I recognize that vacant look. I've seen it before -- on my mother's face. It's the look of Alzheimer's.
Instead of grading student papers tonight, I'm watching "The Forgetting: A Portrait of Alzheimer's" on PBS...again. I've seen it once before, but that was three or four years ago...before my mother went into an Alzheimer's care facility.
During the program, a man talks about losing his wife to Alzheimer's. What he misses most, he says, are the conversations they used to have. Sometimes now she doesn't even recognize him. It makes me think of my father, who cared as best he could for my mother and kept her at home...until the point when she started leaving home because she didn't like "that strange man" who kept talking about marriage.
In another scene in "The Forgetting," two daughters visit their mother, who is in a nursing home. She is largely unresponsive, doesn't seem to recognize them. They speak to her in cheerful voices, patting her hand, her hair. Been there, done that.
Later in the show, the daughters talk about how long it's been since their mother was diagnosed -- 13 years -- and how they know it could go on like this for another five, 10 or even 20 years. It seems endless, they say. They wonder what they will do if she gets pneumonia -- treat it, or let it run its course? I've had that conversation too.
It is nearly 10 years since I first realized something was wrong with my mother. As the out-of-towner in the family, I was the first to notice the changes. Mom had stopped doing needlepoint, which she'd loved. She'd stopped cooking; said she'd done enough of it. She'd stopped cutting her hair; said she liked it longer.
Later, I found that her last completed needlepoint was dated 1997. My brother looked back through his photos and saw that 1998 was the year she let her hair go.
We've now had a decade of living with Alzheimer's and watching our mother slowly disappear. There's no knowing when it will end...or if it will end with her.