What Erma Bombeck Taught Me About My Mother's Alzheimer's

04/24/2015 07:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

Entering the fog of Alzheimer's, I speak slowly into the phone: "Your granddaughter wants to take guitar lessons. Got any tips?"

My 83-year-old mother, who took lessons decades ago, cackles: "She should do what I did -- find the best-looking teacher she can!"

"Well, she's 13, so that's terrible advice. What kind of grandmother are you?"

We laugh together as she repeats her story about taking lessons to help her quit smoking while raising six children as a stay-at-home mother. She bypasses my daughter's present situation because people with Alzheimer's often have stronger command of their "deep" memories than more recent ones. Though in the disease's early stages, she is starting to drift between time dimensions when I call the assisted-living facility.

My mother has always enjoyed humor, and since I became a stay-at-home father who writes parenting humor, our bond has grown stronger. Now our phone conversations often devolve into a cross-gender, cross-generational sitcom.

Out of curiosity, I recently decided to read a book my mother had always described as her favorite: Erma Bombeck's If Life is a Bowl of Cherries -- What Am I Doing in the Pits? From the opening line, I could see why Mom identified with Bombeck: "I've always worried a lot and frankly I'm good at it." After joking that "I worry about scientists discovering someday that lettuce has been fattening all along," Bombeck reveals the rub: "But mostly, I worry about surviving... That's what this book is all about."

Yes, humor is how my mother survived the worries of her life as well: raising six children, getting divorced after 28 years of marriage, suffering macular degeneration that ended her ability to read her beloved books and now enduring the onset of Alzheimer's. By the end of the introduction, there was already a lump in my throat.

The book progresses via vignettes, and though some have lost relevance since their publication in 1971, many remain timely. Among the classics, Bombeck provides a Family Survival Manual on "Replacing [a] Toilet Tissue Spindle," "Closing a Door," "Turning Off a Light" and "Operating a Clothes Hamper." Evergreen observations include "There, but for the grace of a babysitter go I," and "There are some who say giving children responsibility makes them grow. There are others who contend it increases your insurance rates."

Bombeck's tone sobers, however, late in the book in a section about her own mother titled "When Did I Become the Mother and the Mother Become the Child?" She explains that the "transition comes slowly... The transferring of responsibility... As your own children grow strong and independent, the mother becomes more childlike." The child "isn't ready yet to carry the burden. But the course is set."

It seemed my mother was speaking to me through the pages, only this time via pathos beside the humor, the pits beside the cherries. Alzheimer's has certainly begun to take things away. My mother sometimes stops in the middle of our phone conversations and says simply: "I have no words." She describes the "numbness" overcoming her and explains: "I can see what the disease is doing to me." On the other end of the line, I have no words for a different reason.

In addition to words, Alzheimer's has begun to take away the markers of time. My siblings and I now struggle with how to handle forgotten family birthdays. While we can acknowledge her grandchildren's birthdays for her, our own birthdays are trickier: Out of respect for her dignity, do we remind her of our birthdays when she forgets, assuming she would want to know? Or do we spare her the guilt and pain she feels when reminded of a forgotten birthday? I have opted for the latter, though neither choice seems adequate.

On the other hand, the disease's quality of timelessness sometimes bestows a blessing. In her lucid moments, Mom has confessed that her short-term memory loss enables her to worry less and laugh more. She speaks of the "gift" of being "suspended in time" with no pressure to remember things. Such moments of freedom -- from time, worry, and the inhibitions of memory -- are one of the cherries still left in her life.

Bombeck's classic teaches that even late in life, the cherries are still there; we just have to dig deeper in the bowl. Indeed, such fruits are necessary for survival. A special way to reach them is by reading and sharing a loved one's favorite book.

As I reread the lighter passages of my mother's favorite to her over the phone, sometimes she was reminded of how she felt upon first reading them. Other times her changing brain processed them as if for the first time. In all cases, we shared a wonderful, funny, intimate experience: a perfect fruit for both of us.