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  • Writer's pictureJamie Leat

When You Forget, I'll Remember

It’s past 10 PM when I arrive home exhausted after working late at the church. Entering the quiet house, I notice a soft light streaming from mom’s bedroom. I wonder, “Is mom OK? She should be asleep.”

I tiptoe to her room and slowly open the door to find mom, fully dressed, sitting upright on the edge of the bed with her attention fixed on several family photos hanging on the wall.

Mom doesn’t notice me when I enter the room and sit down next to her. Reaching for her hand, I ask, “Mom, are you OK?” Her face turns towards me, and her eyes answer my question. Several years ago, mom’s eyes were gorgeous blue, dancing orbs full of life. Now, a lifeless, vacant gaze stares at me as if searching for something lost. Immediately I know mom is struggling to remember.

I ask one more time, “Mom, are you OK?” Again, she looks at me with a bewildered expression. So I stroke her hand and talk about my day, hoping that my voice stirs her memory. “The women’s conference went well. Over 600 women came this evening. The team managed to get the entire church decorated and ready for the festivities. I wish you could have seen it. We had an entire flock of plastic flamingos in the family life center. A friend of mine took a picture of me sitting among the pink beauties.”

I find the picture on my phone and show it to her. Mom stares at the photo for a few minutes. Patiently I wait while the confusion gradually dissipates and her sweet smile peeks out from behind the fear. Mom begins the slow journey back to the present moment, and life returns to her beautiful eyes. She laughs.

Now I can ask why she is awake at this hour. “Mom, how was your day? Why aren’t you asleep?”

After a long, hesitant pause, she whispers, “I can’t remember where I am. Nothing looks familiar.”

Squeezing her hand, I point to a picture on the wall of her and me, “Well, there we are with our big red noses on. Remember taking that picture in the car? We never laughed so much!”

I feel the tension leave mom’s hand. She relaxes and says, “Yes! We did have fun, didn’t we?”

I lean in and give her a reassuring hug. “You bet we did! Just look at all these photos that remind us of the fun we had.”

We sit for a bit longer while I point to pictures full of hugs and smiles. I remind mom of the family she has and the places she’s visited. We reminisce about birthday parties, granddaddy’s TV repair shop, family Christmases, and the birth of grandbabies. The time spent remembering these memories helps mom recall that she lives with me. She remembers who she is and where she is. Eventually, mom’s feelings of belonging and safety return, and she goes to sleep remembering that she is deeply loved.

Alzheimer’s entered our family in 2011 when my mom received the unwelcome diagnosis. From that moment, my focus became helping mom navigate the challenges of this life-robbing affliction. Like everyone else who experiences a brutal, unexpected turn in their journey, I was blindsided. Mom was the first in our family to contract Alzheimer’s and I knew nothing of its progression. So I read everything I could about the debilitating disease. Searching the internet, I found helpful resources to read, professionals giving advice, people sharing their experiences of living with the disease, and people sharing their caregiving joys and challenges. I found consolation in knowledge, for it seemed like knowing how to respond to the increasing demands of mom’s care would make me a better caregiver.

However, lately, I realize that I did something for my mom that I did not learn anywhere. This “thing” seemed a bit instinctual or from a deeper place within me, and I unknowingly practiced it with my mom the last few years of her life.

Alzheimer’s is ultimately about severed connections. The disease attacks the brain and destroys the neural network of the life living within a person’s brain. Not only are memories lost, which is how a person orients to their world through their identity and essence, but body function deteriorates too. Alzheimer’s slowly and systematically dismantles the entire being of a person – mentally, emotionally, and physically.

In 2015, unfortunate circumstances forced us to move mom into an assisted living center. The move was a difficult time for her because the living center felt foreign and scary. I decorated mom’s room with her stuff, hoping that she might settle into the new environment. However, having her stuff around, while helpful, did not alleviate the fear or confusion. She needed something else to assist with the transition.

Early on, I noticed that when I took time with mom to remember specific memories from her life, she would respond by relaxing or settling down. Fear and confusion were a signal that she could not find anything in her mind to relate to, leaving her uncertain about what was happening. Also, because the progression of Alzheimer’s is regressive, moving from an adult to a child, when I added the element of fun or being childlike into the activity, mom usually reacted with laughter and joy.

Before the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, mom and I met for lunch each week. I intended to keep this habit as long as she was physically able. So every Friday we went to lunch. We picked out a local restaurant, ate lunch, and then drove around the town visiting the sites.

One day, for some unknown reason, I took a selfie of her and me standing in front of Cinnamon Sticks, one of our favorite stores. Helping her from the car, I asked her to remember shopping in the store and eating at the tearoom. We laughed about having the grandkids with us and how hard it was to contain them in an inviting retail wonderland. We remembered buying Christmas gifts for loved ones. We recalled the store owners and that they lived in a log cabin. Most of all, I noticed that mom remembered. So from that moment, the ritual was known as the “Friday Selfie Stop.”

Every Friday, we ate lunch together and then visited a local place that reminded her of a treasured family memory. We stopped at places like the post office, a statue outside a bank, the old water tower, the Christmas tree at the town center, a statue honoring a fallen K9 dog outside the police station, a bench at Bear Creek Park, the pumpkin patch, a field of bluebonnets. We found priceless memories in the most unlikely places. Each time we paused to take a selfie, mom remembered who she was through the love and laughter encased within those ordinary moments.

When mom wasn’t able to get out of the car, we still went on our excursions. I just had to be more creative. Once, we went to Sonic and got sundaes for her friends at the living center. I took our selfie in the front seat of the car with her grinning ear to ear while holding a tray full of sundaes. Another time we got into a Starbucks drive-thru line and purchased her favorite coffee; a vanilla latte with half-n-half. Every outing was an opportunity for mom to remember the life she lived through the memories of her experiences.

Eventually, the disease progressed, and mom’s world became even smaller. We no longer left the nursing home, but mom and I still practiced the weekly Friday Selfie Stop ritual. We just went around the facility. I took our selfies in front of a fish tank, an employee of the month parking space sign, and beside a beautiful blooming cactus. One of my favorite selfies was after her beauty salon appointment. Her face beamed with joy about having a “good hair day.” I not only captured her beautiful smile in that simple photograph but I noticed that she remembered her own beauty.

Recently, my daughter gave me a photo album containing all the Friday Selfie Stop pictures I took of mom and me. As I turned the pages, I reminisced about the stories reflected in those photos. At the time, we were just having fun. I had no idea of the profound value of what we were doing.

Perhaps this happened with Jesus as well. In the final week of his earthly life, Jesus invited his closest friends to dinner.

As everyone sat around the table, Jesus unfolded a simple towel and filled a basin with water to wash his friend’s feet before dinner, as was customary. While he gently bathed their dusty gnarled, desert feet, perhaps images of the people they met along their journey came to his mind; the woman at the well, the little boy with the loaves and fishes, or Peter’s mother-in-law. When the meal came, Jesus picked up a crusty piece of bread and invited his companions to recall the physical ways he used his body to love others; like touching the coffin of a mother’s dead son, tears shed over the death of a brother, feeling the trembling hands of a crying, broken woman rubbing perfume on his feet. At the end of the meal, Jesus raised his glass of wine and reminded his friends how he offered his life’s energy and purpose when he taught and encouraged them to see differently. Jesus invited them to remember their journey together.

Arne Garborg wrote, “To love a person is to learn the song that is in their heart, and to sing it to them when they have forgotten.” Throughout the entire evening, Jesus shared the song of his heart with his friends. Jesus reminded them through ordinary snapshots of their time together, of who he was and what was most important to him. For he knew a time would come when his beloved friends might forget who he was, and in doing so, lose sight of who they were.

I did not recognize at the time that the song in mom’s heart was connected to the forgotten memories that she could no longer physically remember. She needed me to remember for her, and remind her of that song. The Friday Selfie Stop became our way of remembering and it was a lifeline to mom’s identity. This simple, ordinary ritual enabled me to relate with mom on a deeper level which was always present. Every Friday, when we stopped to take a selfie, I reminded her that we loved her, she lived a life that made a difference, and she was part of something bigger. She was not alone, nor forgotten.

The practice of remembering helped me learn the song in mom’s heart and together we reaped its blessing – reminding each other who we are in God’s eyes.

Now, the dinner that Jesus hosted takes on a new depth for me. I learned that the act of remembering powerfully releases God’s grace and the energy created by that grace speaks to me in a deeper place, reminding me of who I am when I forget. Because you see, I do forget who I am at times. And as I grow older, I may need help remembering the song of my own heart, just like mom.

Perhaps, someone will say to me one day, when you forget, I’ll remember.

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