Alzheimer's: A Love Story

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When I met the woman who would eventually become my mother-in-law, she didn't smile or say hello or talk to me. She wouldn't even look at me.

I awkwardly stuck out my hand. "Hello Magdalen." Minutes earlier, Larry had warned me not to call her Mrs. Bleidner. "She thinks she's the kid and you're the adult," he explained.

Magdalen's eyes narrowed. She growled at me. Then she skipped down the hall with Harriet, her best friend.

Is there a woman on the planet who doesn't get nervous the first time she meets her fiance's mom? But not only was I meeting my future in- law, I was being introduced to Alzheimer's.

This was fifteen years ago. And sure, I'd heard of Alzheimer's. But I didn't know anyone with it. And I really didn't understand it. It was hard to grasp that the woman right in front of me wasn't really there. When she scowled or stuck her tongue out at me, I took it personally. "She doesn't like me," I'd say.

Larry had told me stories about his mom. She was born in Ireland, but sailed to New York as a young child. She settled in Queens, where she married Walter and had two sons--Larry and Jimmy. Magdalen was a stay at home mom with a vivid imagination. She could transform clothes pins into armies and mixing bowls and plates into helmets and shields.

"Even when she was little, she loved to be around babies," Larry would say. "Everyone joked that she would one day steal a baby. All she ever wanted to be was a mother."

But she did have other dreams. One night, Larry pulled out a huge cardboard box filled with pages of poems his mother had written. There were also rejection letters from publishers. I wish Larry had known about it--because, as he'd done with me dozens of times, he would have told his mom not to listen to the critics; to keep trying.

But she did listen. I doubt she ever understood how beautiful her poems were since they never had an audience. My favorite was called The Tenant. As she did when entertaining her sons with kitchen utensils, Magdalen turned a puddle into something more than a splash of dingy water.

The poet had disappeared a long time ago. The Magdalen I knew gamboled around the nursing home, laughing and squealing with Harriet. She cheated at pool by rolling the balls into the holes when she thought no one was watching. I can still picture her holding the cue stick over her head, grinning in triumph.

And this woman, who had never smoked or drank or used the Lord's name in vain, started cursing like a sailor on shore leave.

In my most recent novel, Pieces of Happily Ever After, I created Mary, a fictionalized version of Magdalen. Many reviewers commented that she was the most colorful character in the book. Perhaps that was because I stole so much from my mother in law.

For instance, like the character in the novel, Magdalen was kicked out of her nursing home for cursing. It seems incomprehensible that a nursing home could be so insensitive to one of the side effects of Alzheimer's. But "Hilda", the owner, told us that Magdalen's language was "unacceptable " and "inappropriate." One day when we arrived to visit, a hearse was in front of the home. Hilda actually blamed the death on Magdalen. "Harold was very upset by your mother's language. Then later, he had a heart attack and died."

Magdalen? A murderer?

We found a great board and care run by Filipinos who were loving and caring. I'm convinced, Trinity, one of the caregivers, never slept. There were four other residents, all in the final stages of Alzheimer's. One was a former backup singer for Tommy Dorsey who had once sucked face with Frank Sinatra, according to her son. Another was a rocket scientist. Another, a movie director. They stared blankly at Dr. Phil or Oprah or Spongebob. They wore holes in the carpet as they wandered back and forth, searching for some unknown destination.

Alzheimer's is toughest on loved ones. Larry watched as his mother forgot to bathe, to dress, to brush her teeth, to use the toilet. She forgot her friends, her relatives and her deceased husband. One of the worst days on this most painful hejira was when she squinted at Larry and said, 'who are you?'

"It's Larry, your son." He sounded like a man who'd been punched in the soul.

At first Larry had tried to jumpstart his mom's brain with facts and memories, but he learned that the most he could do for her was to be with her. He'd hold her hand and talk to her the way he would one day speak to his children. He'd comb her knotted hair and shave her little grey whiskers. He changed her diapers. He patiently spooned puree into her mouth when she'd all but forgotten how to swallow. He sang Danny Boy, her favorite song.

When you fall in love with someone, you are sort of acting out a toned done version of The Bachelor. You romance each other over dinners at fancy restaurants, drinks at hip bars and spend weekends at five-star resorts. You are a more polished, refined, interesting version of yourself, as if waiting for that final rose ceremony so you can finally burp and breathe out and be who you really are.

But Alzheimer's strips away the pretenses. Alzheimer's showed me how truly blessed I was to have Larry in my life. I understood he'd be an amazing father and husband. I knew with certainty that he'd always be there for me, no matter what (unless I really screwed up). The care and love he showed his mother made me fall in love with him even more.

When we took our newborn, Olivia, to her grandmother's for the first time, Larry was like any proud dad, excited to show off his baby. Maybe it was sleep depravation, but he seemed to forget about Alzheimer's. I reminded him that she didn't notice us anymore, so she probably wouldn't even notice Olivia. "You don't understand," he said. "My mom loves babies." Poor Larry, I thought, he wants to believe.

Larry carefully placed Olivia in her arms. And suddenly it was like a switch had been turned on. She smiled and cooed. Her love for babies cut through the Alzheimer's fog. She was the little girl who was born to be a mommy.

"Baby," she said. "Baby."

It was the last word I heard her say. Soon she forgot how to speak. Then she forgot how to eat. And, lastly how to swallow. When she died, The Tenant finally had its audience. Larry read it at her burial.


By Magdalen Bleidner

The sky came to live on the sidewalk
For one happy, heedless hour.
And rented a common puddle
Left from a passing shower.

The sky wore her sky-blue bluest
Dragged miles of a nimbus train.
Such elegance never before converged
On a simple splash of rain.

She brought some sundry jewels
A billion flecks of gold.
And flashing moisture-diamonds
Too dazzling to behold.

But the idle breath of the west wind
Came hovering close to spy
On this strange celestial creature
So far from home and sky.

The wind kept swirling and sighing
Near this puzzling patch of light
Till the rippling sky-blue puddle
Vanished out of sight

Now the sidewalk's drab and dusty
And the west wind's heard to grieve:
"Oh where is that lovely something?
And why did it have to leave?"

Irene Zutell's latest novel is Pieces of Happily Ever After