"Last in, first out." This motto explains why Alzheimer's patients cannot remember what happened five minutes ago but can recall memories from years before with vivid detail.
Old memories have been stored in the brain but new ones are not stored because the hippocampus, a special structure located in the frontal lobe that is associated with memory, no longer functions correctly.
This is why my mom, Rose Beebe, 88, can't recall if she had lunch but can still describe getting her coveted first job at age 18 at the post office during the Great Depression. I am always amazed at the events she can recount with perfect clarity. One of particular interest is about my sister, Christy.
I never knew Christy; she was born several years before me with Down syndrome. She passed away at 6 months old due to heart complications associated with this genetic condition. I don't recall at what age Mom first told me about Christy, but she rarely talked about this devastating loss that left my parents, who were in their 20s, grief stricken.
I have often wondered what it would be like if Christy were alive and what kind of relationship we might have today. I am sure she would have a special place in our family and our hearts.
Interestingly, I am hearing more about Christy now that Mom has Alzheimer's than I ever have. I had no idea the pain Mom still carries about her beloved child. Sometimes she becomes pensive and expounds on her loss.
"I love my kids and I mean it," she said. "We had something wrong with one. It was Christy. It hurt me real bad. I couldn't even accept it. I thought God had done something wrong. Why, when this is what we want? A lot of people don't want a baby. But it happened and I never got over it. She was mine and it was a sadness to go through it. It wasn't her fault, or my fault or her dad's. It was just an awful experience."
As I fight back tears, I grab Mom's hand to offer support as she emotes the grief she has been carrying around for more than 58 years. I wish I could erase all the pain she still feels.
"Why did that have to happen to me? Do you see a reason for it? I could never get my heart up with such a thing. My heart never agreed with it," she said. "Life can be bad, so many things can happen. Life is a mystery. But we've had good times, love and fun."
Mom puts her head on my shoulder for a few seconds and I embrace her. Then she quickly shifts back into Alzheimer's mode, asking me what my name is.
Mom moved into a memory care facility a few years ago and my daughter, Jazlyn, 17, and I visit on a regular basis. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the woman occupying the room next to Mom's has Down syndrome and is around the age Christy would be.
At first I felt uneasy around her; she walked funny and made guttural noises. I didn't know how to tune into her world and communicate with her. Jazlyn, on the other hand, was completely intrigued and quickly became friends with her. Now this woman is a big part of our lives, continually showing us what joy really is.
On each visit, Jazlyn bounds down the hall and sticks her head in this sweet angel's room. When she sees Jazlyn, her mouth drops open and she gasps with delight. With outstretched arms she lumbers across the room yelling loudly, "Ohhhh."
She throws her arms around Jazlyn with the force of an Olympic wrestler and squeezes her with all her might until she shakes. She grabs Jazlyn's hand and kisses it and then makes her way up to her cheek for a few pecks. She repeats this ritual a few times. Then she notices me and I get lavished with the same attention as she continues to squeal with delight.
Jazlyn and I have decided this woman is the purest and happiest person we know, untainted and unaffected by the world. Our time spent dancing, playing and laughing with her is such a gift and a lesson in compassion and acceptance. I am touched when I see Mom caress her face and hug her.
We have learned to speak this lady's language and it is simple: unconditional love. It's a language we all know but sometimes forget. I am grateful for this opportunity to stay in touch with my heart.
This woman has changed my life by helping me appreciate life in all its beautiful forms. And she's become the sister I never got to have.
Editor's note: In Lisa Moore's column, "Generations," she writes about the challenges and healing she experiences as a member of the Sandwich Generation: those caring for a parent and a child.