One Friday night, Ma says she needs to ask me something.
“Okay.” I say, “What’s up?”
“Wait — I have to find my notes.”
I wait while she searches all of her pockets. Finally she retrieves a tattered piece of white notepaper. She hands it to me. In smeary pencil it reads, “What is our cable company?”
“Hmm,” I say, “I think it’s Comcast. Right?”
Yes, she thinks that’s it.
“Why do you need to know, Ma?”
“I don’t know. Can you think why that would be important?”
For decades, Ma kept meticulous records of all of her affairs, filing important documents alphabetically and chronologically so she could easily retrieve them when needed. Now in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, teetering just this side of self-sufficient, she has a new system: she records each important fact on a small white note paper and keeps it close at hand.
The papers accumulate in drifts around her house and wad up in the many pockets of her cargo pants. They tell her when she last showered, what medicines she has taken, what books she needs to return to the library. One is a reminder from me to get a new coat for Godssake, the one she has is ripping out at the seams. Increasingly, though, even when she writes a reminder, she can’t make sense of it later.
When Ma has these moments of confusion, she blames herself. “Stupid, stupid,” she says. “I should keep better track of things.”
I tell her, “Let me help you, Ma. It’s a disease; it’s okay to let people help.”
I think, she’s not crazy, she’s just sick. I try to comfort and support her; I desperately want her to feel loved.
Monday when I pick Zoë up at kindergarten, Ms. Rosen has finished the unit on quilts, so I pick up ours to bring home. It’s a beautiful piece of work, plush deep blues and purples. Our friend Heather sewed it by hand for Zoë when she was born. But later, at home, I cannot find it. Wait, I think, where did I put it? Did I really bring it home?
The next morning, I lose the grocery list. I am sure I had it in my back pocket, but when I look for it, it is gone. I wander around the house looking. In the kitchen, in my stack of greasy, scribbled recipes? On my desk with notes from voicemail? By the bed, under my list of things to do today? I cannot find it.
After several minutes searching, this no longer feels like what my friend Sophia calls “Mom Brain.” It feels much more serious to me. There I am shuffling through the piles of paper, looking for a list. Why can’t I just make a new grocery list? Because I would forget something. I’m starting to resemble Ma. Oh, God, I think, that’s it. This is how it starts. I have it.
The girls are in the kitchen eating O’s when my husband Pat hears me sighing and sniffling in the kitchen.
“Hey, what’s going on?” he asks, concerned.
I cannot look at him. I stifle a sob, and in a raspy whisper I tell him, “I lost Zoë’s beautiful quilt, I can’t find the grocery list, and I can’t even remember what was on it. My whole life is in these little lists of things to do, and now I’m losing the lists!” — Here my voice jumps an octave — “And I’m wandering around looking for them in all my little piles of lists! And — it’s just like her! I’m turning into her! I think I have it!” I sob some more, against his chest.
“Mama?” comes Zoë’s quiet voice. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh.” I turn away, wiping my eyes. “I’m — I’m confused. I forgot some things.” I’m thinking: I’m going to forget you. I’m going to look like me, but I’m not going to laugh like me. I’m not going to be me, for you. Oh, Zoë. Zoë’s arm encircles my waist. We all sit down on the sofa together.
“Why do you think you are forgetting?” she asks.
“I’m not sure.” That’s as close to the truth as I can go; I’m not ready to tell my six-year-old, “I’m afraid I’ll get Alzheimer’s disease like Gram and slowly lose my mind.”
“Have you had breakfast yet?” Zoë inquires.
“No, not yet.”
“Well, I could suggest that you eat breakfast. That sometimes helps me.”
I blink away more tears and hug her, smiling at Pat over her shoulder. I try to let that be the end of it, but I feel like a loser, a frightened monster.
Then, just as we are about to walk to school, Zoë goes upstairs with Pat, and will not come down. I call to her weakly. I don’t have the energy for the standard get-to-school battle.
She yells down, “Just a minute! I’m having Daddy do something important for you!”
A minute later, she tromps down the stairs and hands me a handwritten note.
“Here you go,” she says, with the confidence of a physician handing me my prescription. It says:
Zoë asked me to write this down for you:
When you are unhappy,
Your brain is unhappy,
And when it’s unhappy,
It doesn’t remember well.
I tuck the little note in the front pocket of my backpack. If I forget, it will be there to remind me.