My brother-in-law and sister-in-law from opposite sides of my family lost their mothers in December. And all I can think is how jealous I feel.
For both these family members, death brought finality to painful, difficult lives. Neither of these women—whom I remember for their vivacious grasp of life—had Alzheimer’s, though they did suffer from other illnesses.
Do I really feel envious of someone’s mother dying? Do I have the right to feel that way, considering what I’m ultimately wishing for? Does that make me a monster?
Mom barely exists. Her days are lived in a disconnected fog from everything and everyone she once loved. There is no shape or meaning to her time on this earth.
When I visit, the abstract notion of Mom’s hastened death flies out the window. Of course I could never wish for her death. She is a living, breathing, loving individual, and it is my job to protect her, no matter how different she is from the woman she used to be.
On our last visit, I swear she told me that her brain was “roasted.” I don’t know what that means, or even if I heard properly, but it felt like a sign of self-awareness. I would hate to think that Mom knew she was trapped in this life with Alzheimer’s as her only intimate companion. She also told me she wanted to live with me. Again, I can only interpret what I think she meant if those were indeed her words. Despite the loving care she receives, if it were me, I would prefer to live at home, too, not in some care facility.
This brings me to the second thing that’s been animating my thoughts. Back in November,* my husband Jeff and I were listening to “This American Life,” when, without warning, we were plunged into a reading of Amy Bloom’s new book, In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss, where she chronicles how she helped her husband commit assisted suicide after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
I found this appalling not because of her husband’s decision to end his life, but the idea that it must have been early in their Alzheimer’s journey when so much love and possibility still existed. Because in order to end your life in this manner, you must be compos mentis. You must be able to think clearly and be in control of and responsible for your actions. You must say, yes, I am of sound mind and want to die.
Once you’re past the early stages of Alzheimer’s, this type of thought is impossible for any sustained length of time.
Mom was never able to understand the fact that she had Alzheimer’s. Every time we mentioned the disease by name, she’d cover her ears, yell at us or leave the room. Yes, she knew something was wrong. There were painful moments when she cried in my arms because, in her words, her brain wasn’t functioning. But she could not have had an intellectual discussion about the disease and how it might affect her.
As far as I’m concerned, Mom was never a candidate for assisted suicide. The idea was too lofty and unobtainable for her to contemplate. And we, not knowing what the journey would entail, would not have sanctioned it.
Given the thoughts I’ve been having, I realize that I am caught in liminal space, a no man’s land between life and death, the transition from prolonged loss to finite mourning.
We have never considered the idea of helping Mom die. But this sustained existence is difficult to bear.
Through it all, I love my mother desperately—and with a heavy sadness.
What can you do in situations like this to cheer yourself up? I find remembering Mom’s contribution to my culinary skills helps. I keep the recipe for Saigon Chicken in the middle of one particular cookbook so I know where to find it. The paper is stained and torn. Mom gave me this recipe many years ago. I lost that copy and then requested it again. When I take out the recipe, it reminds me of her fragility.
This is one of my all-time favorite chicken recipes. I especially like adding rice to the dish underneath the chicken (and adding an appropriate amount of water) so that it absorbs all the sauce’s sweetness.
2 chickens, cut into eighths
1 ½ tsp curry powder
1 ½ tsp granulated garlic (or 2 cloves, crushed)
½ cup honey or date honey
1 30 oz / 850 gr can crushed pineapple with juice
1 cup flour for dredging
Coat each chicken piece in a thin layer of flour by dredging it in a small bowl of flour. Place in baking pan. In a separate bowl, mix pineapple and juice, and other ingredients. Pour over chicken. Bake covered at 350° F / 180° C for one hour. Uncover and bake another 15 minutes until browned.
*The episode actually aired in September 2022, but we didn’t hear it until November.