When Dad called me on that fateful January 10th, 2001, I breathed a sigh of relief. It´s not that the news did not move me. It did. But, my mother had been ‘dead’ for years, you see––only now it was official.
Mom lived the last ten years of her life trapped in the quagmire of Alzheimer´s disease. At first she forgot the most basic things of her daily routine. She would forget where she left her keys and failed to recall turning off the stove. Forgetting things disturbed her; it was a feeling of distress that no one was able to assuage. As she gradually lost her memory, she eventually opted not to leave her home, the only place she truly knew and felt safe in.
That was only the beginning. As time went by––slowly at first, then a faster pace––she started mistaking names, dates, and even failed to recognize family members. Confusion led to more forgetfulness. Her physical decline became evident. Once a young, stunningly beautiful woman, with caramel color eyes, pale skin with light freckles, elegant, as well as smart, ––she slowly withered away, ravaged by the disease.
I was her first born. She was 38 when she delivered me. Back in those days, she was considered an old woman to start raising a family. She was a loving “mama” and she cared, but even as a young child, I perceived that being a mother and a housewife overwhelmed her. She looked to me as a trapped animal.
I never saw her happy. I don´t recall seeing her laugh out loud––ever. I remember slight smiles. Sometimes, I would notice her crying or sobbing in secret. Other times, she would pray, and listen to tango, with lyrics marked by nostalgia, sadness, and laments for lost love. I imagine these songs transported her to a safe place, insulated from the pain and frustration of everyday life.
Alzheimer´s would one day come and take her memory away––and her pain, as well.
The disease, which rapidly grew more serious after the appearance of the first symptoms, continued unabated until it devastated her body and mind completely. In the end, she was a mangled, withered wreck who depended on others for the most basic help.
In the last year of her life, she had become an unburied corpse. I breathed a sigh of relief when she passed away. She had finally broken free of that terrible disease. Alzheimer’s had also claimed the lives of my maternal grandmother and most of my aunts.
November is Alzheimer´s awareness month, a degenerative disease characterized by a loss of neurons in the brain and a loss of brain volume for which there is no cure. Basic symptoms include loss of memory, time and space disorientation, and mental and emotional deterioration. Causes remain unknown. In the meantime, the number of victims continues to rise. It is believed that over 30 million around the world people suffer from this disease.
Am I worried about my own health? Of course I am. I have consulted with my primary physician, who offered me the following recommendations:
- If you believe you are losing memory or have had regular dizzy spells, you must see your doctor. Early detection has proven to be a useful tool to implement strategies that treat the underlying problem causing cognitive decline.
- Eat a balanced diet and get exercise. Add more fruit and fresh vegetables and more whole grain to your diet, cut down on fried food, animal fats, sugars, and salt. Walk and work out for at least 30 minutes a day at least three days a week.
- Practice mental stimulation and social interaction. Keeping mental acuity is essential. Be socially active––paint, read, dance, write, join a club.
- Get a good night´s rest. Try to reduce stress.
Short of a cure, these are the only steps I can take for my health. As for my mother, I would have loved to have had a tete-a-tete with her, to get to really know her, to ask her about her life, to share with her my passion for tango, which today I dance with unbridled passion. I would have loved to touch her heart with my boundless energy and happiness. I would have been so beautiful to make her smile.