My elderly mother adopted an Italian Greyhound named Ruby eight years ago.
Ruby brought out a maternal devotion in my mother that made my sister and me more than a bit resentful. Ruby has more clothes than we did as kids, and, more to the point, had to jump through none of the hoops we did to earn her love. Ah, but then dogs are less complicated than people, making the give and take of love fluid and easy. Ruby makes my mom happy; she’s a good companion and a social bridge to people. She gives mom a reason to get up in the morning, take walks and keep going.
When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year, she was in the early middle stages. Confused at times, unable to manage her finances, hold anything in her short term memory. But Ruby’s routine — her feeding schedule, her medications, her walk times — were firmly embedded in the part of mom’s brain that wasn’t dying. Ruby even moved with mom from her house to a facility that provided a bit more care when that time came.
Alzheimer’s is much like any other progressive disease in that it teaches you, among so many other things, to live in each moment. You can never get time back once it is spent, and you can’t plan very far ahead. Like on a map: You. Are. Here. Here is vast and very fleeting. Here is full and even if you are attending to it closely, you miss so much.
Mom’s decline has been very swift. Her brain is dying. She can’t tell night from day. Phone numbers do not make sense to her. She is repetitive and often abusive with the staff. She swears like a longshoreman. She needs a walker but uses a cane and the wall. And Ruby is with her like Velcro. Although scared of the changes in mom’s behavior, her devotion will not allow her to abandon mom. I know Ruby recognizes the essence of mom is unchanged.
The dilemma is that Ruby’s routine is slowly vanishing from mom’s memory as mom becomes more of a ghost of herself. She cannot remember whether she has given Ruby her medications or if she has just taken her out. To balance what is best for mom and what is best for Ruby breaks hearts all around. In a quiet moment a week ago, she asked my grown nephew Ben if he would take Ruby, even though she is not quite ready to let her go. She needed the assurance that her dog would be looked after. And Ruby will.
In that moment, a moment unintentionally overheard by me, I realized that my mother is still teaching me. Her journey through Alzheimer’s may be a path on which our individual paths intersect but ultimately we each walk alone. As my mother’s corporeal light dims, I am reminded again that the things we accumulate in life are shed as we approach death. They are unnecessary, and my mother’s disease prevents her from clinging to them. At some vanishing point, she will be free of everything. And illuminated.
You. Are. Here.