Caught between young kids and a parent with Alzheimer’s, I found a lifeline on the playground
This essay first appeared in The Washington Post.
My mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and decline were a painful and lonely journey, one that coincided with an otherwise unbearably hectic time. My two children were still in diapers. The nights were ridiculously long and the days were often tedious and mundane. Juggling work, kids and my own health was challenge enough. My mom didn’t want to be a burden, so she hid what would have been helpful facts and ferociously guarded her privacy and independence.
Balance was elusive. But my friends and I commiserated about parenting young children. We talked about how difficult it is to maintain a connection with your spouse when you are both reduced to assembly-line workers, taking turns with dirty dishes, lunchbox prep, bath time and bedtime stories before falling into bed empty and exhausted. We discussed developmental milestones, food allergies and recommendations for day care or a new pediatrician. But when it came to my mom’s slow devolution and the unfortunate reverse milestones of dementia, my friends listened, but they couldn’t relate.
My friends’ mothers still remembered their birthdays, their names. My friends didn’t spend their days arguing with Medicare about bills, securing power of attorney, hunting down missing account numbers and passcodes, hiring and managing caregivers, or otherwise respectfully but forcefully advocating for their mothers’ safety, even when it was against their wishes. In my years of caring for my mom, I had never met anyone in circumstances that mirrored mine.
That changed one September morning. The day started much like any other – serve breakfast, fill lunchboxes, pack backpacks and go. My kids and I walked the narrow asphalt path to the elementary school’s back entrance, cutting through fields and meandering by the playground. As soon as the school bell clanged, the playground and fields emptied.
The only people who remained were a little girl playing on the play structure and her mother, watching nearby. My daughter, who was 3, ran toward them and climbed the ladder to the structure’s top. She greeted the girl and an instantaneous friendship took root.
The mom and I stood quietly, adjacent, watching the girls play, but not engaging, the grown-up version of parallel play. I don’t remember how the dynamic shifted, but that first half-hour of awkward silence is the quietest we have ever been together. Slowly, we began to talk, exchanging the typical superficial playground chatter about the weather, the end of summer and the busyness of a new school year.
Tentatively, we waded into deeper water. The conversation quickened as we discovered more common ground. Our children were the same ages. We both had two siblings. We both had traveled extensively. She had an accent that I couldn’t place so I asked where she was from. Though we didn’t grow up in the same country, we now lived not only in the same town, but on the same road, our house numbers a mere one digit apart. When I asked if she still had family in her home country, she replied, “Yes, but my parents are divorced, and my mother has Alzheimer’s.”
My heart skipped a beat and my mouth slacked slightly. “Me, too.”
The walls between us dropped.
From that moment, there was a space, a place, a friend, who truly understood, who could pivot from dissecting playground drama and surviving late night ER visits with a sick child to memory care considerations and unexpected financial discoveries. There is a sad but heartening kinship in a friend whose attention was also perpetually torn by the increasing demands of a distant, beloved and failing mother. She knew what it was like to regularly receive stress-inducing long distance phone calls while shuttling children to after-school activities. She understood the sensation of watching your mother slowly slip away.
We can share the aching emptiness of reaching for the phone to call your mom, and then remembering, before the phone even rings, that your mom doesn’t really understand words anymore. Our friendship blossomed from the strange purgatory of the land between life and death that is Alzheimer’s, where the physical being is still present, but the person who raised you, the soul who shaped and loved you unconditionally, is gone; from the implicit understanding of grief over the Grammy who never got to play her most prized role; from the exhausting effort to live in the present for the sake of our kids, knowing that our moms would never want to rob us of this precious, fleeting time.
This is friendship and parenting in the sandwich generation. It’s a friendship that fully appreciates the weight of the things we carry: the backpacks, the music instruments, the laundry, the scheduling, the chauffeuring, the side-eye from our tweens, the strained family relationships, the grief, the loss, the love. It’s organizing play dates and birthday parties, volunteering at field day and swapping treatment options for lice. It’s summer outings with our kids, picnics and barbecues.
And it’s a knowing hug and warming tea kettle when you appear unannounced, knocking on the back patio door, with debilitating, hiccuping tears spilling out over the impending decision to move your mom into a memory care facility. It’s shocked and awed silence when a memory you share about your childhood and family dynamics mirrors hers. It’s the smell of purple freesias, her mom’s favorite. It’s the predawn drive to the airport so she can make her flight for her mom’s funeral. It’s the selfie sitting next to your mom at her new care home while you are on vacation, just to reassure you. It’s the knowing glances, the quiet acknowledgment that we are experiencing profound grief and profound joy simultaneously, the understanding that we each know inherently what that feels like.
Around the holidays in that first year of our friendship, I received a postcard. On the front were pictures of her children. On the back, penned in purple ink, simply, “Here’s to serendipity.” Indeed. Here’s to serendipity and to friendship that carries you through; to the unspoken promise to prop each other up; to surprise gift bags at the door, and cups of tea; to envisioning a future in which one of our daughters might one day call one of us, concerned that her mom is getting forgetful; and to understanding, even now, the dread of that call, but secure in the knowledge that, if it comes to that, we will help them to better bear the burden.