When Elation and Devastation Collide
When I was young, my father wrote letters to me packed with life advice. It was almost as if he intuitively knew that he wouldn't live to see me evolve into adulthood. Unfortunately, this became a reality when my father died suddenly in a freak accident when I was just thirteen. Over the years, I have clung to the words he so thoughtfully had written. One paragraph, in particular, had engraved itself into my subconscious. “Sometimes it will appear that everything will be great, forever; Then there will be gloomy days when it appears that nothing will ever go right. Ultimately, neither can last forever. So enjoy the great days and press through the bad knowing that someday the goodwill returns again.” For so many years this advice rang perfectly true, carrying me through the ups and downs of life. Life was either going great or it was falling apart. I stayed optimistic waiting for the storm to pass and the sun to come out again. However, I was not prepared for the day that these two scenarios would collide. Suddenly, I felt completely unprepared, utterly confused, and on some level, betrayed.
Becoming a mom
In January of 2016 I was newly married to the man of my dreams. I had been able to leave my stressful and demanding career as a military officer to be a stay-at-home mother. I was finally able to experience the joy of raising my children full time. We were within days of welcoming our first child together and our home was filled with excitement and optimism. My mom, my best friend, had just flown in to welcome her newest grandchild. She was beaming with joy. She held my hand and timed contractions as we waited for my husband to rush home from work and pack up the car. She had happy hopeful tears in her eyes as she waved to us backing out of the driveway. I remember the moment I placed our new daughter in my mother's arms for the first time. The days and months that followed were just like my dad had said; everything was great and it seemed as though it would stay that way for a very long time.
Something seemed “off” about Mom
Exactly one year later, we planned a very small first birthday party for our daughter with her godparents and my mom. I will never forget that day. As we celebrated in our home with some hors d'oeuvres and cake, my mom offered our two guests something to drink, to which they declined. Just a few minutes later, she offered again, and then again...In just a short period of time, she offered them drinks seven times. Each time they politely declined, and the atmosphere turned awkward. I excused myself and stood alone in my kitchen, paralyzed by a sudden realization as the puzzle instantly came together. All the times my mom had gotten lost over the last year, always blaming a wrong turn or a faulty GPS, friends and family that didn't see her as often as I did commenting that something seemed “off” about her, along with about half a dozen other symptoms that I had nonchalantly brushed off. This realization was immediately followed by a flood of horrible memories. At that moment, I knew. You see, I've had a front row seat to Alzheimer's before.
Just ten years earlier, we lost my stepdad after his ten-year battle with the disease. I was just a teenager when his early symptoms surfaced, and I watched in heartbreak and often disbelief as this ruthless disease overcame him. I looked on helplessly at the sadness, frustration and overall toll it took on my mom as his caregiver. I stood there for what felt like hours, but was merely minutes, just staring off into the distance in total disbelief, thinking, How could I be here again?! How could lightning strike twice?! I have already done my time with this horrific disease (as if someone somewhere should be keeping score). Just then, my husband walked in, surprised to see me on the verge of tears. All I could do was look at him and whisper, “Mom has Alzheimer's…” He did his best to calm me down and reassure me that I was likely jumping to conclusions, and although I had never wanted to be wrong so badly in my life, I knew.
There is just something about this disease that once you know it, you don't need the doctors and tests, you can recognize it a mile away. So there I was, bracing for impact as what was a bright sunny day inevitably collided with one of the darkest. I lit the candle on my daughter's first birthday cake and started to sing. I did my best to suppress the flood gate of emotion as I began to internalize the long painful goodbye that was ahead.
The days and months following proved to be as challenging as ever. Within the year, we would have no other choice than to have her move in with us. It would take eleven months to get an official diagnosis. In January of 2018, I was 38 years old. I had three children, was a caregiver to my mom, and had just found out we would be expecting another sweet blessing due to arrive in September. Life had certainly dealt me a paradox, and I was determined to embrace it. After all, what choice did I have?
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