A few years ago, my dad painted a portrait of Mom that, though well executed, troubled me for the expression he chose to apply to her face. Mom is shown with a Mona Lisa-type mysterious smile while her eyes are half closed, making her seem distant and oblivious. It is clearly a portrait of Mom with Alzheimer’s, the intelligence and brightness of her eyes are dimmed. The encroaching black background seems to be swallowing her whole, a sure metaphor for Alzheimer’s.
Today I understood the portrait. Today I saw that Mom in person.
My visit didn’t start out too promisingly. Mom didn’t want to leave the apartment, requesting instead to stay with her beloved Jack. Daddy had a meeting to attend, and Mom and I had plans to meet my aunt and uncle in their hotel for coffee. Grumbling all the while, Mom got ready to go out.
As soon as we were walking down the stairwell, I started singing, “We’re off to see the Wizard.” Mom couldn’t help herself—she started to sing along. Except she kept changing the words to match her mood. The wizard was stinky, we were “off” like smelly socks. I admired her creativity. By the time we were on the street, though, her bad mood had vanished.
Good, I thought, I can keep this up. And for the most part, we had a great time, chatting amiably over coffee, sharing compliments, laughing, and singing. But I couldn’t sustain her happiness: Mom’s moods are mercurial and sometimes I lose my energy. At one point, maybe while we were waiting for our food to arrive, I glanced over at Mom and saw that face from the portrait.
It wasn’t so much that her eyes were half closed as that one of her eyelids had drooped considerably. I hadn’t really thought much about eyelids. Were drooping eyelids a thing? What would cause that?
It turns out, drooping eyelids, also known as ptosis, can be caused by several factors including the aging process and neurological diseases (though Alzheimer’s isn’t named specifically). What happens is the muscle that elevates the upper eyelid stretches and becomes less effective. The drooping can occasionally be so bad that it blocks an individual’s vision. Surgery fixes some of the drooping, but in most cases, those affected don’t complain about vision loss, and the eyelid is left alone.
What was even more disturbing than the half lowered lid was the vacant look in Mom’s eyes.
“What are you looking at?” I asked.
“I’m staring at that wall,” Mom replied. It reminded me of my grandmother who once told me she watched the clock hands rotate, minutes passing with profound slowness.
Was Mom as still inside as she was outside? Was she thinking? Rapidly, quietly? I asked Mom what she thought of the two drawings hanging on the wall.
“They’re not relevant,” she declared angrily. She dramatically hit her hands together. “They waste my time.”
I had no idea if those comments were directed at me or at the wall or at the unknown artist. They made sense in the context of our conversation, but as she continued to ramble, I knew they were answers from somewhere inside her, somewhere I could not reach.
As I was trying to distract her, our food arrived. Saved, I thought. We had ordered Mom a plate of ravioli that was easy to eat with a spoon. We didn’t even have to explain how to eat the food in her dish before she started slowly and methodically to feed herself.
And then she was back, Alzehiemer's and all, my beloved mother, smiling and chatting and enjoying her lunch.
The summer months have arrived with their wilting heat, and I find myself making more dairy and vegetable dishes in the hope they are lighter fare. Tonight, my husband Jeff and I feasted on broccoli, pepper and mushroom stir fry with tofu, rice and pesto. It was plentiful and tasty. Here’s the recipe for the pesto I made.
I decided to keep my pesto dairy-free. Instead of cheese, I packed it with extra basil, garlic, and a secret ingredient—mayonnaise.
1½ cups fresh basil leaves
3 cloves garlic
¼ cup pine nuts or walnuts
1/3 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp mayonnaise
Remove basil leaves from their stems and toss into food processor with remaining ingredients. Pulse until leaves and nuts are minced. Place mixture in a serving bowl and spoon over vegetable rice dish.