To My Mother-in-Law Kristen, and the Disease that Took Her Life

I knew it would be no ordinary shopping trip, but I never expected a dressing room in JC Penny would become the symbol of a journey that would last for years to come.  I was twenty-something years old, headed to the mall to shop for pants with my mother-in-law.  I knew she would have a hard time navigating the store with its glaring lights, busy people, and overwhelming rows of clothing, so I entered the store prepared with her arm securely in mine, her pant size tucked away in my mind, and a knowledge of exactly where we would find women’s pants and an adjacent dressing room.scan0015

You see my mother-in-law Kristen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when she was fifty-six.  The disease quickly affected her speech, making it difficult for her to express herself verbally.  It systematically destroyed memory after memory, taking away abilities as simple as dressing herself or using a spoon.  Eventually it also toyed with her perceptions of reality, sending her on periodic trips to years gone by, where those of us around her became strangers or nightmares from her past.

But the irony of Alzheimer’s is that though its victims’ minds quickly deteriorate, their bodies often remain healthy and strong, necessarily making them part of the everyday activities of life, including shopping for new pants when a meager appetite results in a shrinking waistline.  And so that day in JC Penny, I strategically navigated the women’s section, quickly located several pairs of pants, and guided Kristen to the dressing room to help her try them on.

Unfortunately, despite my efficient plans, it soon became apparent that she would need a smaller size.  I hesitated to leave her alone to exchange sizes because she was so easily confused.  I knew it would be too much to redress her and take her back out to search for sizes, and the racks of pants were just a few steps outside the dressing room doors.  So with a bit of trepidation, I sat her on the dressing room chair, encouraged her to relax, reassured her I would be right back, and dashed out to make my exchanges.

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Kristen and eight of her greatest achievements. So proud I can call them my family.

I had only been gone for a few minutes, but it’s funny how Alzheimer’s can transform minutes into eternities.  Kristen had moved from her chair and was standing at the mirror in the dressing room.  The mirror was actually three tall mirrors angled towards each other, allowing the viewer to see multiple views of themselves from different angles.

Kristen stood staring at the many reflections of herself, the multiplicity of them staring back, and as I entered the room, she turned to me with a face contorted in utter confusion.

“Which one am I?” she muttered, over and over.  Her hands reached out tentatively to touch the reflections, seeking to find the women staring back at her in the mirror.  “Which one am I?”

That moment has floated through my mind many times over the years, becoming an archetype of so much of what Kristen experienced as Alzheimer’s ravaged her mind.

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2014 Walk to End Alzheimer’s — Remembering Grandma Kristen

Like Alice in Wonderland, Alzheimer’s sent Kristen on a trip through the looking glass.  While the rest of us sat like helpless spectators, she spiraled through the mirror into a world where linear reality distorted itself into a hodgepodge of past, present, and future selves, so many many different selves.  While that day in the store Kristen lost herself among the reflections in the mirror, as the years passed, she became lost among the many shards of what was real, what was memory, what might have been.

Kristen died on December 30, 2010.  Her battle with Alzheimer’s lasted over seven years, and it was a journey that taught me a disease can rob people of their most prize possession — their self.  Until a cure is found, Alzheimer’s is a disease that has one final conclusion, and to battle it does not mean the defeat of the disease, but rather to defer the eventual outcome as long as possible.

However, though the battle for Kristen is over, the human spirit is never truly lost.  I know this life is not the end, and I know that somewhere in this universe, Kristen has been reunited with all those many pieces of herself we thought were lost so long ago.

And so I send this message to my dear mother-in-law:  While you may have lost yourself in the mirror that day, your life is found.  Today if you looked in the mirror, the faces staring back at you would show eight children who call you mother and dozens of grandchildren who call you grandma.  You would see the reflections of people who had the blessing of calling you friend, wife, sister.  You may have been lost in the looking glass for a time, and we curse the disease who took you from us, but the woman in the mirror left her mark on this world, a mark that I see reflected in the faces of the people I love most.  And I thank you for it.

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