She stared blankly back at me, without a trace of recognition in her eyes. It was almost as if I wasn’t there. For the first time, she didn’t break into a smile at seeing her youngest son in front of her. I knew this moment would come one day, but nothing could quite prepare me for the shock and devastation of what I felt right then. My own mom didn’t know who I was. That day in November 2002 was just another cruel and heartbreaking step toward the end of her 13-year fight with Alzheimer’s disease.
My mom, Helen Marie Lambert (known to her friends as “Tootsie”), passed away six years ago this month at the age of 69. My Dad called with the news of her diagnosis, just as I was starting my junior year at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. So for much of my adult life, I saw firsthand the effects this fatal disease of the brain had, not only on my mother, but also on my family and our friends.
Over the years, I watched her decline slowly as the disease robbed her of her memory and ability to care for herself. I couldn’t turn to her for advice, tell her about my new job or introduce any of my girlfriends to her. I watched my brother’s young stepchildren run from her in terror as she chased them angrily for no apparent reason. They would never know the kind, loving person we knew growing up.
But, I could always count on her to recognize me. We would dance to swing music in the basement, and once, after I broke my collarbone in a college hockey game, she put a blanket over me and patted my head. No matter how bad things were — if she could no longer eat or bathe herself — she still knew me. It was one of the few things I could take comfort in, no matter how bad things were.
One of the others was the fact my Dad was taking care of her. She would spend the rest of her days at home and not go to a nursing home, if he had any say. He actually didn’t want to undergo surgery in 1998 for prostate cancer if that meant she would have to stay in a personal-care facility temporarily. He was afraid she wouldn’t know who he was when he was released from the hospital. Luckily, I convinced him to forgo chemotherapy and have the surgery. As for my mom, she never called another place home.
Dad was the one person who could get my mom to laugh or smile, if she was in the middle of one of her tantrums. He was also the one who bore the biggest responsibility. Sometimes, that meant not sleeping at night, because she would wake up and make the bed over and over again — while he was in it. He would feed her, put her on the toilet, give her a shower, dress her and drive her to day care. If that wasn’t enough to tire him out, he would do it all over again when he picked her up and brought her home. I’m exhausted just thinking about it, let alone doing it at least twice, each and every day for years.
Eventually, she lost the ability to walk unassisted, so putting her in a wheelchair and loading her in and out of his car were added to his work. His reward when he reached over to buckle her up? A kiss on the cheek. She wouldn’t ever forget who her white knight was, even on her death bed. He was the one person she would always recognize.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. How I’d like to tell her about my day. How I imagine her and Amy talking about our upcoming wedding. How I have never met a more gentle person in my nearly 39 years since she brought me into this world. How I’d say all those things everyone wishes they’d say to someone who helped shape them into who they are today.
Those thoughts are a big reason why I am honored to serve on the board of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Greater Pennsylvania Chapter. I want to do everything I can to help raise money to fund research efforts so a cure can be found someday and no other families have to live through such a nightmare. I also want to raise awareness so people know the true cost of Alzheimer’s, not only in financial terms, but very personal ones.
But most importantly, I want to let those struggling to deal with this devastating disease to know they and their families are not alone.
Tim Lambert is senior reporter and Morning Edition host on WITF 89.5.
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