My Mother’s Brain: love in the times of dementia

A Latino family’s story about Alzheimer’s Dementia

Tag: mother

Francisca Corona Terrazas, March 9, 1930 – March, 28, 2014

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Our dear mother gave up her battle with Alzheimer’s Friday, March 28. She was 84 years old. She was born and grew up in Las Nieves, Durango, a small village in Mexico, but lived out most of her adulthood in El Paso, Texas.

In terms of money, she was poor. But she was a devout Catholic and believed that if you want social justice you live a life that reflects your beliefs. She lived what she preached: she had little wealth, but from what she had she gave willingly and lovingly to those who had less. After she retired from working in the public schools and before she became afflicted with dementia, she spent almost twenty years as a volunteer with Our Lady’s Youth Center, a Catholic organization that not only teaches the Catholic church’s tenets but is an advocate for social justice. For years she led a team into the outskirts of Juárez to deliver food to elderly, sick and homebound people who often lived in one-room homes with outhouses for sanitation. To do this, she had to drive a van along dirt roads that were sometimes washed out or so rutted they were nearly impassible. But not arriving was not an option; she would not let the least among us go hungry.

She never asked for anything in return for what she did. But we, her family, believe that while she was ill, her good deeds were returned to her a hundredfold. With the help of personal attendants and round-the-clock caregivers who bathed her, changed her clothes, fed her, and took her for walks, we were able to keep her in her home throughout the disease. Only in her last three weeks was she unable to walk, and only on her last day was she bed-bound. But most importantly, even those caregivers who didn’t know her until they were assigned to help her developed a deep affection for her. After she died, a caregiver who had been with her only since last August, showed up at the house in tears, asking if we needed help with anything, even if it was just doing Mom’s final load of laundry.

In her last few days those who loved her — brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews — visited to say farewell. Incredibly, despite having lost her memory to disease, she reacted to seeing those she’d not seen for a while, holding their gaze, reaching for and holding their hands. Her last hours were as peaceful as we could have hoped for. She did not struggle. She did not panic. She was surrounded by her children, two of her sisters and one of her caregivers. We thanked her for all she did for us. We told her we loved her. We sang to her. We showered her with kisses. We assured her we would be all right, and that it was okay for her to let go. And she finally did, a few minutes before 3 a.m. on Friday.

We, Angelica Terrazas, Luis Carlos Terrazas, and Beatriz Terrazas, are grateful for all the support we’ve received from friends and family over the last several years. You’ve buoyed us through a difficult and emotional journey.

If you’ve been moved by our mother’s story, we ask that in her memory, you consider doing something kind for someone in need. 

 

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Reflections

Yes, it has been months since I posted anything here. Not because I haven’t wanted to do so, but because I haven’t had the emotional energy to do so. Those of you on this journey know you hit spots where all you can do is put one foot in front of the other, move forward one step at a time, looking toward a day when you’ll awaken rested and refreshed.

This has been a trying year. My mother was hospitalized twice, albeit briefly. I wasn’t needed at her side as her illnesses were fleeting, and in fact, the second time doctors couldn’t even figure out what caused her to experience a couple of days of lethargy. Had I been there, I would have said, “Don’t you think it’s just the disease?”  But I wasn’t there, so I won’t second-guess the ones who were. I suspect that despite their expensive educations, many doctors still don’t realize the many ways Alzheimer’s affects the brains. So they have to run their tests, do their analyses, and look for a cause. I get it, I do. If I could find the switch that would turn off the dementia, I’d do it. But no matter how many MRIs doctors order, they’re not going to reveal an improvement of her brain.

My mother-in-law died at the end of March. It was as sudden as it can be for someone with dementia. One moment she was breathing, the next moment she wasn’t. And despite our awareness that she could leave us at any moment, we were still unprepared. (Is anyone ever prepared for a loved one to die?) I stood with my husband in her room, touched her arm, and in my humanness wondered, “Really? Did she have to go so quickly?”

My husband said something to me shortly after his mother’s death that has proven wise and has been a help to me. He said that as we age we just need to know that we will be getting the phone calls about our elderly parents. There will be the 180-degree pivots to make when something happens, and you can’t wring your hands or stress over the decision to be made every single time it happens. You just need to act, know that whatever decision you make is the best one you could make at that moment, and then let it go and move on. I know it’s hard to do, but it has helped me to accept, finally, that there is a new normal, that difficult times are going to happen, and that while my stomach may be tied in knots for a while, the knots will eventually loosen.

Between travel to be with my mother and helping my husband deal with his mother’s funeral, her exit from residential care, and the estate-related paperwork that has piled up in our home office, I’ve also been rather busy with work. So much so that when I received a check in the mail for a contribution to a blog I contribute to, I thought it was an accounting mistake. I’d forgotten about an essay I’d submitted. I didn’t realize it had been published more than a month ago. It was a piece about a memory of my mother when I was a child, and I’d struggled to find a home for the essay. When I submitted it I took my husband’s advice and told myself: If it’s meant to be published, it will be, and if it’s not, so be it. Then I let it go, and moved on.

I’m sharing the link to this piece because I know many of you have had a similar experience. As more and more memories slip from our loved ones’ minds, we can’t help but keep searching for that reflection of ourselves in their eyes, hearts and mind. Here then, is the link to The History in Her Skin: http://www.mamiverse.com/mother-daughter-relationship-43176/

Prayer to my ancestors

A few weeks ago, my sister texts me a photo of a journal entry our mother made. She found it while going through our mother’s things. The words are jagged and misspelled. They lack punctuation and the necessary accents and tilde. The scrawl lists, wobbles and threatens to slip off the page: Estoy muy triste por la confucion que esta pasando por mi mente espero en Dios nuestro Senor que esto no progrese.”

No wonder the words refuse to tiptoe across the paper like buoyant birds – fear this heavy can’t sit lightly on the lines of notebook paper. And because the words are so bloated with meaning, the weight of the unspoken plea in them is a blow to my heart: Deliver me oh, Lord, from the confusion in my mind. What’s happening to me Lord? Heal me, and if you won’t heal me, won’t you please at least stop this illness in its tracks? Deliver me, Oh Lord.

My mother is now well within the grips of Alzheimer’s so her prayer breaks my heart. And it makes me realize how little I’ve actually relied on prayer since the diagnosis. Does God even exist? Once, I wrote about my struggle to visualize and pray to a God beyond that one taught by my church, the God who when rendered in paintings and relics emerged looking very much the conquistador: pale-skinned, blue-eyed, stern and triumphant. Many people (rightly or wrongly, I assumed they were white judging by their surnames) wrote me lots of kind notes, offering to pray for me, and suggesting I visualize God as spirit. Oh, how badly they wanted to save me. One pastor even dropped by the paper where I worked – unannounced. I was away from my desk at the time. But others shared my struggle. How can one pray to the oppressor?

I confess: I now rarely attend my own church, led as it is by a hierarchy of well-fed men who have protected rapist priests in a global cover-up. And with so many churches further perverting the image of God further into a homophobic, misogynistic deity with little compassion for the hungry, the homeless and the sick that he (or she) is laughable, I find myself turning back to my ancestors for strength as we deal with my mother’s disease. More specifically, to the strong women who precede me.

In civil war torn Mexico, my great-grandmother is said to have clung to her son, my grandfather, as a member of Los Dorados de Villa dragged him away to be hanged for some imagined insult. He was just a boy then, my grandfather; what did a boy do to merit death? Maybe he booted their horses from the pasture where our family’s cattle grazed.  Maybe he wouldn’t let them in his mother’s house to take their fill of food and daughters. These Villistas did and took what they wanted, whenever they wanted. And whatever the perceived slight of this boy, they took offense and decided he should hang. Somehow he escaped.

Did my great-grandmother pray?

Deliver my son from evil, Oh Lord. Spare me the indignity of outliving my son, of having to bury my child. Oh, Lord, deliver us from the rapists and assassins of this bloody war. Please don’t let them kill my son.

Did God deliver him? Or was it, as family lore has it, that he managed to slip a hand between his neck and noose and swing there while family cut him down? Did my great-grandmother massage his sore neck and wash his face with her tears as she held him securely in her arms?

My grandmother, the woman who eventually married the boy who escaped the noose, reared a dozen children. Several were not biologically her own, but the children of a deceased relative who nonetheless were loved as if they’d emerged into the world from her own body. Two of her grown sons were once shot through the gut by a cousin in a cattle dispute. They survived, but that launched the family’s migration to the border, one sibling at a time, so that in the 1950s, years before I was born, my mother was among the few who were living in the U.S.

One night, shortly after those shootings, while my mother was still single, she was awakened in the pre-dawn hours in New Mexico at the house where she was a live-in housekeeper. Police asked her to come to Juárez where her oldest brother had been shot. All the way there she prayed to the Virgin Mary whom she honored with a medallion around her neck. She warmed the medallion in a clutched fist: “Let my brother live. Let my brother live.”

Did Mary hear?

My mother arrived in Juárez only to identify her dead brother, a bullet hole in his left temple. She had to notify her parents of his death. My mother now remembers nothing of this, so she can’t fill in the blanks – the way the car’s headlights cut through the night on the drive to the border, whether someone had cleaned the blood off my uncle’s body, whether she held him to her one last time. Nothing.

I’d long heard about the death of this uncle I never got to meet, but I’d never learned about my mother’s role in the story until she got sick. Yet when one my aunts shared the tale with me some five decades after the event, saying, “Your mother is a strong woman,” I swear I heard my mother crying as she stood by her dead brother’s side. Surely she prayed to be delivered from the nightmare of her brother’s murder. When she realized the futility of that, then she must have prayed for strength.

Deliver me, oh Lord.

Years later, she would write the prayer for healing of her mind.

When she wrote it, we don’t know. The entry in her notebook bears no date. She must have taken pen in hand as the haze of illness rolled over memory – when she knew something was happening in her brain but before she lost her ability to write. Outwardly, she was mostly calm, firm in her belief that God would see her through whatever this thing was. For all of our reassurances that she would not be alone on this journey, she never spoke of these fears to us, her children. The only person to whom she ever said the word Alzheimer’s was one of her sisters, and even then, it was in the form of a question: “It can’t be Alzheimer’s can it?”

Maybe it’s that I’ve spent enough time sitting in kitchens and living rooms drinking coffee with my primas and my tias, marveling at the things they’ve survived – rape, murder, the death of their children, the slow coup of their homeland by drug cartels – and the way they shoulder the losses, the burdens, and move forward. Or maybe it’s that I have, in fact, lost the beliefs I once had. Whatever the case, when my mother’s prayer crosses my path, I do not call on God. Instead I call on them, grandmothers, the aunts, the cousins who have preceded me: How did you do it? How did you manage to keep on putting one foot in front of the other? If you stumbled, how did you pick yourself up? Help me. I need to know how to do this.

The small things involved in my mother’s care, somehow I have dealt with them. Selling her car to keep her from driving, the phase during which she sang in public to every kid she saw, the phase during which men’s beer bellies fascinated her – I’ve coped. Dealing with her everyday fears and paranoia, the house doors that must be shut at all times, the curtains that must be drawn at all times, her purse, her winter jacket, her trash can even, for Pete’s sake, that must be taken to her room at bedtime so that no one will sneak in during the night and steal them — yep, I’ve dealt. Our family has all dealt.

But faced with my mother’s prayer for deliverance from sickness, I buckle. This is the only real indication I’ve had of her fear along this journey. And the words are such a thin plea in the face of a physiological tsunami that they, too, fold, allowing me to be sucked down into the churning waters of her fears where everything she didn’t write is a tentacle that reaches and strangles.

Deliver me oh, God from the confusion in my mind. Do not let it worsen, I beg you. Deliver me. Deliver me from forgetting my children’s faces, from forgetting how to drive, how to cook, how to dress myself. Deliver me from the stink of piss and shit in my diapers when I forget how to use the toilet, from my daughters having to wipe my soiled clothes and bathe my scarred and sagging body. Deliver me, Lord, for I am frightened.

After she retired from serving school children lunch, my mother spent years volunteering with a Catholic community whose prayer was visible in action. Among the things my mother did was to deliver groceries weekly to some of the most destitute – old, sick women living in one-room shacks, multiple families sharing a tiny home. But she was like this even before – my sister remembers the mortification of being driven to school by our mother on blustery winter days and having her stop to give rides to the children no one liked, the outcasts, the misfits, the weird.

Maybe that’s the reason that when politicians and legislators pray in public, it seems such a charade. Because I’ve come to believe that prayer is the hand that frees the noose and wipes the blood off the dead and dying. Prayer is the eyes that see the kid no one else wants to see, the eyes that won’t look away from suffering when the rest of the world turns away.

I believe my ancestors hear me. When I wake up at 3 a.m. to change my mother’s soiled underwear and rub ointment on her bottom, when I spray the bathroom walls with water in an effort to bathe her, when I run a comb through her wet hair or tie her shoes, even when I write a check to pay those who do these things for her far more often than I do – my sisters are with me. They reach for me across the decades, cradle me to their bosom and rock me in our history.

And whether or not there is a God, and whether or not I acknowledge his or her existence in public, when my mother prays for deliverance, is being there for her not an answer to her prayer anyway?

©2012 Beatriz Terrazas, all rights reserved

The ones who have already gone

John and his mom, Nina, in her room the week before Christmas

Her hair, which she once kept a short, neat blonde, is now gray. This particular evening it was freshly washed and brushed into a bob. Years ago, hair was a topic on which we could turn entire conversations, and I don’t believe that she would have ever worn hers this way. But now, so close to the end, there is only so much one can do.

We were at the memory care facility for an early holiday celebration, and John spoon-fed his mother her roast beef, sweet potatoes, green beans, salad and a cobbler with a bit of ice cream. For the most part, she barely looked at us. She just rubbed at some invisible spot on the table in front of her, occasionally landing a hand on her plate and dragging it toward her. But at one point, she suddenly turned to him and a look of surprise seemed to cross her face. She leaned toward him, the muscles of her face contracting as if about to speak, and I could almost see the thought: “Why, I know you!” She stared at him for a few long moments, and we hunched forward in anticipation. Would she speak? But all too soon, she went away. Again.

It’s sometimes difficult for me to be among her fellow residents, to see the confusion — “I can’t find my room,” – and the yearning, “Hi honey, I love you.” We reciprocate: “I’m sure we’ll find your room,” and “I love you, too, you look so pretty today.” It can be overwhelming; it can make me want to run.

After dinner, John rolled her into her room, positioned the wheelchair so that she was facing the Christmas tree and we sat there, the walls and ceiling illuminated only by the tiny lights of the tree. She used to love Christmas, delighting in putting gifts for others under the tree with tags that read “From Santa,” in her neat script. The moment was so rich with memories that briefly, I felt I could float on its surface without sinking into sadness, buoyed by the fact that at least, we were here, in the glow of tiny lights and supported by something bigger than ourselves: a recognition of our place in a long line of others who have already come and gone and carved a path for us to follow. Were they watching us? I think so, and I felt comforted. I ran my hand down the back of her head, smoothing the gray locks, and she leaned into my touch.

She’s not coming back, no matter how many times she may seem to recognize her son she’s not coming back, I thought. And it reminded me of so many others who aren’t coming back: the soldiers who did not return from Iraq, from Afghanistan; the men and women who left their homes for an hour to run an errand and never walked back through the door; the babies and children who were supposed to outlive parents and against all logic, did not; those who due to estrangement or long-held hurts remain beyond our reach; those of whom we’ve simply lost track; and those, like my mother and mother-in-law who are inching a steady path away from us and toward the ones who have already gone.

©text and photo, 2011 Beatriz Terrazas, all rights reserved.

Hermanas

Growing up, they were more than sisters -- they were best friends. Several years back my tia Blasa (right) had knee replacement surgery. My mom did not leave her hospital bedside for nearly an entire day except to go to the bathroom. She sat there and prayed for her sister. Now, in the wake of a second knee surgery, my mom only says, "What's your name? You're so pretty. I like your blouse, your pants, your shoes." She even pointed to her scar and asked, "Does that hurt?" Still, I'm glad I have this moment of them at Blasita's rehab facility. Text and photo © Beatriz Terrazas 2011

What I forget

That coming home to my sick mother is like falling off a cliff; I reach in vain for anything to break my fall.

That sometimes the metal taste of blue-white rage will fill my mouth. Why my mother, who spent her life in service to others, volunteering with the poor and the dispossessed? My sister recalls her mortification when Mom, driving her to school, would stop to pick up kids from whom wafted the unmistakeable scent of unpopularity: the shunned, the misfit, the unpopular, the delinquent, even — they were all just kids to her.

That nights with her are spent listening for the rustle of her leaving the bed, seeing her materialize in the room where I sleep. “Where are my shoes?” she asks. “You took my shoes. I need my shoes.”

That the woman whose soiled underwear I wad up in the trash — “No Mom, don’t pull your pants up yet, I need to wipe,” — once held my life within her hands.

That the woman who layers her head in colorful scarves by day and a black one at night once twisted locks of her hair around sponge rollers, then combed it out into gentle waves and sprayed it with AquaNet.

That the woman whose facial muscles are now set in a neutral mask once knew how to smile. It takes effort now to recall the way the tone of her voice and the register of her laughter.

That coming home to her is a hard landing. Every time.

The texture of love

Mom, spring of 2011.

 

Sun-cooked car beneath my palms. Pea gravel on my knees. Love, I’ve discovered, has many textures.

Last week, my sister called Mom’s house to tell the caregiver she was on the way to pick them both up. The caregiver said, “Your mom went to bed already.” It was 6 p.m.  The coloring books, the grocery store flyers, the scissors had been put away. My mother’s brain no longer compels her to color or snip junk mail for hours on end. When the brain says stop, she stops. Nothing more to do but sleep. When my sister told me this, dead leaves whispered beneath my feet. My heart stuttered. The days grow shorter, the tunnel we walk more narrow.

Mom needs to be kept active, to get some kind of mental stimulation, none of which is the care agency worker’s job. Her job is to cook a meal for Mom, to help her with toileting needs, to help her get up from the couch if she can’t do it herself. Medicaid won’t pay for more than that — and only for two hours per weekday of it, at that. There are people with greater needs, we are told; because my mother is mobile, can walk, can laugh (though less and less) her needs pale by comparison.

I asked the home aide once, “Did they tell you anything about Alzheimer’s patients when you started working here — about what the disease is and what it does?” They hadn’t. Not for aides to know why someone needs help, only that she needs help, and how to help. I got books — Coach Broyles’ Playbook for Alzheimer’s Caregivers, (a mouthful in Spanish: Plan de juego de el Entrenador Broyles para Cuidadores de Personas con la Enfermedad de Alzheimer), and The 36-Hour Day (Cuando el dia tiene 36 horas). Two copies of each, one for the aide, the other for the cousin who helps us with Mom. “Read them,” I said, “so that you will know what I’m talking about when we discuss my mom.” The aide said the books were interesting; my cousin said they made her cry.

Some days, the questions crowd everything else from my mind: Were it not for the hours she spends at daycare where she socializes with more than her family, would my mother’s brain atrophy more quickly? What will happen when we can’t care for her at home? We toured one place, my sister and I, a place that might accept Medicaid. The woman who showed us around was all business; that is, fifteen minutes after we started, she had to move on to someone else’s problem, someone else’s mother. But this is my mother, I wanted to shout at the curves under the dress, at the rose-cremed smile that didn’t reach the eyes — my mother! Still, I understood, reminded as I was of my news days: my camera trained on a man carrying a dead child washed up out of a creek after a storm, on a woman pacing the sidewalk in front of the house where family members were murdered. I could not function if I’d thought of them as my child, my family — mine.

No, mine is the crunch of green fruit that puckers my mouth, the rippled cloth on the table that won’t lay flat under my fingers. I prefer love when its texture is pressed linen, mirrored ocean. Some days, my greatest wish is to feel the slide of ripe apricot against my teeth.

© 2011 Beatriz Terrazas

The universe of her skin

Coloring time ...

A break on a playground bench during a walk at the neighborhood school.

“Come on, wash my hair,” says my mother after we’ve gotten the water temperature just right. And I lather up her thinning locks so that she can spray her scalp with the hand-held showerhead.

“Wash my back,” she says. And I rub soapy circles over her increasingly rounded back. That’s when I notice that she has a small spray of rod-shaped moles arcing out from under her left shoulder blade, a trail of brown specks heading south and west in such a way that if they were really traveling, they’d eventually make their way around to the general vicinity of her heart.

While nuclear meltdowns in Japan touch off fears of radiation poisoning even here in the U.S., I dry my mother off, run a towel from the top of her head down to her toes. The journalist in me longs to plug into CNN online, The New York Times, any organization that is monitoring the events in the wake of the massive earthquake and tsunami on that side of the world. And at night, after I’ve dried my mom’s hair and have her seated where she is snipping junk mail or filling in the outlines of shepherds or dancing chipmunks in a kid’s activity book, I do take a peek at the day’s news, until she needs her meds and it’s time for bed.

If only I could worry with the rest of the world, glue myself to computer screen or TV. In a way, that would be easier than what I am doing now. Worrying about the more distant World with a capital “W” rather than my mom’s intimate world, with its lowercase “w” would mean I am engaged with the rest of humanity. Halfway around the globe, people have died and continue to die, continue to be in danger. I feel I should be doing something to help. Instead I deal with Mom’s potty runs, disposable underwear changes when we don’t get there quite in time, wash her back and hair, walk her to the elementary school down the street for exercise. Such are the confines our collective life right now, with an occasional longer reach to visit a cousin or make a doctor’s appointment.

Reducing my life to these small moments, I am reminded that there are worlds within worlds, and universes within universes. How minuscule we are when we consider the larger canvasses against which we play out our small lives — like the moles on my mother’s back, a comet’s tail of brown pigments on the universe of her skin.

Text and photos (c) Beatriz Terrazas 2011

When there are no words

Sometimes, it’s just too depressing to write about this journey. I can’t find anything good to say about it, can’t find anything redeeming about what we’re going through. Then I remember that sometimes it’s easier to show than to tell. So here are a few images focusing on some of the brighter moments — those instances showing some of the skills Mom still has and moments in which she still marvels at the world.

Text and photos (c) Beatriz Terrazas 2011

She can still tie her shoes.

She can still brush her hair.

She can still put on her hair clips.

She won't leave the house without her jacket, but will go for a walk, look for birds on a wire ...

... and make it all the way back home.

Returning as they once were

In contrast to the shells they are becoming, they have begun returning to me as they once were: the two women I call “Mom” and “mother-in-law.”

My mother was sent home from daycare last week because she was being disruptive and despite staff efforts at redirection, she remained very agitated. She wandered around in search of “her blouse,” and couldn’t be dissuaded from trying to kiss the man sitting at the table next to her.

But several nights ago while traveling through the depths of slumber I saw her, clear as day and as whole and unbroken as she used to be. She did not say a word while visiting; she was simply there, a wall of support and a symbol of love and comfort.

Earlier this week, I sat with my mother-in-law in the living room of Autumn Leaves of Grapevine. I fetched a cup of lemonade, encouraging her to lift her chin in order to drink, but she seemed to have lost the ability to sit up. Despite the strums of a visiting country music singer, she spent the better part of two hours nearly doubled over. I was unable to get her to look at me even once.

Yet, she, too, has dropped in on my thoughts recently, her hair freshly highlighted and her Clinique lipstick perfectly applied for these visits. She is prone to appear while I’m channel surfing or selecting bell peppers in the supermarket.

They are two women from different socioeconomic levels and from different cultures. One anchored me in this world by birthing me in unconditional love. The other anchored me in her family with unconditional acceptance when I married her son.

They have this in common: they are among the strongest people I’ve known. I’ve been privy to intimate struggles in both their lives – divorce, death, and hurtful gossip. Some struggles have been public, some private. But both managed to always hold their heads high despite the whispers and sidelong glances of friends and neighbors.

I do recall times when I saw each women falter, two of which made an impression on me. When I was very young, in elementary school, I remember my mother going through some kind of despair for what seemed like months. What was it about? I don’t know. But for a while I was frightened. Did I catch her crying alone, or hear her say something to my dad, something that hinted at her pain? I don’t know. I know only that I’d awaken in the middle of the night to hear her walk to the bathroom and I’d keep my eyes open in the dark, thinking if I didn’t keep watch, she might decide to leave, walk out the door — or worse. I’d wait for the rustle of her moving back to the bedroom and under the covers. Only then would I feel secure enough to drift back to sleep. She eventually came back to us as we knew her, strong in her faith, in her love of her family, but I was left forever to wonder about the dark period in her life.

The time I saw my mother-in-law stumble was when her husband died. What a rock she seemed to me then, making funeral arrangements, preparing the obituary, not allowing anyone to spend even that first night after his death with her in a house suddenly made larger and emptier in the face of his absence. Then, the day of the memorial, as we walked down the church aisle to step outside and greet those who’d come to bid him farewell, she suddenly gripped my arm with one hand and John’s with the other, and her face screwed up with pent up sobs. “I thought the tears were done,” she said. But there they were, tracking down her immaculate makeup. In the weeks to come, anger would replace the pain — anger at being widowed in her early 60s, but I won’t forget those tears, ever.

Once, I interviewed a researcher at UT Southwestern Medical Center who explained that to better cope, it’s important for caregivers to find meaning in the person with dementia at every step of the disease. And when that patient can no longer speak or walk or make eye contact, perhaps the meaning in her life at that point is to remind us – through memories of her – of who we are.

Did I summon these unexpected visits from my younger, healthier mom and mother-in-law? Not consciously, though I harbor that chronic, invisible ache of missing the women they used to be. Subconsciously, however, I am part of a wide web of ancestors who know what I need at any given time, and who are prone to sending aid in unexpected ways when I think I can’t hold on anymore.

Some days, I succumb to anger and frustration — about lots of things: the lack of empathy in society, the bigotry I see in the world, the sheer impotence in the face of my mother and mother-in-law’s Alzheimer’s. Then my familia past and present rallies with the gift of memory. I ask – no, I beg – these two women whose faces are put before me: “How did you do it? How did you cope? Where did you get the strength to put one foot in front of the other?”

They don’t speak. But they don’t waver either. It’s as if they are letting me draw on the women they were, allowing me to reclaim in their strength the spine they bequeathed to me. They simply stay and let me lean on them until I’m ready to move on.

(c) 2011 Beatriz Terrazas