"Mom? It's John. Just calling to say we just got home."
We had spent an entire week with my mother. We cooked for her almost every day, took her out for oysters, looked through old photos, sat with her in the kitchen and shared coffee, and listened as she told stories of her childhood to our kids. And after seven days with her we packed up and drove home to Greenville. And as we turned into our neighborhood I called her to say we were home.
"Oh wonderful! I'll go open the front door."
"South Carolina, mom. We just got home... in South Carolina."
The next day I sat in my supervisor's office and wiped away my tears as Karen told me that yes, the memory of that entire week was already gone. She had seen many families torn apart by Alzheimer's and now here I was, going through the same thing.
"John, you've got to make plans to get her out of the house and into a facility. She cannot and should not live alone."
We knew Mom was having memory issues and the fact that Amy and I lived 800 miles away wasn't helping. At the time I was the Food and Beverage Director of an enormous retirement community in Greenville. And because our customers were elderly, the staff was constantly learning about the special requirements and care through a variety of continuing education products. And I interacted with a lot of dementia patients in our Memory Care facility. So after a couple of days with Mom, there was no mistaking it, she was fading either through Alzheimer's or vascular dementia. It didn't really matter, the end result would be the same. A steady, downward, and ultimately fatal decline. Shortly after our visit, she began a two-year journey from a retirement home to an assisted living facility, on to skilled nursing and finally a memory care facility. The last time we saw her she was living strictly in the moment, she was very happy yet she had few recollections left. Her childhood songs and memories were very vivid yet she every time she saw me she struggled to remember how long I had been in her company. Or how old I was -- or where my brother Tommy was.
"Is Tommy still playing football?"
I didn't say "not in 20 years" which would have been the truth, I just held her hand and said, "No ma'am."
When my brother and I were younger, she loved to cheer us on. She didn't really understand sports, whether it was my brother's football games or my cycling, yet she knew we were out there giving it our best shot. The first time she saw me race was in Lafayette, LA at a criterium (a tight, winding one-mile course downtown) that was part of the Acadiana Festival. It was Louisiana hot and muggy and I baked, then withered, fell away from the lead group and managed to finish in 9th place. When the winning break jumped away from the main group, I wasn't able to respond. I kept thinking I had the wrong gear set, hadn't trained properly or didn't have enough water the day before. It didn't matter now. Dejectedly, I pedaled over to her. She immediately hugged me and told me how much she enjoyed the race.
"It was like watching a ballet on wheels. The way everyone bent into the corner in unison then twisted upright. The movement, the sound, the colors. You were so elegant and the sound the bikes made as you all whizzed by. It was all so... wonderful."
I was drenched in sweat and disappointed in my performance yet I couldn't help but smile. Mom found the beauty in the sport. She didn't understand the tactics or technique but she certainly knew how to make me smile. After buying all of us lunch, Mom asked me why I raced bikes. Why not another sport? I liked the speed, the competition, the team aspect of it. And I loved being out on the open road, watching the city fade away to a lush landscape of multi-hued greens and blues. But she knew there was something more to it. Years later, when I was married and racing mountain bikes, she asked me the same question.
"Because sometimes, if everything is going my way, I've had moments when I felt the bike was an extension of my being. It's as if I am one with the bike. There's no sensation of physical exertion, just an amazing feeling of weightlessness and gliding. And I've only felt that way a handful of times, but it's intoxicating and I'd like to experience it again. So I keep going."
As a little girl and young woman, my Mom competed in rodeos. She knew exactly what I meant. And I can still see that knowing smile on her face.
My racing days are behind me now. And I'm a bit more cautious when I'm on my bikes. But I have one more ride to do for my Mom and I want the money I raise to have a significant ripple effect. Maybe the money I donate will go into a grant to The Mind Center in Jackson, MS. Maybe my donations will be the cornerstone of a significant grant and will make all the difference in finding an answer. The only way to find out is by doing. Alzheimer's is a horrible disease that is growing in scope. And it's the sixth leading cause of death in folks over 65, and it has a 100 percent fatality rate.
The really crappy part of Alzheimer's is that there is no treatment, no wonder drug that will slow the progression of the disease. And to make matters worse, it can produce slightly different symptoms in different people. No one diagnosed with Alzheimer's has the same symptoms in the same order. And it's incredibly difficult to diagnose.
This summer I'll climb on my Cannondale and ride it from Greenville to Mt. Pleasant to raise money for the Alzheimer's Association. And when I climb the Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River; I'll wipe back tears of joy and sorrow. And perhaps the money I help raise will prevent your loved one from suffering the same fate as my Mom.