My Mom Is Losing Her Mind

When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, neither of us knew if we should laugh or cry

Photograph by Getty Images

"I should have married Van Johnson," my mother said to me one night around midnight in September. She was eerily ghostlike in her nightgown, illuminated only by the blue light my laptop was throwing into the room. I was visiting from Los Angeles, where I live with my husband and two young boys. My mother's friend had called from New York City a few days before, and said, "Your mother doesn't remember how to fill out a bank deposit slip, and yesterday she fought with a waiter over mistakes on the check that weren't there and then she fell getting into the elevator. She is not doing well."

My older sister who lives in Boston went the next day. I flew out a day later. When my sister arrived, there were piles of bills everywhere, balls of dog hair on almost every surface, and, despite having been chubby all her life, my mother appeared to weigh about 90 pounds soaking wet. (And it was a miracle she wasn't soaking wet, given how often she forgets to turn off water faucets now.) We cleaned the place up, paid her bills and got her to a neurologist for the first of many assessments. Then my sister went home to her family and it was just mom and me for another 48 hours.

She made the Van Johnson comment while wandering around the apartment looking for an unidentifiable something.

"I'm pretty sure he was gay, Mom," I said, trying to stop short yet another conversation where she tells me what a disappointment my father was to her.

"Well, we didn't know that then," she said.

"Uh, huh," I said.

RELATED: The Persistence of Memory

I say that to her a lot now, "Uh, huh." Or another favorite of mine — something that several of my friends who go to Al-Anon meetings have told me is, in fact, a whole sentence: "OK."

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's during that trip. They performed a battery of tests to determine this, some that specifically evaluate a person's "executive functions." She failed miserably, which I couldn't help but find ironic since she had been an "executive" almost my entire life. Never a hugger, this is the woman who taught me how to dress for success and meet deadlines. How could this have happened?

"What's 11 minus 3?" the doctor asked her at the first appointment.

RELATED: A Lifetime of Not Eating

"Seven," she said quickly, as if it were the obvious right answer. Of all the chaos I had witnessed in the previous 24 hours, this is the moment that caught my breath. In her healthiest days, you would never have been able to engage my mother in conversations about literature or history, or even have expected an informed talk about current politics, but, as a real estate broker for most of her professional life (which is to say my entire life after turning 9 years old, when I was given a key to the house to let myself in and out), my mother knew numbers. She giggled nervously sitting on the exam table and seeing her daughters' faces as we tried to quickly hide our distress.

"Six?" she tried again. And laughed again. She laughs a lot now. It drives me nuts. What the fuck is so funny? I think every time she does it. It's this crazy tick, like someone whose mouth involuntarily twitches, or an odd strain of Tourrette's. Except instead of blurting expletives, my mother laughs inappropriately. I don't actually ask her what is so funny; I try my best just to take a deep breath and be quiet. Sometimes I even say, "OK."

But one time, exhausted, I did snap, "Why are you laughing? It's so not funny!" I sounded like I was 15.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't know why I'm laughing. I guess it's better than crying." I felt like an asshole.

It is definitely better than crying for her. Raised by highly repressed Hungarian and German Jews, my mother was never encouraged to be expressive. Too déclassé. It's a terrible twist of fate having me for a daughter, a woman who currently cries at that commercial of the dad putting the little girl on the school bus for the first time. I probably cry once a day, just to blow off steam. Thank God, I laugh a lot, too. Loudly. I also love deeply, have easy access to rage and overthink menus. Too much daughter for her, is how I would describe our relationship, if I had to.

But back to her nervous laugh. If all I ever wanted was for my mother to accept me exactly as I was in whatever moment I was in, shouldn't I at least be an example of that to her? Shouldn't I practice the very unfunny acceptance that I am always longing for, even if it's with my mother? Better still because it's my mother, and she's ill now. I wonder, If not now, when? — surprisingly quoting Rabbi Hillel (about whom I know little else).

This trip was the beginning of what looks to be an awful journey for my mother and us. An illness that now clears a conversation faster than bringing up cancer, Alzheimer's is ranked higher than that cell-multiplying death sentence as the sickness people fear most in their future. And if the most grating symptom of it for now is my mother's stupid-ass giggling every time she forgets what day of the week it is, or where she put anything down, then so be it. Maybe that 1960s psychologist Fritz Perls had it right when he said, "Lose your mind and come to your senses." Maybe my mother is right. Maybe laughing is better than crying.