Alzheimer's: The thief that stole my mother

January is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month across Canada. CBC online editor Warren Tasker reflects on the battle his mother fought with the disease.

During the journey you quickly come to appreciate what you no longer have

Marion Tasker, a victim of Alzheimer's, lived a full life until the disease tripped her up in her eighth decade. (Supplied)

It was the classic family joke all our lives.

She would put her glasses down and forget where she had left them. 

We always found them, and laughed, all of us.

When I found them one day in the microwave, it wasn't funny anymore.

Why would my mother do that?

I asked her – she said she hadn't done it. It was a lie, of course. 

She never lied. Something was wrong.

The forgetfulness continued; her short-term memory faded; things she had known her entire life were gone, lost in a fog.

At her 50th wedding anniversary, she asked me who that strange woman was sitting near her.

"She's your niece," I replied.

At that moment, I knew it was time for action.

My family was scared.

A few visits to the doctor and some tests revealed she had Alzheimer's disease, a progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks neurons, resulting in loss of memory, of thinking and language skills, and leads to behavioral changes.

My sister and I were devastated; my dad simply said he had lost his wife.

Warren Tasker is an editor with CBC Edmonton's online team. (Supplied)

My mother, at age 82, was lost and wasn't coming back, even though I was looking straight into her blue eyes.

We moved her to a professional-care facility, where she continued to decline.

She hated it, and every time we came to visit, she begged us to take her home.

We wanted to, and felt guilty that we couldn't. We were crushed; imagine how she felt. Tears flowed as she pleaded with us. 

For me, it was difficult: My mother lived in Toronto and I lived in Edmonton. That geographical gap was huge, expensive – and more than anything – heartbreaking.

Before we moved her to the care facility, my dad couldn't find the courage to tell her she had to leave her home to live in a strange place.

So I went to Toronto to tell her, and to help dad move her in.

I did what she had taught me when facing adversity: I looked her in the eye and spoke softly, told her she had to go, that it was best for everyone. And maybe it was. I don't know.

But she accepted it, coming from me, and didn't kick up a fuss. It was our bond; nobody in the family had the kind of connection we had.

I did all the right things: I researched the disease, prepared myself for her descent, but it never removed the sadness, the anger, that desperate sense of futility and guilt.

Flowers and a walk did the trick

I went back as often as I could. Every time, I'd bring her blueberries and cream, a bouquet of flowers, and take her for a walk.

We enjoyed those breaks, and I've come to treasure them.

We laughed and smiled. I didn't have a clue what was going on inside her mind, and she didn't have a clue who I was. 

At times, I was her father, son or grandson. She lacked lucidity, but she was smiling and enjoying herself. We both surrendered to a mysterious, debilitating disease, a thief we could not catch.

On one of my last visits, I could see she was almost in a blank slate, staring into space while I talked to her. I was losing her and felt horrible. I wanted to run.

Instead, I said to her: "Things ain't going well today."

She blinked, turned and looked at me, and said: "Warren, we don't use 'ain't.' It's improper language."

Always a strict grammarian

She had spent most of my childhood correcting my grammar and spelling, and on this day, she made her final correction.

It lasted only seconds, then she retreated to her foggy world.

My love of language came from her, a beautiful, lifelong gift.

Alzheimer's eventually stole my mother.

But that half-minute sticks with me. 

She was with me, bright and beautiful, being my mother one last time.

It's been said that life is made up of brief, special moments.

I know the feeling well.

Warren Tasker is an editor with CBC Edmonton's online team.

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