Nearly a decade ago, my 80-year-old dad sensed quiet and a lack of activity upstairs and felt a worried edginess creep under his skin. He headed up the basement stairs and was about halfway toward the top when the doorbell rang.
Standing outside were his neighbor and my mom. The neighbor found her wandering next door, on his driveway, appearing lost. She had her purse, but wore only slippers on her feet. Although it was December in Minnesota, she had no coat. When the neighbor asked what she was doing, she told him she was just going home.
When the neighbor pointed toward my mom’s own front door, she showed no recollection of familiarity. She looked at the building and saw a strange house, not home.
Home. It’s a concept we all understand. Everyone wants a home to go to. A place to call one’s own. A place to feel safe. Home is a comfortable haven.
Even in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, my mom understood the concept of home. And, she knew with certainty she wanted to go there. Trouble was, she was technically home; she just didn’t recognize it. To this day, that knowledge breaks my heart.
Alzheimer’s is a disease known for robbing one’s memories, but it takes so much more. Memories constitute our concept of family, friends, life, home — the things that make us who we are.
My mom understood to the very core of her being that she needed to go home, but she didn’t know how to get there. The nice elderly gentleman she found living with her (my dad and her husband of 49 years) couldn’t seem to help her. So, when he wasn’t looking, she grabbed her purse and exited out the front door, looking for a location that didn’t exist — yet did exist all at the same time, which is about as illogical and confounding as Alzheimer’s.
The situation became unsafe and we found a new place for her to live. It was beautiful. It was safe and the people there were equipped to provide the care she needed. We called it her new home, but she didn’t buy our rhetoric. God bless her for that. The Alzheimer’s stole nearly everything, but it couldn’t steal her spunk. She knew when she was being conned.
By this time, she believed she was a young girl — her home was back on the farm where she grew up. She shared memories and stories related to her days there until they were reduced to one incident when she was nearly run over by a tractor. She told us about it over and over; each time like it was the first telling. I imagine it ran over and over in her mind, like the cheese that stands alone: the one memory that remained.
We, her family, were foreign to her. When we visited, she knew we belonged to her, somehow. She knew we were familiar, but as a young girl longing to return home to the farm, she simply had no place for a husband, daughters and grandchildren.
Still, she asked, every visit, for us to take her home.
“I just want to go home,” she’d say.
And my heart would break a little each time because I understood Alzheimer’s had stolen any home on Earth from her. While here she’d never get there.
And as the disease took over, we had to let her go, as painful as that was. We had to say goodbye — for now.
It’s been more than nine years she’s been gone. And I can finally write about it.
Because as much as I miss her, I believe she did go home. She is home. She found the refuge she so stubbornly sought. And, finally, in that realization, I have found a sliver of peace.
Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Don’t miss a slice; follow the Slices of Life page on Facebook.