A sense of dread enveloped me on hearing David’s words: “Paige is the first of our generation with Alzheimer’s.” David and Paige are my cousins, the sons of my mother’s eldest sister Madge. Alzheimer’s has long held a dark grip on my family.
Madge died young as did her brother Clark. The remaining five siblings lived to seventy and beyond and all died with Alzheimer’s. Family clusters like this are unusual, my doctor assures me, and likely linked to something in the environment. The Willetts were born and raised on a farm in the Gaspe. Perhaps the trigger was something like drinking unpasteurized milk, my doctor suggested. Good, I’m a city girl and have always consumed pasteurized milk. But wasn’t that also true of Paige?
I was witness to the slow progression of the disease in my two aunts and my mother. Violet was the first to be moved to a nursing home when her sister Kathleen could no longer care for her. Eventually she appeared to have forgotten everything, even how to eat. She died when a feeding tube perforated her throat.
Kathleen was next. Frequently she tried to escape her home. Once she was found wandering miles away in a seedy section of the city. Someone drove her to the address on a letter in her purse, her old apartment. The new tenant invited her in to wait while the police searched their missing people’s files. Evidently the two women had a lovely afternoon chatting about their world travels, the tenant seemingly unaware of my aunt’s dementia. Social skills are said to be the last to disappear. Kathleen died of pneumonia, “the old people’s friend” my mother called it. Years later it was difficult for me to give my consent for mum to have a pneumonia vaccine.
My mother’s Alzheimer’s accelerated rapidly following my father’s death. For a while she was aware of her confusion struggled to regain control. She railed against going to a home and accused me of kicking her out of her house. “Take me home” she would cry again and again. “That’s where my umbrella is. And my memory.” In the end, she forgot who I was and that she was ever angry with me. Time and memory became short circuited. She searched for her own mother in the rooms of the home asking constantly why she hadn’t come to visit her.
My mother died peacefully at the age of ninety-four. By that time she too would not eat or drink and her words made no sense. But Alzheimer’s treatment had advanced. There was no force feeding, just gentle care and comfort from family and staff in her own room and in her own bed with soft music in the background. We no longer prolong the dying of Alzheimer’s patients but travel with our loved ones on their final journal. I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath.
A few years earlier my husband and I had emptied mum’s house and put it on the market. I’m still haunted by the image of the empty boxes we found stored in the basement: big boxes and small boxes, cardboard boxes and boxes covered in velvet, blue Birks boxes and boxes from the St. Hubert Barbeque. The boxes were the remainders of a lifetime of experiences. But the boxes were empty, a very powerful metaphor for the effects of Alzheimer’s. Today I am healthy and my memory boxes are full. So I write of memories, my own memories and the stories of my family that I have researched. If one day my memories are lost, my boxes will hold the record.
Madge Alexandra Willett Whitney 1902-1941 (39 years)
Clarke Stanford Willett 1912-1960 (48 years)
Violet Gwendolyn Willett 1903-1983 (80 years)
Kathleen MacDonald Willett 1907-1991 (84 years)
Marion Geraldine Willett Angus 1917 -2011 (94 years)
George Ralph Willett 1905-1983 (78 years)
Keith Arthur Willett 1910-1980 (70 years)