Greg O’Brien Reflects on His Mother’s Struggle With Alzheimer’s and the Profound Affect It Had On Him
In the spring on Brookdale Place, in Rye, New York, the Forget-Me-Nots bloomed like a botanical garden, a sea of soothing pastels that kindled the memory. The Greeks called the flower Myosotis, translated “mouse’s ear,” an allusion to the shape of its leaf.
Who could ever forget a patch of ensuring forget-me-nots, delicate five-lobed blue, pink, or white flowers with yellow centers? German folklore says the Almighty once overlooked the petite plant in naming all the other flowers. Legend suggests that one of the tiny lobes cried out, “Forget-me-not, O Lord.” To which the Lord replied, “That shall be your name!” Today, it is a symbol of the Alzheimer’s Association.
As one of 10 kids in an Irish Catholic family, I grew up in a modest neighborhood outside Manhattan where memories live forever. Forever is a long time, a place of enduring peace, a steadfast mooring when the swift, high tides of life pull one to treacherous waters where memory implodes the brain: forget me not. No one saw it coming.
I remember my mom, Virginia Brown O’Brien, beautiful and petite, like the flower, an angel of a woman, preparing school lunches for all us kids—spreading white wonder bread across the kitchen counter as if dealing cards in Vegas, slapping peanut butter and jelly on them with her right hand, while with her left dropping pennies for milk money into small brown paper bags that stood like foot soldiers. After this daily regime, she would scoot us all off to nearby Resurrection Grammar School.
I was the last one out one day and observed my mother standing at the kitchen sink staring out the window into Pappy Langeloh’s cornfield, with Rye Brook in the distance as it meandered out to Long Island Sound. There was a blank expression on her face. She looked up to the heavens as if raptured into deep space, endlessly talking to herself, moving her lips in illusory conversation, without saying a word, as if she was talking to someone standing next to her. But she was alone.
At the time I thought it was just a way of deflecting the stress of raising a brood of kids with collective attention spans of a young yellow lab. Over time there seemed more to it. The blank, out-of-body expressions increased, imaginary friends stayed present, and the details of life slipped, as they would, in time, with me.
My mother, a second generation Irish American, as stunning as the fields of Tipperary, was born on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the shadows of the Museum of Natural History where she played hopscotch on the sidewalk and where milk was delivered in a horse-drawn carriage. Educated in a nearby French convent school, she later graduated from The College of New Rochelle at a time, sadly, when most women were left on the academic sidelines. She became a banker, married a handsome World War II Navy Lieutenant, Francis Xavier O’Brien, and could dotingly juggle her children as if she was performing in the center-right at Ringling Brothers. Later in life, she became a teacher and an artist. To say she was a multi-tasker in life is to say Michelangelo was good with a brush. And she could light up a room, any room, with her intellect and beauty.
But that’s before the beast came.
Over time the disengaging increased in her journey with Alzheimer’s, as it had earlier with her father: misplacing objects, loss of memory, poor judgment, loss of filter, and yes, the rage. Little did we know at the time—as we were all in denial—no one wanted to face the elephant in the room. It all came to a head on placid Cape Cod where my parents retired to a family summer cottage in Eastham, not far from Coast Guard Beach. It was supposed to be a blissful end of life, but after a few years, it raged like a nor’easter bearing down from the North Atlantic. My dad was confined to a wheelchair with serious circulation disease, fighting off prostate cancer, and showing signs of dementia himself. My mother was tumbling deeper into a black hole, but refused to give up. Damn it, she refused to give up! As Alzheimer’s advanced, she began sticking knives in sockets, serving my father coffee grinds for dinner, and hanging wet paper towels on a makeshift clothes line in the kitchen as if she were drying clothes. So we hired around-the-clock supervision for both of them. I became the family caregiver at hand. My mom, with the persistence of Winston Churchill, kept saying to me, “I can’t get sick, I can’t get sick.” Yet she was.
Alzheimer’s is also a bipartisan disease positioned to take out the Baby Boomer Generation. The monster attacks women, Hispanics and African Americans in far greater numbers worldwide than white males. At the time, I wish I had the resources of Maria Shriver’s The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, the Alzheimer’s Association, the Cure Alzheimer’s of Boston, and other selfless caring organizations. I was caught up in a tailspin.
Toward the end, my mother’s mantra, “I can’t get sick,” changed one day to, “not sure how long I can hold on.” Hours later, my dad, once again, was rushed to Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis with internal bleeding. My mother was with him. The nurse told me to hurry.
I met my parents in the emergency room on a July Fourth weekend, filled to the brim with the walking wounded of summer. It took 36 hours to get my father into a hospital room. About 28 hours into the ordeal, I noticed that my father, sitting in his wheelchair in an emergency room cubicle, was bleeding onto the floor. In a panic, I tried to divert my mom’s attention from the pool of blood. It was too late. She was horrified. I could see it in her face. She was done.
“I’ll get the doctor, Mom, don’t worry,” I said as I raced for the door.
She grabbed my right elbow from behind.
“Greg, would you take over,” she asked quietly in unusual peace.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m getting the doctor now,” I said. “I’m getting the doctor.”
“No,” she replied, grabbing my elbow even tighter, “Would you PLEASE take over?”
I stopped in my tracks.
She was saying goodbye. I turned and looked into her eyes. It was as if someone had pulled down a curtain. As I watched her, I had the feeling of seeing a person who had been holding on to a dock on an outgoing tide let go. I saw her drift. Within 10 minutes, she curled up like a kitten in my dad’s hospital bed, while he sat unconscious, bleeding in his wheelchair.
Soon my dad died; Alzheimer’s came for my mother four months later.
Years later, after a serious head trauma had unmasked a disease in the making, I, too, I began noticing those same dire warning signs my mother had experienced, a slow, yet deadly progression. My mother is the hero of my life; she believed in angels and they surrounded her. She taught me when the mind begins to fail how to speak and write from the heart, the place of the soul. She taught me by example how to live with Alzheimer’s in faith, hope, and humor.
Fast forward several years. I was asked to speak before 1,000 Hollywood celebrities at an Alzheimer’s Association fundraiser and Hollywood revue called, “A Night at Sardi’s, held at the Beverly Hilton. Backstage before my speech, I was incredibly nervous—Oscar, Tony and Emmy award winners were all in attendance. Few get to stand where I stood. So I looked to heaven and said, “Mom, this is for you!”
I then heard a soft, confident voice in my heart that replied, “Greg, you just rock this!”
And so I did.
At the podium, I noticed a woman standing behind me to the right. I felt she was there for encouragement and support. I had a good, calming feeling about it. Several times I wanted to turn around to see who she was, but said to myself, “Just stay focused. Stay focused!”
After my speech, I turned around, and the woman was gone.
Later, I asked my wife, “Who was the woman standing next to me?”
My wife paused, “Greg,” she said, “there was no woman, no one was on the stage with you.”
“No,” I said, “the woman behind me to the right. Who was she?
Again my wife replied, “Greg, there was no woman.”
I then asked all 10 people seated at our table, and the answers were the same. There was no woman.
The spirit of my mother, I believe, was on stage with me that night and perhaps the souls of countless others who had been consumed by this demon called Alzheimer’s.
Do you believe in Angels?
Greg O’Brien is an award-winning journalist and author of “On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s.” He has written for numerous national and regional newspapers and magazines, and is a board member of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s in DC, has served on the national Alzheimer’s Association Early Stage Advisory Group, and is an advocate for the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund of Boston.
This essay was featured in the Sept. 16th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.
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