been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Star Ledger, The Main Line Times, WHYY NewsWorks, and Parents Express. She lives with her husband and three daughters outside of Philadelphia. Visit www.kerryluksic.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.