Anne O’Connor

Anne, Mom, Grammy, Gracie

My mother died last February of Alzheimer’s Disease.   I have been surprised at how hard it has been to lose her.  I thought I was ready . . . she was, after all, declining.  I was not ready.  I thought that when she died I would feel primarily guilt about all the times that I was impatient with her.  I do not feel guilty, what I feel is loss.  I miss her.  Oh my God, how I miss her.

My mother always used a cute little Gracie Allen shtick to deflect questions she didn’t want to answer or emotions she didn’t want to feel.  My father would say “let’s buy a new car” and she would be thinking “no . . . we can’t afford it” but she would reply “a car . . . where did you park your car?”  Someone she loved would express sadness or (God forbid) anxiety and she would offer up some deflection like “I read in the paper that there is new gold mine in Colorado” – the sad loved one would scratch her head and ask herself  . . . “wait a minute who changed the channel?” When feeling shy about meeting a new person . . . Mr. Dupuis for example . . . she would say something like “Oh your name is Dupuis? That’s funny, my niece married Mr. Despres!”, leaving Mr. Dupuis speechless and silent.  

Sad about a loss, worried about a problem, feeling distress, she would report to me that she was feeling “twitchy” or in its advanced form “wooshy”, a collection of symptoms which, when reported to a doctor sounded enough like impending doom to merit many trips to the ER. She would explain her symptoms in her quirky little way and would inevitably lead the ER staff to look at me and say “Can you help us with this?”.  Almost always I could find a suppressed “worry” beneath her “twitchiness”.  After letting her speak her piece I would suggest that perhaps anxiety was contributing to her distress.  She once slapped her hand across my mouth when I suggested this to her cardiologist.  She wanted her distress to be physical so that a pill or a treatment of some sort could make it go away, without any painful ruminations.

I am recalling all of this as I reflect on the last 10 years or so of my mother’s life and see how often I missed the signs of Alzheimer’s disease in what my aunt described as my mother’s tactical obtuseness.  Our doctor, my sister and a few friends had gently suggested that she was having “memory issues” . . . oh no, I would say, that’s just her inner Gracie Allen. She herself was seeing the signs.  One night, on a rare occasion when she and I were home alone, I made her dinner.  She sat across the table from me and asked, with unprecedented directness, if I thought that she was “getting senile”.  “Of course not” I said “ You’re just you!”.  She shut her eyes and put her head down on the table. She knew.

And so, when she was diagnosed during the summer of 2012, and I had expected to hear that she was suffering from manageable age related memory loss or executive function,  I felt like I had been hit by a brick when the doctor assessed her condition as accelerating Alzheimer’s Disease.  “Your mother cannot hold a thought for more than 30 seconds, and it will only get worse!” the doctor reported  – sternly, as if it were a character flaw – my mother’s for having the disease and mine for failing to see it.  I thought that Alzheimer’s meant not being able to remember what happened 50 years ago not what happened 15 minutes ago.  Since that day, I have looked back and seen the signs I missed all over the place. I have looked back and seen that my impatience with her forgetfulness and avoidance was prompted by something she had no control over.

Now, slowly, my vision is expanding beyond the intensity of these last few years and Alzheimer’s Disease.   I am beginning to see the whole,  the trajectories of her life.

There was music – her delight and her prayer.  Persistent and disciplined, even as a child, she studied and practiced the piano with a lifelong uninterrupted focus.  She played Beethoven, Grieg, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Mozart, Schuman and her beloved Chopin. She woke us up on Christmas morning by playing the Warsaw Concerto – a piece populated by stanzas full of five note chords, bass and treble clef, played allegro/crescendo.  Her only two splurges were on pianos, first a Baldwin spinet with money she inherited from her grandmother and later, a baby grand when she was prosperous enough to afford it.  She surrounded us with music.

There was learning, her greatest adventure. Bright and industrious, modest and unassuming, she tossed aside the counsel of her high school advisors that secretarial school was her only choice,  and went to Emmanuel College, Merrimack College and the University of Lowell, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and a Masters’ Degree in Education. She read constantly.  She read to us. She taught second grade for 35 years. There were books and newspapers all over our house.  She took us to museums and plays.  In her retirement years she tutored children who had difficulty reading and adults who were learning to speak English.  She taught many children  to knit, to do card tricks, to collect stamps and to play the piano on her beloved baby grand.  She conducted teaching tours through the Stevens Coolidge House Museum. She acquainted herself with the interests of her friends and family and collected newspaper clippings for all of them. Without fanfare or acclaim, she devoted her life to teaching.  She imprinted us with her love of learning and her belief in the value of education.

There was faith, her greatest hope and solace. Faith filled and attentive, she was a very observant Catholic.  She took us to church – always – even on the Holy Days.  She led us in grace before meals. She indulged us in our questioning.  She gave us the example of an intelligent and sometimes doubting believer whose doubts always came to rest on the altar of her faith.

There was community, her sustenance.  In the years, since her diagnosis, when I have had to retrace her steps to the bank, the pharmacy, the doctors’ offices , the gym, the Post Office  and to the parents of her piano students,  I heard stories . . . lots of stories.  Each describing time with her as a sort of “time out of time” experience,  a sort of enchantment, as though in her presence they stepped through a looking glass into a world where whimsy was allowed, formalities suspended and time slowed. I have been touched beyond words at how the people who had come to know her in her daily life held her in such tender esteem.

 And then there was family, her joy. Devoted and loving, she adored her family.  Never one for extravagant public displays of affection, she was always and without question lovingly present in our lives.  She had her own ways of saying “I love you” which had no need of Hallmark, FTD or terms of endearment. She was endlessly amused and delighted by her extraordinary sisters, whose dazzling adventures gave her many stories to tell.  She was unwaveringly loyal to and supportive of our father, even as he struggled with alcoholism.  She adored him even in his “troubles”.  Day in and day out,  quietly and without fuss, she never gave up on him. This was not acquiescence, this was love. Her love was a verb. Her love language was populated by her actions and not by proclamations. For my sister and I and then her grandchildren and sons in law she was always there.  There was no place she would rather have been then any place where we were.  Even at the end, in the nursing home, when she caught sight of me coming down the hall her face would be transformed by delight. She would wave me in and claim me as her daughter, in the face of competition for my attention from her memory impaired companions who wanted to believe that I was there for them. Slapping her hand on the table she proclaimed, with a vehemence I had never before seen – “SHE IS MY DAUGHTER”.  She may not have been able to remember what she had for lunch but she never forgot love and in those moments, I was love.  I have never earned a higher honor.

The course of my mother’s life is clear to see now. She moved with the currents of love, with humility, humor, grace and devotion, never, ever, driven off course, not even by the winds of Alzheimer’s Disease.  I am proud of her life.

Once, at our dining room table, a nurse sent by the insurance company, quizzed her to confirm her condition.  The date? The year? The president? The governor? The date of your birth?. . . she got all the answers wrong.  Finally, the nurse asked “Where are we Anne?” With a look in her eyes that said “you haven’t got me yet”, my mother replied “Heaven”.  Startled, the nurse began to sing “Heaven, we’re in Heaven and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak . . .”  My mother hummed along for a minute and then answering a question that had not been asked said “Irving Berlin”. 

I have been graced by “Gracie”.

Written by Kathleen O’Connor Potter